5 Reasons Why Facebook Is Dangerous For People With Depression

 

Last week I fell into panic mode. It started with intense chest pains each time I logged on to Facebook to check the groups I belong to as well as scroll through my main feed. Each visit became shorter as the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression overwhelmed rational thought. By Tuesday I had a full-blown anxiety attack and needed my mom to watch Sienna lest my little girl see me hysterically crying; screaming, “It’s all crashing down! It’s all crashing down!” while I sat against a wall, head in my hands. What exactly was crashing down is meaningless in hindsight because of the utter absurdity of the thoughts careening through my head: I suck; I’ll never be as good as HIM; I’m a failure; My family would be better off without me; I’ll never be successful enough. I’ve invented enormous expectations for myself thanks to those placed on me as a kid by family and school.

On Tuesday I wrote a message in a dad bloggers group to which I belong that indicated I was giving up on Facebook and leaving the group because I believed I’d never reach an elite blogging level that would lead to sponsored campaigns, TV appearances, and going viral. My post elicited a bunch of worried comments, phone calls and IMs that I ignored because I felt I didn’t deserve them. I believed myself to be an outsider, a kid not invited to a birthday party. I spent most of the next three days in bed with Elaine and my parents watching Sienna. I stuttered my way through therapy, but found no relief. I didn’t fully recover until Saturday or Sunday and now I’m slowly getting back on Facebook, but I need to limit myself because I still get chest pains, though minor at the moment.

Just imagine – a huge anxiety attack followed by three days in bed feeling pathetic, insufficient, alienated and even suicidal all because of the thoughts triggered by a social media platform.

That is depression mixed with Facebook.

Facebook and its impact on mental health has been researched for years. Multiple studies have shown that the amount of time and the ways in which people use the social media platform can, in fact, lead to depression. The University of Missouri, for example, released a study in 2015 indicating Facebook causes feelings of envy which can in turn lead to depression, but what if the user already has this overwhelming, narcissistic, mentally and physically taxing disease? In order to illustrate how dangerous Facebook can be for depression sufferers for those that don’t have the disease – and to reinforce you are NOT alone for those that do – here are five major effects Facebook has had on me.

1)   Isolation – Depression is an isolating disease because you spend your life horrifically alone in your head. Imagine being in a room filled with friends, family and loved ones and still feeling utterly lost and abandoned. Now compound that with staring alone at a screen reading about other people’s lives, hoping and waiting for someone to comment on or like something you wrote. This can trigger a sense of bleakness to the nth degree in a depression sufferer.

Even more interactive Facebook components such as participating in a discussion or conversing via IM can have detrimental effects. The people with whom you’re interacting are flesh and blood, but they’re not physically in your presence; online they’re wisps in the wind. If they’re “Facebook Friends” and nothing more, they can be reminders of the lack of closeness in your life - whether real or perceived. My two best friends, for instance, live in Maryland and Florida while I’m in New York. Each time I interact with them on Facebook it’s like a piercing reminder that they live hundreds of miles from me and I’m lucky to see them in person a couple of times a year. When I close the computer I’m almost immediately punched by a deep sadness increasing my loneliness on the friendship front.

2)   Comparison Game – Depression sufferers almost always reflexively play the “comparison game” in almost every form of life. They devote huge amounts of energy in measuring themselves against others and irrationally coming up lacking. It’s an awful form of pessimism, fixation and envy. Combine that with Facebook and this damaging “game” worsens. Such aggrieved people see a friend excitedly announce a new job on Facebook and think, “Why not me? I’m worthless,” and off down the rabbit hole they go. Logically they know all they’re doing is feeding the disease, but this isn’t a rational game.

This is the depression aspect that most afflicts me. I log on to Facebook, see that a friend from elementary school’s just bought a new house, look around my small apartment and lament that I have so little financially – this despite knowing I have a beautiful, loving wife, an incredible daughter, and a great deal of caring friends and family. I chastise myself for not having the money to provide my family with a house. I hate myself for not being able to afford the “American Dream.”

My thoughts, my unrelenting self-thrashings, happen so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to breathe. I see words or pictures and within seconds my chest hurts and my hands tremble. I compare myself to other dad bloggers. I look at their poetic writing styles, book publications, television appearances, viral posts, brand campaign invitations, and I feel miniscule. Does it matter that they’ve been blogging for five years compared to my two? Do I think about how their kids might be older than Sienna giving them more time to blog, to spend on Facebook, to make names for themselves? Do I think about my own accomplishments as a blogger? No. Instead my self-loathing increases; the disease digs its talons even deeper into my brain.

The comparison game is also addicting. Sometimes I spend hours on the site scrolling trough post after post, my feelings of inadequacy intensifying to the point where I’m on the verge of tears. Yet I’m unable to stop until Elaine, seeing my pain, slams shut the computer for me. I’ve yet to find a way out of this trap, to avoid this trigger. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure out a way – deep breaths, shouting at myself that I’m being absurd, snapping myself with a rubber band each time I have a negative thought – but it remains troublesome. Hopefully my therapist and I will figure out something that works for me.

3)   Fantasy/Reality – Piggybacking on the comparison game is the fact that Facebook posts never show the full story. That friend who got the new job might have marital issues or suffer severe debt. The friend who bought the new house might be alcoholic or abusive. In my experience, the majority of Facebook users post only things of a positive nature, but a depressed person cannot see this and instead takes everything at face value. If so and so bought a house she must have everything she wants in life. She’s better than me. If so and so got a new job he’s clearly rolling in dough compared to my living check-to-check. He made it. I didn’t.

Depression fills in the blanks with fantasy allowing absurdity to consume truth. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent envying friends’ Facebook lives only to find out they’re unhappy beyond the screen. And while these revelations might help get me to see reality initially, depression refuses to lift its boot from my neck. It pushes harder than before forcing me to expend so much energy in reminding myself that what I’m reading or seeing isn’t real that eventually I give out. I move on to someone else and that awful jealousy over what may just be a happy mask returns with a vengeance.

4)   Arbitrary Numbers – Like all social media platforms, Facebook is a numbers game. How many friends do you have? How many people commented on your post or picture? How many likes did your video get? If you suffer depression and receive few comments or likes on a picture or post, you’re predisposed to taking it personally – they didn’t like it so they don’t like me. Rarely does it enter the brain that people might not have seen it or are too busy to comment.

Further, people with the disease are inclined to “collect” Facebook friends even if they don’t like the person. This happened to me when I friended someone I thought I was close with between elementary and high school. Truth is, he was always an arrogant jerk who often belittled me. After a year of him ignoring me, making snarky comments and untagging himself from pictures of the two of us, I decided to unfriend him, but I couldn’t make myself do it. Something in my head told me I deserved this humiliation. It took me months to finally do it and when I did, when I finally pressed that key as my fingers trembled and tears streamed down my cheeks, it felt like less like relief than failure.

But the worst Facebook numbers game (at least for me) is how many people send birthday greetings. I always send out birthday wishes figuring it takes just a few moments of time to bring a smile to someone’s face, and while I know I shouldn’t expect it in return, I do anyway. Each year I’m afraid to check Facebook until because I think I might jinx something. Usually I get 100+ birthday wishes which is nice, but still bugs me. Remember, depression is narcissistic. This year I discovered that only 36 out of my 600+ Facebook friends sent me birthday wishes. The sheer grief, the magnitude of self-hatred I felt in that moment sent me spiraling. I wound up bawling in my Elaine’s arms. It didn’t matter that all of the most important people in my world called me nor did I care that Sienna was able to understand and wish me happy birthday for the first time in her life. Only 36 people sent me sent birthday greetings on Facebook!

