Learning how to live with anxiety

I recently completed my first quarter as a student in John F. Kennedy University’s sport psychology program. My last time in a formal educational setting was 1999 when I sat in a brick-and-mortar classroom. For the last three months, I sat in a virtual classroom learning from professors and classmates mostly through an online platform and discussion boards. I read more in the last three months than I probably had in the past three years. Nevertheless, the first thing I did after completing the quarter was pick up some fairly light reading (i.e., not a journal article) in the form of Rick Ankiel’s biography entitled The Phenomenon. The book appealed to me on a number of levels. First, as a sport psychology student, I thought it would be a great opportunity to read a story with subject matter relevant to my studies. Second, I just love baseball. I still play baseball in a men’s league at 42 years old on a team ironically called the Cardinals. However, I got a lot more than I bargained for when reading The Phenomenon. I learned that I have a lot in common with Rick Ankiel and those commonalities brought back a lot of old feelings. I have a great deal more empathy for Rick Ankiel and all of us who struggle with anxiety and panic disorders.

“I could hear the blood draining from my head.” That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. I could hear the blood draining from my head during my first panic attack in June of 2012. Rick Ankiel described it better than I ever have. I thought I was having a stroke and my life flashed before my eyes while behind the wheel of my Toyota Highlander on the New Jersey Turnpike. I’m not sure how I made it across four lanes of traffic to get to the shoulder, but I did. I told my wife and our two close friends that something was very wrong, but I had no clue what it was that hit me. I asked my wife Jaclyn to drive the car. When I got out of the car, I was dizzy, but I regained most of the blood flow to my brain. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated. A short while later, we stopped for food. I got dizzy again as I got out of the car. Something was very wrong. I needed to see a doctor, so I went to a nearby hospital to get checked out. After about seven hour and seven thousand tests, I was told there is nothing physically wrong with me. I was introduced to “The Thing” as Rick Ankiel described it. You can call it The Thing because there is no good way to describe it to someone who has never experienced it. Why did it happen? What are the effects? When will it come back again? Unfortunately, the diabolical Thing and I have become well acquainted over the past five years.

It is very difficult to imagine meeting The Thing in front of tens of thousands of strangers let alone three loved ones. Even more impressive, Rick Ankiel willingly invited The Thing into his life every time he stepped on the pitcher’s mound for the next four years or so in an effort to conquer it. He knew that if he didn’t get back up on the mound to face his fears head on that he would stand little chance of pitching professionally ever again. He was willing to take some very serious risks, both emotionally and physically, to continue doing what he loved and in an effort to conquer panic and anxiety. I can relate to this, as well.

The weekend following my inaugural dance with The Thing I was alone with my children. We had plans to go see my wife’s grandmother. I was petrified to get back in the car with my kids. What if I had another panic attack? What if I harmed myself and my children? However, I knew that if I didn’t get back behind the wheel immediately that it would get harder the longer I waited. The night before our visit I had a dream that the panic would set in around the 10th Avenue exit of the Prospect Expressway in Brooklyn. Sure enough, about halfway into our 15-minute ride, I could feel the panic building as we approached the 10th Avenue exit. My heart rate elevated and breathing accelerated. My kids frolicked in the back with no clue about what I was going through. I told myself to take big diaphragmatic breaths to combat the physiological symptoms of the overwhelming panic. Sure enough, the panic dissipated after about a minute. I felt relieved that I was able to survive this episode. However, this would not be The Thing’s last visit. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t go away that easily.

Since June of 2012, I have had several panic and anxiety episodes. Some have been related to career. Some have been related to health, both mine and my loved ones. Some have just come to be simply because I worry about having another panic or anxiety episode. Yes, panic and anxiety are different. A panic attack is generally unpredictable, seemingly coming out of nowhere. An anxiety attack is induced by an external stressor and dissipates when the stressor is eliminated from your life. While different, both are debilitating, scary, and frustrating. I have learned to manage these episodes much like Rick Ankiel did while he was pitching in the major leagues. The obvious difference as I mentioned earlier is that he did it while at work with others watching him closely. I have had the luxury of keeping these challenges to myself. Honestly, I have purposely kept a number of very personal challenges to myself over the years for fear of being judged. Only recently have I learned that the benefit sharing my experiences far outweighs the cost. Apparently, Rick Ankiel and I have this in common too. He wrote The Phenomenon to share his story and has worked with baseball players as the Nationals’ life skills coach after leaving the game as a player.

I got much more than I bargained for in reading The Phenomenon. It was a great story, one that I believe that many people relate to whether you every played baseball or not. As a sport psychology student and mental skills coach in-training, I am fascinated by Rick Ankiel’s battle with performance anxiety, his persistence in fighting back, and his willingness to embrace help. As a fellow sufferer of panic and anxiety attacks, I relate to his experience although we do not share our experiences in the same context. Now, I guess I wonder if Rick Ankiel still faces The Thing now that he is out of baseball. In psychology parlance, I wonder if Rick Ankiel has high trait anxiety (i.e., general disposition to anxiety). I hope for his sake that he doesn’t. Feeling like The Thing is waiting around the corner every time I have a blood test or every time I face a significant deadline is a real challenge. Nevertheless, I have learned that the best way to keep The Thing away is to stare it straight in the eye when it does come around even if I am scared out of my mind.

Post-script: After five years of resistance, I elected to start anti-anxiety medication over a year ago. I don’t regret my decision one bit.



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