A nurse helped me put the scrubs over my clothes while speaking in a calm but purposeful tone. Doctors and nurses were frantically moving in all directions. Once I was prepped, she told me she would be right back to get me. I sat on a chair in a hospital hallway, and it was completely silent and I was alone. I began to cry. I was about to be a parent, and I was sitting outside an operating room overwhelmed by the emergency that seemed to just explode around me in the last several minutes. I knew I had to get it together when I went into the operating room, so I began to focus on breathing and being strong, and I went on autopilot. I shut off my emotions and put my brain in charge. Until I knew that my daughter and her mom were safe, I was holding on and being emotionally safe.
Fifteen years ago today, my daughter was born. My memories of her birth are swirling and quickly flipping like a turning kaleidoscope. I was scared, excited, and stressed and trying to be hopeful that all would be ok. Everything turned out fine, and after several days in the hospital and a raging rainstorm that flooded the basement, we brought her home. I am a better person for becoming a parent, and I’ve learned so much about myself and how I see the world by trying to help her through it. She is a blessing in my life. I was filled with happiness when I held her for the first time and called her my daughter.
Being a father for a fifteen-year-old and a stepfather for another fifteen-year-old flips around my mental kaleidoscope, as well. I am conflicted in trying to be protective and prescriptive while knowing that they are quickly becoming more independent and learning life’s lessons as experiences. I also am brought back to my experiences as a fifteen-year-old. I think that’s the time I learned how to go on autopilot.
In middle school and early in high school, I really struggled. I felt alone and out of place. In elementary school I felt like a king, and in middle school and high school I felt left out. I wasn’t athletic enough, I didn’t feel good-looking enough, I wasn’t even smart enough to compare how I felt in elementary school. In middle school I went into the gifted and talented classes. I was no longer one of the smarter kids in class. I struggled in many of the classes at first. I went from feeling popular to feeling like an outcast and a dork. I largely think going on autopilot helped me get through the times I felt unseen and less than. And I couldn’t talk about it, seemingly with anyone. This struggle gave me a shut-off valve.
In my senior year of high school, I finally became more confident. I had gone through years of Kung Fu and became a black belt. I wasn’t afraid of anyone physically anymore, but I still felt the shame of not fitting in with the popular kids and not being athletic enough to play on a school team. I did much better in school, even though it was still stressful. I had become friends with a strong group and felt more secure. These are still my friends today, and I cherish my relationships with them.
As I became an adult, I found more comfort in being myself and finding ways to express myself and be a unique contributor to my jobs and my relationships. But I still have my autopilot and my moments of disconnections. I find myself on occasion getting pulled back to my fifteen-year-old self, scared and feeling like I don’t fit in. I think about trying to help and guide my fifteen-year-old daughters to find their ways, feel good about who they are, and to know they are loved. I am afraid of them developing the autopilot that separates their hearts from their minds. I see that as my protection measure and crutch that still disconnects me occasionally.
Fly fishing has helped me to see how I use the autopilot to manage my emotions and turn myself “off” and “on.” The focus, concentration, and harmony with the setting helps me to be my whole self. It cleans the slate of the stress triggers and kaleidoscope memories. For the first time, I see how the practice of martial arts in my youth helped me similarly to how fly fishing helps me today. Focus on the individual movements of the forms and the intense concentration during sparring provided a direct connection to myself, helped me feel a sense of accomplishment, and disconnected my autopilot.
Fatherhood has brought me back to the things I thought I outgrew and moved past. But I see that scared fifteen-year-old in me every time I think about how to guide my kids and how to be the best parent I can be. I don’t want my children to withhold their expressions of who they are to meet some ideal, but I also don’t want them to feel lonely or less than or to struggle like I did. I wish the world didn’t have the tendency to tear things down; I wish we worked harder to build people up. I know the reality of the hard points in life isn’t something we can protect ourselves or our kids from, but it’s hard to think of our kids struggling. The struggle produces pain, but also produces growth. Is that just how life goes?
What I really want is for my kids to know they don’t have to go on autopilot, pretending everything in life is ok. We carry around all our moments in life always; ignoring how they make us feel in the moment delays the feelings for later, at best, or makes us fail to experience them altogether, at worst. Being present, knowing yourself, and staying grounded when things are feeling overwhelming is what I want to try to teach my kids. I want them to find the mindset and activities in life, like fly fishing for me, that help remind them of those things. I don’t want them to need the autopilot.