Tag Archives: men’s depression

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad clown, creative commons usage

 

My Side of the Mountain – Understanding Depression

I can only talk about myself and my experience. And my experience includes some serious lapses into depression. Hard for me to admit, I’ve got an achilles heel, that scares the hell out of me and everyone near me, including my marriage and my last relationship. The disease is hard on everyone. And if you’ve never experienced it, you have no idea what it’s like, but I’m going to try to give you a glimpse into my dark days.

Depression is different from feeling sad or unmotivated. Depression is not laziness, though some of the symptoms may cause your loved ones to think you are just not trying to get better. I can assure you I was doing everything in my power, using all of my tools, to get well. But sometimes, even when things seem to be going well, the meds poop out and the depression grabs me and jerks me back below the surface of the water. Depression feels kind of like the flu. It’s as if your body has no energy for doing things. And nothing, I mean nothing, sounds good. You don’t want sex, you don’t want ice cream, you don’t want conversation, you just want to isolate and be quiet with your dark thoughts. But that’s a bad idea. That’s always a bad idea.

Depressions are usually triggered by some major emotional event. And my variety of depression comes along before your twenties and colors the rest of your life. My first freak out happened when I was sixteen years old and away at prep school. I’ve been touched ever since, with varying degrees of seriousness and duration. And I learned early on that meds were my friends, that I needed the equivalent of a pharmaceutical vitamin to keep me regulated. Over my life, it has been a real struggle to accept that fact, and several of my falls have happened years after I was off all medications and seemingly doing great. But it’s always there in the back of my mind. What if it comes back. And it just did, and probably will, with variations and if I’m diligent with smaller and less severe cycles. But I know that it will be back. This disease once it has been diagnosed doesn’t ever get cured.

I’m not trying to have a pity party here, or get sympathy. What I am trying to get is some clarity on what just happened to my loving relationship as a result of a prolonged bout of depression. They call it treatment resistant depression. That’s when the meds that used to work, just stop working. My free fall into fear and anxiety happened last December. And by January things were tense and unhappy in my relationship. Not just her. But I was deeply unhappy too.

The thing about my symptoms is I go off on apocalyptic fantasies about the future that I can’t stop worrying about. And I’m not just talking about some vague concerns about money, or career, or the future of my relationship, I’m talking about wild ass fantasies that consumed my consciousness so that I became forgetful and scattered. And this kind of depression makes it very hard to keep a job in the high-tech sector of marketing. But I couldn’t just get over it. I couldn’t just “man up” and keep going. I almost became mute because I didn’t want to share what was going on in my head with anyone. Fortunately I had a loving therapist who consoled me. Unfortunately there was no one consoling or coaching my then fiancé.

Here’s what’s scary. This same pattern caused the failure of my marriage to the mother of my children seven years ago. And I don’t know if this disease is going to continue to show up, freak out my partner, and end up with me alone and more depressed and hopeless. It’s hard for me to imagine it’s not going to happen again in some car wreck of a breakup. And that’s a way to get hopeless pretty fast.

But there is some good news. My story is going to end on an up. For me, meds work when they work. Unfortunately it may take a lot of tries to get it right, but when they kick in I am my old creative and loving self within weeks. And that’s just what happened two weeks ago. After being on a new med for 45 days I suddenly began to have creative thoughts. And this was after I broke up with my fiancé. So even in the depths of what would cause normal people to be sad, my meds allowed me to get a handle on my mind, put things back into perspective and develop the most critical part of recovery: hope.

Today, even alone, I feel hopeful. I know more about what happened. Perhaps I’ll learn how to get my partner to get a support system that will help her through her own doubts and fears. And here’s the plan: when a med works, stay on that med. So I could have years of good results, with ups and downs like everyone, but no crashes. That’s the goal, and that’s what I believe. When I was 16 my brain shut down on me and brought my sophomore year of high school to a screeching halt. And at several points in my life since then, during some major life crisis, I just give up. Well, I don’t give up, I’m fighting like hell, but my brain gives up and focuses on creating pictures of doom so dark I was afraid to tell my therapist what I was thinking sometimes.

So we start again. I’m alone but hopeful the next relationship will get it right. Of course, the relationship I need to work on most is with myself. Forgiving myself for my part in the demise of a seemingly brilliant relationship, with a committed future. And then, letting go of my best friend enough to imagine myself in a new relationship. I’m not there yet, but I have the clarity and energy to work on it.

