Duncan And I Need A Trail Of Post-It Notes To Get Through The Day

Things are rough in the Brenner household lately. Duncan’s ADHD is running hot, and so is my OCD. The resulting FUBARs are probably entertaining to the outsider, but it’s quite possible that Erin and Sean are ready to kill us.

Mood music:

The back-to-school grind is great in that the kids needed to get back to their routine. But by the time Duncan gets home he’s fried. Not good when there’s homework to do. He can’t focus, and we need to stand over him so he’ll do the homework. When I’m in OCD mode that’s not easy, because all I can think of are the chores that need to get done.

Duncan has also developed something of a persecution complex. If Sean or one of the neighborhood kids don’t want to do what he wants to do, they’re out to get him as far as he’s concerned. With other kids in general, he’ll inevitably find something to get indignant about.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. Nothing awful, just the everyday challenges of life. The problem here is that I go into a zone where I can’t hear what people are telling me and I leave things lying around the house.

I wouldn’t describe these things as bad. It’s just stuff Duncan and I need to keep working on. We’re both still a lot better than we were a couple years ago.

I am starting to think the two of us would benefit from a trail of post-it notes. When I start going into a chore frenzy, a few well-placed post-it notes telling me to focus back on Duncan might do the trick. For Duncan, a trail of notes reminding him to change his clothes, do his homework and stop punching his brother might work.

Or not.

When I lose patience with Duncan, four words ring in my head: “You of all people.”

I of all people should be patient with Duncan. I was a problem child on a much deeper, darker magnitude than him. He’s a good boy. I should be a lot calmer when he has his meltdowns and gets uncooperative. Because I’ve been in his shoes. And yet I’m not patient with him at all.

I’ll just have to keep working hard at it.

Because he’s a beautiful kid, and he deserves that from me.

Depressed? Drink More Coffee

People often shudder over the amount of coffee I down each day. Even after I point out that it’s the only vice I have left, they still look at me like I’m nuts. But I’ve found new allies at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

My new academic friends say those who drink two or three cups a day have a 15 per cent lower incidence of depression than those who rarely do so. Their point of view is captured nicely in this article from  , medical correspondent for The Telegraph. He writes:

Although they emphasised the study did not prove that caffieine protected against depression, they noted that there appeared to be a “dose-dependent response”. That is, those who drank the most coffee tended to suffer the least from depression. For instance, those who consumed drinks containing 550mg or more caffeine a day – equivalent to four or more cups – had a 20 per cent lower risk of depression than those who barely drunk any.

Michael Lucas and colleagues looked at more than 50,000 healthy women, whose average age was 63, and followed them for a decade. They estimated their caffeine consumption in all types of drink, via questionnaire, and then looked for new cases of depression. Writing in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, the authors noted that in the study group “cases of depression decreased in a dose-dependent manner with increasing consumption of caffeinated coffee.”

Some personal perspective…

Binging on a $35 bag of McDonald’s junk between work and home and walking through the door in a zombie-like state, feeling like the lowest of the low.

Realizing that I HAD to have a glass of wine at the end of the day or, better yet, all afternoon on a Sunday, the glass filled to the brim.

Dreaming up all kinds of ways to hide the money I was spending on both. In other words, lying to everyone about what I was up to — including myself. [More on that in The Liar’s Disease]

That was the real self-destructive stuff. I kicked the first habit by cutting all flour and sugar from my diet and putting all my food on a little scale. The second one was easier to kick, because even at its worst, that addiction was far less damaging than the flour-sugar kind.

I’m both sober (from alcohol) and abstinent (from compulsive overeating) and I work the 12 Steps of Recovery.

But quitting coffee? No way in hell I’m going to do that.

I drink it all day. I like it strong and bitter, and if there are grounds spinning in a circle at the surface, I’m fine with that. Even when I put cream in, it still looks black to the naked eye. I love it so.

My favorite routine is to get up at 4 a.m., brew a cup and let it seep into my bloodstream as I look out the living room window, sitting in my favorite chair, watching the sun come up. By 9 a.m., I’m on the second cup.

I prefer Starbucks, though Peets and Panera brew some good stuff as well.

On some of my work-at-home days, I can be found in the Starbucks up the street, using the place as my own caffeinated office.

When traveling, one of the first things I do is find where the coffee is at. By the way, there are a lot of great coffee shops in Washington D.C.

Why the obsession with coffee? Well, the easy answer is that I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and chances are I’m always going to latch onto something. The trick is to latch onto the things that are most harmless to me, my family and everyone else. Caffeine is one of those things.  Sure, there’s the risk that I’ll overdo it and end up in an emergency room with my heart trying to rip its way out of my chest.

