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.”

Two Days, Three Shitty Anniversaries And One Bloody Month

Earlier this month I wrote about two sad anniversaries: the deaths of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Layne Staley in 2002. But today — April 19, and tomorrow, April 20 — we have a trio of tragedies to remember.

Mood music:

Full disclosure: I’m about to steal liberally from Wikipedia.

April 19, 1993: Waco, Texas

The Waco siege began on February 28, 1993, and ended violently 50 days later on April 19. The siege began when the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), accompanied by several members of the media, attempted to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, a property located 9 miles (14 km) east-northeast of Waco, Texas. On February 28, shortly after the attempt to serve the warrant, an intense gun battle erupted, lasting nearly 2 hours. In this armed exchange, four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Upon the ATF’s failure to execute the search warrant, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The siege ended 50 days later when a fire destroyed the compound when a second assault was launched. 76 people (24 of them British nationals) died in the fire, including more than 20 children, two pregnant women, and the sect leader David Koresh.

File:Mountcarmelfire04-19-93-l.jpg

April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma City bombing was a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It would remain the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Oklahoma blast claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, and injured more than 680 people. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage. Extensive rescue efforts were undertaken by local, state, federal, and worldwide agencies in the wake of the bombing, and substantial donations were received from across the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) activated eleven of its Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, consisting of 665 rescue workers who assisted in rescue and recovery operations.

Within 90 minutes of the explosion, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger for driving without a license plate and arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon. Forensic evidence quickly linked McVeigh and Terry Nichols to the attack; Nichols was arrested and within days both were charged. Michael and Lori Fortier were later identified as accomplices. McVeigh, an American militia movement sympathizer, had detonated an explosive-filled Ryder truck parked in front of the building. McVeigh’s co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, had assisted in the bomb preparation. Motivated by his hatred of the federal government and angered by what he perceived as its mishandling of the Waco Siege (1993) and the Ruby Ridge incident (1992), McVeigh timed his attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the siege at Waco.

File:Oklahomacitybombing-DF-ST-98-01356.jpg

April 20, 1999: Columbine High School

The Columbine High School massacre (often known simply as Columbine) occurred on Tuesday, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colorado, United States, near Denver and Littleton. Two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, embarked on a massacre, killing 12 students and 1 teacher. They also injured 21 other students directly, and three people were injured while attempting to escape. The pair then committed suicide. It is the fourth-deadliest school massacre in United States history, after the 1927 Bath School disaster, 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, and the 1966 University of Texas massacre, and the deadliest for an American high school.

File:Eric harris dylan klebold.jpg

April is also a bloody month for other days, like the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007 and the start of such bloody conflicts as the American Revolution and the Civil War. I could mention dozens of other bloody events that happened in April, but I think this is quite enough for now. If you want a fuller accounting of the bloodshed, check out this article by Chaotic Ramblings

I pray for everyone who died in those tragedies. As I write this, the sun is shining through my window, warming my hands as I pound away on the keyboard. I’m going to make this a good day, despite those bad memories.

I suggest you do the same.

I Don’t Really Practice Before Writing And Speaking Anymore

It’s odd for an OCD case, but I don’t practice before doing the public speaking that has increasingly become part of my job. Crazy, you say? Perhaps. But hear me out.

Mood music:

My preparations for a speaking event — even if it was just moderating a panel, which is mostly what I’ve done of late — used to look a lot like the preparations I’d engage in for a writing assignment:

When I started working as a reporter and editor, I treated each story like an architectural design. I would lose myself in the same story for hours and hours, moving words, sentences and paragraphs around like pieces on a chess board.

It served a purpose, but I wasted so much time doing it this way, mainly because I feared imperfection so much that I was terrified to let a story go to the other editors until it was flawless. The stupidity there is that no story is ever flawless. You could rework a story for days whether it needed the work or not.

In more recent years I’ve been known to draw up elaborate blueprints for stories, especially series work. One former colleague at TechTarget once told me I was the most organized writer he had ever seen. If he could see me now, he’d be either amused or horrified.

Somewhere in the last four years, I stopped making blueprints for story series and I even stopped keeping a daily list of stories in progress. I’ve become more spontaneous in my writing. I pound the keyboard until everything is out of my head. Then, without giving it a second look, I send it straight to the editors.

I’ve adopted a similar approach with speaking.

Before giving a presentation, I would write a script and cut it up into bite-sized pieces, like flash cards. I’d obsess over every point I wanted to touch on and rewrite the notes. Then I’d get out there, fumble with my notes — knocking them out of order — and my frayed nerves would send me to oblivion.

Between 2006 and 2009 I did a lot of podcasts and I’d make the same mistakes because of over-preparing.

I think my earlier affinity for over-planning — definitely one of my OCD quirks — goes back to childhood. I was a prolific drawer, always working massive amounts of detail onto a page. I think I started doing it because in a world full of chaos (vicious childhood illnesses, parents divorcing, etc.) the page was a world I could control. And control it I did.

I would rework things over and over again, just like the stereotypical OCD case checking doorknobs multiple times to make sure the door is locked.

As a teenager still reeling from his brother’s death, my drawings took a decidedly more violent turn. I started sketching people dead on the ground with knives protruding from various body parts. A teacher at the Paul Revere School caught me one day and said, “If you are ever assaulted, you will never draw stuff like this again.” I think she was worried that I’d be the one to start assaulting people. I did, verbally.

In high school I went to a vocational school and studied drafting and design for three years. I excelled at it, and loved the order and attention to detail the work required. I also loved the drafting tables we used, which were high enough that you could draw while standing. Being the fidgety type, standing helped me focus much better.

