Kendra Fisher and Bill Howatt will be speaking about mental health at The Globe's Solving Workplace Challenges summit on March 20 in Toronto. Click here to find out more or to register for the event.
Suicide takes about 4,000 Canadian lives each year, and women are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide than men. Different risk factors contribute to why a person may attempt suicide; one leading factor is mental illness.
This is the second part of a three-part interview with Kendra Fisher, best known as a top women's ice hockey and inline hockey goaltender who has represented Canada. She is committed to sharing her personal story to bring mental health issues forward to help break the silence around them through her organization mentallyfit.com.
As you suffered in silence, what did you want?
I wanted to learn how to feel "normal." What's normal? I wanted friends, the kind of friends that thought to call when they were making plans, not only when they were in crisis.
I wanted the same social life my teammates had with such ease when we stepped off the ice. I wanted to be dating, knowing my weekends were full of the expectations of nights spent getting to know each other – that giddiness I saw in my friends.
I wanted to feel like when I walked into a room nobody was talking about me; to be able to realize their laughter was in no way related to my arrival, their looks a simple coincidence.
I wanted to be able to breathe without feeling like I was going to die, my heart pounding out of my chest, throat closing, feeling like I was about to collapse. I wanted eating to be subconscious, not a careful process of snacking just enough to stay upright without the feeling of knives being shoved through my insides.
I wanted to feel, to understand happy, for laughter to be more than a mastered facial expression. I wanted a better tomorrow to come, instead of dreading what had become my routine of just getting through.
When were you fully aware you were suffering in silence?
By my late teens, this became my reality. I created a masterful illusion to make others feel comfortable in my presence, an exhausting lie, focusing every moment on hiding every part of myself that wasn't "easy" for others.
As a result, my world shrunk, my ability to work was gone. Going to school was impossible, and every bit of energy I could manifest was dedicated to hockey and hiding from the world. I'd been to doctors, specialists; there were no answers.
Even though for me my day-to-day reality was my heart felt like it would pound out of my chest most hours, my brain was constantly convincing me there must be something invading it. My stomach was barely able to handle food anymore.
But still, my body was healthy; the doctors promised me there was nothing wrong with my health. I was alone. It felt like no one understood me or had any idea how to help me. I knew something was not right, but I had no answers.
What was the turning point when you knew you could no longer keep up the act of acting normal?
With my dreams of playing for Team Canada within reach, it was the summer of 1999. My world would forever change, and I knew I had finally lost control.
As a carded member of Team Canada's National Hockey Program, I had finally been invited to tryouts, the next step to the Olympic dream.
I recall spending half of the flight from Toronto to Calgary for tryouts locked in a bathroom, convinced I was dying. In tears, I couldn't breathe, so desperately wanting off the plane.
I managed to struggle through our first ice time, then found somewhere to break down. I got through off-ice testing, then cried in a stairwell. I pushed through team meetings and meals, then found a washroom to fall apart in. This was what my first day of Team Canada tryouts looked like, and it would be my last.
I remember sitting across from my coaches, trying to explain my time leading up to camp. The doctors I'd seen, the lack of answers. I tried to explain my "symptoms," and told them I needed help. I felt like I was dying. I was terrified I was dying, and I needed to get back to the doctors before I did.
Curiously, I was not able to process their response until years later, but quite simply, they looked at me and asked, "Would it help any to know you've already made Team Canada?" They had already chosen me. I made Team Canada.
I guess their hope was the perceived stress of the process being removed would be the answer. Sadly, it was a kind gesture, but it was not the medicine I needed to remove the fear I soaked in daily.
Now that the silence was broken, what happened next?
This setback is my most memorable, as it represented the moment I could no longer act normal or be the goalie I wanted so desperately to be.
Now I was not able to play hockey. I couldn't breathe anymore. This wasn't about hockey anymore; this was my life I was fighting for now.
In the weeks that followed, I received a list of mental illness diagnoses; a Generalized Anxiety Disorder coupled with a severe Panic Disorder and severe Panic Attacks, Agoraphobia, OCD and Clinical Depression.
I remember lying in (my) psychologist's office, listening to her read this laundry list, and all I could think was, she's got this all wrong. I just made Team Canada. I have great friends and family. I have scholarship offers to every Ivy League and Division 1 school I could want. I am one of the best goalies in the world. There is no way they are talking about me, it didn't make sense.
Denial is normal. To take charge of our mental health requires action. I made a claim to myself I was ready to do what I was told to get healthy.
(Part three will be published tomorrow. Here is part one if you missed it.)
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.
You can find all the stories in this series at:tgam.ca/workplaceaward