Oh, and the funny thing for me, is when I’m starting to feel better my creative drive comes back and I start writing. Yesterday, with my blog post, I was showing myself that I was emerging from one of the longest depressions I’ve been in as an adult. For me creativity and brain health go hand in hand. So I’m happy to be back, still working, but on the up swing.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: john mcelhenney, creative commons usage allowed

The Half-life of Divorce

Divorce is hard. Often both parents come out of the ordeal with hard feelings and resentment. You are the only one who can deal with your negative feelings. And you’re not going to be able to move on, to find another loving relationship, without dealing with them, so let’s get started.

  1. Anger directed at your ex is anger towards yourself and, if you have kids, the ones you love.
  2. Even the snarky text reply has consequences. Just don’t do it.
  3. Positive energy is often returned. Be positive, always.
  4. If you have kids think of them before every interaction with your coparent.
  5. The anger you have at your ex is equal to the internal anger you have with yourself at the failure of your relationship.
  6. Processing and letting go of anger at you ex is the most productive exercise you can do.
  7. Mental fitness comes before physical fitness, though the two are closely tied. If you are sad or mad, unless you know how to use those feelings for motivation, it is hard to get out there and exercise, especially in the heat of a Texas summer or the cold of a New England winter.
  8. Forgiving yourself comes first. Then you can forgive the other person.
  9. Neither of you is at fault. Even if the other parent initiated the divorce, it’s now water under the bridge and time to get on with the next phase of your life.
  10. No matter how bad you feel about the divorce, the loss of time with your kids, your ultimate responsibility is to heal yourself. Everything else stems from you getting, happier, healthier, and stronger.

In future posts I’m going to take on each one of these points in a separate article. But here is a brief encouragement to get you started.

Pain is an indication that something is unbalanced. Your sadness and pain at the divorce is no longer about your ex. Only you can deal with your frustration and negative feelings. So let’s get going.

  • Exercise (if it’s been a while, just start walking more aisles at the grocery store.
  • Eat good food
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • No matter how you feel, accept all invitations to be with others
  • Use entertainment sparingly
  • Don’t drink (sorry, the depressant effect of alcohol is working against you)
  • Pray or be spiritual in your own way
  • Cultivate gratitude (just count off the things you are grateful for upon waking and before you go to sleep.

You can get happy again. You can forgive your ex. And if you’re willing to work at staying positive you can find joy and love in your life again.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

image: half-life ad: creative commons usage

A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

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The irony here is often the storm is me. I’m sorry about that, me and my depression can cause a few problems. But for the most part, about 85% of the time when things are tough and about 95% of the time when things are good, I’m an excellent companion come rain or shine. It’s the rain times that broke apart my marriage.

She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We tried. We survived. We worked through enormous hurdles and came out of the trials and tribulations with two beautiful and blessed kids. No noticable defects so far. (grin)

But the hardships were unbelievably hard. In my mind that gave us even MORE staying power through the down times. But for my then-wife, something must’ve broken at some point. She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It was sort of sprung on me, even though we’d be in couples therapy on and off for several years. You can’t say we didn’t work it. We were doing the best we could. And we did pretty damn good through the hospital times with our second child. And we did okay in the times when my depression debilitated me for about a year. (I can explain this later, but not excuse it.)

So we’d been going to therapy, not to fix our relationship, specifically, but to help us learn how to communicate better. To stay in the reality of the situation rather than our own projections of what we “thought” was going on. SCT, it was called.

And that aspect of our therapist was grand. He really was helping us break down our own fears and misperceptions and get back to what was actually real, what the other person had intended to say, rather than what we heard. He let us know he was not a couples therapist. He was helping us get centered and clear with one another. And maybe that was exactly what he did.

The problem with SCT, however, is it does not really deal with emotions about the realities. It simply redirects you to what you know and what you are projecting about the future or lamenting about the past. We spend, as humans, a lot of time OUT of the present moment. And that’s a problem. So Rich, wasn’t trying to fix us or fix our marriage, he was trying to get us to tell the other person what we really wanted. What was really bothering us. And keep it 100% real.

Now, it seems to me that this would have been the perfect venue for my still-wife to tell me she was considering life without me, BEFORE going to consult with an attorney. But she didn’t do it that way. I found out in REALITY THERAPY that she’d already been to see a lawyer. Then when the emotions flooded forward from my disbelief and shock, our therapist sort of fell short of the mark. He consciously didn’t jump in the middle of it. Well, actually he did. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

When my then-wife said exactly what she felt was her truth, it was actually a projection about the future. So in that aspect the therapist should’ve redirected her back to this moment and what was real. He did not.

Here’s what she ultimately said, “You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

Here’s what I was saying about my reality. “Things have been hard. We’ve done great at working through hardships that have been thrown at us. And at this moment in time I have MORE hope that our future is as bright as it’s ever been. Even this therapy is stripping away our worries and helping us focus on what is real.”

