Slaying Old Fears In The Hollywood Hills

This week I’ve been in Los Angeles on business. But I’ve been slaying some old demons while here.

Mood music:

Let’s go back 20 years — July 1991 — when I came out here with Sean Marley on my first trip to the west coast. I didn’t really want to go because I was afraid of everything and everyone. But Sean was red hot about the idea, and back then I was always out to impress the man. So off we went, on a 10-day California trip that would take us as far north as Eureka and as far south as Los Angeles. We lived in the rental car the whole time except for L.A., where we stayed in a friend’s apartment.

In L.A., we hooked up with a guy who used to live in the Point of Pines in Revere. I didn’t remember him, but he and Sean were tight as kids. Michael was his name. Michael took us to visit a couple of his friends who were living the stereotypical Hollywood lifestyle. They had a band, but sat in their cramped bungalow all day, surrounded by towers of empty beer cans and cigarette boxes, watching all the bad daytime TV they could feast their eyes on.

One of them asked me where we were from. The Boston area, I told him.

“Dude,” he said through the cloud of cigarette smoke encircling his head. “That’s a pretty long way from here.”

The statement filled me with more terror.

A pretty long way from here. From my safe place in the basement apartment at 22 Lynnway, Revere, Mass.


That’s pretty much what the trip was. Sean ate it all up and had the time of his life, despite me.

I didn’t know back then that I suffered from OCD-induced fear and anxiety. I was still many years away from the therapy, medication and spiritual conversion. I had no idea what the 12 steps were when I was 21. Too bad, because I SHOULD have had the time of my life on that trip, too.

But that’s what fear does. It robs you blind. Robs you of everything that should make life worthwhile.

Fast-forward to the present. I’m back in LA on business. But I decided I was going to do a few things I couldn’t do last time I was here because of the fear.

I rented a car and drove all over Los Angeles and went as far south as Orange County, using the same freeways that scared the daylights out of me back then.

Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills

I took walks all over the place and mingled freely with people — something else I was afraid to do before.

I went deep into the Hollywood Hills and drove to some old murder sites because as a kid these places left me obsessed and afraid. The Manson Murders was particularly scarring on my young mind. From the first time I saw the TV movie “Helter Skelter” in the late 1970s through the first time I read the book from beginning to end in the 1980s it’s been the stuff of nightmares. That has fed the obsessive part of me. I read that book two or three times a year and knew exactly where every murder scene was before setting foot on the plane.

So I traveled to Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered, and Waverly Drive a half-hour away, where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered the following night.

Behind that gate, Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by minions of Charles Manson

Cielo Drive, as seen from across the canyon. The house at the far left replaced the house where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered

On the second night of terror, minions of Charles Manson went to this house and murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca

I also visited the scene of the Wonderland Murders.

Scene of the Wonderland Murders

Along the way, I visited the Sunset Strip, the cradle of Rock ‘N Roll History.

Every band that ever mattered played here

Motley Crue lived here for nine months in 1981-82. Parts of the Shout at the Devil album were written here

Driving in strange places scares me less and less the more I do it. This was a big step in slaying the old fears.

The scary glow of the Manson Murders was also dimmed considerably this trip. When you look across the canyon to where the Tate-Polanski house once stood, the scene is peaceful. Driving to the gate of where the murders happened killed the mystique for me.

I think I’ll put the old “Helter Skelter” book away now.

The lesson of this post is that facing fears is sometimes the only way to slay them. I did the hardest work on myself long before this trip. But the journey has been the icing on that cake.

When you learn to manage your fears, a whole new world is opened up before you.

When Being Smart Becomes A Burden

Our oldest has an intellect well beyond his 10 years. He absorbs details with little effort and I can’t remember the last time he DIDN’T achieve high honors. But sometimes I forget that he’s still a kid.

Mood music:

He likes to tell us he’s a tween. To that, I tell him he’s more like a half tween.

But he is mighty mature for his age, nothing like the immature, messed up kid I was at 10. I’m proud as hell of him for that, but I think I sometimes put to much pressure on him as a result.

