You can’t “rub dirt” on mental illness – Beside the Point

Typically, this editorial is about something on the lighter side of life. Like say Javy Baez setting a Mets’ record with five strikeouts in one game on Thursday night (yeehooooo) but a week full of news about fires, depots, school programs etc., etc., require a reprieve from the serious.

I try to write about things that matter to people, while trying to put a smile on their face. I ran into a cyclist, not literally because that would’ve hurt, but figuratively, last week who stopped me and told me how much he enjoyed Beside the Point.

That is the point. Nothing else. Something that people can count on and look forward to. There’s no finer compliment. A stop out in public to extend a compliment puts a smile on my face. I share those stories with Lee and she tears up because she knows what that says about what we’re still building.

But today, I’m going to write a bit more somber, hopefully with your blessing.

Since Kelsey’s death last year, obviously I’ve been battling mental health issues. So many, many people regularly call or stop me at the golf course and ask how Lee and I are doing. My wife is a very independent woman – one of the things I love most about her. But she’s grieving alone with a six foot shoulder there when she needs it. That’s all I can offer because I can’t tell her how to feel.

That’s it. That’s all I have for her, but I think that’s how she wants it.

My situation is different. Those that see me regularly don’t ask how things are anymore, but you can see it in their eyes. I like talking about Kelsey, but it’s uncomfortable for others who immediately go to what it would be like to lose a child and it gets awkward.

I’ve been having regular panic attacks. I had one on vacation because it was the first time we went without Kelsey, and I had a wicked one last Saturday night.

These aren’t just a rapid heart beat and heavy breathing. These are darkness. And I know now something that I didn’t know 18 months ago. Panic attacks feel like a literal physical darkness is closing in on you. Yes, your heart beats at a pace and strength at which you can actually feel pounding in your chest like a bass drum. But when the heavy stuff rolls in it’s like a paranormal force sucking the life right out of you.

if you don’t get control, and I mean fast, it can overwhelm you in a hurry. Saturday, I woke up with rapid heart rate, I got a sick feeling in my stomach and started sweating. I got up, trying not to wake Lee, and walked gingerly into the bathroom. I put cold water all over my face and became fearful with what was happening.

That ratchets up the adrenaline, and other chemicals that are going to work in your body, to deal with a falsely perceived, yet very real danger. I almost threw up in the sink, but took a deep breath and walked back into my bedroom thinking about calling the ambulance. I had taken a pill when I first woke up that my doctors prescribed for these events, but it hadn’t kicked in.

I sat on the floor and realized my fan was running. I put the fan in front of my wet face and the coolness was like a drug. It immediately slowed down the rising anxiety and allowed me to focus again on my breathing. Slowly in through the nose, deep and shaky, hold, and then slowly out through the mouth, quietly not to wake my wife. Repeat…repeat……….repeat.

I had a pillow, and Skol (yeah, that’s my bear) in my hand. No secrets here. I hold him like a child because I need to hold him like a child.

I sat there on the floor in the dark with the bathroom light on leaning against my bed with my pillow behind me and fan blowing in my face. I feel the alprazolam going to work and things beginning to slow down. It takes an hour for me to grab a hold of this craziness, and then pull myself quietly up into bed.

I fall asleep a few minutes later and wake up about four hours later, 30 minutes from leaving for my nephew’s baseball game in Norway.

This is just a snapshot of an hour in a terrifying haze that goes with being who I am right now.

Dr. Mike Maher at Counseling Associates, talks with me regularly. He tells me that I handled it… myself. I did the things I needed to do to get control. I tell him “this crap can stop right now.” He can’t guarantee anything, but tells me that I’m on the right road, and that we get better.

Thursday night I almost slipped into another episode. Lee picked up on it and asked me about it Friday morning. I told her Thursday at work I was looking at my keychain, where a medallion reads, “You’ll always be my hero and I’ll always be your little girl”. Kelsey gave that to me on her last Christmas with us.

I just rubbed it with my thumb and got a little sad, but went back to work watching Jason Crooks, Derek Doherty, and Justin Menke, and Chuck Banks work their magic with Bloodhounds and Hawks at Central Lee’s football field. It’s gonna be another fun year, btw.

I kept thinking about that medallion for a while, and then went to write the piece on the Hounds workout. At about 9:40 p.m. the scanner toned out for a fire on Storms Ct. I went flying out the door with my camera and scanner and then got behind some really slow traffic. (It’s all slow when you’re trying to get to a fire in Fort Madison, because those firefighters are so fast, its usually out when I get to the scene – it was).

So I don’t know if it was the rush of adrenaline from trying to get to the fire, or if it was the thought of Kelsey’s gift, but something put me on the wrong road again.

It started with a sinking feeling in my stomach, kind of like a low blood sugar, but I knew this wasn’t that. You start to do a systematic mental scan of your body trying to dismiss everything as “it’s in my head” which is exactly what it is. I did a 5K run/walk Wednesday and felt absolutely great.

I have had heart tests and blood tests and everything comes back perfect for a guy my age, except an elevated cholesterol/triglyceride panel, but high in the normal range. Lay off the Bs – beef, bread, and beer and tick up the exercise and fish and we’re all good in three months.

I finished my work at about midnight and went in and laid down and felt it start to come over me again. I took a pill… deep breathing… and I dozed off. Woke up 10 minutes later and Lee walked in. She laid next to me and put her hand on my bicep – off to sleep. It’s interrupted sleep but nothing I’m not used to. Maybe just roll over for a second for comfort and fall right back to sleep.

The point here is not beside anything. Mental illness is a real thing and writing about it here only has one goal. I have an audience and I’m going to tell you what this is like. It’s completely in my head, but that’s a powerful engine there. Your brain is your ally for sure, but it also can be a ferocious enemy when it’s out of whack.

Realization of loved ones suffering from mental illness is tricky, but reacting to that suffering is even more of a balancing act. It takes patience, and sometimes there are no words that help, but only add to the frustration. But being present with someone suffering is like medication. They may not even acknowledge you are there, but they know you are.

I also believe getting to a professional to help untie the knots and navigate the firing neurons in your head is paramount to learning to deal with the fear and desolation that comes with some of these illnesses.

I was always of the mindset, as was my family, that you rub some dirt on it, get up and get back in the game. Well, there’s that at times. But heavy trauma that comes with a tragedy, or combat, or firefighting, law enforcement, or loss, can’t be “toughened up”.

It takes time. My grief will go away when I die. Maybe. But my mental health is still an ingredient in the living part of my existentialism. So I have to deal with that daily, just like exercising the body, I must exercise the mind. That’s where you come in. Our readership is kind of my mental trampoline. I jump up and down on it every Sunday morning, sometimes giggling and laughing like a kid, and sometimes sad and fearful that I’ll eventually fall off.

I feel, and fear, that there are way more out there suffering from some degree of mental instability or illness, than any of us want to admit. I’m not saying you should inject yourself in everyone’s life who’s suffering, but if you’re already there… here’s your sign.

That’s heavy stuff and sorry there’s not much to smile about in this week’s edition – But that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at

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