But it wasn’t enough to convince her to stay with me. And I was devastated right there in our our little “emotion free” therapy session. And while Rich allowed her to stay in her projected reality, he also took her side when she asked that I simply walk out of the house that night and tell the kids I was off on a business trip.

Again, bullshit, and again a failing of our therapist who should’ve been helping us communicate rather than siding with one of us. He agreed that she was under such stress that she needed some time off. Some time to recover her center.

“Why doesn’t she leave the house, then?” I asked, point blank.

Neither of them supported that idea. I’m not exactly sure why. And I fought with both of them, again. Not really the right place for an SCT therapist, but that’s what really happened. He was convinced I should leave her and the kids alone for a bit and regroup to see if there was something to salvage. I was in my own reality that THIS WAS THE EXACT TIME TO STAY REAL rather then lie to the kids and run out the door.

So I stood and fought. And we went to two more sessions with Rich, more for closure then progression. At this point he retreated back into SCT and the reality of the situation. The last session was more of an apology between the three of us for not being able to save the marriage. We were saying goodbye to each other and to Rich as our enabler.

Some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is very different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found, still finds, ways to make it about me.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten better results from a Gottisman couples therapist. I’m not sure I really needed to stay in that marriage. Sure, I can say I’m sad about all the kid years of time I lost to her rash decision and our therapist’s inability to keep himself out of our business, but in the end, today, I’d have to say it was a good thing.

You see, some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found (still finds) ways to make it about me. How I’m not taking care of her in the right way.

Again, SCT would direct her back to the reality of the situation.

  1. You are unhappy.
  2. You think he is causing you to be unhappy.
  3. But the unhappiness is in your thinking and not in his actions. He is not preventing you from changing the situation if it gets that bad.
  4. You can change your thinking at any time.
  5. The house is not too messy. The house is more messy than you would like it. It’s not his responsibility to clean house until you feel better. That’s why you hired a maid.
  6. You’re too focused on what he’s doing or not doing. Focus on yourself.

Those are some pretty good words of advice for any relationship. Oh and this one.

If you’re not having sex with each other, and the disconnect goes on for months at a time, something is out of whack. Even an SCT therapist should key in on this REALITY. But he didn’t.

I hope the best for my ex-wife and the mother of my two kids. I see now, that with her new man, she’s still about the same. She’s not all that happy. He’s probably not doing exactly what she would like either. But that’s the real lesson here. In relationships people need to look after their own realities and the ways those realities intersect with another’s reality.

In the case of my then-wife, she was unhappy about many things. I was happy about many things. It seems to me today we’re pretty much in the same situation, we’re just no longer married, and there have been some real complications put into our court. And she’s pretty convinced that I’m not supporting her correctly. The good part is I am no longer answering to her happiness, I no longer need to do her chores. That was about her. And perhaps more about her lack of desire for sex.

It was a reality I could not manage. In the end it was a reality that should’ve split us up and did. I am now free to have a relationship with a woman who enjoys life, who wakes up laughing, like I do. Sure, she’s got a list of things she’d like me to do differently, and I’m sure I have a few items for her. BUT we’re here by choice. WE love each other, daily, by choice. We don’t even have kids between us. But we love, laugh, and let go.

Love. Laugh. Let go. That’s a much better fit. So, in the end, I guess I’m grateful to both Rich and my ex-wife for releasing me for the next phase of my life.

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Minimizing Collateral Damage of Depression and Divorce

dep

I’m going to talk about my depression for a minute. Okay?

Why is it, that when I’m depressed I cannot see the hope in the pattern? Why do I sink so far that even my own internal dialogue is powerless to lift my spirits? It’s not like I haven’t been depressed before. It’s not like I don’t know that I eventually rise back out of my funk. But somewhere in the short-circuit of my brain, I can no longer experience joy or hope.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods.

It’s the hope that’s a real killer. And it’s this vicious and toxic self-talk that I moderate by getting completely quiet. Sure, it’s not a good sign when I’m no longer my boisterous self, but it’s also safer for me to not be spouting off my dooms day fantasies.

I can see that these thoughts are flawed. I can even state to myself, “Man you are really hitting some f-ed up thinking here. Let’s not pay too much attention to this storm.” But I always DO pay too much attention to it. Or I consume too much of my own energy battling the wicked thoughts that I begin to shut off from everyone around me.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods. Several years ago when I was going through some of the upheaval of the divorce, I had a pretty open conversation with my kids about my “cloud.” My son came to the rescue. “You mean like that commercial where the cloud follows the guy around raining on him? Like that?”

This is the only time a pharma-porn ad for an antidepressant has ever served a purpose in my life, other than reminding me that I’m depressed. My son really understood the concept and the cartoon illustrations seemed to make the disease more manageable.