Depression is like living with blinders on. You can’t see the good, only the bad. Hence I was obsessed with my other 500+ Facebook friends. Why didn’t THEY wish me a happy birthday? I cried myself to sleep that night thinking of numbers: 36 out of 600+. It turned out that during one of its upgrades Facebook changed my birthday to private which explains why I received so few posts. And while that revelation made me feel a little better, the sting still lingered. It’s absolutely insane that I disregarded the real life love I received on my birthday from my best friends, my family, my wife, my daughter while pining for birthday wishes from online friends, many of whom I barely know, but that’s what the disease does. Arbitrary numbers and depression mix about as well as onions and milk.

5)   Falling Behind – It’s impossible to keep up with Facebook because people are always posting one thing or another. Thus it’s highly plausible that as a user, you’re going to miss cool pictures, announcements or humorous posts. And the more friends you have, the more you’re going to miss. When faced with this, depression sufferers often feel like they’re falling behind which leads to guilt that they’re letting their friends and family down.

This happens to me constantly. I scroll and scroll and scroll, but I just can’t keep up. It feels like I’m in a race running through thick mud as the finish line moves further and further away. Negative thoughts bombard me – What did I miss? Will my friend hate me because I didn’t like a picture of his kids or comment on his post? What if I missed a birthday? What if someone said they were having a baby? I CAN’T KEEP UP!!!

And then the debilitating guilt and fear and the horrid, selfish aspect of depression set in. I’m letting people down. My friend will hate me because I didn’t comment on their post about their daughter’s first word. They’re not going to like something I post out of spite. They’re going to forget me, unfriend me, even banish me from a group. It’s a vicious cycle because the more I spiral, the less I check Facebook and the more I “fall behind.” And even though I know it’s illogical, I have immense trouble stopping my depression from ensnaring me in its massive grip.

These are just five reasons why Facebook can be dangerous for those suffering from depression taken from my own experiences with the platform and disease. I’m sure there are many more. If you’re on Facebook and suffer depression, what aspects do you find exacerbate your mental illness?

We’ve Started A New Podcast About Pop Culture Fathers

Hopefully the start of an ongoing series, here’s a podcast Christopher Persley​ of The Brown Gothamite​ and I did for City Dads Group​ about pop culture dads. In our first episode we tackle “black-ish”. Chris and I got lucky in that we were able to ask Anthony Anderson some questions as well. Whit Honea​  of Honea Express​ adds some commentary at the end. Check it out! Very proud of it! Please let us know what you think! You can find it here!

The Mess I Got Myself Into

Toddlers come with many rules. Think Gremlins on steroids. I’ve gotten the major ones down: don’t not toddler-proof your home; don’t expect your children to remain angels upon turning 2 or 3 because tantrums will come when you least expect them; don’t think your kid’s going to eat that peanut butter and jelly sandwich she asked for – she really just wants to watch you squirm when she takes 1 bite and demands yogurt instead. But there’s one rule, one that’s insanely integral to child-rearing that you don’t even think about it until after you’ve experienced its dire consequences: no matter how tired you are never unwittingly fall asleep on the floor while playing with your kid. It happened to me. Don’t let it happen to you.

I awoke confused, face itchy and red from the carpet, drool still sliding down my cheek. Sienna wasn’t in the living room where I lay amongst books, Sesame Street figurines, superhero action figures and too many blocks to count. I stood up, rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock on my phone. Forty-five minutes. I’d been conked out on the floor, dead to the world, for 45 minutes whilst my child had the run of the place.

“Sienna!!” I called, looking around to see if anything was broken. Outside of the mess my daughter and I had created prior to my unexpected nap, the living room looked pristine. That’s when I should have known I was in for something bad, but instead I felt like I’d dodged a bullet.

“Sienna!!” I called again, walking down the hall to the kitchen where I found only our cat, Gleeb, in a perfectly clean room. Was it me or did he have a look of fear in his eyes?

Not in the living room. Not in the kitchen. Both my daughter’s bedroom and our bedroom’s doors were closed and she’d yet to master the childproof plastic things we’d placed on the front door knob which meant she there was just one more place she could be – the bathroom.

Now, we usually close the bathroom door, but for some reason I’d forgotten to the last time I used the…um…potty. Maybe it was because I was so tired. Maybe I was in a rush to get back to playing with Sienna. I don’t know why I didn’t close it and so I throw myself on the mercy of the court of fellow parents. Wait…I don’t have to do that. You know. You already know.

I heard something ripping from just beyond the partially opened door.

Please tell me she just tore up a roll of toilet paper. It can’t be that bad.

I opened the door and found my smiling daughter standing on the toilet gleefully tearing open one of my wife’s tampons.

“Daddy!!” she yelled. “You awake!!”

She threw the partially opened tampon on the floor or what was now, basically, a garbage dump. It was if my bathroom vomited – cotton pads, Q-Tips, mouthwash, toilet paper and my wife’s assorted creams, cleansers, make-up removers, lotions, gels and myriad of different tampons littered the floor. Since our bathroom is so small I literally could not see the floor tiles.

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Sienna’s bathroom destruction

I sighed deeply, my body deflating as I contemplated how much work lay ahead, knowing it was all my fault. I broke a rule.

“Daddy!” Sienna said. “Look what I did!” Her beautiful face shone with the cheerfulness only associated with a toddler who knew she got away with something.

“It’s beautiful, sweetie. Now let’s clean up.” How could I chastise her when it was my fault for falling asleep?

“Okay!!!” she said, jumping from the toilet.

I opened the closet across from the bathroom, grabbed a plastic bag and began the tedious job of placing each bottle back on the shelf, trying to figure out which tampon went in which box (I gave up after a couple of attempts) and playing 500-Q-Tip pick-up. I have to say Sienna was quite helpful, I have to say. I also have to say that I was thrilled all of the bottles seemed closed, that the floor wasn’t a mess of gels and lotions.

That was until Gleeb walked in and I saw his matted fur.

“Oh no,” I said. “Oh no no no no!”

“What is it, Daddy?”

“Oh boy.”

I reached down, felt Gleeb’s gray and black back and sure enough, the poor thing was covered in some mysterious cream. I wasn’t imagining things. That WAS fear in his eyes!

“Sienna?” I asked, knowing full well the answer to my question. “Did you cover Gleeb with cream?”

“No,” she said sweetly.

“You didn’t?”

“No.” She smiled. “Gleeb has cream?”

“He does and now we need to give him a bath and this is not gonna be fun.”

I put tied the now full bag, closed the door, started the tub, and picked up a clearly frightened Gleeb who immediately started clawing the air and my arms. Sienna stood by watching.

I placed Gleeb beneath the faucet and then came the howls, nay screams as the poor cat thrashed in the shallow water like a drowning victim.

“What’s wrong with Gleeb?” asked Sienna.

“You know how you love to sit in the bath and splash?” I said. “Cats clean themselves with their tongues. Most cats hate getting actual baths.”

With one hand holding Gleeb, I slathered shampoo on the poor cat with the other. Sienna stuck her head past me so she should get a better look.

