How Detroit Tigers’ Mason Englert climbed out of depression from deaths, panic attacks

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Mason Englert was hiding in a bathroom stall, crouched over, his head between his hands, his thoughts racing, his heart pounding. The walls closing in.

For several days, he couldn’t eat anything or sleep for more than an hour or two.

Crippled with a panic attack. Struggling to breathe. Feeling nauseous.

Englert kept pitching.

“It felt like my heart was gonna break through my frickin’ ribcage,” Englert, this winter’s Rule 5 draft pick, said, sitting in the Detroit Tigers clubhouse.

“I was freaking out,” Englert says. “I called my dad that afternoon: ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’”

It was 2021 and Englert was at spring training with the Texas Rangers. He told a doctor about his symptoms and was prescribed trazodone.

“It’s an antidepressant but it’s main side effect is drowsiness,” he said.

The drug left him in a hazy fog, and it didn’t seem to work because he suffered another massive, depressive, panic attack that “sent me down a dark hole,” he said.

He remembers lying in a bathtub, feeling hopeless, struggling with suicidal thoughts.

After going to a different doctor, Englert was quickly taken off the depressant.

“Usually, you would do a four-week taper and she was like, ‘we just gotta get you off of this because it was giving you suicidal thoughts,’” he said. “Just insane withdrawal.”

The 2021 minor league season started, and he kept pitching every seven days.

“There’s this thing called ‘brain zaps’ that you get from antidepressant withdrawal,” he said. “It’s like this sharp, hot pain on your head; and it just makes your whole nervous system feel like it’s lighting up.”

He still wasn’t eating, still wasn’t sleeping. His life in a spiral.

Still trying to pitch.

“I’m just freaking, puking over the toilet,” Mason, 23, said. “I’m literally the lowest I’ve ever felt in my entire life. It was like, you have the flu, times 10, physical-pain wise. But it was all centered around your head. So you don’t know what’s wrong or when it’s gonna go away.”

On May 23, 2021, he made a start for the Single-A Down East Wood Ducks in Charlotte. He was incredibly weak because he hadn’t eaten in days. Hadn’t slept. And was in a mental fog.

“So I go out there and my catcher threw the ball high,” he said. “I can hardly get off the ground when I jumped and missed it.”

Between innings, he went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face, trying to snap out of it.

It was like living inside a blur.

At one point, he jogged off the field with two outs, thinking the inning was done. “I was so confused, like disoriented,” he said.

But he kept performing at a surprisingly high level and got the win, scattering three hits over five innings.

“I just filled the strike zone,” he said. “It’s crazy how much our minds can overcome. I just survived.”

Then and now.

Englert is now sharing his story of survival, sitting in front of his locker in the Tigers clubhouse, because he hopes his experiences will help somebody. Maybe, give somebody some hope. He wants people to know that professional athletes deal with depression and anxiety and panic attacks. But more than anything, he wants everyone to know that it’s possible to get out of it, if you seek help. It’s possible to come back from it.

Just like he did.

Leaning on his family

During his darkest moments, Mason called his father, Tom, and they talked for six hours at a time.

“He questioned whether he’d ever be right again,” said Tom, who pitched in college. “It was that severe. It would rattle around in his head.”

It’s a family that has had to overcome unspeakable tragedy, unspeakable grief and anguish.

Before Mason was even born.

On Dec. 27, 1998, Mason’s mother, Leann, was driving a car with her two children, daughter Madison, 6, and son Morgan, 2.

“I went with the kids to Canada for Christmas to see my family,” she told the Free Press in a phone interview. “Because Tom had just actually gotten into the Border Patrol. He was looking at a career change. And then I took the kids to Canada, and there was an accident in Canada.”

She hit black ice, got into an accident and Madison and Morgan were critically injured. Tom tried to rush to Canada but both his daughter and son had died.

A few weeks later, as Leann grieved her children, dealing with unimaginable loss, she found out that she was pregnant.

I was pregnant with Mason, which was an incredible blessing and then you worry about pregnancy under stress,” she said.

