We Need Routines, Part 2

Here’s one reason February has been such a bitch: My routine has been so far off the rails that it has been hard to keep my perspective. It hurts the whole family-work dynamic. For a person in recovery, routines are beyond huge.

Mood music:

Being the restlessboredom-shunning soul that I am, I always look forward to the next trip. I always miss my wife and children during these outings, but it’s also good to get out of the normal environment from time to time. It tests you and can even rejuvenate. I’ve also learned that recovery is portable. You can take your program just about anywhere. I’ve also learned that God is with me wherever I go, and that makes it much easier to approach life in a fearless way.

Here’s the problem: Do too much of this sort of thing and you hurt yourself and those around you. That’s exactly what I did in late January and the first half of February. I went to Washington and San Francisco within a two week period and came home violently ill. Served me right, but my family didn’t deserve having to carry on while I was passed out on the couch.

I thought I had the groove of a traveling man down pat, but I was being stupid.

Last week was a lost week of sorts. I was home a lot with my family, but mentally I was pretty vacant.

But it’s a new week. I’m in the office doing routine things. This afternoon I’ll go home and do more routine things. And I’ll be happy doing it.

I started on the path back to sanity yesterday by going to Mass. Driving there in a snowstorm wasn’t sane, mind you. But by the time Mass was over I felt so happy to be back. When you travel and focus on work too much, God gets the shaft, too.

That point was driven home to me when I did another routine thing last night and went to a 12-Step study meeting.

The main topic was fear and the things addicts do because of it. People discussed how their fears — over being accepted, over an abusive, drunken spouse, over work — made them drink, drug and binge eat. I sat there silent because I’m still too early in the Big Book-study process to share at these meetings, but I had a different, stranger take on fear than the rest of the room. I’ve lived in their brand of fear, to be sure.

My problem of late has more to do with the collateral damage caused when you lose the fear that held you back. You get a big lust for life, which may sound all well and good until you realize it’s just another extreme way of living.

Extremes are like absolutes: Both have caution signs plastered all over them. You go too far in one direction and neglect other, important parts of your existence.

I’ve always been a man of extremes. I’m either badly depressed like I was last week, shut off from the rest of the world, seeing only the calamities, or I’m ON — working, playing and grabbing on to every activity I only think I can handle at the time.

The middle speed in my engine rarely works right. It’s either all or nothing, and that’s a problem that may well plague me for the rest of my life.

But I’m not giving up without a fight.

This much I know: I’m always closest to the middle gear when I follow a rigid routine. That includes three weighed-out meals sans flour and sugar, an early bedtime because I rise early, at least two 12-Step meetings a week, regular check-ins with my sponsor, regular visits to the therapist, and daily prayer. It should also include time set aside after work to catch up with my wife and kids.

This is the stuff I need to work on, and I don’t tell you all this in a search for sympathy. We all have issues to work on every day. We all have our good days and bad days. I’m nothing special. I just happen to have a blog where I can process this stuff aloud. 

The blog has become another important part of my routine.

But my use of it can become unbalanced, too.

This is just one of the crosses I carry.

But 10 of my crosses are absolutely nothing compared the Cross Jesus carried. I just forget from time to time.

Some of you think that kind of talk is nonsense.

Nobody’s perfect.

Searching for the Middle Speed

You’ve heard the old saying about addicts: They lack the middle speed so-called normal people have access to. It’s all or nothing for us, and a couple weeks ago I started to pay for it.

You could say everyone around me has been paying for it.

Mood music:

The problem comes wrapped in a blessing.

In my recovery from addiction and mental disorder, I’ve gained a hunger for all the things I used to be afraid of doing. Actually, I used to be afraid of everything: flying, work, volunteering my time for causes that would surely bite into the time I wanted to spend lying comatose on the couch.

So for the last couple of years, I’ve been off like a rocket. I go to more security shows than I used to and when I’m there I push myself hard. I help out with the RCIA program at church (I’m trying to, anyway). I write three blog entries when one will suffice.

