Friday, 24 July 2015

My mental health story

Me trying to be calm about the day ahead.
    Don’t talk about it. Pretend it doesn’t exist.
    At times, the silence can be painful. I have no problem admitting I have issues dealing with anxiety, and I have known about these issues since 2012. These are issues and not a full out disorder, but it is something that has affected my life.
    I have no problem talking about it.  I find the more I talk I actually gain allies that want to help. Talking also makes me feel better.
    During my journey with a mental health issue, I have found that isn’t the case with everyone. I have met people that still hide their mental health problems and issues.
    I have run into a couple of friends with issues on the mental health front that have warned me to not talk about my issues. They say if you do so you will be blackballed out of life. They said that since I have long gone public with my issues the high point of my life will have been covering the Medicine Hat Tigers WHL hockey team for the Medicine Hat News.
    Now that I am home in Saskatoon, I can forget about doing anything else of significance with my life. I will no longer be able to get a good job, because I have baggage that will scare employers away. I will never be able to hold a romantic relationship because of the stigma that still surrounds mental health.
    For all intents and purposes, my life is over.
    There is a big part of me that doesn’t believe this. During the early years of my career as a sports reporter, I had a habit of proving people wrong. There is still part of me that believes I will persevere. I will find a way. My mental health issue will be part of my life story, but it won’t be the thing that defines me.
    There was a time not so long ago I never thought mental health would play a part of my life. I can pin the last time I was normal on a day-to-day basis for an extended period as the 2010-11 hockey season, or more accurately, the winter sports season.
    On a personal level entering that season, I was trying to distance myself from residue that remained from a couple of relationship situations. Due to budget cuts at the News, the winter sports season was very busy.
    My plan to get on the rebound included not engaging in anything on the relationship front. I was just going to enjoy covering the Hat’s sports scene, and my focus revolved around the Tigers, Medicine Hat College Rattlers and high school football.
    I had long befriended a number of people in all those walks of life, and I gained a lot of joy covering their journeys through their respective campaigns. In 2010-11, The Tigers had a strong season, and most of the Rattlers teams had successful campaigns.
    As the calendar turned to March in 2011, the Rattlers seasons closed and the Tigers were gearing up for a playoff run. I was looking forward to the WHL post-season and was feeling really good.
    Every day was a great day, and even the day-to-day challenges that caused some extra stress didn’t feel like a problem. Little did I know, my life path was going to change drastically over the next few years.
    This is the part where the story gets tough to tell. I do have to play politics a bit in order to protect good people that meant well but didn’t know how to handle the situations that came up.
    While covering the Tigers post-season run, I discovered a mental health issue inside my workplace. Before arriving in the Hat in September of 2004, I worked three years at the Prince Albert Daily Herald, and from my training there, I remembered we had the ability to dial a 1-800 number if you discovered something on this front that might be concerning. A number of workplaces have this option in place for their employees, but the News did not.
    My memory also vaguely recalled an incident in 2001 back in Regina, where a former CTV employee fired a shot through the entrance of his old workplace after being let go. My mind seemed to recall that was linked to mental health, but I wasn’t sure. I had a couple of friends that worked at CTV at that time, and they were freaked.
    My educated gut feeling was that my discovery at the News should be treated seriously.
    When playoffs concluded, I told my mom what had happened, and I consulted a small group of three people for advice. Looking back now, I should have expanded the group, but worked to keep some details like names and places vague. That group should have also included my older sister, Michelle Stephen, who has been a social worker for over two-and-a-half decades.
    I also have to admit my concern at this time was tempered. The summer of 2011 was looking to be an exciting time, as I was pursuing opportunities to make a career move upwards in Calgary and Saskatoon.
    I was excited, because up to that point in my life, it seemed a break upwards in my career seemed to always work out at the appropriate time. I figured the appropriate time had come again.
    Unfortunately over a two-week vacation late that summer, it became clear those opportunities wouldn’t work out. I had a good break watching the University of Regina Rams play their season opener and the Saskatchewan Roughriders play in the Labour Day Classic, which included some great social time around those games. I also kept a promise I made to an old friend from Prince Albert in Elizabeth Hudon, and I watched her play for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s soccer team in her fifth and final season of eligibility.
    Looking back now, the first bad sign for me came up, when it came time to return to the Hat. I remember getting in my car to leave my mom’s place, and I started crying. That had never happened on a return trip to the Hat.
    I admitted to her I didn’t want to go back, because I worried about what awaited me. I had kicked the tires about living in Saskatoon in the summer of 2010 for family reasons, but this was totally different. I feared my return to Medicine Hat wouldn’t be good.
    When I returned to the Hat, I told a member of the senior management at the News about the mental health issue I discovered. I figured that would make everything better. Unfortunately, I think this whole situation was new for the senior manager too, which further complicated things.
    I was left to manage the issue, and if people say otherwise, I definitely felt like it fell on my shoulders to manage it. To make matters worse, I wasn’t in a position to manage that situation.
    As the months went on, things kept getting worse, incidents piled up and my mental well-being went down the tube. It seemed like those in the small group that knew about the situation and my mom didn’t think the situation was as serious as I thought it was.
    This became another lesson I learned on the mental health front. If a mental health situation is discovered and no one acts on it, it becomes way worse.
Hanging out with Elizabeth Hudon in 2011 before the tough times.
