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finding strength back home

This was it. I had reached my bottom. Anxiety and panic had finally beaten me to the point that I had forfeited my ability to go on living my independent life in California. As we turned the car around and headed back home, I became overwhelmed with an abundance of emotions. I was relieved to momentarily be able to escape panic and find some comfort in the arms of my childhood home. There I could be me. I could rest, I could be with those who cared about me the most, and I could work to regain some strength and piece myself back together. But I also felt ashamed and embarrassed. I was not the same person who had hopped on a plane a year and a half earlier, bags packed and ready embrace my new life without a care in the world. No, I had regressed tremendously. I was now much more like a child. I was afraid of the world around me. And sadly, I was afraid of who I had become. I didn’t know how I would be able to move forward.

When we got back to my parent’s house we sat and talked as a family and came up with a plan. That week was the final week of classes leading up to our fall semester exams. Ultimately, we decided that I would stay home for the next several days and rest so that I could go back with the clearest head possible to take my exams and complete the semester. We called my professors and let them know that I would not be in class due to an illness that I had developed while I was home. Thankfully, they were all very understanding.

By the end of the week I had made some slight progress but I was still not doing well. I was really nervous about getting back on a plane and heading across the country for another week and a half on my own. So in order to offset some of my anxiety, my father offered to fly out shortly after I returned to support me while studied and took my finals. I can’t begin to tell you how important that was to me. I’m not sure that I would have been able to do it without having him there in my corner. In fact, at that point, I’m certain that I would have crumbled.

I completed that semester with a 3.0 GPA. Certainly not up the standards that I had set early on my freshman year, but not terrible considering the circumstances. I had finished what I had started, and that was one positive takeaway. It didn’t all go as I had envisioned, but life doesn’t always work that way. With a 3.6 overall, I would likely have the opportunity to move forward somewhere else should I choose to forgo my final semester at Golden West. At least not all was lost.

Over Christmas break my family and I collectively decided that it was in my best interest to leave California and return home until I could work on getting a firmer grip on the issues that I was facing. They noticed that I was doing better under their roof and I did too. It was comforting to be there. I no longer felt so isolated and alone. And I knew that I had a support system waiting for me should I ever need it – that was most critical to my healing. More than anything else, the awareness that they had my back gave me strength.

Going home was a simple decision when examining what was best for my anxiety and my state of mind. But it was tremendously difficult from the standpoint that I would need to leave behind my girlfriend whom I had fallen madly in love with over the course of the last year. After all, she was my rock. She stood by me through my ups and downs, and she loved me unconditionally. She appreciated me for who I was and she didn’t need or expect anything more. She had become my best friend.

We didn’t know what the future would hold for me at that point. I didn’t want to set a timetable for my recovery and she could certainly appreciate that. She wanted me to get well mentally and physically, no matter what it took. She supported my journey, and I cannot thank her enough for that.

We decided to continue our relationship long distance. That wasn’t an easy thing for either of us, particularly due to the fact that we were on opposite ends of the country. It’s not as if we were within driving distance of one another and flights were costly, not to mention that even when direct they took about 6 hours, plus you had to then acclimate to the 3 hour time change. Certainly not well suited for weekend travel, that’s for sure. And I was not ready or willing to get back on a plane and head to the west coast at that point, so ultimately the burden of sacrifice was placed on her shoulders. And not surprisingly, she willingly stepped up and made the trip whenever she could.

During the middle of January my father and I made a journey across the country that I will never forget. It was time to close up the apartment, pack up my things, and move me back to Pennsylvania. We drove nearly 600 miles each day, stopping for the night in St. Louis, Denver, and Las Vegas. And on the ride back we took the 1-40 southern route, resting for the night in Albuquerque, Fort Smith (AR), and Knoxville (TN). I got to see some breathtaking terrain on that ride. And I learned to appreciate where I grew up because after all, it could have been Kansas. But the greatest part of that trip was the time I shared with my Dad. It was a critical step in the healing process for me, and I’ll always feel blessed that I had the opportunity to do it.

Shortly after my return I spent most of my days relaxing and spending time with my family. I put out applications to a couple of different universities on the east coast remaining hopeful that by the following fall I would be ready to leave the nest again. I took three courses at the local community college in preparation for my transfer, and I found some regular part-time work with my friend’s father who owned a local property restoration business. I slowly worked my way back into a regular routine. I surrounded myself with good people, made the right choices, made certain that I slept and ate well, and within several months I began to see a light forming at the end of the tunnel.

