Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

It’s the summer of 1994, I am standing at the edge of a cliff in Kamloops, British Columbia, and I am checking out.

In February, as a 21-year-old starting goalie, I’d backstopped Canada to an Olympic silver medal. In June, as the third goalie for the New York Rangers, I’d drunk out of the Stanley Cup. I have a girlfriend at home. I have a turbo sports car parked behind me. I have the horizon in front of me — so much horizon — and as I look out past the end of it, I am completely calm.

I’m going to see how fast this sports car can go … and drive it right off this cliff.

And then, finally, I’ll be at peace. My thoughts will be gone.

I get in my car and back up a mile and a half so I can get some speed. I’ve been down these roads hundreds of times, while playing junior hockey for the Kamloops Blazers. All I ever wanted to be, ever since I was a little kid, was a goalie. Ever since I saw Gerry Cheevers in that iconic fiberglass mask — you know the one, with the black stitches painted all over it — I just knew. That’s it. I want to be the guy behind that mask. I want to play in the NHL.

Now I’m 22 years old, and I’ve made it to the NHL. I have my whole life ahead of me.

And none of it matters.

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I crank up the music. I slam my foot down on the gas and try not to think. I am doneI can’t do it anymore.

I’m in first gear, second gear, third gear….

I’m up to 100 mph.

The g-force sucks me back into the seat.

I’m up to 140.

I’m coming up to the cliff. I’m sorry to everybody — I really am. I’m so sorry. But I just can’t do it anymore.

I’m coming up to the edge of the cliff.

This is the end.

And then — for whatever reason — this vision pops into my head.

I slam on the brakes, and the car starts skidding — and skidding … and skidding. It skids for what seems like forever.

Until it stops.

All I can do is sit there, sobbing and sobbing.

Please, I think, somebody help me.

I can still recall the exact moment that my brain started lying to me. It was May 6, 1994, between Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. As the third goalie for the Rangers, I was what’s known as a “black ace.” When you’re a black ace, there’s no pressure. I wasn’t playing — I wasn’t even practicing every day, but I still got to travel with the team. I was just a 21-year-old kid with a front row seat to history.

I was standing at a bar in Washington, D.C., with two of the Capitals’ black aces. Back in those days, it was common for guys from different teams to hang out together. We were having a beer, just laughing and telling stories, when all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, and completely for no reason whatsoever….

I had this thought.

It was a horrible, ridiculous, dark thought.

Have you ever had one of those? A flash in your mind. Something totally absurd. It’s almost like your brain is telling you, “Think of the darkest, most horrible thing you can imagine.”

To give you the tamest example possible: Maybe you’re driving your car, and you imagine yourself turning the wheel and driving into oncoming traffic. You’d never do it, of course. So why are you thinking it? It’s absurd.

Courtesy of Corey Hirsch

And then it’s gone. You think about your dog, or an email you have to send, or what you want to eat for lunch, and you don’t even have time to laugh it off, because it’s gone before you even have time to analyze it. It’s just a flash, you know?

But as I was standing there in the bar, the dark thought wouldn’t go away. It kept repeating and repeating. I was actively trying to get it out of my head — but the more I tried, the more I couldn’t stop thinking this horrible, dark, ridiculous thought. The thought hammered me, and I started freaking out. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t anything.

Dude, what is going on? Where is this coming from?

I could barely breathe. I couldn’t hear the guys talking. All I could hear was this dark thought.

I made an excuse to the guys that I was tired, and I went back to my hotel room. But when I went to sleep, the thought was still hammering me, and it was actually getting heavier and louder.

I will never forget the last thought I had as I drifted off to sleep.

These thoughts are never going away.

When I woke up the next morning, after a deep sleep, they were still there. Not just still there in the background either. Still there, screaming at me. Pounding me.

I had no idea what was wrong with me. What do these thoughts mean? Am I a bad person? Did I do something wrong? Why is this happening?

Holy shit, am I going insane?

I mean, it’s not like there hadn’t been signs that something was up.

Two years earlier, during my first season in the AHL, I moved into this tiny apartment in Binghamton, New York. I was on the bottom floor, and I could hear the couple above me walking around all the time. The footsteps were deafening. It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep. I started leaving the house at night and not coming back until two in the morning, when I knew for sure that they would be asleep, and that I could finally be at peace.

But the crazy thing was, once I got on the ice, everything was fine. I was having an amazing year. I went 35-4-5 and was the AHL’s rookie of the year. But off the ice, I was a mess. I was so lonely. I would go home, and I would feel this horrible, unrelenting anxiety. Hanging over me. Hammering on me. I moved apartments five times that year to try to find peace.

But when summer came, I went back home to Calgary and everything was quiet again. The noise was gone. I figured I just had sensitive hearing and that the stress of being away from home for the first time had made it worse. For months, I was totally fine. I went to the ’94 Olympics with Team Canada, traveled the world, won a silver medal and then joined the Rangers for their playoff run. I was living the dream.

