Step 1


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“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable”

Surprisingly, it took me a bit to fully embrace this statement.  Anyone on the street looking at me would instantly recognize me as having food issues.  Unlike some other addictions, overeating (sans bulimia) shows quite readily on the body.  In my case, the mid-section.  But in my head, I compared my addiction to alcohol or drug problems.  If I missed a meal, I did not go into the DTs.  My life had not totally spun out of control.  I still have a job and I manage my relationships fairly well.

But is any of that true?

Yes, I could restrict my calories for a day or two.  But there was always the corresponding pendulum swing back the other way and I would over eat.  Have I dieted?  Yes.  But can I stick to it on my own?  No.  Do I have cravings in the absence of sweet or salty foods?  Yes.  Do I have the power to change?  History would say no.

My life does not appear to be unmanageable in the “rock bottom” sense of the phrase.  But there has been a steady decline in the activities and social situations I was comfortable in.  I did not play with my son the way many fathers do.  And my health IS completely out of control.  I have high blood pressure.  I eat bad food.  My cholesterol is high.  I am at high risk for diabetes, heart attack and stroke.  I am clinically depressed.  I don’t sleep well.

So yeah, I manage to make it to work most days.  But am I really managing my life?  Am I in control?

Clearly, I am not.  The casual observer is right.  My myopic self-image is wrong.

My name is Ben and I am a compulsive overeater.

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Network Marketing


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When I was about 25, my boss invited me to a breakfast with “local business leaders.”  I was kind of honored.  I thought he might be sponsoring me for the Rotary or Elks club.  Everyone was dressed in business attire.  We arrived a few minutes late, but the guy who was speaking was very inspirational.  I was trying to figure out what “club” this was.  But since I was late, I put that question aside.  I figured I missed the introduction. 

The next guy got up and was equally dynamic.  He was talking about how he had made a substantial fortune using something called “network marketing.”  That was the first time I had heard that term.  I was intrigued.  He was drawing diagrams with concentric circles.  When he got the last circle, he used the dreaded word…Amway!

But my boss assured me that Amway was an outdated concept.  This was not that pyramid scheme my parents had warned me about.  This was a new paradigm.  I bit.  I should have run.  My parents told me it was a waste of money.  But I knew better…  

…Six months later, I moved.  I did not leave any forwarding information. 

It was in fact: a pyramid scheme.

But I am nothing if not naïve.  Fast forward twenty years later.  I was burned out on religion.  I was twisting and torturing my mind to hold on to my faith, but failing miserably.  Then a friend came along and started talking to me about the “nones.”  People who were spiritual but not religious.  Really?  Go on…

And so it began.  My 2 year attempt to re-brand my Christian faith into a new paradigm.  But wait you say, “Isn’t that the same ‘Ole Time Religion’?” 

Why no!…

…No, this is completely different…

…The clergy are not the drivers…

…This is about people…

Until…

…until its not.  At the end of the day, it is still about putting butts in the seats.  It is not about building up people.  It is about drawing a crowd and getting their money.  And if you do anything that threatens the bottom line, you will be tossed aside like a bad penny.

It is my own fault.  I let the parasites in.  I believed the hype. 

It stung like hell, but I think I am getting back to some sense of normalcy. 

Next post….12 steps to free your mind.

Attachment and Engagement


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Here are thoughts for a rainy day from a practicing agnostic Christian Buddhist. I have been struggling of late with the third noble: suffering is the result of attachment. I think what I got hung up on was the antonym of attachment: detachment. Detachment denotes aloofness. Visions of a monk in a cave come to mind. That mode of being for me is completely unattainable. I cannot follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and just dump my family and traipse around the countryside searching for enlightenment. That kind of behavior would not only increase my own suffering, it would inflict it upon others.

Upon further reflection and a bit of poking around others blogs, I think I see the flaw in my logic. The opposite of attachment is detachment. That kind of thinking is dualistic, which Buddhism frowns upon. In all things, it is good to look beyond the extremes and focus on the “middle way.” Attachment is grasping, making a fist to hold onto what one owns or desires. It is not actively fleeing from anything; instead, it is not trying to possess what belongs to no one.

The reason I bring this up is because of issue my family is going through. My wife’s tenure at her job is coming to an end. To say it is a messy transition, would be an understatement. I have been raging for weeks and not really understanding why. I have been living in a pattern of avoidance. I wanted people to “do the right thing.” I kept expecting to behave in a typical “by the book” fashion. The more things degraded, the angrier I got. I had convinced myself that mine was the only way of seeing the situation and those holding a contrary view were just selfish. I thought in my arrogance that if I could just get people to see “the big picture”, everything would be resolved. The more I wanted to be understood, the angrier I got. The harder I tried to meditate the more my thoughts focused on perceived injustices and my own view of the situation.