It was hard for me to approach my friends back home upon my return. They only knew one Matt – and this wasn’t him. I was ashamed by who I had become. I didn’t want to share the whole story. How could they ever understand? None of them had experienced what I had. They were 19 & 20 years old having the best times of their life…enjoying college, freedom, and the limitless world around them. And I now moved at the pace of a turtle, fearful to even pop my head out of the shell that surrounded me. If I did that, someone might see what was inside. That was too risky. Most nights I just told them I didn’t feel well enough to go out and I stayed home with my family. There were a couple of friends that did step up and stand by me, and I will never forget them for it. One of which I still see on a regular basis. He in particular really helped me make the most of a very low point in my life. I’m thankful that I had him.

By the Spring I learned that I had been accepted for transfer admission by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This was a real boost to my confidence. It was a great university and a fabulous opportunity. And since I was a child I had always bled Carolina blue. My father was an alum, and as a result my family spent many weekends there visiting the campus growing up. As I mentioned in a previous blog, we even had season football tickets.

In addition, my sister worked in the the athletic department at UNC. She got her Master’s at Chapel Hill in Sports Administration and after she completed her degree they offered her a job. When I enrolled at Carolina she was working as the Director of Compliance.

So, it really seemed to be the perfect fit. I would have the opportunity to get back to school at one of the top public universities in the country. It was a place that was very familiar to me. And I’d have my sister nearby should I need her support on the next leg of my journey.

But how would my relationship fare?

the power of fall

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…

uncovering the new me

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?  Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?  For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:21-23)

I don’t know how I ever managed to fall asleep that dreadful night.  The Lord must have been watching over me.  I was moments away from a trip to the emergency room because my panic and paranoia were telling me that I was losing my mind.  The new day did not bring any relief.  I still felt “high”.  I was so fearful that the feeling I had experienced would never go away that I had now become completely fixated on it.  It was anxiety’s turn.  Even if the effects of the drug had worn off, it could send me on a rollercoaster ride equally as devastating.  The adrenaline shot through my body as if supported by an IV, and I quickly began to deteriorate.

That day my friend from back home and I had made plans to get together with my girlfriend and a couple of her friends.  I had a really difficult time leaving the apartment and putting myself out in front of a group of people.  What if I completely lost it like the night before?  I wasn’t feeling well, my mind was pacing, heart was racing, and I knew that I might begin shaking with panic at any moment.  At this point I wasn’t even aware that I had an anxiety disorder and was absolutely convinced that something more tragic was happening.

It was my first experience dealing with the disorder publicly and recognizing the  impact it can have on your social life.  It was completely frightening.  I’m sure that I will get more into this later on, but it’s the fear of having the episode that is so debilitating.  You dread the shame and embarrassment that you will face if someone is able to see what’s going on under the surface of your skin.  What if you lose control?  What if you hyperventilate and pass out?  Or even worse, what if you have a heart attack or stroke?  It sounds crazy, but to someone in the moment, those considerations are very, very real.  That’s not to say they are logical, in fact they are far from it.  But they are extremely difficult thoughts to repress, and they can and will wreak havoc with your life if you allow them to do so.

In the end, I managed to survive that evening.  It was not enjoyable for me at all, but I had made it.  I believe that I made the excuse to my girlfriend that I was sick in order to diffuse the indicators that something bigger was happening.  I was just buying time.

A day or two later my buddy’s flight was scheduled to leave out of LAX.  I remember feeling very uneasy that day about making the drive north and sending him back off to the east coast.  It was hard to say goodbye, first because we were good friends, and secondly because I knew I was now going to be alone with the demons that had emerged in my mind a couple of days prior.  On the drive back down the 405 to Huntington Beach, panic set in.  I’m not sure how I made it home – again, thank you to the Man upstairs for looking after me.

I began to think about things that had never mattered to me before.  Negative energy flowed through my body and tore into my brain.  Throughout the first year of my time in California, I never felt homesick.  The fact that I lived alone did not bother me one bit.  I embraced the independence.  And I loved everything about my experiences there.  But now, all of that had vanished in a flash.  I was scared to death.  What if something happens to me?  I don’t have anyone out here.  I’m 3,000 miles away from home, my family couldn’t possibly get here fast enough!  Am I going crazy?  What is going on in my body? I felt lost, hopeless, and on the verge of a total breakdown.

