Say Hello to My New Limit

Another mood swing this afternoon. The dark, brooding sky appears to be rubbing off on me. The happy lamp helps, but if I sit in front of it too long I get the sweats. And it’s not the same as sunshine.

Mood music:

I’ve been having a lot of these episodes lately, and it worries me. It’s most likely the result of my sleep pattern being out of whack. I alternate between too much sleep one day, not enough the next.

The clouds don’t help. It seems like we’ve had a lot of gloomy weather lately, and too much of that will fuck with my head every time.

My biggest concern is that something’s off with the medication, though probably not. One thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t take care of yourself in other ways, like having a consistent sleep pattern, it will blunt the effectiveness of the drug.

The other problem is that I’ve overextended myself, being on team for a Catholic retreat, doing a lot of extra service in my 12-Step program and keeping busy on the work side, along with all the activity that comes with having a first and fourth grader.

Since shaking off the fear and anxiety and cleaning up my act a couple years ago, I’ve had a limitless appetite for new experiences. And so I’ve gone on the road a lot and taken on many projects in and outside of work.

It’s been a blessing. It still is. But it’s possible I’m starting to find my new limit. Perhaps I’m a victim of my own success. There are far worse problems to have.

This is actually a good thing. It’s healthy.

The trick now is in figuring out how to stop over-reaching and achieve the right balance.

It’s too bad I suck at balance.

But it’s never too late to learn how to do it right.

Debunking the Shrink Stigma

A friend was telling me yesterday that he can relate to this blog. In a whisper, he said, “I see a therapist.” When people tell me that, it’s usually in the same hushed tone. Clearly, we have another stigma to shred.

Mood music:

I’m not sure why people are so hush-hush about this sort of thing. Maybe it’s because I outed myself so long ago. But I just don’t think people should be embarrassed about seeing a therapist. And yet people are embarrassed, like they’re being treated for the clap after a reckless night in a whorehouse. It’s the kind of shame that does you no good. Take it from a guy who has been there.

It’s a funny thing when I talk to people suffering from depression, addiction and other troubles of the mind. Folks seem more comfortable about the idea of pills than in seeing a therapist. After all, they’re just crazy “shrinks” in white coats  obsessed with how your childhood nightmares compromised your adult sex life, right?

I’ve been to many therapists in my life. I was sent to one at Children’s Hospital in Boston as a kid to talk through the emotions of being sick with Chron’s Disease all the time. That same therapist also tried to help me and my siblings process the bitter aftermath of our parents’ divorce in 1980.

As a teenager, I went to another therapist to discuss my brother’s death and my difficulty in getting along with my stepmother (a wonderful, wonderful woman who I love dearly, by the way. But as a kid I didn’t get along with her).

That guy was a piece of work. He had a thick French accent and wanted to know if I found my stepmother attractive. From the moment he asked that question, I was done with him, and spent the rest of the appointment being belligerent.

That put me off going to a therapist for a long time. I started going to one again in 2004, when I found I could no longer function in society without untangling the barbed wire in my head. But I hesitated for a couple years before pressing on.

The therapist I started going to specialized in dealing with disturbed children and teenagers. That was perfect, because in a lot of ways I was still a troubled kid.

She never told me what to do, never told me how I’m supposed to interpret my disorder against my past. She asked a lot of questions and had me do the work of sorting it out. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a good therapist does. They ask questions to get your brain churning, dredging up experiences that sat at the back of the mind like mud on the ocean floor. That’s how you begin to deal with how you got to the point of dysfunction.

She moved to Florida a year in and I started going to a fellow who worked from his house. I would explain my binge eating habits to him, specifically how I would down $30 worth of McDonald’s between work and home.

“You should stock your car with healthy foods like fruit, so if you’re hungry you can eat those things instead,” he told me.

That was the end of that. He didn’t get it. When an addict craves the junk, the healthy food around you doesn’t stand a chance. The compulsion is specifically toward eating the junk. He should have understood. He didn’t. Game over, dumb ass.

The therapist I see now is a God-send. He was the first therapist to help me understand the science behind mental illness and the way an inbalance in brain chemistry can mess with your thought traffic. He also provided me with quite an education on how anti-depressants work. Yes, friends, there’s a science to it. Certain drugs are designed to shore up the brain chemicals that, when depleted, lead to bi-polar behavior. Other meds are specifically geared toward anxiety control. In my case, I needed the drug that best addressed obsessive-compulsive behavior. For me, that meant Prozac.

That’s not to say I blindly obey his every suggestion. He specializes in stress reduction and is big on yoga and eliminating coffee from the daily diet. Those are two deal breakers for me. Yoga bores the dickens out of me. If you’ve been following this blog all along, I need not explain the coffee part.