And as we progressed through that difficult Summer, my son would occasionally ask, “How’s your cloud today?”

It was a great opening. I was able to reassure both of my kids that my difficulties had nothing to do with them. And that I was working with a doctor and some cloud-removal medicine of my own. It was a nice bridge for us to be able to chat about Dad’s issues. And when kids reach the age where onset depression might arise, I’m so glad we have the framework to talk about things like medication and the state of my cloud.

Even my ex-wife is supportive these days when things are “off.” She notices when my email responses take days rather than hours. It’s not her fault that she needs help and has questions that we have to answer together as parents. My depression does not abide by our needs or our schedule. And this year she texted me, “Are you having a hard time this Christmas?” Yep, as painful as it was to admit to her, it was more painful to hide the truth.

So I struggle with depression from time to time. Most of the time the onset has something to do with earning a living and the joy or panic around my employment. And today, I’m with a person who can embrace all of my flavors, and while she’s not enthusiastic about my quietudes, she is very clear that she is sticking with me, through thick and thin. She’s much better at the thin times then I am.

That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing.

So moving forward, my challenge is to understand that I cycle. Is it bipolar? I don’t know, I think Bradley Cooper did us all a service by demonstrating the warped highs and lows of that variation of depression, but I’m not sure it’s that helpful a diagnosis. See, when I’m down my entire life suffers. When I’m UP, or HAPPY, or ENTHUSIASTIC, my life feels and looks as if everything it going well.

Well, what if the UPSIDE is merely my life going well. I have not spun off in a manic mode (out of control euphoria) since I did drugs in my high school days. My “highs” these days are really what I consider my full, creative, and activated self. Does this mean I’m cycling UP? Or that I’m getting hypo-manic? (Hypo, meaning just below the destructive mania.) I don’t think so. My meds doctor is not all that convinced that the label is very helpful in treating me.

So I get LOW. Those are the times I need the most help. When I’m UP I’m usually plugging along quite nicely. That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing. It’s the ME that I believe my current fiance fell in love with. And thank goodness it was good enough to hook her heart to me before I took my first nose dive during our relationship.

And that’s the part that I have to work to repair. I do not need to jettison everything in my life when I start having a LOW period. And if I can hold on to the tiny hopes: 1. that my mate will stand beside me through the storm; 2. that the storm will pass; 3. that joy will return to my life.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery.

As we move forward as a family, I am certain I will have difficult times again. But now I’m going to counsel myself, and encourage my family to reflect back to me, with this truth: the LOW passes. If I can work to reduce collateral damage while I’m suffering from this brain flu, I will do everyone, including myself, a favor.

To that’s it. The hope is in the future moderation and mitigation of the LOW. To deny that it will happen again, or get overly cocky and optimistic about my happy times, is to open myself to the blindspot that is my depression.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery. I don’t have to aim for joy when I am activated and functioning properly. I do need to remember before, during, and after my LOW that I recover. I return fully and joyfully to my life. Forever and ever, amen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Back to School and Summer’s End for the Single Dad

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NEWS FLASH: Back to school can hurt.

My rebirth or collapse has often happened during the first few weeks of “back to school.” Am I suffering from micro-empty next syndrome? Or am I just sad that summer has come to an end?

One thing that will never change: Parents miss their kids when they are gone. Even when they were tiny I hated to leave them. Going to work for the first 5 years was torture. (And maybe I could’ve done a better job at that, but the post 9-11 world was strange and uncertain in business as in life.)

You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

The other day, my son and I were driving past the pre-school where they learned to swim, and read, and begin to become separate tiny humans. Dropping them off some mornings was a sad affair, more for me than for them. After my son entered elementary school, I would still stop by with my daughter, and push her on the swings before heading to work.

“One more push, daddy,” she would yell as I was trying to tear myself away. The staff was supportive. The would frequently come and push her on the swing while I made my quiet and miserable escape.

Dad’s have a different relationship to parenting. We typically don’t get to be the “stay at home” parent. We typically feel more of the financial pressure as the bills and responsibilities become more urgent. And each morning, we’re off to work. And yes, mom deserves all the rest and recovery she can get, but it’s different. Leaving your sleeping child and wife on the bed to dress, make coffee, and head out the door, is difficult. Perhaps this was the massive transformation as a parent that occurs for the dad. Time for work. Sleepy, cuddly, baby-fest is over.

Even as the kids grew older leaving them at school felt like a loss of some sort. And this as a happily married man. Work was a nice distraction when it was engaging. When it was mechanical and dull, being at work and getting a text from your wife about the baby’s first word… Well, you miss a lot as a dad. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it will continue to go. (Don’t talk to me about the joys of being a SAHD. I don’t want to hear it.)

Divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get the lion’s share of the “off” time.

