An Open Letter to my Psychologist

I was 18 years old when we met. I never wanted to meet her. I never wanted to need her. 

Team Canada introduced us, 5 days after my dreams had come true, and exactly 5 days after my “world” came to an end. I had just made Team Canada’s hockey team the same day I walked away, an undiagnosed mental illness took every part of who I was and every dream I’d ever known. 

I remember the day they called me, offering me access to the team Psychologist, I was so offended, so angry.

The day I met Dr. Kate Hays was one of the worst days of my life. I was a terrified, proud, and disbelieving “athlete” who thought I was invincible. At 18 years old, I didn’t need anybody. I had my whole life planned, I had everything figured out.  And until this moment, everything leading up to this day had only convinced me of my imminent success.

I was a horrible patient. In the beginning, I felt like I was doing my part just by showing up, relying on Kate to “fix me”. It’s a blessing that my ignorance wasn’t taken as a lack of desire. In those days, Kate understood me better than I understood myself. It took years to mould our relationship into the perfect union, for me. 

As time passed, I learned to trust her. I allowed her to guide me through the most terrifying places of myself. The places that fuelled my anxiety and panic. The hopelessness that drowned me with depression. The limits constructed by OCD and agoraphobia. I was a prisoner in myself, and Kate became my coach, my leader. She was masterful. She became a pinnacle of safety to me, replacing the 1000sq ft apartment I couldn’t leave for the better part of five years.

Her office is a paradox to me; a small room with a noisy heater that drowns out the sounds of Yonge St, a beat-up chair tucked into the corner, an outdated couch with a stuffed bunny that lives on it, a bowl of shells that I’m convinced were left there just for my anxious hands. This room, where I fought like hell to learn about myself. Where I fought like hell for every breath. Where I fought for my life! As terrifying as it was comforting, my own private escape room that I never wanted to leave. 

I remember the first “success” I had outside of that room. 

I hadn’t been able to drive for years.  If I convinced myself to leave my apartment for reasons other than my ongoing visits to Kate, I would sit terrified in the passenger seat of whomever was patient enough to deal with me that day, demanding they never leave the right lane of the city streets, in case I needed to flee.  That day, I finally slid behind the wheel, and I remember my breath catching as I chose the left lane instead of the right, probably the first time I’d driven on a highway in years.  I panicked, I took a breath, and the most incredible thing happened, I took another breath.  I reached for my phone immediately (pre distracted driving laws) and dialed Kate’s office, she answered.  

“Guess where I’m calling you from?” I asked like a giddy child, “I’m on the highway Kate, and I’m driving!”

I could tell by her voice that she shared in my success. That she understood.  That was the most important thing Kate could offer me, more than anything, she understood.  For a long time, she was the only place I could validate my worth living with mental illness, the only place that didn’t flood me with shame. She still saw me, behind every barrier this illness placed in my way. And for 18 years she has guided me through every one of them. No judgement. No criticism. Every fall, every slip up, always met with grace and poise, ready to teach me how to redirect my thoughts and remind me “this too shall pass”.

To say we’ve been through a lot is an understatement. To know just how much would require a novel, but for insight, it at least takes understanding what Kate was “up against” with me. 

I’ve heard these words spoken but in truth, I can’t find any truer words than this, I would not have survived without Kate, my psychologist. She did not fix me. She didn’t cure me. What she was able to do with me was far more miraculous. Kate taught me how to “fix” myself. She worked with me. She coached me. She never took control, but she offered me the chance to learn how to fight for myself.

It’s been years since I have relied on Kate weekly, or even monthly.  As much as I would have loved the opportunity to share every moment of my life with her, her effectiveness with me exists in our relationship as it is.  That being said, since achieving recovery, Kate has continued to be my safe space.  When things get to be too much, when I need a “kick in the ass”, when I need her gently firm reminders of what she’s taught me along the way, and when I need a tune up, Kate’s my go to.

I’ve never shared this story with Kate, but it’s truly one of the most serene moments I’ve ever experienced. When I met my wife, we were going through that process of filling each other in on our lives “before us”.  Of course, Kate was one of “my” people, one of the people I needed to tell my wife about. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years at this point. I was working as a professional speaker and doing very well in my recovery. I remember describing her; she’s tall, poised, an elegant woman.  I described the confidence that she exuded and the way her presence filled the room. I explained how perfectly matched she was to me, her ability to be both gentle and still effectively coach me in a way any athlete would respect. 

Shortly after, I learned with excitement that I would be speaking at an event that Kate was also involved with.  I was so excited to see her, more than she would have known. I had a new version of myself that I wanted to introduce her to, to thank her for. And most importantly, I loved the opportunity to introduce her to my wife, Kristy.

