For A Girl Recently Diagnosed With Crohn’s Disease

The daughter of close friends just found out she has Crohn’s Disease. She’s suffering a lot right now, and I know exactly what she’s going through. This post is for her.

Mood music:

Hello, my young friend. I’m sorry that you’re hurting so much right now. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was around your age, and spent many weeks in the hospital between ages 8-16. It stinks. But if there’s one thing I’d like you to remember after reading this, it’s that it WILL get better.

I experienced all the things you are now — the massive loss of blood, the knifing pain in the gut, sleepless nights in the bathroom, and more blood.

A couple times, I’ve been told, the doctor’s came close to removing the colon. Too much of it was under siege and they didn’t know where to start in terms of targeting it. But it never came to that.

The pain was pretty intense. I really don’t know how my parents were able to get through it. I think it would cause me more anguish to see one of my kids suffer than to go through it myself. That had to hurt. Especially since they lost another child along the way. It also couldn’t have helped that I would be in the hospital for six-week stretches in 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981.

I mention this because you should know how hard it is for your Mom and Dad to see you hurting. They’re new to this Crohn’s thing, and they will worry endlessly about what they are doing for you and whether it’s the right thing. Be patient with them if you can. But if you need to yell at them once in awhile so you can cope, go ahead. That’s what parents are for.

As you will probably soon discover, the most popular drug to treat what’s making you sick is Prednisone, which comes with a long list of side effects. Your face might get puffy and you’ll want to eat everything in sight. But you’re a strong kid and you can handle that.

A lot of people helped me survive a childhood of brutal Crohn’s Disease: My parents, great doctors, school friends who helped me catch up with my schoolwork and rooted for me whenever I got out of the hospital, and a great therapist who helped me sort through the mental byproducts of illness.

I think you’re going to get through the current attack and that you will be able to move on to a better life. Again, I lean on my personal experience.

I’m probably one of the luckiest Crohn’s patients on Earth. The last bad flare up was in 1986 and I haven’t had once since. I still go through frequent periods of inflammation, but nothing that requires drugs or hospital stays. The colon is checked out every other year to make sure the layers of scar tissue don’t run wild and morph into cancer.

Had the doctors removed the colon when I was a kid, I think things still would have worked out. I would have learned to live with it. Whatever you have in front of you, I think you can make the best of it and push through.

Be strong and keep the faith, my young friend. I hope you feel better soon.

–Bill

P.S.: Here’s a picture of me the year I was diagnosed. I’m the kid at the very back, right in the middle. As you can see, Crohn’s Disease couldn’t kill my smile. It won’t kill yours, either.

‘Fixing OCD’ Article Is Badly Misleading

An article in The Atlantic called “5 Very Specific Ways to Fix Your OCD” blows it from the start — in the headline.

OCD sufferers know damn well that you can’t fix OCD. You can only learn to manage it and make it less of a disrupting force in your life.

Mood music:

Knowing that as I do, I’m dissapointed that the writer would give OCD sufferers false hope, followed by five pieces of advice that are not totally unhelpful, but also not very realistic.

I still write some clunkers with the best of ’em. All writers do, especially when you produce articles daily. But here, I think the author was mislead by Concordia University psychologist Adam Radomsky, who spelled out the five strategies.

What follows are portions of the article in italics and my responses in plain text.

Re-examine your responsibility. Many of the symptoms of OCD can be caused and/or exacerbated by increases in perceived responsibility. The more responsible you feel, the more you are likely to check, wash, and/or think your thoughts are especially important. Ask yourself how responsible you feel for the parts of your life associated with your OCD, then take a step back from the problem and write down all of the possible other causes. For example, someone who would likely check their appliances repeatedly might feel completely responsible to protect their family from a fire. If this person adopted a broader perspective, they would realize that other family members, neighbors, the weather, the electrician who installed the wiring in the home, the company that built the appliances, and others should actually share in the responsibility.