Some of the memories from this period of my life are a bit clouded.  I wish I could go into more detail, but being that I was in constant “survival” mode with my body trapped in its fight or flight response, I wasn’t trying to hang onto to much of anything – I was just doing my best to get through each day.

Panic attacks became a regular occurrence.  In fact, often I’d experience them multiple times throughout the day.  A blast of adrenaline would shoot from my head to my feet.  My heart would race and pound as though it was going to jump out my chest.  I’d feel lightheaded, my throat would close up, breathing would become a challenge, and I’d envision myself passing out or falling to the floor with a heart attack.  I’d even imagine myself on the gurney on the way to the ambulance.  I’d hold the phone tight in my hand, questioning whether or not this was it? Was it time to call 911?  Or was it that I was just going crazy? And then, as I worked to take deep breaths and calm my mind, it would slowly pass.  My body would shake sometimes for an hour or two afterwards.  Many nights I would jump out of bed, waking up in the midst of another attack.  There was no dream sparking them, and I had no opportunity to calm myself – I just woke up and it was on me.  I’d be sweating, shaking, and my heart would be racing uncontrollably.  Those were the most discouraging.  The nocturnal attacks made you weary of falling back to sleep and they challenged your progress with the disorder because even if you could keep yourself calm and free of attacks throughout the day they could zap of your strength when you were powerless in your sleep.  It was an experience that turned your world upside down every time that it occurred.

It took me awhile to understand what was happening inside of me.  That’s what made everything so incredibly frightening.  I had no idea what a panic attack was and I had no strategies to cope with the anxiety.  I made many phone calls to my parents back home, trying to understand what it was that was taking over my life.  I was desperate for answers.  With their support along with that of my girlfriend, I zeroed in on the reality of my issues.  I then did quite a bit of internet research and learned that many others had been suffering with some of the same challenges I was facing.  I found comfort in the fact that I was not alone in this fight.  But that didn’t eliminate or subdue my problem, it just gave me a bit of understanding.

I was afraid to share with my friends the reality of my issues.  So I did my best to conceal them.  The best way to hide who you are is to cut yourself off from interaction with the rest of the world.  And for the most part, that’s exactly what I did.  I blamed the fact that I did not hang out with them as often on the notion that I had a girlfriend and they no longer called me as often.  I surrendered relationships with some of the realest people that I ever knew to this disorder.  I didn’t even allow them an opportunity to understand.  My fear chose our fate.  It was only years later that I would find the courage to send an email and apologize.

The one person that I did allow to remain an active part in my life in California was my girlfriend.  As I mentioned yesterday, I really was in love with this girl.  And she had become the best friend I had ever known.  We were close on many levels, it wasn’t just romance – it was mutual admiration and respect.  I could share anything with her and never feel as though she would judge me for it.  She was always positive, always upbeat, and her ability to provide comfort to those in need was a gift.  I felt no fear in opening up to her about my problems, so that’s exactly what I did.  She became my rock – an angel from Heaven sent to carry me through the most troubling moments of my life.  I gave her every ounce of me, and in return she saved me.  We had the type of bond most people only dream about.  She was always available.  She held me when I shook from panic, kissed me and reassured me that there would be better days, and somehow found a way to bring a smile to my face even when it seemed as though I couldn’t feel any worse.  I was truly blessed to have her.

I was also fortunate to have one of the best family support systems that one could ever imagine.  I regularly relied on calls back home to pull me through the low points in my days.  The Deibler family has always been a bit dysfunctional.  But we know how to pull together when faced with adversity.  And that’s what we did.  I made many phone calls to my father in particular.  He could always reach me and bring a sense of calm and reassurance over me.  I would call him in the middle of an attack and he would talk me through it.  Then he’d work to get my mind focused on something else.  There were nights we spent 4-5 hours on the phone.  If that’s what it took to help me, he’d do it without hesitation.

But my idle mind was continuing to destroy me.  I spent a lot of time alone, huddled up in my apartment.  School was about to begin again for the fall semester, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage going to class and getting back on a regular schedule.  I had become so handcuffed by my anxiety that I became agoraphobic.  I could hardly leave my “comfort zone” to check the mail and get the things that I needed from the grocery store, let alone maintain my focus in a classroom setting for hours upon end each day.  I needed to find something, a positive outlet where I could focus my mind and its attention so that I could survive the semester.

