If You're Going Through Hell
When I came back from hell in 2011, I had a very specific routine, and most people, including some of my teammates, called me crazy.
On the road, the first thing I would do when I got to my hotel room was unplug all the lamps right by the bed. Then I’d unscrew all the bulbs in the remaining lamps and put them in a drawer. Anything with an annoying power light? I’d unplug it.
Coffee maker, alarm clock, iPod dock, TV, fridge. Boom. Unplugged.
Then I’d unzip my suitcase and take out the good stuff.
The red-spectrum light bulbs.
Once I’d installed those bad boys in the lamps, I was almost ready to go. But just in case I wanted to watch some highlights on TV before bed, I would put my Cocoon blue-light-blocking sunglasses on the nightstand.
If one of my teammates came by to borrow some toothpaste or something, it probably looked like they were walking into a darkroom where I was developing photos as a side gig.
I didn’t care. I was ready for bed. Look, I was 35 years old and I had just missed the entire 2010—2011 NHL season. This is what I had to do each night in order to recover. I couldn’t be dragging ass, I needed to be fresh or I’d become a liability.
When I wrote my retirement article last year, I detailed my ongoing battle with vestibular issues. If you’re not familiar with my story, the CliffsNotes version is this:
I got hit in the face with a slap shot in 2010, which caused a high-pitched ringing sound in my ears that didn’t go away for months.
Following the code of all hockey players, I foolishly ignored the ringing and finished the season, despite my wife and kids having to shout at me like I was a 90-year-old man.
During my off-season training, I noticed that my balance was off. Like, really off.
When I got to training camp in September and stepped on the ice, it was like I was lost in space. Everything was just … white. The ice, the boards, everything blended together. I had no depth perception. When a simple pass ricocheted off the boards, it sounded like a bomb going off.
Every time I got checked, it felt like my whole system had to “reboot” for a second, almost like restarting a laptop.
Late in the preseason, I finally got checked out.
But when I was examined for the typical concussion symptoms, I passed all the cognitive tests. That’s when I got really scared. I traveled all around the country, to every concussion specialist I could find, and nobody could tell me what was wrong.
However, something definitely was wrong.
Every time I exerted myself, I felt sick.
Literally, I’d do a few squats and I would feel like throwing up.
I was so frustrated and scared that I turned into a monster. At home, my wife and kids were looking at me like I was a different person.
Finally, the breakthrough came when I visited a former military neurologist by the name of James Kelly, who explained to me that the problem wasn’t with my brain, it was with my vestibular system — the sensory system in my inner ear that sends signals to my brain. The system was damaged, and my brain couldn’t get the proper information to power my balance and spatial awareness.
Basically, my hard drive had been scrambled. The good news was, it could be fixed.
I can’t tell you the sense of relief I felt when a doctor looked at me and said, “Here’s what’s wrong. You are going to get better.”
It seems like a small thing, but after going through the hell of uncertainty, it was everything.
After my article came out last year, I got an overwhelming number of emails and phone calls from people and players who were struggling with the same symptoms. They wanted more details. They wanted somebody to talk to. They wanted answers.
It was a tricky thing. I couldn’t possibly answer all those emails or phone calls individually, and I’m not a doctor. But what I can do is be open about my own journey, and what has worked for me.
The turning point for me in my recovery was realizing that I was going to be fine. It’s almost like there was this psychological barrier where I thought I was broken, until someone gave me hope.
When you’re suffering with a concussion or a vestibular issue, it’s like there’s this cloud of negative talk hanging over you — like Pigpen’s cloud of dirt in Peanuts. Everyone was tiptoeing around me saying, “Ohhhh, how ya doing? Are you okay today? What? You aren’t better today?”
People don’t mean anything by it. But they don’t realize that treating you like you’re broken has a cumulative effect over time. It’s a very isolating feeling.
The message that helped me most is when a teammate or a friend would be positive and say, “You know what, bud? You’re gonna be fine.”
The more I learned about vestibular issues and the science of the body, the more I realized that there were lifestyle changes I could make that would help me in my recovery, and that would even be good for my well-being beyond my recovery. I started reading research papers on neurological science, and many of them came to the same conclusion: Because of the rapid advances in modern technology — especially with smartphones — the human brain is being stimulated at levels that are magnitudes higher than they were a generation ago.
When my recovery process had plateaued, and I felt like I wasn’t getting better, I had an epiphany that I think a lot of people are starting to have: Wait a second … am I tiring my brain out just by doing my normal daily routine?
My entire rehab process for my vestibular issue revolved around mental exercises to rewire the connection between my eyes, ears and brain. And yet I would go home at the end of the day and watch TV, or read articles on my phone before bed, and then lie awake for hours unable to sleep.
The pressure of wanting to get back on the ice was certainly a part of my restlessness, but I felt like there was something else going on, too.
I started researching the science of sleep, and it changed my life. Did you know that filtering out the blue lights that emanate from our electronics can have a huge impact on the quality of our sleep?
This is a scientific fact: Different color spectrums have different effects on your brain. Swapping out harsh blue light for softer amber light will help your brain calm down at night. Companies are listening, too. Apple recently rolled out a feature for the iPhone called Night Shift. If you haven’t noticed it yet, go to your Display & Brightness settings and turn it on.
What does it do? It swaps out the blue light for a warm yellowy-orange light at night.
