I suppose this has been a long time coming. My college advisor, a somewhat cranky, overbearing man by the name of Timothy Cavanaugh, once told me, "You're not the sharpest pencil in the drawer, Mr. Helbert; but you are the hardest working."
That stuck with me. Coming from him, it meant more than I could ever say. He was nearly universally despised by my fellow math majors: he was unrelentingly tough, took no shit from anyone, typically assigned between fifty and seventy problems every night, collected homework every day, and actually graded it. Harshly. With a red pen. Big, easily seen marks and letters. At least for me, and at least for the first year or so, those letters were usually D's and F's.
Students who ended up in his class typically dropped right away. I vowed to stay. I figured if I could handle Dr. Cavanaugh, I could handle anybody. That turned out to be true. I graduated with an A- grade point average; and in the final, and toughest, classes, I was besting the true brains, the ones who came into the BA program way ahead of me. As a point of personal pride, that remains one of my very highest.
I worked my ass off to find the right answers.
I'm not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. I have never had any illusions otherwise. I have done my best to allow my limited intellect to find its own passions and pursue those as unhindered as possible. I didn't major in mathematics to get a high-paying job, to the dismay of the awful girl I was dating at the time; I majored because mathematics has always fascinated me. Not in any academic sense: more in a philosophical sense, in a rapturous sense. There are things called numbers, and there is an evolving system to manipulate them called mathematics; and somehow we can understand--we can sense--both, and we can use both to build bridges and send people into space, among a zillion other things. That's absolutely fascinating to me.
I applied to graduate schools after I earned my Bachelor of Arts, and got accepted to a number of them. I chose the University of New Mexico and their Applied Mathematics Master's degree. The year was 1985. I flunked out in 1986. I applied again to the Applied Statistics program at Colorado State University in 1987, and flunked out in 1988. It wasn't because I was overwhelmed with the course material or its demands. It was because I was a destroyed human being, and I refused to recognize my limitations.
I was nineteen when my mother called to me. It was past two in the morning. I barely heard her voice. The year--1981.
She was collapsing. I hurriedly got dressed, got her in the station wagon (she was still in her nightgown), and roared out of the driveway.
The local hospital wouldn't see her, which was why she didn't call an ambulance. It was five miles away, but its physicians didn't know how to treat her condition, which was a rare form of adult muscular dystrophy. That left Denver General Hospital seventy-three point six miles to the south, literally the only facility in the state that could properly treat her.
She'd been suffering since 1969--twelve years. Her condition, as I well knew, was steadily deteriorating, but had been accelerating the past calendar year. I had a front-row seat to all of it, and was, most times, her only caregiver, despite having four siblings, all of whom refused, repeatedly and in turn, to help. She told me between gagging blood into a bucket I'd grabbed before leaving that she had spent half an hour trying to rouse my brother and sister, who refused to get up to help. That may seem impossible to you, granted that you have a conscience of any kind (no sure bet), but it was true. She finally called me--typically the only one to lift a hand. My two older sisters lived out of town; but that didn't excuse them: they too would've blown her off, and did, for the most part, until her death three years later.
I merged on the interstate and rolled the beast up to ninety and set the cruise control. I'd long before figured if I got pulled over by the state patrol, they'd give me an escort once they assessed her condition. Mom lay her head in my lap and shook uncontrollably with fever. She puked up blood and bile a couple of times--the bucket was between my legs, making driving difficult (not least because of the puke's stench); but I really didn't have a choice. Eventually she went silent, and I worried that she wasn't breathing. I couldn't rouse her. She'd gotten cold, her face a horrific blue tinge. Bloody puke had dried on her chin.
I sprinted into the emergency room at DGH. Nurses and doctors hurried out, got her out of the car, and strapped her to a gurney and wheeled her inside. I was used to the drill. I followed closely behind.
"We'll be with you shortly," said a nurse, pointing me to the waiting room, one I'd already spent countless hours in. I nodded and let her go. It was a true miracle Mom was still alive.
