As I sat poolside on a balmy June Sunday afternoon in Southwest Ontario, I was reading a wonderful book called ’52 Things Kids Need From a Dad’ by Jay Payleitner. If you’re a dad, read it. If you’re about to be a dad, read it, and avoid some of the mistakes generations of dads before you have made. If you’re a kid who wants to understand your dad a little better, read it.
It wasn’t a new book, by any means. I had read it before, a few years ago, on a flight home from Mexico. I’ll admit it, it was an airport purchase – but it ended up being worth every penny.
Something compelled me to pull it off the shelf a few days ago and and leaf through it. Maybe it was the lingering effects of contemplating my life as a dad from Father’s Day, the previous Sunday. Maybe it was contemplating the fact that my oldest son just finished his first year of high school (what would be his last year of junior high in the US) and that he is heading off to Cadet camp this summer. Maybe it was just the universe nudging me.
Whatever it was, the first ‘Thing’ I opened to was #32 – Kids Need Their Dad To Not Yell About Spilled Milk. Jay’s takeaway for the chapter is that kids want you to be their hero, to be the one they can come to when everything else is falling apart. They’ll give you the chance to be so, but only if they trust you not to yell, rant, blame, or jump to unfair conclusions when you’re confronted with adversity.
It stopped me in my tracks.
I’ve grappled with PTSD for 12 years now. In the last year, I’ve released a book on my experience and have been doing a tremendous amount of speaking and writing about both the topic and the book, so the trauma and the incident that caused it is never too far from top of mind. To this day, although its calmed immensely from where it was at its height, PTS will still play havoc with your emotions, whether it be mood swings, feeling emotion more intensely, or having completely disproportionate emotional reactions to outside stimulus.
The event that triggered my trauma was in 2004 but I didn’t begin treatment until January of 2012. That’s seven years of untreated and unrecognized PTS molding my behaviours and emotions. Seven years of riding a roller coaster where I felt cool and collected at work but lost my temper at home, yelled at my kids for doing stuff that kids do, scaring them with the force of my anger, which sometimes bordered on rage. Seven years of them wondering which daddy was going to come through the door when he got home. Seven years where it was always easier to go to mom than it was to roll the dice with dad, where, depending on the day, they may get a big ‘Yes!’ to whatever they were asking for, along with smiles and hugs, or they may get sullen silence or a grunted ‘Whatever.’
It breaks my heart that the dad they remember from that time wasn’t a dad they could consistently go to when they were upset, or curious, or scared, or happy. I will never get that time back and while I’ve mostly made peace with my trauma, those memories are one of the lingering effects from trauma that I still hold anger and regret over. Recalling those days where I wasn’t being a dad in any way is one of the things that can still get the PTS demon rattling its cage and yelling to get out to do some damage. Those are the times that I have to take a deep breath, ground myself, and do some self-talk to remind myself of how far I’ve come since then.
When I was diagnosed, I sat my boys down and explained as best I could to them (without getting into the gory details of watching a friend bleed to death) why sometimes dad yelled at small things, or wept uncontrollably at sad parts in movies, or got super mad when a part didn’t fit into a toy he was putting together, or sometimes slept on the couch after an afternoon behind closed doors with mom. I think they understood on a practical level, but I don’t know if they grasped the emotional aspect of what I was telling them.
I don’t know if they ever will.
What am I really trying to get across to you all here? It’s actually pretty simple. To use a cliche’, don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t yell about spilled milk. Don’t freak out about a towel left on the floor; use it as a lesson about keeping a clean room and what would happen to the appearance and smell of a towel left sitting wet in a pile. Offer to help with homework if someone comes home with a D in math. Gently remind your teenage son that part of using the car is putting gas in it after he’s impressed his date.
Of course, its easy for me to say that in hindsight, or from a position of being on the other side of the worst depths of your trauma. If I had read that piece from the book a few years ago, I may very well have just snorted and rolled my eyes.
But I’m not in that spot anymore, and part of my own healing has been to try and teach others from my mistakes.
Your kids need to be able to send you a text or call you when they need you to be their hero. They need to know that you won’t lose your mind over everyday disasters so that when they come to you with a big disaster (a wrecked car, an unplanned pregnancy, a bullying situation that’s gotten out of hand,) you’ll be able to tell them that you’ll get through the disaster together and that you love them, no matter how chaotic life is about to become.
I still have to remind myself of this every day. PTSD will never totally lose its grip on me; but I have made a conscious decision to also fight every day to be the dad, man, and husband that I want to be. That I need to be.
So that when the disaster inevitably comes, I can tell Jack or Brady ‘I love you. It’s OK. We’ll get through it together.’
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a couple big guy hugs to dole out.