Hitting Rock Bottom

I’ve never given a lot of thought to angels and whether or not we each have a guardian angel looking over us.  I’m one of those “evidence” guys who must see it to believe it.

But now I believe in angels, because one came into my life on November 5, 2012 when I hit rock bottom.  In the old days they would say I had a “nervous breakdown” nowadays the diagnosis is “a severe anxiety episode”.

Very few people know about this dark period in my life, and those who know me best will be shocked by this story, but here’s what happened:

Bill Byrne was my boss for 20 years at the University of Nebraska and Texas A&M.  He is a great leader who builds confidence in those working for him.  In the spring of 2012, Bill told me he was “retiring” as Athletic Director at A&M.  He wasn’t getting along with the University Administration despite leading the Aggies to the most successful 10 years in school history.

At the end of the conversation I asked Bill what his advice was to me and he replied, “I’d sharpen your resume.”

College athletics is just like most big corporations…when new leadership takes over, many times they bring in their own team to run the organization.  Look at what happens when a new college or pro football head coach is hired, most of the time the new coach brings in his own assistants.  The former assistant coaches are fired, not because they aren’t good at their jobs, but because the new coach must have complete trust in his assistants and their ability to execute his game plan and style of coaching.

But I didn’t sharpen my resume.  I liked it at Texas A&M and I didn’t want to leave.  I had confidence I would be able to “win over” the new Athletic Director.  And even if that didn’t work out, I knew I would be able to find a new job with another college or professional team.

The new Athletic Director at A&M took over in late August, and almost immediately my anxiety level began to rise.  He had a different approach than I was used to.  He didn’t like some of the things we had been doing the past 10 years, and he wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions or place blame.

For two months, my solution was to work even harder to demonstrate my talent.  60, 80, even 100 hours a week.  I knew I was good at my job and I knew I could prove myself.  But I could also sense I wasn’t going to be part of the new administrative team no matter how hard I worked and that brought on even more anxiety.

On Tuesday night, October 30, 2012, I brought up the idea to Zach for the first time of Maria and me moving to New York City to help him open some new Schmackary’s stores.  He replied, “Would you really dad?  I would love to have you a mom here with me and I could really use your help in growing my business.”  Maria was ready to pack her bags right then and there, but I wasn’t willing to say good-bye to a career that I loved dearly without giving it some serious thought.

As fate would have it, the very next day, Wednesday October 31, 2012, I had a major falling out with the new A&M Athletic Director.  I’ve never been shy at sharing my opinions, and when I openly disagreed with several of the things the A.D. was doing, an argument ensued and continued throughout the afternoon.  When the A.D. came into my office at 5 pm and closed the door, I was certain he was going to fire me.  He didn’t, but I knew then my days at Texas A&M were numbered.

The next five days are a blur.  The wall of confidence that I had built up over the past 50 years quickly came crashing down.  I felt like Humpty Dumpty…I had a great fall…and I couldn’t put myself back together again.

Never before had I felt this way.  Hopeless, vulnerable, worried sick, despair, desperation…all words that describe the helplessness I was feeling.  The emotions were powerful and overwhelming.

I knew I was in trouble, so the next day I did a very smart thing and went to the A&M Crisis Intervention Center.  They too could see I was an emotional wreck, so the counselor quickly made an appointment for me to see a local psychologist who is expert in the field of anxiety management.

The appointment was for noon four days later, on Monday, November 5, 2012.  I had a meeting scheduled that morning with women’s basketball head coach Gary Blair and a couple members of his staff.  I was in charge of running the 9 am meeting but my anxiety was overwhelming.  I was sweating, couldn’t concentrate, and was getting sicker by the minute.  After just 15 minutes, I said I needed to leave and Coach Blair agreed saying, “Jeff you need to see a doctor, you don’t look well at all.”

