Bullied Minds, Bad Choices

I’m quite taken with this Boston Globe article about the long-term impact of bullying. There’s some truth to the conclusions, but also a lot of bullshit.

Mood music:

Of the new research, the Globe article says the following:

A new wave of research into bullying’s effects … is now suggesting … that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

These neurological scars, it turns out, closely resemble those borne by children who are physically and sexually abused in early childhood. Neuroscientists now know that the human brain continues to grow and change long after the first few years of life. By revealing the internal physiological damage that bullying can do, researchers are recasting it not as merely an unfortunate rite of passage but as a serious form of childhood trauma. This change in perspective could have all sorts of ripple effects for parents, kids, and schools; it offers a new way to think about the pain suffered by ostracized kids, and could spur new antibullying policies.

My compliments to Emily Anthes for a well-written, thoughtful article. The opinions I’m about to express are not a dig against her or the article itself. There’s a lot of value in what she reported and wrote. My issue is more about the mindset that seems to be taking hold where being a bullied kid somehow becomes an excuse for doing something terrible later in life.

My view can’t be taken as the final word. I’m no expert in the field. I only have my own experiences and how they’ve applied to my actions.

I was bullied a lot as a kid. But I did my share of bullying as well. Kids do stupid things. I was a stupid kid, and I had run-ins with other equally-stupid kids. Truth be told, the bullying I experienced led to plenty of depression and addictive behavior. I’m sure it had an impact on the troubles I would have as an adult.

But I think I’ve been equally scarred — with the same results — by the cruelty I let loose on others. A lot of guilt over how I treated others led me to the kind of self-destructive behavior some people don’t recover from.

The article makes comparisons between the verbal and physical abuse kids suffer at the hands of their parents and what they suffer at the hands of their peers.

Another snippet from the Globe article:

Martin Teicher, a neuroscientist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, has been examining just these kinds of scenarios. He began by studying the effects of being verbally abused by a parent. In his study of more than 1,000 young adults, Teicher found that verbal abuse could be as damaging to psychological functioning as the physical kind — that words were as hurtful as the famous sticks and stones. The finding sparked a new idea: “We decided to look at peer victimization,” he said.

So Teicher and his colleagues went back to their young adult subjects, focusing on those they had assumed were healthy in this respect — who’d had no history of abuse from their parents. The subjects, however, varied in how much verbal harassment — such as teasing, ridicule, criticism, screaming, and swearing — they had received from their peers. What the scientists found was that kids who had been bullied reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than the kids who hadn’t. In fact, emotional abuse from peers turned out to be as damaging to mental health as emotional abuse from parents. “It’s a substantial early stressor,” Teicher said.

Thanks to my mother, I know all about physical and verbal abuse from parent to child. I forgave her a long time ago, and she carried a lot of her own pain, sparking that abuse.

Here’s the thing: Though I experienced trauma at home and school, I’ve ALWAYS had the choice of whether to lash out or take the high road. I did a lot of lashing out. But I didn’t grow up and decide my lot in life was a reason to kill someone or rob a bank.

I think of this bullying article and can’t help but recall the recent story of the mother who killed her baby because the child was disturbing her game of Farmville. That story hit me where I live because it’s a story of addiction. My impression is that this woman has an online gaming addiction, which can be just as insidious a disease as alcoholism, drug dependency and, in my case, binge eating.

That’s where my sympathy ends. In fact, I can’t say I have any sympathy. My friend Lori MacVittie sounded off on this case in language I wholeheartedly agree with. On her Facebook page she said:

“There’s an excuse for everything, even killing a 3-month old child over a stupid game. I’m addicted, I’m depressed, I was deprived as a child, wha, wha, wha. Grow up. It’s called choice. Everyone has them. She made the wrong one.”

And there it is. We all go through traumatic experiences, and in the end we all have a choice.

At any point along the way I could have used my troubles as an excuse to go into a life of crime and maybe kill a few people along the way. I certainly had my moments where, if you interrupted my binge or gave me shit about my OCD quirks, I would fill with rage.

I’ve thought about punching people many times. But I never did.

Because I had a choice. I chose not to step over the line.

Now, to say we all have choices and we all have the power to do right or wrong is to oversimplify things. When a person suffers from an addiction or a mental struggle, they are not always in their right mind. When that happens, you’re capable of all kinds of evil, no matter how hard you try to hold back.

