It’s difficult to put into words what it’s like to be in a room with a few hundred like-hearted people who are willing to embrace their truth (even though that truth might be a bit messy, uncomfortable, and painful); who feel safe and have been given permission, by the warm tears and nodding “me too” heads of those around them to be authentic and transparent; and who understand the transformative power of vulnerability. I was in that space a few weeks ago at the National Eating Disorders Association’s 2016 Annual Conference in Chicago, where I was invited to be part of a panel discussion exploring the complex relationship that exists between dads and daughters, and it was of the one of the most beautiful and humbling experiences of my life. What made it doubly special was the fact that I had the privilege of sharing it with my fellow panelists, Drs. Margo Maine, Michael Berrett and Beth Hartman McGilley, who I have long admired and respected for their selfless dedication to bringing hope and healing to others, and three front row friends, Joanna Mercuri, Alison Smela and Dr. Angie Viets, who not only get it, but get me. If ever there was a recipe for unforgettable – for what it’s like to feel fully human – the events of that Friday afternoon were it.
When the session was over and the last of those who had approached me on the dais to exchange a hug or offer words of appreciation had moved on to my fellow presenters, I settled back into my seat, emotionally spent, and tried to take it all in. I thought about the man and the father I was when this most improbable of journeys began ten years ago. I thought about how hyper-critical and judgmental that guy was, how intolerant of mistakes and impatient he had become, how much emphasis he placed on doing at the expense of feeling, how confident he was in his ability to fix things and others, how little time he devoted to listening, and how badly he had missed the mark where loving his daughter the way she needed (and deserved) to be loved was concerned – all despite his best intentions. I wondered if, in the midst of the fear, anger, confusion and denial that surrounded him in the days after learning of his daughter’s illness, that guy would have been able to hear the message of hope I’d just delivered, believed that it was possible to learn how to be a better listener, to be more patient, to tolerate, if not celebrate his and others’ imperfections, to allow empathy and compassion to take the place of judgment, to let go, to trust, and, in the process, achieve greater emotional intimacy.
And then I thought about how far that guy had come in those ten years – and the paradoxes that made that growth possible. I thought about how it took our daughter “losing her voice” for me to find my own and our hearts to learn a new language that now allows them to communicate with each other more honestly and lovingly; how it was the pain caused by the swallowing of her truth and the strength it took to later speak it that gave me the courage to stand in mine; how it was her insistence on isolation and, at times, defiant pulling away that taught me the importance and power of closeness; how it was the walling off of her heart that served as a catalyst for me to finally start unpacking mine; how it was her reluctance to communicate that re-kindled my long dormant love of letter writing; and how it was the seemingly impenetrable darkness of an insidious disease that shown a light on all that, unbeknownst to us at the time, was in such desperate need of healing. “That’s an awful lot of life to squeeze into one decade,” I thought to myself. Do I wish all of it could’ve happened without someone I love more than life itself having to suffer so much? You bet. Would I trade the man I am today because of it for anything in the world? Not a chance.
As I got up to leave the meeting room, a young woman approached me with tear-stained cheeks and said simply, “Your daughter is lucky to have you for a dad.” I smiled and thanked her for that, because it was the right and polite thing to do. But, the truth is: I’m the lucky one. What happened in that room, the gifts and lessons learned that made it possible (i.e., the humility, the courage to open my heart to a group of strangers, the empathy, the vulnerability, etc.) exist only because I have been blessed to have her as a daughter.