“If I Should Die….”

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Kendra Fisher, Goalie / Canada Women's National Hockey Team - The Players' Tribune

Sometimes around the holidays, I think about the times my father had to drug me just to get me home for Christmas.

This is embarrassing to admit, but that was our arrangement. With my mind the way it was, it was the only way to get me into the car.

You see, when I was 20 years old the thought of leaving my apartment in Toronto to drive three hours to my family’s house in Kincardine, Ontario, was terrifying to me. So terrifying that thinking about it would cause my heart to race. The room would start spinning and my arms would go numb. It was hard to breathe. Anytime I had a panic attack it felt like I was dying. It was like my body was screaming, Leaving is not safe!

So every Christmas for three years, my father would drive to my place when I was “ready” to leave. I would swallow an antinausea drug called Gravol, which would make me drowsy. When I got so drowsy that I was about to pass out, Dad would lead me outside to the back of his van, where he’d already removed the seats and put down a mattress with a set of blankets. I’d go to sleep and wake up in Kincardine, where I’d open presents with my family and otherwise stay cooped up in my old bedroom for a few days watching movies.

I had to find some way to distract myself from the chaotic thoughts in my brain.

The fear.

The sadness.

The constant hopelessness.

I was exhausted. And yet many nights I was too anxious to sleep. I felt pathetic.

Some people who don’t understand my story like to make assumptions about how I became this way — how I lost my Olympic dreams and nearly everything else I used to live for.

They’d say things like, Well, you were a goalie playing at an elite level — with all the stress and the pressure. That must be it.

Sure, I was one of the best goalies in Canada. By this time, I had won multiple national championships with Team Ontario and the Toronto Aeros. I’d been selected for the talent pool for the national team. I had scholarships to several different universities in both the U.S. and Canada. There were a lot of people who expected me to put on that Team Canada jersey and bring home an Olympic gold medal. I was one of them.

So there was a lot of pressure. And I just cracked, right?

But something was off — and had been off for a long time.

When I was four years old there was a part of me that was a carefree, strong, outgoing little girl who was completely immersed in sports. I wanted to try every sport I could find: baseball, basketball, soccer, you name it.

Then one day after figure skating practice, I was sitting in the bleachers watching my older brother play hockey and, with all of my four-year-old wisdom, said:

“When I grow up to be a boy, I want to be a hockey player!”

And so I did—become a hockey player, I mean.

When I started playing, I quickly became a goalie. I discovered that the goaltender spends the most time on the ice. (Who doesn’t want to play more?) I was tall for my age and I could cover the crease when I lay across the ice. I wanted to be my team’s hero. I Iiked pressure. I still like it.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t that strong, outgoing little girl when it came to bedtime.

Throughout my childhood my parents had this routine for my brother and I. My mother and father would stand in the hallway between my bedroom and my brother’s and say a prayer.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”

If I should die…

I was scared that if I died in my sleep, or if my parents died in theirs, then we wouldn’t know we loved each other.

Just tell me you love me, I would think every night.

Tell me you’ll see me in the morning.

I’d prod my parents to say the words I needed to hear.

“So you’ll wake me up before school?”

They’d say yes. And then they’d give me a hug and I could finally rest.

My fear of death was obsessive, and as I got older, it grew into something much worse.

In high school, my days were full of sports and I loved it. I had all the seasons covered. I was on the baseball team, the tennis team and, of course, the hockey team. While most teenagers were hanging out or going to parties, I was either at a game or a practice. People knew me as a confident athlete. I didn’t have the guts to tell them what was really happening in my body.

But I’ll tell you.

Picture your worst fear — let’s say it’s bees. There’s one crawling on your arm and you’re starting to sweat, praying it won’t sting you.

And you know that feeling of when you lean back in your chair too far and you know you’re going to fall? Your heart starts pounding out of your chest.

Or picture yourself running on a treadmill with a straw in your mouth and your nose plugged. You can’t get enough oxygen and a rush of adrenaline courses through your veins. You feel as if you’re about to faint.

That’s how I lived 90% of the time.

As a teenager, I would have those sorts of episodes every single day. And the worst part of it was, I didn’t understand why. There was no trauma to speak of. No tangible trigger.

Some days I would wake up in a panic. I’d be afraid to go to bed because I was so scared of being scared the next morning. My bouts of panic were then met with days of exhaustion, and a deep, inexplicable sadness.

It was a constant battle, but I hid it from the world with sports, school and everyday life. Nobody knew. I mean nobody. Not even my parents.

I mean, how could I explain something that I didn’t even understand?

“I’d have a couple of drinks and start to realize that I wasn’t feeling those things as much”

Kendra Fisher discusses using alcohol as a coping mechanism. (1:07)

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Hockey was my safe space and it gave me that sense of accomplishment. When I was having a good game, it was 60 minutes of, That’s my crease, that’s my space. And nothing else existed in that space, not even my problems. Hockey was something I could succeed at even if I was at my worst.

