Shawn Antoski Wants You to Fear Nothing

Former NHL player takes on mental health advocacy

Posted Mar 24, 2016

As a National Hockey League player for several years, Shawn Antoski had a dual role as both a “regular” player and as an “enforcer.”

Provided by Shawn Antoski
Source: Provided by Shawn Antoski

In the role of enforcer, he protected his teammates from opposing players, and to do so successfully, he became a master of fear: by controlling his own fear to fight some of the toughest people on the planet, calming down his teammates who faced scary opponents and putting fear in the hearts of the opposing teams’ players.

When Antoski retired from hockey, however, he found that the skills he used successfully to manage fear as a player were harder to apply when faced with chronic pain and depression, in part because he did not have the support or coping strategies he needed. With his new nonprofit organization Fear Nothing, Antoski has found a new purpose; namely, building a team that works together to make sure that others don’t suffer as he did and that they get the help they need and deserve.

Antoski recalls the fear he experienced as a player. He told me he was more afraid of losing than getting hurt. “It became almost habitual, where even at night we’re circling the calendar, knowing that I’d be fighting these nights, and that on any given night, someone is going to be tougher,” he said. “It was the aftermath — whether I won or I lost — facing those fears early on that ‘he’s not good enough.’

“If I went to the bathroom, I’d go in there and throw up.”

For Antoski, managing fear was part of the ultimate goal; namely, winning the NHL’s Stanley Cup. And Antoski approached fear the way he approached hockey — win, uber alles. “At the end, there’s two outcomes: Either you’ve won or you’ve lost. Our ultimate goal was the Stanley Cup, so, for me, when it came to the fighting, it was difficult at times, but you were living your dream,” he said.

“Just go in and overcome anything that comes at you, win or lose,” Antoski added.

Antoski’s ability to achieve based on a strong sense of purpose is consistent with research. People who have a strong sense of purpose make strong investments in their work and tend to develop conscientiousness, or the ability to be thorough, careful and vigilant. Not surprisingly, conscientious workers also tend to have better work productivity.

And for Antoski, his conscientiousness manifested in focused, consistent preparation. “It’s kind of strange how, each game you would go into a zone, and everything became so ultra-detailed that your focus, your whole mindset changed,” he said. “When I walked through the gates of the arena, my mind would completely change. There’s the potential that I’m going to get hurt here, and then there’s the potential that I’m going to hurt somebody. Just let it fly. In that moment, I really didn’t fear it.”

Antoski described one particular sequence with fellow “enforcer” Tony Twist. “We squared off, and things were going good, and then I get hit, and I get hit hard. All of a sudden, in a split second, you’re down on the ice,” he explained. “So, how do you deal with that? I gotta get up. Now was I scared to fight Tony again? No. It was a situation where he got the better of me. It happens. So overcoming that fear in that situation was quite simple.

“There was nothing that was going to stand in your way of achieving that ultimate goal.”

One of the reasons that Antoski felt that he was able to put himself out there in such an extreme way was that he had teammates who supported him. “It’s that whole team concept,” he explained. “And if somebody’s faltering in one area, it’s always a comfort to know that there’s someone there to pick up the pieces.”

But unfortunately Antoski felt less supported when struggling with mental health issues. “What made it particularly difficult was that there was little support. Overcoming those things, there was nobody to turn to. And we didn’t have a psychologist on staff on how to deal with those issues,” he said.

“You had to do it on your own.”

In a car accident in 1997, Antoski sustained a severe head injury and subsequently retired from the NHL in 1998. It was at that point that he faced a new challenge; namely, chronic pain and resulting depression. Unfortunately, Antoski found that the warrior mentality that he and everyone in his life expected him to employ was less effective in managing mental illness.

Antoski is not alone. The health of hockey players, particularly “enforcers,” has received a great deal of attention recently. For example, upon their deaths, it was found that hockey players, such as Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can cause depression, aggression and progressive dementia. But in addition to the consequences of head trauma, Antoski describes chronic physical pain as another important struggle.

“Again, I’ve had the conversation about concussions. Do I believe that there’s an impact?  I believe there is,” Antoski said. “I don’t think that’s just the one thing. I think it’s a bigger picture. I really believe that a lot of guys struggle with pain issues.”

Chronic pain may cause depression, in part because pain is a stressful event, but also because it interferes with involvement in daily activities that enhance mood. Conversely, mental health issues such as depression may increase rumination and self-focused attention, which will draw attention to pain symptoms. Further, both pain and depression may be influenced by, and cause activation of, the body’s stress response.

Antoski described his experience of chronic pain. “I dealt with the pain prior to [the car accident] — rheumatoid arthritis. The one that spun me was when I suffered the back injury because I had sciatica on both sides,” he explained. “And all of a sudden my back went.  I would wake up and it would take me 45 minutes to an hour just to put my pants on — in tears — because I was in so much pain. I was broken badly from a mental perspective.”

Originally, Antoski applied the same determination to overcoming his pain and depression that he did to overcoming fear in hockey. “We push our bodies to the limit. If it’s broken, you don’t say anything. It’s that whole Superman mindset. I can overcome any injury.”

