The word careened through my flabbergasted brain because it was the only one that made sense.
I remained at the podium staring into a fog of bodies united in a standing ovation, a cacophony of applause stinging my ears.
My defenses screeched and shook. Pity. It had to be pity.
I recalled someone telling me before I read from my blog to focus on him if I got lost or scared. Now I couldn’t remember who told me that and it didn’t matter anyway because I couldn’t see any faces.
At some point the room quieted, the audience took their seats and I left the stage. My body trembled. Slowly tears began to fall. Someone asked me if I needed help, if I needed to leave the room for a bit. I nodded and was led down a hall framed by companies sponsoring Dad 2.0 and into a room. Jason Greene, Kevin McKeever and Chris Read were with me speaking words of praise and comfort, but by the time my sister-in-law arrived and gave me an enormous hug, the tears were no longer silent. I cried loudly. I sobbed in shame and fear and anxiety and relief. Jason and Kevin kept telling me how proud they were. Chris told me the story of his own reading the previous year, how he was so wrecked afterwards that he had to return to his room to recuperate. Either Jason or Kevin or maybe both told me I was the star of Dad 2.0 2014, that I would be thing most remembered about the conference.
No one pitied me, they said. Rather the room coalesced in genuine awe at my bravery and my raw, powerful words. My mind screamed at them to SHUT UP!!!!!! JUST SHUT UP!!!!! My mouth kept returning to the pity thing, the disbelief thing, the distrust thing. It’s not real. It can’t be real.
Chris (I think it was Chris) told me to get ready to hear a ton of compliments, but even so I had no idea what I was in for. There was no way for me to prepare because this would be an experience so foreign to me that my usual coping mechanisms of self-deprecation, sarcasm and deflection (something the great Whit Honea told me he shared with me) could never work. As person after person after person (men and women both) congratulated and praised me, called me brilliant, courageous, a hero, I felt like I was stuck inside a hornet’s nest getting repeatedly stung from every direction because the fact is I, and my lifelong, irrational, negative defenses had NEVER received such validation; I didn’t know how to deal with it. I called Elaine and left some unintelligible message. I called one of my best friends who finally helped me calm down. All the while my sister-in-law and brother-in-law stuck close by.
People who I knew only via the web, people like Carter Gaddis, Aaron Gouveia, John Kinnear, Oren Miller told me to just relax and accept it, but how could I yield to something I didn’t trust? Each time someone came up to me, I stammered a thank you. Often I stared in confusion which I can only hope didn’t make them think I was insane. Lance Somerfield, co-founder of the NYC Dads Group, and a man I so, so wanted to please, told me how proud he was, told me I was a special part of this community of dads.
When I asked a question at a panel titled “Parenting it Forward: Compensating for Our Own Flawed Fathers” given by Charlie Capen, Ryan Hamilton, Eduardo Vega and moderated by Caleb Gardner, the first words spoken to me were about my reading and then room burst into applause. WHAT THE HELL????
When I went out to dinner with some of the guys, I learned that another table was talking about me and my reading. Again…WHAT THE HELL????
And as my defenses kept scrambling to regain finger- and footholds, a fellow dad (I’m not sure if he wants me to name him), came up and said he was so nervous about talking to me, but he wanted to because he felt like I “got it” more than anyone else at the conference; how he’d planned to leave until he heard me speak; how he too suffered from mental illness and it concerned him in his role as a father; how if I was brave enough to get on that stage, he should be strong enough to talk to me. We spoke for a long while acknowledging our similarities. We hugged. I teared up. I felt I had touched someone who truly understood.
As the conference continued, I somehow was able to compartmentalize the terror and unworthiness I felt and began to feel a camaraderie I’d never before experienced. Despite my anxiety, I felt a little at peace. I felt like I belonged. And that’s something else I didn’t know what to do with because I’d always believed myself to be the outcast.
I refused to look at Facebook for 5 days because I couldn’t bear any discussion about me. I’ve slowly gotten back into it, but I feel like I’m drowning. I feel like I’m obligated to “like” every single thing, to read and comment on every single blog written by my new friends because I owe them lest they abandon me. In the near two weeks since I gave my reading, I’ve been inundated with friend requests, instant messages, e-mails, blogs written about me, quotes about me, tweets about me (I joined Twitter right before the conference and have no clue what I’m doing). And I’m having so much trouble. My therapist, Elaine, my parents, my sister, my friends, my family, all told me how proud they are, how I deserve every little bit of praise I’m receiving. Fellow dad bloggers have written that I don’t owe anybody anything except to keep being myself, but that can’t be true, can it? Because my frigging defenses keep screaming that I deserve none of this! Nothing makes any sense anymore! And yet, in a haze I bought a ticket for Dad 2.0 2015 because I so want to see everyone and feel that esprit de corps.
