A Few Degrees South Of A Relapse

My recovery program for compulsive binge eating hasn’t been right lately. This is where I come clean about something many go through after extended periods of abstinance and sobriety.

Mood music:

I haven’t been to many OA meetings lately.

I haven’t called my sponsor in awhile.

I was getting to a point a couple weeks ago where I realized I was also getting sloppy with the food. It’s always the little things you get reckless about: Instead of the 4 ounces of protein I should be having during a meal, I’d let the scale go to 5. I’d slack on the vegetables and sneak in more grain. This is where the relapse starts.

For some of you this isn’t easy to understand. An out-of-control relationship with food still isn’t accepted as a legitimate addictive behavior in many quarters, and one of my goals in this blog has been to raise awareness and understanding.

A lot of my earliest posts preached the Gospel of the 12 Steps and Overeater’s Anonymous. I had reason to be so fanatical: OA helped me break a horrible binge cycle that I hadn’t been able to stop before.

It owned me until I started going to OA meetings, got a sponsor and started to live the 12 Steps OA and AA use to give addicts the spiritual fortitude needed to break free.

I still depend on the program today, but a big problem has gotten in the way: I’ve started to rebel against a lot of the rules. That’s typical addict behavior. When life gets a little rough, we start looking for excuses to fall back to old, self-destructive patterns. My family has experienced difficulties this past year (my father’s stroke, etc.), and that has made it difficult for me to stay squeaky clean.

At one point I started smoking again. My wife caught me and I stopped. But I was pissed, because I felt entitled to do something bad for me. People like me are stupid but common: When we want comfort, we do the things we know will kill us in the end. Stuffing cocaine up your nostrils will eventually give you cardiac arrest. Weeks-long binges, centered around $40-a-day purchases in the McDonald’s drive-thru, will do the same. The latter may just take longer.

I also started to give the halls of OA the stink eye because I was starting to find a lot of people too fanatical about it. There are people in the program who will tell you that you’re not really abstinent if your program doesn’t look exactly like theirs. One person told me the program comes before everything and anyone else. I bristled over that, because in my mind my family comes before everything else.

True, without abstinence and sobriety I can’t be a good husband and father. But I can’t be those things if I’m running off to four meetings a week and making six phone calls a day to others in the program, either.

I’ve also had the sense that people in these meetings love to hear themselves talk too much and too often.

I’m ashamed to say that, because I think these people are doing exactly what they should be doing. I’m just tired of hearing it is all.

I don’t think I’m rotten for feeling this way. I’m trying to figure out where this program truly fits in my life, and I think these are honest reflections on my part.

If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that you can’t do the same exact thing forever and expect the process to stay fresh and helpful. Like a tire that’s rolled thousands of miles, a recovery program can wear down until you get a blowout.

I do have a few things to cheer about: I haven’t suffered a full-blown binge relapse and my weight has remained steady. Clothes still fit. I still climb hills without spitting out a lung halfway up. I have absolutely no interest in hitting the McDonald’s drive-thru or stuffing my coat pockets with candy bars and cake in the gas station snack aisles.

I haven’t caved to alcohol either, and believe me, there are times I’ve wanted to. Alcohol was never the monkey on my back that food is. But I used it heavily as a crutch at one point.

I brought all this up with my therapist at last week’s appointment. I lamented that I can’t spend all week in 12-Step meetings and still have a life. I complained that people simply trade their first addiction in for a new one — the program itself.

My therapist noted that some people have to do that, otherwise they will certainly binge and drink again. It’s not a choice for them.

So here I am, plotting my next move.

I already tightened up the food plan. I’m being strict in weighing out the food. I’ve all but eliminated dairy from my diet, because I was starting to use it as a crutch. I’m walking regularly again. I’m hitting at least one meeting a week.

Today, I’m calling my sponsor to come clean with him and see if he is still in fact my sponsor. It’ll be a good conversation whatever happens, because I relate to this guy on many levels.

It’s time to look at the rest of my program and honestly assess what I need to be doing. A “program before everything” approach isn’t what I want right now. My life is too busy for that. I need my program, but I need it in its proper place.

I need to go to more meetings, though three or four a week ain’t gonna happen.

I need to talk to my sponsor a lot more often, though not daily like some people do. In the very beginning I needed that. Now it just irritates me, because I usually have work to do right after a call, and some mornings I simply don’t have anything to say to people on the phone.