The same magazines were waiting for me. I remembered all of them. I'd read them cover to cover multiple times. The TV was on, despite it being almost four in the morning, the sound turned low. I sat in the same chair I sat in the last time I was here maybe eight months ago and began another wait for "shortly" to expire, which I knew in nurse lingo meant up to thirteen hours.
It was fourteen this time--just after 6 PM--when a different nurse came to talk to me. By that point the waiting room was packed full.
"This way," she said after calling my name.
I stood and followed her, expecting, as per previous experiences, to be escorted to the elevators and up to the ICU wing. Instead she took me into emergency itself, down a narrow corridor lined with cubicles of dull plastic yellow pull-curtains, to a distant one on the left.
She pulled the curtain. Mom was sitting up, the gurney adjusted so she could, oxygen tubes in her nose and IVs in her arms. She looked exhausted but awake; she forced a weak smile to her lips as I came in. Some of her color had come back.
I kissed her cheek. It was hot, as though she was running a fever, which I was certain she was.
There were no cell phones back then, no Internet. Still, my brother and sister surely would have seen that she was gone, that the stationwagon was gone, and, maybe, just maybe, intuited that I had brought her here. But no one had bothered showing up. Not one of them. Which didn't surprise me, because they rarely had in times past, doing so only out of some twisted sense of familial obligation, not love.
She and I had long since passed the point of greeting each other; asking "How are you?" was pointless and ludicrous. She was fourteen goddamned hours in a gurney in Denver General Hospital's motherfucking emergency room!
I asked instead: "When are they going to get you out of here?"
She rasped barely above a whisper: "They're waiting on a bed in ICU to open up."
She reached for my hand. "Go on home, honey. There's no point in you waiting any longer than you have."
Leaving her seemed so monstrous. It seemed so them. All of them.
"I'll stay a while longer."
In the following three hours I saw gunshot victims being hurried through, doctors frantically working to keep them alive; in the cubicle next to ours a little while after I'd sat down, a drug overdose victim was hurried in--
"Swallow! Swallow! Swallow!" as nurses forced the tube down his throat in order to pump his stomach. The sounds of retching and struggling; I heard code blues go off and people rushing by; I heard people crying; I heard death.
And I was getting used to it. At nineteen.
I left her a little after nine. I held her close, always, always, always terrified that I'd never get to hold her again. She gave me her trademark brave smile and said with no rancor whatsoever, "Tell the others I'm here," then kissed my cheek with her dry and cracking lips, her breath preciously rancid.
As usual, I walked to the car in tears, my body aching from that familiar pain that came from sitting so goddamn long and having nothing to do. I threw the puke bucket away. The car reeked.
I hadn't eaten a damn thing all day. There was a McDonald's up the street; I pulled in and got something like four Big Macs, two orders of fries, and a large drink. I sat and wolfed it down without pleasure, and with something terrifying threatening to geyser out of my body at any second. Not the food.
It was something that had been gestating for a very long time. Not exhaustion. Not lack of sleep. Not some flu or other illness.
My hand to God, I honestly didn't know what it was. But it was there, no question about it.
I got in the car and made my way back to Interstate 25 and home.
I was about to merge on it when whatever it was burst through.
I nearly crashed the damn car. I had lost the ability to drive. I couldn't see straight. My forehead tingled like ants were crawling over it; my T-shirt was soaked through; my biceps throbbed like I'd just done a hundred bench presses; and my heart pounded.
I just managed to pull the stationwagon over, still on the on-ramp. A car just behind honked and roared past. I was half on the road, half in the shoulder. I'd actually jumped the curb.
Here it was--the thing I couldn't identify. The thing I couldn't identify because I'd bottled it up for so fucking long. Rage.
It's not the kind you see in movies, because no actor can portray the real thing with any accuracy or authenticity. It's not the kind you read in books, because no author can truly describe it. I certainly can't, not even after decades living with it.
I was there one second; the next something had taken total control of my person. I can relate only bits and pieces of it to you, because that's all I remember of it.