We spend a lot of time working with Duncan to manage his ADHD. Making matters more complicated, Duncan recently broke his arm, which means even more attention for the younger brother.

I sometimes wonder if, in that craving for order I sometimes get when my OCD is running hot, I put the greater burden on Sean because getting a mess cleaned up quickly is more important to me than making sure they each do their fair share. Since it can be hard sometimes to get Duncan to do what I want when I want, I immediately turn to Sean.

I’m starting to see it for the unfairness that it is.

Ironically, though I had nowhere near the intellect Sean has, I can still relate to the very pressure he might be feeling.

I started my life as the youngest of three kids, the proverbial baby of the family. Michael was the oldest, and in the Brenner family much has always been expected of the oldest son.

My father was the middle child of his generation, but he was the only son. My grandfather, who came off a boat from the former Soviet Union with all the typical old-school values, expected the world of my father. As my grandfather descended deep into old age and illness in the mid-1960s, my father became increasingly responsible for the family business.

Growing up, my older brother became the one my father leaned on the most. Michael was encouraged to chart his own course and was studying to be a plumber. But he was expected to help out with the family business and do a lot of the grunt work at home.

I was the baby, and a sick and spoiled one at that. I came along almost three years after my sister Wendi, and by age eight I was in and out of the hospital with dangerous flare ups of Crohn’s Disease. I got a lot of attention but nothing hard was expected of me. I was coddled and I got any toy I wanted.

The result was a lower-than-average maturity level for my age. At age 10 I acted like I was 5 sometimes. I would crawl into bed with my father for snuggles, just like a toddler might do.

During Christmas 1980 — the first after my parents’ divorce — I wanted it to look like Santa had come, even though I knew by that point that he didn’t really exist. I clung hard to the delusion, because my parents played Santa all the way up to their last Christmas as a couple, when I was nine. So on Christmas Eve 1980, I took all the gifts I had already opened and arranged them as if Santa had dropped them in my living room. I even wrote a “To Billy from Santa” note. Christmas morning I got up, went in the living room and expressed all the excitement of a kid who discovers that the jolly fat guy had come overnight.

My maturity level hadn’t changed much by the time I hit 13. I probably regressed even further right after my brother died. But as 1984 dragged on, I was slowly pulled into the role of oldest son.

All the stuff that was expected of my brother became expected of me, and I wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with it. My brother had a lot of street smarts that I lacked.

So I have to shake my head and wonder if I’m causing history to repeat itself.

I hope not.

I am indeed proud of Sean for all he is. But I don’t want to force him to grow up too fast.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Erin and I have had frequent discussions about what it might be like to own a larger home. Our 1300-square-foot townhouse has served us well for more than a decade. But there’s always that desire to have what others have.

Mood music:

The discussion usually starts with everything that needs fixing around here: A hole in the kitchen wall that gets bigger every time the front door is slammed against it. Chipped and mismatched paint. Toilets that constantly need plunging.

For all our work success, we never seem to make enough money to do things we might want to do, like fixing the items above, gutting the kitchen or buying a bigger house.

To me, there’s a mental health issue at play: Your surroundings have a big affect on your sanity. When my OCD was at its worst, I was delirious over how clean the floors were or how the curtains were arranged. I became a nutcase when the kids made a mess.

Now, admittedly, I’ve become something of a slob in my recovery. I can walk right by a mess and not notice a thing.

Erin, on the other hand, finds it harder to have clarity and peace of mind when the house is a mess and falling apart.

As a kid, I grew up in excessive cleanliness and some filth. My mother was always obsessive about keeping a squeaky clean house. But I can’t say I was particularly happy in those years. After my parents divorced and my father got the house, he was so focused on the family business much of the time that the house became a mess — even with housekeepers. Erin grew up in a house that was always in disrepair. But her parents had — and have — a strong marriage and raised four daughters. It was a warm and happy home.

To me a house with holes in the walls is a pain in the ass. But it beats an immaculate house where the mood is always tense.