But I needed something more, and I was seeking it in all the wrong places.

Like at a funeral.

I found that I was strangely drawn to tragedy. Kincardine is a small town, so if somebody died, you probably knew them in some loose way, if not closely. It wasn’t weird to show up at their wake — even if you hadn’t known them well.

I remember when one kid from my high school — who I had barely known — was killed in a car and I ended up going to his funeral. Only now do I understand that I had wanted to be around people who were in as much pain as I was. I wanted an excuse for people to hug me. To tell them that I was there for them, and for them to tell me that they were there for me, too.

Just tell me you love me.

When I was 17, I was hanging out with one of my teammates when she said something that I’ll never forget.

“You know I just… I often wish that something horrible would happen to my parents so that everybody would want to take care of me and be there for me.”

And you know what? I got it …

I hated that it made sense to me.

 

In 1999, right before my 20th birthday, I received an invite to a Team Canada camp in Calgary. This one was special. The players they picked at the end of those two weeks would travel to play in the Four Nations Cup.

I was on the brink of realizing my dreams, and yet I was terrified. Things had gotten so much worse.

I need help.

Just weeks before the camp, I called my parents.

“Mom, Dad …” I told them everything.

At the time, I had moved to a private school in Toronto for my senior year, and I was also playing in what used to be Canada’s National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). I graduated. Found an apartment. Was living a very independent life.

But, hockey was becoming less and less of a safe space for me, and I developed this deep fear of being alone. When my teammates skated away from me to follow the play, my heart would beat louder.

Faster.

I was convinced that when the play made it back to me, I would be dead.

I had to have someone with me 24/7. If a friend was over and had to use the washroom, I’d follow them down the hallway because I was just too scared to be by myself and my thoughts.

Was I dying?

My stomach was in knots.

Some days it felt like I was having a heart attack. One day I took myself to the E.R. The doctors said things were fine, but they sent me to see specialists just in case.

The cardiologist told me my heart was fine.

The neurologist told me my head was fine.

The gastrointestinal specialist told me my digestive tract was fine.

Everybody was telling me I was fine.

Suck it up.

And that’s what I did as I flew off to Calgary. But I needed my parents to be at the airport in case I couldn’t convince myself to get on a plane.

When I called them, they were nothing but supportive. They wanted to do whatever they could to support my dream. Together we devised a plan.

Dad left for Calgary a day before I did, to be there to meet me when I arrived. Mom would come later after getting me safely on the plane. They stayed in their own hotel room during camp. I couldn’t risk one of my coaches or teammates seeing them because no one brings chaperones to camp. I was afraid/terrified that if anyone saw them they would know that something was wrong.

After I faked my way through the first two-hour practice, I found a stairwell and broke down. Then I washed my face and went to off-ice training. And then I found a bathroom stall and broke down again.

By that night I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. My roommate would probably see me freaking out in our dorm room. I couldn’t hide anymore.

I went into the coach’s office in the arena and told her that my grandma, who lived in Calgary, had been rushed to the hospital and I wanted to make sure my family was O.K. I lied through my teeth:

“I’ll be back in the morning,” I said.

I spent that night in my dad’s hotel room in pieces. I couldn’t breathe.

What’s wrong with me?

I didn’t sleep a wink.

The next morning, I did go back to the arena. But this time I told my coaches the truth. I told them why I had to go home.

They asked me if it would make any difference if they told me that I had already made Team Canada.

It was one of the most memorable moments of my life … but not because it’s one that I want to remember.

“No,” I said.

It didn’t help at all.

What the hell have I just done?

I just gave up on the only thing I had ever wanted.

I found out five days after I left camp that the national team coaches wanted to try to help me. They had booked me an appointment with a sports psychologist. I have to admit, I was kind of insulted.

I don’t need a shrink. I’m not crazy.

I remember my first appointment with the psychologist. It was the most awkward staring contest of my life. I didn’t know what to say. But I knew that the doctor reported to Team Canada, and I had to convince her that I was O.K.

So I told her about the car accident that had injured my back when I was in high school. We did some serious therapy after that, and after two weeks, I was cured. She gave me a pass and I was free to go.

Then I realized how sick I really was.

I couldn’t eat. My stomach was so upset it couldn’t process food. I dropped from 160 pounds to 120. The insomnia ensued and I couldn’t leave the apartment without my body revolting.

On January 3, 2000, I called my parents in Kincardine. My mother answered the phone and I could  barely get out the words.

“I’m not going to be here tomorrow.”

It wasn’t even so much that I wanted to die. It was just that I actually couldn’t imagine making it through one more night. You know how you think about tomorrow and you have this playlist of the things that are going to happen? Like, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, or I’m meeting so-and-so for coffee tomorrow.

I just couldn’t see it. “Tomorrow” didn’t exist. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t picture waking up the next day.

My mother rushed to Toronto and somehow forced me to see my old psychologist. That day, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety, severe panic disorder, agoraphobia (a fear of leaving safe spaces), obsessive-compulsive disorder and clinical depression.