I know I still need the 12 Steps, meetings, a sponsor and a rock-solid food plan. But my needs aren’t the same as the next person, and that should be ok.

Some in the program will read this and suggest I’m pining for the easier, softer way that doesn’t really exist in an addict’s world.

I don’t feel I am.

I consider this my search for the more realistic, honest way.

Addiction — And Security Journalism — Showed Me That Anonymity Matters

Journalists like me have never been particularly comfortable using anonymous sources. When you don’t name names, someone inevitably questions if your source is real or imagined.

But after dealing with some addictions in recent years, I feel differently about it.

Mood music:

There are some important distinctions to be made from the outset: I’ve written opinion pieces in my day job as a security journalist that have been critical of the hacker group Anonymous for hiding their identities while doing damage to others.

Going behind a mask so you can launch protests is fine with me, because honesty can be difficult when you fear the FBI agents at the door. I’ve been specifically critical of cases where I thought their actions had harmed innocent bystanders. In cases where innocents are hurt, hiding behind a mask makes you a coward, in my opinion.

That aside, we do live in a world where speaking your mind will get you blackballed, investigated or unfriended and unfollowed — if the latter two matter to you.

In one example where we were covering a data breach, a former employee wanted to tell us what really went on in the lead-up to the breach. But the person didn’t want their name used for fear that the company would try to sue them or hurt their chances of landing future employment. I agreed. A few days later, the person decided not to tell their story because people still in the company were snooping around the LinkedIn profiles of former employees. I can’t say I blame the person.

Indeed, covering security has made me understand the importance of anonymity compared to my experiences in community journalism.

But my experiences with addiction are what truly brought the importance of anonymity home for me.

Though I chose to tell everyone about my dependence on binge eating and, to a lesser extent, pain pills and alcohol, I’ve met a lot of people in OA and AA who never, ever would have started dealing with their demons if they had to do so publicly  — in front of friends, family and workmates. The prospect of being blackballed, fired or worse would have kept them on the same path to self destruction.

But because they can go somewhere where everyone is going through the same ugliness and not have their names exposed, they can be brutally honest about themselves and take those few extra steps to get help.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone honored naked honesty. But as Ice-T once rapped in a Body Count song: “Shit ain’t like that. It’s real fucked up.”

I was lucky. I was able to out myself and my demons without getting blackballed. It’s been an immensely positive experience. But you can’t always depend on the loving, respectful response I got.

In that environment, if anonymity can help a few more people get at the truth about themselves and the world they live in, then let it be.

This Should Sadden Boston Bruins Fans More Than Losing

Though my home team made the playoffs, I didn’t care. I’m all for the morale boost fans get from winning. Hockey just isn’t my thing. What’s more important to me is how fans conduct themselves, win or lose.

Mood music:

After the Bruins’ overtime loss to the Capitals last night, some Bruins fans failed in the class department. They gave a black eye to the team and the vast majority of fans who handle defeat gracefully.

This CTVNews article explains:

Boston Bruins fans are reeling after a stunning overtime loss in Game 7 Wednesday night, but others are reeling from the racist backlash that erupted over Twitter after the Washington Capitals’ Joel Ward scored the winning goal.

Ward, a Canadian whose parents emigrated from Barbados, scored the game-winner over last year’s Stanley Cup champions at 2:57 into overtime on a rebound from a shot by Mike Knuble, to make the final score 2-1 for Washington.

The TD Garden arena in Boston instantly fell into a shocked silence as fans’ hopes of back-to-back Bruins appearances in the Stanley Cup final evaporated.

But the volume was just starting to build on Twitter, where incensed fans began launching personal attacks on Ward, not over his playing ability but over the colour of his skin.

“The fact that a n***** scored the winner goal makes this loss hurt a lot more,” tweeted someone with the handle @tomtroy12.

Another wrote: “Stupid n***** go play basketball hockey is a white sport.”

Those were just two relatively tame examples in a long list of racist posts that appeared on Twitter following the game, though many were removed by Thursday morning and some of the offending accounts appeared to have been deleted altogether.