“Bubbles!” she said happily, ignoring my bleeding arms and the terrified cat now so soaked he looked like he’d lost 5 pounds.

“Yes,” I sighed. “Bubbles.”

I did my best to get all the cream off Gleeb’s fur, turned off the faucet and covered the trembling cat with a towel. I dried him as best as I could and released him into the hall so he could lick his wounds. I’d have to worry about my own later.

Now even more thoroughly exhausted from cleaning the bathroom and cat than I was before my surprise nap, I carried Sienna back to the living room thinking about this new rule I’d have to deal with each day as a stay-at-home dad – never, ever, under ANY circumstances, accidentally fall asleep on the floor while playing with your child.

I’m Back in “Dads Behaving Dadly 2: 72 More Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood”

I’m proud to announce that around June 1, 2015, just in time for Father’s Day, I’ll have 2 stories featured in Dads Behaving Dadly 2: 72 More Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood”.  I was honored having 2 stories featured in volume 1 and I’m even more so getting 2 in volume 2 considering the competition was that much fiercer. Many thanks to co-editors, Hogan Hilling and Al Watson! Will post more updates as they become available.

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A Birthday Full Of Surprises

Sometimes the groundhog is unrelenting. Sometimes he refuses to talk Old Man Winter out of releasing us North Easterners from his icy grips despite the turn of the calendar. It snowed on the first day of the spring here in New York, a day usually earmarked for rebirth and the end of winter’s cruelty. But instead 3-5 inches fell from a dull white sky. Still it was a special day for Sienna turned 3 on that snowy first day of spring…and turning age 3 is both magical and full of curveballs.

We held a large party for Sienna’s first birthday at my parents’ house. Few kids attended, but we were surrounded by friends and loved ones who laughed as Sienna painted her confused face with chocolate cake. We didn’t do much of anything for Sienna’s second birthday. I think we went out to dinner to celebrate, but honestly, I cannot recall for “birthday” still meant nothing in Sienna’s mind. But it did this year. I’m sure if she completely grasped what “birthday” means but she knew it was a momentous occasion revolving around her and that was enough.

“You know what’s coming up on Friday,” I asked?

“My birthday!!” Sienna gleefully yelled, emanating so much excitement she probably glowed in the dark.

“And what does a birthday mean?”

“Presents!”

“What else?”

“Balloons! Cake!”

“What type of cake do you want?”

“Chocolate!” she said, stretching the word out so I could fully understand her desire. She might as well have drooled, jaw wide open à la Homer Simpson.

“Do you want ice cream cake or regular cake?”

“Regular!”

“I guess we’ll have to see what happens,” I said with a wink.

Now, I don’t want my daughter to always associate all of these superficial things with birthdays, but I have no problem with it at age 3 for I felt just as much, if not more, ebullience as Sienna. I’d gone to Toys ‘R Us and picked up a bunch of little things for her to open including some Doc McStuffins and Mickey Mouse stickers, but also Iron Man and Captain America action figures (both Elaine and I want Sienna to inherit our nerdiness) to join her beloved Hulk. On my recommendation, my parents picked up a set of 100 Picasso Tiles (a less expensive, but just as wonderful version of Magna Tiles) that I knew Sienna would love since she enjoys building but isn’t quite ready for little LEGO pieces. We didn’t plan a party – no bouncy houses, no other kids. Elaine and I figured we had one more year to have Sienna all to ourselves before we had to deal with shelling out hundreds of dollars for a noisy, chaotic fête. Instead there’d be cupcakes at school, small presents at home, dinner and a more presents at my parents house and then 2 days later, a small celebration with our extended family. But sometimes a curveball throws off even the best planning.

The morning of Sienna’s birthday was perfect despite the snowy forecast. As with all school days, I woke her up, but this time I grinned widely and said, “Happy birthday sweet Sienna!”

“It’s my birthday!” she said, sleep melting from her eyes quicker than I’ve ever seen.

“That it is! Let’s eat and get dressed and get you to school where you can have cupcakes and everyone will sing ‘Happy Birthday!’”

We arrived at her classroom, cupcakes in hand only to discover the place was near empty. Three or four kids sat playing with toy cars or blocks, but I’d never seen the place so barren.

“Hi birthday girl!” her teacher, Miss Joanne, said placing a purple crown decorated with glitter spelling out “Sienna” and “3″ on my daughter’s head. Sienna smiled broadly and fingered the crown.

I gave gave Miss Joanne the cupcakes and learned that 7 of the 12 kids were home sick with the stomach flu. Elaine herself has suffered all week from a similar illness, though we’re not sure if it was a stomach flu or food poisoning. Either way it landed her in the ER because of the pain. But Sienna still had the crown and the cupcakes and enough kids to sing, so that was unfortunate, but ok.

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The birthday girl at school wearing her purple crown

The rest of the day went as planned. Sienna came home and opened her little gifts with an intensity that would probably scare off a few people. Seriously, the girl was so into unwrapping each present that I had to keep asking her to smile. But she loved each one, especially Iron Man and Captain America. She ran to get her Hulk figure and had me pretend to be both Iron Man and Cap while she voiced the Hulk. I explained that while Iron Man could fly and the Hulk could jump really high, Captain America’s power was super strength, so she solved that problem by sprinkling him with pixie dust (“Pixie dust away!” for all you “Jake and the Never Land Pirate” fans). We had a great time playing and enjoying ourselves as the afternoon bled into evening. Time to head to my parents. .

We walked outside into a spring world of pure white snow, Sienna happily catching flakes with her tongue.

“Daddy, you have to clean the car, Daddy.”

“I know, but don’t worry. It shall be done.”

I cleaned off the car and off we went to my parents’ house for meaning it was time to head to my parents’ house for eggplant parmigana, chocolate cake and of course, more presents. Balloons greeted Sienna as we walked through the door along with grinning grandparents. I think, like Elaine and myself, they shared our enthusiasm Sienna had started to understand the birthday concept.

The Picasso Tiles were an enormous hit as I’d expected. They’re colorful, magnetic and so easy to use. Sienna and Elaine built tower after tower with both fervor and deep concentration only for Sienna to suddenly grab the Hulk, yell, “Hulk smash!” and completely demolish their creations. I couldn’t have been more proud.

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Sienna deeply considering where to place the next Picasso Tile

There is one thing to mention before we get to the cake, the candles and the singing. When I was at the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Francisco less than a month earlier, I’d asked the people working in the Lee Jeans Denim Den, a sponsor booth made to look like an actual Lee store, if they made pants for toddlers. I honestly had no idea because just about all of Sienna’s clothes are hand-me-downs. They told me yes and I didn’t think anything more of it. The next thing I knew I received an e-mail from Lee asking about sizes for not just Sienna, but Elaine as well! Stunned, I responded with the information and asked why they wanted to know.

“It’s your daughter’s 3rd birthday! We want to do something nice for her!” read the e-mail, totally blowing my mind. And so a package came a few days prior to Sienna’s birthday with 2 pairs of jeans each for Sienna and Elaine. While Elaine’s fit just fine, Sienna is such a string bean that I had to pull out the adjustable straps at least 10 times on each side. Still, she looked great! I e-mailed Lee back and thanked them wholeheartedly, mentioning the straps, but saying it was perfectly fine. Once more I thought nothing more of it.