Struggling with grief and PTSD, she went into preterm labor at 27 weeks and was hospitalized in Midland, Texas.

“I stayed there for a couple of weeks until I could come home and stayed on bedrest until after Mason was born,” Leann said. “Definitely was concerned about what that kind of stress would put on a little guy. But he was and is the start of all of our miracles again.”

Yes, a miracle that came from the darkest of times.

Just like Mason’s two younger sisters who followed him: Jordan, now 21, and Jilliann, now 17.

“It was tricky because we were bereaved parents raising kids,” Leann said. “So I had to work hard to keep things in perspective and make sure that I wasn’t being overly protective.”

It was a family that talked openly about any subject. Grief. Mental health issues. And the accident.

“My parents would always tell us we had older siblings — our guardian angels,” Mason says.

They would visit the gravesite and acknowledge their birthdays as well as the anniversary of the crash.

“We would always light candles or do things like that,” Mason said.

Dealing with the spiral

Being alone with his thoughts was the worst.

“I couldn’t drive by myself,” Mason said. “Because I would go into this complete panic spiral. A meltdown.”

So he called his father, or his mother, or his sisters: “a conversation would distract my mind enough to keep me from spiraling.”

“The one thing that I could do for him was just be present and let him talk,” Tom said. “I’d try to talk him into a different space, a different viewpoint of what was going on and how he was feeling and try to plant some hope. But more than anything, it was being patient with him as he went through that struggle and being consistently there for him.”

It was a living hell.

Mason was struggling through a spiral of anxiety, depression and trying to find the right medication. He believes the death of his brother and sister, and his mother’s profound grief during pregnancy, and his own mental-health issues are all related, as if the trauma passed right through the umbilical cord.

“Her body was trying to like reject the pregnancy basically,” Mason says. “She had to be bedridden on medicine to keep me from being extremely premature, and luckily she made a full term. Her body was in that fight-or-flight mode. Luckily, she was frickin’ tough. She’s just badass.”

Now, here’s the wild part: he actually didn’t perform that poorly in the heat of his battle in 2021, pitching 80⅔ innings and recording 90 strikeouts with just 26 walks. A ratio that the Tigers obviously found enticing when studying his history.

“I didn’t have a terrible year but I did not sleep and eat for days and nights,” he said. “I legit had depression so bad. I was having panic attacks. I was throwing up, my anxiety was so bad. And when you’re in it, it feels like you’re buried and nobody else is going through it.”

Coming out of the darkness

The new medication started to work.

Not completely. But enough for him to start to function.

“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m still on it because it’s important for people to know,” he said. “It took the edge off to where I wasn’t feeling like I was completely drowning.”

He found some more relief in meditation.

“The first thing it did was change my relationship with my thoughts,” he said. “I started to be able to observe my thoughts, and slowly, as I practiced meditation, the space between thought and observation grew. Instead of every thought manifesting into a physical sensation in my body, it was more like I could see it, but it’s not triggering as much in response to me.”

It started to work and his panic attacks started to subside.

“I’d wake up in the middle of the night,” he said. “Instead of having the racing thoughts, instead of being scared to not sleep, I would just see ‘em and let them pass and flow by and go back to my breathing and then that helped my sleep.”

He started doing a carnivore diet, eating just red meat and fruit.

“The things that you need if we’re surviving right in the wild,” he said.

The depressive episodes came less frequently and shrank in duration.

“I had one in July,” he said. “I woke up, I could tell I was in one. But then about 7 o’clock, before the game, I felt it lift off from me. It lasted less than a day.”

Progress.

He went three months without another episode, and it was mild.

More progress.

“It’s been eight months and I’ve had maybe had two very minor ones,” he said, “and they’ve been like less than a week each.”

Peace and serenity

Now, he is in a completely different place. He has found peace.

“I’m definitely a better person,” he said.

He has a girlfriend, Ella Mabrito, who is from Ravenna and lives in Grand Rapids.