Today, the kids start their next cycle of school. My son enters 9th grade and accelerates up the four-year launch ramp to escape velocity. He will be gone gone.

In divorce, they were both gone gone a lot of the time. Since the divorce (Aug 2010) I’ve missed 5 of 6 back to school mornings. We cobbled some reason for me to bring my ex coffee on that first one. She was feeling magnanimous. And she was probably out of coffee or something. Since then I have not had the joy of packing, preening, and pushing them off to their first day at the start of the new semester. It’s okay. It’s what divorced dads get.

So now, today, I realize that divorce is like a trial run at the empty nest experience. And dads typically get  the lion’s share of the “off” time, and thus the majority of the “empty nest” sadness. When you are making the plans for divorce, and trying to be civil about the schedule, the gap between kid-time can be overwhelming. You go from full-time parent to 31% parent. 3-of-10 school mornings will be awarded to you. Everything else, for everyone else, is pretty much status quo. Except dad isn’t around.

I could blast my way into the first day of school mornings, but what’s the point? They have their routine. They have their process, path, and protocol for making it to school on-time. And they’ve done it 70% of the time over the last 5 years.

As I prepare for my back to school, end of summer, dip I know that I am better prepared for the eventual final departure of our kids. I just wish it hadn’t come so soon in my marriage.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: promotional photo from the movie Boyhood, creative commons usage

Hey Dad, Fancy Meeting You Here 20-years After Your Death

WHOLE-dad

This morning I was on my merry way towards a productive day of business proposals, meetings, and getting things done. (GTD) And just as I was about to turn on my noise-canceling headphones, the crappy sound system here at my remote location brought my dad’s ghost up front and center with his cryin-in-his-whiskey song. The song that characterized my 5th and 6th years of life. I knew the song well, but Shazam confirmed the gristled face that came to represent the look and feel of my dad in divorce, and the sad sounds of Charlie Rich singing The Most Beautiful Girl.

WHOLE-charlie-rich-dad

Boys will always attempt to connect with their dads. It’s a father and son thing. (Daughters too, but I can only speak about my experience.) Even as my dad drifted into some state between depression, anger, and a drunken stupor, I kept returning to his apartment on the appropriate weekends. My dad loved me.

But my dad completely fell apart when he was asked to leave the family home. My mom claims she put the options to him, “The alcohol or me.” My dad chose poorly and suffered for the rest of his life from his decision.

There’s no darker state for a divorced father than the days, months, years immediately following divorce.

A son’s love is strong and persistent, even if undeserved. There is always the hope that your dad will SEE you.

While my dad had all the resources at his disposal, and plenty of money to pay for them, he chose to move away from feeling, away from loving his family, and into some black place that was typified by this song. On weekends that we were together, by ten pm he would be drunk and crying to this song. Singing with tears in his eyes about “The most beautiful girl, who walked out on me…” As terrifying as it was, I tried to be there for him. I tried to say connected even as his rage could strike at any moment and I’d find myself on the receiving end of a tirade.

My dad was a successful physician. He was adored by his office staff and loved by his growing stream of patients. He was an astoundingly successful young doctor by 30.  But by 44 he had blown all of his hard-earned success in a choice away from self-examination and truth. He turned towards the bottle in his divorce. And within a few months of his second excommunication from the family house on the lake he was engaged to be married to a younger and drink-friendly woman with a young daughter.

Today my father showed up in my life in his crying and depressed state and I was able to process the pain and loss of him from my perspective as a divorced dad myself. Had he not been my father, but a friend in my life today, heading into divorce, I would’ve sobered his ass up quickly. “Dude, pull your act together. You’ve got everything. And now your flushing it all to keep the alcohol in your life.”

Throughout the rest of our relationship, as my father remarried, drank, and eventually succumbed to the disease and destruction of his life, I tried to reach out to him. I tried to maintain some attachment to a man who brought me only pain. I stumbled along as an adolescent with troubles at home, attempting not only to understand his destructive power but it’s rather potent effect on my life.

Several scenes come to mind to illustrate my unrequited commitment to my father.

The night he met his future wife I was with him at a local art festival. We stayed until they kicked us out. I had been laying under the stars with the other kids who’s parents were still drinking. The festival and music had been over for an hour, but they had more beer to sell. In the drive home, my father could hardly keep his fancy car on the road. I was terrified. On the last turn into his apartment complex, he missed the turn and drove right up into someone’s front yard. (Later his car would require several thousand dollars of repair costs that he yelled about for months.)

At that moment, at 7 years old, I made the decision never to ride in the car with my dad again. From then on my nights and occasional weekends with dad would be chauffeured by mom. A hard boundary for a kid to have to make with a parent. Shouldn’t it be the parents setting boundaries for the kids?