But for Antoski, that approach didn’t work, in part because of the debilitating effects of a physical illness, as well as a mental illness, depression. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), mental illness represents the biggest economic burden of any health issue in the world, costing an estimated $2.5 trillion in 2010 alone. This burden is projected to cost $6 trillion by 2030 with two-thirds of these costs attributed to disability and loss of work.

Research has shown that suppressing emotions such as sadness or anxiety can actually worsen these negative experiences. So, as Antoski tried to ignore his suffering, the problem grew worse. “And when I applied [my hockey mentality] to my life is when it went south. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I would go each day with 2 or 3 blown disks and stenosis in the spine. It wasn’t going to keep me down. I just kept going. Meanwhile, it was just destroying me mentally.”

Finally, Antoski began distancing himself from others. “And then I would shut off. I couldn’t express myself because I was in so much pain. And then the spiral started, where I would shut off the world. And the next thing you know, I’m basically isolating myself and trying to figure out what’s wrong. People were so used to ‘Shawn can overcome anything,’” he said.

“How do I tell somebody that I’m broken?”

Making matters worse, Antoski felt that his chronic pain and depression were disrupting his relationships. A long history of research suggests that depression and poor relationship functioning tend to co-occur, with each exacerbating the other. Research suggests that depression is contagious: Proximity to a depressed person increases risk of depression, which can result in social distancing, whereby friends and spouses isolate from a depressed person. And the loss of connection only worsens the individual’s depression.

In the most extreme cases, this distancing can take the form of stigma. This can particularly be the case if an individual’s social network blames the depressed individual for his or her condition. Moreover, stigma makes us sicker: In 1999, the U.S. surgeon general labeled stigma as perhaps the biggest barrier to mental health care.

Antoski described how he felt at the time. “Nobody cared. And I just felt in that situation, abandoned. I think back to all my friends. Even those people like friends, 30, 35 years, they do not exist. It’s like I was contagious or something.” 

He described feeling blamed by others. “I was faking. Are you kidding me? I was lying? It’s beyond me that that mindset would even apply,” he said. “I even had a family friend call me out on the street and tell me to ‘fucking grow up.’  I felt like I was an expendable asset, and that the only value that was in me was what I made in my career.”

As tension built with friends, his wife and children, Antoski felt distanced to the point of being displaced. “There were nights when I slept in the Wal-Mart parking lot or the Lowe’s parking lot because there was nowhere to go. I had to deal with this on my own.”

His condition ultimately became so bad that Antoski overdosed on his medication.  “I was all of a sudden pushed into a corner, and I overdosed, and I ended up in the hospital. When I think back to that moment, I can’t even remember the whole scenario of what was going on. I don’t know if was it me, or was it the medication?”

After that episode, Antoski stopped his medication regimen and started to build himself back up, but through a different method — writing. Expressing emotions through activities such as writing down one’s feelings can improve mood and reduce stress responses.

“From that point on, it was basically going off of that medication and writing. Writing was probably my biggest medication, if you will,” he said. “Expressing myself on paper, I touched depths that I didn’t think were possible, and it allowed me to really climb out of a hole. That allowed me to become me and keep going.”

And as Antoski began to rebuild himself and his life, he found a new purpose in helping others. “This is my calling, my destiny. I want to do something that’s going to impact and be significant. If I was meant to suffer to create positive change, so be it, because I really believe nobody should suffer, especially when they are ill,” he said. 

“If somebody comes up and says, ‘I have cancer,’ people respond with ‘I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?’ But if somebody says, ‘I suffer from depression’ … ‘That’s not my problem.’”

And with his Fear Nothing nonprofit, he’s building a movement to combat stigma and help people get the care they need. “And I feel that the players — we’re the voice, when you’re talking about the athletes, we may be the voice. I’ve got 400 members in the Fear Nothing group.  If I make certain posts, I can reach 4000 people or 50 people, but they’re identifying with the compassion side of it. And opening a door to a resource, opening their eyes to their value,” he said.

And Antoski can reach people because he’s been through it. “I know what it was like. I know where it has led me, and I know what I’ve been through, and I don’t want people to feel that way,” he said. “What’s really funny about our culture and our society is that we’re more preoccupied with somebody else’s struggle.  Like we want to see people fall. We want to see the athlete hurt. You have an athlete or an actor that just goes off the rail, and they are broken, and they are spinning out of control, and you’ve got people that kind of laugh at it.

“It’s their insecurities, and it can cover up their own shitty life by throwing somebody else’s under the bus,” he said.

Antoski feels that change has to be on several levels: individual, parents, schools, companies, health care system. “I think it starts with one individual going out there and putting it out there.  It’s, how do we get people to adopt it into their daily lives. It’s got to become a part of a broader cultural change. If you have a productive work culture that actually embraces people’s health and well-being, they are going to be that much more productive, which means a bigger bottom line.”

Still, some people are skeptical that a hockey “enforcer” can be a compassionate mental health advocate. Antoski said, “It’s actually kind of scary because people will judge me. I’m supposed to just make people bleed or injure people, and I have no heart. I’m not just this modern day gladiator that is just on another mission to seek and destroy.”

But Antoski is optimistic that when it comes to changing the way we deal with mental illness in society, he will win. “We are going to change our culture, our society, and get them back on track. People aren’t just assets, just throw-away objects. We are going to come together, and we are going to change the world,” he said.

“It’s my calling because I’m really passionate about it. I don’t like suffering.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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