Englert moved to West Michigan during the offseason, before he even joined the Tigers. He loves Michigan, exploring the woods and hunting for deer and taking ice bathes in the Grand River.

And Mabrito has helped him find stability.

“She came up with a system where I have to send her a checkmark,” he said. “I make a checkmark when I’ve done meditation, or when I’ve done a cold exposure, or stayed off social media to a certain time of the day. If she doesn’t see a checkmark, she’s on my butt. She’s really, really supportive. So she got me super consistent with the things I know have helped me in the long run.”

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Performing through the pain

How do you get an accurate assessment of Englert over the last few years? After all that he has been through in his personal life?

The numbers are actually pretty good.

Englert pitched only three games at Double-A for Texas, but it was impressive. He threw 15⅓ innings, recording 20 strikeouts and five walks — enticing enough for the Tigers to take him in the Rule 5 draft.

He has to be the 26-man roster the entire season, or the Tigers will have to return him back to Texas.

“The Tigers staff is really supportive,” he said. “We’re finding some really good information every time I go out and pitch, as far as some the metric stuff, some body movement stuff. We’re seeing some improvements.”

Every morning, the Tigers have 8 a.m. mound availability for pitchers to work on different pitches or techniques.

“We have done a lot of good work at the 8 a.m. mounds,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting closer and closer.”

Englert is just in such a good pace now. Loving the Tigers organization. Loving this team.

“It’s a really good, super-player driven,” he said. “Really family oriented. I feel like it just as easy to have any conversation about pitching if you agree, disagree what you think there’s just it’s just so free to like communicate like the information flows freely from both directions. So it works really well.”

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Even though he wasn’t alive when his brother and sister died in the accident, he carries that tragedy with him.

It is a deep-seated motivation.

“I was able to be born and be the kid that was giving my parents hope again,” Mason said. “That really does drive me. I want them to see me succeed. It’s kind of heavy, but it’s nice.”

Now, sitting at his locker in the Tigers clubhouse, he exudes happiness and gratefulness.

Talking about the Tigers. Talking about how he feels so close to pitching really, really well.

He is filled with hope and perspective.

And smiles come easily.

“Happy and grateful,” Mason said. “Baseball’s more fun because I’m not connecting my happiness to success. If I fail in baseball, it’s OK.”

Tragedy has had a profound impact on this family, but it does not define them.

“What is the message?” I ask Tom Englert. “What do you want people to know?”

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“I would say even when times are bleak and you feel hopeless, or the pain isn’t going to ever cease, you just got to continue to take those baby steps and move and even if you take steps backwards, you got to pick yourself up and keep trying to move forward even though it’s not easy. And then ultimately what you become is what you will need to be, to maybe help people that are in a similar situation to you. You can show what the other side looks like.”

Mason has taken that message to heart.

There was a time when he played baseball, chasing the fancy cars and big paychecks. But not anymore.

He wants to help people.

“My why is, I’m playing baseball, because I want to create a platform to help people that have gone through something similar,” he said.  “Tragedy or struggle can make you feel completely powerless, it’s horrible. But then on the other side of it, you see the world differently. More loving. More accepting.

“It used to be something bad happened in the game, and I would feel it all over my body. I freaked out about it. It was almost like, my ego is getting attacked. But now if they get three hits, get a couple runs, hit a ball off the wall, I see what I’m feeling. I see the thoughts and I take a breath and go keep filling up the zone.

“I’m gonna throw up a shield. I’m gonna keep throwing strikes.”

Keep throwing strikes.

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Just let something good happen to this family

I gotta be honest: I’m rooting for Mason Englert to make the Tigers.

Not just because he’s such a likeable person.

Not just because he is so smart and intellectual, a deep thinker who is refreshingly honest and candid.

Not just because his damn family deserves a magical moment, after all they have been through.

But because he is pitching for a bigger purpose.

To use this platform to educate people about mental health.

To show there is another side to the darkness. A light.

It’s noble and admirable.

And you can’t help but root for him.

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Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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