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

And then one night, I was at that bar in D.C. having a beer with the other two black aces and….

Darkness. Pure, relentless darkness. For no reason.

When I woke up the next morning, and the thoughts were still there, repeating over and over, I figured: Well, just get home. If you get back to Calgary, this will all go away, just like last time. You’ll be at peace.

But how was I going to get home without anyone from the Rangers knowing what was going on inside my brain? Because if they knew, I figured I would never play in the NHL again. I would be done.

After the morning skate, I grabbed an extra stick blade from the bin and stuffed it in my bag. When I got back to my hotel, I sat on the edge of the bed in silence and took out the blade.

My plan was to break my hand and hide the injury until the next day at practice. That way, I could go down after taking a shot, and the team would send me home to recover without knowing what was really going on. In those days, the blades were wooden and heavy as hell. I smashed the blade against my left hand three or four times, as hard as I possibly could.

Bad plan.

I just couldn’t break it.

Instead, I bruised the hell out of it. I had to stay for the entire Cup run. Every single minute, I was dying inside. Night sweats, tremors every morning … the unrelenting thoughts and anxiety were crippling.

It got so bad that I told my parents I needed help. My mom actually got on the next flight to New York just so she could be with me, but she had no idea what to do. One day after practice, we went sightseeing so I could get some fresh air. We got to the top of the Empire State Building, overlooking the whole city, and….

I mean, think about this: All your son ever wanted to do was play in the NHL. He gets drafted by the New York Rangers. He’s along for the ride on a Stanley Cup run. He’s standing on top of the world, literally.

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

And he’s completely broken.

I looked my mom right in the eye and said, “I wish I could jump off this building right now.”

I really meant it. She started crying.

At the rink, guys would come up to me smiling, trying to bullshit.

“Hirschey, what’s up, bud?”

And it was like they weren’t even there. My brain was too full. My brain was on fire. I’d just nod and walk away.

The Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. New York City went crazy. The next morning, I was on the first flight back to Calgary. I didn’t stick around for the parade. No pictures. Nothing. Guys probably thought I was an arrogant jerk, but I didn’t care. I had to get out of there. I was desperate.

But when I got home, the thoughts didn’t go away. None of it made sense. I didn’t have any trauma in my life. I had never felt sad or worried before any of this started. I had a great childhood with amazing parents. My dad never missed a practice or a game of mine … not one. The weirdest thing of all was that I didn’t even feel much pressure when it came to my job. Hockey was the one distraction from my thoughts. I could go on the ice, and concentrate 100% of my brain on the puck, and feel at peace. When the national anthem started, the dark thoughts went away. But as soon as I got back to my locker after a game, the cycle would start all over again.

Hammering, hammering, hammering.

Darkness. Disgust. Shame. Anxiety.

I had no idea where to even begin looking for help. The words therapy and mental health just weren’t used in my household. I grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked for the friendliest ad for a therapist that I could find. But talking about my thoughts with the therapist only seemed to make things worse, and she didn’t give me any clinical diagnosis.

I’m not blaming her. Maybe I was too young and afraid to articulate what I was feeling. But at the end of my sessions with her, I felt like … Oh my God, what if all these thoughts are real?

And that’s when I got really scared. What if there’s no explanation? What if there’s no remedy? Maybe I was just losing my mind? The guilt and shame just compounded. I could barely get out of bed.

Then one day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. In my messed up brain, anything was better than being alone 24/7 with my dark thoughts. I decided to end my life. I went up to the top of the cliff in Kamloops and thought, I’m checking out. Let’s see how fast this car can go.

I am here today because of a vision that popped into my head at 140 miles an hour. I wish I could say that it was a warm and happy thought that stopped me. But it was actually just this:

What if I don’t die?

What if I survive this crash, and I’m severely injured, and I’m stuck in bed with all these dark thoughts, on repeat, for the rest of my life?

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

I am here today because of a vision that popped into my head at 140 miles an hour.

That image was so terrifying that, somehow, it seemed worse than death. It made me slam on the brakes.

From that day forward, I told myself that I would hide my pain from everybody in the hockey world as best I could, and try to go on. I’d stay in bed, drowning in my thoughts for as long as possible, then I’d go to the rink and get on the ice and have some temporary peace. Then I’d get home as quickly as possible and start drowning again, until I finally fell asleep.

It was a bad plan.

After a decent season back in the AHL, the Rangers traded me to the Canucks in April 1995. I can only imagine what the management in New York thought of me.

My goalie mask from that era has become kind of well-known in the hockey world. So well-known, in fact, that it sits in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The mask is semi-famous because of its awesome design, but it actually had a much deeper meaning for me. When the painter, Frank Cipra, asked me what theme I was looking for, I thought it would be cool to go with a Halloween theme, since Vancouver’s colors were still orange, yellow and black at that time.

