Some parts of that September morning I remember as if they were yesterday, and others I don’t remember at all. But there’s one I’ll never forget and it may be the only one that matters.
After graduating from high school in 2010, I went to college in Tucson, Arizona, seven hours from home. I was seventeen. I’d spent the last few years of my life at odds with my parents and sisters, and the distance from home was more than welcome. I was anxious, but I looked forward to my first shot at independence. I couldn’t wait to take myself off of Depakote – which I constantly told my psychiatrist made me feel “flat-line-y,” and I’d quit seeing a therapist too. I believed I was capable of making myself happy in this new landscape.
Things didn’t really work out that way though and by my fifth week in Tucson, I’d landed myself in a hospital. I got drunk at a party and passed out. While my memory of that night is fairly limited, I do remember the back of the ambulance and seeing the intrigued faces of strangers on the pavement as I was wheeled past them. The next thing I remember is opening my eyes in the hospital room. Two nurses were rummaging through my purse, looking for drugs or ID or whatever. I glanced down at my hand and saw the IV, which one of those nurses would later explain “will make your headache tomorrow morning a lot more manageable.”
The hospital was directly across the street from my dormitory hall so when they discharged me at 10 the next morning, I walked myself home. On the way, I remembered that I was missing my first Latin American Studies exam, but I hadn’t read the novel for the exam anyway. I opened the door—my roommate had already left for class—and I took the bottle of Klonopin out of my dresser drawer. I poured a few into my palm, swallowed them, and grabbed the notepad on my desk. I brainstormed ways to explain recent events to my parents before crumpling up the paper and dialing my dad’s number.
I don’t remember that phone call, but he does. He says I told him “I’m scared of what will happen if I stay here” with a slight tremor in my voice, and that was all he needed. He told me he’d leave work and be outside my dorm by 7pm. As I waited for him to show up, I wondered how long he would give me to find a place to stay after coming home.
He showed up, and we didn’t speak of anything but getting my stuff in the car. Then he drove us a block over to spend one very quiet night at a hotel. The next morning was Yom Kippur and ironically, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s a day for forgiveness and new beginnings, and we observe it, in part, by fasting. We were both hungry and exhausted. I remember thinking that the next seven hours in the car would be far worse than anything I’d endured in the last couple of days. We got in, shut the doors, and buckled our seat belts. He didn’t turn the car over right away. Instead, he turned to me and said, “We’re going to have to figure out a way to make you happy, so you won’t need anything that’s going to hurt you anymore.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say in response. He turned the car over and drove. I hated myself quite profoundly at that time in my life, but as he said those words, I’d never felt more loved. In the last few years, I’d done everything in my power to make him hate me the way I did, but he didn’t, and he couldn’t. He wasn’t beaming with pride, and he knew damn well we had a long road ahead but for my sake, he still had some fight left. My well being mattered more to him than the days he missed at work to come for me, the thousands of dollars he’d spent in tuition fees that semester, the energy he’d wasted trying to argue with me for years. My well being mattered more to him than his own and more than it mattered to me. He loved me.
I’m not a parent yet but when I recently found myself reading a book called Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, I realized I have a very strong opinion on parenting. And that is, there’s no right way to do it. There are no “10 Secrets Every Father Should Know.” You can encourage your children to do positive things, and try to prevent them from doing the negative, but children aren’t given enough credit for their incredible willpower and individualism. Sometimes good-intentioned guidance just isn’t enough, and though that is painful, it doesn’t mean a parent has failed or a child won’t ever change for the better. But when all else fails, the best parental “secret” is love. Deep, pure, and unconditional.