A Conversation With Dad

I recently had a conversation with my father that goes to show the things you see as a kid don’t always match up with what’s really going on.

Mood music:

Like a lot of families these days, we hit a financial wall a few months ago and I had to ask my father for help. That was a killer, because I’ve always taken pride in making things work without having to do that. It was a painfully humbling experience.

One of the more unfortunate byproducts of my OCD is that I don’t like to ask for help when I need it. This flaw has taken me to the brink of a nervous breakdown many times.

When you struggle with addiction and mental disorder, you cling hard to an ego that’s always bigger than what the reality of the situation justifies.

In my warped world view, to as for help has always been to admit weakness. It’s a huge contradiction for me, because the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my12-Step program is that nobody breaks free of addiction without help. That’s why we have sponsors to kick us in the ass.

One of the reasons James Frey was so easily exposed as a fraud over the fabrications in his book “A Million Little Pieces” was that he claimed to have overcome his demon on his own. Anyone who has been down this road knows it’s impossible to kick your most self-destructive demon without help. I don’t fault Frey all that much, though, because as I’ve noted before, addicts are among the best liars on the planet.

I’m no exception.

I’m a lot like the character Quint in “JAWS” in that I suffer from working-class hero syndrome. (One of the many excellent lines in that movie was when Hooper told Quint to knock of the working-class hero crap, after Quint kept picking on Hooper for not getting his hands dirty enough.)

In my case, I like to believe that adults should be able to make a living without any help from family and friends. In a financial rut? You figure it out and avoid asking your parents for help at all costs. I’ve looked down on people who have done that in the past. I described one case as someone using their father like a piggy bank.

To me, asking Dad for help means failure. I think some of that attitude comes from the fact that I leaned on my father‘s financial assistance a lot in my 20s. When my 1981 Mercury Marquis finally died a painful death at the hands of its abusive driver, I went to Dad and nagged for a new car. I got one — a 1985 Chevy Monte Carlo.

I look back on that sort of thing and realize what a burden that was on my father. When I got married and settled into my 30s, I vowed never to bother my father for money again. I would manage on my own at all costs.

For the most part, I have. In fact, until this year, Erin and I have rarely paid a bill late. Erin deserves most of the credit for this, because spending money on stupid things has always been a weak spot for me, and most of the time she has handled the bills and made it work despite her husband’s $40 fast-food binges and early-morning spending sprees on Amazon.com.

We’ve done a pretty good job of stabilizing the family finances of late, but in some respect we still live on the razor’s edge. And so I have to go back to Dad for advice. He doesn’t mind. This is HIS TERRITORY. He’s the man to ask about this stuff, just as I’m the man to ask about writing and journalism.

Still, my humility level gets amped up. That’s not bad in itself, because I can always use a good dose of humble pie.

Which brings me to my main point.

In talking to Dad about the delicate balance of paying for the kids’ private school and keeping the mortgage up to date and food on the table, he said something that floored me:

“Oh, I know what it’s like. There were a lot of those situations when (me, my brother and sister) were kids,” he said.

Excuse me. What?

But thinking back on it all, it makes perfect sense. I just think of the medical bills alone the three of us kids wracked up in the 1970s and 80s. It had to have been staggering.  

My father practically lived at his business, but I always assumed it was because he preferred to be there than at home, where my mother was usually in a rage about something.

I still think that’s somewhat true. But I think a lot of it had to do with making ends meet in a world gone mad.

Since I always assumed we were well off when I was a kid, my father clearly did a good job of shielding us from the financial ugliness.

Saturday, I called him and thanked him.

“No problem. I love ya,” he said.

Love you too, Dad.

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Coming Down The Mountain

So here I am, back in my favorite living room chair, the kids playing with Legos in front of me. I missed these guys and I missed Erin. It’s good to be home. Too bad I’m feeling down.

Mood music:

It’s not my family’s fault. I get this way after traveling sometimes. The ShmooCon conference was terrific and it was good to see a lot of security friends. But I also pushed myself to the edge by writing nine posts in my security blog (six alone on the ShmooBus ride from Boston to D.C.) and three articles on top of that. I write a lot because I enjoy it and the content at these events inspires me. But I pay a price.

So I have this coming down the mountain feeling. A blue feeling.