My mother sat in my doctor’s office as I lay on the couch. She wanted to know how she could help.

“You pretty much need to forget everything you know about your daughter,” my therapist said. ”It’s like you need to go back to when she was a three-year-old who relied on her parents to get through each day.”

This can’t be me. I just made Team Canada.

Along with promising to take my meds, I had to commit myself to something — anything — that would get me out of my apartment. I chose hockey.

The next five years of my life felt so empty. I took my pills. I saw my shrink three times a week. I went to hockey and tried not to cry. A close friend or family member had to stay with me 24/7.

Some days I would sit in my apartment staring out my window watching the sun rise and fall. I measured the time by the moments I didn’t have a panic attack.

After five years, I was so disgusted with the meaninglessness of my life that I knew that something had to change.

In 2005, I finally decided to accept the fact that I had a mental illness.

I told my doctors that I wanted to make every effort to get better. I wanted to learn more about the human brain. I found the right medicines to eliminate the extreme episodes of my depression and anxiety. My therapist taught me the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy and controlling the nature of my thoughts. I learned coping tools to help curb anxiety, including deep-breathing techniques and meditation. And even though I objected at first, my therapist also convinced me to do yoga. Now I do it frequently. It helps to keep me grounded.

I also found a naturopath and started taking vitamins and supplements. I started eating clean because I learned that excess sugar and fat are terrible for mood disorders. And I started to appreciate cardio again. I learned that exercise helps to improve one’s mental health by increasing energy and positive mood.

These habits that ultimately saved my life didn’t become a lifestyle overnight. And even today, I can’t say I “cured” myself. There are no cures for something like this. But I was getting to a place where I could actually understand my problems and function with them.

And one day this switch flipped.

The switch wasn’t this moment of rainbows and unicorns and butterflies and, “Oh my gosh, life is wonderful.”

Actually, it was more like warm cherries.

In the summer of 2010 I received a phone call from former Team Canada teammates who had asked me to play with them and the national in-line hockey team at the world championships in Prague. Their goalie had just blown her knee a few weeks before the tournament.

Even though I was scared out of my mind, I said yes … but under one condition.

I needed to know that at least one person knew what I was going through just in case something happened when I was overseas. I was finally brave enough to be honest with a friend of mine who was on the team. When she heard my story, she gave me her full support.

It felt good to be so open, even if it remained our little secret.

Of course, traveling to Prague wasn’t easy — I packed Gravol so I could pass out on the plane — but playing at the highest level in a new sport was exhilarating. And the best part of it was that winning that silver medal wasn’t the highlight of the whole trip.

During one of our days off, we walked around the city to do the whole tourist thing. While the rest of the women broke off into groups or went their own way, I wandered the brick streets by myself, looking at all the stalls of a food market.

A fruit vendor caught my eye, and she handed me a bag of cherries that had been sitting in the sun. They were so warm. I sat on a bench to enjoy them and watch the people go by.

I turned around and behind me was a white brick wall graffitied in blue.

It read, Love.

A glowing feeling washed over me. A deep sense of knowing.

In that moment, I knew my life was going to be okay.

I am telling you my story because of a girl who committed suicide seven years ago.

Before that, I had been happy with the fact that only a few people knew of my condition. For years, secrecy was crucial to my happiness.

Until I realized I was a part of a much bigger problem.

On November 13, 2010, Daron Richardson, a member of the U16 Team Ontario Program and the youngest daughter of Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson, committed suicide.

I was sitting in the head office at the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association when I heard the news. I didn’t know Daron, but thinking about her mother finding her daughter’s body shattered my heart.

I realized I was part of the reason why kids like Daron didn’t know that there’s hope.

I was part of the reason people didn’t know they could live through the pain they were feeling.

That day, I promised I would never be a part of the problem again.

Today, as a public speaker, I tell my story to thousands of people around the world, which might seem pretty ironic for a person who lives with severe anxiety.

But to me, nothing could be as painful as the 10 years I spent in darkness and suffering. By telling my story, I want to build support for people with mental illness in North America.

We are in the middle of a crisis in Canada and the U.S. The suicide rates are unbelievable. The BBC reported earlier this year that the suicide rate for teen girls in Canada has increased 38% in the past decade. A similar trend is taking place in the States.

Mental illness is still stigmatized. Many of those who are suffering would rather stay isolated than risk reaching out for help — or they simply don’t know how to begin to look for it.

People don’t know how to find the resources they need — or how to tread water until they can get to those resources. Most of all, people need to know that they don’t have to suffer alone.

We need to learn how to reach out and give someone a hug, or hold somebody’s hand, or just let others know that they know that mental illness is real, and that we’re not going to let them be alone with whatever thoughts are troubling them.

Everyone just needs that one person to be there for them….

To show them the writing on the wall.


For more information about supporting people with mental illness check out my website mentallyfit.com

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