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me; a small room with a noisy heater that drowns out the sounds of Yonge St, a beat-up chair tucked into the corner, an outdated couch with a stuffed bunny that lives on it, a bowl of shells that I’m convinced were left there just for my anxious hands.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.