I beat the steering wheel until my knuckles bled, then did the same with my forehead. I remember piling out of the car and smashing my fists against it until the skin of my bleeding knuckles pulled back. I raged at passing motorists, daring them to get out and challenge me. Screaming-yelling-crying until my larynx refused to utter more sounds.
It was the most impaired time of my life, and I hadn't taken a single drug. How I got home I don't know. I remember more stops on the way; I remember having to piss, stopping at Johnson's Corner, washing the blood off my hands and forearms, which was rational and controlled, then unzipping my fly in the restroom and, uncontrolled, walking around pissing on everything while I screamed at God, voiceless, to fuck all the way off. I remember flipping off a state patrolman on my way out the door. He saw me, gave me an angry grimace, but didn't bother coming after me.
I got home. Had Mark, my brother, been there, or Mary Jo, my sister, I would still be in prison today, because I was, I swear to that apathetic motherfucker God, going to kill both of them as brutally as I could. I was going to fucking bathe in their blood.
They weren't there. But the leftover smell of their pot smoke was. Beer cans were strewn over the kitchen table. New beer stains in the carpet and the sofa. Cigarette butts on countertops and in the toilet. A giant pile of unwashed dishes in the sink. A tear in Mom's favorite macramé. The big oxygen bottle in her bedroom had been turned on, the tubing on the floor. A record on the turntable, the needle scratching back and forth. One of her favorite plants had been turned over and stomped on. A pile of dog shit in the hall leading to her room, crusting over with age. Someone had stuck an American flag in it.
Oh joy: a party! They'd had a party while Mom lay in an emergency room. They partied knowing she was there, and not giving a shit that she was. Or that I was. How fun!
My two older sisters had also attended, I learned later. Their first words to me? "Stop acting so put out. We'll see her in a day or two." Neither seemed particularly concerned.
I gave up a promising swimming career to be with Mom, to look after her. I'd earned a big scholarship to the University of Hawaii at Manoa; but I lasted only one semester. It was the wrong move for me to make. I needed to be near her, so I came home.
That wasn't a small deal by any stretch of the imagination. I wasn't far at all from qualifying for the Olympic Trials. I was a nationally ranked swimmer, the first age-group athlete in Fort Collins' history to achieve such a thing. There are school records with my name on them today, more than forty years later. No one has touched them.
Mom was pissed off--as in royally. She was convinced I was wasting a massive opportunity, and suffered under the delusion that her other children would come to her aid should she really need it. The story I relayed to you above occurred not five weeks after I got back.
I took the entire following semester off, enrolled in summer school at Colorado State University, and then full-time at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, a short forty-minute commute away.
My swimming career was over. I turned my focus to studying. That's when I met Dr. Timothy Cavanaugh.
Never in the decades since have I regretted that decision. It was, in every pertinent way imaginable, the right move to make. I felt guided into making it, and guided into choosing UNC to matriculate.
From 1972, when I was ten, until 1980, when I turned 18, I swam competitively for the Fort Collins Tideriders. I swam a semester at UH Manoa, as I explained above, but I don't consider that when I look back on my career, despite an unofficial time trial in late November that saw me actually qualify for the Trials in the 100 butterfly.
My boyhood coach was a man named John Mattos. I worshiped the ground he walked on. Four decades-plus on, I'm here to tell the world that was a monstrous mistake, one that has costed me dearly throughout my life.
I would like you to really try to understand my situation back then. I was adopted to a "family" in which the "father," Louis J. Helbert, Jr., was either not around or, when he was, was abusing the shit out of me and my siblings. He divorced Mom in 1976, sued the settlement until we were cast into outright poverty, and, in 1990, disowned me, as did my siblings, because I didn't want to attend a Christmas party with alcohol present (he was an unrepentant alcoholic; my surviving siblings remain so to this day). In effect, then, I didn't have a father.
My natural father, given that he's still alive, has never known he has a son. I was the result of a one-night stand; my natural mother tossed me to the curb the moment she shat me out, and didn't even tell my natural siblings (all of whom she kept), one that was even older than me, about my existence.
Quite literally, then, I must emphasize: I never had a father.
