Sean and Duncan Get A Lesson From The One-Armed Drummer

It started with Sean and Duncan doing what they usually do in the car — taunting each other. Sean told Duncan he has ADHD. Duncan didn’t like that.

Mood music:

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what Duncan has yet. He’s too young for an accurate diagnosis. Like everyone else, he has his challenges to overcome, and we’re working with him on it. Clearly, one of my weekend tasks is to take Sean aside and explain the role he needs to play. Task 1: Stop telling Duncan he has ADHD, and stop trying to set him off.

But I started the lesson right there in the car.

“You boys have heard about how I have Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, right?” I ask.

“Yeah,” they say in unison, their tone making it clear they’ve never really understood what OCD is other than an acronym that gets tossed around the Brenner home daily.

So I explain the basics: The mind that spins out of control with worry. The chest that tightens with anxiety. The fear and addictive behavior that goes with it, and the fact that I managed to get the right treatment and am doing well now.

I tell them: “We all have our struggles. That’s mine. Duncan’s is that he has trouble focusing and channeling his emotions. And Sean, one of yours is the inability to put down one of your Star Wars Lego ships before you’ve fixed a piece that came undone. You may not have OCD like me, but that kind of obsession is definitely an OCD trait.”

I tell them there’s nothing wrong with us for having these struggles. It doesn’t make us freaks. It doesn’t make us animals. It simply makes us human.

“True, I do have an issue with that (the Legos),” Sean says.

I drive home the point that we don’t have to let these struggles hold us back. Hell, I’ve managed to enjoy a successful career in journalism despite my struggles. And, I tell them, it’s the same with people who have other ailments and disabilities.

Then a Def Leppard song comes on the radio.

I remember that the drummer, Rick Allen, lost an arm in a car wreck many years ago. That didn’t stop him from drumming. He simply taught himself to use his foot to compensate for what he could no longer do with the second arm.

The kids have been getting into my music of late, so this gives me a good opportunity to make a nice teachable moment out of this.

I call up the Def Leppard albums in my iPod and let it play for the rest of the ride.

They like what they hear. Especially the drumming.

I spring the shocking truth on them: The drummer only has one arm.

That doesn’t stop him from being a good drummer.

The kids are more subdued for the rest of the ride, in awe of what they’ve just learned.

This won’t stop them from taunting each other. It won’t stop Sean from tossing acronyms around like sticks and stones.

But it’s certainly going to make them think a lot harder about who we all are and what we’re capable of, regardless of the challenges that dog us.

OCD and ADHD Linked? Maybe

I recently wrote about our challenges with Duncan and how I often curse myself for a lack of patience with him, given my own history with OCD. This morning I came across a column from  Dr. Keith Ablow that might explain a lot.

Mood music (Still some coding weirdness with the video embedding, but the music works):

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Let’s start with a few paragraphs from Ablow’s column:

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are very different conditions, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the “bible” of psychiatric diagnoses published by the American Psychiatric Association. Yet, my clinical experience tells me they may be linked.

OCD is characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts and behaviors. A patient might complain that she “can’t stop thinking” about germs and, therefore, feels compelled to wash her hands dozens of times a day. It is as though the mind or brain is doing senseless laps around a track the person very much wants to stop running.

ADHD is characterized in part by distractibility, forgetfulness and trouble organizing. A patient might complain she “can’t focus” and never seems to finish a task. It is as if the mind cannot stay on course and complete even one lap around the track the person very much wants to run.

Different medicines (in addition to various forms of therapy) are used to treat OCD and ADHD. Obsessions and compulsions seem to yield to medications like Prozac or Effexor that boost serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. ADHD seems to improve more with stimulants, like Ritalin or Adderall.

But for several of my patients, their obsessions and compulsions seem to have developed as a counterproductive way of “dealing with” preexisting and severe attention deficit problems. Since they couldn’t select what to pay attention to, and since that meant their focus shifted painfully from one thing to another to another, their brains seem to have dropped anchor into rigid, repetitive thought and behaviors (obsessions and compulsions)—so that they began to think or do the same thing again and again and again, in order to stop the very distressing sense of drifting aimlessly.

Naturally, I find myself thinking back to childhood for evidence. I’ve written a lot about my childhood in this blog, including the parts where I believe the seeds of mental disorder were planted.

But it never occurred to me to scour the brain for times when I may have shown some ADHD tendencies.

Looking back, it’s still hard to know for sure.