Many years later, a junior in high school, my father had built his ultimate dream palace on a hill overlooking our city. I lived down the street in a condo with my mom. Several times, when it was my night to have dinner with my dad, I would run several miles, virtually all uphill, to his house. I wanted him to see me as strong, healthy, and athletic. I wanted him to SEE me at all.

He quit trying to reach me as his divorce took everything out from under him. And rather than get help he got more rigid and set in his pattern of working hard and drinking harder.

Most of the time he was drunk before I even arrived. And his new wife was fueling the party and partying herself. They often became incoherent before I left. They seemed to be communicated with each other, but I could not understand a word of their drunken language. One of these nights my dad insisted that he would drive me down the hill to my house. I essentially had to run out of the house to prevent that from happening. Of course, the next time we talked he had no memory of the event.

I never forgot it, but I never stopped trying to run up the hill to meet my father at various points in his fatal trajectory. A son’s love is strong and persistent, even if undeserved. There is always the hope that your dad will SEE you. Even as he died at 53 (one year from my age now) he was only able to really recognize me in the final chemo-enforced sobriety months. He couldn’t drink. And as he came to his senses he finally got a snapshot of what he was missing by being so removed from my life.

“We need to do more of this,” he said, as I was leaving one Sunday morning, a month before he died. “Yes, dad, we do.” My dad’s sorrowful memory seeped into my bones from the sad song that he used to sing throughout the divorce process.

Today, in this moment as a divorced father, I know I am not repeating my father’s mistakes. My son and daughter hear from me all the time how much I see and love them. I try to meet them on their level, rather than making them adapt to mine. That’s a depth my father and I never had. He quit trying to reach me as his divorce took everything out from under him. And rather than get help he got more rigid and set in his pattern of working hard and drinking harder.

Love Always,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the early mcelhenney family, john mcelhenney, cc 2014

The Fracture of Divorce: My Dad’s Hand On My Head, Forever

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Sometimes I am more struck by how much I miss my kids when they are with me, on Dad’s weekend. Divorce is a bitch. Everyone is pulled apart. And the emotional ripples continue for the rest of our lives. And while I miss them terribly when they are gone, I am often struck by my longing while they are still with me. Last night, watching a movie with my 11 year-old daughter, I was so content. When she fell asleep midway through I turned off the computer and put my hand on the top of her head before I turned off the lights.

I never imagined a time when I would not be able to put my hand on the heads of my sleeping children. You don’t think of divorce when you get married and when you begin spinning up the plans for having children. Their loss is not something you can fathom. And until you are divorced, their potential loss revolves around things like accidents and illness. And then you are divorced, either by your choice or against your choice, and you no longer have access to your children the way you imagined you would.

A non-custodial father (like the other 80% of fathers in my state of Texas) really does not have a fair or balanced schedule. The courts and the counselors will tell you it’s almost 50/50 but they are lying to you. In practice, the non-custodial Standard Possession Order (SPO) at least in my state gives me access to my kids around 1/3 of the time. The little lies come in with things like the “full-month in the summer” that are all but impossible for a working parent. So you’re going to have a lot less access to your kids. Forever.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot.

That sucks. And it sucked when my parents got divorced. Even though my dad was a tyrant and a yelling, drinking, angry man, he was still my dad. There’s no substitute. And once he was gone from the family home, in my case, he was truly gone from my life. Sure, alcohol played a huge part in his retreat, and even in his death, but for all intents and purposes my mom “won” me in the divorce. My dad often offered to build me a room on top of his fancy new garage on his massive new home. But he offered, he never built it.

And I really didn’t want to live in my father’s house. He yelled. He drank. He got sloppy about boundaries and yelled at us kids a lot. And these yelling-dad memories are still etched in my mind, even though my dad left the house for the last time when I was about six. So don’t ever think your kids won’t remember the bad times. We might get over them, or act like we do, but we’ll be working some of the same issues out in therapy 30 years later. Oh well, it’s better to keep working towards a healthy mental attitude rather than collapse into the ongoing dysfunction of our parents.

And I can’t put more than a cursory framework around my ex-wife’s family of origin drama. And I should really try. We married, we had kids, we did our best, we (she) decided it was time for a change. I went along with it after fighting for a few months. One person cannot keep a marriage together. She was headed out. And with her went my access to my kids.

It’s bigger than you can imagine, this loss of time with your kids. If there was one thing that really crushed me into a depression early on it was the time alone. Truly alone. I was okay with leaving the marriage behind, the anger and unhappiness was worth escaping, but the escape left behind my true happiness, my children.