I remember being nervous walking into the room, anxiously (the good kind) looking for her, and then there she was.  Kate is not a tall woman.  Her appearance, so kind, so approachable, so…small.  She is perfectly lovely, but she was not at all what I remembered.  Or perhaps it has nothing to do with memory and has more to do with her.  Kate found a way to be exactly what I needed for me to feel comfortable with her.  To me, she is every version of her that I can offer in memory and in fact. The exact person I needed to get me through my darkest days.  Kate had somehow become the epitome of my survival.

Having met Kate well into her career, it was always a possibility (reality) that she would not be available to me forever. I remember having a conversation with her two years ago, she explained that she would at some point in the foreseeable future, start scaling back her practice.  With that, she assured me that she was still available to me and that she would be for some time. I hadn’t paid this any thought since that conversation. 

This past May, my wife and I lost our son, River, at 32 weeks gestation.  As imagined, it was shattering, heartbreaking, and any unimaginably heartbreaking adjective you can lend to this list. I have buried myself in “taking care” of my wife and our 2-year-old. I have drowned myself with work and played the role of the “rock”. It is something I’ve mastered.  I had been treading water until a month ago, exhausted, I knew the call I had to make.  Again, having not seen Kate in over a year, she didn’t know we were even expecting. She didn’t know I had spent the last year and half becoming a firefighter. She didn’t know my organization had begun a pilot project to implement mental health services in rural communities. And most importantly, she didn’t know I had lost my son, because until I called her 3 weeks ago, I wasn’t ready to hear those words out loud, and I knew I would have to say them if I saw her.

Three weeks ago, I walked back into that little room, and walked face first into a whole new world, a world without Kate.  She sat me down and explained that she was closing her practice.  That she has some health issues she needs to make her priority. That this would be our goodbye. Twenty years, she has been the one card I’ve held onto.  Knowing, no matter what, if I fell again, she would guide me back to myself.  

Her words three weeks ago were simple, “I have to tell you something you’re not going to like,” she said.  Simple, yet the most confusing words I’ve ever processed.  After all, Kate is not my friend, at least not in the “normal” sense of the world.  Yet, for me to downplay our “relationship” to Doctor and patient feels so wrong, and yet that’s what it is. 

I listened to her explain the “next steps” to me.  I asked if I could email, keep in touch, check in, but of course that doesn’t make sense, I’m her patient. There is no value in pulling her focus from taking care of herself, when her natural response with me would be to take care of me instead. It’s ingrained. It’s us.

I tried my best to be “cool” with the news, not knowing what to say, what to do. Wanting desperately to offer her friendship that has no value to her. Wanting to cry. Wanting to grab her and not let go. For her. For me. Instead, I grabbed my favourite shell, wished her well, and said goodbye. 

I imagine I am going to spend a fair bit of time working through this. And I will, but I needed to put this out there, and I didn’t know how to offer this to Kate in the moment.  

Kate, my friend, you found your calling in life, and for you, I will be forever grateful.  I’ve often been asked if I wish I could turn back time, learn about my illness sooner, use my tools to overcome this all before it stole my Olympic dreams, and my answer is no, an absolute no. I would not trade a moment of my journey. I would not concede having been forced to learn about myself, to honestly face myself.  I wouldn’t give up the lessons this illness has offered me, or any one of the strategies I know to keep in place every day to maintain the balance that is my incredibly wonderful existence. I wouldn’t change a minute of learning how to be a voice for others who have yet to find theirs. You need to know Kate, so much of this has been you. You made this possible for me. I recognize my role in this, but I needed your patience, your wisdom, your insight, I needed every part of yourself that you have offered me for more than half of my life now. 

I am terrified of my life without you. You are kind of like my secret weapon, my superpower. You have given me the strategies to build such a solid foundation, one that has allowed me a reality that 20 years ago, could only have been a dream. I sit here trying to make sure I say every unspoken word, yet I know there are so many I will miss. 

Dr. Kate Hays (without an “e”), I will forever speak of you and share my stories of the incredible woman who was right next to me through the darkest times in my life. I will forever be thankful for the woman you are, and the woman you helped me to become.  I was blessed to have been offered you at a time when tomorrow was too hard for me to see.  I pray this message finds you full of hope and surrounded by love.  I never want to imagine my life without you, but Kate, because of you, I will continue this incredible life, with you in my heart.

I have no reason to “pretend”, you’ve taught me better than that.

Be well Kate.


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



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?

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.

The Cape Breton Post

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.


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

Don’t Be Ashamed of Me

Anger is not a place I like to write from. I despise this state, the energy it takes. I understand the value of counting to 10, of being mindful and rational. I understand the politics and tact that lace diplomacy. I have made a life out of being polite. But I can’t be polite about this. I can’t, having just experienced what I have, sit here silently shaking my head and ignoring things. Right now, I am ashamed. I am heartbroken. I am absolutely appalled and silence can’t be my answer.