By the time I went to Dr. Kathleen Huston’s office on the outskirts of College Station at noon, I was ready for a straight jacket.  I expected her to call an ambulance and haul me off to the nearest mental hospital.  I really didn’t see any other options at that point.  I was at the pinnacle of my “severe anxiety episode.”

When I entered her comfortable living room style office with large glass windows looking out into a peaceful wooded expanse, I was surprised at Dr. Huston’s appearance.  She is a frail woman, with a weak, breathy voice.  She has trouble walking because of a muscle disorder she has suffered from for 20 years.  But Kathleen’s eyes are full of joy and encouragement.  Her smile is warm and genuine.  Her words are wise and comforting.

In just one hour with Dr. Huston, I left her office much more relaxed as she assured me that what I was going through was not uncommon and that she could help.  Dr. Huston gave me some breathing techniques and other tips designed to help make me relax.

She also sent me to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Lorene Henry, who spent an hour with me the same afternoon.  Dr. Henry prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs for me to start taking immediately.

That evening, I was already feeling much better and after just a couple more sessions with Dr. Huston, I could sense I was on the road to recovery.  For a couple of months, I met with Dr. Huston twice a week and then for the last three months I was in College Station, we cut our sessions back to once a week.

She helped me so much, and her wise, kind advice is still working wonders as I recall her many lessons which are now helping me cope with the big c.

Dr. Huston would laugh at me calling her an angel, and in her irreverent way she’d likely say, “Hell no, Jeff, I am absolutely no damn angel!”  But in my darkest hour, that’s exactly what Dr. Kathleen Huston was…an angel from God.

So yes, I do now believe in angels…but I think God uses people as angels…and not divine creatures from heaven to help us when we need it most.

On January 23, 2013, the time had come for a mutual parting of the ways with Texas A&M.  There was no drama or hard feelings because by then Maria and I were certain that we would move to New York City and start working at Schmackary’s as co-owners.  We were in the process of buying out Zach’s former business partner which allowed Zach to have majority ownership and complete control over his business.

Last December while in New York City, Texas A&M Athletic Director Eric Hyman visited Schmackary’s and was very interested in learning about my son’s thriving business.  Eric also gave me a Kyle Field memento as a token of appreciation for my ten years of service at A&M.

Thanks to Doctors Huston and Henry, my mental health was also restored in just a couple of months, and while my confidence will never quite be the same I know that I am stronger mentally for having gone through this experience.

I feel absolutely no shame in admitting that I needed the help of a psychologist and a psychiatrist to pull me out of a deep hole of anxiety (and probably depression).  These type of medical professionals are a tremendous resource and the drugs they use are not mind altering at all.  Like almost all medicines, they are there to help restore you to health.

In one of our early appointments, Dr. Huston recorded a 10-minute “relaxation session” on my iPhone for me to use at home.  I still listen to the recording from time-to-time to relax…but also because I like to listen to the voice of an angel.

Dr. Huston gave me permission to share her recording with my “riders.”  If you choose to listen to the link below, I suggest you put on a pair of headphones, lie down in bed or on your most comfortable chair, and follow what she says. If you do, I have no doubt 10 minutes later you will be more relaxed and have less anxiety.

Medical/Personal update: 

I feel great!

Twelve days ago I wrote that my strength was only 25 percent of normal.  Well since that time, my strength has been awesome and I would now put it at 60 percent (or higher) of my normal self.  Hmmm…maybe all those prayers being said on my behalf are really working!  Thanks…and keep ‘em coming!

We had a busy and fun-filled Memorial Day weekend and I’ve been on the go non-stop with no ill effects.  The highlight of the weekend was a family photo shoot with free-lance photographer Michaela Dowd.  Kay is a former HuskerVision student who has worked as a producer for ABC news and television in New York City the past 12 years.

Kay took pictures of Maria, Zach, and me at Central Park, Times Square, and at Schmackary’s.  The day ended with some “fun” pictures in our kitchen having a powdered sugar fight.  I came out on the losing end as Maria and Zach ganged up on me.

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