I strongly believe there are suicide cases where the person is so far gone into the world of depression and despair that they no longer have the capacity to make sane decisions.

My childhood friend, Mark Hedgecock, became a thrice-convicted pedophilebecause of his baggage. The baggage was only part of it. He had a choice and made the wrong one three times.

He acknowledged as much over the phone a few months ago. He knows he’s a monster and that he probably shouldn’t be on the street. Bottom line: He did what he did and has to pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s sad, though. It’s a waste. But he was trolling for teenage girls on Facebook over the summer, showing he can’t help but repeat his mistakes. 

He had a choice. He made the wrong one.

This FarmVille-addicted mom had a choice. She made the wrong one. Now she’s gotta pay.

That doesn’t mean we have to like it. She killed her kid in a moment of insanity. It’s a tragedy. period.

Unfortunately, getting bullied by your peers can knock loose the wiring in the brain that makes you hold back from bad choices later in life.

This stuff is hopelessly complicated.

The study on peer bullying is just another thread in the larger, gruesome tapestry of human nature.

I’m still waiting for the day when we’re able to take what we learn from these studies and concoct the perfect bad choice prevention program. It won’t be in my lifetime.

I’m just glad that when I faced those moments of choice and made the bad calls, nobody got killed. Good friends and family pulled me through.

May it be the same for you.

Saving My Recovery, Continued

I huge weight is off my shoulders. I’ve gone from talking about the changes that’ll help me preserve my sobriety and abstinence to doing what I said I’d do.

Mood music: Pearl Jam covering Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns”

I told my sponsor that hitting the reset button means I have to replace her. She said she would never do anything to get in the way of my recovery. She’s a dear friend who has helped me so much this year. It’s not about her. It’s about me needing to change things up. She gets it.

Another cherished friend, the guy I sponsor, seemed to take it well when I told him that come Jan. 1 I need to step back from sponsoring people for awhile. He gets it, but I don’t think he likes it. He’s worried that I’ll push him out of my life. That’s not going to happen. He’ll figure that out in time.

The tweaks to my food plan are underway. I moved up an ounce on the morning oatmeal. Other changes will happen, mainly in terms of adding variety to the plan. I’m not necessarily changing what I eat. It’s more about how I cook the stuff. The one constant that can never be broken: No, flour, no sugar. The two ingredients together are like heroin to my fucked up mind.

I’ve been asked a million times how I exist without flour and sugar. No pasta? No pizza? What else is there? The simple answer is plenty. But that’s not the whole story. You can have an abstinent food plan and stay away from the flour and sugar. But if you eat more than the allotted amount, you’ve still relapsed.

Having an addictive mind that revolves around food is a particularly tricky beast to tame. Quitting drugs and alcohol is painful. So is quitting an addiction to shopping or porn. The problem with food is that you need it to survive. You can’t purge it from your life like the other things.

That’s why in the Overeater’s Anonymous crowd we have to talk to our sponsor every day and tell them what we’re eating that day. Make no mistake about it: I think it can be a pain in the ass. Sometimes I don’t want to talk on the phone. But, really, I have no choice.

The alternative is to be owned by the substances I’m addicted to. Then my wife and children suffer. After that, my work suffers. And in the end, I just fill my life with the fix until God no longer has anything to do with anything. 

I’m not letting that happen without one hell of a fight. And you know what? I’m going to win. I’ve been exposed to too much of God’s Grace to turn back now.

The beauty of making changes now is that I’m not having to do it because I relapsed.

I’ve been abstinent since Oct. 1, 2008. I was lucky enough to see myself headed for trouble and have decided to take preemptive action.

Of course, I realize that in the final analysis I’m never totally safe.

No addict ever is.

We’re never more than five minutes away from relapse.

How I’ll Save My Sobriety and Abstinence

I mentioned a few posts ago that I’ve hit a wall in my recovery program. I shared about it at yesterday’s OA meeting, and as the day progressed, I realized what I need to do to stay sober and abstinent.


I should point out that I’m not depressed about having to make changes.

There’s no anxiety or fear driving this.

It’s just a calm, sober realization that every once in awhile you have to make changes. Some people go into crisis mode when it happens to them. I don’t see the point. If we just kept doing the same thing over and over again, what fun would that be?