I also find it fun to push his buttons once in awhile. I’ll show up at his office with a huge cup of Starbucks. “Oh, I see you’ve brought drugs with you,” he’ll say.

Thing is, he’s probably right about the coffee. But I’ve given up a lot of other things for the sake of mental health. I’m simply not putting the coffee down right now.

I think part of this is about testing him, too. I can’t help but push the buttons sometimes just to see what I can get away with.

But on balance, it’s a productive relationship that has helped me to find a lot of peace and order in my life.

There are good therapists and not-so-good therapists, just like there are good and not-so-good primary care doctors; just like there are good cops and bad cops.

But if you feel like you need to talk to someone objective and you hold back for fear of being in the same room as a quack, well, then you’ll never know what you could have accomplished.

I chose to talk to a professional despite my deepest reservations. I’m grateful that I did.

Why the hell should anyone be ashamed for doing the right thing?

The Devil’s Music

Some readers suggest my Faith and love of heavy metal music are an odd combination. Some of the rock crowd think my religious beliefs are at odds with the spirit of metal culture. Some of my church friends think metal is the devil’s music. You’re both wrong.

Mood music:

You’ve heard my story. Faith has been central to my recovery from OCD and addiction. Metal was there for me as a confused, tormented kid, wringing out just enough of the anger to keep me from doing very bad things.

Call me a whack job, but I’m pretty sure God put that music in my path to help me along, just as He puts certain people in my path today to help me along.

Sometimes I rely too much on the music and not enough on God to pull me through tough scrapes. I’m working on that.

I realize no two people are the same, and I may indeed be an anomaly. I’m a puzzling presence in other ways — a man of multiple personalities. My interest in politics and history don’t really fit the metal image, either.

But they are all tools in my arsenal of living.

I’ve been spending my Tuesday nights in planning meetings for an upcoming Cursillo retreat I’ll be on team for. During that weekend, I’ll be giving a talk on how study fits into my spiritual journey. Not study in the bookish sense, though that’s part of it. It’s more about study through experiencing things — the goodness of people who inspire me, the power of recovery and the purging of fear, and yes, metal WILL come up at some point. It’s too intertwined with the rest of the story. It’ll make for an interesting talk.

To those who call it the Devil’s music: True, there are bands that glorify evil, but most of it is just theatrics. You say metal has influenced murderers and suicides? Maybe. But I know of many evil people in history who were just as passionate about their Classical music, Jazz and Country-Western. If there’s evil in your soul, the musical tastes don’t matter. The evil you already had is what’ll make you do bad things. The Beatles’ “Blackbird” is a beautiful piece of music. But that beauty didn’t keep an asshole like Charles Manson from interpreting the lyrics to mean it was time to start a race war by killing white people and making it look like the Black Panthers did it.

I only know my personal truth: That my choice of music helped me through tough times and set me on a journey that grew more spiritual and grounded with time.

And besides, why the hell should Satan get all the good music?

The Amityville Obsession

Part of my obsessive-compulsive behavior includes a study of the more morbid pieces of history. The Manson murders is one example. The Amityville murders is another. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the latter.

Mood music:

The match for the fire is a book I just read called “The Night The DeFeos Died” by Ric Osuna. The book goes a long way in crushing the bullshit hoax about the house being haunted. I watched “The Amityville Horror” as a kid and it scared the hell out of me. I’ve had an interest ever since. This book gets into the train wreck that was the DeFeo family. They were outwardly religious and close-knit. But the father was a rage-a-holic who apparently yelled a lot and beat his wife and kids, especially his oldest son Butch, who is now rotting in jail for the murders.

The book also reveals that the DeFeo family had mob connections. The toxic mix of dysfunction reached its climax Nov. 13, 1974. After a night of chaos in the house, Butch and his sister Dawn plotted to kill the abusive father and a mother they felt was an enabler.

Somewhere in the chaos, the story goes, Dawn killed their younger siblings. This apparently outraged Butch, who then blew her head off in anger. Investigators later found powder burns on Dawn’s nightgown, suggesting that she had indeed fired a rifle.

The only one who knows the real truth is Butch. But he has proven himself to be a serial liar, so the truth will remain in his head. My impression is that he got an unfair trial and that investigators covered up a lot of things in order to have a slam-dunk case. That’s certainly an argument Osuna makes in the book.

So why the obsession with this story? There are a few things worth noting:

–I don’t romanticize this stuff. The interest isn’t because of the brutal nature of the murders. I’ve seen the crime scene forensic photos for the DeFeo and Manson murders, and they made me sick to my stomach.

–It’s really part of my fascination with history.

