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?

My Daughter And Nightmares – Garbage Trucks And Bears And Owls, Oh My!

It’s 4 AM on a Saturday…or is it Monday? Thursday? Never mind. It’s happening every night.
The regular sleep sounds fill the room
’til the whimpering starts, then the wails begin
And I trudge towards Sienna in the gloom

Sienna, now less than 3 months from turning 3, is at a beautiful stage in her life. With each second, each breath, her mind blazes with imagination. A sweet request turns Daddy’s hand into any character – Captain Hook, Baymax from Big Hero 6, Scooby Doo. Stuffed animals converse. Putting on a silky cloth turns her into a princess or a superhero. I sit there watching her with wonder. What’s going through her mind? What does she see that I don’t? But with your child’s Big Bang of imagination comes dreams, particularly scary ones. Currently Sienna’s besieged by nightmares. Each night she wakes up crying, asking for Mommy or Daddy. Each night one of us slips into her room to comfort and hold her, tell her everything’s okay and that she’s safe.

It started with garbage trucks. Every Friday night sometime between 2 and 5 a massive garbage truck snorts and squeals and bangs and screeches as it empties the dumpsters across the street. Awakened by the racket, Sienna screamed for Mommy or Daddy for help. I’d go in and pick her up, her little heart racing against my chest, tears like rivulets running down to her chin and falling onto my shoulders. I’d stroke her sweaty hair and tell her it’s okay. It’s just a garbage truck. I’d take her to the window to see the big green truck with blazing white headlights pick up and empty each dumpster until the noise finally stopped and it chugged down the street and out of sight. I’d hug and reassure her as I could and then I’d gently put her down amongst her stuffed animals hoping she’d feel safe.

“Daddy! Don’t go!”

And I’d be forced to sleep on the floor, the carpet rough against my skin, no blanket to protect me from the draft coming through the air conditioner. Other times I’d bring her into our bed where she’d fall asleep instantly, warmed by the heat generated by Elaine and myself.

It didn’t take long for the garbage truck to enter her dreams. Even on nights when its presence was unscheduled, Sienna would wake up in a panic.

“DADDY!!! MOMMY!!!”

Into her room I’d go imagining it from her perspective – a green metal monster with white hot eyes gnashing its metallic teeth, crunching its prey under the harsh yellow of streetlights.

“Scary garbage trucks” she’d whimper as I held her close.

“It’s just a bad dream, sweetie. A nightmare. Mommy has them. Grandma has them. Pop-Pop has them. I have them. It’s not real.”

“Don’t go.”

And I’d once more find myself on the floor after she’d calmed and I’d placed her back in bed. After weeks of suffering such nights, my back tight the following morning, we decided it was best to to just go in, hold her, tell her she was safe and leave the room despite her pleas and after a time they died down. The garbage truck still awakens her and she wails through the baby monitor, but once it’s through she’s able to return to sleep on her own.

Next up were “big bears” and I have no idea how they entered her dream state. We hadn’t read stories about bears. She’d seen bears at the zoo, but never their faces as they tended to just sleep the day away. I asked her teachers if they’d discussed bears. They hadn’t. It’s an unsolvable mystery. We tried Mommy/Daddy magic in which we’d create a spell used to repel all big bears. Holding my fingers splayed like the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, I’d put on a face of deep concentration and shoot imaginary sparks all around the room while deepening my voice and saying, ”Go away big bears! Go away big bears! Go away big bears and crickets and praying mantises too! BOOM!” I’m not sure why Sienna wanted crickets and praying mantises in there, but who am I to argue? I just want us both to get a good night’s sleep. But still her screams pierced the night and I’d find her sweaty, big beautiful brown eyes leaking tears.

When that didn’t work we told Sienna one of her toys, a cool light-up wand given to her by one of Elaine’s friends, had the power to repel big bears. “Make sure you keep the wand besides you,” I said. If you think you see a bear point the wand, light it up and yell, “Go away big bear!” We thought the wand would give her control and power over these ursus plaguing her nights. It didn’t. Nor did taping a sign to her door that read, “NO BEARS!!”

“Big bears trying to eat me!”

“It’s just a dream, sweetie. What does the sign on your door say?”

“No big bears.”

“That’s right. Any bear that wants to get into your room will read the sign, shrug and walk away because they’re not allowed in.”

You know what solved the problem?

yogi

One day I decided to show Sienna a bit of Yogi Bear on YouTube and she laughed and laughed as I’d do what I think is a really good Yogi Bear impression:

“Hey Boo-Boo! How’s about a pic-i-nic basket?”

“Big bear’s silly!” Sienna would giggle, a sound like tinkling glass that makes my heart swell. “Big bear wears a hat! That’s silly!”

Yogi cured Sienna’s bear nightmares for whenever she’d mention them I’d bust out my impression and she’d crack up. “Silly!! Big bear wears a tie!”

