Many in the Waunakee community have known Tim Decorah as a basketball player, coach and physical education teacher with the Waunakee Community School District, where he’s worked for 28 of his 31-year career.
But until recently, most were unaware he’s been debilitated at times by generalized anxiety disorder. In fact, he himself has come to terms with it only recently.
Decorah shared his experiences in a program titled “Survive and Advance” at the Waunakee Public Library Wednesday Jan. 18, focusing also on the tools he’s developed to manage chronic anxiety, with the hope of helping others. The title comes from the Sweet 16, where teams do just that to get to the finals.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), nearly 7 million people in the United States, or 3.1% of the population, live with generalized anxiety disorder or GAD. It’s defined as excessive worrying about the outcome of situations, worrying that continues on most days for at least six months. It can cause twitching, insomnia, high heart rate, hypertension and panic attacks.
Decorah said it took him a long time to realize he had GAD, and after he was diagnosed, he reacted as anyone would to any diagnosis, asking “What do I need to do in a way to be able to handle this?”
A UW-Platteville and Wisconsin Dells Basketball Hall of Famer, Decorah reflected on life events that may have caused him to develop GAD, then shared tools he uses to successfully manage anxiety.
“I want to tell my story to have you figure out to see how and where that might develop,” Decorah said, “and I needed to do that so I could understand when my pulse would race, when I would get sweaty, when I would feel nauseated — I wanted to know when those things came up.”
While he uses skills to manage GAD, others with post-traumatic stress syndrome, eating disorders or other mental illnesses can also use them.
A Native American who grew up in Wisconsin Dells, Decorah spoke about himself as a husband, a father of three grown children and soon-to-be chokra, or grandfather.
He described pivotal moments growing up, particularly when his grandfather, Choka Emerson Thundercloud, who drove him to school every day, was diagnosed with cancer and Decorah realized he had no ride from school to his home 7 miles from town.
When he was young, his mother drank and often returned home later than she’d promised. Another evening, she came home beaten after getting into a fight.
“After that, all I could think of was, it would happen again,” Decorah said.
As a child, Decorah coped by playing outside all the time and shooting baskets. He began playing basketball as a freshman in high school.
“I needed basketball more than basketball needed me,” he said.
As an adult, one of the most debilitating panic attacks occurred while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic taking his children to a Wisconsin Dells water park. It forced him off the highway, to a family member’s home, and then to the emergency room to see if he was having a heart attack.
Decorah also suffered from insomnia, sometimes unable to sleep more than a couple hours a night, he said.
Decorah began taking anti-anxiety medication in the early 2000s, but only until 2021 or so did he begin other means, such as talking to counselors, finding a recovery team, journaling, exercising and engaging in hobbies, like cooking.
He shared grounding exercises he uses to keep himself in the moment — asking himself where he is, what sounds he hears, what things he sees, what he feels and tastes — as one tool to prevent him from imagining the worst.
He googled meditation and found a Buddhist temple where a woman taught him to meditate. And he tries to stay in the present.
As he journals each morning, he begins the day by setting goals.
“They’re generally going to be the same thing. My goal is to remain anxiety-free or carb-free, or whatever you’re working on,” he said.
Another goal is to practice acceptance and patience.
“I’ve just got to accept life as it is. There’s not much I can change about people, places and things. And I just have to accept that whatever is going to happen is going to happen,” he said.
He notes his feelings and for a long stretch has had no bad days. He also writes down what he’s grateful for.
At the end of the day, he checks his goals in his journal, taking into account how he felt throughout the day and how many consecutive days he’s achieved his goals.
“Tomorrow it will be 400 days that I’ve been anxiety-free,” he said. “And I say anxiety-free where I’m worried about spilled milk and how it would affect the tea in China.”
He also scores his days, and for more than a year, no day has ranked lower than 9.5.
These days, he generally goes to bed relaxed, he said, adding “I certainly am not angry any more.”
Decorah said he would have highlights from this particular day, including all of the people who showed up for his presentation. He also asks what he’s learned each day.
Decorah reads one passage every night that states in part:
“Or were we thinking of what we could have done for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse, or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others.”
Decorah hoped the audience, including many friends, family members and colleagues, would leave feeling glad they attended, he said.
“Hopefully… if you can just take one thing from my talk tonight, then you’re considered a winner,” Decorah said. “I hope to give you some coping skills to use yourself or to share with another person that might need help.”
For Decorah, the lifelong teacher, helping others has great rewards.
“The reason I’m here is because I don’t want anybody to live like I did for many years,” he said.