I certainly had trouble focusing. I was one of the kids who went to a special class for kids who had trouble focusing. I was always daydreaming and staring out the window, but people with OCD do that, too. It’s just that we OCD types have brain-wrenching problems playing over and over in our minds. It’s not about dreams of flying pigs and fluffy clouds. Not that those things go through the mind of someone with ADHD.

I also used to imagine myself in certain scenes from movies and comic books, especially the Superman and Star Wars genres. I wrote about this in a previous post called “Hiding in Movies.” One time, in third grade, I got so carried away that I started to loudly hum the then-new theme to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which had come out that year.

“Who’s humming?” the teacher asked. In unison, half the class answered, “Bill!”

Was that some ADHD working within me? Perhaps. But I’ll never know for sure. The time to determine it was in the 1970s. We obviously can’t go back there.

I always chalked up my elementary school tutors as byproducts of all the school I missed because of the Crohn’s Disease. I needed a lot of help to keep from repeating grades 2, 3 and 4.

Fast forward to 2011, where I’m a parent of two kids. One of them, Duncan, has something going on.

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 in February 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 ofmy 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.

At this point, we have Duncan seeing a therapist we’re very happy with. Spring is here, so some of his quirks are easing off a bit.

Dr. Ablow’s column doesn’t change the game for us. But it does give us something more to think about.

Sarah Jones Memorial Service

Since writing about my old friends, the Jone family, and the death of their daughter Sarah, some readers have asked what I knew about a memorial service. This morning, Deb Jones posted some details on Facebook:

We finally have a day and a location for Sarah’s memorial service. It will be Thursday, May 5th, @ Bisbee – Porcella Funeral Home, 549 Lincoln Avenue, Saugus, MA, 01906. It is most likely going to be early evening, but I will have a definite time by either later today or tomorrow and will post it.

That is also the address for flowers.

I plan to be there. It’s the least I could do.

Over-scheduled Kids: It’s Not The Activity, It’s The Parents

I was talking to a co-worker yesterday about all the activities our kids are involved in these days. Boy Scouts. Sports. Martial Arts. Are we over-scheduling our kids these days? We couldn’t help but wonder.

Mood music (Pardon the coding gibberish around the video. There’s a glitch I haven’t figured out yet, but the music plays just fine):

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As a kid, I resisted activities like those offered at the Jewish Community Center off of Shirley Ave., Revere. I preferred walking the streets or reading comic books.

The difference between then and now is that back then I had a choice. Kids today don’t seem to have a choice.

That’s how it looks sometimes, anyway.

I hated the kids involved in all the usual activities back then, so I chose to be a loner. Smoking cigarettes under the General Edwards Bridge connecting Revere and Lynn was a much better way to spend time, I firmly believed. There was a cool network of catwalks right below street level and you could hide up there all day and do all the things a reckless kid will do.

A few years ago, my then-boss Anne Saita was telling me about all the activities she had to shuttle her daughters around to later that day. I asked why her kids were so crammed with activities. I noted that I didn’t do that stuff as a kid and I turned out OK.

“The difference is that the world is a much more dangerous place today,” she said.

I brushed it off at the time. Every parent thinks their kid is living in a more dangerous world than the one they grew up in.

Now here I am, with kids who are older, and it seems they are involved with everything. Both are Scouts, which often has us running out to meetings and activities more than twice a week. There are talent shows and plays with constant rehearsals. I see friends’ kids running to Scouts meets from their martial arts meets.

In the case of my kids, I don’t mind. They seem to enjoy it all, though there are times they lament over the lack of free, unstructured time.

I do find myself wondering about how we schedule our children’s time, though: Are we creating an environment that’s too fast and stress-filled for them in an effort to keep them out of trouble?

Are we putting them under the kind of strain that will lead to drug abuse and suicide later on?

Like most things in life, there’s no easy answer to that question.

Would I have been spared an adulthood of OCD and addiction if my time were more structured and disciplined as a kid? Probably not.

Are we damaging our kids by making them do too much now? I tend to doubt that, too. My kids certainly didn’t complain about getting to camp on a battleship for one Scouts outing.

I’m no expert, and I have no interest in peppering this post with all the research that’s available on this question, because at the end of the day, I think there’s a simpler point to make:

It’s not the activities we have to worry about. It’s us. The parents.

I look at myself and see a guy who went through a lot of rough stuff as a child. I desperately want it to be better for my children.

