A Daughter’s Heart

A Daughter's Heart

Earlier this month, I received a Facebook message from a friend who’d gotten a copy of my book and set aside a quiet Friday night to read it.  She was writing to tell me that she hadn’t made it through the “Dedication” page before tears began cascading down her face making it impossible for her to continue reading:


To my daughter, Ashley:

I would have given anything, including my very life, to have spared you from the unimaginable suffering and heartache that ultimately led me to the reflections and revelations that fill the following pages. I only hope that the life lessons I’ve learned through your pain and what, perhaps unbeknownst to you, became our mutual struggle for understanding and emotional survival, will enable another precious young woman and her family to find hope and shed one less tear in their collective journey towards a full recovery.

You are my inspiration.

I hurriedly “apologized” for the effect my words had on her, but she was equally quick to assure me it was not “my fault.”  Instead, she confided that her tears sprang from a lifetime spent wondering if her own dad “loved her that much” and was proud of her in spite of her imperfections.  I hardly knew what to say, except that, on some level, I understood, not only because there was a time when I too longed for those “assurances” from my dad, but because, over the past several years, I’d heard countless women (young and non-so-young) echo those same heart-breaking sentiments.

Ultimately, I told her that, while I obviously couldn’t speak for her dad, I was confident that the day she first came into his life, she took up residence in a very special place in his heart (that’s just what daughters do!) and she likely still “lives” there.  The problem is some dads have difficulty properly expressing their feelings and some, regrettably, don’t express them at all.  And so, I encouraged her to take the initiative and write her dad a letter sharing her pain and her need/longing to know that he loves her and that he’s proud of her.

The following letter was a result of that Facebook exchange:

Dear Dad,

I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter or recall if I’ve ever written one to you.

There certainly have been lots of times I thought about writing or picking up the phone to call you –

Times when I could have used and likely benefited from your wisdom and guidance;

Times when I needed assurances that I was making a good decision or that as dark as everything may have seemed at that particular moment there likely would be brighter days ahead;

Times when I simply needed a word of encouragement;

Times when I needed understanding or empathy; and, most importantly,

Times when I felt very much alone and just needed someone to listen, to be reminded that there was someone I could count on to be there for me, to love me, to be supportive, to not judge me.

I desperately wanted/needed that someone to be you, Dad, but, for some reason, I could never find the courage to write that first word or finish dialing the last number that would give you the chance.

I always stopped short, because I was afraid, afraid that if I were honest with you, if I shared my struggles, my fears and my shortcomings you would criticize me, make me feel small, leave me feeling even worse about myself in my imperfection than I already did.  Most of all, I feared that you would be disappointed in me and I just couldn’t bear the thought of knowing or sensing I had done that – again. I’ve done that enough for one lifetime.

But, an old friend has convinced me that my fears may be unfounded. He assures me that there’s nothing quite like a father’s love for his daughter. He has encouraged me to reach out to you, told me to take a risk, to share my feelings with you openly and honestly – to let you know the longings of my heart.

Having never met you, he is somehow confident that the only disappointment you will feel will come from learning that there were so many times that I wanted to reach out to you, but allowed my fears to stand in the way and, in doing so, denied you the opportunity to be there for your little girl.

Is my friend right, Dad? Do I have this all wrong? Have I had it wrong all these years? Do you love me? Are you proud of me?  I need to know. I need my Dad.


Your Little Girl


“#You’re Never Gonna Believe This, My Dad Wrote Me A Letter!”


Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking to nearly 100 dads across the country whose daughters (and, in some cases, sons) are either suffering or in recovery from an eating disorder. At the conclusion of my remarks, I shared the fact that one of the most meaningful and powerful counseling sessions I ever attended in terms of relationship-building with my daughter involved her reading a “Letter to Dad” that she had written at the urging of one of her therapists prior to our session.

