Friends Who Help You Heal, Part 2

For a lot of years, I didn’t have many friends. It’s not that people didn’t like me. It’s just that I chose to isolate from the rest of the world for a long time. People with mental illness and addiction do that sort of thing.

Mood music: “Damn Good” by David Lee Roth:

I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, because these days I seem to be spreading myself thin making plans with a lot of people. It’s a problem that’s well worth having. A blessing, for sure.

I’ve gotten some good quality time in this week with my friends,  the Littlefields. They’re staying in a beach house on Salisbury Beach and invited me over.

I spent all Wednesday morning there and some of last night. I’ve learned a few things about this family: Kevin’s oldest daughter, Courtney, has a razor-sharp wit. She keeps her old man on his toes, much to my entertainment. I’ve also learned that Matty, the 5-year-old, likes to run around outside in his underwear and that seagulls are terrified of him. He also kicks serious ass on the Xbox.

I’ve gotten the chance to catch up with many more friends this summer. Some of this is the Facebook effect, reconnecting with a lot of people from the past. But for me, there’s a lot more to it.

For a long time I preferred to hole up in my room or in my car. It was easier to go on a binge that way. People always get in the way when you’re obsessed with getting junked up.

It was also too painful to talk to people. I was way too self-conscious to pay attention to anyone else. I was 280 pounds at one point, and didn’t want to be seen that way. I also had little in common with people in general. I was so isolated that all I did was watch science fiction shows on TV. Life can be limiting when all you have to talk about is Star Trek or Star Wars.

I filled up the rest of my time with work, trying hard to please the masters and working 80-hour weeks. That too is a great way to isolate. You don’t have to talk to too many people when you’re holed up in an office all the time.

Why Erin stayed with me through that period is beyond me. But she did.

When did the isolation break? Probably a few years into my recovery. Once I reached a point in therapy where I could start to manage the OCD and shed the fear and anxiety that always hung over me, I suddenly found myself hungry to see new places and meet new people. I’d say that turning point came sometime in 2007. I haven’t looked back.

I travel frequently for work, and when I do I always make time to see friends who live in whatever area I’m visiting — San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Washington DC, New York, etc.

As time goes on, the list of people to visit is getting a lot longer.

I didn’t see that coming.

But I’m not complaining.

When to Let the OCD Run Hot

Sometimes the best way to deal with OCD when it runs hot is to simply let it run its course. That’s one of the things I’m learning about myself.

Mood music for this post: “Check My Brain” by Alice in Chains:

I’ve gotten pretty good at managing the disorder most of the time. Medication certainly helps, as do the therapy appointments and various coping tools I’ve developed over time. But even with those things, the OCD will kick in from time to time.

It’s mostly the little things these days: Obsessively picking toys off the living room floor even while the kids are still playing, re-checking and re-checking again the various project lists I have at work. Stuff like that.

When I first embarked on my effort to bring the OCD under control, I had the faulty notion that I could beat the disorder and drive it from me completely.

Six years on, I know that was a stupid notion, though I don’t beat myself over it. It was still a worthy goal.

But the lesson I’ve learned is that you never get rid of a mental disorder completely. You just learn to manage it and make sure the bad days are the exception to the rule. I’ve definitely won that battle.

I don’t spend every moment from sunrise to sunset spinning a web of mental chaos over every big and little thing that’s bothering me. I’m able to live in the precious present most of the time, and that’s a blessing.

Reigning in my addiction to compulsive overeating has been an enormous help on that score, because the brain works a lot more efficiently when it’s not all gummed up with processed flour and sugar.

But I now know and accept that there will be days where the mind spin is tougher to control, especially when I run into a big stress factor like family finances. There’s a little OCD in all of us, and I think it’s perfectly normal for people to get fixated on their troubles when they are particularly vexing.

In learning to accept that I’m going to have my occasional depressed or angry days, I’m able to get on with life and have a good time doing it.

Nothing is ever perfect. Some people are still more irritating than others. Worry still comes and goes.

I’m OK with that. And that’s progress.

Was Abe Lincoln Really Honest?

Readers of this blog may have seen one of my earliest posts on Abraham Lincoln and how he suffered with serious mental illness and depression.

I revere him because he developed his own coping mechanisms to rise above it in a time when there were no anti-depressant medicines and medical understanding of the problem was all but non-existent. It’s been written that his depression and the coping tools he developed actually fueled his greatness.

The other day I was watching TV when a GEICO Insurance commercial came on. These guys have always done a great job with their commercials, but this latest is the best of all time.

The actor who plays Lincoln really nails the tortured expression of a man who is not exactly easygoing. The clip pokes fun at the “Honest Abe” legend, but knowing what we now know about Lincoln, this is all the more priceless:

A Good Day

These are the ingredients of a good day:

–Getting up at 4 and writing in this blog with a strong cup of coffee on the table beside me and Korn in the headphones.