Along comes John Mattos. Given the facts above, what do you think was bound to happen?
When I called him in December of 1980, having quit swimming and so torn up by the decision that I could barely speak, he said, "You gotta do what you gotta do, big guy," or some such meaningless term of endearment, then hung up. He was a busy man, John was; he'd recently accepted the head coaching position for Women's Swimming at Colorado State University and clearly had no more need of me. Which was really interesting, because, when he got the job, he told me to my face that I was the one, through my record-setting career, who managed to land it for him.
I had been abandoned again.
So here's the true story that cements Mattos' character permanently in my mind's eye. The year was 1982, the month May, a good year plus a handful of months since my misadventure hauling Mom to Denver General Hospital, one I had since repeated three more times.
I was hurting, as you might imagine. I missed my coach, the only father figure I'd ever really known in my life. So I called him and invited him to a slice of pizza at the local pizza restaurant just a block away from his office at CSU, my treat. He agreed; we set the time for 12:30. (And yes, I still remember the time.)
I was excited. I wanted to hear about his team, how they were, all that. He had inherited a good squad, one that would regularly rank in the top 25 nationally in the years following. Mostly, though, I just wanted to be near the man. I needed serious moral and emotional support.
I got there early--12:15. I was starving, so I ordered ahead and dug in when the slice came.
12:30 came and went. Then 1:00. Then 1:30. Then 2:30.
I was still sitting there at 3. To say I was crushed is to grossly underestimate the moment. In an incredulous, heartbroken fog, I got in my truck and drove home. Mom was waiting at the door. "You guys must have been chatting a long time!"
I lied to her. Every bullshit syllable that came out of my face felt like it was being pulled up with a gallon of my spinal fluid. I excused myself and went downstairs to my room, where I cried until I fell asleep. When I thought I could control my emotions, I called him.
He didn't have an answering machine. I hung up after letting the phone ring more than thirty times.
He never called back. The next time I heard from him was 1996. I called him again. I was suffering suicidal ideations and needed anyone--anyone--to recognize that I was alive, that I still, by that fact, mattered, even if not to them or him. He gave me ten minutes to speak, then told me he needed to go.
I haven't heard from him since.
He, in the meantime, had a brilliant thirty-year career at CSU He retired in 2011 with great honors, newspapers nationwide praising his name.
But I was totally forgotten and abandoned. I, the guy who, in his own words, landed him that job. That career. That life.
That's not the bottom line, however. This is:
Recognizing that I needed a father figure in my life, and desperate to keep him both head-coaching FCTR and in my life, period, in 1974 Mom loaned Mattos $10,000 so he could put a down payment on a home with his new wife.
He's still living in that home.
She was never paid back. When she died in October of 1984, I called him to let him know that she was gone. I got his answering machine. I begged him to come to her funeral. Mom--his greatest benefactor, by far. I left more messages; all were blown off.
And of course, he didn't show.
That's the bottom line on John Edward Mattos.
And now you know the second factor in how I came to be a destroyed human being.
I think an aside is appropriate here, one very long overdue.
To all those young women who went through CSU Women's Swimming Program from 1980 until 2011, very much including his prize pet and glory, Amy Van Dyken, and any assistant or student coaches: On behalf of Mom and myself, you're fucking welcome.
There are other factors that figured into my destruction: my introspective personality, which turned (and still turns) many off; my unwillingness (at the time) to confront my abusers, or cause trouble; my unwillingness to leave Fort Collins; and when I did leave it, to return as soon as possible; and my pussywhipped nature with women, which allowed them to run total roughshod over me. All factored in. But the worst one, the one I'd like to focus on now, was my naiveté.
I picked it up from Mom. She had it in spades, if when thinking of the word you think "having or showing unaffected simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality; unsophisticated; ingenuous." (From Dictionary.com.) But it also relevantly meant, in spades, "having or showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information; credulous." It was this latter meaning that came to wipe me out, and not just in the 80s, as Mom got worse and worse, but long after, until it literally threatened my life.