After divorce you learn how to rebuild your inner-happiness. You’ve got a lot of time for this. Because you are alone for a good portion of that time. And your kids are no longer the buoy of joy in your life. Missing my kids was the part of the divorce that nearly killed me. And how ironic that suicide seems like an option, in the lowest moments, when suicide is the ultimate ALONE. Gross. Needless to say, divorce and suicide go together often. And more often it’s the father who exits both the marriage and the physical plane of existence. Sad.

My dad didn’t kill himself, but he certainly didn’t get well either. He didn’t stop drinking. He didn’t change his lifestyle after his second or third heart attacks. There was a part of my father that wanted to die. He was alone, with a new wife, and a new adopted daughter, but he was probably missing the family and life that he trashed with his drinking and refusal to get help. And he never got help. He drank himself into oblivion every night from then on. As long as I knew my dad, as an adult, he was a drinking alcoholic. There wasn’t much room for emotions and getting reassurances or pats on the head from that father. I made a promise to myself that my kids would never know that absence.

If my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

And still there was nothing more that I could do to keep my family together. There was no drinking or infidelity, but something more difficult to troubleshoot. Ennui, perhaps? Or just greener pastures. But certainly my then-wife’s decision to depart, or force me to depart, was in part fueled by her own parent’s horrible divorce struggles. Again, I’ll skip taking her inventory here, and let rest with the statement that her mother and father were both tortured by their divorce for years, even remarrying at least once over the years of my wife’s elementary years.

So we move along, and we do the best we can. In the non-custodial role I have attempted to pick up more time with my kids whenever possible. But even in that I’ve been less demanding than I could’ve been. In divorce you are *always* trying to compromise with your ex, so that when you might need a favor they will consider your request with a positive attitude. But even in those actions I have lost more time with my kids.

When my ex partnered up again, after about six months, she was quick to ask for an adjustment to our expertly crafted non-custodial parenting plan. She wanted to switch the schedule so that her time synced up with her new boyfriend’s schedule. At first I was belligerent. “Why would I want to make adjustments to lessen my time with my kids to accommodate your new relationships?”

I did. I gave up my 5th weekend gifts. As she asked to go “every other weekend” rather than the ordered 1st, 3rd, and 5th. And while I really struggled with why this was a good idea for me, I still, somehow wanted her to be happy. Yuk. But what I gave up was my double weekends that come around 3 – 5 times a year. She made some overture about giving me the time back, “You can ask for an extra weekend any time you need it.”

And so, even in my already compromised schedule she was asking for me to give up more time so she could be with her boyfriend. Um… Why do I care about her time with her boyfriend? I didn’t. But I did agree to her request. It’s sort of what I do. I compromise and try to avoid conflict.

As a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts.

And in many ways I’m still doing this. She can be an hour late picking the kids up and I’m okay with it. Or ask for me to take the kids at the last-minute, due to some “work crisis” that seems to arrive with about the same frequency as it did when we were married. And most of the time, I take the kids when I can get them. If I don’t have plans, or if my plans are moveable, I will always take my time with the kids. That’s my priority. That was apparently not hers.

I’m not here to take her inventory, however, but to lament the loss of all the evenings with my kids, for the rest of my life. They are growing at an amazing rate. (11 and 13) And I treasure every moment with them. And I haven’t put a priority on finding a relationship. My priority has been on my kids and my own mental and physical health. I’ve struggled. But I’m strong and healthy now. Perhaps a relationship for me is in the cards over the next few years, but I will never put that desire of mine, above the care, love, and feeding of my kids.

Last night as I was resting my hand on my daughter’s head, I was so aware of all the nights I have not been with her. She exhibits the signs of missing me when we get back together. And we are making the most of our time together. My son is a bit more self-contained and advanced in his parental separation process. My daughter and I just enjoy spending time together. And as she has gotten older I have been so delighted by her stories and epiphanies. The things she is excited about, I am excited about.

In the last six months of my father’s life he went through a remission period. And due to the chemo he could no longer drink. So he sobered up, for the first time in my adult life. And when I was 21 I spent some quality weekends with my father, for only times I could remember. Other than those few months, his relationship to me was more about yelling and avoidance, rather than nurturing or pats on the head.

In the last month of his healthy period, my father asked me if I wanted to sleep in the big bed with him. We were at a condo he had purchased. It was a child like request. It was an echo of the times we had spent at the beginning our my parent’s divorce, when we would cuddle. At 21 I was unable to see the poetic moment. “No dad, I’ll see you in the morning.”

We were both hungry for more time, more head pats. And that’s a feeling I still ache with as I watch my children sleeping. Even when they are with me, the knowledge and feeling of the coming loss, just a day or so away, is painful. I don’t show them that side. I put that here. I show them the happy and healthy dad. And I let them know all the time how much I love them, and how they are still THE priority in my life.