Like it or not, this stuff is part of American history. The Manson story is a snapshot of everything that went wrong in the 1960s, where a counterculture born of good intentions — a craving for peace in Vietnam and at home — lost it’s way because there were no rules, no discipline and there was no sobriety. I agree with those who believe the promise of the 1960s died abruptly in the summer of 1969. I’m also fascinated because it shows how easily seemingly stable people can be brainwashed and controlled to the point where they would willingly heed orders to commit the worst of sins.

–The Amityville story is a case study of what happens when the head of a household abuses the rest of the family. Slap a kid around often enough and you just might turn him into the type of man who shoots heroin and plots the murder of some or all of his family.

It’s the whole cause-and-effect thing that keeps my obsession going.

My own experiences have given me an obsession with the key moments in a person’s life that determine if that person will turn to evil or come out of the adversity stronger and better.

I’m lucky because I’m a case study in the latter category. But I can’t help but feel bad for those who go the wrong way.

Some of the twists and turns are so random.

In the case of the Amityville murders, I don’t believe for a second that the house is haunted. Several families have lived there happily over the last 30 years. Sure, a couple of the future residents had bad things happen to them. But bad things happen to everyone.

You don’t need a haunted house to give your life ups and downs.

Sometimes, all it takes are the ghosts in your head.

Writer’s Block IS the Devil

It’s been a very long time since this has happened. And I don’t like it one bit.

Mood music:

I have writer’s block. I want to write a new post here (I am, actually) and I have a CSO column to write later. I figured I’d get up at 4 a.m. and burn some keyboard rubber like I usually do. But the words didn’t flow like they’re supposed to.

When you are a professional writer like me, this sort of thing can cause panic attacks. I used to be reduced to a pile of jelly on the sidewalk when I had newspaper articles to write on deadline and the writer’s block kicked in.

I don’t have that kind of pressure right now. I have all day to write the column and I don’t have to write an OCD Diary post if I don’t want to. The problem is that I want to but have nothing to say. That’s all well and fine. Sometimes it’s good to keep your mouth (or writing hands) idle. But idle can lead to boredom, and boredom creeps me out.

I used to go smoke a pack of cigarettes when this sort of thing happened. Now I go do house chores.

The good news is that the writer’s block always lifts, and I’ll be tearing up the keyboard in no time.

By the way: This post in itself was a little exercise to break that block so the words can flow. It didn’t help for the blog purposes, but I think it gave me the needed kick to write the security column.

Hope you don’t feel cheated.

Two Years Clean

Two years ago yesterday, I went on my last binge. Actually, it was more like reaching the end of a final, two-month long binge. The abstinent and sober life hasn’t been perfect by any stretch. But it beats the hell out of where I was at the start.

Mood music:

Appropriately, I’m leading an OA meeting tonight, which means telling my story in 15-20 minutes without notes. Here’s some of what I’ll have to say:

Compulsive overeating was my biggest, most destructive addiction. It led to health problems that only got worse with time. I became a waste of space and fell short as a husband, dad and friend. I used to think about food all the time — where to get it, when to binge it and how to hide the aftermath.

People think of drugs and alcohol as addictive things, followed by gambling, pornography and the Internet. Food, on the other hand, that’s something we need to survive. If you’re a binge eater, it’s not an addiction, the thinking goes. You’re just a glutton who eats too much. The truth is we are ALL addicts. Some of us need chocolate, others need to watch every episode of their favorite TV show.

The other day, my sister Shira asked me what the difference was between someone with a binge-eating addiction and someone who just eats too much without thinking.

It’s a fair question, and a wise one. Here’s how I see it:

Though we all have our addictions, there’s a line someone with an overpowering habit crosses. On the other side of that line, life becomes unmanageable. The fix becomes more important than anything else. You spend ALL your time thinking about how to get it. You burn through money you don’t have and become crafty at lying about it to everyone around you, including the people you love most.

In short, the need for a fix takes your entire brain hostage.

I guess that if I were just a casual overeater, I’d be overweight but life would hum along pretty much as it’s supposed to.

I’m not sure if that makes sense, but that’s what it means to me.

When you realize you need to deal with it, the 12 Steps of Recovery is the map to take you there. It’s very simple. The first steps are the admission that you have a problem that has made life unmanageable, and that you can’t bring it under control without help from a higher power.

There are the basic tools: Having a food plan (mine is devoid of flour and sugar and I put almost everything I eat on a scale). There’s the sponsor, writing, meetings, etc. But along the way, you learn things about yourself and grow in ways well beyond what you expected.

My recovery has lead to many healed relationships and a clearheadedness I never knew before. I’ve been able to reach out to people I’ve hurt in the past and set things right.