I know a lot of people who try to keep up with the proverbial Joneses. They bury themselves in debt they can never get out of and they never seem to be happy. They have to have a TV as big as their neighbors. They have to have a nicer car, a bigger yard.

It doesn’t seem worth it to me anymore.

Though I will admit there are days where I wouldn’t mind a bigger house and someone to clean it for us.

Is It Bad That Two Family Members Are In Therapy?

If more than one member of the same family is in therapy, is that a sign that the family is seriously screwed up?

Mood music:

That’s the question we are asking ourselves these days. As the reader knows by now, I’ve been in therapy for OCD and related issues for seven years. Duncan sees a children’s therapist to help him work through his ADHD.

Is this family a basket case? In my opinion, it’s exactly the opposite.

I wouldn’t be enjoying the equilibrium I have today if not for the years of therapy.

Meanwhile, Duncan is learning a lot of helpful techniques to help him focus and control his anger.

I’m a staunch advocate of therapy as a tool for mental health. I think too many people are embarrassed when it’s suggested that therapy would do them some good. People who stay away from therapy because they feel it’s a mark of weakness have no idea what they are denying themselves. That makes me sad.

It’s a funny thing when I talk to people suffering from depression, addiction and other troubles of the mind. Folks seem more comfortable about the idea of pills than in seeing a therapist. After all, they’re just crazy “shrinks” in white coats  obsessed with how your childhood nightmares compromised your adult sex life, right?

I’ve been to many therapists in my life. I was sent to one at Children’s Hospital in Boston as a kid to talk through the emotions of being sick with Chron’s Disease all the time. That same therapist also tried to help me and my siblings process the bitter aftermath of our parents’ divorce in 1980.

As a teenager, I went to another therapist to discuss my brother’s death and my difficulty in getting along with my stepmother (a wonderful, wonderful woman who I love dearly, by the way. But as a kid I didn’t get along with her).

That guy was a piece of work. He had a thick French accent and wanted to know if I found my stepmother attractive. From the moment he asked that question, I was done with him, and spent the rest of the appointment being belligerent.

That put me off going to a therapist for a long time. I started going to one again in 2004, when I found I could no longer function in society without untangling the barbed wire in my head. But I hesitated for a couple years before pressing on.

The therapist I started going to specialized in dealing with disturbed children and teenagers. That was perfect, because in a lot of ways I was still a troubled kid.

She never told me what to do, never told me how I’m supposed to interpret my disorder against my past. She asked a lot of questions and had me do the work of sorting it out. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a good therapist does. They ask questions to get your brain churning, dredging up experiences that sat at the back of the mind like mud on the ocean floor. That’s how you begin to deal with how you got to the point of dysfunction.

She moved to Florida a year in and I started going to a fellow who worked from his house. I would explain my binge eating habits to him, specifically how I would down $30 worth of McDonald’s between work and home.

“You should stock your car with healthy foods like fruit, so if you’re hungry you can eat those things instead,” he told me.

That was the end of that. He didn’t get it. When an addict craves the junk, the healthy food around you doesn’t stand a chance. The compulsion is specifically toward eating the junk. He should have understood. He didn’t. Game over, dumb ass.

The therapist I see now is a God-send. He was the first therapist to help me understand the science behind mental illness and the way an inbalance in brain chemistry can mess with your thought traffic. He also provided me with quite an education on how anti-depressants work. Yes, friends, there’s a science to it. Certain drugs are designed to shore up the brain chemicals that, when depleted, lead to bi-polar behavior. Other meds are specifically geared toward anxiety control. In my case, I needed the drug that best addressed obsessive-compulsive behavior. For me, that meant Prozac.

That’s not to say I blindly obey his every suggestion. He specializes in stress reduction and is big on yoga and eliminating coffee from the daily diet. Those are two deal breakers for me. Yoga bores the dickens out of me. If you’ve been following this blog all along, I need not explain the coffee part.