Working in mental health, if that is what it is indeed called, to travel around, sharing my story and experience with mental illness, has been and is, one of the most incredible journeys of my life. I have come across so many incredible people, worked and spoken along side of them, trying to be a part of the change. Trying to help, to make some sort of difference in this crisis that we are in, that one in five Canadians are living through. I have politely sat by, answered when called upon, spoken when prompted, and shared the best I can, a story that I pray can offer even one person a different path in life, one different than the one that cost me so much of what I thought my life would be.

What you need to know. In Ontario, school boards have been allocated the funds and resources to create a mental health strategy, an opportunity to develop guidelines for dealing with mental health in their schools. I know this is the simplistic definition, but you get the point. There is money and it’s supposed to be used to address mental health in schools. Although it’s likely not enough money or resources, it’s a beginning. And it’s an opportunity that needs to be taken full advantage of.

In my mind, this strategy needs to be factual and relatable. It should teach about mental illness, not be afraid of it. Mental illness is indeed a part of mental health that needs to be understood. It should educate students, teachers and parents about the signs and symptoms around disorders. It should discuss all of the factors that affect mental health and the differences between normal and abnormal responses to situations. It should address stigma and acceptance. It should encourage support and communication around mental health. It should allow for a safe environment, one that provides guidance and training within the schools to allow for “first line” crisis response. And one that promotes asking for help. It should help bridge the gap that exists between asking for help and finding it. It needs to educate on the resources available to those dealing with mental illness, or supporting somebody who is. It needs to incorporate an approach of wellness and prevention, and lend itself to helping develop positive coping skills. We finally have a chance to start getting it right, wasting that opportunity is not an option.

Tonight, I sat in on a presentation given to parents in one of the larger school boards in Ontario. It was a presentation on mental health; one that I hoped would be bold and real. It didn’t need to be dramatic, or even on par with a made for TV movie, but at least real! Somebody who, in all likelihood, had all the right motives and all of the best intentions shared it quite eloquently.

I expected to hear the statistics around mental health; I know stats are boring but necessary in order for us to understand the size of this problem. I wanted to hear about how this school board, in the early stages of developing their strategy, planned on making mental health a focus. I wanted to learn about how they would get their students involved. I wanted to know how this mental health discussion would address the parents of kids who may be struggling. I wanted to hear a talk about the options for help, guidance around resources, just anything that would actually help. I expected to learn of the interactions that would occur between schools and parents should a need arise. I know this school has dealt with suicide. I know there are issues far beyond practicing stress management and expectation setting. And I know that I just watched what would likely be the only “mental health” presentation that will be had this year.

I left angry! I am angry! Instead of finally embracing the opportunity to have an open and educated discussion around mental health, I watched this polite presentation that kind of touched on things like the possibility that being anxious would effect a student’s ability to live up to their potential! Or that mental health is important to ensure students reach their highest level of success. I watched conversations around study habits and getting students to apply themselves.

I know there are so many parents who are still embarrassed to admit that they have a child who struggles with mental health, and as appalling as that fact is, I also know that in that room tonight, we succeeded in nothing other than perpetuating the stigma and encouraging those very parents who have kids in crisis to continue hiding.

“We” — that is why I am ashamed. I sat there, silent, without speaking, politely accepting this presentation as a “good try.” It wasn’t a good try. It was horrible. It was wrong. It was misinformation. I challenge anybody who thinks that mental health has to be quietly and diplomatically approached. Silence is part of the reason suicide has become a leading cause of death in Canada. Pretending that we have to sugarcoat our conversations is the problem. And encouraging anybody, parent, teacher, employer, student, or family member to generalize mental health, as only the “positive” discussions, is a complete failure to those who actually need this to be a safe conversation.

You cannot understand what it is to be healthy unless you know what it is to not be sick. You know you don’t have a cold because you know that if you did, your throat would be sore, you may have a cough and your nose would be runny. The education has to be all encompassing. I don’t “suffer from mental health”, I live with mental illness. And I know that the best way to stay in recovery is to manage my mental health!

I learned these things because I was forced to educate myself. I know that feeling hopeless is a sign of my depression. I know that the feeling in my chest, the one that used to send me to the ER every week (convinced I was having a heart attack), is my anxiety, a panic attack, and I know how to manage it. I know it’s silly that I sometimes pump my gas to a multiple of three, but I also forgive myself, because I have OCD. And I know that for the better part of five years, I couldn’t leave my apartment without fear because all of these things caused my agoraphobia. But most importantly, I know I am in recovery! I know that these are things I will always live with, and that’s OK. I know that nobody saw it coming. Not me. Not my parents. Not my teachers. Not Team Canada.