It isn’t all roses. The first few months of abstinence were not sober days. I used a lot of wine as a crutch to keep from eating. How fucked up is that? Eventually I put that down too, because I saw where it was taking me and it scared me. And I’ll be honest: I don’t really miss the food anymore, but I DO miss the wine. Sobriety can be an awkward thing.

I also enjoy more cigars than I probably should, and I’m an absolute coffee fiend. I’ve also learned that being clean doesn’t make you a better person. I’ve seen people in AA and OA that will make your skin crawl, and they’ve been clean a long time. Sobriety doesn’t mean you instantly learn how to behave like a good human being. Some people find they were better at that when they had a glass in their hand. Me? I have a runaway ego and some days I still have a bad attitude.

I’m a work in progress. A lot of work.

But I’ll take it.

A Pastor Moves On

Dennis Nason, pastor of All Saints Parish, steps down Oct. 1. He’s struggling with cancer and decided to step aside so the parish can move on. He’s earned a tribute here. He made a believer out of me by coming clean about his own sins.

We have it in our heads that priests are supposed to be perfect and sinless. That’s why the sex scandal hit people so hard. We were taught to trust priests at all costs, and some of them betrayed that trust in evil ways.

When you’re a screw up like I once was — and still am in some ways — and you find someone you hope will help you out of the abyss, it’s a crushing blow when the mentor fails.

But as I’ve settled deeper into my Faith, I’ve realized those mistakes are part of the long journey out of Hell.

But for that theory to work, all parties involved have to have the capacity for honesty. That’s a big theme in the 12 Steps, too. Honesty is a bitch when you wrestle with addictions. I’ve said it before, addicts are the best liars on Earth. The depth of my own deceit was like a bottomless pit by the time I hit bottom.

That’s where Father Nason took me to school. He was an alcoholic who could have covered his tracks and carried on. Instead, he revealed everything to everyone. What follows is an older post I wrote about that very incident and what it has meant to me:

The Priest Who Came Clean

Originally posted on April 11, 2010:

I’ve met many priests, some good and some not-so-good. People criticize priests because they’re athiests or they’re angry about the sex abuse scandal. Father Dennis Nason made a believer out of me by coming clean about his own sins.

You would have to be sick in the head NOT to be outraged by the sex abuse, and especially of the cover-up. In the end, though, people forget that priests are human, with all the sin-making embedded into their genetic code just like the rest of us.

When a priest is able to lay his own flaws bare for all to see, I think it takes an extra level of courage, since there has to be a lot of pressure around the lofty standards they are held to.

Father Nason rose to the occasion.

I met Father Nason about 11 years ago. He took over our parish, All Saints, when several other churches were closed down and consolidated into the All Saints Community.

He had a lot of angry people on his hands. One’s church becomes home, and when you close it and force them to go someplace else, trouble is inevitable.

Then the priest sex abuse scandal burst open like an infected sore, shaking the Faith of a lot of people like never before.

I started going to All Saints regularly in 2001, the year my oldest son was born. It would be another five years before I chose to convert, but by then the church had become a source of comfort at a time where my mental health was starting to snap off the rails.

At one point over the summer, Father Nason vanished. Few knew why.

Then at one Mass, the deacon read an open letter from him.

In the letter, Father Nason revealed that he was in rehab for alcoholism. It would be several months before he emerged from rehab, and while he was there the sex abuse scandal really began to explode. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also happened around that time, and people’s souls were tested like never before.

Once he did emerge from rehab to rejoin his parish, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. It was like a weight had been lifted. Then another weight dropped on him. It turns out one of the priests in our parish was one of those sexual predators we had read about in the papers.

Something like that would test the sobriety of anyone forced to come in and deal with the mess. Father Nason met it head on.

He was angry with his archdiocese over the fact that pedophile priests had been enabled for all those years; cases swept under the rug like dust. You could hear the anger in his voice and see it in his eyes. He would rage about it in more than one Homily.

His reaction is a big reason I stuck with the church instead of bolting.

Around that time we also had trouble hanging onto the other priests. One left after less than two months, apparently freaked out by the amount of work this parish demanded of him.

Through it all, Father Nason kept it together and brought his parish through the storm.

I don’t always see eye to eye with him. Sometimes I think his administration is disorganized and that his Homilies are all over the place; though when he nails it, he really nails it.

But those are trivial things. When he came clean about his addiction, it hit me deep in the core. At the time, my own addictions were bubbling in my skull and preparing to wipe out what was left of my soul. I just didn’t know it at the time.

His honesty kept me going. And now that I’ve spent the last few years getting control of my own addictive behavior, I have a much better appreciation for what he went through.

This post isn’t meant to put him on a pedestal. He is only human, after all, and he sometimes misses the mark like the rest of us.

It IS meant to thank him for the time he came clean, inspiring me to do the same.