I want it all.

Overcoming fear and anxiety has been a beautiful thing. But it carries trouble along the way.

Here’s what I’m thinking and feeling now:

I have definitely taken on too much lately, partially because of my hunger for new experiences. I want to be of service to people who are going through what I’ve gone through. I want to soak up as much time as I can with people I ignored far too much over the years. And I want to continue to work my security beat hard, because I just won’t have it any other way.

But I need to give the best of that energy to Erin, Sean and Duncan. And that means dialing it back a bit.

My dilemma has been how to do that without retreating from the world again, because I really don’t want to do that. And besides, there’s really no turning back.

It’s a parallel problem to the age-old dilemma addicts face: Moderation just isn’t an option for us. People like to say it all the time: “Why do you have to give certain things up? Can’t you just have everything in moderation?” Well, my friends, that’s the problem. Moderation is an alien concept to me. When someone leaves half the food on their plate or a half-glass of wine on the table, I just don’t get it. Period.

There is no middle speed for me. I either abstain from all flour and sugar or I eat it all. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of something old and stale. It can’t be left on the table when I’m in binge mode. I either abstain from all the wine or I drink all the wine.

So this weekend, I’ve pondered how to achieve the right balance.

I won’t lie: I’m no closer to the answer than I was when I started. I’m at a total loss, in fact.

To stop writing would be to stop breathing. And besides, my day job is to write, right?

I do the RCIA stuff because I feel I’ve been called by God to do so. But in the process of squeezing it in, I’m doing a shitty job at the task.

I CAN cut back on the travel and I’m going to do that. I still have to figure out the details, but I at least know I don’t have to travel everywhere, all the time.

I can’t stop going to 12-step meetings because that’s a simple matter of survival. If I don’t work my program, everything else is surely going to hell. That’s for certain.

So which way do I go now?

Like I said, I honestly have no idea.

But I love my family too much to let this stuff slide, so I’ll have to figure it out.

It is worth noting that this is a much better position to be in than the way it was before. Figuring out how to bring more discipline to life beats the shit out of figuring out ways to hide from it altogether. 

So don’t take this post as a complaint.

You could look at it as me thinking aloud

Expect more of this from me until I figure things out.

Maybe we’ll all learn a few things about time management in the process, eh?

New Facebook page

As part of my effort to bring discipline to how this blog is distributed, I’ve created a new Facebook page. It’s not complete, but getting there. In addition to the latest posts I will include musical selections and random questions designed to generate some useful discussion.

The page is HERE.

Please go in and “Like” it.

Thanks.

The Most Infuriating Journalist I Ever loved

The other day I had to replace a ruptured tire on my car. For a few minutes, as I pondered where to go and what to buy, I remembered that damn tire in the garage.

Mood music:

Peter Sugarman gave me that tire about a week before he choked on food, losing oxygen just long enough to render him brain dead. That was in 2004, right before the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

His death was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. After losing a brother and another close friend to suicide, the safety pin holding back my insanity was finally out.

In a way, I always expected Peter to die early. He had a lot of health challenges, and he was always in and out of the hospital. Like me, he suffered regular bouts of depression and he let the basic pests of life get to him far too much.

But damn, he was a lot of fun.

The first time I met him was my second day as a reporter for The Stoneham Sun. He was an oddball who wore a jacket and tie to go with his sneakers and sweatpants. He was rail thin with a mustache that could comfortably hide a large salmon.

He wore a a strange-looking hat over a thick mop of hair. I was absolutely certain from Day 1 that the hair was fake, but never asked about it. The first time I saw him without the hair piece was when he was comatose on a hospital bed in the intensive care unit of Lynn Union Hospital. He had a massive bruise around one eye from a fall he had taken a week or so earlier, and the only sign of life were two trembling arms that each ended in a fist.

Sugarman was another older brother who left me before I was ready.