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Elaine and Sienna playing with Picasso Tiles and wearing their new Lee Jeans

Out came the cake – chocolate as requested – adorned with 3 flickering candles. Sienna stood on a chair not quite knowing what to do with herself, but clearly happy and maybe a little shy and embarrassed as we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She’d experienced this ritual before (both Elaine and my birthdays were in February). She’d experienced in class, though it probably meant less to her because the few classmates there and her teachers remain mostly strangers. This was her mommy, daddy, grandma and pop-pop singing to her. So she stood there as we sang sometimes looking down at the floor, but mostly staring at us with her eyes as bright and dancing as the candles’ flames and then she blew out the candles, had a small slice of cake and raced back to the Picasso Tiles. All in all, a very successful birthday, but she still had the small party with the relatives to go.

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Sienna standing and smiling in front of her cake as we sang “Happy Birthday”

Saturday was a relaxing day. Nothing doing. Sunday arrived and we were all set to travel to New Jersey for Sienna’s party when she started complaining of stomach pains and developed a slight fever. Curveball. Should we cancel at the last minute after all of the preparation my aunt and uncle had done, after my cousins had set aside their busy schedules and roped their children together? The answer came in the form of a spray of vomit. Swing and a miss. Terror seized Sienna as she’d only vomited once before in her life (3 days later she’s well but fears eating anything lest she throw up). Her fever spiked to close to 101. Elaine and Sienna stayed home. I went to my parents to New Jersey, to the balloons and cardboard party glasses and presents and Hello Kitty ice cream cake awaiting the birthday girl. It was an unfortunate turn of events, but when you’re 3, you don’t remember such things and as adults, we were disappointed (my grandmother especially since she’s 95 and yearns to see her great-grandchildren whenever possible), but we barbecued and talked childhood illnesses and sang “Happy Birthday no Sienna!” (as suggested by one of kids) as Elaine texted me with positive updates.

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Sienna missed out on her Hello Kitty ice cream cake, but that’s ok. She’ll have plenty of more chances and she’ll never recall birthday number 3

Thus my little girl’s birthday weekend ended on a slightly sour note (very sour if you’re talking what that vomit must have tasted like), but on Monday she noticed 3 more balloons to add the the 3 she already possessed as well as 4 more presents to open and her tummy felt slightly better for a short while. But the biggest surprise (at least for me) came when I opened the door that afternoon and found a large box. Inside was a wrapped gift that Sienna, with her usual intensity, tore open revealing a very sweet card marking the passage into age 3 from Lee Jeans as well as another pair of pants and a really cool Kinetic Sand kit that Sienna’s had a ball playing with! Curveball. Swing and a high fly…and it’s outta here! Who would have thought that a short conversation with a sponsor at Dad 2.0 would have led to this icing on Sienna’s birthday cake?

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The surprise card, THIRD pair of jeans for Sienna (Elaine received 2 and I, of course, got 1 at Dad 2.0) and Kinetic Sand kit from Lee Jeans

There might have been tummy aches and vomiting and a missed party with the relatives, but the celebration with our core family, the joy in watching my daughter learn, at least partially, the concept of birthdays, and the utter random kindness from a Dad 2.0 sponsor made birthday number 3 one for the ages.

Depression Panel At Dad 2.0, The Loss of Oren Miller, Breakdowns And Recoveries

“You changed my life.”

The woman and I stood on the second floor of San Francisco’s beautiful Park Central Hotel amidst people, mostly dads, but plenty of moms, talking, laughing and taking pictures with friends they might have met just days before but knew intimately for years online. My hands trembled. I tried not to speak on account of my stutter. Just hours before a room full of listeners swayed in my watery eyes seconds before I collapsed, bawling, head in my hands filling each molecule of my body with sickening embarrassment. I knew not what to say to this woman who came up to me in the crowd and uttered that crazy sentence. What do you say to someone who just told you you changed her life? What does someone who despises himself say to a person giving him the ultimate compliment?

My skin prickled with shame and self-doubt. I barely met her eyes. I remembered her from the panel, though I can’t recall what she looked like, only that she had dark hair. I recalled her crying, voice shaking, when asking me how to go about talking to her husband who’d shut her out for two years as he sank into depression and I remember responding that I’d almost lost my wife because of the same thing, that when you have the disease you can’t see anything outside of your own head, that you can’t see how you’re affecting others. I advised her to talk with him, to say that although she couldn’t completely understand his pain, he needed to clear his haze enough for him to see how he was hurting her. I suggested she work together with him, perhaps go to counseling together. It’s one of the few things I remember clearly during the 137 minute session.

“You changed my life.”

I think I muttered a “thank you” but I’m not sure if I said anything else. I’d spent the weeks prior to the fourth annual Dad 2.0 Summit persuading myself that no one would show up to my panel titled “Depression Doesn’t Discriminate” because of the subject matter and the fact that it was scheduled to take place at the same time as two other breakout sessions led by and containing men I consider to be powerhouse dad bloggers, arguably some of the top writing today. This despite knowing that my great friend, Christopher Persley of The Brown Gothamite, one of the two best friends I’ve made since joining the NYC Dads Group, promised to be there to support me just as I promised to be there for him during his blog spotlight reading. I worried about how to dress even asking Doug French, one of Dad 2.0′s cofounders along with John Pacini, if I could wear my Yankee cap because I feel slightly calmer beneath its brim, a security blanket of sorts. “Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable,” Doug told me. “You’re going to do great and the panel will be packed.” The constant negativity permeating my brain went so far as to convince me that Doug and John chose my panel idea out of pity, perhaps one of the most irrational thoughts I’ve ever had. Yet I struggled to believe the truth – they felt this was a significant topic, one that would resonate with people.

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Panel description

In the days leading up to the panel dad blogger friends including Jeff Bogle, Chris Berhnoldt, Buzz Bishop, Chris Routly, Carter Gaddis, John Kinnear and so many more asked me why I was so nervous. Didn’t I read a blog about depression in front of 250 people at the previous year’s conference in turn receiving a shocking standing ovation (“shocking” being my word)? I consistently returned to the other two breakout sessions occurring simultaneously trumping mine because of their huge blogger personalities, though the real answer lay in my dichotomy of fears. Last year my terror dealt with potential failure. This time around I had to top what seemed to be a success (though I still have difficulty wrapping my head around that) and should I not, it’d go down as an enormous defeat and could be catastrophic, a thousand times more painful than possibly choking at the mic the year before. This time had expectations, particularly from the the part of my mind that applies megatons of pressure, and so I tore myself apart before anyone else could and hence my utter conviction no one would attend.

Scheduled for 10:45 am – 12:00 pm, the panel consisted of Dr. Will Courtenay, an authority on Paternal Postnatal Depression (PPND); Sally Spencer-Thomas, founder of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation (in honor of her brother who committed suicide) and an advocate for more resources and means (including a combo of humor and media) devoted to mental illnesses in men; Dr. Craig Garfield, a pediatrician at Northwestern University and researcher of mental health and fatherhood; and my chosen moderator and fellow anxiety and depression (as well as OCD which I do not have) sufferer, Katherine Stone, founder of Postpartum Progress, a non-profit designed to help women dealing with postpartum depression while educating both women and men about the condition; and finally myself, there to act as the “face of male depression” and to tell my story, real life incidents I’ve discussed and written about so many times I’ve lost count and yet each recitation or blog or article feels raw and spawns supreme apprehension.