Sure, change is hard. But it’s the ONLY way we move forward and become better people in the long run. Actually, I’m looking forward to putting all this in motion.

All that said, here’s my plan:

The Food Plan: I’m adjusting serving sizes slightly and working hard to put more variety into the mix. No flour, no sugar remains the rule, as does weighing out everything that goes on my plate. The problem I’ve gotten myself into is that, in the effort to avoid the binge eating that nearly destroyed me, I’ve come to rely on the same food, over and over again. Doing so makes sense to a certain extent, because routines are vital to an addict’s recovery. I’m bored as a result, and boredom is an addict’s biggest nightmare.

The sponsor thing: I love my OA sponsor. She’s been tremendously helpful and I’m blessed to have her as a friend. But I feel like I need to change sponsors just to force me into a state of change. I especially feel like I need a male sponsor. I’m learning that there are in fact differences in the male-female perspective when it comes to this program. I also feel like I need to dial back on sponsoring others for now. I have to shore up my own recovery before I can tell others how to do it. So I’m going to help my sponsees find new sponsors, and I’m breaking loose Jan. 1. The trick will be in getting them to understand this isn’t about them, it’s about me. 

Meetings: I’ve been going to the same couple of meetings for two years now. Time to shake it up a little. I’m going to start going to the men’s Chelsea meeting more often and I’m going to start checking out a Sunday evening meeting in Andover, which brings me to the final piece:

12 Steps done right: My interest in that Sunday meeting is that it’s a big-book step study format and not the speaker-discussion format I’ve grown too comfortable with. I live by the 12 Steps of Recovery every day, but I haven’t really scoured and studied each one yet. It’s time I started doing that.

With God’s Grace, into the waves of change I go.

OK to Live Again?

Going to the wake of my friend‘s mom last night, I found myself engaged in a strange line of thinking. Memories of past deaths came back to me. Michael. Sean. Peter. All the grandparents. Not in a bad way, either.

Mood music:

In a bizarre game of mental math, I started thinking about how long it took me to bounce back from each death. It’s a stupid game to play, because there’s no science or arithmetic that applies. The death of a grandparent is part of the natural order of things. The death of a sibling or close friend, not so much. Unless, perhaps, everyone is well into their senior years. Even then, you can’t put a measuring stick on grief.

But I tried doing it anyway.

With Michael and Sean, I’m not sure I ever really recovered. To this day, I’m cleaning up from the long cycles of depression and addiction that followed me through the years.

Along the way, good things happened to fill in the black holes. I married the love of my life. We had two beautiful children. My career hummed along nicely for the most part.

In a strange way, Peter’s death, terrible and depressing as it was, marked the beginning of a long, hard path to recovery. It was my behavior in the months after his death that made me realize something was seriously wrong with me. It’s almost as if Peter’s spirit pushed me into dealing with things.

Peter always was a pushy motherfucker.

As you might expect, I failed to emerge with a general timeline of the grieving process. It turns out we’re not supposed to know about such things. That would be cheating.

I do know that IT GETS BETTER.

Understanding that as I do, I have the following advice for those trying to get through the grieving process:

–First, go read the past year of entries in “Penny Writes… Penny Remembers.” If you can’t learn how to live in the face of horrible loss from the writings of Penny Morang Richards, I got nothing else for you.

–Take a moment to appreciate what’s STILL around you. Your spouse. Your kids. Your friends. If the death you just suffered should teach you anything, it’s that you never know how long the other loves of your life will be around. Don’t waste the time you have with them, and, for goodness sake: 

–Don’t sit around looking at people you love and worrying yourself into an anxiety attack over the fact that God could take them from you at any moment. God holds all the cards, so it’s pointless to even think about it. Just be there for people, and let them be there for you.

–Take care of yourself. You can comfort yourself with all the drugs, alcohol, sex and food there is to have. But take it from me, giving in to addictions is nothing but slow suicide. You can’t move past grief and see the beauty of what’s left if you’re too busy trying to kill yourself. True, I learned a ton about the beauty of life from having been an addict, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever wish that experience on others. If there’s a better way to cope, do that instead.