“Let’s go with something scary,” I said.

We went with the Bates house from the movie Psycho. I can’t remember who suggested it, but I thought it was perfect — my own little secret, and nobody would know but me.

When I got the mask back from him, I pulled it out of the box and it was … beautiful.

On either side of the mask were haunting mirror images of the Bates house. In the middle, there was a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock. The sky was blood red and orange, like the air was on fire.

It was the perfect representation of what was going on inside my head. Every single day, when I woke up in the morning, it felt like the front of my brain was on fire.

Believe it or not, my first season in Vancouver, I kept it together. I was functional. It was a fresh start, closer to my family. Plus, I was focused on making an NHL team, so everything was exciting. I was still full of anxiety, but when I was on the ice at least I could obsess over the puck instead of my own thoughts.

John Giamundo/Getty Images

My second season, though, the wheels came off.

My dark thoughts became more and more crippling. I couldn’t even get out of bed to eat, and I lost a ton of weight. At one point, I was down to about 140 pounds. Two months into the ’96–97 season, we were on an East Coast road trip when I felt like I just couldn’t take it anymore. I told myself that if I didn’t get help, I was going to find a way to end my life — for sure this time.

On November 13, I pulled our trainer aside before the morning skate — right in the tunnel under Nassau Coliseum — and I told him the truth.

I told him I was not well.

I told him I had two options: Either I had to get some help, or I was done.

He looked at me in complete shock. And I can understand why. In the ’90s, you simply didn’t talk about mental health. It wasn’t that people in hockey didn’t care about one another. They did — but it wasn’t the culture back then. And while things have improved in recent years, it still isn’t the culture.

To our trainer’s credit, after the initial shock wore off, he made sure I got some help. The team contacted a psychologist in Vancouver and set up an appointment. The only problem was, we still had two games to play on the road trip. Our backup goalie was a rookie. So that night, I actually played against the Islanders.

I let in five goals. We lost in overtime.

The dark thoughts were screaming at me now. I mean screaming. And now they were following me onto the ice. The next day at our morning skate in New Jersey, it felt like my brain finally floated away. I was standing in the crease, and it was like a thick fog had entered the rink. I could barely see. I couldn’t hear anyone. I could see myself standing there, but my brain was somewhere else. It was floating around the rink, in the fog.

“Hirschey, you O.K.?” Hirschey?”

At that point, it became impossible for my teammates and coaches to ignore what was happening. No one knew exactly what was going on, myself included, but we all seemed to agree that I was broken. After practice, our coach, Tom Renney, called the team together for a meeting. Tom told the team that I wasn’t well, and that they’d be starting Mike Fountain in goal that night.

I had my head in my hands. I couldn’t look at anybody. I felt so ashamed, and so alone. I thought for sure I’d be reading about it in the papers the next day. In 1996, if it leaked that a guy was having mental health issues … holy hell. It would have been so overwhelming for me.

But nobody said a word.

A few people treated me like the plague, sure. But nobody said a word to the press, or to anybody publicly.

We went back home to Vancouver and I met with the team’s psychologist. I had no real hope that he could help me. I had already seen therapists. Talking just seemed to make it worse. But this guy was different. He evaluated me for a full day, and then he said five words that changed everything. I am here telling my story today because of these five words.

“You have obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

All it took him was one session to diagnose me. He just looked at me and said it matter-of-factly, like there was no doubt.

“This is treatable,” he said. “It’s not curable, as we all have OCD tendencies, but it is manageable, and treatable.”

He explained that my issue wasn’t moral, or even mental. It wasn’t a choice. It was physical. My goalie mask was more than a metaphor. The reason why the front of my brain felt like it was on fire was because of a dysfunction that starts in the frontal lobe. Basically, my wires were crossed.

I was so happy just to have some explanation for what was going on in my brain that I almost started weeping in his office.

Just saying it out loud took a huge weight off me.

“I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

I am not insane. I am not a bad person. I am not weak. I have an illness, and there is a treatment.

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

(I actually went out that same night and shut out Dallas.)

You may be reading this thinking, “OCD? Like the hand-washing thing? Like the people who love to be organized? I have that, too!”

Well, no. That’s not the kind of OCD I have.

In our society, OCD has become shorthand for anybody who carries around a little bottle of hand sanitizer. Yes, compulsive hand-washing can be one of the signs of OCD. However, there are many different variations of OCD, and many of the compulsions are purely mental — you can’t see the disease just by looking at a person.

Some people have religious OCD, where they are hammered by feelings of guilt for sins that they haven’t even committed yet, and are paralyzed by the fear that they’ll go to hell for these hypothetical sins. I remember feeling a little bit of that during my Catholic school days, but that wasn’t my specific issue.