A half hour before the panel commenced, we gathered in an empty classroom and went over strategies – Katherine with a quick mission statement and introduction of each panelist; Will, Craig and Sally discussing their expertise, theories and experiences using powerpoint presentations and videos as evidence; myself revealing my history, my breakdowns, my heart and soul; and then ending with a Q&A (at which I internally scoffed knowing there’d maybe be no one there to ask questions). Within the empty room we finally met each other in person; I’d briefly met Katherine at Dad 2.014 and we developed a rapport over Facebook, but Will, Craig and Sally I knew only from e-mails about the panel. I expressed my fear that no one would show up and my four fellow panelists assured me it wasn’t true and that what we planned to discuss was incredibly important, but all I saw was a podium; a long rectangular table holding a pitcher of water, microphones and folded papers containing each of our names; and a vast deserted room under fluorescent light…that is until Chris showed up and took a seat at the front so I could look to him for support.

“One,” I whispered.

As the clock ticked and Katherine, Will, Craig and Sally got settled, three more people entered the room.

“Two, three, four.”

“Stop counting!” whispered Katherine. Katherine told me beforehand that in her experience, it didn’t matter how many people showed up – a panel’s strength did not lie in its audience’s numbers. I refused to believe this. I continued counting under my breath.

By 10:45 am maybe two or three more people occupied previously empty seats.

“We’ll wait a little longer to start,” Katherine said. And then the door began to open and close rather quickly and I lost count somewhere in the twenties, but instead of relief, I felt even shakier for I couldn’t let these people down. Katherine began the program and – my deepest apologies to Will, Craig and Sally – I cannot remember anything the three of them said; I was just way too in my head. When Katherine indicated it was more turn to speak, my voice was a jittery mess, my lips stumbling over words (or at least this is how I recall it). I teared up a bit. I sat with shoulders slumped forward and hands beneath the table so no one could see them quiver. I would not have gotten through it had Katherine not showed genuine understanding about my vulnerability by keeping her hand on my back from the moment I began speaking until the end of the panel. I’m not sure I even looked at Chris in the audience. I hope I did.

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Katherine Stone lends me a supporting hand

Once I’d finished speaking I think it was back to Will, Craig and Sally, or maybe it was time for Q&A. I don’t recall. My mind might as well have been Play-Doh and my only memory was of the woman with tears running down her face, asking my advice, the woman who’d later come up to me in a happy and crowded room.

“You changed my life.”

I did notice my great friend, Aaron Gouveia of The Daddy Files, standing by the door with his wife, MJ, and I found that odd because his panel about the intricacies of blogging and marriage was one of those scheduled against mine. I’d learn later that we’d gone over the designated time allotment by 22 minutes.

At some point Katherine announced the end of the breakout session and it took literally seconds for me collapse into first sobs and then all out wailing. I overheard someone say (I think it was Katherine) that it was all the anxiety built up over the weeks finally releasing, that this cry was cleansing. The next thing I knew Aaron and MJ were by side, MJ speaking softly, but sharply in my ear.

“You did a good job. Say, ‘I did a good job.’”

“I can’t!” My eyes were squeezed shut, my head in my hands. How many people stood staring at me? What happened to Katherine, to Sally, to Will, to Craig? Did I thank them? Did I say goodbye? These people must think I’m a disgrace!

“Yes you can! Say, ‘I did a good job.’”

I mumbled something.

“I did a good job. Say it.”

“Ididagoodjob.”

“Louder! With strength!”

“I did a good job. Noooooo!”

“Don’t fall backwards! Don’t you fall back! I did a good job! Again!”

“I did a good job.” Where was Chris? Was he scared? He’d never seen me like this, only heard stories, read what I’d written. Did he hate me know?

MJ called me on it each time I fell back. Eventually my tears abated a bit, my breath hitched less. My stutter and remained. My hands kept trembling. I looked up and saw Chris. He seemed worried, not sure what to do. He asked what he could do and I said something like, “Just be here.”

Aaron, MJ, Chris and I went downstairs for lunch. I made weird sounds, the same type of bizarre morse code that uncontrollably comes from my lips each time I have such a breakdown. Chris and I separated from Aaron and MJ after lunch, my NYC Dads Group brother staying by my side making sure I was ok. I can’t thank him enough. I especially cannot thank him enough for writing this ridiculously wonderful post about me.

A few hours later a woman would tell me I changed her life and I’d be tongue-tied and insecure and ashamed and unable to accept it.

The conference officially ended later that evening with the announcement that the Dad 2.0 Scholarship Fund (which grants money to dad bloggers normally unable to attend the conference) would forever bear the name of Oren Miller, the dad blogger Facebook group founder, the person who united so many of us both online and off. Oren, the beautiful force behind A Blogger and a Father, had been battling stage 4 lung cancer for nine months, and the audience received the news with applause, whoops and cheers. Although I’d met him in person just a few times, I looked up to Oren with undeniable admiration, for not only did he lead the charge of modern fatherhood, not only would none of the things – Dad 2.0, Huffington PostDads Behaving Dadly, etc. - that had happened to me since he invited me into the group when it held just 256 members (it’s now over 1,050), he was battling his illness with a quiet grace via his words and taking the chance to appreciate his wife, his children, his family, his life. When he first diagnosed, we dad bloggers helped raise over $35,000 for him and his family to take a dream vacation. He was supposed to go to Dad 2.0, but unfortunately could not, but his closest blogger friend, Brent Almond of Designer Daddy, read us a letter from Oren at the conference about how honored he was to have his name associated with something so important.

There’s a reason I’ve gone in this direction, so bear with me.

I was afraid to check Facebook or Twitter upon arriving home from Dad 2.0, scared at the reaction to my panel, nervous about potential criticism. Elaine and my parents told me everything they read was positive, but I still couldn’t see for myself (long after what follows next, I read this amazing post about me by Christian Toto of Daddylibrium). When I finally did summon the courage to check the first thing I saw was a note to all of us from Oren saying that the time for further treatment had passed and that he only had a few weeks to live. I shut my computer immediately, stricken by the news, and for the next few days I tried to figure out what to write this incredible man. It took me three days for me to do it. Oren died at the age of 41 two days later. I took his death extremely hard eventually suffering a massive and frightening (to Sienna, Elaine and my parents) breakdown two days later, the day of his funeral which I desperately wanted to attend, but could not. The same images kept playing in my head: us sitting in his house in Maryland, listening to his little girl, Madeline, sing “Tomorrow” from Annie on a karaoke machine while Oren beamed with pride. Such a hopeful song in the middle of increasing horror. His wife, Beth, no longer had a husband. His children, Liam and Madeline, no longer had a father. I suffered survivor’s guilt as well as genuine loss, the loss of a great man.

A man who changed my life.

