The Things You Can’t See

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During every pregame skate, I used to look into the crowd and wonder what the fans could see.

I mean, like, what could they really see?

Could they see the cuts on my hands — and the blood on my laces — from obsessively lacing and relacing my skates again and again?

Could they see the bags under my eyes from having gotten just two hours of sleep for the fifth straight night?

Could they see the pain I was going through from trying to work up the nerve to tell the coach that tonight was the night when it was just all too much, and I couldn’t play?

I’ve been an NHL player for 11 years. And until very recently, I’ve had untreated obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD as we commonly know it.

There is simply no way to overstate the impact it’s had on my career, and on my life. It controlled me, it almost broke me for good. And there were times when I thought I might never be able to tell a story like this. But I’m here, and I am.

I want to tell this story because, really, it’s not about me. It’s about what happened to me, yes — but it’s not about me. It’s about, hopefully, getting people help. Even just one person. I know, without a doubt, that there are athletes and people all around the world suffering from the same thing I do, or something similar. Because I understand what OCD, if left untreated for too long, can do to a person.

The thing is, in the beginning, it seemed harmless. And I remember the beginning.

I mean the very, very beginning.

Courtesy of Colin Wilson

When I was little, maybe seven or eight years old, I’d count the trees when I would go on car rides with my parents. I’d be in the back seat of our caravan, and I’d watch them go by.

One, two, three, four.

Then I’d restart.

One, two, three, four.

The faster we went, the faster the trees would pass and the faster I’d count.

It didn’t seem out of the ordinary. It was just … I don’t know, the way I was.

My OCD manifested itself in different forms throughout my life. When I was in junior hockey, and even when I played at BU. I worried constantly about injuries. I’d think about my knees when I was on the ice, despite never having had any knee problems before. I had a chronic groin injury from when I was younger, and when it would be flaring up, I’d just drop down into a squat while I was doing everyday things to make sure it was O.K.

It was that feeling of a lack of control that eventually triggered the negative thoughts — like the ones I used to have during pregame skates.

And it’s almost this entirely separate part of your brain that gets activated when this happens. For me, my ability to play hockey never felt threatened when I was young. I grew up in Winnipeg, and like so many kids, I wanted to play in the NHL. And I always knew deep down that I was going to make it. My dad and grandfather had both played in the NHL. It’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s all I ever wanted to be.

My OCD played a role in making me the player I was.

For a long time, I didn’t have negative thoughts on the ice. I obsessed over my game, but in a positive way. I wanted to be the best player I could be because it was … it was everything to me.

My OCD played a role in making me the player I was. And I know there are many athletes out there who have that same connection. They might be afraid to seek help because on the outside they’re “succeeding” and they won’t want to change anything. I know I can tell them that that isn’t the case, but I also know they might not believe me.

Because I probably wouldn’t have believed it, either.

When the Nashville Predators took me in the first round of the draft in 2008, it was such an incredible moment to experience with my family. I had no negative thoughts or concerns about any of my OCD tendencies. I was just me. Colin Wilson, NHL player. That’s what mattered. And at the time I don’t think the term OCD had ever been brought up to me or had even crossed my mind.

I’d always tried to hide anything I did that could have been classified by others as superstitious or odd. But once I reached the NHL, I basically couldn’t anymore.

I remember in 2010, my rookie year, when Predators GM David Poile sat me down with assistant GM Paul Fenton, team psychologist Gary Solomon, and my parents and told me I had OCD.

They had noticed after picking up on a preflight routine I’d go through at airports.

To be honest, I’m a bit hesitant to talk about this part, because my tendencies, my experiences, they’re personal to me. And I don’t want anyone to read this and feel bad for me, or to think I’m glorifying what I went through. But I feel it’s important because the element of control — of having it or not having it — is what pushes people with OCD into dark places.

Before a flight, I had things I needed to do. I had to clean up all the trash around our gate. Every single wrapper, piece of plastic, you name it. Into the trash. Then I had to be the last passenger on the plane, no matter what. Then, finally, I actually had to talk to the pilots. It didn’t have to be about anything specific, but I had to at least talk to them. After I did all that, I felt safe to fly.

