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June 27, 2005

Bouncing back: Lessons from adversity

Mobility issues in seventh grade help trigger depression.


Brett Eastburn looks tuckered out after a basketball practice.

Tribune file photo

Brett Eastburn tosses an inbound pass to a teammate.

Tribune file photo

Other stories in this series:
Making his way: One man's journey to thrive and enlighten

Second of seven parts

When Brett Eastburn was in third grade, his family moved from just outside town to Mill Street in North Liberty.

Vaughn and Barb Eastburn still live there, in a tidy one-story house with a big garage for puttering, just two houses down from the elementary school. Barb can look out the window and remember Brett heading off to school.

At first, it was with his prosthetic legs that just didn't work the way he wanted.

"He gave them up that year," Barb says. "Without them and with his electric wheelchair, he was more independent. He could go to the bathroom by himself, and even his grades improved."

In the winter, his wheelchair sometimes would bog down in a snowdrift.

"But somebody would usually come by and push him out before I could get my coat on," his mother adds.

He became quite the little leader there at North Liberty Elementary.

"I sort of had my own little gang that looked out for others," he says. "If somebody was getting picked on and came to me, I would say, 'You, you and you, go take care of it.' "

He had a certain amount of charm and chutzpah.

"My mom once found about 20 $1 bills in my pockets while going through the wash," Brett says. "It was the money I was getting from giving people rides on the back of my wheelchair during recess.

"Actually, I was real tired of giving rides, so I thought if I had to do it, I might as well make some money out of it."

He had some great classmates back in grade school, guys like Eric Springman, Eric Ebersoll and Dave Brooke.

"We're still close friends," says Brett, who now lives next door to Brooke in the town of Tyner.

In fact, Brett thought everybody was his friend.

"But things changed a little for me in seventh grade," he admits.

That's the year that his electric wheelchair broke down. Some relationships broke down for him, too.

For three months, he had to rely on others to push him to class in a manual wheelchair. Despite all of his talents, he couldn't figure a way to control one of those by himself.

"I started out using a skateboard to get to class but it just tired me out too much," he says. "So it ended up that a lot of my classmates started to push me."

That worked for a while.

"But then if the bell rang, some would take off on their own. And when you have one little stub and another one that is a little longer, you end up going in circles when you try to push (a wheelchair) yourself."

So the teachers started assigning students to push Brett.

"And you know how kids are about assignments," he continues. "When something becomes an assignment, there is no fun in it."

Sometimes, he wouldn't be able to retrieve his books or homework from his locker. Sometimes, his pushers would get him to class late. Sometimes, a teacher would act as if it was his fault.

His grades slipped. And so did his zest for life.

"It was the first time that I ever really felt handicapped," he says.

He was devastated.

He was barreling through adolescence at 100 miles an hour, he didn't have a girlfriend, and some of his buddies suddenly were not coming through for him.

At that point, Brett actually considered suicide.

"We had been taught in science class that you could turn the tar from cigarettes into a liquid form which could kill you if you consumed it," he says. "I'm sure the teacher was trying to get us to understand the dangers of smoking.

"But I created the concoction in my room without my parents knowing it."

He kept it for three days.

"Then while using some sort of seventh-grade mentality, I decided that if I hit rock bottom, I could be like a Super Ball and bounce back up as high as I wanted to go."

He visualized that Super Ball and took a turn for the better. He threw away his concoction. He eventually got back his electric chair, too. Why it took so long to fix, he and his parents aren't sure.

But he learned something about others that year -- and about himself, too.

And he vowed never to let himself go that low again.

"I have been mad at God before," he says, "especially when I developed asthma and had a hard time playing some sports.

"But I have grown to think that God has made me this way to show other people the potential they have, and to help them through their own adversity," he says.

He went on to play basketball on the junior high team, learned he could draw as well as just about anybody by using his mouth, and also found out that some girls did, indeed, like him.

From that one little stint of depression in seventh grade, he bounced back -- just like a Super Ball ... just like a guy who was learning never to give up.

Next Article: Heart of an athlete

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