These are the last words I ever wrote to Oren. I don’t think he ever read them, but I’d told him in person before so I hope he knew:

“Hey Oren. I’ve probably started and stopped writing this message about a dozen times because I’ve been so stunned by the news. I can’t imagine what you and your family are going through and I wish I could do more than tell you what you mean to me, but at the moment’s that’s the best I can do. I’ll talk about the FB Dad Blogger site in a bit, but first I want you to know to me you’re the embodiment of love and fatherhood. That came to me through your writing. It was further shown when I first met you at Dad 2.0 last year and then the two times we met up over the summer. I know some days must have been horrendous as you’ve battled this illness, but I too know that your outlook on life is joyous and something I truly need to learn. Beth and Liam and Madeline are all wonderful and they’re so lucky to have you in their lives. Now to the Dad Blogger site and how you changed my life forever. I have no idea if you knew what starting that site would do, but in truth it created a family, one that it is incredibly important to me. Without you inviting me into the Dad Blogger group when it was 250+ members, none of what’s happened to me over the past year and a half would have ever happened. I never would have read at Dad 2.0. I never would have been published in any way, shape or form (and I can say this because I know my own crippling fears). I never would have appeared on any podcasts. I never would have appeared in Dads Behaving Dadly or had the chance to be in the sequel. I never would have submitted and appeared on a panel a this year’s Dad 2.0. Because of you I’ve addressed some of my major fears and dislikes about myself head-on. Because of you I’m more than just a depression sufferer, I’m now an outspoken advocate for stripping the disease from the shadows. This past weekend someone told me that after my reading last year, he went home and went into therapy. After my panel this year, a woman approached me and said I changed her life. Neither knew your part in it, whether direct or indirect. I might still have depression and anxiety, but your invitation into the dad blogger community has made me a stronger man, a better father and given me a tribe I can count on. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that and you’ll probably say I never have to. But I’m going to anyway. Thank you. Thank you so much. I do hope you write back, but if you don’t, I understand. You’re probably getting a ton of these because you’re so beloved and revered and rightly so. I’d rather you spend the time you’d take to write back to me to spend with Beth and the kids. Just know I love you, man. I love and respect and admire you and yes, you did change my life and I will never forget that or make the mistake of regressing to what I was before. That is the Oren Miller effect. Love, Lorne”

Oren Miller was a humble man, but he understood how one person could change the life of another and then another and then another and so on and so forth. By changing just one life, whether it be through writing or just plain old simple kindness, you could start a movement and he did that when he founded the dad bloggers Facebook group.

So if Oren Miller could change my life, why couldn’t I have done the same for the woman who told me I changed hers at Dad 2.0 in San Francisco?

Perhaps it’s time I acknowledge that I did.

Me and Oren

(l-r) Brent Almond, Oren Miller, Dustin Fisher (of www.daddyneedsanap.com) and myself

 

Separation Anxiety

Ear-piercing screeches. Tears like Victoria Falls. It was the first day of camp, the first time Sienna would be separated from me for a long period of time (in this case 3 hours) and my little girl’s brain must have pulled some sort of “ABANDONMENT” trigger because I had never seen her so terrified. Her counselor, a somewhat stern looking woman with glasses and a light blue shirt held Sienna back from me.

“Go!” she commanded, her dirty blonde hair falling into her face as she wrestled with my daughter. “This is normal. It’s her first time being away from you. We deal with this regularly. But go or it’ll get worse!”

Sienna wailed. Other kids cried but Sienna’s tortured, almost guttural howls drowned them out. I didn’t feel frozen to the ground, more like my feet were stuck in bottomless tar. My knees wobbled as I thought back to camp orientation when they said that some kids would act as if nothing was wrong while others would feel as if it were the end of the world. I thought Sienna might cry, but this, this I didn’t expect when I dressed her that morning in a bathing suit, shorts and a t-shirt. I didn’t prepare for this as I slathered her body and face with suntan lotion.

Sienna’s sneakers squeaked as she tried to pull away from the counselor. She wrenched herself out of her grip, scooted around her like a basketball player pulling off a pick and roll and wrapped herself tightly around my legs.

“DADDY!” she screamed! “DADDY! NO! DADDY!”

The counselor pulled Sienna away, ripping both her from my legs and my heart from my chest. My eyes watered. The general anxiety disorder-related facial tic that I’ve had since my nervous breakdown in 2010 twitched awkwardly.

“GO!!”

Somehow I gained the strength to turn and walk out the door letting it bang closed behind me which set off a new set of shrieks. Peering shakily through the door’s small rectangular glass I saw the counselor and other volunteers trying to get Sienna under control, pulling her towards the main room as if she were an a new inmate in an asylum.

Three hours. Three hours without me. Her protector. Her father. Three hours without my little girl. I thought I’d enjoy the time alone, but I felt tremulous and unsteady. I drove home and watched television instead of blogging as I’d hoped to do.

She ran into my arms when I arrived. I picked her up, her fresh tears dripping onto my face and shirt.

“She cried most of the time,” the counselor said. “She played a little. She didn’t go into the water. It’s the first day. It’s normal. It’ll get easier and better.”

I doubted it. Sienna hugged me tighter than I thought possible. I nodded and said, “Ok.”

Two weeks in and nothing changed. Sienna cried when I woke her up for camp. She cried as she lay in bed with my wife for 20 minutes after I’d gotten her ready. She cried in the car. She screeched once we got to the red brick building. She clung to me like a monkey, scrambling onto my shoulders once we reached her classroom. Each day was the same. The counselor tore her out of my arms along with a piece of my heart.

“Does she have something she loves? A doll? A stuffed animal? A blanket?”

Her scarf. I immediately thought of the delicate scarf dotted with blues and greens and browns and oranges she’d appropriated from my wife. She slept with the scarf. She took it everywhere looking like Linus of Peanuts fame but as a fashionista. Once we washed scarf and she wailed until we brought it upstairs to air dry. We hung it on her highchair and she stood next to it, holding the precious fabric to her cheek, her free thumb stuck in her mouth. I brought scarf with us the next time we went to camp and scarf helped turn the tide.

“She was so much better today,” her counselor said. “She cried for awhile but it tapered off. She even stuck her toes in the water.

In fact, Sienna didn’t even cry when I’d picked her up. She’d smiled and said, “Daddy!” She still wanted to be held. She still didn’t want me to go, but there was a difference. She felt safer and so did I.

By the end of camp Sienna no longer screeched or sobbed when I dropped her off.

“Bye, Daddy!” she’d say cheerfully before I walked out of her classroom door leaving her in the company of children her age, teenage volunteers, her counselor, loads of games and toys and books.

And I felt chilled, the cold hard fact of her no longer needing me. Dropping off at camp had, as her counselor predicted, transformed into a quick and happy goodbye. No wild reaching for me. No teardrops. No looking back.

Sure she still ran into my arms each time I picked her up from camp, still buoyed my spirits with a happy yell of, “Daddy!” when I entered the classroom, but my little girl couldn’t wait for camp, music, snack, the pool.

One day, right before the end of camp, I stood there after Sienna had darted into her classroom with a smile and a “Bye-bye, Daddy!” and I realized this was a microcosm of life; one day, the little girl who’d once relied on us for everything would walk, 18 years old, onto her college campus, give me a hug, a smile and quick “Bye-bye, Daddy!” before turning towards the rest of her life, not looking back.

I stood staring through the small rectangular glass of her classroom door, fingers trembling from separation anxiety.

