I’ve developed this theory: one can tell a great deal about the worldview of a person based on his or her reaction to my home disc golf course, lovingly called the E.D.G.E. (Elwood Disc Golf Enthusiasts!) here in Indiana. One sector of people will instantly grumble, their focus consumed by the glass shards & scrap metal pieces that dot the course (more on that in a second!), what they judge as ineptitude or incompletion or whatever. The other group will lead with curiosity & celebration, acknowledging context (stick with me here!), attention paid instead to the short, technical, wooded wonder that is this course. Born naturally hyper-reactive & later suffering from a serious mental illness, I have spent the last decade of my life learning to be the latter, convinced that being a member of this disc golf community has given me the models, the modes, & the insight to be a more present, mindful person.
Our current mayor, Todd Jones, who has been tremendously supportive of local disc golf efforts, likes to emphasize Elwood’s classification as a city (at around 8,000 residents!), but it has all the markers of a Midwestern small town, half-balanced between poverty—meth problems, low employment, dietary issues—& opportunity, as local support is high & enthusiastic, at least in spirit, if not in funds, for anything that will add value to the lives of its citizens. A disc golf course carved out of the woods that overgrew the old city dump (hence the glass & metal that sifts to the top!) by a group of blue-collar men, truly a DIY labor of love, is an apt example of the good that arises from places like this.
That group—including folks like Aaron Hill, Trent McPhearson, & Alan Hazelwood—found each other at the Morse Beach course in Noblesville, Indiana, about 30 minutes away, as Hill told me on a previous episode of this podcast. At the time, it was one of the few courses within a short drive, the only in the now-booming Hamilton County, adjacent to the then-zero in our Madison County. As their crew grew & as opportunity likes to spring out, they were offered the woods behind the Elwood Athletic Club complex, home of the Babe Ruth baseball field & youth football field, where many of us in the next disc golf generation first caught the bug for playing sports.
Never having created a course, they led with passion & hard work, pulling at both ends, fundraising as they began building the course. As Hill remembers it, McPhearson & Hazelwood set up a booth at our yearly local fair, the Elwood Glass Festival, with baskets & putters to introduce folks to the sport, as well as taking donations for the in-progress course. The group, a dozen or so strong at this point, had started carving fairways, pulling ribbons through the dense honeysuckle & overgrown vines, cutting paths until lines began to emerge. With local businesses & other stoked area disc golfers pitching in funds to buy baskets, tee-pads, & signs, the first nine holes were complete in late 2010. A full year of this incredible effort had yielded a truly unique & bizarre course with some of the tightest lines around; it is slightly reminiscent of the legendary Honey Bear Hollow course up the road in Peru (our state’s first course!), & certainly nothing like the open, pitch-&-putt park course that birthed this group.
I was falling in love with disc golf at the time, having picked it up a year prior as a college student at Ball State University, Muncie’s beefy McCulloch Park being another local course. That next spring in 2011, following graduation & my first major psychological episode, I moved back in with my parents here in Elwood, clutching my creative writing degree & a nagging suspicion that something was going haywire with my brain. Young, lost, & oblivious, I learned quickly what a course like E.D.G.E. in a place like Elwood could offer: simply, a place to go & others to be around.
Something like this, I realized, stretched beyond disc golf, an opportunity to work through our struggles, celebrate our triumphs, & uncover a little more, day after day, hole after hole, about who we really are. When the course first opened, I saw many men from the area (like many clubs, we still hope to get more women & children involved!) who didn’t fit in other, more traditional places, such as the ball golf course down the road; they found, in the course, their own safe space for working out their demons & cultivating their angels—the ones struggling with addiction, the ones who had gained some weight & lost some confidence, the ones in need some positive company, a weirdo artist like me who was terrified about what the next decade would bring.
As the course extended to 18 holes a year later, thanks to E.D.G.E. member Travis Faucett convincing the company he worked for to bankroll the back nine, I soon left for Austin, Texas, chasing some answers, slowly losing my mind, & with a tub of discs in my trunk. I would play local events when back for holidays, meeting up with the E.D.G.E. guys to check out the other courses swiftly popping up in the area (like Madison County’s second 18-hole course in Anderson!). When I finally moved back to Elwood in the summer of 2019, I was more of a disc golf enthusiast than ever, returning with a wife, another creative writing degree, & more than a hunch about my increasing mood swings & psychotic symptoms like paranoia & rage-induced black-outs. I did not know much, but I knew that playing rounds at this course balanced my moods & grounded my awareness like nothing else did.
There’s an episode of King of the Hill where Hank Hill & his buddies push their friend & local conspiracy theorist Dale Gribble too far, pranking him by stealing his mower & concocting a story about its disappearance being tied to aliens & the U.S. government. Dale’s paranoia is intensified to an off-the-deep-end level, with a regretful Hank remarking that they dropped “extra stress on a structure not up to code in the first place.” In retrospect, that is what the spring of 2020 did to me. Already unable to work because of my unpredictable, psychotic symptoms, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed me into my house, away from my support system & emotional outlets, & deeper into my growing distrust of the world. To make matters worse, my wife, rightfully terrified of my “spells” (we didn’t know what they were yet!), left me less than a month into the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, this was my Dale Gribble moment, the structure of myself crumpling under the triple-threat stress of global crisis, personal grief, & my heightened disconnection from reality. I was hospitalized, first for a week & then a few other times for shorter stays that summer, overwhelmed by suicidal ideations. I was finally properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder (bipolar I, severe, with psychotic features, if you’re nasty). As BP Magazine (a great online resource for those curious about this illness!) teaches us, bipolar disorder is “a treatable illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy, and behavior...also known as manic depression because a person’s mood can alternate between the poles—mania (highs) and depression (lows).” This was it; similarly to how I saw myself in the men flinging discs through the ups-&-downs of life, I, at last, witnessed myself in a description of a mental illness & the experiences of others afflicted with it.
