Former NHL player opens up about day-to-day recovery with substance addiction

Theo Fleury is a former NHL player who has struggled with substance addiction for over 20 years.

“I think that started long before I started playing hockey. I suffered a very traumatic childhood, which then led to a lot of addiction issues and problems as an adult and for me it was a way of coping with the emotional pain and emotional scars that were left behind from childhood trauma,” says Fleury.

In Fleury’s junior hockey year, his hockey coach was Graham James, who was later convicted of sexually assaulting Fleury.

In regards to personal issues, Fleury says, “We don’t really have a whole lot of tools in our tool box to be able to deal with them so we tend to gravitate towards the dark side of life.”

Fleury had a successful career in the National Hockey League (NHL); winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 as a rookie with the Calgary Flames and a Gold medal during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

With Fleury’s NHL status, the drugs and alcohol came easy.Theo Fleury former NHL player has battled with substance addiction for over 20 years due to his traumatic childhood experiences.
Photo courtesy of Resolute

“The money that I made in the NHL obviously gave me access to unlimited amounts of medicine, as I like to call it, to be able to deal with those emotional scars that were left behind from my childhood,” says Fleury.

Dr. Paul Sobey, addiction medicine physician and president of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM) explains that one of the biggest misconceptions of substance addiction is understanding that it is a disease.

“A significant part of the medical community and a large part of the general community believe that addiction is not a disease, it’s a moral problem, people can just make a choice. And yes you can make a choice in addiction, but there’s a lot of people who become disinhibited and that decision becomes really difficult.”

Fleury realized he needed help with his substance addictions when he was 30 years old and actively playing in the NHL.

“I had 14 years of history behind me and that’s the thing about addictions, they never get better, they continuously get worse and worse. Obviously because I had so many resources available to me my rock bottom didn’t happen for a long time,” says Fleury.

Theo Fleury is now an advocate and professional speaker for mental health. His story has inspired many others to reach out for recovery and to have conversations about their addictions.
Photo by Anup Dhaliwal
The NHL eventually told Fleury he would have to clean up his act or he would not be allowed to continue to play professional hockey. Fleury’s NHL career was put to an end in 2003 when his substance addiction over took his daily life.

In 2005 he sought help and began recovery for his substance addiction.This allowed him to begin to have conversations and open up about his childhood memories and traumatic experiences He started to get into the therapy side of recovery and open up what he calls a “pandora box of memories” that he went through in his childhood.

Dr. Sobey says that there are two types of treatment methods for individuals who suffer from a substance addiction. “To prevent the pleasure centre working too well, we use medication like Seboxone, Methadone, Naltrexone, Acamprosate, excreta for treatment of opioid dependence and alcoholism.”

Another method of treatment is rehabilitatation of the frontal lobes of the brain through treatment centres like AA and one-on-one counseling.

In 2009, Fleury published a book called Playing With Fire that talked about his traumatic sexual abuse as a child, which lead to his substance addiction issues.

“The most important thing when it comes to recovery is having conversations and feeling safe and being able to talk about whatever you need to talk about in order to get things out. There’s a great saying ‘we are only as sick as our secrets’. Well I was carrying around a lot of secrets and I was really sick. Once I started to talk about these things and once they weren’t secrets anymore my life changed,” says Fleury.

Fleury recently published Conversations With A Rattlesnake, a non-fiction book about having conversations and reflecting on healing and trauma an individual might of dealt with.

Today, Fleury is an advocate and speaker for mental health. His story has inspired individuals to reach out for recovery and to talk about their addictions. His recovery has been a long journey, but has taught him to open up and have conversations about his traumatic childhood experiences.

“The last 20 years I’ve been struggling. It’s just been a process of learning and being willing to talk about whatever it is and not really caring about what somebody else thinks about it. All I know is that I’m getting better every single day, so I’m going to continue to do what I do and that means having more conversations like this,” says Fleury.

adhaliwal@cjournal.ca

Photo By Resolute (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately indicated Theo Fleury’s recovery was put behind him. The story has been updated in an effort to accurately represent Theo Fleury and his daily recovery with substance addiction.