I also find it fun to push his buttons once in awhile. I’ll show up at his office with a huge cup of Starbucks. “Oh, I see you’ve brought drugs with you,” he’ll say.

Our relationship has settled into this banter back and forth, and it continues to serve its purpose. We go over everything happening in my life at that given moment, and if he suspects I’m thinking in unproductive ways or lying to myself, he calls me on it.

I’m better for it.

All that is the long way of saying I think it’s absolutely healthy if multiple members of one family are in therapy at the same time.

Pepperspray, Waffle Makers And Other Black Friday Stupidity

This post is all about the folks who make it hard for me to keep my faith in humanity. Consider it a momentary indulgence where I give thanks that for all my screw ups, I don’t behave like this.

I spend a lot of time in this blog looking at the brighter side of human nature — examples of people rising above the odds and living to the fullest despite the hand they’ve been dealt.

This is not one of those posts.

Really, people — you’re acting like apes throwing feces over a waffle maker.  This is the problem with Black Friday. We spend the day before giving thanks for all the things we have. Then at midnight we go out and resort to greed-driven animal behavior.

I’ll give you this — you’re making me feel pretty good about myself right now. I may struggle with OCD and addictive behavior, I may have trouble expressing my emotions and I may be a bit of a control freak.

But I will never go out at midnight and dive into a quivering mass of angry humanity over a waffle maker.

Damn, I’m thankful.

But the waffle fight wasn’t even the biggest low.

One asshole shot a shopper who wouldn’t relinquish his purchases outside a San Leandro, Calif., Walmart store, leaving the poor guy hospitalized in critical but stable condition.

The Washington Post and the AP report that at another Walmart in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, a woman trying to get the upper hand to buy cheap electronics unleashed pepper spray on a crowd of shoppers, causing minor injuries to 20 people, police said.

That’s some interesting behavior in a country where much of the population is supposedly out of work and unable to afford the products they’re fighting over.

To be fair, there ARE a lot of people out of work who can’t afford these things. But, fortunately, the majority appear to have more self control than these other Black Friday kooks.

Here’s hoping that yesterday was just a freakish blip on the screen in which the human experience is played out.

Thankful Friday

I have much to be thankful for this morning after Thanksgiving. A list:

Mood music:

–Erin’s Uncle David, for letting me take his vintage car for a spin around the block.

Erin, Sean and Duncan, simply for being who they are.

–My sister Stacey, husband Sean and niece and nephew Lilly and Chase, for inviting us into their home for an excellent Thanksgiving dinner.

–My brother Brian, for cooking.

–My kid sister Shira, for her always contagious sunny disposition.

–My program of recovery, for keeping me disciplined during the feast so I didn’t turn into the bloated wreck I used to be at every holiday.

–My brother-in-law’s father Frank, for educating me on every restaurant within a 10-mile square radius of my office.

–My in-laws, for always making me feel at ease.

–All our friends. We seem to have more of them each day.

–A lazy day-after. Self explanatory.

–A spectacular sunrise. Because sunshine is my fuel.

–Starbucks K-cups. Yes, they finally exist. I got a massive box of ’em in Costco last week.

–My job. Because my work helps make me whole, and I’m lucky to work with so many cool people.

What are you thankful for?

Here’s To The Forgiving Souls

A friend of mine was taken aback yesterday when I used a text she sent me in a post. I thought it would be OK because I was keeping her identity a secret. But in hindsight, I should have asked first.

That’s the challenge with a blog like this. I need to take things right to the danger line to make points I feel need making. But sometimes I step over that line. I’ve worked on being extra careful, but it’s obviously a work in progress.

But there’s a bigger point to this than my own foolishness. My friend was not amused by what I did and she made it known. But she quickly forgave me and on with life we go.

That’s one of the many things I admire about this friend. She’ll get angry and sound off, but she doesn’t hold a grudge and freeze out the folks who get on her bad side.

As many of us know, holding grudges is the easiest thing in the world to do. So is NOT holding grudges.

That’s a sign of deep character and strength. I’m lucky to have her as a friend, despite myself.