Indulge me as I share this quote from one of Chris Rock’s “Nat X” skits on SNL. It’s humor, but the idiots who wrote the tweets above demonstrated how dark comedy and painful reality are often separated by a pathetically thin line:

NAT X: I was watchin’ a hockey game and I noticed there were no black people. So I looked into this example of the white man once again keepin’ the black man down and found out why there were no black people in hockey. First, it’s cold out there! Second, we might get our gold teeth knocked out! Third, we have no desire to dominate another professional sport. And, finally, no brother is going to go anywhere there is a bunch of crazy white people wearin’ masks and carryin’ sticks!

What’s the racist Twitter rant between disappointed Bruins fans have to do with the theme of this blog? Quite a bit. One of the main themes is how we humans handle adversity. What are the examples of adversity making us better or worse? This post is an example of the latter. It stinks all the more because in this case we’re not talking about life-or-death adversity. This is over a fucking game.

As one of my Canadian friends, Dave Lewis, tweeted: “Stay classy. Wow, just wow.”

I’m not going to tell you I’m ashamed to be a Boston sports fan this morning. My lack of sports savvy alone prevents me from doing that.

But I’m also not ashamed because these turds don’t represent the vast majority of Boston sports fans, who usually acknowledge that the other team did better and deserved good wishes.

These tweeters are probably not even genuine racists. But as I said about the folks who were selling and buying anti-Obama “Do not re-nig” bumper stickers: You may not be a racist, but using the N word says something about the kind of person you are.

Like I said, I’m no hockey fan. But it still inspires me when a sports team does well. It takes someone like me — who can’t play sports to save my life — to appreciate the grit and determination it takes to play professionally.

Which makes it all the more disappointing when a fan or five repays the hard effort their team gave by being assholes.

The Monkey Will ALWAYS Be On Your Back

I’m standing at a bar in Boston with my wife and stepmom. They order wine and I order coffee. My stepmom beams and says something about how awesome it is that I beat my demons.

I appreciate the pride and the sentiment. But it’s also dangerous when someone tells a recovering addict that they’ve pulled the monkey off their back for good.

Mood music:

Here’s the thing about that monkey: You can smack him around, bloody him up and knock him out. But that little fucker is like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. He won’t die.

Sometimes you can keep him knocked out for a long time, even years. But he always wakes up, ready to kick your ass right back to the compulsive habits that nearly destroyed you before.

That may sound a little dramatic. But it’s the truth, and recovering addicts can never be reminded of this enough.

Dr. Drew had a good segment on the subject last year, when he interviewed Nikki Sixx:

Sixx talked about his addictions and how he always has to be on guard. Dr. Drew followed that up with a line that rings so true: “Your disease is doing push ups right now.”

So painfully true.

I know that as a binge-eating addict following the 12 Steps of Recovery, I can relapse any second. That’s why I have to work my program every day.

But Sixx makes another point I can relate to: Even though he’s been sober for so many years, he still gets absorbed in addictive behavior all the time. The difference is that he gives in to the addiction of being creative. He’s just released his second book and second album with Sixx A.M. Motley Crue still tours and makes new music. He has four kids, a clothing line and so on. He’s always doing something.

I get the same way with my writing. That’s why I write something every day, whether it’s here or for the day job. I’m like a shark, either swimming or drowning. By extension, though I’ve learned to manage the most destructive elements of my OCD,I still let it run a little hot at times — sometimes on purpose. If it fuels creativity and what I create is useful to a few people, it’s worth it.

The danger is that I’ll slip my foot off the middle speed and let the creative urge overshadow things that are more important. I still fall prey to that habit.

And though it’s been well over three years since my last extended binge, my sobriety and abstinence has not been perfect. There have been times where I’ve gotten sloppy, realized it, and pulled back.

But the occasional sloppiness and full-on relapse will always be separated by a paper-thin wall.

I’ll have to keep aware of that until the day I die.

The monkey isn’t going anywhere. My job is to keep him tame most of the time.

Drawing by JUSTIN MCELROY (imaginarypeople26@yahoo.com). Click the photo to see more of his work.

A Crohn’s Disease Attack, Put To Music

During a severe Chrohn’s Disease attack in the mid-1980s — around the time I was discovering Van Halen‘s older albums — I found one song that really personified what I was feeling.

It’s the final song on the band’s debut album from 1978, which is also the year I was first attacked by this disease.

As I’d spend the early-morning hours sitting on the toilet in the upstairs bathroom of 22 Lynnway, Revere, losing blood, clutching my gut and making a thousand deals with God, that song would reverberate through my head, over and over.

