The Shame I Harbor

Deep in the recesses of my past, a bleak darkness hides. Few know of this chapter in the history of me, and that is by design. It is a source of shame, this black hole that devoured me and nearly dragged those I love down with me, whom I’m certain felt the substantial pull of it. They know the depths that it took me, how far into the abyss it dragged me down. They also know the will and fortitude it took to make my way out from under crushing weight of its control.

Nearly everyone I love knows. All except my children. They don’t have the faintest inkling of my degradation. Truth is, I’m terrified to tell them. Terrified that they will think less of me. Terrified that they will step back from me, fear in their eyes. Terrified that I’ll lose their love for me. Terrified that they will no longer see me as their father, but as something less.

I’m terrified to tell them that I’ve been in prison. That I was arrested and spent nearly a year of my life as an inmate.

What is even more worrisome for me is to tell them why I was incarcerated. I was an addict, but not in thrall to drugs or liquor. My demon was gambling. I am scared out of my wits that once they learn the truth of me, the ugly side of me, they will only see me as what I was, and not what I am. I was an addict, a junkie. What I am is a father. A husband. A man who’s worked his way out of a shit heap of my own making, and managed to build a life that is more than I ever thought possible.

Nearly 25 years ago, I was arrested two days before Christmas. I was thrown in a cell in Dauphin County Prison, which happened to be right near a mall. Over the next two days, while the prison classified me to put me in general population, I watched through bars of a murky window the scores of people and cars moving briskly to get gifts for their loved ones. I let each armful of presents that walked by rip a part of my soul out. I was a terrible human being, and this was my atonement.

I knew this was the truth because of everything I’d done to end up in the prison that I was locked in, physically and mentally. I’d stolen money to feed the beast within. I’d lied to friends. I’d taken from my family, uprooting all trust they had in me. In the throes of my addiction, I’d rationalized these actions, falsely telling myself that if I could just hit the big bet, win against the odds stacked against me, just once, that I could pay everything back, and all would be well again. But it never happened. No matter the lies I told others to deceive them, the checks I wrote on bank accounts I had no money in, the way I pretended to be a person who had it all together. I was an addict. I was a deceiver. A liar. A charlatan who preyed on others. I deserved whatever punishment I was given.

The day after Christmas, I made a promise to myself. I was going to get myself well. I believed that if I could do that, then over time and with diligence, then perhaps I could regain the love and trust of my family. I knew this would not be an easy road; it would be one fraught with rightful accusations and angry words. As much of a climb this would be to the mountain top of my redemption, I was going to persevere. My parents were the ones I needed to rebuild with the most. I’d taken money from them, even stole their credit cards. Though they never verbalized it, I knew they were devastated. I was determined to show them, through actions, not words – those I was gifted enough to use as a shield to my egregious behaviors – that I was the man they raised their son to be, not the craven thief I’d become.

I struggled mightily, working two full time jobs for most of the first year of my parole. Most days I was lucky to get 3 hours of sleep. I rented a room in a building in the poorest section of Harrisburg, because that was the most I could afford. I shared a kitchen and a bathroom with the other tenants, one of which threatened me because he suspected I took his ketchup. I walked to work almost daily, not having enough money to take the bus. This was the greatest challenge I’ve faced in my life to that point. I’d created this challenge through my own actions, and I was going to defeat it by my own actions. I worked hard at paying back the significant amount of money I’d stolen. And I worked even harder at proving to my family that I was no longer the pathological liar who had duped them at every turn.

It took years of demonstrating my rehabilitation, but I did exactly that. Years of barely scraping by, surviving on ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches. Years of rebuilding the foundation of trust I’d so wantonly destroyed because I chased the darkness.

A lot has happened in my life since then. I’ve married, had two marvelous sons, got divorced, bought a house, sold a house, bought another house, remarried, added two fabulous daughters to my family. I’ve worked in corporate IT for close to twenty years. I’ve lived a life that I’m grateful for. I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed to tell my children about the grand mistake I made years before any of them were even alive.

Yet… I do.

Logically, I know that my kids will love me regardless of my past. They’ll see how I am now, as a man and a father. They’ll know I love them and care for them beyond any measurement that exists. Emotionally, I’m petrified. Doubt sits in the background, casually inserting itself just enough into my thoughts to cause chaos. That’s its purpose, after all, and its skill is undeniable. The power is exerts is subtle and devastating.

My wife, my champion, stands resolute by my side. She understands my hesitation, yet steadfastly reminds me of the unlikelihood that my fears will come to fruition. She empathizes with the side of me that believes I’m unworthy of the love I crave from my family. She also shoots straight with me. She fights the leviathan that is my doubt with truth and unequivocal love. Doubt doesn’t stand a chance to against the brilliance that is her light.

So this weekend, I will sit with my children, the ones who I love and adore most, and explain to them the most unflattering season of my life. I will tell them about my past addiction and all the ugly ways it infested my life. And then I will await their questions (for there WILL be questions) and answer them as honestly and earnestly as I can.

I hope they’ll take my tale of struggle and apply the hard lessons I had to learn and endure and use them in their own lives. I hope the message of work ethic and perseverance wins out in their young impressionable minds.