But he taught me some important lessons along the way and — oddly enough — his death was the catalyst for me finally getting the help I needed for what eventually became an OCD diagnosis.

My friendship with Peter really blossomed over the course of 1997, though it was a year earlier when I had first met him. I was in a bad place. My best friend, Sean Marley, had recently died and I had just taken a job as editor of the Lynn Sunday Post, a publication that was doomed long before I got there. I just didn’t realize it when I took the job.

I worked 80 hours a week. To get through the pressure I binge ate like never before and isolated myself. I had no real friends at the time because no one could compete with a dark room and a TV clicker.

Peter was an exception. We were both rather miserable people back then, so we were destined to get along. That is, when we weren’t shouting at each other over the phone.

With him as my only Lynn reporter and me as an editor on the edge of a breakdown, the match was lit in a room full of gasoline.

As reporter’s go, he could be an infuriating fucker. He knew it. He loved it.

His writing could be off the wall and opinionated when I was looking for straight, objective articles from him.

He once wrote about a blind man who, instead of offering a story of inspiration and living large in the face of adversity, led a bitter existence and talked about that bitterness during his interview with Peter. I opened the story on my screen for editing and saw the headline “Blind Man’s No Bluff.” I let the headline go to print, though I shouldn’t have. But the dark side in me thought it was funny, and the higher ups weren’t paying enough attention to The Post to notice.

He would write one story after the next questioning the motives of city councilors and the mayor. He would tag along with firefighters and write glowing narratives portraying them as heroes. That would have been fine if the assigned piece called for opinion. But it didn’t, and I edited it heavily.

That Sunday, I found a voicemail from Peter. He was furious, ripping into me for letting the J-School in me take over and ruin a perfectly good piece of journalistic brilliance.

I quickly got used to getting those messages every Sunday. I even started to look forward to it.

At the same time, we became constant companions. Whenever I left my dark bedroom, it was either to be with Erin, by then my fiance, or Peter. We hung out in every coffee shop in Lynn. He showed me the dangerous neighborhoods, introduced me to the city’s most colorful characters and showed me hidden gems like the Lynn Historical Society, where I was treated to boxes of old correspondence from former Mass. Speaker Tommy McGee, a colorful pol who, like many a Speaker who followed, eventually left the Statehouse under a cloud of corruption. I wrote about the old correspondence and interviewed McGee in his Danvers condominium. I couldn’t help but like the guy.

Peter and his wife, Regina, became constant dinner companions. When I finally escaped from The Post, our friendship deepened. I still hired him for the occasional freelance article in the Billerica paper I was editing. He would show up to cover meetings wearing his colorful collection of hats, including one that had “Yellow Journalist” emblazoned across the front.

He became my favorite person to talk politics with. He was at every family gathering. He and Regina were a constant presence when both our children entered the world. They were at every kid’s birthday party. They were here for our Christmas Eve parties.

Peter was in bad health, though, and was often in the hospital. His colon had been removed long before I met him and he continued to smoke. He was also a ball of stress when traditional J-School editors were tampering with his writing. I would call him and he would rage at whoever the editor was at that moment.

I enjoyed the hell out of it. His tirades always entertained me, whether I was the target or not.

I ultimately came to understand what Peter was all about. He wasn’t in journalism to write the traditional reports people like me were taught to write. He was in it to root out the truth and help the disadvantaged. He was a man on a mission to right the wrongs he saw. And he did so cheerfully. Even when his temper flared, there was a certain cheerfulness about it.

Maybe THE MAN had won the latest round, but Peter was always certain he’d stick it to him next time. Sometimes, he did.

In the months following his death, I really started to come unhinged. The OCD took over everything. Fear and anxiety were constant companions.

I finally reached the deep depth I needed to realize I needed help. In the years that followed, I got it. It hasn’t been easy, but then I can always remember that things weren’t easy for Peter. And yet, he carried on with that warped cheerfulness of his.