When I was around 20, I thought a great way to lose weight was to drink as many cups of black coffee as I could squeeze into a day. It was good for weight loss, but that kind of weight loss is only temporary. And breathing into a paper bag to calm down at the end of the day got old fast.

What works for me now is to sip slowly. Guzzling is the path to heart palpitations, so I avoid that.

Sometimes, when I’m on the road, I switch over to Red Bull in the afternoon. I’m not as big a fan of the stuff, but it helps to dull the edge I get from seeing all the free booze and food flowing around me.

Yes, I’m letting something control me. Yes, I’ll probably have to stop someday. But not today.

Of all the addictions I have, it remains the least harmful. And if it keeps me away from the stuff that really pushes my life into a downward spiral, so be it.

Besides, I have some Harvard smarties backing me up.

Steve Clark Lost His Battle But Helped Me With Mine

I’ve been listening to a ton of Def Leppard this week. It started when I caught two documentaries on the making of “Pyromania” and “Hysteria” on Youtube. I’m remembering what this band did for me during my troubled teenage years.

Mood music:

One of the big points in both documentaries is that those albums wouldn’t have been the classics they became without the late guitarist Steve Clark. When we think of this band, we tend to think of Rich Allen, who showed us all how to overcome adversity when a severed arm failed to stop him.

Steve Clark is remembered for losing the fight against his demons. Alcohol took over his life and destroyed him. I remember the day he died in 1991. My friend Denise, an equally passionate Def Leppard fan, called me with the news as if she were reporting a death among our friends.

Looking at these two documentaries, I have a renewed appreciation for the songwriting he brought to the band. Without question, I can credit his riffs for helping to keep me from going over the edge in my formative years.

It’s sad how the demons took advantage of his gentle nature. As Rick Allen says in the “Hysteria” documentary, “Personal situations took him to a place that was very dark. I think there was a part of him that didn’t want to be here.”

I’m glad he got to help make those first four Def Leppard albums before the demons got him, because I don’t know what would have happened to me without those albums to sooth me through the death of a brother (also a Def Leppard fan, by the way) and the alienation I often felt in junior high and high school. I could have lost myself in drugs and alcohol. Instead I listened to Def Leppard. I listened to a lot of hard rock, but they were one of my favorites next to Motley Crue.

My favorite album is actually the second one to come out after his death, “Retroactive.” Though he didn’t get to play on it, his presence is all over those songs, most of which he helped write. It’s a collection of songs that were first released as B-sides or were meant for Hysteria but didn’t make the final cut.

His riffs are as clear as if he were playing them himself. I’ll end with two songs off that album that really capture his essence and simply thank him for the music he gave me when I needed it most.

Finish What You Started

Funny thing about people who suffer from serious mental illness: They tend to make all these big plans but never really follow through with anything.

I don’t fault them. For one thing, they have an illness. Also, I used to be just like them.

Watching the start-stop-start-thud behavior of a friend is reminding me of what I used to do. My friend, who I won’t name, always has some big plans afoot. There was the plan to go half way around the world to film a documentary that was downgraded to a book project when the better thing to do in the face of technical difficulties was to collapse in despair and quit. The book project never got off the ground.

There was the plan to relocate to another state to teach that was somehow downgraded to various odd jobs that ended quickly over petty disagreements.

Then there was a return home to do more educational work that ended after less than three months.

There are plenty of reasons why these things happen. Sometimes a person is simply plagued by all kinds of bad luck. But when mental illness is at work, all of life’s curve balls become overwhelming, seemingly insurmountable calamities.

In college my great passion was to be a great journalist. Every class I took and every side activity I did was devoted to that goal. I rose far and fast in my first reporting and editing jobs, and the ultimate goal was to be a top editor for a daily newspaper. I got the night editor job at The Eagle-Tribune and that quickly turned into an assistant editor job for the paper’s New Hampshire editions.

Then my fear and anxiety started to surface. I had a difficult boss. The hours were brutal. Whenever a really big news story was unfolding I’d start to feel cold panic, even though I wasn’t one of the reporter’s running to the scene. A couple of my projects ran into trouble, and I started to seriously believe that I was no longer capable of coming up with a good idea and following through on it.

I lasted another couple years in the job but did nothing of any real importance. I started to dream up the next big chapter of my life: A writing job of some sort in the healthcare field. I was so overwhelmed with my disease that I felt like I’d be making a hell of a dent in the world by working for a hospital or some other health organization. Jobs in that industry proved hard to find, so I seriously started considering jobs that had nothing to do with any of my dreams and goals. I thought about joining the U.S. Postal service and actively looked into what it would take.

