“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.
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.
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.”
“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 Post, Dads 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.