Schoolyard Gossip And The Damage Done

I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends among the parents in my children’s school community. But like every community, there are people who blow things out of proportion.

Mood music:

I guess you could lump me into that class of parent. I needle people, especially when I like them, and I can be like a bull in a china shop at school events. I’ve also engaged in gossip with some of the parents.

It’s easy to forget your own faults when your kid suddenly becomes the subject of that schoolyard gossip. But that’s what happened Friday afternoon.

I was sitting in my living room doing some work when I got a text from a friend whose daughter is in Duncan’s class:

“Just wanted to give you a heads up that a lot of moms are pissed at school … I guess Duncan was telling (his classmates) that Santa doesn’t exist and that the parents (do the work). Some of the moms are sending texts to everyone! I have gotten six so far!”

Duncan told us about a month ago that he figured out that Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny don’t really exist. Ironically, he reached this conclusion because, as he told me, “To do what they do they would have to use magic. And magic isn’t real.”

That’s his point of view, of course, and truth be told we were sad about the whole Santa thing. No one wants their child to shed innocence before the age of 10, right?

We asked Duncan not to discuss it at school because a lot of his classmates still believed, and that they should be allowed to believe. We apparently needed to give him more than one reminder.

As I learned that several moms were texting each other wildly that Friday afternoon, warning parents that Duncan Brenner told kids at school Santa is a fraud, my blood ran cold and my head got hot.

How dare these moms trash talk my son, I thought. There they are, texting each other like some big emergency is afoot, in this case the potential destruction of Christmas.

The suggestion in this kind of parental banter is that the kid who can’t keep his mouth shut is a troublemaker. His parents must be troublemakers, too.

My first instinct was to get the names of the parents and apologize on Duncan’s behalf. Then my mood shifted and I wanted to tell them all off. Now, with my attitude somewhere near the center again, I’m writing this out, looking for the right perspective.

A few things occur to me:

–Kids in the school yard are going to talk about all kinds of things we’d rather they not talk about. There will be profanity and bad jokes. We parents should intervene whenever possible, but we’re not always going to be in the right spot at the right time.

–If someone is worried that their kid’s Christmas will be ruined over this, do you think it might be time to re-examine what Christmas is supposed to be about?

Here’s what really bothers me:

We all have a habit of gossiping. It’s a very human thing to do. But you know what? It’s wrong.

Schoolyard gossip rarely accounts for the things that are really going on with the kids and parents at the center of all the chatter. We make harsh judgments without having all the facts.

A good example is the mom who started trash-talking about a pair of siblings, suggesting they had anger issues over their parents’ impending divorce because the older sibling refused to work with her son on a class project.

Missing from that bit of gossip was the fact that the girl didn’t want to work with him because he was slacking. Also, he’s been teasing and tormenting her since Pre-K and she finally decided to take a stand.

This is a community and, like it or not, we are all responsible for making it work. Many parents already work tirelessly to that effect, but some do too much complaining about others who don’t march in lockstep.

That’s mean. It doesn’t inspire other parents to get involved and help. It’s not OK. We all have flaws and so do our kids. It also never accurately captures the reasons some people do what they do. We have no idea if someone is acting out of depression, heartache, work stress or any number of other things.

We can’t shield our kids from all the unpleasantness of life. Nor should we. When we coddle our kids too much, we do them a disservice by not preparing them for the challenges of life.

We should let them deal with some of the unpleasant topics of a schoolyard during recess because they just might learn something valuable in the process.

We should remember that when one kid says something other kids aren’t ready to hear that it’s not the end of the world. It’s may lead to unpleasant dinner conversation at home that evening, but it hardly qualifies as a crisis.

Above all, we should all remember that gossiping is mean, and kindly knock it off.

I’ll try to do better on my end.

A Lesson From Gabby Giffords

I recently watched Diane Sawyer’s interview with Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly. To say I was moved would be an understatement. Hers is the story of a spirited fight back from near death.

If you ever get the feeling you can’t do something or overcome big challenges, you should watch this. It will show you that nothing is too big to overcome.

