Anxiety and panic will beat you to your knees if you allow them to do so. I had always been good at picking myself back up, no matter how devastating the blow. As I mentioned in previous posts, laying on the field was not an option. In my eyes, unless there was a bone showing or you were physically incapable of pulling yourself together it was your job to set an example and find the strength to play the next down. Why would you allow your competitor to know that he could phase you? Giving in to pain and adversity gave the opposition strength, and in turn it made you weak. To take a shot to the chin and offer a smile back was one of the most noble things an athlete could do. I took pride in the fact that I was tougher than most. You could knock me down, but you wouldn’t keep me there. I always appreciated the challenge.
In the summer of 2002 I met the most worthy adversary that I would ever encounter in my life. This new challenger had the ability to do something that no one else had ever been able to do until that point…break my spirit. When anxiety began to take over my life, I questioned everything. I was no longer the confident, strong, and resilient individual that I had always been. I began to see myself as a victim. I was becoming a slave to the disorder. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and forget that life was happening around me. I was scared. I missed my Mom and Dad. The independent and courageous part of my persona had vanished. I felt like a lost child.
Everything that I had enjoyed about life had turned on me. I began developing an extremely negative mindset. I resented California for “what it had done to me”. I didn’t personally want to accept the blame, so I attached it elsewhere. I convinced myself that this would have never happened had I not been 3,000 miles away. The beautiful weather…80 degrees and cloudless skies characteristic of that part of the country…it now irritated me. I prayed for rainy days. I wanted to be able to close the blinds and lay on my couch, wasting away. The beach? Who cares, I didn’t really like it anyway. Why didn’t this place have seasons? And why were there so many people? All of a sudden I missed the back roads and the quiet country lifestyle.
In many ways I had surrendered the fight, but I still carried with me a glimmer of hope. I wasn’t ready to completely throw in the towel. I had enrolled in class for the fall semester at Golden West, determining that it was important that I work my way through it, one way or another. Going to class was a real challenge, staying focused was even more difficult. I would sit in a room with 40-50 people hiding the fact that I was trembling with panic beneath the surface of my skin. That was the hardest part really…what if I had a breakdown in front of all of these people? There were days that I just couldn’t get out of bed and make it to school, and others where I’d need to walk out of the classroom to gather myself. But I didn’t give up.
I needed a positive outlet, fast. If I was going to stand up and face this adversity all week long, I had to have something to work for, something positive to look forward to when class broke for the weekend. So I came up with a plan.
I noticed that when I allowed myself to get wrapped up in college football, my anxiety calmed. The conversations I had on the phone with my Dad during my weakest moments often centered around the game…the preview magazine that I carried with me and read cover to cover time after time…college football was serving as a powerful elixir for my disorder. It gave me comfort. I could lose myself in it and momentarily dispose of my fears and find my peace.
I always had a passion for travel. Even at 19 I had already been fortunate to see many different parts of the country. I was no stranger to a road trip. And I enjoyed planning travel…finding deals, staying in nice hotels, eating in local restaurants…I was a bit of a journeyman from that standpoint. And although I currently live nearby where I grew up, I still carry that adventurous spirit inside. I enjoy uncovering new places, cultures, and experiences.
That fall I came up with a plan to see as many college football games as I could get to. This was a big step for me on multiple levels. It allowed me an opportunity to focus on something other than my fear…I had tickets to buy, hotels to book, maps to print, places to research – it kept me occupied. It gave me something to look forward to each week at school. All I needed to do was get through four days of class and then it would be the weekend and I’d be able to escape again. And more than anything else, it was beneficial for me because it pushed me. I was forced to confront my anxiety head on. Travel is far more difficult when you have anxiety because you become attached to your comfort zone. As I mentioned earlier, I was beginning to feel somewhat agoraphobic. The road trip plan did not allow for that, not for more than a couple days at a time anyway, and that was instrumental in aiding my management of the disorder.
I made it to eight different venues that fall for games: UNLV, UNC, California, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, Fresno State, and USC. My girlfriend and I made the trips to UNLV, California, and Arizona State together. We really had a great time and those trips certainly helped to strengthen our bond with each other. I faced some serious panic attacks while driving through the desert of California, and she was there for me to assure me that everything would be alright. I flew to UNC to meet my Dad and watch my Heels take on Texas, and later he and I met up out in Colorado for a game. What an extraordinary area of the country! Absolutely gorgeous. We hiked around Rocky Mountain National Park and had a truly special visit. It was one of the places I felt most alive (the following year we went back again). My sister came to visit another weekend and we drove to Fresno and had a great time watching Pat Hill’s Bulldogs (“shut up and hit somebody”). UCLA and USC were local day trips – the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum – two of college football’s greatest venues. I saw UCLA take on Oregon with my Mom and Dad and then watched the Fighting Irish battle USC with my good friend from California to end the season.
That fall was a special time for me and I will never for the rest of my life lose my appreciation for college football and what it did for me. It helped me to find some light in my darkest days. No one should ever question the value of sports in our society. They can do powerful things. Some of us may be holding onto life by the thinnest thread and it could very well be that our affinity with the game or team we follow that carries us. We all need something that we can trust and believe in. I’ve learned more than most that many things come and go in this life, but every fall I can count on college football to be there.
A couple days later I was on a plane home to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving break. Although I had made it through the fall with some amazing memories from my trips, I was still struggling with debilitating anxiety and panic. Being home felt right. I began counting the hours until I would need to leave. I feared going back to California. I had created such a negative association with my living situation that I was worried I would go back and have a serious breakdown.
On the way to Philadelphia airport, driving down 476 South, I hit my wall. I asked my Dad to pull over the car as a serious panic attack had ensued. I was shaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t gather myself. I just looked at him with tears running down my face and said “I can’t go back”. And we turned the car around…