That’s good in that I have a golden opportunity to raise them happy and raise them right. That’s bad because as a man with OCD, there’s a real danger that I’ll push them too far. Parents have a habit of trying to live vicariously through their children and I’m no exception.

My wife is better at thinking through the schedule, so I’m thinking Sean and Duncan have a better-than-average chance at surviving a childhood of hyperactivity.

On the other hand, I’ve seen parents that push their kids to the brink all the time. God help the kids if they don’t win an award every month. God help them if they lose a game. Remember the dad who went to prison for beating another kid’s father to death over a hockey game? That’s when the activity has gone well past something fun for the kids to do and learn from.

My parents didn’t push me to do more activities as a kid. My father kept recommending I do more at the community center, but in the end I got to make the choice. My mother was too absorbed in her own world to advise me one way or the other.

It would be easy to say it was a different time and place, but I have no idea how things might have been different if I were forced to live by a more disciplined schedule.

Since the mental disorder I eventually struggled with is tied to a problem with brain chemistry, I think I would have put all the stress on myself and been a lot sicker as a result.

It’s even possible that all the unstructured, even reckless time as a kid helped me survive the adult struggles later on.

Only God knows for sure.

All I know now is that I have to keep an eye on my children’s schedule. I have to make sure they enjoy what they’re doing and that they’re learning about life in a way where they’re not stressing too much over the little things.

As a parent I can push them off the cliff, or help them build the future they want.

I’ll end this one with a request for feedback. To the readers who are parents, what is your kids’ schedule like and do you feel strongly about them having a busy schedule vs. a more unstructured one?

TV News and Depression: How I Learned To Turn It Off

I find myself increasingly outraged at what I see on the TV news channels lately. I’m not talking about the news itself, but the way it’s presented with loud graphics, dramatic music and louder newscasters.

To watch CNN, Fox News, MSNBC or any number of local news affiliates is to be rattled. And, in fact, before I learned to turn it off, I couldn’t take my eyes away. It took an already depressed, out-of-control person and made him three times worse.

Mood music:

I should probably laugh it off and move on. But the fact of the matter is that this stuff used to leave me a crippled mess.

When you have an out-of-control case of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you latch onto all the things you can’t control and worry about them nonstop. Nothing feeds that devil like the cable news networks. I’ve written before about the anxiety and fear I used to have over current events. I would think about all the things going on in the world over and over again, until it left me physically ill. I personally wanted to set everything right and control the shape of events, which of course is delusional, dangerous thinking.

Right after 9-11 I realized the obsession had taken a much darker, deeper tone. This time, I had the Internet as well as the TV networks to fill me with horror. Everyone was filled with horror on 9-11, obviously, but while others were able to go about their business in a depressed haze, I froze. Two weeks after the event, I refused to get on a plane to go to a wedding in Arizona. Everyone was afraid to fly at that point, but I let my fear own me. It’s one of my big regrets.

Part of the problem was my inability to take my eyes off the news. To do so for a five-hour plane ride was unthinkable. To not know what was going on for five hours? Holy shit. If I don’t know about it, I can’t control it!

I really used to think like that.

The start of the War on Terror brought out the rock-bottom worst in TV news. Every possible danger, no matter how unsupported by facts, was flashed on the screen with the urgency of imminent doom. I remember how Wolf Blitzer of CNN used the word “alarming” just about every night as the analysts discussed the hundred different ways the terrorists could really kick us in the balls next time:

— Releasing smallpox back into the air

–Detonating a nuclear device in front of the White House

–Diving planes into nuclear power plants.

In a time when the right answer would have been to hold our heads up and show the bad guys we don’t hide in the face of danger, this stuff brought out the worst in us, especially an already emotionally sick guy like me.

It didn’t have to be matters of war and peace, either.

In the weeks leading up to the 2004 presidential election, all the TV news commentators could talk about was the last election and how there was growing fear that a repeat of the electoral deadlock of 2000 would repeat itself.

Analysts talked about all the glitches that could happen as if they were watching a knife go into their chest. Already consumed by fear and anxiety, I freaked over this, too.

A year later, right after Hurricane Katrina hit, TV news stations felt the need to go over every conceivable disaster that might wipe us out next: Bird flu, nuclear plant meltdowns, earthquakes and other unpredictable events. It made a mess of me.

I can’t pinpoint the exact period where I decided this stuff no longer had meaning to me, but I think it was around the time I started taking the right medication for OCD in early 2007.

