Me and My Dysfunctional Twitter Family

It feels like Twitter has been with us forever. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s still a relatively new toy we’re learning to use.  I see it as my second dysfunctional family.

Mood music:

My Twitter house has 3,262 people crammed into it; many from the information security profession. Some of the smartest people I know sit around the kitchen table every day, bantering without ever getting tired.

As it is with any family, we often get on each other’s nerves.

For one thing, the house is always LOUD. It’s so loud that it’s normal for half the household to go to bed with headaches while the rest keep pontificating, sharing pictures and arguing.

There’s the older uncle who’s perpetually cranky but we can sit at his feet and listen to him for hours because he’s so damn funny. And smart. Let’s face it, every family had a beloved, crazy uncle.

There’s the other uncle who will disagree with you just to start a debate. But he’s such a nice guy you just can’t get angry when he picks your positions apart.

There’s the cousin who never stops talking. Any random thought he has, he says it. You can’t keep up with him, he talks so fast. But he too is smart and talented, so we put up with it.

There’s the cousin who puts everything and everyone down for the sake of starting a conversation. This one usually comes in the house blasted on vodka or wine and talks about tearing someone’s eyeballs out. But this cousin is harmless and, deep down, a good kid.

There’s a brother who is always telling people what they did wrong — that they didn’t work hard enough or made sweeping statements that tarred people who didn’t deserve it. The rest of the family is afraid of this one. Unfortunately for us, though, he’s usually right, so we put up with him and, occasionally, try to stop doing the stupid thing he says we’re doing.

There’s the cousin who will let everyone know the second she stubs a toe, gets charged too much at the auto body shop or finds a hole in her umbrella. She’ll make her grocery list and run down the list aloud for all to hear. That grates on a few nerves, but she’s a sweet lady who is always there when one of us has a problem, so listening to her grocery list recital is the least we can do.

There are the two middle siblings who fight about everything, especially politics. They’ll occasionally call each other names, usually personalized variations of the F-S- and C-words. But they know their politics, so we listen and learn for about a half hour before yelling at them to shut up.

Then there’s me, perhaps the most infuriating family member of all.

I’m constantly shoving the stuff I write in their faces because I want them to talk about how the subject matter plays in their own lives. I don’t say much else when I’m in the house unless I’m excited about a new band I want people to hear or my kids say something too damn funny not to share. But I write all the time, and I have to show them everything, even stuff they may have seen before.

People tell me to shut up and go away; to stop repeating myself and promoting myself. That last one pisses me off and I spit out a few choice words. Then I resume what I’m doing like nothing happened.

People seem to tolerate me because writing is my job and, once in awhile, I write something that resonates with a few of them.

The rest simply ignore me when I get to be too much.

A messy, loud place, this Twitter house is. I’ve thought about moving out a few times, to get away from the so-called echo chamber. But I always decide to stay.

Because love ‘em or hate ‘em, these people are family.

And because — I’ll admit it — I need a few dysfunctional people in my life.

Guilt Chestnut Number 5: ‘You Never Call’

In a dysfunctional family few are without blame for the things that go wrong. But there’s one criticism I’ve heard time and again that makes me bristle:

“You never call.”

Mood music:

It’s not just that I don’t call the person who says that. It’s that I don’t call a lot of people. I’ve never been a fan of the phone. I always feel awkward on the phone, especially when there are pockets of dead air. I feel pressure to keep the conversation going, and it all goes downhill from there.

Thanks to modern technology, I touch base with family more than I ever did before. I do it with Android texts. I do it with Facebook. To a lesser extent, I do it with email.

But sometimes the folks I’m reaching out to don’t return fire.

I tried using Facebook to communicate more with my mother, but she unfriended me. She found this blog and it pissed her off.

I tried using it to connect with an aunt I haven’t talked to in awhile. She blocked me.

I’d chalk it up to these people not being ready for Internet communications, except that they do it fine with everyone else.

I figure if I phoned, the reception would be about as icy. But like I said, the phone makes me feel awkward. Ironic, since I’ve made my living at journalism for 18 years.

But here’s the meat of the problem:

I’ve had people bitch that I don’t call this relative or that relative to check on them and let them know I care. But the very people I’m scolded for not calling don’t call me, either.

When my relationship with my mother imploded five and a half years ago, a few family members were left confused and angry that me, Erin and the kids had disappeared from family birthday parties and the like.

They talked about it to a lot of people. But no one ever called me for my side of the story. They just made assumptions.

That’s why, when someone tries to make me feel guilty by telling me I never call people, my first impulse is shrug and roll my eyes. Trying to guilt me is bad enough. Do it with hypocrisy and you’re even more certain not to get the response you want from me.

You’re probably reading this and thinking, “Man, he’s bitter today. That’s not like him.” I guess I am a little bit bitter.

But I broach the issue because mine isn’t a special case. Most of us get slapped with the “you never call” guilt trip from family members.

This is the kind of guilt tactic that doesn’t work. If a person isn’t inclined to use the phone much, they’re not going to change their ways. And, if you’re on Facebook and they’re on Facebook but they don’t use it back when you reach out, that’s about the same as never calling.

That said, I do want better relations with my extended family. When a family member sends me a friend request on Facebook, I’ll never turn them down. I want to use the medium to reconnect with them.

My phone line is always open, too. Those who really want to get in touch with me there know how to get the number.

I don’t believe there’s ever a point of no return when it comes to ending family estrangements. I remain willing.