–Embrace things that are bigger than you. Nothing has helped me get past grief more than doing service to others. It sounds like so much bullshit, but it’s not. When I’m helping out in the church food pantry or going to Overeater’s Anonymous meetings and guiding addicts who ask for my help, I’m always reminded that my own life could be much worse. Or, to put it another way, I’m reminded how my own life is so much better than I realize or deserve.

Like I said: This isn’t a science.

It’s just what I’ve learned from my own walk through the valley of darkness.

Facebook Follow Friday: Thank Ya Edition

Welcome to week five of this new tradition of mine: Giving the nod to some of my Facebook friends for giving my spirits a lift and teaching me new things.

Mood music:

A reminder on what this is about: There’s a thing we do on Twitter called Follow Friday, where we list people we follow and suggest others do the same. I figured Facebook should have something similar, so here it is.

There’s a lot of crap on Facebook. Some people might consider me part of the problem and unfriend me over it. That’s OK. My brand of insanity isn’t for everyone. But there are a lot of giving folks on there as well; friends that lift the spirits and teach me something daily.

Shira Brenner: The kid sister. I’ve told you about her before, but I got to see her yesterday and she made me an excellent cup of coffee.  She lives life to the full and inspires the hell out of me.

Sara Corthell Croft: The middle of my three sisters-in-law. She’s gone through a tough year, but she’s done it with class and good humor. She also watches her nephews almost every time I ask, and her daughter — my niece — is just so stinkin’ adorable. She deserves some extra gratitude from me, so here it is.

Ann Ball: She’s been my friend for almost 20 years. Well, we lost touch for several years in between but so what? Her Facebook posts are always upbeat and full of love for her family. With so much shit on Facebook, it’s refreshing to see.

Les Masterson: A former colleague from my Community Newspaper Company days. The man has always had a wit I connect with, including his most recent observation that “Alice’s Restaurant” is the work of the devil. He’s also an editor for Patch, a community news organization you will surely be hearing a lot more about. 

Bob Connors: Fellow Haverhillite and cigar buddy, he’s the man to check out for emergency preparedness and full-throttle patriotism. He’s also good natured about the trouble I sometimes get him into by quoting him.

More to come next week…


Thanks to a strict food plan I follow to keep the binge-eating disorder in its box, I’m not walking around a bloated mess like I used to. Instead, I gorged on something else yesterday.

Mood music:

I napped in the morning, I napped in the afternoon and I have no regrets.

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with sleep.

Back when I was slowly destroying myself, I would fall asleep at all the wrong times: In a restaurant while someone was talking to me, during moments of what was supposed to be catch-up time with Erin, and behind the wheel.

I still nod off early. But I’m up at 4 a.m. almost every morning. I don’t have to be. I just happen to open my eyes at that point. I can’t seem to help it. So by 7 or 8 p.m., it catches up to me.

For the most part, though, I only average about six hours of sleep a night. Sometimes, I get less than that.

When you don’t get at least eight hours of sleep a night for an extended period of time, it catches up with you. In my case, I go into cycles of depression. I feel doom and gloom for no good reason.

Erin knows this, and has been diligent in making me go to bed earlier, even when I’d rather be awake doing other things. 

I usually don’t give the sleep issue much thought, because my demons are rooted in many other, more insidious habits. But a friend of mine was just diagnosed with severe depression, and this dude has had a batshit-crazy sleep schedule for many years now. He gets into his office by 4 a.m. so he can leave early, but doesn’t really go to sleep until around 10 or later. Now it’s caught up with him.

Apparently it caught up to me yesterday. But it wasn’t the anxiety-driven kill switch that kicks in from time to time. This was a no-regrets trip to la-la land. Well, I regret it a little. I wanted to be up later to spend quality time with Erin, because she’s been working crazy hours lately and quality time is hard to come by. Last night I blew it on that score.

But looking at Thanksgiving day as a whole, it was much, much better than stuffing myself until I wanted to be dead.

The perfect balance still escapes me, but who really has the perfect balance anyway?

Thank You

I still go through the day like a punk sometimes. I get wrapped up in my own selfish impulses and forget everyone else around me. I’m excellent at making it all about me. But I know the truth. I have a beautiful life despite myself. And I have many to thank.

Mood music:

I’m thankful to God for taking a chance on a rat like me and for sending me the grace to help me be a better man.

I’m thankful to my wife and kids for loving me unconditionally and helping me see the magic in life.

