Directly following Wichita State’s win over Ohio State my dad and I were frantically trying to figure out how to get to Atlanta for the Final Four. After a few frantic calls on Easter morning it was decided the entire family was going to go to Atlanta! Couldn’t be happier. I was going to witness history and share it with my mother and father as well as my wife and our two boys. In that moment I knew I would have a hard time as I have been battling anxiety and agoraphobia aggressively this year but there was no way…NO WAY…I was going to miss my Shockers playing for a National Championship. Besides, what’s there to be afraid of…lets look at the top 5 items on my list of things that are triggers for my anxiety attacks:
- Large Crowds
- High Pressure Situations
- Things Without a Known End Time
- Social Situations With Strangers
Okay…all of those. My biggest trigger is encountering these things with heat. What? Its high 70’s all weekend long? Here we go.
Friday morning I boarded a plane with two small children which is the equivalent of having an air-horn blasted in your face at full volume for two hours straight while getting repeatedly kicked in the tenders. Luckily, we had the grandparents sitting across the aisle from us so there were four adults. Kate had Dodge since he’s only 5-weeks-old and my folks and I attempted to corral the 2-year-old, Max. I felt like Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes On A Plane, by the time we got to Atlanta…”I have had it with these mother****ing kids on this mother****ing plane!” I hate being locked in a flying death-tube…being locked in a flying death-tube with kids is like adding lemon juice to your paper cut. In all fairness, Max was fantastic…I’m just high-strung and overreact to everything.
We flew with the alumni association so we were treated to a police escort that got our bus from the airport to Buckhead in no time! Things were getting real! It was the team hotel so the place was a buzz with Shocker fans, old friends, and people whose names I should know but couldn’t remember. It was a party. I dealt with my anxiety well and focused on getting the kids squared away, fed, and eventually to bed. It…was…crazy. Max obviously had to open and close every drawer and explore every inch of the hotel room and push every button. Since he skipped his nap on the plane, every slight pause in his rampage is met with temper tantrums and his body writhing on the ground. We practically hid in the corner and threw food at him as if we were cornered by some wild beast till I finally captured him and tamed him with a magic trick, also known as cartoons in bed. A thousand books later he started laying still in bed and Kate and I hid out in the bathroom together till he fell asleep. Dodge was an angel…I’m not sure if he was awake for the entire trip.
The next morning I woke up with a lump in my throat…the anxiety was beginning. So much would happen today and we would be away from “home” for all of it. That is very scary to someone with agoraphobia…we like creating safe places to retreat to and staying there. Nonetheless, this is what I signed up for and damnit I was going to have fun. Shortly after breakfast we all met in the lobby for a drink before the buses left for downtown. My dad had Dodge asleep on his chest and my mother was chatting with friends. Kate and I were dressing Max upstairs when it happened: A pick pocket stole our Final Four tickets right out of her purse! All six tickets! Gone! As you can imagine I handled it perfectly…no…wait…I freaked out. My anxiety went through the roof, my emotions swelled, and I took them out on my mom. I was not a nice son.
Later…guilt would wash over me and I would feel like a jerk. Who steals from a baby? This friggin pick pocket scammer stole tickets from a two-year-old and a baby (yes…Dodge had to have a ticket), Six tickets! Gone! The head of security to the hotel was completely useless and it turned out the thieves had stolen money, wallets, tickets, etc. from other guests in the past hour. When we scolded them for not doing their job his response was, “This isn’t Wichita.” For that I have to tell you beware of your possessions at the Grand Hyatt Buckhead (they continued to do nothing for the next few days as more crime happened in their lobby feet from their front desk).
My wife and our boys boarded the bus for downtown without tickets as my folks headed to the police station to fill out a police report and get new tickets issued by the ticket office. The lump in my stomach grew. At the pep rally I could barely eat I was so nervous. It was loud, there were huge crowds of fans, Max was running in circles, the game was less than two hours away, I didn’t have tickets, and my folks were nowhere to be seen. I was freaking out. I muscled down a beer to help cool my nerves and then, with two hours to go, my folks arrived with new paper tickets to save the day. I broke down crying apologizing to my mother. She brushed it off like it was nothing but I know my words cut deep. We headed straight to the stadium just in case there was still an issue with our tickets and at 4:45pm we were sitting in our seats with over an hour to kill till tip-off. At 5:15 the first set of our stolen tickets arrived and as soon as we told them they had been scammed they quickly (and smartly) went looking for open seats elsewhere. Shortly after, the second set of stolen tickets arrived and like idiots they argued with us and demanded we give them the seats. It is important to understand that we are sitting directly in the middle of the official WSU section with our official WSU passes and name badges. They refused to believe that they had just paid $4k for four tickets on the street that were stolen (again…idiots) and took the argument to the event staff. Now…I’m freaking out. 30 minutes later it is resolved (thanks to the police report) and we are sitting comfortably in our seats except Dodge is crying and Max is trying to crawl over all the seats. Me? I am having the worst anxiety of my life and tip-off hasn’t even happened yet. What am I going to do?