I’ve tried to do the same. I’ve also come to understand the value of the writing he tried to do, and have embraced it.

I cover a topic he might not have understood or cared about. But we would have had fun talking about it anyway.

I can picture Peter grousing about my 12-step program of recovery. My understanding is that AA types infuriated him.

I would have had a lot of fun with that. 

He’d also be pissed at me today because I don’t value the political process like I used to. The older I get, the more I feel like it doesn’t matter who is in the White House.

We’d have some heated arguments about that, I bet. And they would be fun.

He probably looks down on me regularly, cussing under his breath over the insufferable self-help nut job I’ve become.

That makes me smile.

It would, after all, be a very Peter thing to do.

Learning to Adapt and Liking It. Maybe

Of all the things I’ve always been considered pretty good at — writing, drawing, etc. — one of the things I’ve never appreciated enough is my ability to adapt.

Mood music:

When OCD is out of control, adapting to change is pure hell. You want everything just so, in just the right amount and the right amount of order. Change anything and the person who loses control goes into a tailspin.

But in recovery, adapting to change is a gift I’ve only recently come to appreciate. When you finally realize you don’t have control and you surrender, it becomes easier to pull off.

I used to be terrified of job changes. I remember the day before starting at The Eagle-Tribune and the day before starting at TechTarget. I was strung out on anxiety and walked around full of depression and dread. By the time I got to changing jobs again in 2008, I had already evolved in my recovery enough that the dread didn’t come. The day before I started at CSO Magazine, I was giddy as a kid on Christmas Eve. I was learning to adapt.

Now I’m learning to adapt some more. I’m learning that my current process of distributing this blog needs to be tweaked. And I’m ready to adapt.

This form of adaptation should be easy because it requires me to do less, not more.

When my old colleague sent me a note calling me an “obsessive poster” it gave me real pause. As I mentioned yesterday, I can be obsessive in that task. There’s some publishing science behind what I do and I explained it, but I admit I am obsessive-compulsive about being part of a discussion and worrying about my words being missed along the way. It’s purely selfish, and I’m not proud of it. But I can adapt.

And so starting today, I disabled the automated tool that has made it far too easy for me to tweet and Facebook posts multiple times a day.

I’m pulling it back to three times a day: Once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening, so the blog will still be exposed to those online traffic cycles. But no more posting things every two hours, for example. That’s just me being ridiculous.

Also — eventually — I’m going to build a separate Facebook page for this blog. That way, the folks who really want it have a place to go and connections that don’t want it won’t have to suffer the barrage.

I’m not sure if the Twitter approach needs changes, but I’m open to suggestions. My security writing already goes out on a separate Twitter feed, though I still push the security content from my personal Twitter page. Do I want to make a separate feed for the diaries? I don’t know yet. But I realize it might be necessary.

LinkedIn is a much more complicated beast, because that is a purely professional social networking platform. I’m not sure how a separate OCD Diaries presence on LinkedIn, separate from my security presence, would work. Complicating matters is that A LOT of my audience on the security side reads this blog as well. I don’t want to make it harder to find.

So you see, I need to adapt this stuff to be more in tune to people’s sensitivities. I can’t change the flavor of the blog. It’s mine and I don’t write it to please people, though it is pleasing when someone gets something from it.

I can change how I deliver my posts, however. 

Ideas are welcome. The change in posting frequency starts now.

The other things will be worked out in March.

I also want to include more local music on here, but sound quality is important. So to all my musician friends, let’s talk.

Seize the day (or evening, in this case).

A Message from the ‘Obsessive Poster’

Today I got a first since starting this blog — someone on Facebook who told me he was unfriending me because of what I write here.

Mood music:

I won’t tell you the person’s name, though I will say I used to work with him at another company. Since his anonymity is intact, I’ll share the rest of the letter:

Subject: why I’m unfriending you

“Bill, I’ve grown to find your OCD posts too painful and am going to unfriend you. You realize you are an obsessive poster, I hope? I wish you luck, but I think you need help and compassion, not exposure. I have a daughter who’s mentally ill, so I am particularly sensitive to watching people flay themselves alive. I wish you all the best, really.”