But it’s not a sad depression. It’s more of the tired variety. Which gets me thinking:

The other day I wrote a post about making peace with the frequent bouts of depression. I was trying to address a question a friend at the conference asked me because of her own struggles, but I wasn’t sure that I adequately got the right words out of my head.

Then I got a comment from Katherine Allen, a reader of this blog who is also a a family therapist. She put what I was trying to say into words that absolutely nail it. I’m glad she keeps up with this blog, because I always learn from what she has to say. Her latest comment is one I need to share beyond the comments section, because it addresses my friend’s question and puts the brand of blues I have now into the proper perspective:

I hear struggles like this a lot. I sit with clients and wonder about what their definition of happiness is, true lasting happiness not the giddy “sunshine and lollipops” moments that are sometimes confused with happiness. Definitely, changing expectations is a mandatory, but I like to add to that changing the definition of emotions and their validity. All emotions are valid and they all exist for a reason, we are all exposed to every one of them, from the highest joys to the deepest pains (unless of course someone is self medicating) and instead of wondering “why me/poor me” I challenge people to move to the next place of “this hurts, but what do I want to do about it?”

Small bouts of depression are normal for all of us. It is the brain’s way of demanding time, to slow down, reconsider, regroup. Yes, chronic depression is something entirely different but I don’t think that’s what the majority of people are suffering from when they express frustration like your intro does.

I’d like to also offer up the idea of redefining pain, too. I believe we should embrace pain, again not as a why me but rather as an opportunity to learn and to grow into the next higher level of development. Did you ever see Mother Theresa say “well, that’s enough for me, I think I’m good”. No. Or the Dalai Lama, or Ghandi. There is no end to the potential of growth and we are only limiting ourselves by fearing the pain associated with that growth.

As I said in my latest blog posting, therapy is hard. But it’s good too.

Very well put. Thanks, Katherine.

Hackers Are People Too

I have a bit of an anti-social streak in me tonight. Since I’m at a hacker conference in D.C., some might say I fit right in. But then those people have a narrow, bullshit view of the hacker community.

Mood music:

For those not educated in the ways of the hacker crowd, you have the good guys, who break stuff so it can be fixed and made more ironclad so the bad-guy hackers can’t exploit the holes.

It’s just a reflection of the human race itself: You have good guys and bad guys; social people and anti-social people. I have a lot of friends in this particular circle. I write about what they do because it’s my job as a security journalist. But I identify with a lot of them on a much more human level.

Many of them have spouses and kids they love dearly, like me. Many of them have struggled with their own mental health troubles, like me. Some of them have suffered from addictive behavior, like me.

To pin someone as evil or anti-social because of their work is typical short-sighted thinking. Hackers get stigmatized, just like people with mental illnesses.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the anti-social stereotype recently because in some ways I can be anti-social. Some of you will say that’s stupid because you know the talkative me. But sometimes I get awkward in a crowd, especially a party crowd. A big reason is that I’m sober and it can be tricky getting comfortable around people who are not. Last night I actually did a pretty good job of socializing, but tonight I’m skipping the big conference party. I’ve had enough temptation for one week.

It gets equally strange for me in food situations, like the sushi fiasco I wrote about yesterday. I had a conversation with my sponsor about it the other day — the fact that when you can only eat and drink certain things, it’s nearly impossible in a public setting not to display some level of anti-social behavior. If everyone in a room is eating and sucking down cocktails, the guy who isn’t eating or drinking sticks out like a wart-encrusted nose.

Adding to the awkwardness is the knowledge that people in recovery can take it so far that the program itself becomes an addiction. And when that happens, you can be one anti-social bastard.

I’ve been on a tirade about the latter group in recent weeks. But when I’m surrounded by the stuff I binged on, I can see why “recovery addicts” are the way they are. Better to approach recovery like an addiction than to go back to the junk that destroyed you.

But there’s a silver lining.

When I was a slave to my addictions I was as anti-social as you could possibly get. I preferred hiding indoors and avoiding people. I was a mess and I looked the part. I didn’t want to be seen. I hid in my room and never noticed as the place started to stink from the discarded food bags and cigarette smoke.

I lived in Lynnfield, Mass., for a couple years and I had a room that was cut off from the rest of the house, with its own bathroom. I’d let the towels pile up and grow mold. I’d cut my hair or shave my beard and leave whiskers in the sink for days. When Erin and I first started dating, that bathroom was a place she didn’t particularly like being in. Why she stuck with me after seeing the filth I lived in is beyond me. Thank God she did, though.