With every inch of me begging to run for the doors and get out of there I stayed. I was visibly uncomfortable but I thought of my CBT therapy and knew if I could wait out the adrenaline it would be easier to deal with. “20 minutes.” I told myself. “Wait 20 minutes.” So I did, and in that time there were choirs, fireworks, videos, the opening tip-off, and a bunch of points scored. At that point in time I told myself, “It’s okay to have anxiety, you are at the Final Four and you want your team to win!” It was true. So once I knew everything I was feeling was normal all I had to do was not think about the situation (the crowd, noise, size of the dome, etc.) and just think about the game. That was when it hit me! Malcolm Armstead and Carl Hall!!! I thought, “If Malcolm can be calm and cool playing this game I can be calm and cool watching this game.” Then, “If Carl can play with a heart issue I can watch with a pounding heart.” It worked. I focused on how I felt Malcolm and Carl would react to anxiety and it eventually melted away to the point where I was just as anxious as any other fan in that stadium…and then the Shockers started winning! Anxiety turned to excitement!!!
I will play the final minutes of that game over and over again in my head for who knows how long…as will every other WSU fan, coach, and player. Louisville game back, the refs made a few terrible calls that affected the outcome of the game, and before I knew it…the team in red was celebrating and I was on a bus heading back to the hotel. Heartbreak.
You tell yourself that you have to celebrate getting to the Final Four…and you do…but defeat stings, especially when you were right there. We had it, and I know Syracuse or Michigan would have been no match for us. We were four points from being legends. For me, I quickly realized that the Final Four would not just be a moment in history as a fan but a moment in history for me in my battle to feel normal…to control my anxiety. The two will forever be tied together and thus be a source of great power and sadness. I will always be able to recall what my brain did on Saturday night because it was the scariest moment of my life for anxiety…and I came out the other side just fine. I didn’t survive it…I beat it! So there was a victory after all.
Sunday and Monday were vacation days but they were the emotional let down days…I know I still haven’t processed the emotions of the Shockers losing and how scared I was. I almost lost it at the Dolphin Show at the Georgia Aquarium but Max was so scared by all the fake thunder and lightning that I found myself comforting him instead of needing comfort. FYI, don’t go to Dolphin Tales at the Georgia Aquarium…way too much singing and theatrics and not enough dolphins jumping – it was like regional theater with some dolphins. The only thing worse than losing in the Final Four is losing in the Final Four and then having three days to kill in Atlanta. There is plenty to do in the ATL but apparently all of the world thinks Wichita is a one stoplight town in the middle of nowhere and we’re going to be shocked by all the technology and wonder of the big city. I got pretty sick of hearing about the “tall buildings,” how Home Depot is from there, and how everyone was so excited to call my Shockers Cinderella officially…because we clearly didn’t belong in the eyes of so many.
After a much quieter flight home I realized I didn’t freak out about packing, I was fine the morning of the flight, I went through security without issues, flew on a plane without anxiety, and drove home. Humph. Like I said, there was a victory Saturday night after all. I remember when I was little how scared I was of heights. I would get vertigo just from going up a ladder. So I climbed my roof till I was three stories high then climbed the chimney and sat there till I didn’t feel sick anymore. I faced my fear. I don’t think my anxieties are gone…but I know I faced them, and once you face something you know what you are looking at. So I would like to thank my Wichita State Shockers for an amazing season, for winning the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight, and making it to the Final Four for the first time in my life. However, I want to thank them even more for being the inspiration that got me to face my biggest fears. Specifically, I owe thanks to Malcolm and Carl. Not only are they two seniors departing this year but they have become my power in my fight. Malcolm is my angel that tells me to brush it off and keep playing…he’s calm and cool. Carl is my angel that tells me to push through it…he’s a beast and won’t back down. They may not be National Champions to the sports world but they are still playing in my mind, draining three’s and dunking…constantly keeping my anxiety down a few points to give me an assist and help me win. Winning is the only option in my case and the game doesn’t end…if you start losing you have to play harder and find a way to get the lead back. I will always take that with me from Saturday and will forever be grateful to my Wichita State Shockers and how they’ve taught me to never give up.