    For the longest time, I soldiered on convincing myself everything was in my head. I kept thinking God and life wouldn’t throw anything in my path that I couldn’t handle.
    With that said, I got to the point where I would shut off my cell phone and disconnect my land line when I was on days off. I basically did what I could do to isolate myself.
    Things disintegrated to the point in 2012 that I considered suicide, which will likely come as a revelation to my family members let alone my friends. In my mind, I was sick of being the pawn that was shouldered with making everyone else’s life easier.
    Other thoughts that ran through my mind was that no one outside of my mom would miss me, if I no longer existed. The paper would still come out and each Tigers season would come and go whether I was there or not. I wasn’t in any relationship, so no one would care from that front.
    I also reasoned that I had a good run at life, as being a sports reporter allowed me to have a number of unique experiences most will never have. I was thinking that it was better to burn out than to fade away.
    It was around this time my mom arrived for an extended visit, and couldn’t believe the bad shape I was in. Another lesson I would learn is that this journey was extremely hard on my mom. With her arrival, I never did attempt suicide.
    It was also round this time my social working sister Michelle became more active in the picture. She would drop hints about courses of action to take. I guess she figured I would follow them, when I was ready.
    One of the actions included going to see my doctor, telling him everything that was going on and getting help that way. I had no clue you could do such a thing.
    After a couple of incidents at the start of the 2012-13 season, I decided I would see a doctor, but not just any doctor. I was going to go see the team doctor of the Medicine Hat Tigers, Bill Ruzycki. My mind was made up that he would be able to make me better.
    The thinking came from the fact the Tigers former long-time head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins, who is currently the head coach of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, had his master’s degree in social work, and I felt very confident mechanisms were put in place with the Tigers medical staff to deal with mental health issues. With that in mind, I didn’t want to see anyone else other than Dr. Ruzycki.
    To be honest, I did not have the greatest faith in the staff at the News at that point in time to be able to handle things.
    I was put on medical leave for November of 2012. Dr. Ruzycki set me up with a really good councellor and a plan was put in motion to help me get better. I wanted to get better without the use of drugs.
    I found out I developed issues dealing with anxiety due to my situation at work. I started to learn about how breathing exercises and meditation could help.
    I also tried to do my best to learn more about mental health. That is still an ongoing process.
    Talking also helped.
    My best listeners during my medical leave included former Tigers Brennan Bosch, Ryan Holfeld and David Schlemko, as well as Kelsey Konihowski and Talayna Tremblay. Konihowski and Trembley were still members of the Rattlers women’s volleyball team at the time, and I felt secure talking to them due to the fact they had been in nursing at one point in time.
    Schlemko, an NHL veteran defenceman who finished last season with the Calgary Flames, came back to town when I was on leave for a funeral, and he has always been genuine and trustworthy. I also went to see Bosch and Holfeld play with the Huskies men’s hockey team, and going to those games became a regular tradition for me to get into a different but good world for a short time.
    When I was gone, the News brought in the human resources department to handle the issues that were in place. I returned and had a good 19 months. There were still a lot of changing stresses due to budget cuts at work, which no one could really control.
    A pile of 30 reasons built up, where I thought it would be best to switch scenery. At the end of June of 2014, I resigned from the News to move to Saskatoon to be close to family. I was giving a heartfelt and unreal great going away.
    No matter what happened in that building, I still see everyone there as being good. I believe everything that went down was a learning experience for everyone as it was for me. It wasn’t one anyone always liked, but it was a learning experience none the less. I will go out for pops with anyone from that place at any time.
    Now in Saskatoon, I have to be honest and admit some residual effects from what I encountered in my last three years in the Hat still surface. From time to time, my anxiety will get heightened due to triggers I would never suspect. On the bright side, I have become more mindful in recognizing what is happening, which has helped to get me settled down.
    It has also been great for me to reconnect with Cam Hutchinson, who is the editor of the Saskatoon Express and former long-time managing editor of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has gone public with his battles with anxiety, and when I talk to him, it feels like someone else actually does know what I am going through.
    I tell my mental health story in hopes people can learn just how quickly things can go downhill, even if you were at an awesome and healthy place at one point in time.
    On Friday night, I will be heading to the One Voice fundraiser at TCU Place here in Saskatoon, which supports the Neural Health Project at the U of Saskatchewan. From what I understand, the hopes of this project are to develop a more complete approach to the treatment of mental illness.
    Mike Babcock, who is the head coach of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, and Dr. DeeDee Maltman are the ones behind the idea of the One Voice fundraiser. The idea for the project and fundraiser came about after the deaths of Saskatoon products Ian Buckwold and Jordan Chartier in July of 2013 at the hand of mental illness. Their deaths were hard on their family and friends.
Out watching a Huskies hockey game with Howler.
    I plan to learn more about the Neural Health Project, and I am hoping it will create an avenue to better treat mental illness. The fact Babcock is involved in this fundraiser increases my optimism for the project.
    I will see a lot of people I have met from the sports world again on Friday night, and I expect to make some new friends. A lot of the people attending the One Voice fundraiser have had their own mental health battles.
    I expect I will learn some new lessons about mental health on Friday night, but I plan to go for all intents and purposes to have a good time.
    I hope I can add to the conversation and gain another reminder I am not alone in my mental health journey.

    If you have any comments about this blog post, feel free to email them to Feel free to check out the other post I wrote back in February about my mental health journey entitled, “Huskies hockey was good for me.”