Now it’s scary owls trying to eat her. Again, I have no idea where this came from. She has a Hedwig doll for which I paid $30 at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando and she LOVES it. During this nightmarish stretch of owl nightmares, she’s clung to Hedwig as if he were her savior. According to Sienna he’s a “good owl” who in her dreams “protects” her from the scary ones. She carries Hedwig from room to room along with her precious scarf, always hugging and talking to him, but still, every night, I’m up at least twice trying to calm my little girl down and convince her that the owls in her head aren’t real. They’re just figments of her imagination morphed into bad dreams.

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Sienna cradling Hedwig

I even tried returning to pop culture by showing her this beloved Tootsie Pop commercial:

So now Sienna thinks owls are silly creatures that eat lollipops. Problem is now the scary owls won’t stop biting her until she gives them her lollipops so that plan backfired a bit. I’m not sure what to do next, but I do know that my daughter’s imagination is running at full speed and of that I’m proud and even a little bit jealous. What I do know is that Hedwig remains her protector in her dreams and is really working off that $30 I spent on him.

So what creatures or things are giving your kids the nightly fits and how are you handling it? Are your kids scared of ghosts? Hyenas? Pickles? Please share your stories in the comments section! I’d love to read them!

Hanukkah, Christmas And The Best Of Both Worlds

Fact: Christmas can be oppressive for us Jews especially when we’re children. It seems everything out there is Christmas. Every TV special. Every house decorated with streams of ethereal lights. Santa in every commercial touting all the great new toys his elves are toiling away at when he’s not at the mall letting kids sit on his lap and ask for presents. Stockings. Tinsel. Incredibly beautiful indoor trees housing stacks and stacks of presents. Candy canes. A grandmother that was run over by a reindeer. The Nutcracker. Rockefeller Center. A date that doesn’t move around each year. An eve.

What did we have? 8 nights of lighting candles and saying a prayer. An electric orange menorah in the window. Dreidels. A boring song about dreidels made out of clay. Delicious latkes (ok, I can’t complain about that one). Chinese food on Christmas Day. There were presents, of course. In our case we’d get a big one on the first and last night of Hanukkah and small things in between. The holiday couldn’t even figure out how it wanted to spelled!

I wanted Rudolph. I wanted Frosty. I wanted Santa. More than anything I wanted to cover our house and bushes with a fantastic array of twinkling lights. Each year I’d beg my parents for lights, but the closest we came was a paper “Happy Hanukkah” to hang in the window that no one could see after dark. My parents felt for me for I’m sure they were envious as kids as well. They’d put presents by the chimney. They had one of my dad’s best friends dress up as Santa just for me.

“You’re not Santa!” I said in my brattiest tone. “You’re Mickey!”

As an adult I so appreciate my parents for trying especially since Christmas now seems to start before Labor Day making it even more onerous for Jewish people. Which is why I’m so happy for Sienna who gets to experience both holidays even though Christmas is a bit wacky (my wife’s parents are of a Christians but of a sect that doesn’t celebrate the holiday, so my wife didn’t even have Christmas growing up. She does now).

Sienna stares at our menorah (my late grandmother's) as the window reflects our little Christmas tree

Sienna stares at our menorah (my late grandmother’s) as the window reflects our little Christmas tree

Sienna gets to enjoy the power of both holidays. She gets to help Mommy trim our little silver Christmas tree covered with blue lights (silver and blue – the colors of Hanukkah). She gets to help Daddy screw in the electric menorah’s lightbulb for 8 days. Perhaps next year we’ll move on to actually lighting candles as well. She can watch holiday themed Sophia the FirstMickey Mouse Clubhouse and Jake and the Never Land Pirates without feeling like an outsider. She gets to revel in Santa’s ho-ho-ho and jiggling belly and enjoy the big Christmas tree in our building’s lobby while also pointing out the building’s silver menorah. We listen to her sing herself to sleep. Sometimes it’s a the Dreidel song. Sometimes it’s a Christmas tune.

She celebrates with her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandmother during Hanukkah, 5 kids running around the house opening presents, spinning dreidels, eating chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Meanwhile her aunt, uncle and cousin are driving up from Louisiana for a special Christmas visit and we’ll spend Christmas Day with my wife’s family. And boy does she get presents. So many presents we’ll probably need a second apartment in which to store them. But what I love, what I experience through my daughter, is not feeling left out. I feel her soaking in both holidays on an equal plane. She loves evenings when both the Christmas tree and menorah alight basking our living room in a festive glow. For her, “Happy Holidays” truly means “Happy Holidays.”

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Sienna and one side of the family pose for 4 generation Hanukkah picture

Religion has yet to play a role in the holidays. I’m not religious. I’m an agnostic, but I somewhat follow Jewish customs. My wife is spiritual, but not religious. We have plenty of time before we have to deal with the religious angle and I’m curious and a bit fearful of what will come.