But if someone chooses not to get in touch with me, they shouldn’t expect me to care when I hear they’ve been whining about me from second- and third-hand sources.

Being A Misfit Is Your Saving Grace

We often come undone when we start comparing our quirk-infested selves to so-called normal people. Instead, we should celebrate our insanity and put it to work for us.

Mood music:

I used to despise myself for the things I thought were weird and out of place. The windmill hands. The inability to sit up straight in a chair. My big nose and ears. My laughter toward things others would consider serious and even tragic. My tendency to tell stories that are way out of context with the conversation around me. My inability to feel at ease in a room full of people.

In hindsight, I wasted a lot of nights worrying about all these things. I was certain nobody else had the strange behaviors I had and still have.

As I get older, I realize two things:

1. A lot of people have the same strange behaviors as me, including the constant pacing and talking to myself.

2.) People who fail to act out of the ordinary at least once in awhile bore me. Our quirks make us interesting. Our funny dress and way of talking can brighten up someone else’s otherwise ho-hum day.

I didn’t fully appreciate these things until I started working with my current boss, Derek Slater. One of the first things I noticed about him three years ago is that he was different from many of the editors I’ve worked with in the past. Journalism is a career inhabited by a lot of misfits who don’t always know how to walk in step with the rest of the crowd.

I’ve heard editors complain bitterly about how difficult these people were to work with because they were always off step with the newsroom machinery. They tended to ignore deadlines. Their writing wouldn’t conform with standard journalism 101. The people you report on can be infuriating to deal with, pulling tantrums over quotes they give you once they see the absurdity of their words in print.

I used to be one of those editors who couldn’t deal with these people, even though I was every bit the infuriating misfit myself.

The thing I immediately noticed about Derek is that he enjoys all of the above. To him, the folks who don’t behave and wait their turn to speak are simply interesting and entertaining. They help keep the world spinning.

Which is probably why I’ve lasted in this job. Not that I haven’t pissed him off more than a few times. And I don’t think he particularly enjoys it when people ignore deadlines.

I knew a reporter once who was always maligned for his aloofness. He would come in at strange hours, file stories and leave without telling anyone. His stories would just appear in the queue out of nowhere. He wore the same stained pants all the time. One day, he went into a gun shop to take lessons in how to handle the weapon. He pointed the gun at his temple and shot his brains onto the people and things around him. I was not kind to him back when I had the chance.

I sometimes wonder if more compassion for this kid — acceptance of his weirdness — would have made a difference.

My speculation is that not fitting in was too much for him in the end. He wouldn’t be the first person to end it for that reason. He won’t be the last.

I was lucky. I learned to see my misfit ways as a saving grace, the thing that gave me the strength to accept the strange and out-of-place things that have littered my life.

I see it as a gift, really. Like many gifts, it comes with a lot of baggage and can make my life and that of those around me unmanageable at times.

But when properly nurtured and controlled, it can help you make the big differences that make life worth living.

OCD Diaries

Be Yourself, Even If People Hate You For It

The more I talk to fellow recovering addicts and emotional defects, the more I realize we have one big thing in common: We want to please everyone and be loved for it. Unfortunately, it’s an impossible goal that can lead to crushing disappointment.

Mood music:

It’s an especially stinging problem in the age of social networking, where some people have learned to measure their worth by how many “friends” and “followers” they have. Facebook in particular is full of peevers who get picky about what you post even as they post things that annoy others. It’s an atmosphere tailor made for resentments.

Whenever I go to an OA, AA or 12-Step Big Book study meeting, someone always brings up their need to have everyone like them. The reason they became an addict was because that hunger could never be satisfied.

I wrote about my own experience with this in a post called “Why Being a People Pleaser Is Dumb.”

I wanted desperately to make every boss happy, and I did succeed for awhile. But in doing so I damaged myself to the core and came within inches of an emotional breakdown. It caused me to work 80 hours a week, waking up each morning scared to death that I would fall short or fail altogether. I wanted to make every family member happy. It didn’t work, because you can never keep everyone happy when strong personalities clash.

In the face of constant let-downs, I binged on everything I could get my hands on and spent most waking moments resenting the fuck out of people who didn’t embrace me for who I am.

I’d like to tell you I’ve learned to shrug it off and let people go when they didn’t want to subscribe to my personality. But the truth is that I still struggle with it.

When a family member gives me the cold shoulder, it affects me. Never mind that I’ve cold-shouldered many a family member in my day. When I discover someone on Facebook has unfriended me, I go on a hunt to find out who it was and why. Never mind all the people I’ve disconnected from for annoying me.

With this disease, hypocrisy is a constant companion.

As conflicted as I remain, I am coming around to the idea that I have to be myself, even if some people hate me for it. It’s a slow and messy process, but you could also say there’s a survival instinct kicking in.

I’m a devout Catholic who wants to be accepted by everyone in my church community. But my gallows humor and metal-head ways are going to bubble to the surface and I can’t expect everyone to like it.

On the other side of the blade, I can’t expect all my friends in the music and writing worlds to share my views on faith.

I also can’t expect everyone to approve of everything I write here. By extension, I can’t expect everyone to want all the content I insist on pushing through my social networking feeds.

All I can do is be myself and hope that the better parts of me surface more often than the unsavory parts.

Being someone else is simply too hard. Besides, in the end we get judged on who we were, not on who we pretended to be.

Steve Clark Lost His Battle But Helped Me With Mine

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

Mood music:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finish What You Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art by Bill Fennell