On top of everything, her resignation had to be kept secret. This made the whole situation intolerable. We had to tell many half-truths and avoid other people all together. I felt dishonest in all of my interactions. But finally last night, the damn broke and the principle participants were told.

I feel like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders. The secret is out. And finally, I can focus on my own spiritual shortcomings. Upon reflection I can see that I have been wrapped up in how I expected others to behave…grasping, clawing. I had to let it go. I can’t fix things. I cannot make people see things my way. Things are what they are. And that has to suffice. This is a fixed point in time. I will probably always remember it. But this moment will pass. The lost relationships will hurt. But new relationships will be forged. I have to release what was never mine and wish all involved peace.

I am not there yet. But I am well on my way.

Hilarious


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When my son is in the hospital, my wife and I take shifts staying overnight with him.  That way there is always one coherent parent present when Drs and nurses come by.  In this last 6 day stint, Monday was one of my nights off.  When I got home I was so keyed up, I had to watch TV for a while before my mind would relax enough that I could sleep.  I watch several comedy specials on Netfliks.

One of the specials I watched was Louis CK’s “Hilarious.”  One of his bits was about Americans and their insistence on complaining while living in paradise.  He was joking about what a miracle cell phones are; but that Americans constantly gripe about them being slow or not working properly.  You have an amazing piece of technology.  But instead of being in awe, you nitpick over slight inconveniences.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I realized how whiney I can sometimes be.  When my son is in the hospital, I bitch and moan to myself about how seeming unfair the universe is.  But I miss the lesson of how incredibly lucky I am.  I have access to a world class health facility.  I have amazing doctors and nurses working round the clock to transform my son’s broken body into a working whole.  I have great insurance that pays the bulk of my costs.  I have a job with generous vacation that allows me to be present at all of his surgeries.  I have constant access to the internet where friends and family show their love and support.  I have a strong marriage with an incredible woman.  I have a caring extended family.

In short, I have nothing to complain about.  Nothing.  Yes, my family was dealt a rough hand, but we have all of our bases covered.

I found my gratitude.  Thank you to my family.  Thank you to my friends.  And thank you to the dedicated professionals that work at Children’s National Medical Center.  I am in debt to the generosity of others.

Lament of a Tired Soul


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I have a favorite poem.  It is the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by  T. S. Eliot.  It is a poem of a tired soul.  The first stanza in particular resonates with me today.

 Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

-T.S. Eliot

I feel old today.  Though I am just past my middle years, I am tired, tired beyond my years.

Sunday, my family checks into the hospital so that my son can have two more surgeries in one week.  That will bring our grand total to 5 this year.

I have lost two close friends this year, one to death another to relocation.  My job is uncertain, its value questionable at best.

I feel old.

The VACTERL beast breaths down my neck.  I will fight him the best I can and live to fight another day.

But I am tired, so very tired.

My world is shrinking.  My focus narrow is narrow.  I have to be there.  I have to be strong.

I long for connectedness, for relevance, for value.  But these are luxuries for those who have climbed Maslow’s mountain.  I am at its base bearing the weight of the world.

Talk is cheap.  The pills are weak.  I must trudge on and on and on.

Taming the Smoke Monster


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Zen and Ben, they rhyme, that is about the only thing those two words have in common.

Not exactly true, but finding inner peace is not one of my strong suits.

I have moments, fleeting moments of insight.  I cannot imagine what true enlightenment would look like, but I can achieve several minutes of peacefulness if I really work at it.

My meditations most recently have focused on visualizing myself above my body.  My goal is to be the objective observer.  When I am successful at focusing on this existential existence, I am able to release a lot of the anxiety that presses against me every day.

I imagine myself floating a few feet away and I try to observe what “Ben” is doing.  I will say things to myself like, “Wow he seems really angry. That is not me.  That is a body experiencing anxiety.”

It may sound simplistic, but the effect is pretty profound.  When you partition off part of your brain to be a simple observer, that proxy is able to calm the “real” person down.  As I distance myself from my body, I am able to shut off some of the physiological reactions I have.  The adrenalin pumps shut off and eventually the hormones already in my system burn out.  The real trick is knowing when to begin meditating.  9 times out of 10, I just experience the anxiety…OK rage.  But it used to be 10 times out of 10.  So 1 is something.

The Black Hole


Deep inside of me there is a black hole.  It is a malevolent mass of pure evil.  Were it to be freed, I might be capable of doing unthinkable things.

Usually, it is under wraps.  It is buried so deeply in my psyche, that under normal circumstances, I cannot even access it.  But under prolonged stress, like the last 5 months, it bubbles up close to the surface.

I don’t have to say or do anything.  But the people around me know it’s there and can sense its presence.  My boss, my wife and my kid have all seen it.  I am sure it raises the hairs on the back of their necks.  My hands shake, my teeth are clenched and I am barely able to speak.

It scares me that there is something so negative inside of me.  I feel out of control when it surfaces.  I am able to control my actions, but just barely.