Fair enough. But I have a few things to say:

First, I totally understand this man’s need to unfriend me. I don’t take it personally and I can see where my more recent posts were probably hard to read.

Since his daughter is struggling, I can understand his raw nerves, especially when I write about the challenges of my own children.

He’s a good man and I wish him and his family the very best.

Now, am I an “obsessive poster” as he says? Sure I am, though I don’t think people realize that my daily posts run on a largely automated cycle. The idea is that there are three traffic cycles in a day on social networks. Some do their online reading first thing in the morning, others at lunch, others right before dinner and the rest do it between 8 and midnight. It’s a lot like when TV networks rebroadcast certain programming a few times a day.

There’s also a lot of content coming from me from two areas: This blog and the security articles I write for my day job.

I post those things, along with the occasional amusing things my kids say or what kind of music I might be enjoying at the moment.

People either like that stuff or they don’t, and they are always free to unfriend or unfollow.

Personally, I have a low tolerance for people who constantly go to Facebook to whine about their romantic dramas or tell us everything they cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are also those who trash talk other people online, be it an ex-spouse or a friend of a friend. Those people make me sick.

But we’re all consumers, and one person’s treasure is another person’s trash.

For those who don’t know by now, here’s why I started this blog:

1.) I needed to write more as part of my own program of recovery. When you type out your feelings on paper or in a forum like this, it’s very freeing. You don’t keep stuff inside and you can move ahead more easily.

2.) I decided to go public with my struggles because:

A. I decided that for me, bringing my problems to light would make them smaller and weaker — and easier to manage. I was absolutely right.

B. I know most people suffer with their own issues and live in greater pain because it’s the sinister secret in their closet. I figured that if I came clean about my own frailties of character and more medically-based struggles, people who live that way would at least know that they don’t have to be alone, and that they can get to a better place.

Truth be told, I never expected this thing to grow as it has. Readership is increasing all the time, and I’ve received thousands of notes from people urging me to keep going.

Others ask me to cover very specific topics they are dealing with.

I always try to end a post — no matter how dark the subject — on a positive note, because for every bad experience I’ve learned there’s a way to grow and be a better person.

I don’t always pull it off, but I always try.

Also, I frequently ask you all to keep me honest.

After getting this message, I had lunch with a dear friend. My friend gave me advice on how I should make a point each week to put something upbeat in here. He also noted, correctly, that my posts have been on the darker side lately. 

But I can’t structure the blog that way. The goal was never to make it “a little something for everyone.” It never will be.

It’s the ongoing story of my struggles — successes as well as failures — with mental illness and addiction.

It’s never going to please everyone.

Sometimes, it will piss people off.

You either follow my journey because you want to, or you don’t.

For the former, I hope you will keep the communication going and ask me about specific topics you’d like me to address. I’ll never have the opinion of a good medical professional, and you always need to seek them out. But I can tell you how something affected me and what I learned from it. Hopefully, that’s something useful.

For the latter, the unfriend button is at the bottom left of my Facebook profile. Use it and we can all move on.

Thank you.

–Bill

A Visit to Duncan’s Doctor

Monday Erin and I visited with the head doctor at the medical office we’ve taken the children to since they were born. The subject: Duncan’s behavior.

Mood music:

The boy has a heart of gold and a razor-sharp wit, but as I’ve written before, winter messes with his mind as badly as it does mine. He’s always had his quirks, as we all do. Some of them are disruptive enough that we decided to have him evaluated. My family history alone was reason enough to do it.

The meeting was fascinating, frustrating, confusing and illuminating all at once.

The doctor asked Erin about her family history, then turned his glare to me. Apparently the paperwork I filled out set off most of the alarm bells in this process. I knew it was coming. I expected it.