Ashley began the letter by expressing her love and admiration of me and then attempted to explain, in ways I hopefully would understand, the nature of her illness and the extent to which it had consumed and, at the time, was consuming her life. The letter led to a series of heartfelt and very emotional exchanges and embraces between the two of us that had a profound and lasting impact on both of us – and the therapist barely had to say a word. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

In that moment, I was reminded of what I think I instinctively have known since I was a very young man: letter-writing is a powerful, but too often overlooked, tool in the relationship-building/restoration/healing tool-kit and it is particularly powerful when it comes to fathers and their daughters – all fathers and daughters, not just those who, for whatever reason, find themselves in the midst of a crisis situation. Indeed, a number of the letters I’ve written to Ashley over the years form the foundation of my new book.

With that in mind, I asked the dads in attendance at the conference what I already knew to be a mostly rhetorical question: “When is the last time you wrote a letter to your daughter? I don’t mean an e-mail or a text or Facebook message – I mean actually sat down with a pen and a piece of paper, wrote a personal and heartfelt note or letter, folded it, put it in an envelope, addressed it to your daughter, found a 45¢ stamp and stuck it in the mail?” I might as well have asked: “How many of you are from outer space?!?”

I broke the awkward silence that followed by sharing my belief that one of the best strategies for opening, re-opening or simply re-enforcing the lines of communication between a father and his daughter and fostering a sense of trust and intimacy involves the writing of letters – 4 letters to be precise, one on each of the following topics, sent in the following order, with appropriate “spacing” in between mailings:

A Profession of Love” – This one is “easy”.  Tell your daughter that you love her unconditionally and that you have since the day she was born.

A Request for Understanding” – This one will be the most difficult.  Daughters put their dads on the highest of pedestals.  They want nothing more than to make their dads proud of them.  Many are fearful of disappointing their dads, falling short of what they perceive to be their dad’s expectations/standards.  In this letter, you need to acknowledge your humanity.  As obvious as it may be to you and to everyone else in your world, your daughter needs to hear you recognize that you’re imperfect, that you’ve made mistakes and that you likely will continue to make them, despite your best efforts.  If the circumstances warrant, you might also use this letter to ask for her forgiveness if there is a “wound” in need of special healing.

Words of Affirmation and Encouragement” – Let your daughter know that you are proud of her.  Allow her, perhaps for the first time, to see herself through your eyes (http://tinyurl.com/a9tdsco).  Affirm her, by “showing her” the many attributes that you see in her that make her special (e.g., her kindness, her creativity, her courage, her determination, her love of animals, her sensitivity, her loyalty, etc.) – and then offer words of encouragement.

A Commitment for the Future” – Make it clear to your daughter that you’re not going anywhere.  That you are fully committed to her and that you will continue to be there for her.  Let her know that she can count on her dad for unconditional support. Don’t just assume that she knows that.  In fact, in writing each of these letters don’t make any assumptions about what “she already knows.”  It’s what she needs to know that matters here.

I’m pretty confident that if the dads out there will take the time and devote the thought these “simple” letters require, their lives and, more importantly, their relationship with their daughters will never be the same again!


“She Saw Someone Who She Felt Was Angry And Someone She Felt Was Very Mad”

single candle

At times, events wholly beyond our control abruptly and profoundly interrupt our lives.  As they are unfolding, they challenge us to our emotional core and present seemingly insurmountable obstacles to our ability to move forward.  We become stuck, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Our faith is shaken. Invariably, there are more questions than answers.  The unspeakably tragic events at Sandy Hook late last week and the loss of so many innocent lives certainly fit that description – and then some.  However, I believe that if, when the time is right, we are willing to take a step back from the horror of it all and reflect on the matters of the heart that surround such events, they can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves, of those we love and of the human condition.  They also can serve as a catalyst for change not only in the lives of those at the epicenter of the trauma, but for those of us who, on some level, relate to and, therefore, can’t help but be deeply touched by their unimaginable suffering.  I’m prayerful that, in time, Sandy Hook will prove to be such a catalyst – at least I hope it will.  I also hope that, unlike the heinous act that precipitated them, the changes it inspires will be life-affirming, filled with compassion and directed at minimizing the risk of something like this happening again.