I had forgotten about it over the years. But this morning, for the hell of it, I decided to listen to that first Van Halen album on the drive to work. Somewhere along Route 128, the song came on, and I was transported back in time.

I went a lot of years without listening to the song. It’s not that it brought back the bad memories. It’s just that I’ve been listening to other things, including Van Halen’s new album, “A Different Kind Of Truth.”

Looking back, I’m glad I had that song going through my head during the overnight Crohn’s attacks. It put noise and words to what I was feeling, and made those long hours of darkness feel a little less lonely.

As I replay the new Van Halen album over and over, I’ve found another song that fits my life today. It’s a track called “Blood and Fire.”

Those two words fit the feeling (fire) and result (blood) of a Crohn’s attack. But the song is about coming out the other side, making it through the blood and fire and doing, as David Lee Roth sings, a victory dance.

Thanks for the coping music, boys.

Strong Too Long, Or Weak Too Often?

There’s a saying on Facebook that depression isn’t a sign of weakness, but simply the result of being strong for too long. Somewhat true — though weakness does feed the beast.

Mood music:

I’m feeling it this morning.

I’ve always taken a certain level of satisfaction from my ability to stay standing in the face of death, illness, family dysfunction, depression and addiction. Sometimes, I get an over-inflated sense of survivor’s pride.

People love to tell you how awesome you are when you emerge from adversity stronger than before. The victor is placed on a 10-foot pedestal and life looks hunky-dory from up there. But it’s only a matter of time before the person on top loses balance and crashes to the ground.

I’ve fallen from that pedestal a bunch of times, and my ass is really starting to hurt from all those slips off the edge.

All this has me asking the question: How much can you blame depression on being strong too long when many times it comes back because the victim has been weak?

I don’t think there’s a precise answer. I only know this: I feel like I’ve been trying like a motherfucker to be strong 24-7. But I don’t seem to have the fortitude to maintain it, and I give in to weakness.

In the past, that weakness would involve indulging in food, alcohol and tobacco until I was too sick to function.

Today, the weakness involves getting angry and self-defensive and distant at the drop of a hat.

For all the progress I’ve made in managing my OCD, there are still moments where I go weak, put the blinders on and do some stupid things.

It’s the compulsion to keep staring at the laptop screen when one or both kids need me to look up and give them some attention.

It’s stopping in the middle of a conversation with my wife because the cellphone is ringing or someone has pinged me online.

It’s spending too much money on food and entertainment for the kids because it’s easier to me at the time than  cooking the food myself and playing a board game with them instead.

I’ve been working double-time at bringing my compulsive tendencies to heel, going through some intensified therapy. The short-term result is that I’m an angrier person than I normally am.

My therapist made note of that anger at our last meeting. The trigger in the room was him taking me back to my younger years in search of clues to present-day debacles. I thought I was done with sessions like that five years ago.

But I’m learning that the road to mental wellness is not linear. It goes in a circle. It’s like driving to the same place every day for work. The drive to work and back is a loop of the same landmarks, the same traffic patterns and the same behind-the-wheel thinking sessions.

I’m learning that managing my issues is going to involve frequent trips back and forth from the past to the present. This pisses me off. But I know I have to keep at it.

I guess I’ll always have my weak moments because of the events that shaped me.  But you can still be strong throughout it, learning to regain your footing more quickly  and being better at the kind of discussion with loved ones that prevents endless miscommunication from adding up to a mountain of pain.

I don’t know when I’ll truly reach that level of strength. But for now I’m leaning hard on all my coping tools, including the music and the praying.

The Wit And Wisdom Of Sean Brenner

Today is Sean’s 11th birthday, and we’re all very proud of him. In honor of this special day, I share with you some of my favorite Sean-isms.

Mood music:

–Heard in the bathroom: Sean singing to no one in particular, “Your butt’s too big to be real…”

–Me: “I missed you Sean. I love you.” Sean, staring intently at the drawing he’s working on as I tell him this: “Dad, go get me a pencil”

–Sean, grousing about his loose pants: “This is ridiculous. If Eve didn’t eat that stupid apple, I wouldn’t have to worry about pants!”

–Sean, explaining The Prodigal Son to Duncan: “If there were a third brother, he would have just sat there chilling out, taking it all in.”

–Sean-ism of the morning: I learned Australian in second grade. It’s my second language.

–Sean, exasperated that Duncan is running around sans pants: “For Pete’s sake, Duncan! You’re a lot of work.”