A week later I was talking to my father and step-mother about returning to the family business. Surely, I thought, I could do great things there with all the management skills I had learned as an editor. I could make it more than the obscure job I remembered throughout high school and college by starting up a couple charities. Surely, Dad would pay me to spend all my time on that.

That grand plan lasted about two weeks. My father brought me back down to reality by telling me he didn’t have any open positions. Thank God he threw cold water on me. Otherwise, I might have gone backwards instead of forward.

Things ultimately worked out. I got a job writing about cybersecurity — a topic I’m passionate about to this day — and I’ve kept at it. The reason, I think, is that I finally reached a point a few months into that job where I knew I had some deep issues I had to deal with. My emotional and spiritual growth has run a parallel course with my career and it has made all the difference.

I’m told that I was always a stubborn kid who would decided to do something and stick with it hell or high water until I reached the prize. When I wanted to lose weight I would focus in on it like a laser beam and throw myself into diet and exercise until I was thin. I got there by some unhealthy means, mind you. But that’s another story. The bottom line is that I did what I felt I had to do to get where I wanted to be.

That stubborn resolve definitely served me well early in my career as I clawed my way into the news business. And it served me well when I decided to start doing something about the problem that was eventually diagnosed as OCD.

But the fear and anxiety certainly sent me off course several times along the way.

I was lucky, because I’ve usually regained my footing just in time, or smarter people would stop me from making dumb moves, like going back to the family business.

Some are not as lucky. They set goals that look insurmountable the second fatigue and frustration set in. I really feel for them.

I hope my friend is able to snap out of it.

Art by Bill Fennell

Midwest Center For Fraud And Bullshit: Epilogue

When I wrote about spending $450 on the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety program designed to help people defeat anxiety and depression, I had no idea that it would strike nerves the way it has.

The post, written on Jan. 2, 2011, is easily the biggest traffic generator of this blog on a daily basis. Some days it gets so many page views that I’m left dumbfounded.

It has also gotten by far the most comments of any post. Some of the comments defend the program. The vast majority are from people who had equally bad experiences.

Since comments are always tacked to the bottom of a post, they are often overlooked. I’m writing this follow up specifically so you will go back and read what people have had to say.

To be clear, I’m not on a crusade against the Midwest Center. I had a bad experience. Others say the program helped them tremendously. Everything in this blog is a retelling of my own experiences and lessons. The posts are laced with my opinion. But you can never really learn all you need to know off of one person’s point of view. I’m just one guy.

As my friend Joy noted last time I saw her: “Everyone has a story or ten.”

Very true.

I’ll end here and direct you to that post about a time when I was so desperate I’d spend stupid sums of money on anything to remove my fear and anxiety.

Remembering Cliff Burton, Metallica’s Original Bassist

I couldn’t let the day go by without acknowledging a grim anniversary. Twenty-five years ago today, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was killed when the band’s tour bus flipped over on a lonely road in Sweden.

Mood music: 

The band’s first three albums had a huge impact on me, and I wrote about it a few months ago. To honor Cliff today, I want to share that post here:

Crohn’s Disease and Metallica

Posted on March 4, 2011

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” album. Which reminds me: It’s nearly the 25th anniversary of my last major attack of Crohn’s Disease.

It might seem bat-shit crazy of me to intertwine these two things, but the fact is that the “Master of Puppets” album is probably what helped me get through that attack. That, and the book “Helter Skelter.” I read that book twice as I lingered on the couch, rising only for the frequent bloody bathroom runs that are the hallmark of Crohn’s flare-ups.

But man, I listened to Master of Puppets nonstop. It tapped right into the anger I was feeling as a 16-year-old still reeling from his brother’s death and under theinfluence of Prednisone.

I had plans back then. I was going to lose 30 pounds, grow my hair long and find myself a girlfriend. I was going to live a life closer to normal. Not that I knew what normal was back then. As an adult, I’ve learned that normal is a bullshit concept, really. One man’s normal is another man’s insanity.

When the blood reappeared and the abdominal pain got worse, I wasn’t worried about whether I’d live or die or be hospitalized. I was just pissed because it was going to foul up my carefully designed plans.

When I listened to the title track to Master of Puppets, the master was the disease — and the wretched drug used to cool it down.

“The Thing That Should Not Be” was pretty much my entire life at that moment.