Now, most days, I am so happy, and absolutely in love with life! And I do not understand why it’s not OK to be honest about people like me.

How I Navigated My Mental Illness on and Off the Ice

It took me almost 5 years to learn that I knew nothing about mental illness, and I had no idea where to go for help. It all felt pointless, there was no “reason” left. At that moment I knew I had a choice to make — I could accept there was no point, or I could find a way to make a point. I knew there had to be more; more help, more resources, more support — I just had to find it.

I have tried a hundred times to describe what “getting sick” means to me. I can pull on science, data, facts, and symptoms. I can tell you all about my anxiety, depression, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and agoraphobia. I can rip myself open and show you the scars of a broken heart and dreams lost. I can recount horror stories and failures, shortcomings, and embarrassments. Most importantly, what I hope I can do is help you to understand what it is to “survive” a little better. To find that moment when you know you will triumph. There was a time I didn’t believe it was possible. Then I learned to accept fate, to understand there is a better way, a new path.

I remember as a kid, thinking I had it all figured out. I had a great family, friends, and I was going to play for Team Canada. It was simple. I’d spend every day out on the street playing road hockey, every weekend at tournaments, and every moment in between playing any sport I could fit into my schedule. But hockey always had my heart.

Around the time I was in Grade 11, my mom ran for Member of the Provincial Parliament in our area and was elected under the Conservative government. I learned in a hurry what it meant to be a politician’s daughter in a small town and decided that moving to the anonymity of Toronto to graduate was in my best interest. It was a big year for me: I had made the transition from boys Midget AAA to women’s hockey, I’d been named to Team Ontario for the Canada Games, I was carded as a Development player with Team Canada, and I was set to graduate high school with scholarship offers to several Universities and Colleges. Life was good, great even.

I graduated from Havergal College in 1998. I was playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (then National Women’s Hockey League) and nothing could stop me, or so I thought. Months later, a car accident left me with a broken vertebra. If there was ever a good time to break one’s back, this was it for me. I had just finished my hockey season and according to my therapists, I had just enough time to get healthy again before my next Team Canada tryout. So, I worked myself harder than even I knew possible. I still had a month before camp and I was good to go, and then everything changed.

I started to feel off. I never knew how to explain it in the beginning. It started in my chest; my heart would skip beats and beat so hard I thought it would explode. My throat would feel like it was closing; I couldn’t get a breath in, and swallowing felt impossible. I’d get pains in my stomach and chest. My arms would tingle and go numb. My head, I’d get this pressure and feel like I was going to faint. So, I did what any normal person would do, and I went to my doctor, and my doctor did what every normal doctor did and sent me to five other doctors.

I had a specialist for everything, they ran every test they could come up with and every one of them told me I was fine. Problem was, I felt so far from fine. My tryouts were weeks away and I couldn’t even remember how to breathe.

I managed to get out to tryouts in Calgary in the following weeks, but it only took me a day to realize I couldn’t do it. I sat with the coaches of Team Canada and explained that I didn’t know what was wrong, but that I needed help. They asked me in that moment if it would help to know I had made the team — they wanted me to play for Team Canada. It is one of the most memorable moments in my life, but I wish I could forget. The answer was no, I had to leave; I had to figure out how to live again.

It took me almost five years to learn that I knew nothing about mental illness, and I had no idea where to go for help. It all felt pointless, there was no “reason” left. At that moment I knew I had a choice to make — I could accept there was no point, or I could find a way to make a point. I knew there had to be more; more help, more resources, more support — I just had to find it.

It took me a long time to get to a point of recovery. This is something I will never be complacent with. I respect my Mental Health and focus on being kind to myself in moments of doubt. I knew hopeless for a long time, and it’s not a place I will ever allow myself to exist again.

A couple of weeks ago, at the RBC Run for the Kids, I stood at the starting line with tears rolling down my cheeks as I remembered how many times, I felt like tomorrow wasn’t coming. I watched thousands standing together for one cause, to support Sunnybrook’s Family Navigation Project. I remembered wondering if I could ever learn how to live with a diagnosis that had felt more like a sentence for so many years.

The Family Navigation Project, which currently serves the GTA with hopes of provincial expansion, works to help families find their way through the mental health system. It took me far too long to navigate my way through what was then, a complicated and overloaded system. And unfortunately, it has not become any easier. It is with the help of this program that families of struggling youth will be able to find the right help at the right time, while saving lives in the process.

I spend a lot of time now speaking to youth, parents, and teachers about my journey and how I’ve come to live in recovery. The one question that has always left me speechless has been “where do I go for help?”. I am so grateful that we are finally getting to a place where this question no longer must go unanswered.