The people I knew back then, the ones I called friends, used that naiveté against me in myriad ways. It's incredible, looking back on it, that I called them friends. They used me; they abused me; and then, when I held no more value to them, they dumped me. It wasn't just Mattos. I'm going to list the worst offenders' names (aside from him); the women have all married (more than once, in some cases); their maiden names are given.
I do this because it's important for me to see that it wasn't just my "family" who took pleasure in using and abusing me; it wasn't just Mattos. I do it because just looking at those names performs a kind of cleansing voodoo, I've noticed, one that circumscribes the harm they did, like marking around a scar and noting that it doesn't take up or cover my entire being, and so can be forgotten, if temporarily, and moved on from.
I allowed those people into my life, and I allowed them to harm me. The bottom line is: I'm ultimately responsible for all of it. I was ball-less back then; I lacked courage to speak up, to speak out, and to demand what I needed. When I look back at that time, "what I needed" was nothing more than what everybody deserves: respect, dignity, an equal voice, appreciation, attention, and love. I asked for nothing more from them; I gave all of that to them; and I was crushed for my trouble.
But back then I denied any and all of that trouble. I was so desperate for friendship, even rotten friendship, that anyone willing to offer it to me I gladly accepted. One of my favorite mantras from then was that "I take everyone at face value." I did that because, as the decades since have proven to me, "face value" was all the value those people had. And that wasn't too goddamn much. I just inflated it ludicrously, then felt all warm and gooey that I had friends.
This essay isn't about them. They just aren't worth it. They never were worth it. 2020 saw me come up against a very serious crisis, one that was spawned, as I've illustrated, decades ago.
Cavanaugh's words keep ringing in my head: "You're not the sharpest pencil in the drawer, Mr. Helbert; but you are the hardest working."
Is that still true? Or have the intervening decades proved him wrong? How do you define "hardest working"? Does that mean 80-hour workweeks, shunning personal time off, grimly going from one task to another to another, multitasking, team-playerism, productivity, industriousness, all that shit? Because that's what I was taught; and for a healthy chunk of my life--from the time I took my first job to college, then grad school times two, then coaching, then teaching ... that's how I acted.
So here's another fun tale for you.
In 1988, ruined human being that I was, I actually reached out for professional help. You need to keep in mind that Shawn and naïve were synonymous, that I always believed the best in everybody, that people were essentially good, that life was fair, that it's better to wear rose-colored glasses than hanging my head, that I was a loved and wanted human being, and that up there somewhere, looking down on me, God was making sure everything was A-okay for Shawn Helbert.
My "father," having ditched his second wife, with whom he was having an affair behind Mom's back as she slowly rotted from degenerative muscle disease, and who he was cheating on with a bloated shrew of a travel agent who would become his third wife, decided he needed to get right with the world. Doesn't that make you tingle with the warm fuzzies?
Sharon, the second wife, sued his ass in 1986, and won a huge settlement from him, which he didn't dare challenge, because Sharon, unlike Mom, was healthy, had her own fortune along with huge experience from her work in the corporate sector dealing with dickheads, and so had the energy, cash, and expertise not to take any of his shit. Tail tucked firmly between his legs, his hooves clapping loudly on the road back to hell, ol' Lou escaped that second marriage and promptly decided, for whatever twisted reason that made it all make sense between his big ears, that he wanted to become a better person. Uh huh.
Part of the whole "better person" brochure he was putting together involved attempting to "mend fences" with me, the one child in the family who actually saw him as he was, and so needed to be "understood" in order to "relate to" better.
He put unrelenting pressure on me to attend a psychotherapy session under the auspices of one Francis X. Gaebler. I finally caved.
I remember almost no details of that session save that Gaebler and Lou worked me over pretty good with massive doses of guilt and a double-barreled soft-soap interrogation that eventually saw me break down and weep. Both assumed this was some sort of "breakthrough" and that now the "healing" could begin.
Of course, it didn't. If anything, having just been thoroughly mind-fucked by a Ph.D psychologist and a monster posing as both a man and a father, not to mention human being, I was worse off than ever before.