–Sept. 23, 2010: I feel a strange sense of satisfaction for a Dad who was just informed by his oldest that “You are ruining my life.”

–Sean: “Babies come out the you-know-what” Duncan: “Gross. Why’s that?” Sean: “That’s just the way life works.”

–Sean, in response to me telling him and Duncan to do a chore: “Dad, if you’re trying to annoy us, it’s not working.”

–Me to Sean: “You’re so stinkin’ cute.” Sean to me: “You’re so stinkin’ ugly. No offense.”

–Sean, noticing the Greek Orthodox church we were driving past: “Gee Whiz! I didn’t even know Greek Mythology was still around!”

–Sean, trying to coach Duncan through a Star Wars game online: “Oh, for crying out loud Duncan… USE THE FORCE! USE THE FORCE!”

–The Sean-Duncan Star Wars feud takes a dark, stinky turn: Duncan says Sean keeps calling him Sen. Poopatine and he wants me to punish him.

–Bathtub chatter: Sean: “Cheese is your favorite food, right Duncan?” Duncan: “Of course.” Sean: “I read they’re gonna stop making it soon.”

–Sean’s take on his grandfather (my father): “I’ll tell you what, Duncan. There is nothing we can’t get him to do.”

–Sean, growing impatient with the DC-to-Boston drive: “What state are we in besides a state of confusion?”

–Sean: “Can I have more computer time?” Me: “No.” Sean: “Wow. That was unexpected.”

–I have a ZZTop concert streaming on the laptop while I work. Sean takes a look and asks if the guitar player is “that @jack_Daniel guy.” (Jack is a heavyweight in the security industry who looks a lot like Billy Gibbons from ZZTop)

–Sean’s Lament: “My workbook project calls for a mural about compassion. Much to my dismay, it makes me want to barf.”

–Sean just proclaimed that my iced coffee looks like cow manure with ice cubes on top.

–Sean: “One of the things I really love about Gramma and Grandpa is that they’re so disorganized.”

–Sean just kicked my ass at 3 games of checkers. Now he’s trash-talking me. My revenge will come later, and it will be spectacular.

–Sean-ism of the day: “Thank God for Dunkin Donuts. There’s always one along the road when you really need to use the bathroom.”

–Bad Sean joke #452 … Sean:”Why did the cop wrap the crook in tinfoil?” Me: “I dunno. Why?” Sean: “Because he wanted to foil the crime.”

–Sean: “I’m looking forward to seeing the White House tonight. Good food there.” Me: “We’re there for a tour, not dinner.” Sean: “Oh well.”

–Sez Sean, because I didn’t look at his computer game fast enough: “C’mon Dad, what’s more important, your son or your Blackberry?”

–Sean, fighting with Duncan: “My life was pretty good till you came along.”

–Sean scolded me for killing an ant cause “They’re God’s creatures.” Then he found one on his Lego sets, and now he wants all ants dead.

–Sean’s description of Duncan’s breath: “Like a cat climbed in your mouth, peed, pooped and died.” His breath was just as bad.

–Sean hasn’t stopped laughing since I told him Bun Bun — the Whites’ dwarf hamster — got caught in Sam’s closet and crapped everywhere.

“You are the picture of evil.” Sean, after I made them do homework on their snow day.

Sean, pretending to be a clone trooper from Star Wars: “I hate this job. I don’t get MLK Day off. Crap, I didn’t even get Christmas off!”

Me to Sean: “I have a thought.” Sean: “There’s a 50-50 chance I’m gonna protest it.”

Sean: “Duncan, how many kids do you plan to have?” Duncan: “20: 10 girls, 10 boys.” Sean: “I can’t watch all those kids. Scale it back.”

Sean’s 9-year-old reaction to news that Uncle Brian is getting married: “Oh yeah? Whatever.”

Duncanism of the day: If the inside of my head was empty, I’d be light-headed.

Sean’s reaction to the Duncanism of the day: “Duncan, you infuriate me.”

“Good luck. You’re gonna need it.” Sean, wishing one of Erin’s friends well in an important business venture

“Get out of the way, Lando! For crying out loud!” Sean, temper flaring, during a particularly difficult Wii game of “Star Wars: The Complete Saga.”

–Said Sean, matter-of-fact-like: “If you don’t want your butt to get burned, don’t live in a frying pan.”