He asked about my brother’s death, my childhood illness, the state of my parents’ mental health back in the day and how it all shaped the addictive behavior and OCD I would struggle with as an adult. My sister’s struggles also came up.

After that line of questioning, the doctor calmly told us Duncan fit all the textbook criteria of someone with ADHD. He also has some serious trouble with fine motor skills, which helps explain his penmanship.

We’ve long had our suspicions on both counts. But to hear it from a doctor’s mouth was something else.

We talked a lot about how family dynamics could really shape a kid’s struggles and how various mental disorders end up manifesting themselves. My family dynamic growing up took the mental ticks in my head and molded them into something very dark.

The doctor talked about medication. The good news: The stuff they prescribe for ADHD is extremely effective in correcting the brain’s wiring. For a few minutes, I thought that would be the road we were taking.

I wasn’t afraid.

I’ve been on Prozac for four years and know better than most that it works without wiping away my feelings and personality the way I once feared it would. One of our relatives recently worried aloud that medication would kill Duncan’s personality and turn him into something of a robot.

It’s a fair concern, but I know better. I’ve done my homework and used myself as a test case.

But what the doctor said next shattered any idea of medication — for now, at least.

He said that Duncan’s ADHD-like symptoms could also be the very beginnings of something much different — bipolar disorder, depression, maybe even OCD.

ADHD medicines can make those other things much, much worse further down the line.

The suggestion that he could have some of those other things milling about inside him really shocked me for a second. The feeling passed quickly, though.

Duncan may have his struggles. EVERYBODY HAS THEIR STRUGGLES. Tell me you’ve never had a wave of depression or been addicted to something and I’ll tell you you’re full of shit.

But Duncan is not me.

He’s his own person. And so far, his childhood has been much different than mine was.

He also has a phenomenal mother. God, I love that woman. I wish I did a better job of expressing that feeling to her more often. Between her strength and goodness and the skills I’ve picked up on the road to recovery, this kid is going to do just fine.

It won’t be easy. It never is.

Our next step is to take Duncan to a specialist. We’re also going to get him help for the motor skills problem. That may seem like a separate issue, but it’s not. He needs those motor skills to express what he’s feeling. If he can’t do it with writing or art, he’ll be tempted down the road to use his fists.

I’ve done that, and it doesn’t work.

Monday night, Erin and I talked about the appointment. Was I troubled about how my family history plays into all this?

Not really.

I never like to hear it from a medical professional, but I’ve known for a long time that this is how it’s going to be.

It’s not just Duncan, either.

Sean has more than a few OCD characteristics. When the boy gets into something, be it a computer game or Legos — especially Legos — he goes in deep and lets the activity consume him. In other words, he approaches these things compulsively.

I don’t curse the fact that the kids inherited some of my oddities. As far as I’m concerned, those quirks are part of what makes them the beautiful, precious children they are.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to purge this stuff from them. I just want them to know how to control it in ways I never could at their age.

To that end, they have a lot going in their favor: First of all, the traits they’ve inherited from their mom will be priceless weapons in whatever fights are before them. She has given them — and me — a spiritual foundation that can’t be broken.

The other big win in their favor is that I’ve gone through a lot of the pain and hard work so that they hopefully won’t have to.

I’ve developed a lot of coping tools to manage the OCD, and I can pass those skills on to them.

There’s also not as much stigma around this stuff as there used to be. There IS some, to be sure. But my kids won’t be written off as behavioral problems and tossed into a “C group” like I was. I won’t permit it.

There are no certainties in life except that we all die eventually. I can’t say Sean and Duncan will never know depression or addiction. A parent can put everything they have into raising their children right. 

But sometimes, despite that, fate can get in the way of all your hard work.

It’s not worth worrying about those unknowns, though, because you can’t do anything about it.

All I can do is my best to give them the tools I didn’t have at their age and pray for the best.

I’ll end by telling you all something you already know:

Duncan is a great kid and I love him more now than I ever have before.