I hope they won’t think less of me. I hope they’ll still see me as their father, less than perfect, but ever on their side.

I hope it will be easier for them than it has been for me.

Image credit:  Uno Mas En La Familia 

 

Master of Peeves

A tablet left on the couch, awaiting destruction by an unsuspecting person who blindly sits down. Endless cords and chargers, always left plugged in, with nary a device to send its replenishing current to. Dishes abandoned in places no dishes should be, the household equivalent of a grocery cart toppled over on an empty playground .  A minefield of shoes and book bags left at the door, requiring entrants to navigate an obstacle course that more often resembles Wipeout than American Ninja Warrior. And of course, the perpetual challenge of putting toilet paper in its rightful place.

These are a few of my least favorite things.

In fact, these seemingly innocuous childlike actions are my most infuriating things.

Taken individually, these are nominal indiscretions. Collectively, they engorge my rage gland to bursting. One by one, each indignity pushes my anger level upward until I explode, Mount Vesuvius-style, expletives and bluster spewing forth in a majestic display. After the initial grand eruption, grumbles sputter out the sides of my mouth, embarrassment overriding aggravation, my mood cooling like so much magma meeting the air. The only way to save face is to retreat to some other location, irritation mingling with shame, faux complaints mumbled incoherently.

Sadly, this is not the end of this disaster. Now that my personal volcano has let loose, so it must bubble beneath the surface I privately stew on the heinous infraction (or so I have built it up to that level in my mind) that caused me to blow my figurative top.

“Haven’t I asked them to not do those things hundreds of times?”

“Have I not been clear enough in my fire and brimstone diatribes?”

“Don’t they respect me enough to extend the smallest of efforts to keep me from going ballistic?”

“We provide so much for them. How is it too much to ask to do the most menial of tasks ?”

This is my jukebox of justification, and it plays all the hits, over and over again. Its cyclical nature ensures that I stay ever-livid, rage boiling just below my exterior. I am dangerous, a smoking crater of exasperation that can erupt at any moment.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not so long ago, my wife put to me a question that shook me: “Where is that happy-go-lucky guy I met all those years ago?” She had a valid point. Upon a time I was a devout believer in the mantra “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.” Now a simple misplaced cup will launch me into a soliloquy on the virtue of responsibility as if that one cup will be the fulcrum that pushes our kids down the road to ruin.

Where has that man gone? The one who always saw the glass as half full (regardless of its location), the one who wore a grin like it was his favorite shirt? The cheerful one, the one who exuded glee and happiness?

That man had kids that became teenagers. The age of confusion and hormones. When the journey to discovering themselves, physically and otherwise, begins. Chaos reigns in their minds, even if they are awash in smugness when you are bestowing wisdom upon them. We’ve been there too, feeling like we understand the world so much better than our parental units while alternately being thoroughly confused at who we are supposed to be. Tumultuous and righteous, they are grappling with themselves and the two worlds they live in: the real and the digital. It’s a lot to ask a developing human at their most vulnerable stage mentally and emotionally to be perfect in their actions. They are coping with hurdles most parents of teens have not had to contend with: crafting and honing an online persona in the midst of figuring out their lives in our tactile existence. On those grounds alone they deserve far more leeway for missteps than I have allowed.

Yet, despite these truths, I have done little in the way of granting such graces. I’ve done mostly the opposite, letting minuscule peeves rule my days and nights with our kids. I’ve allowed perceived slights fester within, squashing the good man, the happy man, the man who found joy in life and his family. Perhaps my offspring aren’t the only ones weathering the internal storm of upheaval .

There is certainly an appropriate time and place for frustration to show with your kids. It is healthy for them to see you upset, and understand the why of the disappointment or irritation with their action or inaction, especially in the moment. Family is rarely Rockwellesque; it tends to be more in the vein of Dali. Strange and odd, but all the more lovely for its natural eccentricities.

Armed with the understanding of my teenagers’ challenges as well as my own, I will try to lessen the grip of the wee things that wriggle their way under my skin. I will endeavor to keep in mind that we are all imperfect, and that is OK. Of course I’ll slip up. I’ll burst at the seams here and there, regressing into the easily agitated father role that I’ve lived in as of late. But I will, over time, quell the dweller of peeves within, and return the volcano to dormancy.

 

 

 

Sea of Imposters

The bustling of bodies seems frenetic. I know there is purpose to their movements; indeed, their purpose is mine. But I am in a city foreign to me amongst those who have honed their skills and studied their craft, and I am hoping to glean knowledge from them. I’m not overwhelmed, not exactly. What I am is petrified.

“You don’t belong, you know.” The dreadful passenger that is my constant companion lends its voice to my fears. I’m rarely without its insistence.

“Everyone will figure you out. You’ll be known as the fraud you are.” The faces passing by are friendly, their eyes meeting mine with a smile attached. I nod and smile back, even eke out a few hellos to those who are familiar. I do not let the terror show, the one that rides with me no matter where I am. I fervently worry that those scuttling past me, or worse, those who stop to share a word or a handshake or a hug will hear that dreadful passenger and know the truth. That I am a charlatan, a sham. A trickster.