–Seeing the sun rise from my living room chair at 5:30.

–Talking to my OA sponsor at 6:15.

–Talking to one of fellows I sponsor in OA at 7:30.

–Having an abstinent breakfast with the family and helping Erin get the kids ready for camp.

–Banging out this column and this podcast for CSOonline before 11 a.m.

–Helping unload a truck full of donated food at the church food pantry from 11:15ish to noon.

–Having an abstinent lunch with Erin and the kids.

–Nailing a couple interviews I’ve been trying to get done for the past week for a special report I’m working on.

–Having an abstinent dinner with Erin and the boys.

–Roughhousing with the kids on the living room floor after dinner.

–Reading Duncan a chapter of “Charlotte’s Web.”

–Finalizing plans for my day off on the beach tomorrow.

–Crawling into bed early with Erin and a good book.

–Not feeling the urge to binge all day.

–Getting through another day WITHOUT my brain spinning out of control.

–Having the next day to look forward to.

Goodnight, folks.

The Breaking Point

Even when you learn to manage OCD it’s still there, biding its time in the background, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Most of the time, it only gets the chance to pounce if you let it.

Mood music: “Coming Undone” by Korn

Lately, I’ve been giving the demon all the rope it needs to hang me.

I’ve been pushing myself hard with work, looking for more events to travel to and setting up more phone interviews per day than one can handle while still writing at least one article a day. My bosses aren’t demanding I keep this pace. I am. I know that when I slow down, I get restless. Restlessness turns to boredom. Once I’m bored, the safety is off the firearm — just in time for me to shoot myself in the foot.

I’m not just pushing myself with work, though. I’m demanding a lot of my recovery. I’m working the 12 Steps hard but somewhat recklessly, which means the risk of my tripping over a step or three is higher than it should be. That can lead to bad things.

I’m doing a lot of service these days and it feels good. But it’s filling up a lot of time, too. I have to be careful with that. There’s a saying in OA: Service is slimming. Very true. But without discipline, it can be throat-cutting as well. Somewhere in there is the right balance.

I used to have a lot of help when it came to slowing down. Pills appeared to do the trick at one point. But it was never real rest, and I paid for it by pissing away a lot of opportunities to live.

Binge eating used to seem like rest, for the first few seconds. But the result was worse than pills and alcohol.

So, you see, I’m trying to get the hang of real rest, the productive kind that helps you get back into balance.

In an effort to figure it out, I’m taking a vacation day tomorrow. It’s in the middle of a work week, which really cuts against the grain of my work habits. But I need a morning to walk along the beach and put things in perspective.

My friend Kevin is staying at Salisbury Beach for the week, so in the morning I’m going to take him up on the invitation to come hang out. In the afternoon, I’ll go pick up the family and return to the beach to spend some more time with family.

Kevin, a photographer, took this shot from the beach yesterday, convincing me that I need to make the time to go there:

I have a column to write, a podcast to produce and plenty of chores before I break away.

But I WILL break away.

Not for long, though.

That’s just not my style.

Hung Over and Junk Sick

When you have a binge-eating addiction, the feeling you get before, during and after is a lot like being drunk and stoned.

“What’s my drug of choice? Well, what have you got?” Layne Staley, Alice in Chains

Junkies have a feeling they get before binging: Their brain is stuck on having whatever  gets them off. Alcohol. Heroin. Blow. For me, it used to be food. I’m free of the aftermath, but the demon still taunts me. Yesterday was a good example.

We spent a wonderful afternoon on Salisbury Beach Reservation in Massachusetts for a reunion of folks who were in the Haverhill High chorus, marching band and color guard in the 1980s and early 90s (Erin was in color guard).

All the stuff I used to get my fix on was spread out across three tables, totally legal and there for me to shove down my throat: Hamburger rolls, chips of all kinds, cookies and all the other flour-sugar substances that are essentially poison to me.

Before I found recovery, my demon would start harassing me long before getting to the scene of the junk. Forget the people who would be there or the weather and surroundings. All I’d think about was getting my fill. Then I’d get to the event and get my fill from the time I’d get there to the time I left. I’d sneak handfuls of junk so what I was doing wouldn’t be too obvious to those around me.

Halfway through, I would have the same kind of buzz you get after downing a case of beer or inhaling a joint deep into your lungs. I know this, because I’ve done those things, too. By nightfall, I’d feel like a pile of shattered bricks waiting to be carted off to the dump. Quality time with my wife and kids? Forget it. All I wanted was the bed or the couch so I could pass out.

The next morning would greet me with a bad headache, violent stomach cramps and blurred vision. Just like having a hangover or being dope sick.

Yesterday I stuck to my food plan and my tools of recovery, and it all turned out fine. I got to enjoy the surroundings and the company, though I was still distant in spots because there were a lot of folks I didn’t know. And because of that, there were moments where I gazed at the tables of food.