All of the sudden, I didn’t care as much about watching the news. I simply lost interest. And I’ve been a lot happier as a result.

The timing may be a coincidence. My Faith also started to deepen around that time, and the more I learned to trust God and let go of the things I couldn’t control, the more meaningless CNN’s loudness became.

Today, I’m as addicted to the Internet as I used to be to the TV. But I don’t really watch the news online. I’ll quickly glance over the headlines and maybe stick around if a political analysis intrigues me enough. But I’m much more likely to get sucked into all the music videos available on YouTube or who is saying what on Facebook and Twitter. That too is something I know I need to be careful of, but it’s fair to say that that stuff doesn’t send me into shock and panic like CNN and Fox used to.

Somewhere along the way, as I watched news reports of bomb explosions and natural calamities half a world away, I looked up and realized everything outside my living room window was tranquil and uneventful.

I’ve operated on that mindset ever since.

Call me apathetic or ignorant. Tell me I’m in denial.

All I can tell you is that things in the world look much different to me now than they did just a few short years ago.

Who We Were/Who We Are

Last night I fell asleep while leafing through my high school yearbook. I’m connected to a lot of old classmates on Facebook, and it’s funny how different many of us are now.

It’s no surprise, of course. We have to change. In appearance and in mindset. That’s what we do. Yet we still fixate on the old days sometimes.

Mood music:

I came across pictures of folks I never talked to in high school. Then there are those I knew but didn’t like. That’s OK, because they didn’t like me either. A few classmates are no longer with us.

It’s odd and cool that I’m friendly today with people I didn’t like back then.

I spend a lot of time getting nostalgic in this blog. I’ve written about Revere a million times. I used to want to go back to those days, as bad as some of those days were, because for awhile there I was skinny and had long hair. We tend to remember how we looked and not necessarily how we felt.

I guess it’s easy to understand why I wanted to go back to the 1980s when I was a perfect mess in my late 20s. When you’re a mess in the present, you tend to forget that things were as bad or worse in the past. You want to be anywhere than where you are.

But I don’t feel that way anymore.

Why the hell would I ever want to go back now?

If I were walking up the street and I encountered the 20-year-old me, I wouldn’t like the kid. I’d marvel at his stupid views of the world and his tendency to talk trash about his dad, even though his dad kept a roof over his head. I’d laugh at the fringe leather jacket and the skull rings. I was a pretentious little bastard.

And for all the pretending and efforts to look cool, it never got me anywhere with the opposite sex. Not in high school, anyway.

I like the 40-year-old me much better. I’m bald and thicker around the middle, but I’m real. And I’m not quite as thick in the middle as I was a few years ago.

I know who I am and I am who I want to be: A husband, a dad, and a writer.

I have a wife and two kids who don’t really care what I look like as long as I’m good to them.

Looking at the other kids in the yearbook, I picture older, wiser people who I see as friends today. I used to pick on one girl for getting pregnant in high school and wasting her future. She married the guy she was with in high school and they had more children. One child died too early. But they’re a loving family.

Another kid was nothing but a punk to me. The message he scrawled in my yearbook was so mean a teacher who saw it took white out to the page. Today, that dude is a close friend.

Looking at who we were in the yearbook and who we are today, I think most of us should be proud.

We didn’t grow up to be perfect and, in many cases, we didn’t grow up to be rich. But through all the aging and all the pain that we all go though between age 20 and 40, we’ve gained something much more precious: a purpose.

We’re parents who get a chance to raise kids who might eclipse us in a variety of ways. Our work, however unimportant it may seem sometimes, could end up helping people we’ll never meet.

We’re still young enough to change a few things we still don’t like about ourselves. Maybe it’s extra unwanted weight. Maybe it’s the career. If 40 is the new 20, we have plenty of time to make changes.

The way I see it, as long as we never lose our ability to change, there’s hope for us all.

Changing. Adapting. Getting stronger and better.

It’s who we are now. And it’s much cooler than who we were.

Dueling Priests: A Religious Adventure

You would think everyone could get along at church. But, it turns out, people get as political and competitive as they would in the corporate setting. Here’s why these human imperfections actually strengthen my faith.

Mood music:

First, a little history: In September, our beloved pastor, Father Dennis Nason, passed away, leaving a gaping hole in the church community. The parochial vicar, Father Michael Harvey, performed practically every Mass from that point until a new pastor, Father Tim Kearney, joined the parish in late January.