I am an imposter.

There has never been a moment where someone outside of my mind has heard that voice. Not a single instance of accusation from another human being. You’d think that without any sort of substantive proof that I’d be able to silence the dreadful passenger. To annex him to a dark cell and seal him off from any input in my thought processes. This is his true genius. He needs no proof. He can manufacture doubt from nothingness, and it will CONSUME me. The skepticism runs quickly through my nerves and bloodstream. It renders me motionless, afraid to move. As if stillness will shield prying eyes and minds from my fraudulence.

I am a writer, or at least that is who I am when I am here. I am also a father, like nearly everyone else is here.

Here happens to be Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for dads who are telling their stories and sharing their lives through an array of mediums. Writing, video, photography….all ways these folks are presenting their journeys through parenthood. Lending themselves bare for all to see. Like I am. Ostensibly I am part of this clan. Yet the dreadful passenger tries to foil my membership with this community.

“Look at how popular they are.”

“They’re so much more successful than you are. You’re not on their level.”

“Why would you think that they’d want to talk to you? You’re nobody.”

“You can’t even get a hundred people to like one of your posts.”

He’s had years of practice to cut my confidence down in mere seconds. Fear and insecurity are his weapons, and he uses them with utmost precision. Attacks are brutal and swift and devastating. He doesn’t limit his ruthless barbs just to occasions like this. He’s omniscient. Nothing is out of his reach for comment. Parenting. Writing. Being a husband. Self-perception. What I eat. What I drink. How I love. Every crevice of my existence is available for his special brand of critique. He pulls no punches and takes no quarter. He lords over my self-esteem and pounds it to dust when he deems I’m challenging his rule.

Normally when his sharp words play in my head, I’d shrink into myself and try to quell the uncertainty raging within. But this time I allow the sea of peers to push and pull me about, adrift on camaraderie and compassion. The more I let myself bounce along the ebbs and currents of support and relatability, the quieter that voice becomes. He is losing this round, and it enrages him. He launches a final salvo.

“See all these men? They’re REAL dads. Look at you; you’re a terrible father. You sacrificed a weekend with your kids to come to a conference to be with people who know you don’t matter? Huh…some dad you are.”

That’s an uppercut to my psyche most days.

But this is not a day for hammer blows to my confidence. The waves move me towards kindred souls.

Thom, a warlock with words, seeks me out. We share stories and a few drinks. He compliments my writing and my family. I’m more than a bit floored by his generosity. Hugs and handshakes, and we carry on conversations with others who want to share their lives bare and fully.

I talk with my friend Scotty, who tells of a horrific past that you’d never suspect. He’s a humorous sort, quick with a smile. The adoration he has for his children explodes from my phone each time I see it. Tears are spent from both our eyes. His courage is immeasurable, and I’m proud to know him.

Then there’s Spike who’s a whirling dervish of ideas. We’ve had many a conversation via text and good-old-fashioned-honest-to-goodness phone calls. We’ve never met, but he and I sit in adjoining chairs, whisky in hand, catching up and casting story ideas off each other like we were college roommates. The good kind though, not the creepy ones that you invariably got assigned to for your first semester. He makes my mind buzz with creativity and the desire to commit to the concepts moving around my head at mach speed.

My roommates for this excursion, Ryan and Dan, two men I’ve never met nor hardly had spoken to prior to arriving, were sincere and hilarious, combinations not normally found together. I feel fortunate to have known them briefly there, and thankful for the friendships we’re constructing.

I have heard speakers on a large stage talk about being bullied; I’ve been in small rooms with fathers sharing their deepest fears and troubles with each other. Judgment was not cast. Empathy was the rule of the day, each day, that I was in attendance. Bonding was not a big enough word to encompass what was happening here.  It was a collective, a commune, a brotherhood.

The last night I was there, I was lucky enough to be present for a conversation between two men I admire more than I can express. Two utterly different fathers talking through their experiences. A black father who remarried and is now part of a blended family consisting of black and white children, and a married gay father with one son. They related. They regaled each other with the common struggles all parents face. They were both fathers. The rest of the descriptors I gave? None of that mattered in that moment. Or any moment, really. We were all parents, all striving to be the best parents we could be. Each one of us wanting to raise responsible, well-adjusted children that could succeed and flourish when released from the relative safety of our wings.

As I was awash in the realization of how we are all connected by the threads of fatherhood, it dawned on me: the dreadful passenger was silent. He had nothing to combat the sense of belonging I felt. Especially knowing through so many wonderful and intriguing conversations, no matter how brief or elongated, that I was not the only imposter here. I was surrounded by imposters. We all felt the niggling doubts regarding the ways we parent; how we addressed challenges; how we uttered phrases by our parents that we’d all swore we’d never levy against our own offspring.

Yet here we all were, at Dad 2.0 Summit, each seeking to silence our own dreadful passengers and become the fathers we should be and our children deserve.

Self-doubt be damned, we’re going to get there.

Photo credit: Flickr:Wild_and_Natural