At one point, during clean-up, me and Duncan took a bunch of cookies and chips and tossed them to the seagulls, who eagerly dove in for their feast. That was rather liberating for me, because I was taking the substance I’m addicted to and throwing it to the wind. It also made clean-up easier, because seagulls leave nothing behind.

Also helping me was the beach itself. The ocean always has a healing effect on me. That comes from growing up on Revere Beach.

So here it is, Monday morning. I did not wake up feeling hungover or dope sick.

Another victory.

A new day.

Learning to Fight Well

In every marriage there are arguments. They can be good for you, but only if you learn to do it with skill. I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet.

Mood music for this post: “Hysteria” by Def Leppard:

I’ve always steered clear of this topic because nobody likes to talk about arguments with a husband or wife. But there’s a lesson to be learned, so in I go. And since I’m one of those people who are still trying to get it right, this is good therapy for me, too.

Erin and I have a  strong marriage. I’d say it’s getting stronger by the day. But like every married couple, we argue sometimes about all the typical things: Money, how to parent the kids, etc.

Yesterday was one of those days. The trigger for this one, I think, is the stress Erin’s feeling about our tight finances. Money is tight because we decided to take a chance on her quitting her job late last year to focus full-throttle on starting an editing business.

She’s still trying to find the right balance in all this, and it can be a real test of her self confidence. Meanwhile, I’m in charge of the family budget and paying the bills right now (we alternate on that chore every three months and I took it over a couple weeks ago). She has good reason to feel stressed about that one, because I really suck at saving money and processing numbers.

I even had to ask my father for financial assistance a few weeks ago, and that was a killer for me.

In my view, she has nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. Sure, money is a problem. But there’s a lot of love in this house. We love each other madly, and Sean and Duncan raise the happiness level a hundred-fold. We have a roof over our heads, food on the table and I have a job that I love. And, most importantly, we have God.

As a sponsor in Overeater’s Anonymous and as a longtime journalist, I’ve seen many people who don’t have these things. I also see a lot of people who have it far, far worse when I volunteer in the church food pantry. And, finding out that a childhood friend is on the streets and jobless because he’s a sex offender really puts things in perspective.

Still, life can be no less difficult in one’s own little world. So yesterday we argued.

I used to avoid arguments at all costs. There was a lot of yelling in my house growing up, and my instinct is always to avoid situations where there is yelling. A lot of earlier spats usually started as a result of all the stupid things I was doing as a result of my OCD and addictive behavior.

So, I really sucked at marital spats early on. I don’t want to say things that will be taken the wrong way, so I throw up a wall and sit there in a tight-lipped rage. It’s especially easy to do that when the thing that started the fight is usually something that was my fault.

This would be especially frustrating to Erin, because she would literally be talking to a wall.

I still have a habit of doing this sort of thing. But I’m trying to change that.

I’m trying to open up more about what I’m really feeling. I still try too hard to put it into the perfect words, though. That can cause problems. I’m trying hard to not make an argument about all the things I think I’m doing right and she’s doing wrong because that never ends well. I know she’s working hard on that, too.

There’s one thing we’ve always been pretty good at, though, and that’s making sure we resolve an argument before going to bed.

That’s something we learned in Pre-Cana before we got married: Never go to bed angry with each other.

Have we ever let that happen? Sure. But we’ve followed that Pre-Cana advice most of the time.

We’re also a lot better at talking through things and finding some sort of resolution. Erin’s still a lot better at it than me, but I’d like to think I’m better at it than I used to be.

This much I’ve learned: When spouses don’t communicate and let their frustrations build, it almost never ends well. We’ve seen this happen to several couples in recent years. One or both sides deny any fault on their own part and make no effort to resolve things.

That’s what happened to my parents. Happily, both parents have had more success in their second marriages, both of which are going on 30 years.

As a kid I always thought happy families never fought. The truth is closer to this: Happy families fight frequently, but they do it well and always walk away from an argument stronger than before.

In Ted Kennedy’s memoir, “True Compass,” he recalled a conversation his niece, Caroline, had with Rose, the Kennedy family matriarch. Rose noted that she never fought with her husband, Joseph P. Kennedy.

“Then how did you work out your differences?” Caroline asked her grandmother.

“I would just say ‘yes, dear’ and then go to Paris,” Rose responded.

My Nana and Papa fought all the time. But their fights were more the stuff of family comedy. Papa would make a crack he knew would set Nana off. She’d yell some profanity-laced sentences back at him, and he’d look at me with a wicked grin and wink. The truth is that they loved each other deeply, and though I couldn’t see it at the time, they knew how to fight well. It was a double-edged sword, though, because others in the family have tried to argue the same way and the results have often been a lot less successful.

Anyway, I have a lot to learn about the skills of a good argument. But I’m working on it.

As for yesterday’s argument, we didn’t go to bed angry at each other.

And, as is always the case, fight or no fight, I woke up this morning loving her more than I did the day before, or the day before that.