Theo Fleury, used with permission
Source: Theo Fleury, used with permission

Former professional hockey player Theo Fleury is no stranger to confrontation. Fleury’s combination of skill and a fierce, combative style helped propel him to 16 seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL), including being an NHL All-Star 7 times, winning a Stanley Cup, a Canada Cup and an Olympic Gold medal. And in 2009, he bravely and publicly confronted another issue – a history of sexual abuse and alcoholism—in his book, Playing With Fire.  Now in a new book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake (with co-author Kim Barthel) Fleury is drawing from his struggles to help others learn how to understand and cope with their experiences so that they too can heal.

For Fleury, many of his issues can be boiled down to communication. He tells me, “The first word in the title of the second book is what this is all about…and that’s conversation.” In Playing With Fire, Fleury described a family environment in which there was limited communication. He tells me: “I grew up in an environment in where there was very little or none conversation, except for conversations that were volatile. The art of conversation has been completely lost for whatever reason.” Poor communication is often considered a hallmark of an unhealthy family environment; interventions that improve family communication have proven to be an efficacious part of addiction treatment.

One of the unfortunate consequences of Fleury’s difficulty with communication was the belief that he had to suppress his feelings and hide his experience. He says: “It’s that old ‘tough love’ mentality of sucking it up. Which I don’t even know when that started, medieval times? Where did this whole thing of sucking it up start? Well sucking it up eventually kills us in some way, shape or form.” Fleury’s experience is consistent with research showing that emotional suppression in response to stressful events actually increases emotional distress. Further, research suggests that emotional suppression actually undermines one’s ability to establish social connections, thus further limiting an individual’s ability to engage in helpful communication.

The combination of poor communication skills and emotional suppression left Fleury unable to cope with what happened next; Fleury was one of several young hockey players victimized by former junior hockey coach Graham James. This abuse occurred over the course of many years while James was Fleury’s coach. In Playing With Fire, Fleury described the horrific psychological and emotional abuse that occurred, and the resulting feelings fueled his addictions, such as alcohol and cocaine. As part of James’ prosecution, Fleury wrote a “victim” letter highlighting James’ years of abuse. James was found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to five years in prison.

The effects of sexual abuse can be devastating, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction. These effects can last years after the abuse. For Fleury, this involved intense feelings of shame and self-loathing. He describes his belief system at the time: “Abandonment, not good enough, and not loveable are three core concepts for all people who have gone through traumatic childhoods. And so if one out of every three people has suffered trauma well guess what; We’re all walking around feeling inadequate and not good enough. If we speak up somebody’s going to f***ing abandon us, leave us.”

In the absence of being able to understand and address his feelings, Fleury described being in what he called  “survival mode.” He says: “I wasn’t thinking about getting sober -- ever. Never ever was I thinking about it. Survival mode means 24 hours a day 7 days a week I’m thinking about how do I live with this emotional pain, with these emotional scars, these feelings of which I have absolutely zero understanding.”

Unfortunately, Fleury was struggling with more than a traumatic past. He was also facing a public that stigmatized and trivialized addiction. He says: “At the end of my hockey career people are like, ‘Well f***, why doesn’t he just stop drinking? If you have money, if you have material things, if you have all of these things then why are you being a f*** up? Why doesn’t he stop doing this, why doesn’t he stop doing that?’ Well I couldn’t. I wish it was that easy. I didn’t have any tools to stop.” Fleury’s experience is unfortunately common; stigma of addiction and mental illness in general is widespread throughout the general public and can often interfere with people seeking help and engaging in treatment.

Yet Fleury describes that, ironically, the persistent and unyielding stigma that he experienced was part of what helped him overcome the negative stereotypes. He says,  “When I was keeping it all in I got judged and I got fingers pointed at. So I said, you know what? If I’m going to be judged for this then I’m just going to throw it out there. Because I’m going to be judged for doing it anyway in some shape or form.“

As that process began, he was also able to better understand why some may have been so eager to pass judgment. Fleury says: “There’s an old saying—when I point my finger at you there’s three pointing right back at me. It’s that simple. It’s because they drink too much. It’s because they have emotional pain that they’re masking behind the scenes and it’s a way of saying, ‘I don’t drink as much as him or I don’t do as much drugs as him.’ So it justifies and rationalizes the person that’s judging your behavior.”

And so Fleury began the process of developing a lifestyle and series of coping strategies that helped him recover. The first was changing the habit of suppressing into one of more open honest expression. Fleury says: “I was tired of living in emotional pain. And so instead of killing myself, I said f*** it -- I’m going to talk about what I want, when I want, with whomever I want. Because I’m tired of living in emotional pain, and I don’t give a flying f*** what anybody thinks about it. They can judge me, they can point fingers at me; they can do anything they want. I’m going to talk about this s***. Because when I talk about it, guess what? I get better. And I feel better, and I don’t have to hide anything, and I don’t have to keep any secrets, I can just put it all out there.”

