10 guys sat around a boxed in fire outside the Mandarin Oriental DC’s bar drinking, laughing, talking, reminiscing. Across the twinkling Potomac River sat the Jefferson Memorial’s glowing dome, a doppelgänger to the full moon in the sky. Despite the slight chill, Zach Rosenberg warmed the group with his always racy jokes.
There was an open space by the fire calling to me, but instead I took a chair, dragged it behind Jeff Bogle and essentially cut myself off from this group of guys that I might not see for another year. At one point Jeff turned around and was surprised to see me sitting there. The conversation grew lively, grins appearing on everyone’s faces but mine. More people arrived and someone filled that space that had been calling to me. I sat and I went deep inside myself to the point where friendly voices sounded muted and my irrational mind screamed.
“You don’t deserve to be here!”
“You’re an effing loser! A coward!”
“No one’ll miss you if you go to your room. Just go! Just go already!”
I recognized the self-sabatoge, but felt powerless against it. I looked around at the little groups of Dad 2.016 attendees enjoying the last few hours before everyone spread out across the country and wrote about how wonderful the conference was. There was one other group outside and at least 3 inside at the bar. I was surrounded by people who knew me, applauded me 2 years ago, believed in me, and yet I felt utterly alone.
The Dad 2.0 Summit is a wonderful event filled with informative panels and roundtables, exciting keynote speakers, exceptionally kind brand spokespeople, contests, amazing blog spotlight readers and trips to places like rural Virginia to fly $1700 drones thanks to Best Buy and 3DR and to the Smithsonian at night where you could have liquid nitrogen ice cream and build with blocks thanks to LEGO. And because this year’s conference was held in Washington, DC, my best friend since second grade joined in and got to see what I’ve been talking about for the past 3 years. It should have been one of the best times of my life, but as it too often happens, my depression got in the way.
This was the first year I didn’t speak at the conference and while I didn’t have to deal with the stress of reading in front of hundreds of people or setting up a panel, the anxiety related to not being intimately connected, not being a part of the inner workings, got to me. Before leaving for DC I felt scared that I’d feel disconnected because I was a “lowly attendee.” Stupid, I know. Ridiculous. Irrational. But that’s what depression can do. I asked for advice from friends and everyone said to enjoy not feeling the pressure to perform, enjoy just walking around and taking everything in, enjoy talking to fellow dad bloggers that I only see online. So I tried. I really tried. But I still felt like less of a person because my badge read “attendee” instead of “speaker.” Still, I promised myself I’d do my best and I did. I had a blast at the Best Buy drone excursion even though we got stuck in some serious traffic on the way back. Igave and received hugs at the welcome party. I didn’t go out that first night as I’d barely slept, so I crashed, but not before I made a promise to be strong and talkative and relaxed. And not before I cracked up that I was staying in room 666. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
I was fine until Brad Meltzer, best-selling author and the creator of a wonderful children’s book series in which he brings to life historical people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart and more as ordinary children with fantastic dreams and actions like standing up to bullies, delved into his opening keynote address. Mr. Meltzer’s words hit me hard, so hard that I teared up and had to leave the room. He essentially hit 2 of my biggest triggers – work and legacy. My family stressed work so hard growing up that I still have difficulty defining success. Is it money? Job title? A big house? My irrational brain says yes. My irrational brain ignores my wife, my daughter, my blog, my producing a show about ordinary people and mental illness called This Is My Brave NYC. My irrational brain tells me I have no money. I live in a tiny apartment. I’m too dependent on my parents. I’m not a VP or a VIP. I’m a failure. And my legacy? Mr. Meltzer spoke to how legacy is about your family and the people you’ve touched just as my therapist and psychiatrist have told me, just as my friends have tried to pound into my brain, but even the word “legacy” is a gut punch because I stubbornly insist that legacy is about being remembered for something extraordinary. Steve Jobs has a legacy. Albert Einstein has a legacy. Brad Meltzer has a legacy. He’s a published and celebrated author. What am I? I stumbled outside and cried and eventually got up the courage to ask Mr. Meltzer if I could speak with him more. He did email me and I did email him back, but I’m waiting for a reply. So I took the time to visit sponsors like Kidde where I was timed while putting on fireman gear and Lee Jeans which is always my favorite booth. They’re so nice there and they remember me. But I had an ulterior motive as well. I needed to get my passport punched by each sponsor if I were to be eligible for a prize at the end of the summit and I made sure I did so because I felt like I HAD to win lest I not be recognized. Again…depression…the mind going to the most ridiculous extremes.