And so, with the words of a 6 year-old Sandy Hook survivor and the guttural plea for help offered by a blogging mom reverberating in my mind, I thought I would “re-publish” a post that first appeared in my own blog on July 28, 2012.  I do so not, for a moment, as a means of excusing the inexcusable, but rather in the hope that, as the grief and shock subside and the gun control debate rages on, as it most certainly will in the wake of this terrible tragedy, an equally critical and, in my estimation, long overdue national dialogue on mental illness will not be overlooked or, worse yet, drowned out – yet again:

July 28, 2012

I Keep Pulling And Pulling But Those Darn Bootstraps Aren’t Working!

I don’t fully understand why we, as a society, tend to view (and treat) those who suffer from emotional and psychological illnesses so much differently than we do those who have purely “physical” injuries and diseases.

I suppose part of it is grounded in the old adage “seeing is believing” – a uniquely, but no less disturbing, human character trait that likely can trace its roots all the way back to the New Testament story of “Doubting Thomas,” who, despite being assured by his 11 fellow disciples that they had seen “the risen Lord,” was reported to have said: ““Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  And so it is with us and our divergent views of physical and emotional illness – a broken bone is readily “confirmable” on x-ray, a tumor on a CT scan, but mental illness, bipolar disorders, depression, anxiety, addictions, not so much – and, therefore, the former is simply much more “real” to us than the latter.

If we’re to be honest with each other, part of our skepticism about emotional and psychological illnesses also is attributable to ignorance, an inability (or an unwillingness) on our part to distinguish between those who are simply “having a bad day” and those for whom every day, left untreated, is (or has the real potential to be) bad.  That ignorance, in turn, causes us to respond to both groups with the same mindset – a misguided belief that “they should just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and move on the way everyone else does,” which, while arguably true for the ”bad day” group is (or can be) profoundly hurtful to those who require a considerable amount of professional help and compassion to have even a fighting chance of achieving that universally desired goal.

Finally, but no less importantly, I think we tend to view and treat those with emotional and psychological illnesses differently from those who suffer from physical injuries out of fear, fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty and fear of the sometimes unpredictable nature of such disorders.  Obviously, there is much to fear where many physical ailments are concerned, but at least in the case of physical diseases: their causes are readily identifiable; most run a fairly predictable course; there are concrete steps that can facilitate the healing process; and, more often than not, they result in a full (and equally discernible) recovery.  Consequently, it “easy” for us to feel compassion towards and a compelling desire to care for those who suffer from objectively verifiable physical injuries and ailments.

Emotional and psychological illnesses, on the other hand, can be far less predictable, their causes can remain a mystery, their treatment is often subject to medical and pharmaceutical trial and error and “recovery” is seldom a clearly identifiable event so much as it is a lifetime commitment to a healthier state of mind built on “choices” made repeatedly every day and consistent professional support. Moreover, unlike physical ailments, there are no visible wounds that require cleaning or bandages that need changing, when it comes to mental illness. Instead, when confronted with emotional or psychological ailments, the best (and often all) that even the most caring and concerned of loved ones can do, aside from seeking the best available professional help, is provide unconditional support, love and patience.

I know because, once upon a time, I was one of those “uneducated” bootstrap advocates. You can trust me on this one: We all need to be more compassionate towards and understanding of one another, particularly those who are committed to courageously confronting and addressing emotional and psychological issues that are just as “real” and potentially life-threatening as a heart attack. Only by doing so will we break down the barriers and erase the stigmas that enable insurance companies to deny or unreasonably limit coverage for the medications and treatments required to effectively address those illnesses and too often form the basis for sufferers’ reluctance and/or refusal to embrace that same care out of fear that they will be perceived as weak, incompetent or somehow “defective.”