Remember that naiveté I told you about? Here is where it really dicked me. Completely crushed by Mom's death, I at least had the presence of mind to recognize that I needed help, as I mentioned above. So who do I go to get that help? Yeah. I know. It's unbelievable, but true.
I saw Gaebler monthly for the next eleven years. The total cost? $12,672. All out of pocket.
He was unrelenting in his insistence that I do everything in my power to "reconnect" with Lou and to "mend fences," that Lou wasn't the monster I had made him out to be, that if I knew what poor, poor Louis Helbert, Jr. had to suffer in his childhood, I'd be far less hasty in my judgment. He insisted I give up any notions of living my life as I saw fit, telling me that I needed to "sell yourself, Shawn, then become yourself." In other words, and unmistakably, become a cog, just like everyone else. They were messages and "lessons" that sounded very Lou-like. But ol' Shawn, don't you know, took everybody at "face value." Being suspicious was wrong. Gaebler would never!
He insisted I go to ACOA meetings--Adult Children of Alcoholics. "Alcoholism doesn't make a man a monster," I was admonished. And: "Your father is a recovering alcoholic. He doesn't drink anymore." Which I knew to be patently false, and was confirmed again in 1990.
(Those ACOA meetings, parenthetically, were the only good things I got from his "therapy.")
There is much more I could relate here regarding my "therapy" under the auspices of Francis Gaebler. The man was, bottom line, deeply unethical in his treatment of me, and his continual mind fucking of me in order to get me to gaslight myself with respect to my "family" and Lou.
He damn near succeeded. In 1998, I gave Lou one more chance, as per Gaebler's insistence that I do. I had already given him a chance in 1995, but that apparently wasn't good enough. Somehow I was the one who needed to reach out, despite being the one harmed and ostracized.
In 1995 I went to have dinner with "Dad," where he regaled me with tales of his crazy life, including admitting to multiple affairs behind the backs of all the women he'd married, including his latest--in between, that is, long harangues about my lack of character and decency. Fatherly guidance, and all that.
The 1998 "reunion" included the rest of my siblings (you know, the ones who had also disowned me), at the home of my youngest sister, Mary Jo. She was expecting triplets.
Not one of them spoke to me, including Lou, save to say as I was leaving, "You need to get involved with this family, Shawn. You need to grow up!"
That was the last time I ever spoke to him. He died broke in 2018 of Alzheimer's Disease, having vowed to give his children nothing of his fortune, one he totally squandered. His third wife had long since abandoned him in a nursing home.
The world that day improved a tiny, but very significant, bit. A truly bad man was no more.
With the exception of my oldest sister, who for some reasons took it upon herself to email me in 2013 to inform me that Mark had died (alcoholism and drug abuse), I have had no contact with any of my siblings.
Back to Gaebler.
Here's the thing about him. I had an appointment with him the week after that final family debacle. At that appointment he "fired" me, announced out of the blue that I was clinically depressed, then sent me to a psychiatrist so that his prognosis could be confirmed and I could be put on heavy psychotropic medication.
Was the timing coincidental? Don't be naïve.
I'd allowed my naiveté to mind fuck me by means of more than 120 unethical psychotherapy sessions and a financial loss of almost $13,000. I'd allowed it almost to convince me that I was a wayward shithead son unworthy of love or respect, who saw things that never really happened, most relevantly my mother's illness; that I was cold and unfeeling and seriously depressed, and who, incorrigible and unfixable as I was, left to rot as I deserved.
The psychiatrist had no interest in treating me, only medicating me. He "assessed" me over the period of ten minutes, prescribed two major antidepressants, then charged me his hourly fee of nearly $400. I was already deeply in debt; I had to borrow money to pay for the appointment.
I had nowhere to turn, and no one to help. Neither Gaebler nor the psychiatrist told me never to go cold turkey from the meds, which I did right after I was sexually assaulted by one of my graduate professors at UNC (I'd decided to go back and get a Master's in Gifted and Talented Education) in late January of 2001.
Any surprise, then, that I ended up sitting up in bed in February with a loaded .38 in my lap?
To be continued.