Somewhere in my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to write instead. My architectural skills served me well in this regard, giving me the attention to detail needed for good writing. My writing still sucked, mind you. I was still too young and inexperienced to know what I was doing.

All through college I pursued writing, specifically journalism, and I was in a band where I wrote all the lyrics. I’ve torn my father’s warehouse apart looking for the notebooks I wrote them in, to no avail.

Also lost in those old notebooks are notes I would draw up for use in a public speaking class and for the student government meetings (I was in the student government for a couple years while at North Shore Community College).

I had to do a lot of talking in front of people back then, and the worse my OCD got — and the more I over-prepared — the worse things would go.

Sometime in 2006, a miraculous accident showed me that I didn’t have to put myself through such torture before a talk.

I was giving a talk about what my then-employer was all about and I had a detailed PowerPoint presentation that failed to work come showtime. Actually, the laptop itself was frozen. I had no choice but to do it off the cuff.

That’s when I realized I was more at ease without a script. It was the first epiphany I had that I could keep my OCD in better check and perform better without all the compulsive note-taking and hours practicing.

As I got a firmer grip on the OCD between 2006 and 2009, I started to build the more spontaneous approach into other aspects of my life, including the writing.

It’s been much better this way. That said, I’m not suggesting that you go into whatever you do with zero preparation. You have to sit down and think to form the frame of your story or talk. The key is to keep from over-preparing.

I explained my current writing approach in a two-part series I co-wrote with my wife, Erin. Part one is here. Part two is here.

Here’s how I roll on the speaking side:

–An organization calls and asks me to moderate a panel or give a solo presentation. I say sure, hang up the phone and promptly forget until a reminder email arrives a couple weeks before the event.

–I go outside and pace around for about 10 minutes, carving the basics of the presentation in my head.

–I go back to my desk and dump those basics into a PowerPoint file.

–Since humor will always get me through an event, I look for funny cartoons and memes to put in slides. In doing so, I get relaxed and the subject matter gets clearer.

–Then I fall back on my writing. I go to articles and blog posts I’ve written on the subject matter and cut and paste sections into slides. Come showtime, these will remind me what I wrote about, and I can then go off the cuff, sharing conversations I’ve had with the professionals who work the issues I’m there to discuss.

–I limit the slides to about 15, to force myself to be more conversational and less of a lecturer.

–I submit the PowerPoint, make an Outlook calendar reminder of the day and time, and forget about it again.

–On the drive to the event, I don’t go over the talking points. Instead, I play loud music and let my mind go.

It’s not the perfect mix. But it works for me a lot better than the days when I would make a bunch of flashcards and run through the talk endlessly in my head.

A Death Survival Guide For Novices

A friend is reeling from the death of a grandparent. Outliving your older family members is considered part of the natural order, especially if it’s a grandparent. But if it’s your first taste of death, it’s got to be pretty devastating.

Having experienced more than my share of friends and family dying, I figured a few words are in order.

Mood music:

I got my first taste of death the hard way, losing my brother Michael when I was 13. I knew of family deaths before him, but I was far removed from them. My grandfather — who I was named for — died some nine months before I was born. My parents wanted to name a child in his honor, and so here I am.

Losing a brother was not the natural order of things, obviously. The grief from my parents wasn’t the normal grief I later came to expect with the passing of grandparents and 70-something uncles. It created dysfunction that haunts the family to this day.

So when my great-grandmother died in 1994 — a few hours shy of my 24th birthday — I thought it would be easier to deal. It was, but it still sucked. Two years later, my other grandfather was gone, followed less than two years after that by my paternal grandmother. By maternal grandmother was gone a few years later. In between all that, my best friend died, followed a few years later my another friend.

I’ve learned a few things from all that death. I hope the following takeaways will be helpful to my friend:

1.) Let it suck. Don’t be a hero. If you’re feeling the pain from losing your grandmother, let it out. You don’t have to do it in front of people. Go in a room by yourself and let the waterworks flow if you have to. Don’t worry about trying to keep a manly face around people. You don’t have to pretend you’re A-OK for the sake of others in the room.

2. Don’t forget the gratitude. When someone dies, it’s easy to get lost in your own grief. There’s even a self pity reflex that kicks in. Try to take the time to remember how awesome your loved one was. Share the most amusing memories and have some laughs. The deceased would love that. And you’ll feel more at peace when you remember a life that was lived well.

3. Take a moment to appreciate what’s STILL around you. Your girlfriend. Your friends. If the death you just suffered should teach you anything, it’s that you never know how long the other loves of your life will be around. Don’t waste the time you have with them, and, for goodness sake:

4. Don’t sit around looking at people you love and worrying yourself into an anxiety attack over the fact that God could take them from you at any moment. God holds all the cards, so it’s pointless to even think about it. Just be there for people, and let them be there for you.

5. Take care of yourself. You can comfort yourself with all the drugs, alcohol, sex and food there is to have. But take it from me, giving in to addictions is nothing but slow suicide. You can’t move past grief and see the beauty of what’s left if you’re too busy trying to kill yourself. True, I learned a ton about the beauty of life from having been an addict, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever wish that experience on others. If there’s a better way to cope, do that instead.

6. Embrace things that are bigger than you. Nothing has helped me get past grief more than doing service to others. It sounds like so much bullshit, but it’s not. When I’m helping out in the church food pantry or going to Overeater’s Anonymous meetings and guiding addicts who ask for my help, I’m always reminded that my own life could be much worse. Or, to put it another way, I’m reminded how my own life is so much better than I realize or deserve.

This isn’t a science.

It’s just what I’ve learned from my own walk through the valley of darkness.

I’ve learned that life is a gift to be cherished and used wisely.

I’ve also learned that it hurts sometimes.

That’s OK.