Just Calling It Like I (Finally) See It

From the time I was a little boy well into young adulthood, I was bombarded with words and actions that conveyed the same hurtful, hyper-critical, self-limiting and badly misguided messages from lots of different sources who knew or should have known better:  “Don, maybe if you were just a little different, a little better, a little more productive, a little more compliant, a little more perfect, a little more or less something, you’d be accepted and, more importantly, finally get the love you want and need.”  Who was I to question all those voices?  After all, they emanated from people who professed to love me – or at least who were “suppose to” love me.  I didn’t.  Instead, the more their voices reverberated in my mind, the more I came to believe they were true.  And so, like anyone searching to define themselves and longing for approval, to fit in and be accepted, I tried a little harder – to be a little better.  Each time I did, however, unbeknownst to me, I grew incrementally more insecure, more uncertain about whether I was doing enough and, more troublingly, whether what I had to give would ever be good enough.  Not surprisingly, over time, people took advantage of that insecurity.

Many years later, I heard that voice again – loudly, unexpectedly, unequivocally and unapologetically.  Initially, it struck that same familiar chord and elicited the same response: “You don’t like the way I do things?  I’ll do them differently.  You don’t love me? I’ll try to be someone else. You just let me know when I hit the mark – your mark.”  This time, however, for reasons that are not at all clear to me, I ultimately decided that enough was enough.  For once, I took an honest inventory of myself and I realized, likely for the first time, that I was pretty darn awesome!  Was I perfect – hardly. I was far from it. Truth be told, I’m even farther from it today and likely will be farther still tomorrow.  And, for a change, I’m okay with that.  However, I also discovered that I’ve done (or at least tried my best to do) an awful lot of good in my life – for a lot of people – and, along the way, mostly remained true to my personal Mission Statement: Live selflessly and help others.  I also realized, among other things, that I have a good sense of humor, that I’m fun to be with and a good and loyal friend, that I’m reasonably creative and a fairly decent writer – and that I’m wise, even if I haven’t always been successful at applying that wisdom in my own life.

I’m not entirely sure why it took me nearly 50 years to figure all that out about myself, particularly since I suspect most of those traits have been part of who I am all along.  What I am sure of is that I have no one to “blame” but myself for the fact that it did.  Better late than never I suppose.  Still, there are times when I wonder just how much more I could have done had I reached (and been willing to fully embrace) those same conclusions about “me” much earlier in life.  But there is an important lesson in all of this:  We do ourselves a tremendous disservice by allowing others’ attitudes about and perceptions of us to become our own.  More often than not, most people would rather we not succeed or at least not shine with the radiance of our full potential lest we cast too bright a light on their own insecurities and/or weakness of purpose. Instead, we are far better off taking an objective inventory of ourselves – that is, as long we’re capable of truthfully evaluating the many things that likely set us apart in a positive way.  If, for any reason, you’re not capable of that level of objectivity, by all means seek out someone you trust implicitly to serve as that truth-teller (http://tinyurl.com/a9tdsco) and listen attentively to what they have to say!  Trust me, you and the world around you will be glad you did.


The Genesis Of My Desire To Be A “New Father”

Shortly after we moved to Dallas in 1988, where I had accepted a position at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, my wife and I were invited by friends to attend a presentation by a prominent Marriage and Family Therapist entitled “New Fathers” at a local church. Turns out the speaker had coined the phrase as a means of describing what social scientists and researchers had only recently identified as an emerging group of mostly Baby Boomer men, who, in contrast to their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, had begun to appreciate the fact that being a complete dad requires at least as much loving as doing. As I sat fully engaged in that talk, it occurred to me that I desperately wanted to be one of those dads and that this life coach was someone who might be able to help me achieve that goal.  I made it a point to talk to the presenter after her talk and, before I knew it, my wife and I were sitting in her office as clients and, once a week, I was separately meeting with a hand-picked group of men in – you guessed it – a “New Fathers” group.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that, while we came from different parts of the country and had chosen to pursue very different careers, we had much in common. All of us were so-called Type A personalities with a strong, some might even suggest, unhealthy work ethic. We also had an almost Pavlovian response to tasks: 1. See (or find!) a task that needed doing; 2. Evaluate what needed to be done and map out a strategy for doing it;  3. Complete the task thoroughly and efficiently; 4. Wait (long for?!?) some form of recognition (but don’t expect it); 5.  Find another task; and 6. Repeat steps 1 through 5! In addition, with very few exceptions, all of us grew up in “family of origin” homes that were plagued by a lack of true intimacy. Simply put, while our parents tended to stay in their marriages, regardless of how incredibly dysfunctional they may have become,  there was very little in the way of public displays of affection between them and/or between them and their children, let alone among the siblings. Hugs, particularly with dad, were in short supply and, when given, were awkward and devoid of true warmth.

