How would you summarize your childhood memories?
Growing up always felt easy to me, or at least I had convinced myself of that. I always managed to define myself by the “on paper” version of my life. I come from a great family, always had friends, was given the opportunity to experience the things I wanted to try, and when I found my passions I was gratefully able to pursue them. Anything that was ever “wrong” was easily brushed aside with my belief that I was so lucky, so fortunate; ‘How could I complain when others suffered so greatly, had such tragic lives?’
When did sports become a part of your life?
At a young age, I knew my life would always be guided by sport. We are all gifted with a natural ability for something. For some, their singing stops others mid-stride; some look at a math equation with Goodwill Hunting-like ease. For me, it’s always been sport. The field has never mattered, nor the equipment needed. Sports just make sense to me; they helped to define me.
By the time I was seven, baseball, tennis and hockey had each become constant in my life, and at eight years old, I was asked by my tennis coach to move to Toronto in order to focus on hitting the circuit by my early teens.
When did you first experience any degree of mental health struggles?
I’m not sure. I wish I had made any other decision, but at eight there was a terrified version of myself that wasn’t ready to be away from my family, my home. I do recall a scared little girl who was guiding me by fear: fear of death, fear of being alone, fear of what others saw in me, fear of the loneliness and confusion that consumed me behind closed doors. As I look back, this was a point in my life where I was struggling with my mental health and happiness, but no one knew about it other than me.
How did you cope with these early mental health struggles?
Making the decision on tennis narrowed to hockey. I moved on to become “the” goalie. I was going to be the best, I was going to fill my closets with red and white jerseys, my name displayed proudly on the back. It wasn’t even an option yet, but I was determined to go to the Olympics. To hide from my daily fears and struggles, I focused my energy on hockey.
On the surface, as far as anybody else was concerned, I was on my way to my Olympic dream. I only allowed in a few close friends who were aware of my daily torment. For the rest of the world, I performed as the goalie, the only female in a male world, making my way through to Midget AAA with the Grey Bruce Highlanders. Hockey was the part of my world that just made sense – a world that existed in an eight-foot crease where I was untouchable. My internal fears faded, and my thoughts were quiet for those two hours on the ice.
By age 16, outside of hockey, how was your day-to-day life?
Beyond the crease, I was lost, confused. I couldn’t find words, adjectives that would do justice to my story. To onlookers who did not know me closely I appeared to be the pinnacle of confidence.
The truth was, I was nobody’s best friend and everybody’s acquaintance. I was included in everyone’s plans, invited to all social outings; however, never the life of the party. My name never came up in stories about the weekend’s events. I floated from group to group, connecting with everyone, though really disconnected from them all.
I survived high school being the goalie, coveted by coaches, respected by teammates, considered a great friend, a loved daughter and sister, while my true feelings and fear were invisible to the majority. I offered a version of myself that filled a need for everybody around me.
I was drawn to my peers’ personal tragedies, always inserting myself in others’ heartbreak. I was committed to get others through their crises. Today, I suspect I was keen to help others in hopes of learning how to lessen my own pain.
I wanted so badly what my friends had, what my teammates and my peers seemed to have, while – at best – most days I was able to just breathe. I was suffering in silence with no clarity on why, what I could do, or how to live my life without fear.
(Part two will be published on Wednesday.)
Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.
This article supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell’s Employee Recommended Workplace Award. This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience. Companies can register for the 2019 award now at www.employeerecommended.com.
BILL HOWAT and KENDRA FISHER