Should I Be Upset About This Report Card?

I’ve gotten word that a reader and dear friend was upset over last week’s post, “Reading Between The Lines Of A Bad Report Card.” She shouldn’t be.

Mood music:

She said that she would never have sent such a bad report card to her adult child. I think she was also upset at the suggestion that my parents weren’t paying adequate attention to me back then.

I don’t mind, though. In fact, I’m happy to have that old report card. It put things in perspective for me. It was a snapshot of a difficult time. I used to get angry when thinking about those days. I had a lot of hate in my soul over it.

I don’t feel that way anymore. I think everyone did the best they could with the tools they had back then. The problem was that the tools weren’t that great.

But everything turned out fine.

Below is the original post. Have a look and tell me if you would be upset if such a report card were sent to you.

And to my friend: I appreciate your reaction to the original post very much. Yours is a friendship I treasure, and I don’t want you to worry about this one. Hence the sequel post.

Reading Between The Lines Of A Bad Report Card

My mother found my fourth-grade report card the other day and mailed it to me. On the surface it shows a chronic C student who doesn’t give a damn about anything.

But when I read between the lines I can see exactly where my 10-year-old head was at.

If you look at it on the surface, you see a straight-C student who occasionally sinks to a D in social studies and math. On the back of the report card are comments each quarter from my teacher, describing me as a kid who puts no effort into anything.

My first thought on reading it was that this teacher didn’t like me, and that the feeling was mutual. In reality, I don’t think she disliked me. I think she saw a kid adrift and was trying to scare my parents into a more rigorous study routine at home.

Unfortunately for her and me, she wasn’t the type of teacher who was going to get through to me. She took the academics very seriously, but did little to appeal to the more creative side of me. Teachers before and after her would have a lot more success in that regard. She didn’t get me and I didn’t get her. A troubled kid needs nurturing personalities to intervene.

Even as an adult who has enjoyed a fair amount of career success it’s the same:The more nurturing bosses get more out of me. The ones who shove a 13-point plan in my face and tell me to do it get nothing but trouble. Luckily for me, I’ve only had a couple bosses like that along the way.

I have been both types of boss myself, and I’ve found that most people do better with supervisors who are nurturing souls.

In the 1980-81 school year at Theodore Roosevelt School in the Point of Pines, Revere, Mass., I needed a lot of nurturing.

My parents divorced in the summer of 1980 and it was not a civilized, amicable process. The yelling and instability sent me on to such soothing pursuits as lighting things on fire and shoving the garden hose into an air vent on the side of the house.

I was also sick most of the time with Crohn’s Disease. If you look at my attendance record, there’s a 20-plus day absence in the fourth quarter. That was for one of my extended hospital stays. I missed the class picture shoot that spring, which is probably for the best. I wasn’t a pleasant site.

Erin was pained to look at my report card. She never got grades so consistently bad. She felt sympathy for the teacher, who was obviously trying to get my parents’ attention. But in the raw wake of divorce and the illnesses me and my older brother suffered from, they obviously were distracted. I don’t blame them.

I suppose I should have felt sad looking at the report card, but I don’t. I see it for what it was — a snapshot of a difficult period of time. I survived it, and turned into an excellent student once I had a couple years of college under my belt. I would argue that despite it all, I turned out just fine.

What makes me even happier is that at least to date, my children do well academically. Duncan has some ADHD-related challenges, but his grades are mostly good and he has a heart I didn’t have at that age. That heart will take him far.

Sean is currently the same age I was when I brought home that report card. He’s razor-sharp academically, though like me at that age, he often rushes through his homework, the most notable evidence being his sloppy penmanship. We can work with that.

I’d like to think that their better academic luck reflects that we’re giving them a good home life — better than mine was, at least.

To me, the big lesson is that when a kid brings home a bad report card, it’s not enough to just look at the grades and brand the student a success or failure based on the letters and numbers alone.

There’s always a story behind the grades, and taking the time to know the story is key to helping that child going forward.