But for now Sienna gets the best of both worlds (or at least the worlds of Christmas and Hanukkah). She gets to enjoy her dreidels and candy canes; trees and menorahs; presents and presents. It’s a joyous time of year for her and a jubilant one for her parents. I for one have banished holiday envy from my heart as I give a Hanukkah gift to my wife and receive a Christmas gift in return.

I even get my festive lights.

My Safe Place

The theater’s always dark. Sometimes it’s empty. Sometimes it’s packed. Sometimes you’ll see dribs and drabs of people scattered throughout. Sometimes they talk or look at their phones which irritates and forces me to shush them. Often I’m alone, but sometimes not. My Sno-Caps are usually gone by the end of the trailers. My small Diet Coke makes it about halfway through the film. The movies is not a means of escape. My mind remains present. Always critical. Always analytical. I don’t get swept up in movies. I’m too busy appreciating or disliking editing, cinematography, score, acting, directing, etc., but this doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy what I watch. It doesn’t mean I can’t get blown away by something truly amazing up there on the screen. I also worry too much about what others think of the film and my opinion of it. Too often my opinion gets lost in this obsession to be right. Regardless, what’s most important is that when I’m in a movie theater my anxiety level decreases to the point where I can breathe.  The movie theater is my safe place. Just being there releases the choke hold anxiety has on me. Even if it’s just for a little while.

Not too long ago my wife and I met with our financial advisor because we’re having money issues. He chastised me for going to the movies. “You know you can just wait for it to hit cable or Netflix or on-demand? That’s what I do.” His words slapped me and in that moment I hated him.

“You don’t get it!” I wanted to yell. “I don’t get that same sense of relief, of freedom. “I’m a stay-at-home dad with depression and anxiety issues. Sitting those 2+ hours in a darkened theater helps my chest loosen. I don’t have many hobbies. I don’t spend money on clothes or collections. I’m with my daughter every single day. Isolated. Alone. Doing my best to mask my depression and anxiety. I love her so much, but sometimes I need out. I need a dark room with a large flickering screen. The more anxious I get (and I’ve been highly depressed and anxious the past 6 weeks) the more I want that darkened theater. The more I want to see WildWhiplash, Birdman. The more I want my Sno-Caps and small Diet Coke. Seats that aren’t always comfortable. I DON’T CARE!! DON’T TAKE AWAY MY SAFE PLACE!!”

I hadn’t realized the movies is my sanctuary until we met with our financial advisor. Not until I felt it yanked away. I feel safe with my wife, but sometimes I can’t see her eyes or feel her hugs past the chest constriction. That’s when I need to get out. To get in the car, drive to one of my regular theaters and let my mind follow Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-caliber performance in The Theory of Everything or the positively mind-blowing editing work in Birdman as my chest slowly decompresses. That’s when I need my safe place.

Elaine, my wife, told me that when I had my last nervous breakdown I was too afraid to go back to the movies. I don’t remember this at all. She thinks it’s because I was too afraid to let myself enjoy any aspect of my life. Instead I lay in bed shaking and crying and stuttering until one day I moved to couch and planted myself in front of the television. I don’t know when I returned to the cinema. Maybe I finally heard the calling of the gorgeous Landmark Loew’s 1930s movie palace just blocks away from us in Jersey City, NJ, a place that feels frozen in time. Red velvet walls. Golden staircases. A giant screen on which you can watch anything from silent features (complete with an organ accompaniment) to 80s classics like The Goonies. At some point I went back. At some point the movies became my safe place.

Now in Queens, NY, as I continue to slog through my depression and anxiety, as I raise Sienna to best of my abilities, the cinema remains my Fortress of Solitude even if I happen to be with someone or the theater is packed to the gills. I crave those evening when Elaine comes home at 6 and I can catch a 7:30 show. The darkness, the trailers, the Sno-Caps, the small Diet Coke, the film, the seats, the screen. They all combine to alleviate my anxiety for a few hours until those credits roll.

I can’t give it up. We’ll have to budget accordingly, but I can’t give up the movies. It’s too important to my mental health. I’m thankful Elaine supports me on this and in fact is the one who pointed it out. I’m lucky to have such an understanding wife who knew immediately that the financial advisor hit a nerve that sent my mind to the edge of an abyss – no more movies…EVER. She is the one who called the theater my safe place. And so it is.

What’s your safe place?

Listen To Me on City Dads Group MovemberDads Podcast About Depression

Proud to have been a part of City Dads Group’s MovemberDads podcast titled Depressed Dads: Parenting Through the Darkness. Appearing along with myself are Ron Mattocks of Clark Kent’s Lunchbox and Ryan E. Hamilton of Life of Dad and it’s moderated by Matt Schneider of City Dads Group and the NYC Dads Group. Many thanks to Josh Kross for editing it. It’s a really important topic. Hope you listen and let me know how I did.