Fatherhood Saved Ozzy, Eddie & Me

Yesterday I watched the “God Bless Ozzy Osbourne” documentary, which focused heavily on how his addictions maimed him and his family over four decades. Though my addictive behavior pales by comparison, it still struck a chord.

Mood music:

What hit me deepest is how Ozzy finally decided to get real sobriety after his son Jack had kicked drugs and alcohol. It took his son to show him the light.

There’s a similar plot in the recent comeback of Van Halen. Armed with the knowledge that he’d be able to make music with his son if he cleaned up, Edward Van Halen finally got sober a few years ago.

The son showing dad the light theme is an old one. It’s the whole “Luke Skywalker helping Darth Vader find his good side again” story. Only in the real life examples, the fathers get to live after having their epiphany.

In the documentary, we see Ozzy changing into a different, crazy person who continuously brings heartbreak to his family — especially his children. The daughter from his first marriage is asked point-blank if he was a good Dad. Her answer is a simple “No.” We learn — though it’s not really a surprise, given how incoherent he was in all the episodes — how his alcoholism was at its worst during the run of “The Osbournes” and how his youngest kids started using in that period. Finally, we see his son Jack deciding to clean up, inspiring his father to do the same.

Like I said, my addictive personality didn’t come close to the levels of Ozzy Osbourne or Edward Van Halen. But it was bad enough that I can relate to things like being useless on the couch when my kids needed me. I was never that way all the time, and I’ve been a pretty active Dad more often than not. But I am guilty of those bad moments.

But what I relate to most is how it took becoming a parent to drive home the need for me to be a better man and reign in my demons — the OCD and addictive behavior    that was a byproduct of constant fear, anxiety and exhaustion.

It wasn’t an instant thing — Sean was almost 4 and Duncan was was barely 2 when I realized things were not right in my head — but the cattle prod was definitely my hunger to be a better parent.

So yeah, I have to say I’m inspired by these rock n’ roll stories.

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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.

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.

When The Going Gets Tough, I Disconnect

I’m leaving my weekly therapy sessions with a headache these days, because I’m working through another deeply embedded flaw in my soul.

Mood music:

It’s not nearly as bad as the therapy I had in 2004-2006, when I had to endlessly churn the sewage of my childhood memories in search of clues on what was wrong with me and how I got that way. Back then, I didn’t know myself very well. Now I do.

Knowing myself as I do, I’ve started to zero in on the ongoing flaws that hold me back and hurt loved ones. That apparently requires a few more trips to the sewer.

I’ll give you a fuller account further along in this process. For now, let’s just say I have a wall I tend to hide behind when the going gets tough. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if not for the fact that life is ALWAYS tough. Not just for me, but for everyone. We all have our Crosses to carry and difficulties to endure. In my case, it’s a lot harder with a wall in the way.

So here we are again. Back in the mental sewer. I know my way around now, but the stench can still be too much to take.

The first question from the therapist was if I had talked to my mother lately. No, I told him. I thought Mom and I were making progress in December, but she couldn’t handle this blog and went off the deep end. I won’t defend myself. She’s entitled to her point of view. But let’s just say I was hoping to be writing posts by now about how we were reconciling.

So no, I told him. We’re not talking.

Then he asked about how I handled my brother’s death when I was 13. I told him I pretty much disconnected from the world. Same thing after my best friend killed himself in 1996.

“You’re starting to see the pattern?” the therapist asked.

Yeah. When the going gets tough, I disconnect. The bigger events caused that self-defense mechanism to take root all those years ago. But it kicks in during life’s more routine challenges. And when the wall goes up, my anger level kicks up a few decibels. I don’t do what I did in my teens and 20s: Throwing furniture through walls and plotting endless ways to find those who hurt me so I could hurt them back.

I’m not THAT guy anymore. But I do still get angry. When I do, I turn in on myself and brood.

But I knew that already.

Now the question is, what to I do about it?

I love my life now, and I’m blessed beyond measure. But the better my life gets, the more of an eyesore the wall becomes. It’s got to go.

My therapist has seen this stuff before. He knows the wall is rooted in the memory sewer.

So I guess I’ll be here for awhile longer.

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.