I’m Illogically Scared Of Returning To Dad 2.0 Summit

Tuesday, the 10th of February, 2015. Birthday number 41. Nine days until I leave for San Francisco and my second trip to the Dad 2.0 Summit. I’m normally antsy on my birthday, focusing extra hard on the past, lost opportunities, goals unaccomplished. The slightest thing can knock me down a rabbit hole of anxiety and churning negative thoughts. It’s the same feeling I have on New Year’s Eve, an annoying and unfortunate part of depression. I open Facebook, a site I’ve had difficulty visiting for the past few weeks; I check a little each day, but feel overwhelmed by those that can spend so much time writing, reading and commenting on blogs or opining on threads. I’m envious of them. at times I feel lost in the dad blogger community. I notice a post from Aaron Gouveia. His wife is coming to San Fran and both will speak at the conference. I’m excited! Aaron and I hit it off at last year’s gathering. He visited us in New York last summer while Elaine, Sienna and I traveled to the Boston area to spend time with his family later in the season. I can’t wait to see his wife again. But then it hits me. If Aaron’s wife is going to the conference it means only 1 thing – they’re speaking on a panel about blogging and marriage and that panel is scheduled to run at the same time as mine, one about how depression doesn’t discriminate. Excitement replaced by dread. Chest fills with cement. Eyes water. Elaine wants to know what’s wrong.

What’s wrong is that Aaron is a dad blogger rock star. His page, The Daddy Files, annually ranks as one of the top dad blogs in web land with good reason. He writes with precision and passion. He captures the smallest memory or parenting moment in beautiful language. He’s unafraid to tackle the most controversial topics. And he’s fast. As soon as something happens in the world, he writes about it. I’m often too late to the table on political issues such issues as paternity leave, abortion, a celebrity or personality talking poorly about fathers, etc. He has over 4500 Facebook followers; I just broke 500. Immediately I saw everyone in the conference – all 350 people – running to his panel as if Elvis and the Beatles were throwing a concert despite some of them being ghosts or zombies while tumbleweed drifts through mine. I stutter my fears to Elaine.

“You’re being irrational! People will still go to your panel! Get out of the whirlpool and tell Aaron how you’re feeling!”

“I can’t talk to Aaron,” I said.

“Of course you can! He’s you’re friend!”

After awhile I recover long enough to have a rather good birthday until late at night when I check Facebook and find only 30-something people have wished me happy birthday and only a few are dad bloggers. Tears flow. My body shakes. What happened? What happened to all the dad bloggers I thought I’d connected with at last year’s conference? Irrationality rules as I decide they’ve abandoned me, that they consider me so unimportant that they didn’t take the few seconds to write me their best wishes.

“It’s a Tuesday,” Elaine says, rubbing my shoulders, trying to comfort me. “I know you’re hurt but maybe people were busy. Maybe they didn’t check Facebook. Maybe they meant to write it and forgot.”

But I wasn’t having it. The lack of birthday wishes from my dad blogger community reinforced the sense of abandonment I’d imagined when I pictured people scrambling to get into Aaron’s panel as mine stayed empty.

This is what depression can do. Despite your own self-loathing, you need everyone else to like you, to acknowledge you.

My mind’s gone to awful places as the conference has drawn closer. Even though it’s nonsensical, I feel like I’m going to be ignored and eclipsed. Last year I spoke in front of an audience about my battles with depression and received a standing ovation. I still struggle with that. My brain won’t let me trust it. I won’t let myself trust it. As much as I tell myself it was real and that people were proud of me, that I’m accepted as an important and perhaps influential voice in the dad blogger community, my mind nags at me like a bee bugging picnickers.

It’s all fake. They pitied you. They tolerate you. You’re NOTHING! In fact, this panel you’re on, the one you submitted, was only accepted because they felt sorry for you!

Reality check – there is no way Doug French and John Pacini, the co-founders of the summit, would have spent so much money to fly in depression experts and choose your panel submission over others unless they considered it worthy and significant.

But still I’m afraid.

And I’m frightened of being eclipsed. I got that standing ovation last year. What if a blogger spotlight reader gets one this year? What happens to me?

Reality – nothing. Irrationality – I’m forgotten entirely.

The battle persist in my head as my anxiety grows even though I see the contradiction that getting that ovation clearly meant I made an impact. My thoughts must be wrong.

A couple of days ago I gathered the courage to call Aaron

“You’re being ridiculous,” he said. “It’s not about who’s on the panel, it’s about content and your content is much more important than mine. Plus the first thing I thought when I was invited to participate on this panel was that I wouldn’t be at yours to support you. That’s killing me. You’re gonna be great! Just like last year! And yes, you’re beloved by us dad bloggers.” (I’m paraphrasing)

After talking to Aaron I felt a little better, but it’s now the week of the conference. My flight leaves in three days. My anxiety’s gnawing at my stomach. I feel the walls closing in, the pressure of 350 people crushing me. And yet, I’m excited to see my friends and to once more take part in this crucial conference about fatherhood and how its portrayed in media. I somehow won a free stay at the hotel. My parents gave me miles for the flight. I don’t have to pay for the conference because I’m on a panel. I’m crazy lucky. I can use my money for all sorts of things because I’m not paying for anything major. I get to visit LucasFilm! And I’ve written plenty of blogs about how much I loved Dad 2.0 the first time and what it means to me.

I’m anxious and frightened and eager. I need to stop putting so much pressure on my myself and stop playing the comparison game because I have a voice and that voice matters.

photo 2

UPDATE: A dad blogger friend told me that my birthday didn’t show up on his calendar and to check my Facebook settings. Sure enough FB changed my birth date settings from “friends” to “just me” hence the lack of well wishes. Why they did this, I have no clue, but he made me feel tons better because now I know for sure that it wasn’t about me. Damn you FB!

An Important Call From Hogan Hilling, Editor of “Dads Behaving Dadly”

Hello,
I have lived with the stigma about how men don’t ask for help and the running joke about why men won’t ask for directions.
Fatherhood is no laughing matter and a huge responsibility. No man should and cannot do it alone. And the best resource dads have is other dads.
As the author of “Dads Behaving Dadly: 67 Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood,”www.dadsbehavingdadly.com, I am asking for help to provide an event that will give dads an opportunity to network with each other in a face-to-face setting.
The Dads Behaving Dadly Convention is for All Dads. Dads with different family dynamics, income levels, religions and ethnic backgrounds ……..working, at-home, divorced, single and step dads and dads of children with special needs…….Fatherhood issues don’t discriminate.
Please visit and read the information about my Dadly Convention Campaign athttp://www.gofundme.com/ktlyzw. If you like the presentation, please make a donation. No amount is too small. With the success of the LA and Orange County Dadly Conventions I plan to expand to other cities in the USA and Canada.
Bill Carroll, KFI 640 Radio Personality, who interviewed me on his show last Thursday agreed to be a guest speaker for the LA Dadly Convention. I need funds to make it happen.
Keep On Daddying,
Hogan Hilling
Hogan, America should take lessons from you. - Oprah Winfrey
 
Author, Speaker & Life Coach
Twitter @TheDadGuru

Depression And The Path Not Taken

I nearly had a massive panic attack upon viewing Ava DuVernay’s Selma last week, but it’s not for reasons you might think. It wasn’t DuVernay’s masterful direction especially during the “Bloody Sunday” sequence or David Oyelowo’s gripping portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the film’s heady and timely content. It was a name that scrolled by during the credits, a simple name that squeezed out my breath sending me stumbling out of the darkened theater and into 1995, the year of my biggest regret.

