Emotional Rescue

Once again, this time with a golfer's panic attack, a sports figure helps put a human face on a mental health issue too often ignored
November 26, 2012

Charlie Beljan doesn't seem like a revolutionary. He's a gangly golfer from suburban Phoenix who crudely called the President of the United States a "D Bag" in a preelection Tweet. Beljan's man lost on Election Day, but five days later the cowboy in a visor—desperate for a paycheck that would keep him on the PGA Tour, and playing through a series of televised panic attacks—won his first Tour event. Overnight, his public remarks—this time, about his condition—became useful. He was suddenly the professional golfer helping to put a human face on the issue of debilitating anxiety.

The underlying message was moving and powerful: You can have a mental-health issue and still go out and beat the world. PSAs don't get any better than that.

Beljan's win made you wonder how often the pressure of professional sports, to say nothing of the anxiety caused by everyday modern life, results in panic attacks. More, surely, more than we could ever know. A breakthrough, really. Thanks, Chuck.

The athlete on display, whether willfully or not, is powerfully effective at taking sensitive health issues out of the dark corners and into the midfield sunshine. The eternal king in this category is Earvin Johnson. Every day, Magic shows the world you can be HIV-positive and lead a healthy, happy and productive life.

Tiger Woods's serial infidelity, and his apology for it after a stint at a Mississippi treatment center that specializes in sex addiction, led to some semiserious national conversations about whether sex addiction is an actual mental-health issue or simply man's natural state.

Of course, when it comes to social stigmas and health issues, the two heavyweights are now and always will be alcohol abuse and drug abuse. But look at how our collective understanding of those issues has evolved over the last quarter-century.

Through word and deed, Dennis Eckersley showed us you can be a recovering alcoholic and one of the best pitchers ever. (He went into recovery in '87, then went on to pitch 12 more big league seasons.) You gotta love that Josh Hamilton: stud outfielder, recovering drug addict. What would Mitt Romney have paid for the 11.1 million All-Star votes fans gave the slugger this year? My name is Josh, I'm a drug addict, and I'm trying my best. People understand. When the choice is fight or flight and you fight, you inspire more people than you could ever count.

Unless you live in a cave without Wi-Fi, you probably think of drug addiction or alcoholism—or having HIV or an anxiety disorder—as, above all else, a health issue. This is progress. Look at the back of your insurance card (if you're lucky enough to have an insurance card). There's a toll-free number on it just for mental-health/substance-abuse issues, right? Wasn't always like that. Surely some thanks should go to Eck & Co.

And now comes a whole new generation of reluctant rabble-rousers. Charlie Beljan and Royce White and Dale Earnhardt Jr. should have a beer summit (nonalcoholic) and compare notes about the states of their heads and march on out, Mod Squad--style.

Royce White is a supremely talented basketball player, a first-round pick by the Rockets in this year's NBA draft. But he's not playing for the Rockets now. He was assigned to the D-League, but rejected the assignment and has not been reporting to practice as he deals with the most pressing issues of his life, namely his anxiety disorder and his obsessive-compulsive disorder. He's not going on 60 Minutes and showing his medicine chest. But he is standing up and saying that he needs to deal with "my health." He's trying to learn how to get on a plane. It may be easy for you, but for many, including White, it's not, and that's the point.

Earnhardt suffered two concussions in a six-week span in September and October that led to anxiety about returning to the track. Here's a NASCAR icon, who races in a flame-retardant jumpsuit that bears the logo of the National Guard, who took time off from work because, as he said, "I was mentally a mess." His road back has included a physical and mental exercise program. Nobody's calling Junior chicken. He's being praised for talking about the importance of mental health.

You could see golf, particularly, creating all manner of anxiety. And where there is anxiety there is self-medication. Robert Garrigus finished two shots behind Beljan at the Disney tournament, formally known as the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic. Garrigus won the event himself two years ago, his only Tour win. In victory Garrigus was making a PSA, too, of a different nature. Garrigus is a recovering drug addict, and the story of his win was ultimately about how drugs were once the highest priority in his life, and now they're not.

As for Beljan, the various public depositories in the blogoverse are filled with praise for him, and for a cause that's now attached to him.

"Congratulations!" wrote one poster on pgatour.com. "As a long-time sufferer of panic attacks, I love that you compete at this level and am thrilled for you. Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong can be very helpful. Also, avoid caffeine."

Have you ever heard of Qigong? We haven't, and we're gonna take a wild guess that Charlie Beljan hasn't either. Turns out, it's a Chinese form of movement and meditation.

Whole worlds are being revealed, right before our open eyes.

SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE

Kenichi Ito of Japan, who says he spent nine years developing his technique, modeled on the gait of the African patas monkey, set a world record (17.47 seconds) for running 100 meters on all fours.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW PHOTOKOJI SASAHARA/AP (ITO)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)