Brock Holt and his wife Lakyn waited in a small hospital room following the birth of their first child, Griffin, in December 2016.
Their newborn boy was having some trouble breathing. The doctors found some fluid in his lungs and determined the situation to be relatively minor. But before that clarity arrived for mom and dad, he was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.
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At the time, dad had trouble breathing as well.
“I had a panic attack in the hospital,” Holt said. “There were six or seven doctors in there. [Griffin] wasn’t crying, and they took him over to the little incubator thing. The doctors and nurses are just like pst pst pst, whispering to each other. And me and Lakyn are standing over there like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? What’s going on? Tell us what’s going on!’ They’re like, ‘Hey, Lakyn, hold him for a little bit. We got to take him to the NICU, they got to do chest X-rays.’
“They didn’t really tell us what was going on, so we were all freaking out. I mean, it was a stressful time. And seeing Lakyn go through it — she had kind of a difficult labor, labor and delivery. So seeing her in that situation and not being able to do anything as her husband, it was a stressful time for me. I panicked.”
Holt was lying next to his wife in a chair. He couldn’t catch his breath. Lakyn noticed, rolled over and asked what was wrong.
“I don’t know,” Holt remembered telling her. “I can’t like, I can’t catch my breath — I can’t catch my breath.”
His wife called a nurse, who told Holt he could go down to the emergency room. He chose to leave the small hospital room for a time, opting for fresh air instead. Breathing outside, plus the eventual good news about Griffin, indeed stemmed his anxiety.
But that was not the only panic attack Holt has ever had. What he did not fully understand the day his son was born was that anxiety was a part of his life, and had been.
For one longtime Red Sox player, a confusing and frightening journey through concussions and issues with his vestibular system — the sensory system that allows for balance and orientation — also provided a window into his psychological health.
Sharing time at second base in Dustin Pedroia’s place, Holt, 30, has played 51 games and is batting .304 with a .382 on-base percentage and .419 slugging percentage. It’s the best year yet in a career that includes an All-Star selection in 2015.
Still, the past two years were arduous and hellish for Holt, and easily could have ended the versatile infielder’s career. Concussions, vertigo and problems seeing kept him out of the lineup and out of sorts.
Holt's OPS is .801 after going 3-for-3 on Monday in a win over the Nationals, his third three-hit game of the season. In 2017, his OPS was .548 in 64 games. The most hits he had in a game were two.
Holt had known concussions in 2014 and 2016. Last year, Holt was listed on the disabled list with symptoms of vertigo.
“We just found something that’s not right with my vestibular system," Holt said.
Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was unsure Holt would ever return to form.
“Brock went through a lot. The way he has come back and performed, I’m very happy for him," Dombrowski said. “Any time somebody’s dealing with concussions, I can’t say you know he’s going to come back. In fact, you just don’t know. We thought he would, but I was involved in some meetings with him where doctors were involved and talking to him and so, you just never know about that.”
Holt would have some good days last year as he recovered. Then those days would be followed by ones those were he couldn’t even catch a ball.
“Just couldn’t track it. Like if it was up here, it was fine,” Holt said, holding out his hand in front of his chest. “If [the throw] was low and I had to like follow it with my head...it was a weird thing to go through. There were times where I’m like, if this doesn’t get 100 percent better, like, I’m not going to be around very long. ‘Cause I can’t perform.
“I had zero — I didn’t have any fun last year. It wasn’t fun for me. I’ve always enjoyed playing baseball. I think it shows this year on the field.”
There are still some things Holt cannot do, or chooses to avoid, out of caution.
Some Sox players visited the Mall of America during the team’s trip to Minneapolis last month. Pedroia and Holt were on the excursion, as were Pedroia’s children. They asked Holt to ride with them on one of the famous mall’s rollercoasters, but he had to tell them no.
“I try to stay away from stuff like that and try to stay on level ground,” Holt said. “‘Cause sometimes I still get car sick, stuff like that. On the airplane every now and then [as well]. So I try to stay away from things that aren’t on solid ground...I’m pretty sure if I tried to ride a roller coaster I’d get off and I’d be jacked up.”
Holt won’t go on a boat, either. So even as baseball success has returned, to say his life is entirely back to normal now would be a stretch.
The turning point in his recovery, he said, came in the final week or two of 2017. A combination of rest, exercises and a trial-and-error process with different medications finally cleared the way to a productive offseason.
“It’s a little bit of like an anxiety pill plus it helps with the symptoms that I was having,” said Holt, who wasn’t sure of his medication’s name. “I switched medicines probably three or four different times throughout the process. And this one has seemed to work the best, so, you know we tried different dosages and stuff like that. It seems to be working, and I’ll continue to do it as long as I need to.”
“I think I had had anxiety in the past,” Holt said. “I just didn’t know that that’s what it was. So, there’s been instances in my life that have given me really bad anxiety that I didn’t know that’s what it was and I just kind of held everything in.”
It's understandable why issues with one’s vestibular system can cause anxiety. An unseen problem that leads to disorientation, dizziness, and myriad concerns is a frightening development.
“It was the anxious feeling of, am I ever going to get better?” Holt said. “It was the anxious feeling of, every five seconds, someone coming up and asking how I felt, and me not knowing how to explain it to them. And if I did explain it to them, knowing that they didn’t understand.
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“Just a lot of stress built up, built up, built up. Just not being able to perform, do what I love to do. So, it was a lot of built up stress that in the end probably made things a little worse than they could have been.”
But the relationship between anxiety and the vestibular system can run both ways. Pre-existing anxiety can exacerbate issues one encounters with their vestibular system.
Michael Collins, a concussion expert at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, guided Holt through his recovery process. Collins worked with catcher David Ross when Ross was with the Sox, and has consulted many other baseball players, too.
Holt just didn't consider that his feelings were folded into his vestibular system, that they were relevant.
“I don’t really talk about a whole lot of stuff,” Holt said. “Talked to Dr. Collins and started saying some stuff. Mentioning some things. He was like, ‘Woah, why haven’t you said that before?’ I was like, ‘I didn’t think it was a big deal.'
“It turns out that could have been something that increased my symptoms or didn’t help the situation. It was. But I think that’s why we switched the medicine and started taking what I’m taking now. It seems to have helped."
And given him perspective on other moments in life, as well.
These days, Holt said he does not participate in talk therapy, but more readily shares his feelings, telling those close to him what’s on his mind rather than bottling up his concerns.
Vestibular issues are frightening for anyone, never mind a baseball player who relies on such precise motor skill. The need to concurrently address the depths of one’s emotions and reactions — the discovery of anxiety in the same process — only makes Holt’s recovery and on-field success more remarkable.
“Now that I kind of know what was going on, I know that there are certain things that I need to talk about,” Holt said. “I’m more open with people. I’m more open with my wife. I don’t really try to hold things in. I mean, she’s the one I can tell anything to. There were times when you just kind of hold it in and hopefully it goes away."