I like Father Kearney a lot. He’s a hands-on kind of guy. He personally directed a Passion play Sean performed in on Palm Sunday and took an active role in the R.C.I.A. (Right of Christian Initiation for Adults) group I helped out with this year. He’s very good with the kids. He remembers names. That’s what I want in a pastor.

Father Harvey is much more conservative in his approach to Mass. He doesn’t like dramatizations of the Holy Word at all. A couple years ago he changed the Easter Vigil Mass around so lectors had straight readings instead of the different lines for God and the three narrators that had been in place before. Father Kearney put the lines back in this year. One one hand, I always thought Biblical dramatizations were a good thing. It brings the Word of God to life for younger folks in ways a simple reading won’t pull off. In this age of Web 2.0 and superior computer graphics, it takes a lot to suck a kid in at church.

That said, I really like Father Harvey, too. He’s fabulous with the kids and spends hours upon hours at the school. I also respect the rigor he puts on himself. He talks often about not being a particularly nice guy when he was younger. I think he’s been beating himself hard over that ever since becoming a priest. The thing is, it leads to some very inspiring homilies. He’s also a very gentle, mild-mannered guy. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says, as I make clear in this older post. I also bristle when he gets uncomfortable with Duncan’s pink hat and overall love affair with the color. You’d think it was a gender or sexual orientation instead of just a color.

But in the bigger picture, I think the clashing styles of these two priests is good for the church. Father Kearney’s approach will reach a lot of younger people — not just children, but 20-and-30-somethings who might be enticed to come to church again. Father Harvey’s approach satisfies the more conservative part of the church. Together, they can serve a wider collection of families and individuals.

But not everyone is happy with this new dynamic.

For the folks who had taken on a lot of extra work between pastors, Father Kearney’s hands-on style is uncomfortably jolting to those who were used to Father Nason’s more laid back approach.

Meanwhile, some parishioners are getting prickly over Kearney’s longish homilies, especially during Lent. Some Masses ran late, which really gets to those who think there’s an 11th Commandment: Masses Shalt Not Last More Than 1 Hour.

It never takes much to rattle a parish. People get set in their ways and are easily scandalized by anything new and different. People who have had certain roles for many years don’t want to give up their turf. They know what’s best, and everyone else is a dope who should keep to themselves. They absolutely hate being told what to do, especially when a suggested change of tactic is implied.

Some would say the church deserves this because of past injustices like the priest sex abuse scandal. I know one guy who refuses to go to confession because he confessed his sins to a priest that was later convicted and imprisoned for sexual misconduct.

For those of us who have Faith, hanging on to it can be a real bitch. We constantly let human personalities and Earthly struggles get between us and Jesus. I’ve done it many times.

For years after my best friend died in a suicide, I wasn’t receptive to anything a priest had to say. Suicide is supposed to be a one-way ticket to Hell, and I didn’t want to believe that my friend was going there for being mentally sick and not even close to being in his right mind. For a very long time, I got more comfort in  my addictive impulses than in anything related to faith.

We constantly hear about people leaving the church, and sometimes it feels like priests would do just about anything to get people to come back. You see elaborate campaigns like “Catholics Come Home” and run into priests who don’t want to offend anyone over anything. One of the things I’ve always liked about Father Mike is that he doesn’t care who he offends. The word of God is the way it is. Period.

But to me, a guy who only recently learned what it means to Let Go and Let God, the biggest problem is that we all let our egos get in the way.

We place personality over everything else.

We’ll grab onto any excuse to stop trying to be good Christians. The sex abuse scandal was a perfect example, though I personally believe you’d have to be whacked in the head not to have been outraged by that. Nothing shakes a person’s faith from its moorings like anger and rage.

That’s our big challenge, to remember every day that it all comes down to one simple thing: The relationship we as individuals have with God.

It should be a relationship impervious to human bickering, though it never really is.

I consider myself lucky. A few years back, I’d let everything to do with church politics consume me with rage and worry. In working the 12 Steps of Recovery, I’ve learned that the only way to move forward is to let that stuff go. My ego still resurfaces periodically to mess it all up, but for the most part I’m getting the hang of this “surrender” thing.

The other thing, and this might reveal a sinister side of me, is that I enjoy a good clash of personalities. A little drama is always entertaining, and I like seeing people with widely differences forced into a small space where the only way they can survive is to work together.

The best of what’s in us can come out in those circumstances.

In the end, I think the priests in my parish will have to learn how to work together. It’s their problem to work out.

In time, I think they will.