Like with any ailment, the treatment trajectory is never linear nor without its flailings / failings, necessarily aided by structure & support. Thankfully, our society has finally started to reckon with the millions of lives uncared for due to a lack of mental health treatment & awareness. A couple years before my rock bottom, professional basketball player Kevin Love published an essay in The Players’ Tribune called “Everyone is Going Through Something,” detailing his own panic attacks & urging us to be gentler with others & ourselves. I recall baskets at multiple courses cradling discs signed with the names of victims of suicide, asking players to throw it in their honor & leave it with the awareness of the tragic effects of depression & other mental illnesses. In the last year-and-a-half, I have witnessed how organically a community like ours can turn that awareness into action.
It starts with simply showing up. I obviously was not the only person whose mental health tanked in 2020, with 4-in-10 adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders a year into the pandemic, compared to only 1-in-10 the year prior, according to KFF. I also certainly was not the only one that turned to disc golf to restore some sanity, stretch some muscles, & be out in the world again; with disc golf arguably the top socially-distant, outside activity, disc golf rounds played nearly tripled in 2020 compared to 2019, according to UDisc. My eye test concurred, the parking lot of our small-town course seemingly never empty, the woods constantly buzzing with folks slinging plastic as a means to get through the day.
In my recovery, assisted by mood stabilizers & anti-psychotics on the medication side, as well as regular communication with a therapist & my support system (big shout-out to my parents & my best friends!) on the processing side, I kept hearing the same things: That I needed to develop a regular routine—sleep, diet, exercise, meditation, writing. That I needed to inform & stabilize my support system. That I needed to find meaningful work, not necessarily for money, but for structure, for confidence, for self-worth. Soon, I realized those necessary facets of my life were best practiced out at the E.D.G.E. course.
Within the community, I had a regular place to be, be it the two weekly E.D.G.E. leagues, the visiting leagues from our displaced friends in the Anderson Disc Golf Club (their home course sadly knocked out mid-pandemic!), or my regular Thursday morning round with my longtime friend, Josh Lee, who himself had found his way onto the course at the beginning of the pandemic. As I became more involved in this community, my support system widened to include several disc golfers who would check-in if I missed a league round (oh the importance of being seen!), who I could talk to casually about my journey during warm-up chats, & who I grew to trust as our conversations widened, as the rounds & the year progressed (I’m looking at you, Bourff brothers!). Likewise, I found meaningful work, such as running the Saturday morning random draw doubles that had become so important to me, or through participating in course maintenance in preparation for tournaments.
I often admit to people that it was impossible to know how troubled I actually was while in the midst of my madness, just now able to reflect on how truly imbalanced my last decade was psychologically; similarly, it is hard to measure how much I have grown while still very much engaged in the recovery process. As I attempt to bring my mindfulness practices onto the disc golf course, as I begin to write about these experiences, I find the markers of my rehabilitation not just in the improvement of my scores or rating, but in how I handle the rough rounds & high scores, how I have regained confidence as a community-oriented guy, how the number of connections I make & the knowing nods I give continue to accumulate.
The day before the 2020 Madison County Open, my grandfather died, I the last one to sit with him, to see him alive. I played the tourney the next morning, shooting as well as I could expect, stoked that Matt Bell was playing our little course, but the thing I most remember is carrying my sadness alone, simultaneously managing my disorder & freshly grieving my grandfather’s passing without substantial connections in the community to lean on. In contrast, I played this year’s tournament on the one-year anniversary of his death, & because of the community that had taken me in the previous year, I did not have to reflect in solitude. I sponsored a hole “In Loving Memory of Fred Tyner.” I talked to my card-mates & my other buddies who were playing about the importance of this date & the pressure I felt to play well. I chatted with the caring organizers, Colt Carpenter & Ashley Waterbury-Carpenter, about the reality of my mental illness & the steps I am taking to manage it (hello sobriety!). This sort of confidence & transparency would not have been possible less than a year previous, me teetering on the edge of taking my own life.
Could another course have had the same effect? Sure, absolutely. But the fact is, melodramatic as it sounds, the Elwood Disc Golf Enthusiasts saved my life by giving me a regular, welcoming place to go & in offering structure within which to practice my self-care & personal growth. Now itself stretched to 27 hard-hitting holes, I see the course working its magic on others still, offering folks like Roy McCormick what it has gifted me. With his own equipment, McCormick (always with a smile on his face!) spends countless hours of his retirement doing maintenance at the course—mowing, weed-whacking, trimming trees, picking up broken bottles & old brake pads. It is in people like Hill & McCormick that I find the kind of man I want to become & finally, thankfully, feel it is possible to be.
This course saved me because it is so much like me—dotted with the stuff of its past, cared for by the people who keep showing up, growing because of those same folks. I want to be a third kind of person, the one continuously in awe of the parking lot stretched full of cars & trucks with disc golf bumper stickers, the one that tells the league organizers & tournament directors thank you every time, the one that, first & foremost, celebrates the strange & beautiful Elwood Disc Golf Enthusiasts. Only then will I enter this ass-kicking course, sure to never forget the debris & what it symbolizes.