The name, let’s call her “Joan Morrison,” appeared next to the title “Unit Publicist.” Back in 1995 Joan was a secretary at a publicity firm at which I interned leading to the ONLY positive work experience in my life. Unlike other companies, this particular firm rewarded its interns for their hard work with knowledge and professional benefits. I’d sit for days happily stuffing envelopes until my hands blackened with ink because I knew that around the corner something special would happen – working a press junket for a film and learning exactly how they worked; getting to sit next to Steve Buscemi at lunch and talking to him about his then upcoming directorial debut; working the red carpet for a film’s premiere; sitting in the VIP section with Catherine Keener as the bass pumped and colored lights swirled at the party following a movie screening. The rewards didn’t even have to be that amazing. They could be nuggets into the business’ inner workings, advice on how to succeed in the industry. I treasured every prize I earned and worked harder than I ever did in my life. I loved everyone with whom I worked. There was no tension, no drama, no games. And because of my hard work I received a job offer at the end of my internship, the chance to be a personal secretary for one of the firm’s higher-ups. I held in my hands a golden ticket, an opportunity to work for a company I knew loved to promote from within, one that nurtured and respected me as an intern. And I turned it down. I turned it down because I was 21 and still had a year of college left. I turned it down because I intensely feared my parents’ disapproval. I let them, without them knowing, choose my life’s path. A few years after I turned the job offer down, Joan was promoted to Vice President of Publicity for the entire east coast. Meanwhile, during an awful senior year within which I struggled to concentrate and suddenly found myself lost and near-paralyzed while writing class papers, I suffered my first panic attack.

In a moment of irony, the film’s inspirational theme song “Glory” by Common and John Legend eased from the emptying theater’s speakers as I wobbled towards a wall and slid down until I sat on ugly red carpeting amongst spilled popcorn next to a huge cardboard cutout advertising The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Heart pounding, my forehead beading sweat, I took out my phone and frantically Googled information on Joan Morrison’s rise as a Peter Jackson-esque battle raged through my head.

That could have been me! That SHOULD have been me!

You never would have met Elaine. You never would have had Sienna. You have the loves of your life.

I could have been famous! I could have been the golden child of the family instead of the black sheep!

You’re NOT the black sheep! This is just where you go!

I am! I failed at work! I’m a failure! 

YOU HAVE A BRILLIANT AND BEAUTIFUL AND HEALTHY DAUGHTER AND AN INCREDIBLE WIFE! SHUT THE HELL UP!

My life could have been so different! I could have been a success! I could have had money! I could have been someone!

My shaky fingers scrolled through article after article: a picture of Joan wearing sunglasses on the steps of the Alabama capital building head turned slightly away from the lens preventing me from making a positive ID; Joan and another important woman mentioned in Variety; Joan’s official job title – Vice President of Publicity for Paramount Pictures.

Put away your phone and get up! GET UP!

I turned off my phone and clung to the banister weaving slightly down the stairs. A blast of sharp wind smacked my face as I opened the outside door. A car honked at me in the parking lot because I failed to look both ways. I found my car, got in and sat breathing shallowly with my arms and head on the steering wheel.

I could have been Joan. I could have been Joan. I could have been Joan.

Every so often I regret turning down the job and wonder, but here I was feeling the full weight of my life’s biggest crossroads almost 20 years later just because I saw a name scroll by amongst hundreds of others. Miraculously I made it home without causing a 12 car pileup.

Work remains my biggest trigger, the biggest force behind my depression and anxiety. Growing up work was a touchy subject in my family; to me it hovered over everything like a pesticide. I associated my father not with love and family, but with work, with suits and ties (he is no longer like this). I associated my grandfather handshakes, short conversations and work. As each grandchild graduated it seemed to me we were measured by our jobs and salaries. Before my 2nd nervous breakdown in 2010, my core belief was that work equaled identity and that I’d failed in the eyes of my family, especially my father and grandmother. I’d been a lowly secretary for nearly ten years with no hope for upward mobility. Each day I’d scroll through employment ads but my chest would fill to bursting and I’d have to turn to something else. I was that anxious. That scared. That depressed. I despised myself and fell deeper into the abyss with each passing day. Nothing else mattered or if it did (such as marrying the love of my life) despair quickly gobbled it up.

When I got home I immediately grabbed the computer and continued searching for Joan. I found an old Twitter address and sent her a message, but Elaine forced my laptop shut when I told her what I was doing and why.

“It might have been a different Joan,” she said logically. “There are probably tons of Joan Morrisons.”

“The odds of that are near impossible,” I stubbornly countered.

“Even if you had taken that path you don’t know if you would have made it. You can’t predict that your issues wouldn’t have gotten in the way. And you wouldn’t have me or Sienna.”

That much is true, but I couldn’t help to not just imagine, but glorify the path not taken. Of course I would have made it because history proved that that internship was the only enlightening, humanizing work environment I ever experienced – I kept in touch with my former employers through college and when I told them that I’d be traveling through Europe upon graduation, for instance, they hooked me up with a short job at the Cannes Film Festival and gave me tickets to MTV’s enormous gala (for those wondering, the firm did not have any openings when I graduated and the ensuing internships I took were horrible, soul-sucking experiences). Clearly I would have thrived at work meaning no work trigger, no depression, no anxiety. In my head which always extracts the negative from any situation, I convinced myself that none of the issues I experienced during childhood nor my predisposition to depression or the whacked out brain chemical imbalance I have would have reared their ugly heads in my perfect life. Rather, I would have followed what was then a passion and what now alludes me creativity- and work-wise; the passions that are Elaine and Sienna stood right in front of me as I tore myself apart imagining what surely would have been my sublimely accomplished and lucrative life, but I couldn’t see them.

Most depression sufferers do this. When languishing through an episode we can’t see anything but our own twisted minds. We aggrandize the what ifs, the things we don’t have, the choices not made, the paths not taken, at the expense of the positive people, events and choices in our lives. We also refuse to deal with reality or grow because we’re afraid of getting the tiniest bit more hurt than we already are.

Facts:

  • I am alive
  • I’m married to a wonderful, intelligent, funny, gorgeous woman who loves me because I’m me; next year is our 10th anniversary
  • I have a beautiful near 3-year-old daughter who loves life. learning and spouting out 80s catchphrases
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My beautiful Sienna

  • I’ve never had a better relationship with my family including pre-1995; my parents often tell me how proud they are; my sister and I went from no relationship to a great one
  • I’ve held true to my beliefs in being loyal, kind and considerate and have the same best friends now at near 41 that I did in elementary school
  • I hold a master’s in media ecology from NYU and bachelor’s in English from the University of Michigan
  • I am a proud stay-at-home dad
  • I’ve delivered a speech about depression and fatherhood in front of hundreds of people, I’m published in a critically acclaimed book, appeared on numerous podcasts and I’ve found my place in a community of dads and writers I value beyond words
  • I may not be growing by the leaps and bounds my mind demands, but I am growing each and every day

Reliving “The Decision” (sorry LeBron James…my decision came long before yours) wreaked havoc on my weekend leaving me splayed on the couch like soft boiled cabbage, eyelids fluttering to stay open, my concerned daughter asking me if I’m “awake” (meaning “okay”). One name appearing on screen during Selma‘s credit roll took me back to the crossroads of 1995 as quickly as Marty McFly’s DeLoreon causing a near panic attack and another bout with depression, but the truth is it was just another trigger. I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d taken that job, but I can’t change the past. All I can do is try not to be so negative about it and instead concentrate on what my life is now – the passions that are my wife and daughter; growing my blog and improving my writing; learning how not to be so afraid. Who knows what’s around the corner?

What are your biggest regrets and how do you prevent them from overwhelming you?