It took 3 years and 30+ doctors to find out that the concussions I had playing junior hockey were the underlying cause of my mental illness. Although I eventually found a solution, four guys I played hockey with weren’t so lucky and died by suicide before the age of 25.
These are the reasons why I’m sharing my story and started the movement, HEAD1ST.
Growing up I played pretty much every sport, but as I got older hockey took a priority. Although I didn’t play professionally, I did play AAA and played three years of Junior.
During that time, I had three diagnosed concussions and definitely played through a few more. In saying that, my injuries never kept me off the ice for more than 2-4 weeks as the headaches subsided and I always wanted to get back on the ice.
But around the age of 20, I started noticing the symptoms of depression.
I was always a pretty upbeat guy and always loved to have a good time, but the urge to connect with people started to fade, and I began to isolate myself. I started to get anxious around even my best friends/family, developed horrible mood swings, and couldn’t sleep.
From the outside, it probably looked like I had the world by the ass but on the inside, I felt broken. Within a few months, I found myself quitting hockey, leaving university and feeling hopeless. The thoughts of suicide began to become an everyday occurrence and to cope I began to binge drink daily.
The worst part was that I had no idea why I was acting this way or how to explain what I was going through.
When my parents or friends asked me questions, I’d react with anger and make up excuses. I was hurting so bad but the last thing I wanted was for someone else to think that I was weak.
That said, it came to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. After bottling things up for so long I eventually exploded and mentally broke down to my parents.
With their support, we began to look for answers. Although we didn’t really know where to start, naturally the first stop was the family doctor.
I booked an appointment and walked in there, unpacking what was going on to the best of my ability. Without blinking, he told me that I had depression and that there was a chemical imbalance in my brain. He then said it could be fixed by taking medication.
After what seemed like a two-minute conversation, I left his office with a prescription for antidepressants.
Although I didn’t want to admit that I had depression or had to take these meds, part of me was fired up that this little white pill was going to solve all my problems.
But it didn’t work. If anything, it just made things worse.
That was the start of 3 years and seeing 30+ medical professionals trying to find an answer. With the help of my family, I saw several therapists, psychologists, naturopaths, and even saw a hypnotist at one point. I was literally willing to see anyone or try anything to get my life back.
Unfortunately, they all just said the same thing:
“Read this book, do this exercise, take this medication. If that doesn’t work… take more medication.”
About two years into this search my family doctor recommended I get some blood work done, which was probably a good thing considering the cocktail of drugs I was taking.
The results came back a little off.
Turns out I had a severe testosterone deficiency. In Canada, the reference range (which I’ve learned doesn’t depict what’s optimal) for total testosterone is between 8.4 – 28.8 nmol/L. Mine was 0.5 nmol/L.
To my surprise, my doctor wasn’t concerned, he just told me that it must have been a mistake. He said that I was a healthy guy and that I shouldn’t worry about it.
But this raised a red flag to me. It was the only thing out of whack that I thought could potentially explain why I was in such a rut. So after a few more months of no progress, I asked to redo my bloodwork and despite his resistance, we did the test again.
The results came back the same.
This time he acknowledged the issue and referred me to a hormone specialist. I then waited six more months to see the professional only to find out that this guy wouldn’t help me.
The endocrinologist accused me of taking steroids due to my physical appearance and wrote me off as a potential patient the moment I walked in the door. Apparently, when you inject synthetic hormones into your bloodstream, your natural production shuts off. He thought this was the case with me, and that I was trying to abuse his power to get more juice.
Meanwhile, I had never even thought about taking steroids, I just worked out and played sports my whole life. But 3 months later, the same thing happened again with another endocrinologist.
This was extremely frustrating. I knew there was something wrong but none of these people could help. My family and I went back to my family doctor and asked for one more chance to someone who would give me the time of day. That’s when I was referred to Doctor Komer in Burlington, Ontario.
Going into my appointment I had no expectations, but little did I know this experience would be much different.
I remember walking into his office wearing a Chicago Blackhawks hat, which cued the first things he asked me: “Do you play sports, and if so have you had any concussions?”
My answers were: yes, and yes.
Komer started off by telling me how optimal hormones are absolutely critical for our overall health and well-being. He described how depression, anxiety and many of the things I was dealing with were symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.
He began to explain that when you have a head injury, it causes inflammation in the brain and that the inflammation can damage your pituitary gland – the part of your brain responsible for hormone production (growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen, thyroid, etc).
But then he gave me the best news ever – IT COULD BE FIXED!!!
Komer wrote me a prescription for TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) and recommended a few natural supplements to support brain health. I left his office and started injections the next day.
Within a month, I noticed a night and day difference. I was no longer anxious, reactive or depressed. Instead, I felt motivated, interested and happy again.
Within another six months, I was off all other medication.
It’s been 3 years now, and I can without a doubt say that I have my life back.
But unfortunately, four of my friends that I played hockey with weren’t so lucky and took their lives before the age of 25.
Although I cannot be certain that they went through the same thing that I did, I thought that sharing my experience could potentially help someone else.
So I took Facebook and wrote this post outlining my full experience. I put it out to the world and to my surprise my story spread like wildfire. It had over 3000 shares in the first week and my inbox became flooded with messages.
It was through these interactions that I learned concussions and mental health affected a lot more people than I originally thought, and that many weren’t aware of the connection between the two.
Since writing that single post I’ve had thousands of conversations with complete strangers about how concussions and mental health affected them. I also was able to point hundreds of people in the right direction when looking for help.
But more importantly, sharing my story inspired others to speak up about their adversity and to take action in their recovery.
And that’s why I decided to create HEAD1ST.
After connecting with so many other athletes it was obvious that there was a stigma attached to speaking up and getting proper help. Further, it was clear to me that athletes often held false assumptions of pressure and fear when it came to prioritizing their health and happiness over perceived “success” in sport.
In saying that, I found that most people also didn’t know what to do or where to go if they were struggling. Like mine, the road to recovery was often too long as proper resources can be scattered or hard to find.
In saying that, the mission of the brand is to positively change athletes’ attitudes and behaviors in the context of concussions and mental health.
It will be no easy task, but my vision is that all athletes feel a sense of pride in taking care of their physical/mental health, and know exactly what to do if themselves or someone else is struggling.
To accomplish these objectives, I’m building a social movement that empowers athletes and challenges the stigmas associated with sport. I’ll then be pairing that with a free toolkit comprised of consolidated concussion/mental health information, helpful tips, and trusted resources that anyone can access.
So I invite you to follow along, to reach out and join the movement. Together we can create real change, spark action and make a lasting impact on athletes across the country.