Soon they will really be gone. See as a divorced dad, or maybe as a single parent in general, you get a preview of what the empty next syndrome feels like. It hurts. And after 5 or so days, they are back with me. We’re all making it the best we can.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: father and daughter, peter werkman, creative commons usage

Father, My Father: Forgiving My Dad and Myself on Father’s Day

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My father was an alcoholic and it broke my family in two. And over the course of his short life (he died at 55) I struggled to gain, or regain, some form of relationship with my father. He left and struggled to win me in the divorce between my 5th and 7th years. It was a very unhappy time for all.

I stayed with my mother. And over the course of the next years until he died, my father attempted to win me over with offers of a “room above the garage” that was never built, and other opportunities to come live with him and his new wife. I never accepted his offer, but I did continue trying to establish some connection with him.

We didn’t see eye to eye. I remember one evening in the hot Texas Summer, I had run up the mile-long hill to my dad’s castle-like house on the hill to have dinner with him. My first year of college was done and I was excited to tell him about my writing.

“I don’t understand what you’re going to do with an English degree.”

He had ideas for me. If I would get a medical degree as well as a law degree I could be a medical legal lawyer. You see, money was quite important to my father. And fortunately for us, then and even now, he made a significant amount of money during his lifetime. He was certain that I could make a lot of money with two advanced degrees.

I wrote stories and poems. And I shared, or tried to share them with my father. He simply didn’t understand what I was trying to say. But more importantly he didn’t understand how my writing was preparing me for the future. And he was right. Being an English major did not point too directly towards a career. But I’m glad I didn’t follow in his footsteps or take his advice on the 12+ college degree plan he had in mind.

How could my father not get his life together after his first heart attack. In my life, after the divorce there were moments when I was not certain I was going to be able to survive.

A major turn in our relationship occurred when I was in my 20th year. My dad had his third major heart attack. And within weeks of returning home from the hospital, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The restored blood flow had caused his melanoma to bloom. It was a horrific moment for all of us. He never quite got over the shock. “How could lightening strike twice in the same place, in my life.”

Over the last nine months of my father’s life, he was forced to sober up because the chemo caused him to get radically ill when he drank. For the first time in my just beginning twenties, my father came to his senses. We didn’t have much time, but we made up for our loss by spending a lot of time together.

In the last weeks we forgave each other for a lot of our transgressions. ‘Im sure he never understood my writing, but he did appreciate my presence in his life. It was a sad prodigal moment, and as he died, we were absolved forgiven.

Today there are still a lot of things about my father that I can’t possibly understand. A few of the things I DO understand are things like: stress, the working-man’s blues, the sadness of divorce and the loss of your family.

And things that I didn’t understand: how could my father not get his life together after his first heart attack. In my life, after the divorce there were moments when I was not certain I was going to be able to survive. And at once I understood a deep sadness, perhaps the deep sadness that must’ve haunted my father as he struggled to win me back from my mom. I’m sure it didn’t occur to my father that he was trying to buy me, but it came across differently to me. I saw the consequence of his drinking every time I was with him and his new family. I wanted no part of that life. I wanted my dad, but not the alcoholic dad.

This father’s day I celebrate my fatherhood, and the father I have become. Different from my father in so many ways, and similar in some ways as well.

As my marriage began to fail, the hauntings of that pain and the little boy ache that was still inside me  for my father, literally tore me apart. I was not sure how I would survive the divorce. I was most sad for my son, who I projected my own sadness on, imagining how hard my parents divorce had been on me. I was sad for them, both my kids, more than I was sad for myself. And somewhere, deep down inside, I understood for the first time, how my father might have continued drinking and smoking even after his first heart attack. I could understand wanting to blot out the pain with something.

But I didn’t exit my kid’s lives. I didn’t fight their mom to win money or custody. I went easily, sadly into being a divorced dad. The good part is, I survived the depression. I recovered my self-esteem and rebuilt my own life so I could stand strong and proud beside my kids.

Their mom and I have been through some hard times. And we still have disagreements from time to time. But through it all, we’ve always put our kid’s interests above our own. And for that, on this father’s day, I give thanks to my ex-wife and mother of my children.

And as I forgive my father for his loss of control and family, for the divorce, and for not taking care of himself long enough to see me and my kids. Today, I forgive him, but I am also learning to forgive myself for the failure of my marriage.

This father’s day I celebrate my fatherhood, and the father I have become. Different from my father in so many ways, and similar in some ways as well. There are more connections between my father and I then I can understand. But with each year that passes, each father’s day, I get more opportunities to be a better father, and understand myself and my kids better.

Learning to be a better father on father’s day, that is my ongoing mantra each year.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: me and my dad