I Pity The Fool — Especially When The Fool Is Me

“I don’t know how much more I can take.”

I’ve told myself that a million times, as I’m sure you have. We say it in times of desperation, pain and blueness.

But here’s an uncomfortable truth — Sometimes we like feeling this way.

Mood music:

There’s something about feeling bad for oneself that’s so satisfying. Maybe it’s that on some level you’ve made peace with your seemingly miserable existence.

It helps us get through a bad fight with a loved one, because instead of thinking of what we did to cause the strife it feels better to stew over how unfairly you’re always treated.

If we despise our job it feels so much better to focus the hate on whichever bosses keep criticizing us than it does to take an honest look at where we keep slipping up.

If you hate the results of an election, it’s so much easier to trash the “stupid” voters who picked the other guy than it is to think about how the candidate and supporters like you failed to make a convincing case.

If you don’t like the drivel that comes from the mouth of a misguided minister, it feels so much better to steam over the entire religion than it does to think of better ways to practice your own faith.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Sometimes, we love to feel bad. Pure and simple.

I’m trying to enjoy it less as I get older, because I find that self-pity and misplaced blame is like any other narcotic: You feel good for a few minutes, but then an awful hangover takes hold.

You start to wake up every morning with a cold rock in your belly and an ax swinging inside your skull, chopping brain.

Then you go looking for other shallow comforts to hold it together: A few cigarettes, a few glasses of something intoxicating and as much grease-drenched food as you can swallow.

The hole gets bigger, no matter how hard we try to fill it.

Nothing gets better. it all just gets worse.

That’s my experience, anyway.

I’d rather go the other way.

In Marriage, Communication Gets Tougher As You Get Older

I’ve never been good at the Valentine’s Day thing. Maybe I’m fulfilling the male stereotype, or maybe it’s because I feel more pressure to express myself. I do fine with written words. In person is another thing. When the holiday passed I Iet out a big exhale.

Mood music:

The fact of the matter is that I have a lot of love in my heart right now. I don’t need a holiday to feel it, though Valentine’s Day is as good a day as any to express it. And as my cousin Faith put it, there’s nothing wrong with setting aside a holiday for the good things in life, like love.

I’m in love with Erin more than ever. She gives her family everything she has and props everyone up when they’re having trouble standing on their own. She makes the kids’ Halloween costumes from scratch every year. She started a successful freelance business from nothing. The person she is makes me want to be better still.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve gotten much better at communication. In fact, I’ve gotten worse. So has Erin. This shouldn’t surprise any couple that’s been together for a lot of years. When you have kids everything becomes about them and it’s easy to forget that the family started with husband and wife.

Some married couples stop talking about these things and drift apart. Erin and I have decided it’s time to face the issue head on. Not because we’re mad at each other, because we’re not. Ours is not a marriage in trouble. But we know that when a couple stops communicating long enough, the relationship can deteriorate. Since we love each other, we’re not going to let that happen. Pure and simple.

We’re accepting that as we get older, we need more maintenance. That goes for how we talk to each other and how we connect on a spiritual level.

We’ve both changed a lot. That has contributed to the communication challenge.

Recovery over addiction, fear and anxiety has been a miraculous, beautiful thing. I thank God every day. But when a man changes, a whole new set of problems arise.

It’s a confusing, frustrating thing when your spouse acts one way for a bunch of years and then, suddenly or not so suddenly, ceases to be the person you married.

I’d like to think I’m still the guy she married in the most fundamental ways. My heart and most of my passions haven’t really changed. But as the priest who married us said: “You marry the person you think you know, then spend the rest of your life getting to know each other.”

As far as that goes, I’ve been a moving target, tough to nail down.

Erin used to get anxious in big crowds. Now she’s a lot more at ease. She used to struggle to show patience toward my often dysfunctional family. She’s better at that now than I am. The prospect of public speaking used to rattle her. Now she’s got a couple talks behind her and many more ahead. While all that internal growth goes on, she gets more beautiful by the day. She’s always been beautiful. But lately it distracts me. Call me sappy, but there it is.

Still, those changes, while awesome, require me to rethink how I communicate as an older spouse.

And so goes this adventure called marriage. Truth is, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Besides, as my friend Linda said the other day, love endures.

Holding Hands