Fleury’s experience is consistent with research showing that emotional expression can often result in improved health and well-being. Further, several empirically supported treatments for addiction utilize emotional expression and coping as a key part of treatment. Short-term psychodynamic therapy helps people identify and talk about core relationship patterns that may fuel addiction.  And cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on identifying interpersonal stressors and developing coping strategies for the emotions that may trigger substance use.

For Fleury, another crucial aspect of his ongoing recovery is spirituality, which many have described as an important concept in managing addictions. He says, “And then there’s a spiritual concept to all of this, which is a continuous conscious contact with something greater than myself. It doesn’t matter what it is, you’ve got to have something. Somewhere along the way I found the G-d of my own understanding.  It is essential in having long-term sobriety.”

Fleury, whose grandmother is First Nations, describes in particular how his heritage influences his spiritual approach. He says, “I’ve spoken maybe 250 times in the last 6 years and not one speech has been the same. Part of my spirituality is my aboriginal background so before I speak I say a little prayer, call my grandmothers and the creators in the room and say, you know what? Use me as a vehicle, whatever you need to be said, just speak through me, and guess what, never once has it failed me. “

In addition to, and perhaps related to his spirituality, Fleury is learning how to reframe his negative self-talk to examine how behaviors that he previously coded as negative were actually adaptive. As described in Conversations with a Rattlesnake, in discussion with Kim Barthel, Fleury recognizes that his history of confrontation actually served him well -- if used properly. He says, “It’s almost like a boundary, a very firm way of either body language or a look saying you’ve crossed the line here and that’s not going to happen. It’s ok to protect yourself. It’s ok to have anger, as long as you don’t get negative consequences from your anger. It’s like anything else.”

As Fleury reframes his experience to understand potential weakness as forms of strength, he also recognizes that mistakes are part of the recovery process. In fact, most treatments for addiction combine attempts to lessen or abstain from use with the ability to learn from lapses. He says, “And it’s trial and error as I go along, and then eventually something happens where it’s getting easier now. Because my routine is solid, my plan is solid. I can pick up the phone and call people and say I’m really jonesing for a drink today.”

And Fleury recognizes how the old forms of stigma can force people to not use relapse adaptively. He says, “There’s shame attached to it. Who does a better job of beating the s*** out of us than ourselves? There’s such a huge thing about success and failure and there is a sense of failure attached to relapse. Or there is a sense of shame attached to relapse. There’s so many negative things attached to it. But at the end of the day relapse happens because you don’t have enough tools to deal with the emotional stuff that’s happening at that time.  I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with relapse as long as you learn from it.”

For Fleury, the individual parts of his coping plan are used in combination with the same skills that helped him become a successful NHL player—persistence and tenacity. He says: “I just call it surviving. I think that we sometimes overthink. I run into people all of the time who over-think their addictions. When it really is, I have 24 hours to stay sober. So I need to get a regimen, a routine, a plan, or whatever it is to survive 24 hours at a time without booze. Then it’s about repetition. I know about focus, discipline and repetition. It’s the old Malcolm Gladwell theory of 10,000 hours. If I take my childhood, apart from the trauma, I was really focused on all of those things. Why wouldn’t it be the same when it came to sobriety?”

Accordingly, Fleury sees his recovery as an ongoing process. He says: “In my vocabulary, there is no such word as ‘healed.’ Healing is different than healed. ‘Healed’ is a finality. Helping is healing; it’s an ongoing process.” He looks to others to model this process. He says: “Compassion. Compassion. Compassion. If the king of compassion, the Dalai Lama, says everyday he needs to learn more compassion, then what does that say about us? We’re human beings. We all make mistakes.”

Now Fleury devotes the majority of his professional time to helping others to find the path to healing that is right for them through his writing, speaking and charity work. He says, “When it comes to people who are on a path of healing, I say bravo—welcome to the wonderment of finding yourself. And it’s the greatest journey you’ll ever take in your life—is the one of self.”

And he continues to encourage others to learn from his mistakes, particularly the mistake of not talking about one’s experience. “People don’t grasp this concept of conversation. And when growing up, the only skill you’ve learned is surviving, the road back to becoming a whole person is a lifetime journey. “It’s just having more of those conversations and having it be safe and OK.  And in Conversations with a Rattlesnake, we remodel a conversation that is safe. It’s loving. It’s caring. It’s all of the things that need to happen in order for someone to heal.”

And Fleury’s message to others is realistic that the road ahead may not be easy, but is still optimistic that people can heal.

He says: “Once you learn how to win once you can win for the rest of your life.”

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl. 

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