While I did enjoy introducing my best friend around, I felt a vibe that I wasn’t wanted by my fellow dad bloggers, one that was clearly in my head. Perhaps it was the emotion of the loss of our beloved Oren Miller, a good friend and a dad blogger pioneer, to cancer, and the courage it took for his wife, Beth, to stand in front of 415 people and read a letter Oren wrote to himself when he was 37 but would never get to read. I think I took some people’s sadness and made it about myself – something else at which depression’s a master. So I purposely stayed away from some of my most important friends and supporters because I felt like they didn’t want to talk to me when it’s quite possible they were grieving for Oren. I grieved too, of course. I cried as Beth read the letter. I miss the hell out of Oren. But I felt confused and scared by the vibe and I avoided certain people.
The most amazing part of the conference to me was DadSlam, the brainchild of John Kinnear. It was an after hours session in which people put their names in a hat and once their names were called, they read a piece – humorous, emotional, vulnerable, whatever. As I means to support John, I was the first to put my name in the hat. DadSlam was an enormous success. Standing room only. Doug announced it would be an annually thing. I listened to each person. I laughed. I teared up. And I waited for my name to be called because each time it wasn’t, my anxiety ratcheted up. I needed to read lest I be forgotten. My name was never called. Depression told me I was a failure despite the randomness of the names. Depression told me people would forget me…abandon me. And despite logically knowing my brain was wrong, I listened. It became about me, not about John’s success. I was and am thrilled for John, but at the time, it was all about me. Depression is a narcissistic, selfish disease and I hate it!
At one point Michael Strahan took the stage thanks to Meta Health. As I Giants fan, I couldn’t have been more excited. I sat and took pictures and listened to Mr. Strahan talk football and fatherhood and heart health and when I sensed the end of the session, I walked quickly to the edge of the stairs and kind of ambushed Mr. Strahan into taking a selfie with me. He didn’t look happy about it, but he did it.
Selfies. That’s another thing. I promised myself I’d take tons of selfies this year with all of my friends. I took two, one with Michael Strahan, and one with my sister (who kindly came down to visit me while I was out to dinner on the last night) and a few dad bloggers because I felt below everyone else. I played the comparison game more than I ever have before. When I learned that certain bloggers were chosen to do one-on-ones with Mr. Strahan, it killed me. This despite two of them offering to try to get Mr. Strahan to autograph my hat (he didn’t). When one of those bloggers told me he couldn’t tell me about it because he was sworn to secrecy, I felt like an ant, just an unimportant, useless ant. Shakily, I went into the panel about the secrets of PR to listen to Beau Coffren, Jim Lin, Barbara Jones and my good friend, Justin Aclin. As I sat there trying to understand everything, I finally got up the courage to raise my hand as ask if those in PR had a go-to list for dad bloggers (one I know I’m not on). It was an uncomfortable question, and the affirmative answer made it even more so. I asked how to get myself on that list and was told “engagement” which I didn’t understand. When the panel ended, Kyle Circle from Weave Media came over and tried to explain engagement, but I broke down. All of the pressure I’d put on myself came flooding out in tears. I went all the way back to my childhood. All the way back to when I first felt abandoned by my dad when my sister was born (as always, my dad is not like that anymore). The dam burst. I cried about my obstinate, immature view of success. I cried about how much I hate myself. Jeff Bogle and Jason Greene came in and tried to talk me down and eventually they did because they’re such good friends. But my breakdown made us miss the majority of the final keynote speaker, Derreck Kayongo, a man who went through so much personal hardship yet still retains a positive attitude.
Which brings me back to that final night. Stars twinkling on the Potomac. A fire in a box. Guys talking and laughing. Not just guys, my friends. I sat hidden in my chair and thought about abandonment and fear and depression and anxiety and I fought to get up…just get up and go sit down amongst my brothers. But I didn’t. Instead I gave in. I let the irrational part of my brain win. I said my goodbyes and returned to my room.
Dad 2.0 is about community. I’ve written before about the lessons I’ve learned from the summit, how I’ve found my tribe, but this year I let my depression take control. I guess the big takeaway is that I recognized it as it was happening. Next year I’ll be stronger. When Dad 2.0 invades San Diego, I won’t be so complacent. I’ll fight harder. And even if I don’t win, I’ll ask for the help of my dad blogger brothers.
And I’ll take lots of selfies.