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Beljan learning to deal with panic attacks

Charlie Beljan
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KAPALUA, Hawaii – Charlie Beljan leans back in the wicker chair, a drink in his right hand serving as much for refreshment as a prop, something to keep him occupied while pouring his heart out. A gentle breeze blows through the air. Behind him, not far off in the distance are, in sequential order, a pool, palm trees, a beach and, finally, the Pacific Ocean. Wearing a white short-sleeve button-down, Bermuda shorts and sandals, he is the very picture of relaxation.

It is exactly 4,706 miles from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to this idyllic spot on Maui, but for Beljan the journey has been so much longer. His victory at Disney World – of all places for such a story – wavered between improbable and impossible. Stricken by vicious panic attacks that Friday, his heart felt like it was going to jump through his skin. He thought he might die right there. He sat down in fairways, was whisked away by an ambulance and returned the next day, only to have the panic attacks return as well.

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Any other week, Beljan just would've quit. Would've gotten himself healthy and tried again later. But this was his last chance at keeping a PGA Tour card, at providing a better life for his wife and their 7-week-old son. And so between heart palpitations, he kept playing and kept hitting great shots and kept making putts and now here he is, seven weeks later, a champion sipping a drink on a wicker chair by the ocean.

If there is a clear line of demarcation that denotes making it as a professional golfer, it lies right here. This week Beljan will compete in a no-cut, guaranteed-money tournament, the proverbial dream come true after battling on the mini-tour circuit for so many years.

That doesn’t underlie the fact that he is still a work in progress. If Disney told the story of the golfer who overcame physical and mental anguish to win its tournament, the credits would roll as Beljan held the trophy aloft in one hand and cradled his young son in the other. Life doesn’t work that way, though.

After winning, he went home to Scottsdale, Ariz., and answered every phone call. His usual 37 minutes per month exploded to beyond his coverage plan, resulting in a $680 bill. He bought a car, but traded in two others to help offset the cost. He also bought a bus to travel between tournaments with his young family.

It was all the kind of stuff golfers do after their first victory. Then finally, after about a week, he played golf again. And the panic attacks returned.

“I was walking my home course and on the eighth hole, man, all of a sudden it just hit me,” he explains. “I freaked out a little bit. A hole later, I was talking to my buddies and it just disappeared. We finished the round and I haven’t had any since then. But it was scary. I was like, ‘This isn’t going away. What am I going to have to do?’”

What he did was seek help. Doctors at the hospital in Florida had assured him that there was nothing wrong physically, that despite feeling like his heart was racing way too fast, it was perfectly normal. So he explored other avenues to curb the attacks.

Eating is a big part of it. Not just nutritious eating, but any kind. Fuel for his system, he calls it. Something that could have prevented the initial issues long ago.

“I hate food. I hate to eat,” he says. “The day that happened to me, come my tee time at 1:00, it had been like 20 hours since I’d eaten anything. I just don’t like to eat. But then all of a sudden, you start to spasm and one thing leads to another.”

So he’s eating now, which may sound only logical, but never was before. It’s been like giving glasses to a man who could never properly see. “Now that I have the proper fuel for my body,” he maintains, “I feel great.”

He’s taking medication, too. Beljan is now on doctor-prescribed Xanax, which helps him “to chill out a little bit.” Once he cleared the drug with the PGA Tour and found that it was acceptable under the current policy, he started taking it regularly.

“I think it’s helped a little bit,” he says. “[Tuesday] I forgot to take it and the first four or five holes, I was like, I don’t want to be here. I want to get out of here. I was just moving a million miles an hour.”

There’s probably some advice his psychiatrist would offer in that situation. Yes, Beljan has started seeing a psychiatrist, just a couple of times so far. He is the rare athlete – hell, the rare human – who not only understands his flaws and seeks treatment, but isn’t afraid to let people know about it.

“I’m just as open with him as anybody,” he says of the two sessions. “He gave me a couple of different hints. Luckily I haven’t had to use any of that stuff yet, but it was nice to get it out there, talk about it and have somebody tell me that I’m not absolutely a lunatic. That’s what I’ve learned – a lot of people suffer from this. I couldn’t imagine going through this on a daily basis.”

After being rushed to the hospital after his Friday round at Disney, Beljan was worried that others would think he was exaggerating his issues. Or even worse, faking them. Like most people who suffer from panic attacks, he assumed that they weren’t normal, that he would be labeled as something of a freak for breaking down like that, especially in such a public spotlight.

Since then, he’s come to understand that it’s a common affliction. Not just from the psychiatrist or from reading up on it, but from those who have struggled with the same problems, albeit without the attention he received.

“The mail that I’ve gotten, people saying, ‘You were such an inspiration, I fight these every day,’ that’s what’s been really cool,” he explains. “To have all these people say they fight these on a daily basis and it was cool to see mine in the public eye, that’s an inspiration to me. It’s an inspiration to bring that to the surface and make other people aware of it.”

With that, Beljan sits back in the wicker chair and takes a measured sip from his drink. He casually looks over his shoulder and notices the Pacific Ocean once more. A faint smile subconsciously emerges on his lips.

The view isn’t just a reminder of where he is. It’s a reminder of where he’s been and where he wants to remain.