At first, your screen will look really “warm.” Almost cozy. After a while, you’ll get used to it, and you’ll stop wondering why your eyes used to hurt when you were staring at Twitter at 11 p.m. Without Night Shift, every second you stare at your phone, the rays of blue light are telling your brain, “It’s daytime, it’s daytime, it’s daytime.” So when you put your phone down and try to fall asleep right away, your brain says, “What? It’s daytime.”
If you’re laughing at my interest in this right now, let me just say this: This is coming from a guy whose first NHL training camp was ’97, when “You’ve got mail!” was still cool.
And, if I can be converted to the benefits of progressive sleep habits, then anyone can. This is not a joke: When I came into the league, if you took a drink of water during practice guys would give you a strange look that insinuated you were soft or, even worse, a wimp. Geez, I remember going through two-hour-long practices with maybe a few squirts of water. Nowadays, there would be grievances filed against a team if that happened. Now, guys are drinking wheatgrass shots.
One of the first things I did in my home was replace most of the light bulbs in our bedroom with red-spectrum bulbs. My wife deserves a lot of credit for going along with that one.
It was a simple thing, but it really helped my sleep. And once my sleep improved, my vestibular recovery went into overdrive.
When your body and brain are working at 100%, you don’t really notice the effects of a poor night’s sleep. But if you are dealing with a concussion or a vestibular issue, and your system is running at 50%, the lack of sleep is disastrous to your recovery.
The feeling of being “off,” like I was constantly waking up on the wrong side of the bed, slowly went away.
When I returned to the ice the following season, I kept the exact same routine, even though I knew I would get crap for it. The guys would be laughing at me, but I didn’t care. I genuinely felt more refreshed when I woke up in the morning.
I even had this program on my laptop called f.lux that would switch my screen display to a warm red-yellowy-orange glow at night. I’d be on the plane with my glowing orange screen and guys would look over at me like, There’s crazy Sal.
I mean, this was 2011. It was like I was wearing a tinfoil hat. Now, people are slowly coming around.
Of course, sleep was just one part of my recovery process. But it was the thing that was allowing me to recover from the grueling mental exercises that I would do for hours a day in order to rewire my damaged vestibular system.
Some of the exercises were fairly routine, like the convergence/divergence exercises I did to strengthen my eye muscles. I’d have an eyepatch over one eye, and I’d follow a ball on a string. Then I’d switch to the other eye. I’d do this for hours. At first, it was almost impossible. Slowly but surely, my ocular system was becoming stronger.
The big challenge, ultimately, was to make all my systems work together. For this, what I found most helpful was trampoline work. Yes, trampoline work. It is phenomenal for balance issues.
But it wasn’t just jumping up and down.
At the rehab facility, the trampoline would be in the middle of the room, and on all four walls there were various colors, shapes, patterns and numbers. My trainer would call out all sorts of commands while I was jumping, telling me to turn left, right, 180 degrees, 360 degrees. I too would be calling back all sorts of patterns, shapes and numbers from memory. I would do this for three hours straight, and sometimes twice a day. He would push me until I was both mentally and physically unable to actually perform a single jump anymore. In fact, I remember times that I would be in such a daze that I wasn’t even legally allowed to drive myself home.
If you think this is silly, or childish, then you’ve never had a 90-mile-an-hour slapshot destroy everything you once took for granted.
I felt unbearably nauseous many times. I wanted to quit. But I kept getting better. The process was rewiring the complex system between my eyes, ears and brain.
Again, if you think this is weird, or crazy, just know this — the benefits of this kind of vestibular training are becoming so obvious that some players are starting to use it not just for injury recovery, but also for straight up performance enhancement.
Every hockey player goes to the gym to do squats, and that’s great. But what kind of training will give you better balance and vision on the ice? What kind of training will help you see that blindside hit coming? Everyone is training to be physically faster and stronger. But as the speed of the game keeps increasing, how do we train our brains to react more quickly to the action?
It’s a question that’s worth serious consideration — both in NHL circles and at the youth hockey level.
A lot of people read my story and thought it was inspiring. The truth is that there were some very hard days. In the end, I tried to stick the mantra, If you’re going through hell … keep going.
When I returned to the ice the season after my rehab, I was playing the best hockey of my life at the age of 35. My kids saw me play in the Stanley Cup finals. I felt like a normal person again. In the span of 10 months, I went from feeling like I was floating in space to feeling razor-sharp.
I had rebuilt my vestibular system to the point where it was even stronger than before. I truly believe that.
Of course, we should treat concussions and vestibular injuries with the utmost care. I don’t want anyone to go through the hell that I went through. But I really believe that instead of just saying, “Oh no, this person is broken,” and contributing to the cycle of negativity, the hockey community needs to be curious and relentless in finding out the best methods for recovery.
We should attack this issue with positivity, not negativity.
My struggles could have been a potential career-ending situation. But I turned it into an opportunity to discover how to become a better hockey player, and to help others going through similar situations.
There is hope. You can get back up. You will. I am living proof. (Sometimes you just have to wear the tinfoil hat.)
You can help Defeat Dizziness (and enter to win a chance to watch a Devils game with Bryce) by supporting VEDA’s crowdfunding campaign. VEDA connects people with medical specialists and clinics that specialize in diagnosing and treating vestibular disorders.