Like I mentioned earlier, I spent many nights on the phone with my Dad, and often our conversation would be directed towards college football.  After all, it was a passion of both of ours and we looked forward to it every fall.  We had been traveling to UNC with season tickets for several years at that point, and although I was now in California and wouldn’t have much of a chance to make the trip to Chapel Hill, we were still both excited for the new season to get underway.  But it wasn’t just Carolina that we talked about, it could really any team.  We’d go through rosters, coaches, conferences, and former players…anything to channel my mind somewhere other than on anxious, negative thoughts.

One day I went to the grocery store and I picked up a copy of the Athlon College Football Preview magazine.  It came with a profile of every team in Divison 1-A.  I allowed myself to get totally absorbed by it.  I could tell you who Middle Tennessee State’s starting running back was and how he’d fare in their third week of the season against Louisiana Monroe.  I knew all of the details.  A couple weeks later I found that the magazine was completely falling apart because I was constantly carrying it with me and studying it.  So I took a roll of duct tape and covered the front and back covers so that it would be able to withstand the season.  I was a bit obsessed, yes.  But this time it was about something positive.

Football had found its way back into my life, just when I needed it…

the detour

I’ll never forget the phone call that I made to my family, telling them that I had decided to leave the football team. Part of their reaction was shock and disbelief. After all, I wasn’t one to quit anything. I was stronger than that. They were also sad and disappointed. I was walking away from my dream, and that wasn’t the type of son they felt they had raised. They were angry, and rightfully so. My family made countless sacrifices on my behalf, laying the groundwork for my future, and now I had selfishly decided that I was going to stray from the path that we had agreed upon. And I’m certain that they were afraid. I was 18 years old and I was living all alone in a studio apartment 3,000 miles away, lacking any real direction or purpose in my life. How was I going to handle this?

After that conversation I understood that I needed to do something. I owed it to to my family. I stayed enrolled at Golden West College and decided that I would fully commit myself to academics. My plan was to take all UC (University of California) transferrable courses and present myself in two years as a strong applicant for potential admission to UCLA or perhaps even Berkeley. I worked hard, and I did well. A focused Matt was a dangerous Matt. I could do anything I wanted when I set my mind to it. By the end of my freshman year I believe my GPA was over 3.8.

But I had my fun as well. I remained very close with a couple of friends from the team (who had also for different reasons moved on from football) and through them I met the core group of guys that I would spend most of my weekends and free time with in SoCal. To this day, I will say that those friends were some of the realest people I ever met. We had a blast together. Golden West followed a 4 day class schedule as opposed to 5 which you would find at most colleges and universities. So my weekends began on Thursday afternoon. Those evenings we would typically congregate at one of our places for a few drinks and then head out to a club in Orange County. On Friday, we’d often drive to San Diego for the weekend to visit with our friends at SDSU. We even mixed in quite a few trips across the border into Mexico – now that’s an experience. The sunshine, the beaches, the beautiful women, the newness of everything, the adventure – California was amazing. I had never envisioned anything like it growing up in a town of less than 5,000 people in rural Pennsylvania. I felt like I had found my Utopia. And I quickly forgot about football.

Shortly after my arrival to the Golden State I met a girl. She was a friend of a friend and had traveled with us for a weekend trip to Lake Havasu, AZ. We had an immediate connection. There was something about her. You could just tell that she was real, genuine -the way that she carried herself was so attractive to me. Only one slight problem…she had a boyfriend. We enjoyed each others’ company for those few days but we both knew that there could be nothing more.

When I arrived back in Huntington Beach I found that I could not stop thinking about her. I pondered where she was and what she might be doing with her life, knowing that if given the opportunity I’d choose to be a part of it. And then one day as I was walking to my car from class I bumped into her heading towards the Quad. We stopped and talked for a few minutes and then exchanged numbers with each other. Shortly after we began getting together as friends. And by the following Spring she had decided to move on from her relationship and we started dating. I felt like I had truly met someone special. I fell in love with her quickly. By the time our “romantic” relationship began, I was already more than half way there.

The following summer one my best friends from back home came to visit. This was his second trip out to California, and I was really looking forward to it. I always liked when people came to see me. I knew they appreciated the surroundings and I enjoyed being their personal tour guide. I was proud of my independence and the life that I had built, and I was excited to showcase it.

