Finding Hope: One Story of Hockey, Mental Illness, and Community

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*Trigger Warning* Post touches on suicide.

Characterized as a community, hockey has the potential to create a space for the formation of connections and a feeling of belonging.  The possible positive effects of participating in a hockey community have begun to be documented for more active participants – players, coaches or parents – but are less well documented for more passive participants such as fans.

Participating in the hockey community provides an opportunity for fans to connect with other likeminded people. This sense of belonging and connection is especially evident among passionate fans of a team or a player. Hockey acts as a shared common ground and can be a starting point for deeper connection.

Personally, meaningful connection and the impact of participation is told here through my personal narrative of how I found a home in the hockey community, and the positive impacts that connecting with and belonging to the hockey community have made on my mental health.

To understand my journey, there are several facts which are important. First, I suffer from depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. These mental illnesses colour my world, making connections with others difficult and forcing me to evaluate every reaction for appropriateness.

IMG_0925Depression paints my world in grayscale, making even the most important elements of life blend into the background and slip away. Anxiety paralyzes me causing a never-ending cycle of second-guessing and worry, around which I struggle to manage even the simplest tasks. And, borderline personality disorder… well that makes mountains out of molehills for everything. Because I couldn’t control the emotion I would bottle it up, and eventually — just like a pop bottle which has been shaken a bit too much – they would explode in inappropriate displays of rage and sadness that I had no hope of corralling.

Another large part of my life is hockey. Hockey is a safe place where I can escape the sometimes crushing weight of not always being “normal” in a society that prizes the mythical concept of normality.  The sense of belonging and peace I feel as part of the hockey community is a unique experience in my life; one I treasure. There is nothing else in my life that provides the same cathartic release in such a socially acceptable manner.

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The Pandas. Photo by Shona.

I feel this peace and connection most deeply in relation to the University of Alberta women’s hockey program, the Pandas. I have had the privilege to work alongside the Pandas in a volunteer capacity for the last three years. In those years, I have grown my capacity and confidence as a person, largely because of the unwavering acceptance displayed at all levels of the Pandas program.

This acceptance has had an almost tangible positive effect on my mental health. Acceptance like this creates a space – physical and emotional – where vulnerability feels allowable and encouraged; the unique contributions of community members have an inherent value and are celebrated as such.

Primarily though my connection with the Pandas Hockey program, I have built assets — defined in this case as either resources or skills and abilities. These assets include coping mechanisms for anxiety attacks and stress, methods of reframing negative thoughts, and resources I use in moments of distress.

For example, a depressive episode which leads to apathy, negative self-perception, and antisocial behaviour can severely limit my ability to connect with people in a manner appropriate for my job description. The self-care activity I use most often – at least in the fall, winter, and early spring—is to go to a hockey game. There I can sit in the stands, surrounded by people, and interact with them at a level I am comfortable with and prepared for. I am not obligated to interact with anyone because my reason for attending is to interact with the hockey game played out in front of me. There is a freedom to not being alone and not being obligated to interact in a performative manner. If I don’t feel well, I don’t have to pretend in order to soothe someone’s ego or maintain a relationship.

If I do wish to interact with anyone, even a stranger, hockey is a safe starting point; a reliable common ground in what often feels like a conversational minefield to me.

Another important coping mechanism I use is to write about hockey, and about hockey and mental health. Writing about hockey has become one of my “go to” coping mechanisms, replacing self-injury. When I am struggling to cope, writing about hockey provides an almost cathartic release. It is a similar feeling to the emotional release provided by self-injury. Using the release of writing instead of self-injury marks a step forward into healthier coping mechanisms and an improved state of mental wellness.

Hockey is also a source of strength and inspiration for me.  After being released from the hospital for what is classified as an unsuccessful suicide attempt, I attended a hockey game a few days later. To me, being in a hockey arena conveys a sense of normalcy and comfort. It is a reminder of my own strength and continuous call to do more, be more, and try again. That night I sat in a crowded hockey arena, watching players flash along the ice, and I knew I had the strength inside me to carry on no matter how impossible life appeared.

This surety, more than anything else, is a treasured gift bestowed on me by a sport I love quite unexpectedly. I never asked for or expected that it would be hockey which provided me a conduit my own inner strength. But it is.

Building self-confidence and belief in my own inherent worth has been difficult; the acceptance of the Pandas Hockey Program has been influential in providing motivation to conquer fears and push past barriers to better mental health. Reaching out to the Pandas Hockey program three years ago marks a turning point: when I decided that I could conquer my fears, I was brave enough to talk about my mental health, I did deserve to be happy and have people and activities in my life that I loved, and that I refused to be ashamed any longer.

Each day that I participate in the hockey community — every Bell Let’s Talk or charity game supporting mental health I attend or initiative to raise awareness — reinforces both my belief I am fine just as I am and that I have found a place to belong.  Each time I walk into a hockey rink feeling like I don’t deserve to live and walk out three hours later feeling energized and capable tells me that I have found a home.

Hockey is community, and despite all of its imperfections and flaws, I am very grateful to have that community supporting my recovery journey.

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