And two days ago, one day after my 40th birthday, it was my voice screaming those phrases as I had the worst panic attack I’ve had in years. It began in front of Sienna and my mother-in-law (who speaks very little English). The trembling, the tears. The facial twitching. The stuttering. I texted my mom who came running. I used a translator to explain to my mother-in-law I was having a panic attack. I held on until my mom arrived. She took me to the bedroom where I fell into hysterics, repeating how I didn’t understand anything and didn’t deserve all of this ridiculous recognition and how I could never ever ever live up to this. I thrashed and cried and moaned through a session with my therapist, begging for Elaine to come home, my therapist telling me this is where I go, that my defenses are now fragile because of the influx of validation, they’re struggling to keep hold while a new me is fighting to be born. My mom stroked my head. My therapist told her to give me a diazepam to help calm me down and I fell into a bitter sleep with the words, “Help help help” leaving my lips.
I don’t remember when I woke up, but I was shaky. So shaky. Sienna was still awake, but it scared me to go near her because I didn’t want HER to be frightened of me. My mom stayed and took care of my daughter. I returned to the bedroom. When Elaine came home she held me tight. She explained that I finally got what I craved (approval, affirmation, acceptance), but because I was emotionally stunted, I didn’t know how to traverse these new, wild waters. She said that half of me wants it all to go away, but the other half is thrilled, a huge dichotomy, like I’m now playing the role of Two-Face in the Batman comics, but I’m only villainous to myself. She said that when I had my most recent nervous breakdown, it was like an angry 6 year old took over and right now I’m an adolescent looking at this new tribe in black and white: popularity or abandonment. And thus the desperate, nonsensical belief that if I don’t “like,” read, and comment on everything, they’ll all go away. I also needed to learn how to manage my time, to stop looking at things like a mountain and instead concentrate on one thing a day (Kevin McKeever had written me the same advice). I still don’t know how to do that, but I felt warm in my wife’s arms. Loved. I listened.
And yet I woke up jittery and Sienna throwing tantrums, being a normal toddler, made things worse. My mom had to take her for the day and then for the night. I needed time to recover from this last panic attack, one of the worst in my history. I needed to sleep. A lot. I needed to veg. I needed to THINK and think clearly. I woke up today knowing I was going to write, feeling the little sparks emanating from my fingertips. Is this blog too long? Is it exactly what I wanted to say? Does it matter? I’m trying not to let the latter question stop me.
All I know is that I found my people and I’m putting myself out there. I’m going to do everything I can to trust them and to hell with my defenses. It’s going to be a slow process as I try to accept all of these accolades and let them grow within me until they eventually destroy (or at least overtake) the defenses I’ve built up over 40 years. I won’t be able to respond to people immediately. I won’t be able to keep up with every conversation or read every blog and tweet, especially since my daughter comes first. But I’m part of a community now. An important, loving, caring community. I’ve never had that before, so bear with me.
I humbly thank everyone who came up to me, wrote to me, tweeted about me, friended me, wrote about me, believed in and continues to believe in me. I especially thank Doug French and John Pacini for inviting me and allowing my sister- and brother-in-law to be there in New Orleans (I had no idea I’d need them as much as I did) and I thank my sister- and brother-in-law for being so kind and loving and supportive. Thank you to my friends and family for your encouraging e-mails. Thank my parents for giving me this time to heal and for being so proud. Thank you to my therapist for all your help (don’t worry, your job’s far from over). Thank you to Elaine for your love, compassion, words, hugs, kisses and for giving birth to our incredible daughter, Sienna.
But most of all, thank you to myself for going to Dad 2.0, for getting up on that stage and bearing my heart and soul in front of 200+ people, and for beginning what could become one of the most significant journeys of my life.
I still have more to write about my Dad 2.0 experience, but I can’t say when it will happen. It’s enough for now that I got this out.
Regardless, I can’t wait to see my people again at Dad 2.0 2015!