I’m thankful to my parents for sticking by me when I was a kid, even though I gave them plenty to worry about. That’s right. Both parents. Even though I’m not talking to one of them right now.

I’m thankful for an army of friends that seems to grow by the day. That includes all the new friends I’ve made because of this blog, old friends who’ve always been nearby and friends I thought were gone forever but somehow came back into my life.

I’m thankful to Sean Marley for showing me how to live way back when no one else could get through to me.

I’m thankful for my recovery from OCD and addiction. My recovery is challenged every day. Some days it bends. Some days it burns. But it hasn’t been broken.

I’m thankful for music.

I’m thankful that God showed me how to break the spell of fear and anxiety.

I’m thankful for the 12 Steps.

I’m thankful for the city of Haverhill for accepting me for who I am.

I’m thankful for the city of Revere for always welcoming me back.

I’m thankful for people who forgive.

I’m thankful for my job. Many people don’t have one, and the truth of the matter is that I have the best job in the world. I could feel guilty. Instead, I’m just grateful.

I’m thankful for the therapist who helped me understand what mental illness is about — and what it’s not about — even though I walk in his office wearing my bad habits and smug attitude on my sleeve.

I’m thankful for the Secret Service guys who hassled me in Washington D.C. over the summer because they gave me a fun story to tell.

I’m thankful to Howard Schmidt for honoring my family with a private tour of the White House West Wing.

I’m thankful to all my friends in the security world for fighting the good fight every day and for making me smarter than I ever thought possible. 

I’m thankful for everyone who could have judged me harshly for writing this blog, but instead gave me nothing but support from day one.

Finally, I’m thankful to be alive. There were many times as a kid that I wasn’t sure how I’d ever see 21, let alone 40.

Yet here I am.

Thanksgiving used to be all about the food in my twisted little mind.

Now the food is a mere distraction from all the blessings around me.

Thank you God.

Thank you everyone.

It’s good to be alive.

Pounding the Reset Button

I mentioned Monday that I’ve hit a wall in my recovery program. Last night I decided some changes are in order.

Mood music:

Making changes is a bitch. It’s almost like admitting failure. I haven’t failed on the big things. I’ve held on to my abstinence and sobriety. But in a lot of areas I’ve gotten sloppy.

A collection of tiny failures can add up.

I’ve gotten bored with my current plan, and as I’ve said before, boredom is poison for the addictive personality.

Boredom means the mind is free to start spinning. I feel uneasy and can’t settle on anything. Then I’m in the kitchen, looking through the cabinets.

I see a bottle of gin and consider taking a swig. If I do, surely no one will ever know. I see cupcakes Erin baked for the kids. Surely no one will notice if one goes missing. Or two. Or five. For about 20 minutes, I’m standing there seriously thinking about breaking both my abstinence from binge eating and my sobriety. Erin doesn’t have to know. My OA sponsor doesn’t have to know.

Then I come to my senses and leave the kitchen. Instead of doing what I used to do all the time, I make a couple calls to fellow addicts in recovery, take a shower and go to bed.

But if I let the boredom stick around for too long, one of these days I’ll be in a similar scenario, standing in the kitchen, and things won’t end as well as they did before.

I don’t want that.

So I’m pounding the reset button. Changes have to be made in the food plan. I might need to change sponsors, even though I love mine to death. I just need a fresh perspective.

I might have to stop sponsoring other people for awhile. I don’t feel right telling other people how to manage their recovery if my own recovery needs work.

Admitting that I have to do something is liberating. I feel a weight starting to lift off my shoulders.

It always feels better to be honest with yourself, because lies weigh you down.

For those who might worry about me over this, don’t. It’s all good. 

As anyone with long-term sobriety and abstinence will tell you, changes are always necessary from time to time. It’s like an oil change for the car.

This is a process I’m supposed to go through. And I get to go through it without having a full-blown relapse, which is mighty lucky of me.

The reset starts in 45 minutes, when I talk to my sponsor.

Read This…

My good friend Jennifer Leggio has started a new personal blog that chronicles, among other things, her battle with the weight demon.

I know that demon well. More of us do than we care to admit. Jen took a bold, somewhat controversial step to slay the demon and went under the knife. If you want to see courage — and the excellent writing — check it out. Now.