The question fans must start asking themselves now, as we look back on athletes and legacies riddled with ‘what ifs,’ is how many careers have ended because of deteriorating mental health? While it’s easy to explain retirement with reasons like age, family or physical injury, we’re only beginning to understand other factors that cause athletes to walk away from the game.
When Theo Fleury ended his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, many pointed to drugs and alcohol as the source of his demise. Looking back now, nobody was talking about what lay at the root of that drug use.
For most of Fleury’s career, he played with a fire only he truly understood. To the outside world, he was everybody’s favourite little guy. He was gritty, he was skilled, he was fast, and he was scrappy. He played much bigger than his five-foot-five frame. He knew how to celebrate, and he loved to fight. But few knew of Fleury’s internal fight to maintain his mental health.
Fleury suffered from anxiety and depression stemming from the sexual abuse he endured as a child. His various addictions were a symptom of something much deeper than drug dependencies.
In late 2009, the truth of his struggle came out. Four years after going sober, Fleury co-wrote Playing With Fire — a book that would change his life forever. The book dealt with the various demons Fleury battled, including mental health and the abuse at the hands of his childhood coach Graham James. After its release, Fleury decided to dedicate his post-playing career to helping men who suffer from childhood trauma, encouraging them to find their voice and share their story.
With the rising chorus of athletes coming forward to address mental health in sports, we reached out to Fleury to talk about the moment mental health is having, his battle with depression and addiction, and what it’ll take for the stigma to disappear from locker rooms.
Grandstand Central: You’ve spent most of your post-playing days working in athlete mental health advocacy. What drew you to that world?
Theo Fleury: Well, when I first sat down to write the book, I was only going to talk about my hockey career. As the process of writing the book went on, I was able to find the courage and strength to really tell the whole story. I went out on the book tour and realized that mental health and addictions were probably the biggest epidemic on the planet. People were seeking me out for help either on social media or via email or at an event. They were saying to me, “I read your book and I was inspired to tell my story for the first time.” I realized that by finding my own voice, I could help other people find their voice too. I didn’t know what the rest of my life was going to look like after hockey, and then I found my true calling and purpose in life. I haven’t stopped since 2009 when the first book came out. It’s helped me heal even more by helping people.
It’s one thing for players to speak up about mental health during an advocacy campaign, but it’s a whole other story for a player to broach that subject in the locker room. Do you think the NHL is at a place now where players feel comfortable opening up to their teams?
I think there is still a pretty big stigma attached to [mental health in the locker room], especially as an active player. It’s probably harder for them guys to talk about what’s going on, but I think what DeMar DeRozan has done with the Raptors the past couple of weeks is a little helpful; It changes the stigma and allows more athletes, who are still competing, to talk about what’s going on. I see change happening and that’s a positive thing.
Hockey culture in many ways perpetuates the idea that if something’s wrong, you don’t talk about it. How do you get the game to accept it’s okay to talk about things when something’s wrong?
I went down the road of psychiatry when I first diagnosed with anxiety and depression; I didn’t have a good experience. I’m really on the side of a soulistic approach — that’s meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and all of these things that are out there. I think if teams start to implement that into everybody’s daily routine, it will go a long way into helping players manage those ups-and-downs that come with being a professional athlete.
They have a whole medical staff that deals with the physical injuries that happen in the game and I think each team should have a full-time psychiatrist and a full-time psychologist and then the strength and conditioning guys need to add mental health to their portfolio. Not only do you need a strong body, but you also need a strong mind too. We’re heading that direction and I think it’s important that people are available as well for the players to have access to.
In Playing With Fire, you opened a lot of eyes to the struggles player’s face in their personal lives. What did it mean to write that story, and why did you decide to share it?
Me being able to find my own voice really changed my life. I didn’t feel alone anymore, because so many people are giving me instant feedback who also had their own experiences with mental health issues. Everybody thinks it was my addictions that ended my career, but it was really my mental illness. Not being able to handle my own mental illness is what took me out of the game, because addiction had so much stigma attached to it that I got a bit of a bad rep at the end of my career, but we also didn’t know a whole lot about mental health at the time either. We talked about it, but I know at the end of my career, it was an absolute struggle to get myself to the rink, get my equipment on and try to focus on what I needed to do. It was really difficult. Then most people have a difficult time managing mental health. We get involved in addictions because with the mental illness, it numbs out all the emotional pain of suffering that’s left behind from those traumatic experiences we have as children.
When you met Graham James at Andy Murray’s hockey camp, your mother was struggling with drug addiction and your father that was dealing with alcoholism. Were there any other support systems you could turn to?
No there wasn’t. Other than going to see your doctor, that was about it at that time. We didn’t know much about mental health. If we did, it was never one of those things we talked about. It was one of those things that was slipped under the rug. “Get over it” was our thing or I didn’t even know that I had mental health issues. I think we have come a long way, but we still have a lot of work to do, miles and miles and miles, in order to change how we deal with this.
When you were battling addiction, was there ever a point where you thought they wouldn’t be enough of a coping mechanism, or that you wouldn’t be able to recover? What was the lowest point for you?
Geez, I had a lot of rock bottoms throughout my life. Probably more in sobriety than when I was drinking, but I that’s just a natural process that you go through when you start a path of healing; a path of recovery. It’s just a process and as long as you try to do something every day to improve the quality of your life and you’re dealing with your mental health issues, each and every day, it eventually gets better.
At what point while you were battling addiction did you finally say to yourself, ‘Enough is enough, I can’t keep living this way?’
It was September 18th of 2005. That’s when I had my last drink and drug. That’s 12 and a bit years ago.
You and Sheldon Kennedy suffered the same types of abuse from James. Do you ever talk to Kennedy today about your experiences?
Yeah we have. We played together in Calgary for a bit and there was a few times we were sort of able to have a conversation about what happened. Sheldon deals more with kids and I deal more with adults just because there’s no sense in the two of us doing the same kind of work, because of the enormity of it. It wasn’t eight-year-old kids coming up to me and telling me that they were sexually abused, it was people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s and 80s, that were telling me their story. I sort of found my niche and I’m really focused on healing men who had that experience.
If you could speak to kids or young adults experiencing the same thing that you experienced coming up through hockey, what kind of advice would you give to them?
Just ask for help. There’s seem to be this thing, this stigma that we talk about all the time, right? And I think one of the biggest stigmas that men face is that if you reach out and ask for help, it means you’re weak; No it actually means the opposite. It means that you have courage, you have the strength and that you actually care about yourself. I think that’s incredibly important to ask for help. I can tell you from my own experience, it wasn’t until I asked for help that my life started to change.
In your book, you mention that your mother, Donna, was a Jehovah’s Witness, and you were brought up as Roman Catholic. Did God play a role in your recovery?
Oh yeah, I saw religion as a place for me to go and feel like I was part of something. But it was more for the community than the actual teachings. Because I am an Aboriginal person, I’ve had the opportunity to visit almost 300 First Nations communities since my first book came out and it’s those people that have really taught me about spirituality and the importance of having a relationship with myself and having a relationship with the land. That’s what I believe in now more than anything. It’s not about religion, it’s about relationships. It has changed my life and it’s probably been the biggest factor in my personal recovery; grasping onto my roots.