Some people have a type of OCD where they are paralyzed by the fear that, merely by touching a doorknob or a subway pole, they will contract an incurable disease. In the ’90s, when the AIDS epidemic was at its height, I had this same crippling fear.

Some people have “harm OCD,” where they are hammered with mental images of themselves committing acts of violence — acts that they would never actually commit, but that they cannot stop envisioning.

And here is the most important part. Here is what I didn’t fully understand before I was diagnosed, and what many people reading this may not understand: When you have OCD, your brain is not saying, “I want to do this horrible thing.” Your brain is saying, “Oh my God, what if  I did this horrible thing? How horrible would that be? For the love of God, I hope I never do this.”

And on, and on, and on, and on.  You fight the thought, and that’s what makes it worse. The more you fight, the more it digs in.

Darkness, darkness, darkness, darkness.

On a loop.

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

People with OCD want 100% certainty. They want 100% certainty that they’re not going to harm anyone. They want 100% certainty that they’re not going to get some deadly disease. But their brain is lying to them — screaming at them, actually — that they’re going to contract a deadly disease, and then they’re going to inadvertently pass it on to their loved ones, and then it will be all their fault.

OCD is not a disorder of harm, it’s actually a disorder of hyper-protection. People with OCD are particularly kind, and to hurt another human would absolutely destroy them.

Darkness, darkness, darkness, darkness. On a loop.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a goalie because of the cool masks. I wanted to put on a mask and hide behind it. But I was also enamored with this feeling I got when I made a save, and I bailed out my teammates, and everybody cheered me for it. At the most basic level, I had this desire to protect my teammates.

When I think back on those years in the NHL, when I was lost completely lost in the darkness, it is painful. But I will never, ever forget the teammates who tried to protect me. I will never forget the guys who went out of their way to make sure I had somebody to talk to, even though I never told them what was really wrong.

For all they knew, I was just an arrogant kid. But they were there for me anyway.

Dave Babych.

Alexander Mogilny.

Trevor Linden.

Russ Courtnall.

Hell, even the guy I was competing with in Vancouver for the starting job, Kirk McLean, showed me kindness. I remember after one particularly rough game, he walked right up to me on the team plane and put his arm around me and said, “It’s alright, buddy.”

I don’t know why such a simple thing makes me so emotional to this day, but it does. I was so lonely and lost in my head that just knowing that somebody gave a damn about me meant everything to me.

After I was diagnosed with OCD, it’s not like everything was magically better. I had good stretches and bad stretches. But you know what? I played professional hockey for nine more years — between the NHL, the AHL and internationally.

A mental health issue is not a sign of weakness.

If anything, athletes who make it to a high level while battling these issues are mentally stronger than the average person. On days when I could barely get out of bed, I was able to push my misery and pain to the side for 60 minutes and go out and win games in the NHL.

So don’t tell me I’m weak.

And that’s why my main message to anyone reading this in the hockey community is this: I know that mental health is not an easy topic to discuss, and I know better than anyone that hockey players will do anything in their power to hide their feelings. But we need to do a better job of saying something when somebody is clearly struggling.

OCD affects roughly 2–3% of the population. There are almost certainly guys in the NHL right now who are suffering from OCD, anxiety or depression and are almost certainly hiding it.

You might know a guy like that in your locker room. You may not want to say anything, because it’s awkward, or because it’s not “what guys do,” even though he’s clearly struggling. People don’t just suddenly withdraw out of nowhere. People don’t completely change their personality simply because of playing time, or because of a coach, or because of a contract dispute.

There’s usually something deeper going on.

I dug a hole for four years. The average person suffers with OCD for six to nine years before being diagnosed. Once you’re in that deep, dark hole, it takes years to fill it back in. It took a long time for me to dig out of mine, but I’m in a much better place now. There is help, and there is hope.

So I have a final message, and it’s for anyone who is reading this who can relate to what I was going through.

When I was going 140 miles an hour, about to drive my car off a cliff, I could not see my future. I could see nothing except for my own dark thoughts. I could not see all the beautiful moments that I have now, that I would have missed out on.

Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune

I would have missed out on the birth of my children.

I would have missed lacing up my son’s skates for the first time.

I would have missed listening to my oldest daughter’s beautiful voice when she plays her guitar.

I would have missed seeing my youngest daughter prance onstage in The Nutcracker. I would have missed her waving to me in the crowd.

All those wonderful things … gone.

But I slammed on the brakes that day.

If you are in a dark place right now, thinking that you can’t go on anymore, I know you probably cannot foresee these kind of things in your future. But your brain is lying to you.

It’s lying.

There is a light, however faint, in all this darkness. There is help out there for you. There is hope. I swear to God, hope is real. You will reach the light.