By Dave Ruden
STAMFORD — The attacks started without any warning, causing Kelsey Santagata to experience breathing difficulties and to break out in sweat.
Santagata was in need of a sanctuary, a safe haven, but it is hard to hide from your own body.
And the opponent was not someone to overpower on the basketball court.
This was real life.
“Except for my friends I don’t think anyone else knew what was going on,” said Santagata, a senior at Stamford High School. “I would be all over the place. It was hard being in public because it was embarrassing.”
Nineteen FCIAC girls basketball teams will begin their seasons on Wednesday night. It is hard to imagine any player being more appreciative about being back on the court than Santagata, the Black Knights’ star 5-10 forward.
Three months ago, just two weeks into the start of the new school year, Santagata left Stamford to attend the Mountain Valley Treatment Center in Pike, New Hamspshire, for what was diagnosed as panic disorder. Santagata was uncertain how long her stay would be, but returning for the start of basketball practices last month was a motivating factor.
“I told my mom the one condition on going was to be back for basketball,” Santagata said during a candid interview last week. “She told me ‘Then make it happen.’ ”
Initially reluctant about such a drastic move, Santagata said she finally realized the panic attacks, which started four years ago, were occurring too frequently and had become too debilitating.
“For me it was hard accepting that, OK, it was time to go,” Santagata said.
Santagata said the attacks came without warning, and without reason. They just came, and she was unequipped with coping mechanisms, leaving her self-conscious and scared.
“I would just start feeling anxious, like I couldn’t breathe, and my heart would be racing,” Santagata said. “That would be my biggest fear, that I would stop breathing. It was really hard.”
Santagata would sometimes just get up in the middle of class and go to the nurse’s office. Sometimes she left campus, often calling her parents. There were, she said, many trips to doctors’ offices and even the hospital.
“It was hard because I had no idea what my trigger points were,” Santagata said. “If I went some place, I’d worry if something would happen. It was hard because it would stop me from my every day life.”
Santagata said at first the attacks struck once or twice a week, but became frequent last summer.
“I would get them every day, and nights were the hardest for me,” Santagata said. “I was constantly worrying about worrying. I wouldn’t want to do something because I was afraid it would give me a panic attack. On Fridays and Saturdays people would want to know why I wasn’t going out. It was hard to explain it because people didn’t know how hard it could be. I would sometimes need to be with one of my parents to feel safe. It was hard for them because they had to stop their lives. It was hard for all of us, not just me. It was affecting my whole family. That’s when it got to the point I said lets get help.”
A family friend recommended Mountain Valley, and Santagata left Stamford in early September, not to return until mid-November.
“My goal originally was a month, but I didn’t fully give it my all until halfway through my treatment,” Santagata said. “I was really stubborn and would say I’m going home or that it was not for me. I missed my parents. It was hard accepting help until I was like, I’m not getting out of here by saying I’m fine and staying in my room all day. I had to push through.”
The same determination that makes her such a dominant basketball player was transferred to helping herself.
Santagata said during her stay there were different modules, which included therapy, academic time and fitness. The facility is located on a farm, so there was also working with animals and horseback riding.
“It was a very relaxing setting, which was nice,” Santagata said.
Most importantly, Santagata said she learned to deal with her panic attacks in a way that would appear counterintuitive.
“It is a bit of reverse psychology, but I almost have to try and give myself an attack to deal with it,” she said. “If I start feeling anxiety I just say to myself it’s cool, and it goes down. I would go to my room and breathe fast or spin around or do rapid swallowing and you say you are going to stop breathing. But then you say you are fine and it comes back down. At first it was hard, like no way. I’m not giving myself attacks. This is what I’m trying to get away from.”
Santagata had limited contact with the outside world, and her inner circle remained concerned.
“I realized at times she would leave school but I didn’t realize it was that bad until her mom told me,” said Diane Burns, who after two years as an assistant is the Black Knights’ new coach. “She would leave school and feel really bad about it. I was more worried about her graduating and going to school next year.”
Burns said she has noticed a difference in her star player since practice started.
“She has a confidence about herself,” Burns said. “She’s more confident in the halls and on the basketball court. Her reactions to things are different.”
Santagata said she still experiences attacks, but they are less frequent and, now that she has the means to deal with them, don’t last as long.
“I’m more relaxed,” she said. “The biggest thing for me is how I react to things. It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it. I’m more calm and not worried about what’s next.”
Santagata is back on track academically and will graduate on time. Stamford’s season opens Wednesday night at Bridgeport Central. Santagata is a big reason the Black Knights are expected to be a contender in the FCIAC this season, and she is getting looks from a number of colleges.
Basketball didn’t help Santagata get over her anxiety issues, but it served as part of a finish line to get through her treatment.
“Basketball was the main thing that kept me grounded throughout this,” she said. “It’s the one thing that stayed true.”