I related to “Welcome Home: Sanitarium” because I felt like I was living in one at the time. I was actually lucky about one thing: Unlike the other bad attacks, I wasn’t hospitalized this time.

Though Master of Puppets came out in March 1986, it was that summer when I really started to become obsessed with it. At the end of that summer, the Crohn’s attack struck. The album became the soundtrack for all the vitriol I was feeling.

That fall, as the flare-up was in full rage, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a bus accident in Europe. It felt like just another body blow. I found this band in a time of need, and a major part of the music was ripped away.

I recently found a track of “Orion” where Cliff’s bass lines are isolated. It puts my neck hair on end every time I play it.

Though Crohn’s Disease is something that sticks with you for life, that was the last brutal attack I suffered. I’ve had much smaller flare ups since then, but only days-long affairs and nothing that kept me confined to bed.

It still manifests itself in other ways. If my eating goes off the rails, I’m much more susceptible to irritable bowel syndrome. Too much information? Perhaps. But for those who need to watch for the signs in themselves and loved ones, it’s important.

If I feel joint pain, which I do once in awhile, that’s partly the Crohn’s Disease manifesting itself. People think it’s exclusively a disease of the colon, but it’s more than that.

In later years, some of the mental illness and addictive behavior was easily traced back to the childhood illness. The experience left me with some deep insecurities about what I could and couldn’t do, and instilled in me a biting fear of the unknown.

Given the severe food restrictions that were part of the treatment, I was destined to become a binge-eating addict.

With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that a lot of the same treatment I’ve had for OCD and binge eating has all but eliminated the Crohn’s symptoms.

Getting rid of flour and sugar and weighing out my portions has led to a lot less pain.

I know it’s not gone and never will be. Another bad flare up is not out of the question. I’m also a prime target for colon cancer later on. For that reason, I have to have colonoscopies every one to three years. My colon is a tube of scar tissue.

I have a theory that the Crohn’s has been mostly dormant all these years for the simple reason that it ran out of colon to attack. It attacked so thoroughly that the scar tissue formed a protective layer.

That’s probably not true, but it’s not an entirely unreasonable theory either.

I’ll just thank God some more that I’ve been spared the agony in recent years.

And I’ll listen to Master of puppets some more.

File:Cliff Burton Memorial.PNG

Irish Alzheimer’s: Looking For The Cure

Alzheimer’s Disease is a terrible thing. I’ve known some precious souls trapped within that mental prison over the years, and it’s one of the saddest things to behold. But there’s another mental prison we all find ourselves in from time to time.

The late Father Dennis Nason, former pastor of my church, described it as Irish Alzheimer’s. Simply put, you forget everything but the grudges.

I’d like to tell you I don’t suffer from it, but I’d be lying.

The difference between me today vs. the me of yesterday is that I used to adore my grudges. I was faithful to them and reveled in them. Now, when I catch myself in the middle of a grudge feeding frenzy, I’m ashamed.

Grudges used to be cool to me. Zeroing in on someone else’s faults made me feel so much better about myself. In all the darker episodes of my life I’ve looked for others to blame. It doesn’t work so well for me anymore.

The ability to hold grudges goes back to the inability to stop judging other people.

We have an irresistible urge to compare ourselves to other people. If we feel like shit because of what our lives have become, we want assurances that what we have is still better than the next guy. If we come from a family of drama queens, we want assurance that some other family is ten times as bad.

In that toxic mix, we hold onto hard feelings. When the bad feelings harden into stone, you have a grudge.

I used to hold grudges against various family members for what I considered to be their wrongs against me, forgetting that I had been as bad to them at times. I forget about all the shitty things I’ve done when I focus in on my problem with other people. A good grudge helps you forget the pain over your own failures.

It’s an escape from personal responsibility.

When it becomes hard enough to look at your own reflection, you pick up that stone and throw it through the glass. Break the glass and you don’t have to see your reflection anymore.

Gather up too many of those stones and the weight becomes too much to carry. That’s where I’ve found myself in recent years. So I’ve set about throwing the stones away. The problem is that sometimes, it feels so good to clutch ’em and throw ’em.

Yesterday I wrote about being a control freak. That condition is ideal for nurturing grudges. Whenever I tried but failed to control things, there was always someone to blame. Family members. Work colleagues. Whenever I tried to make sense of a friend or family member’s untimely death, I zeroed in on people I could blame.

But the buzz of a good grudge never lasts for long, and when it dissipates I feel like I’m in more pain than I was in before.

I’m no different than a lot of people in this regard. But I look for a cure every day. I’m going to keep looking until I find it. When I do, I’ll share the secret with you.