I have a lot of compassion for those who find themselves in the criminal justice system.  I know that given the wrong set of circumstances, I too could be in their shoes.

The Music of Sorrow


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Music is very important to me.  I am not a musician and I cannot create music of my own.  But when I listen, I really listen.  I sometimes think of music as an old testament alter with smoke wafting into the air.  The prevailing winds determine the patterns and intensity of the listening experience.  When I am in a state of musical rapture, I just wish I could dissolve into the smoke.

Yesterday, I found out that my son has had a previously undiagnosed stricture in his urethra.  It requires that a semi-permanent foley catheter be left in for a couple of months.  This would not be such a big deal, were we not in the midst of having his let extended, an extremely invasive procedure.  I took the news badly and have been in a dismal funk since hearing the news.

Then this morning, when I got to my desk, I started listening to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.  I closed my eyes and just absorbed the sorrowful tones.  This is not peppy music to raise your spirits.  It is gut wrenching notes of mourning.  But when I let my soul commingle with the sounds reverberating in my ears, I have a sense that I am not alone.  Many have traveled this road before and I will not be the last.   It pulls me from the brink and gives me sanguine sense of peace.

The Swinger


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When my son was first born, I was on the cusp of going into the ministry.  Because I was quasi clergy, I felt that I had to put a positive spin on everything.  I said obnoxious things like, “thank God this happened to us.  We have the resources and a strong relationship.  We can deal with this.”  Or, “God is good all the time.”  I tried to be publically upbeat.  When we were in the hospital or at doctor’s appointments, I was always upbeat and even joked with nurses and orderlies.  I avoided any public display of emotion.  Only when I was completely overwhelmed would I let it come out.  (One notable example was when I was in the hospital gift shop.  I was getting something, I do not recall what.  The cashier asked me how my baby was.  I burst into tears and left without making my purchase.  I avoided the gift shop the rest of the stay.)

As guys, we have it drilled into us from a young age to keep our shit together.  I occasionally would allow myself to cry in the car.  But for the most part, I just stuffed it down into a dark part of my soul.  People would ask me how my son was doing and I would give a very clinical description, sometime more than they wanted to know.  But if they asked how I was doing, I would just say, “I’m hanging in there.”  It was complete and total malarkey.

This was a recipe for disaster.  I began having road rage.  I would blow up and my employees and colleagues.  I swore like a sailor.  My face began to change.  At work I went from being the Gentle Ben to the Mountain Troll.  For the first time in my life, people were afraid of me.  My stellar career and my clergy calling quickly dissolved.  The angrier I got, the more I stuffed it into the dark place, this made me angrier.  It was a vicious circle.

Eventually things just started to disintegrate.  My world got smaller and smaller, to the point where I had just two friends at work and my immediate family.  Something had to change.  Then, quite by accident, I discovered blogging.  My first blog was all funny stuff.  I have a decent sense of humor and I wrote whimsical little stories about my life.  But every now and then I gave peeks behind the curtain.  People would occasionally be offended but for the most part they were very supportive.

As the years went by, I became more honest and graphic.  I stopped sugar coating what was happening and just went with the brutal truth.  I occasionally cringe when I read those entries.  But on the whole, I felt better.  I also started attending seminars on spirituality.  I started sharing my story in real time with other people.  What I found was that they had equally heart breaking stories with different themes.  Slowly the realization sunk in that everyone is carrying around these heroic stories of survival.  The more I told my story and the more I heard their stories, the better I felt.  I learned to embrace my darker emotions.  If I was sad, I found an outlet for expressing my sadness.  If I was pissed off, I would find a way to vent my anger.  Denying that I had these feelings was pointless and self-destructive.

So if you read my blog and you see that I am in the pits of despair, it is OK.  I am just letting off steam.  Writing is a freeing experience.  I am not always an emotional wreck.  Often I am happy.  Sometimes it is just for a moment, sometime for days.  The pendulum of my life swings wildly.  I am at peace with that because no matter the state, nothing is permanent.

So whether you’re having a great or a rotten day, don’t be afraid of it.  Recognize it for what it is and know that it will not always be that way.

The Winter of My Discontent


VACTERL occasionally gives you a little break.  Though you may have an onerous lists of tasks required to keep your child happy and healthy, you get into an offbeat rhythm that mimics normal life.  You find a place of serenity and you think that you have beaten back the deadly predators.

But really you are kidding yourself.  The minute you think you have it whipped, it knocks the shit out of you and leaves you breathless.  VACTERL is an evil minion of death that is desperate to get its talons into you and your child.  If it does not kill, it ravages both parent and child alike. 

But you keep plodding on.  Because that is what you have to do.  You have to force yourself out of bed every day and go through the life-giving rituals that allow your child to continue.  There is no quitting.  There is no time for quiet contemplation.  There is just the continuing dance in the quicksand.  You flail about to keep your heads above the sand.

Peace will never come, just an end.  Whose end is unclear.