In defense of our dads, they likely didn’t know any other way.  They were very much a by-product of their own Depression era upbringings and, as a result, were taught or, more likely, learned by observation that a man’s love for his family was best communicated by hard work, by being a good provider, both financially and in handling all things “practical.” They lived mostly in fear – fear of losing their jobs, fear of taking risks, fear of being perceived (in the workplace or at home) as weak, vulnerable or, perhaps worst of all, incompetent, fear of making mistakes, fear of being abandoned and fear of failure – to name a few.  At least in our home, those fears often translated into anxiety, which, at times, was almost palpable, and a sense of feeling overwhelmed.  The prospect of adding a shared sense of parenting to that load was unimaginable and foreign to them, which, I suspect, more often than not led to their abdicating those responsibilities to “stay at home moms,” who were assumed (rightly or wrongly) to have the skills required to do all things parenting.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long after each of us got married and started having children of our own, that we began seeing the patterns of our own fathers and families of origin re-surfacing – and, at least in my case, I saw them as cause for concern.   Unlike our fathers, however, we not only were aware of our shortcomings, as husbands and as fathers, we were sensitive, as a result of our own experiences, to the impact they would have on our children if we failed or refused to take immediate steps to address.  Most importantly, we were willing to set our considerable pride aside to see if we could break the cycle of a life devoid of intimacy.  We were eager to explore our own weaknesses in the hope that by becoming more vulnerable we could enjoy a deeper, more meaningful relationship with our children and, in turn, cultivate fertile soil which would allow them to  grow confidently into more secure and emotionally healthy young men (and woman).

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, with my children grown and seeking to find their places and their own way in the world, I am left to hope (and pray) that my commitment to being a “New Father” has made (and will continue to make) a positive difference in their lives and, perhaps, someday in the lives of their own children.  For my part, I am eternally grateful to that young therapist in Dallas for convincing me that their was a healthier way to parent and for all that she did to challenge and encourage me to embrace it.


The Answer I Wish I Had Given

One of the more difficult aspects of parenting a child who is battling an eating disorder is dealing with inevitable instances in which the so-called “eating disorder voice” begins spewing the abusive, hyper-critical and demeaning comments that it typically bombards your loved one with at others, usually those who love the sufferer the most.  Last night, during a NEDA Webinar for Dads, I was asked how best to deal with those situations, particularly when the venom is coming from someone who, just a few months earlier, had been such an openly loving and sensitive child. Anyone who has been a presenter appreciates how difficult it can be to field, process and respond to questions in a limited amount of time, especially when the issue is so complex and deeply personal.  I think I managed to convey the gist of what I wanted to say to that obviously (and understandably) hurting mom or dad – at least I hope I did.  But, having slept on it, this is the “fuller” answer I wish I had given:

Dear Mom or Dad,

I know how painful it can be to have someone you love so much say hateful things to you in the midst of their eating disorder battle.  It’s even more difficult when you know their “true” heart and are sacrificing so much of yourself to try and be supportive of their efforts to heal. Here’s what I want you to know:

Those words really aren’t directed at you.  Actually, the hate speech you’re hearing is usually directed inward and “reserved” for your loved one.  On occasion, however, it has to be released, not unlike the pressure valve on an old-fashioned boiler, because “the vessel” that is being asked to “contain it” has simply reached its limit – and you happen to be a logical (and convenient) target.

