Alcoholism, grief, and overcoming my ego

Reflecting back on my story, I sometimes wonder how I got to where I am now. Writing this. I lived a life many kids in this country dream of. I was an aspiring junior hockey player out of Saskatchewan with the dream of one day playing pro hockey. I enjoyed a successful junior and college hockey career. I finished college. Secured a well-paid career. So, what went wrong?

Like many other kids playing junior hockey, the pursuit of my dreams took me away from my home and family. Red Deer, Alberta to be exact. It was fun and exciting, finally living my dream, but was, at times, a lonely and daunting experience. It was very different back then as it is now. You were practically on your own. Coaches didn’t really care about you as a person, just as a player. You were there to perform. Nowadays, teams have full programs to get you acclimated to living away from home and you have billet families that seemingly adopt you as one of their own children. It’s a much better support system from back in the day.

The best part of moving away at that time was my hockey skills improved tremendously within a short period of time since I was playing with older guys. The downside to that, was I developed a lack of confidence. I was only 15, thrown into a world of 18- and 19-year-olds. I wasn’t physically developed enough to compete for ice time.

At 17, I was sent down from the WHL and faced a coach who played a very different style from what my forte was. I wasn’t an intimidating and physical person on the ice, so no matter how good I was offensively, I was given limited playing time and even scratched in the playoffs. Due to my developed ego, I sunk myself in a pity pot and stopped trying: the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. Luckily, that coach gave me a wake-up call. I’d either step up my game or I’d be on the next bus home. Safe to say I did just that as we won the 1980 Centennial Cup (National Junior A Championship) that year.

I was lucky to have survived that but not without it setting me up to crack down the road.

I’ll never regret that part of my life but I did learn a valuable lesson. Support is everything.

The system I grew up in put too much focus on the hockey aspect of the individual. The most important aspect of developing any hockey player is to develop the person as a whole to create a well-rounded individual on, and off, the ice. Physically. Mentally. Scholastically. Emotionally. That, in turn, will develop the best hockey player possible.

In 1990, my life moved to Calgary. My hockey career was behind me. I was working a well-paid job in sales. I met my wife and we were blessed with two boys. By all accounts, it was a normal upper middle-class lifestyle but something wasn’t right. That nasty friend of mine, Ego, had reared its ugly head again.

I was, again, a lucky guy. I married into a very well-off family where a lot of luxuries were handed out. A new house as a wedding present, a new van when my son was born, access to a ski home in Banff and a summer retreat in Arizona, just to name a few. On the outside, I was living the lifestyle that so many people scratch and claw to try and achieve. On the inside, I felt like a complete failure. I was surrounded by all these super successful people but I was only in that circle because I married into it.

There was only one way I could numb that feeling. Alcohol.

It started off as it always does. A drink here, a drink there but I soon lost control. Soon enough, I started planning all sales calls in the morning, grabbing a 6-pack, drinking it in my car and finishing off the workday hiding in my office. I’d keep a bottle of mouthwash and packets of gum in my car to cover up as much as I could. Upon returning home, I would pick a fight with my wife to have an excuse to go downstairs. That way she couldn’t smell the alcohol.

As much as I tried to hide it, it would slowly seep into my life. I became very aggressive and would pick verbal fights with parents at hockey games or with my coworkers. I lost my job of 14 years after threatening my sales director during a sales convention while intoxicated. Coworkers, family and my kids all feared me. Living such a lie took its toll on my family. I gave up on all the relationships I had and became an apathetic, functioning alcoholic.

It all came to head in December of 2010. My wife asked me to leave due to my alcoholism, describing me as a closet drinker. We were subsequently divorced the following year. This created a downward spiral over a 2-year period. I was ashamed and isolated myself from everyone, my boys included. I was a failure. It was unbearable. I developed severe anxiety and depression and became unemployable as a result.

I had lost all hope. I was a dead man walking.

My “rock bottom” came in August 2013. I got the call that all parents dread. My 18-year old son, Josh, died in a tragic car accident in which he was the passenger. The pain was beyond unbearable. It was impossible to believe. My grief brought me back to reality. I failed as a father. I failed as a husband. I failed as a man.

As a result, I made the most courageous decision I have ever made. With the support of my friends and family, I agreed to go to treatment for my grief and alcoholism. They day after Josh’s funeral, I entered into a treatment center in Cranbrook, BC for 2 hour-long sessions every week. It was then that I was able to deal with all my demons and truly forgive myself for all my shortcomings to date. My motivation was to try and become a better version of myself to honour Josh and be a better father to his surviving brother.

It took going through 6 different counsellors to finally find one that worked well for me but I can say, without a doubt, she saved my life. From day one, she could read me like a book. She knew my ego was a problem and made sure that I checked it at the door. She enabled me to trust her through this whole process. To move forward, I had to accept and forgive myself for past mistakes. I was able to finally surrender to all my pain and failures over the years. I learned gratitude, acceptance, patience and the need to stay present. Most importantly, I learned to have faith and keep up hope that things will get better. I could see the results. Everyone who stood by me through the whole process saw the change.

My relationships were healthier than ever.

All was seemingly well, but my time in the treatment centre uncovered a life-threatening problem. During our daily hikes, I was beginning to feel a lot of pressure in my chest and was sent to a cardiologist. Following a stress test on my heart, I was told that I had major blockages in two arteries. A direct result of severe alcohol abuse. I needed coronary bypass surgery. I was in shock. I was in denial. I was scared. At the end of the day, I agreed to the surgery because I wanted to live.

Oddly, battling heart disease was easy for me. I just had to surrender to the pre/post-surgery process and trust the surgeons if I wanted to live. But with my mental health is totally different. It’s a daily battle. Every hour, every minute, sometimes every second. Each day I’m trying to push through without a to do list of “good foods for your heart” to eat or how much to exercise to get in. Each day is reading my body and how I’m feeling that day. It’s allowing myself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s trying my hardest to stay in the light but learning to not fear the darkness that is always lurking. Bad days will come to all of us, and what gets us through is having faith that the next day will be a new opportunity to have a better day.

That mindfulness is what I practice early each morning through meditation. It allows me to stay in touch and be fully aware of my emotions which I’ve learned affect my thoughts, actions, behaviour and ultimate consequences in my life. I exercise four times per week, for 1-1.5 hours per session, which has gotten me down from 283 pounds to 206 within eight months. The best part had to be the votes of confidence from my old Red Deer teammates at a recent reunion where our 1980 Championship team was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. As they all said, “If Woz can do it, anyone can.”

I have built connection into my life. I keep in regular touch with all my close friends and family, setting up coffee talks and lunches to ensure that I put in the effort to stay connected.

I also make sure to be available in any way that I can be for my son, and for my current wife, whom I married in October 2019. My goal is to be a better support person for all those who need it through my life coaching and speaking platform, Woz’s Warriors.

I am now at a point in my life where I am paying it forward. I am able to take my experiences, my lessons, my losses and my failures and harness them to help others in the way I needed to be helped. I look in the mirror and no longer see a failure. I see a man with a purpose.

For more on Tony’s work as a coach and motivation speaker, check out his video here.