Today, even though I feel anti-social when I’m the sober one among folks who are enjoying alcohol, I’m still in a much friendlier place than I used to be.

I’m also lucky at events like this because this crowd understands where I’ve been and they put effort into making me feel welcome.

That’s right. Hacker types making an effort to put me at ease.

That has to surprise some people. But as you know, some people are badly under-educated about certain cultural circles. The hacking circle is one of them.

Maybe this confuses you. It confuses me, too.

I should go to sleep, but fuck it. I’m going to go downstairs and take another crack at being a little less anti-social.

Depressed But OK With It

Actually, I’m not going through a wave of depression right now. But it does come and go and I’ve had to learn how to be OK with it. A new friend who found this blog told me she’s struggling with the concept.

This post is directed toward her. It’s my attempt to answer some questions she asked me about it.

Mood music:

You mentioned that you have frequent bouts of depression medication and therapy don’t seem to touch, and that you’re at a point where you’re learning — trying to learn, anyway — how to live with it and be happy, even though you’re kind of resigned to the notion that true happiness is beyond your reach.

The answer is complicated, but it goes something like this:

First, I should mention that I still have my ups and downs and always will. Bad things will still happen, but I know beautiful things will happen, too.

My addictive personality still pins me to the wall sometimes. I’m not binge eating or drinking like I used to, but the temptation is always lurking nearby, taunting me. I’ve learned to manage my OCD pretty well, but it still escapes from its cage on occasion. My wife will testify to that.

Too much OCD out of control will almost always send me back to the depressed place.

A couple years ago I started to wonder if I’d ever understand true happiness in the face of these chronic conditions. The answer, I’ve found, is yes. Sort of.

I don’t think I’m happy in the conventional sense. But I don’t think anyone really enjoys that kind of happiness.

And that’s the problem.

We have an overdeveloped sense of what happiness is supposed to be. I call it the Happily Ever After Syndrome. We have this stupid idea that if we can just get the right job, find the right mate, accumulate the right amount of material things and have as little conflict with people as possible that we’re going to be on cloud nine for the rest of our lives.

Deep down we know that’s bullshit. But we reach for it anyway.

It’s a battle of false expectations. And when we can’t reach those expectations, it’s a huge let-down. It creates a hole in our souls that we try to fill with more material things and with alcohol, food, drugs or a combination of the three. For others, porn works, too.

That stuff makes us feel better for a few minutes, but before long we feel worse than ever.

I think that hole is still in me. But through the Grace of God it’s gotten a lot smaller.

My faith is part of it. Some people shut right down when you mention faith, but I can’t avoid the subject, because believing in a higher power and fighting tooth and nail to devote myself to Him is something that filled me with a peace I didn’t have previously.

Some people have told me it’s a waste to live that way because after death there’s nothing but darkness. OK, let’s supposed their right. I still have no regrets, because living this way is better than living with the shame I always felt when I was all about me. I’ve also noticed something about people who think I’m crazy for that: They never seem to be happy, either. But I try not to judge them. I’ve done enough wrong in my life to know that I’m in no position to do so.

That doesn’t stop me from being an ass at times, thinking I’m better than the next person. But it helps.

The biggest thing, though, is that at some point I changed my expectations. Some might say I lowered them. More accurately, I think I just discarded expectations altogether. Sometimes the expectations still swell beyond reality, but they’re much more in check than they used to be.

And through that process, I’ve discovered there is happiness. In being more accepting about the low points, I can deal with them more quickly and move on.

I used to grope around for eternal happiness in religious conversion. But some of my hardest days came AFTER I was Baptized a Catholic. I eventually found my way to abstinence and sobriety and got a pretty good handle on the OCD. But there have been plenty of sucky days since then.

I like to think of these setbacks as growing pains. We’re supposed to have bad days to test the better angels of our nature. We’re supposed to learn how to move forward despite the obstacles that used to make us hide and get junked up. When you can stay sober and keep your mental disorders in check despite a bad day, that’s REAL recovery.

This is where I consider myself lucky for having had Crohn’s Disease. That’s a chronic condition. It comes and goes. But you can reach a point where the flare ups are minimal.

It’s the same with mental illness and addiction. You can’t rid yourself of it completely. But you can reach a point — through a lot of hard work and leaps of Faith — where the episodes are minimal.