The words being uttered (or, more likely, screamed) at you do not emanate from the heart you’ve known and loved (and that, in turn, has loved you) for most of your child’s life.  Instead, they come from a place of unimaginable pain – “hell” as Dr. Berrett described it during the Webinar – and they need to be “understood” from that perspective (i.e., with empathy and compassion).

Eating disorders thrive when their sufferers are (or feel) isolated and alone.  Ultimately, the disease cannot survive in the warm climate of steadfast unconditional love.  The hate speech is simply a means of trying to drive you and your love away.  Under no circumstances can you allow that to happen.  Like a championship fighter, you have to be willing to absorb some “body shots” in the early rounds of the fight if you are to have any hope of retaining or regaining your crown.

Most importantly, you should take comfort in knowing that your loved one’s “true” heart didn’t suddenly disappear.  Rather, it’s buried beneath a mountain of lies and distortions.  But, I assure you, it’s gasping for air and desperately struggling to regain a foothold.  It (like you) is longing for the day when it can love again and deem itself worthy of fully receiving the love you (and others) have to give.

Wishing You Peace,


“Everyone Needs Someone They Can Trust To Show Them To Themselves”

papillon sur l'eau

In the early stages of our daughter’s illness, while I was desperately scouring the medical landscape in search of guidance and insight into the  complex and multifaceted world of eating disorders, I was fortunate to be referred to a compassionate and knowledgeable physician on the West Coast, who had dedicated much of his professional life to the diagnosis, treatment and study of these diseases. After patiently and attentively listening to Ashley’s and our family’s story, he asked me one “simple” question: “Don, who is the person Ashley trusts more than anyone in the world?” “I’m not sure,” I responded, “I’ve never really thought about it. Why do you ask?” “Because,” he replied, “my experience has taught me that, when Ashley is ready, that’s the person she will allow to take her hand and help lead her out of her eating disorder.”

It was much too early in the process for me to grasp the full import of his words, but, over time, I began to appreciate the critical role that trust plays at both ends of the eating disorder spectrum.  When breached, trust can serve as a “trigger” for the disease to manifest itself.  More importantly, however, when restored or re-discovered, trust can be a lantern that helps illuminate the path leading out of the disease’s dark and deadly maze.  In fact, those who have read my book know that trust is a recurrent theme.  Last week, I was reminded of the criticality of trust in a humbling e-mail I received from Carolyn Costin (http://www.carolyncostin.com), a woman whose own courage, writings and selfless dedication to others I have long admired (http://tinyurl.com/bwrt5j2).

I was fortunate to meet Carolyn briefly at the NEDA Conference in October and took the opportunity to give her a copy of my book.  Last Monday, she wrote to share her thoughts, which were quite reaffirming.  In commenting on one of the chapters in particular (Chapter 9: Junnuh), Carolyn expressed her long-standing conviction that “everyone needs to find someone they can trust to show them to themselves.”  It’s a phrase I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since, in part, because it beautifully and concisely captures a profoundly important truth that I suspect is too often overlooked in treating those who suffer from eating disorders and, in part, because I believe it is equally true in all of our lives, irrespective of whether we have suffered or had a loved one suffer from an eating disorder.

The fact is that, while those suffering from eating disorders have a particularly difficult time “interpreting” the images of self that they see reflected back in many “mirrors” of their lives – most of us, left to our own devices, also are very poor “perceivers” of ourselves, of the gifts that make us unique, of our “love-ability” and of our value as human beings.  Ideally, that would not be the case – and for a very select few, it’s not.  They are able to see the truth about themselves clearly and accurately – and they like what they see!  For the rest of us, however, the images are not as clear – indeed, some are hidden from our view entirely, while others are grossly distorted.  Often, the insensitivity or callousness of others, even those who profess to care about us, reinforces those distortions or further obscures the “truth” about us from view.

But, I believe, eventually, if we’re patient, that “someone” Carolyn speaks of will come along – a special someone who we can trust implicitly.  They will “show us to ourselves,” perhaps for the first time, and through their loving eyes, rather than own, we too will finally (rightfully!) like what we see!  Who knows, that “special someone” may already be somewhere in our life.  It’s certainly worth a second look.