One day we went out with a couple of my friends and ended up back at my place rather early. There wasn’t a whole lot going on that night, so we thought we’d just hang out and watch a movie or some TV. We had been talking earlier that evening about how long it had been since we last smoked, contemplating where we might be able to get a hold of some. My friends weren’t big into it and neither was I at that point, so I certainly didn’t have a connection. But this was California, the US capital of greenery, so we had a feeling we could locate it one way or another.

My buddy hopped onto the computer (AOL Instant Messenger) and proceeded to begin a conversation with some local stranger who agreed to meet us. We sat waiting in a Kinko’s parking lot across the street from Golden West when a woman hopped out of her pickup with some of the most potent weed I had ever seen. Taking one look at her, you knew whatever she was carrying must have been good. She told us “it’s chronic”. We drove back to the apartment, rolled up and smoked two blunts. The high that took over my body was something that I had never felt before – this was not pleasant or enjoyable at all; I was in a state of sheer panic and paranoia. I paced back and forth in the apartment, wishing the feeling would good away. When I laid in bed I felt as though I was falling, and I even hallucinated a bit. I was convinced multiple times that my heart had stopped beating. This was the night my life changed forever.

Underneath the surface there were things going on inside of me for many years prior. My mind had become fragile. I remember that going back as far as junior high there were times when I would obsess compulsively over things. I was germaphobic at times, I repeated actions (counting, hand washing), and I began to worry about my health. In high school I started to obsess about my heart and blood pressure while waiting in line for a football physical – someone had exited the room with the doctor and mentioned that their blood pressure was high, and that they couldn’t understand it. Instantly, I had the same issue. I started listening to my heartbeat (still do to this day). During one football season I felt so run down and sick that I was convinced I had mononucleosis – the blood work came back negative. My head was manifesting these problems, and my body was exemplifying them. I was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety/Panic Disorder, I just didn’t know it.

That night in California with my friend from back home, the experience we shared served as an open door and gateway for the illness that continues to have a profound impact on me every day. All it needed was the the right opportunity to squeeze its way into my world and take total control over my life. And that’s exactly what it did…

surrendering the dream

Saturday, October 3rd, 1998 – It was Homecoming my sophomore year of high school, and we were off to an 0-4 start with a new coach and a young team.  We were playing our local league rival in an annual match-up known as the Frost Bowl.  Early in the third quarter we found ourselves down 24-7 and on the brink of yet another defeat.  We were a run-oriented team employing a Wing-T offense that our coach brought with him from his previous venture, so we weren’t exactly well prepared to make any late game comebacks. But we had enough talent at the skill positions to make a real run at it, and I absolutely had the desire as a quarterback to leave it all on the field.  Rolling out of the pocket, scrambling for my life at times, and throwing the ball downfield on the run I led our comeback charge.

With under a minute left, we had cut the deficit to 34-27 on a touchdown pass from 8 yards out.  Out of timeouts, we needed to attempt an onside kick to have any hope of getting the ball back with an opportunity to tie or win the game.  We teed it up and stroked the perfect effort towards the sideline.  Unfortunately the ball slipped past our recovery team and shot out of bounds.  0-5…and a heartbreaker at that…

That day I learned just how truly special football could be.  The beauty of the game is that you can completely lose yourself in it.  There’s no time to worry, no time to panic…you just move and react.  It’s all encompassing.  Lost in the pursuit of an improbable comeback, I was completely unaware that something remarkable had happened to me.  And then I heard the announcement come over the PA system.  “Matt Deibler has just set a new county record for passing yards in a game with 416”.  I had surpassed the previous mark by 82 yards.  I remember having such mixed emotions.  I was exhausted and hurt by the loss but I did feel a sense of pride, because I knew I had done everything I could to lead us back.

On Monday morning I was walking down the hall near the high school office and our Librarian stopped me and handed me a copy of USA Today.  She said “did you see this?” I had no idea what she was referencing until she led me to the national High School Football spotlight and I saw my name and a short paragraph listed about my performance that weekend.  I couldn’t believe it.  The local papers were one thing, but USA Today?  Maybe I could make a future out of this?  That’s the moment that my dreams began to take shape…

I wanted to play Division 1 college football.  I wasn’t comfortable settling for anything less.  So I went to work.  I put everything I had into making myself a better quarterback and a more attractive prospect for scouts.  I worked on my quickness and dropped my 40 time to 4.69.  I drank Ensure and whey protein to try to put on weight and I lifted weights to bulk up my frame.  I recruited my friends and my father to run routes for me at the high school during the offseason.  And if nobody else was free, I’d head to the field by myself and drag the round trash barrels from the concession stand to the corners of the end zone and throw fades from 15 yards out.  I was committed.  I had envisioned a real future in this game, and I didn’t want to let it go.