Accepting all this for what it is lets me be happy.

Prozactherapy and the 12 Steps have helped me immensely. But they don’t take the deeper pain at your core away. These things just help you deal with the rough days without getting sucked back into the abyss.

The depression I experience now is more like a flare up of arthritis or a passing headache than that desperate, mournful feeling I used to get. It’s a nag, but it doesn’t break me. It used to break me all the time.

That’s progress.

Maybe I’m not happy forever after, but that’s OK. My ability to separate the blessings from the bullshit has improved considerably in the last five years.

That’s good enough for me.

I hope someday it’s good enough for you, too.

Mental Illness and Cybersecurity

I want to flag you all to a post I just wrote in my security blog, Salted Hash, on CSOonline.com. It’s based on the opening talk at the ShmooCon security conference in Washington D.C.

The speaker, Marsh Ray, uses the fragile mental condition as the basis of a talk called “A paranoid schizophrenia-based model of data security.”

The post I wrote could easily work as a post in this blog. But the most appropriate audience this time were the people I write for in my day job.

Please check it out here, and thanks.

Never Trust a Sushi Place Built into a CVS

Last night was one of those dinner experiences that tests someone in my type of addiction recovery program.

The scene: I’ve just checked into my hotel room in Washington D.C., where I’m attending the ShmooCon security conference. I venture downstairs in search of dinner.

I run into a group of friends from the security industry and they invite me out with them for dinner. I’m glad to see them and I’m hungry, so I accept.

I have a pleasant 1/2-mile walk to the restaurant. After 14 hours riding an RV through five states, it’s good to stretch my limbs.

We arrive at the location to see a CVS drug store. On second glance, the restaurant is literally a hole in the side of CVS’s wall. But we’ve eaten at odder places, so in we go.

They keep us waiting what seems like a long time for a table that looks like it’s been clean and ready for awhile now. OK, maybe they have their reasons. And I am enjoying the company I’m with.

But it’s been a long day and I’m really starting to fade. Dinner after 8 is risky when you’ve been up since 4 a.m. One friend notes that I’m quieter than usual.

We finally sit down and I look at the menu. There seems to be very little I can eat with my food program, but I chalk it up to not being well versed with sushi. I play it safe and go for a pork dish, because it seems like the best choice at the time. It’s waaay after 9 p.m. before they put a narrow plate in front of me with two tiny skewers of pork and a bowl of rice.

Meanwhile, I look at some of the sushi dishes my friends have ordered, and I realize some of those selections would have been a much better fit for my program. I fidget with my phone, because in a situation like that I get particularly fidgety.

I sit there feeling like the dope that I am at that moment. I’m also pissed because it got too late to call my wife, who I hadn’t seen since the night before. When I’m away, we almost never miss catch-up time on the phone.

I did what I needed to do: Paid for my part of the meal and got out of there as fast as I could. 

The night ended with my program intact. But it was a reminder that when you can only eat certain things, you have to plan ahead.

A wise person once told me that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

I’ll add a new one for you: If you see a restaurant built into the side of a drug store, walk past it and choose someplace else.

The night still ended on a high note. Like I said, I enjoyed the company of my dinner companions. I got to run into some old friends later on in the hotel bar.

And I lived to fight another day.

Sometimes, that’s how I roll.

But it was a close call for a reformed compulsive binge eater.

Somewhere in New Jersey

Last time I made the drive from Boston to D.C., we got lost in New Jersey (See: A New Jersey State of Rage).

Mood music:

This time I’m not driving, so we’ll probably be fine this time.

We’re 8-plus hours into the journey. It was a slow start with the snowstorm, but we seem to be going at a good clip now. Google Maps says we have about 5 hours to go until we reach the site of ShmooCon 2011.

There are eight of us on the RV. Nobody is throwing punches yet. In fact, we’re all getting along nicely. 

For lunch we stopped at a McDonald’s. This scared me a bit, because back when my binge eating was out of control, that was the drive-thru of choice. I ordered a salad with grilled chicken dumped haphazardly on top. No bread.

So far, the sobriety and abstinence are intact.

I’ve let the OCD run wild on my security blog, though. Six posts since leaving Boston. I’m enjoying myself writing, though.

Writing is something I remain happy to binge on.

Time for a nap.