It stemmed from a fear of flying I’d had ever since I was a kid — and had grown into this routine. It all revolved around control of the situation. I needed to feel like I had a hand in what was going on.

But at the time I completely discounted what David Poile and everyone else was telling me. I was a 20-year-old living his dream in the NHL. I felt fine, I felt healthy.

There’s no chance I have that, I thought.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had taken that talk more seriously. Which is one of the reasons I want to help those who are facing the same things I did, because I know what it’s like being on the other side of the table. It can be hard to accept what you’re hearing. And I didn’t. I just ignored it and told them I would be fine. I hid myself, and my issues, from everyone.

After that, I basically spent the majority of my career in what I’d call fight-or-flight mode.

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To this day, I honestly have no damn clue how I scored 20 goals in the 2014–15 season. I played each game, for years, in this state of panic because my OCD had begun to take over every element of my life. I went from obsessing over injuries off the ice to thinking I was going to get hurt every time I stepped on it — thinking I'd get hurt every shift. Or feeling like my skates weren’t tied properly. I’d have to stay in the locker room and tie them over and over again, as tight as I could, until my hands bled. And that was just a short-term fix. For years, I felt like I was skating on stilts because my skates never felt right. But I just got into this terrible state, like a petrified animal trapped in a corner. I was almost unconscious on the ice, in a way.

I was so energized after games that I couldn’t sleep, and the lack of sleep led me down a road that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I truly mean that.

There’s a version of this story where I tell you what happened next.

I read those kinds of stories all the time, and I think they’re very powerful and important. The bravery and honesty of those who have gone through the darkest of moments and can share their experiences with others should be applauded. But what I went through is just for me to know right now, and I hope you’ll respect that.

All I can say really is that, during the Stanley Cup finals in 2017, when we were playing the Penguins — I hit bottom.

My brain blew up.

I was a shell of the person I am today.

For the three or so years leading up to that point, I had been taking Xanax and Seroquel to help me sleep. One is addictive and gets you high, the other I would refer to as a horse tranquilizer, because it would knock me out. One night I would take Xanax, the next Seroquel. During that playoff run, I had started partying more as well, to numb the pain. The combination of those pills, mixed with alcohol, and years of untreated OCD … I found rock bottom.

Those had been prescribed to me to help me. But they didn’t do that at all. They made me lose myself. The stressors I had — the OCD, the lack of sleep, the pressure of playoff hockey — those pills just seemed to amplify all that and drive me to a place I never wanted to get to. 

The combination of those pills, mixed with alcohol, and years of untreated OCD … I found rock bottom.

It became so bad that I remember when we beat Anaheim to win the Western Conference finals, everyone on the team was, of course, really happy. But all I wanted to do was go home and bawl my eyes out. I was a complete emotional wreck. I felt like I hadn’t been playing my best. I felt like I hadn’t contributed enough to the success of the team and it was driving me insane.

One of the things about OCD is that you have this internal critic that nags at you — that constantly reminds you that, no matter how hard you try, you aren’t ever in control, and because you’re not, you aren’t good enough.

And in the Cup finals, I was barely able to function. I was running on fumes, my head felt like it was on fire — I felt like I was going insane.

I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore. The team and my family had noticed that I wasn’t myself. When the season ended, after we lost the Cup finals, I realized that the only choice I had was to truly heal myself. I had started talking to a therapist earlier that season when I was really struggling, but what happened in the playoffs pushed me to work on myself even more.

After Nashville traded me to the Avalanche that summer, I continued to keep my issues from nearly everyone. But one of the most important connections I’ve ever made in my life was when I was introduced to a trained plant-medicine facilitator after the trade.

The way in which so many mental health cases are treated with pills and other addictive, unhealthy measures, really didn’t sit well with me. So under the guide of my facilitator, I started taking doses of psychedelics and other similar medicines that may seem unapproachable for many. But it was that sort of alternative help that did so much for me. 

The word psychedelics might put people off, I get that — but I can’t stress enough how critical they were in my recovery. That experience showed me a completely different side of myself and gave me a deep sense of spirituality. It put me in touch with a part of me that I didn’t even know existed. I felt like what I was experiencing was greater than myself, my journey, if that makes sense.

Finding this differing approach changed my life, without a doubt.

Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Alternative medicines are important and should always be considered when treating mental health issues.

I have a plan for how to help introduce it to others, but it wasn’t just finding myself spiritually that helped, of course.

In 2019, during my second year in Colorado, I made another really significant breakthrough — I contacted the NHLPA, which put me in touch with an OCD specialist. And meeting that person changed my life. It was like meeting with a psychic, in a way.

He asked me if I’d ever felt like I was going crazy, if I’d ever felt like my world was completely out of control. My jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was asking me — almost telling me — about myself and connecting with me like someone who actually got it. He wasn’t just there to prescribe some numbing drug or tell me to just think about something else.

For the first time in my entire adult life, I felt understood.

In those sessions, I began to understand that one of the key steps in the healing process is not only acknowledging that what’s going on in your brain isn’t normal, but also, more importantly, acknowledging that it isn’t your fault.

Since I started with the specialist, I’ve learned to develop a sense of self-compassion that I didn’t have before. It’s so difficult to not blame myself when I feel my mind going to … that place. So now I do my best to be aware, to tell myself that things like that will happen from time to time, and to just assure myself that it’s going to be O.K. 

I knew my OCD wouldn’t go away just because somebody could see it for what it was. And I won’t lie to you ... every day since then has been hard. I still have an internal alarm that goes off when I feel like I need to be in control. It can be exhausting to deal with. But every day since that meeting last year, it has also gotten easier. 

But this last year has been tough. I had to have double hip surgery in December 2019 because of issues that came from the groin problems I’ve had since I was a kid. But my hips haven’t healed properly, and I haven’t been able to walk normally all year, so I just had to have it done again. It’s hard because I haven’t been on the ice in a long, long time. I haven’t had much control.

I don’t know when I will again, either.

If I’m being honest, I think my days of playing hockey are probably over.

I haven’t quite come to terms with it fully. But that is the truth.

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I’ve done a lot to prepare for my next step in life. I’m completely sober. I’m back at school in Boston working on a psychology major. The last few years I’ve been working with a new, more traditional talk therapist who has been one of the pillars that I lean on as I transition toward life after hockey. They’ve helped me think through everything and see the next chapter of my life in a positive light.

I’m also working with a group of people I got connected with over the last three years of getting help, and we’re going to open a space in Austin for alternative medicines and approaches to mental health issues — OCD included.

Mental health, and what we know about it, is evolving and so must the ways we treat it.

We want to help people, both physiologically and neurologically, through things like neurofeedback, floating, assisted psychotherapy, and other alternative therapies that aren’t widely accessible. We’ll also have teaching programs to ensure that once you leave, you’ll know how to keep up your routines on your own. It’s going to be a space that completely strips any stigma away from mental health issues. It will be a place that will be nourishing and safe, for all those who desperately need it.

Mental health, and what we know about it, is evolving and so must the ways we treat it.

I want people to know that there are spaces where you can be yourself, where you can feel understood and loved and know that there is help there for you. I want that to be what you take out of this story.

The human experience includes an incredible amount of suffering, even if you’re living your dream. There are lots of people battling OCD right now. I know how brave they are, how strong they are for fighting it. I know it’s probably taken over their lives, and they feel like there’s nowhere to turn to, or nobody to help them … to understand them. But I want them to know that there is someone. And I hope that they know I’m here to help.

We can’t get through it alone.

If it weren’t for the people who truly helped me — my spiritual counsel, my alternative medicine facilitator, my OCD therapist and my talk therapist — I wouldn’t be the person I am today. That’s my team, and they have given me the opportunity to help others.

That’s my focus in life right now.

And like I said, I don’t know if I’ll be back out on the ice anytime soon. But I know that, no matter what the future holds for me, I did it. I played in the NHL. I lived my dream. And I fought through hell to make a career for myself. My name might not be on the Stanley Cup, and that’s fine. Because I know there is an opportunity ahead of me to not just leave my mark on the game of hockey, but also on lives all across the world.

I don’t want to pretend like I have it all figured out, because I don’t. I’m still learning as I go. But what I do know comes from what I went through. So if you’re going through it, remember this:

Be kind to yourself, to your mind.

Have patience with your soul, your body.

And know that you don’t have to do it alone.