Radomsky misses the point — OCD sufferers usually know the reality of these situations. But our minds spin with worry anyway. Like the addict who knows he-she will eventually die from their bad habits but can’t help but continue with them anyway, the OCD sufferer knows that he-she shares responsibilities with others, but can’t help but take on all the problems of the world anyway. The brain is constantly in motion, taking small concerns and sculpting them into huge, paralyzing worries.

Repetitions make you less sure about what you’ve done. This is bizarre because we usually check and/or ask questions repeatedly to be more confident of what we’ve done. OCD researchers in the Netherlands and Canada, however, have found that when repetition increases, this usually backfires and may lead to very dramatic declines in our confidence in our memory. To fix this, try conducting an experiment. On one day, force yourself to restrict your repetition to just one time. Later that day, on a scale of 0-10, rate how confident you are in your memory of what you’ve done. The next day, repeat the same behavior but rate it a few more times throughout the day. Most people who try this experiment find later that their urges to engage in compulsive behavior decline because they learn that the more they repeat something, the less sure they become.

I appreciate what he’s trying to do here with the role-playing game, and it can be helpful to try tracking how much you repeat an action and what it does to your memory.

But he again misses the crucial point: We OCD sufferers already know these repeated actions fuck with the memory of what we have or haven’t done. One of my OCD habits has always been going over the checklist for what I need to do before leaving for work the next morning. Clothes laid out? Check. Coffee maker programmed? Check. Lunch made and in the fridge? Check. Laptop bag stuffed with all the necessary work tools? Check. Then, even though I know full well what I’ve just done, I run through that same check list over and over. I’m not as bad as I was before treatment, but it’s still in me.

Treat your thoughts as just that — thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are normal, but they become obsessions when people give them too much importance … Spend a week making this distinction between your OCD thoughts (noise) and thoughts associated with things you are actually doing or would like to be doing (signal). See what happens.

I’ll tell you what happens: Your thoughts continue to run wild despite the exercise. Not that you shouldn’t try it. For a few people, it may help. But one of the very first things we learn is that we are not our thoughts; that thoughts and reality are not the same thing. But this is like the responsibility example above. We keep thinking because we can’t help it.

Practice strategic disclosure. People with OCD fear that if or when they disclose their unwanted intrusive thoughts or compulsions, other people will judge them as harshly as they judge themselves. This sadly often leaves the individual suffering alone without knowing that more than nine in 10 people regularly experience unwanted, upsetting thoughts, images, and impulses related to OCD themes as well. Consider letting someone in your life who has been supportive during difficult times know about the thoughts and actions you’ve been struggling with. Let them know how upset you are with these and how they’re inconsistent with what you want in life. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response. If not, give it one more try with someone else. We’ve found that it never takes more than two tries.

This piece of advice is sound, but gets buried beneath the unhelpful material.

Observe your behavior and how it lines up with your character. Most people struggling with OCD either view themselves as mad, bad and/or dangerous or they fear that they will become such, so they often go to great lengths to prevent bad things from happening to themselves or to their loved ones. But ask yourself how an observer might judge your values based on your actions. If you spend hours each day trying to protect the people you love, are you really a bad person? If you exert incredible amounts of time and effort to show how much you care, how faithful you are, how you just want others to be safe and happy, maybe you’re not so bad or dangerous after all. And as for being crazy, there’s nothing senseless about OCD. People sometimes fail to understand how rational and logical obsessions and compulsions can be. Remember, your values and behavior are the best reflection of who you are, not those pesky unwanted noisy thoughts.

This too is sound advice. But it leaves out something incredibly important: You can’t review your character and reconcile it with your OCD habits in this simple step he lays out. It takes years of intense therapy  — and for some, like me, the added help of medication — to peel away the layers and get at the root of your obsessions.

You can learn to manage OCD and live a good life. But it’s a lot of hard, frustrating work. And that work is ALWAYS there, until the day you die.

Know that before you dive into the search for simple solutions. If it looks simple, it’s probably too good to be true.

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.

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.

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.