I never really received any help at all from my coaching staff as far as my college recruitment was concerned.  We were a small school with a losing tradition and there wasn’t much of an effort made to help football players pursue an opportunity at the next level.  In fact, my head coach gave away our only copy of the game film from my record breaking day that sophomore season, so I wasn’t even able to include any of those highlights in my profile videos…films that were put together by my father and I after analyzing hours upon hours of tape and then cutting and recording with the aid of two VCR’s.  Quite a tedious process.  I can’t thank him enough for his help with it.

The videos were sent out to a variety of collegiate programs across the country that I decided upon with my family.  I remember the day I went to the mailbox and came back in with my first letter.  San Diego State University Aztecs.  Was this really happening?  16 other D-1A programs followed including Notre Dame.  I’m pretty sure my mom nearly fainted the day that I walked in the house with that letter.  She was a die hard Golden Domer, and my sister was an Alum.  Some of the letters were one and done, but many of the schools maintained regular correspondence.

By the summer prior to my senior season, I was on the radar.  I made a trip to Boston College where I was introduced to players and coaches and was given the royal treatment for a visit to watch them play West Virginia.  I stood on the sidelines prior to kickoff and watched the game a couple of rows back in the stands.  I remember a man holding the door for me outside of their football center that day and when I said “thank you” he said “no thank you, you’re the one who will leave blood, sweat, and tears in this place someday”.  It about made me cry.  I felt as though I was finally realizing the dream.

In addition to that trip I was selected for an Elite Quarterback Camp at Purdue University that was by invite only – 100 quarterbacks from across the nation.  I attended the camp with a kid from Iowa named Kyle Orton whom they offered a scholarship to that week.  Kyle went on to have a great career at Purdue and now plays in the NFL.  That same summer I also enrolled in a camp at Miami-FL, another school from which I was receiving some attention.  And I visited with Walt Harris at Pittsburgh and later John Bunting at UNC.  It was the most exciting time of my life.

Then came senior year.  There were high expectations, but what followed were struggles on the field.  It was my  least productive season statistically, and I was frustrated with our coaching staff and their unwillingness to adapt to a better suited offense for the type of players we had available.  We ran the Wing-T when we were best suited for the Spread.  I broke the county’s all-time passing yardage record that season in spite of the fact that we were executing such a heavily weighted run offense.  Imagine what we could have done had we made some adjustments?  Instead we finished 6-5 and fell well short of our goal to qualify for district playoffs.  It was a disappointing, exhausting season.  I remember hugging my best friend on the field after our last game..with tears in our eyes we looked at each other and said “it’s over”.

That fall the attention that I was well accustomed to receiving from college recruiters dwindled.  Of course I still received lots of interest from the smaller programs, but my Division 1-A connections faded quickly.  I was undersized at 6’0 to play at that level, perhaps they were hoping I’d grow?  Maybe they wanted a quarterback from a stronger program with a better background?  Ultimately, I was not awarded any scholarship offers from the D-1 level schools.  Even Boston College decided that they were going to go a different route, and I was left with several invitations to walk on: UNC, Kentucky, and Auburn to name a few.

I had been knocked down.  My confidence was most definitely shaken. And for the first time in a long time I allowed myself to lay on the field.  I contemplated giving up football altogether.  Maybe  I would just go to college and enjoy the experience?  After all, football was becoming a pressure filled mess in my life.  What happened to the way it used to make me feel, when I could lose myself in the moment?  I began to analyze every step I made as it related to the game, and it led to my downfall.  I couldn’t throw a spiral tight enough.  I could hit a receiver in the chest with a bullet at forty yards but if it didn’t look like the perfect ball I wasn’t satisfied.  I was a perfectionist, and I was torturing myself.

But after months of deliberation I decided to give it one last shot.  Searching for my best opportunity to make it to the D-1A level, I investigated several JUCO programs.  And I quickly learned that the best part of the country for that level of play was southern California – the Mission Conference.  These teams were factories for national programs looking to fill vacancies in their rosters.  Year after year countless players from the Mission schools transferred to college football’s power programs as sophomores or juniors.  It appeared to be a great opportunity.  So after a visit in the Spring, I settled on Golden West College.  I loved southern California (it was paradise) and I was eager to leave the town where I had seen my dreams evaporate and start anew.

I fell in love with Huntington Beach immediately upon arrival.  I made a couple of great friends through my connections on the team and was having the time of my life.  I was 18 and I was on my own 3,000 miles away from home living the dream.

Summer camp began, and the issues from the previous fall were haunting me.  My head wasn’t right for football.  Remember what I said about “losing yourself” in the game and how you just “move and react”?  I wasn’t doing either of those things.  I was complicating it.  I was overthinking every single throw that I made.  I was extremely critical of myself, and the pressure was getting to me.  I wanted to step off of the plane, win the starting job, and throw for 3,000 yards.  But I couldn’t even get past the issues I was having with timing, accuracy, and delivery.  I began to resent the game and what it was doing to me.  And one day, in between practice sessions with one of my friends from the team, I decided to walk away from the sport and never go back.  It was the first time that I had ever truly quit anything in my life.  From one standpoint I felt relieved, but from another I also felt like a complete failure.  And I knew that I had let my family down, and that hurt the most.

For the first time in my life, I recognized the power of my mind.  I had allowed anxiety, pressure, and compulsive thoughts to determine the outcomes of my efforts while in pursuit of my dreams.  I was struggling with something under the surface, but at the moment, I didn’t know exactly what it was…

It wouldn’t be long until it would make itself fully known to me and change the way that I lived my life forever…

quarterback sacked

Growing up, sports was always a huge part of my life.  As a kid, I spent most afternoons outside with my friends from the neighborhood playing football, basketball, or baseball until the sky was dark or someone’s parents chased them back inside for dinner.  My dad would spend countless nights in the backyard with me practicing, never too busy and always available. And I loved it..I really couldn’t get enough of it.  Sports became my identity.

Early on in my life baseball was my passion, with basketball taking a close second.  I really enjoyed being on the mound as a pitcher.  There was something about the competitive nature of that position that fueled my love for the game. My favorite thing to do was to challenge a hitter with a fastball; to drive to the plate with all that I had and know that most of the guys in the lineup couldn’t catch up to it.  It was a good feeling.  With every pitch I held the the fate of the team’s hands in my own, and I liked that.

I played football in my younger years, but really only because I was “supposed” to.  I can’t say that I fell in love with the game right away.  That came later.  Football is really like no other sport from the standpoint that you grow into it.  It’s a man’s game, and most people need to mature to be successful at it and appreciate all that is involved in it.

I’ll never forget the moment I knew that football had something special to offer.  When I was a freshman in high school I was moved up to the Varsity team as a back up quarterback.  The night of our first game, I suited up and walked with the team from the locker room to the field directed by the lights sitting out on top of the hill.  The energy I felt inside was incredible.  I never felt so alive in my life.  The sounds of the cleats on the pavement, the camaraderie, the people, the lights, the dew on the grass…I knew in that moment that I found something that would touch my life forever.

For the next three years that followed, it became my life.  I had fallen in love.  I even gave up baseball and basketball altogether in favor of lifting weights and running track to improve my strength, speed, and agility for football.  I didn’t want to stop playing after high school, I wanted a collegiate career as well.  It became the basis of all of my dreams and aspirations.

During that high school experience I learned a lot of life lessons playing the game.  I learned the value of team, hard work, commitment, and the meaning of the phrase “blood, sweat, and tears”. But most importantly, I learned how to take a crushing blow, fall to the ground, and pick myself back up to play another down.  I learned to stare in the face of adversity without fear. Because just when you think the tank is empty, you find the will to go a few more miles…to make a play or take something positive from the experience.  And those moments are the ones that you can hold onto and cherish forever because they ultimately define your character.

I’ve battled a lot of issues in the ten years that have passed since I last laced them up.  And without the experiences that I had on the field and the lessons taught to me by the game and by my father I would have never been ready to face what life had waiting for me.

I never allowed myself to lay on the field.  Unless you were truly injured, that was a not an option in my family.  So it became habitual for me to get back up.  I never knew just how valuable that habit would be…