The Health of the Matter
The Health of the Matter
Author : Theo Fleury
Editor: Jennifer J. Lacelle
Date : August 9, 2021
There are going to be experiences, good and bad, that shape people and recreate them into entirely different people. These defining moments leave lasting impressions emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally.
It isn’t addiction that leads to mental illness, it’s the other way around. A concept that Theo Fleury, former NHL star, says is often confused and that the cause of mental illness is trauma. Fleury is now in the position to advocate on behalf of victims, though he had to take his own path filled with trauma and learning before arriving where he is today.
There are numerous highlights throughout Fleury’s career in the NHL, including winning the Stanley Cup in the 1988-89 season. His short stature, five-foot-six-inches, was a hindrance to being drafted or taken seriously as a competitive player in the initial stages. In the 1987 draft he was the 166th pick in the 8th round.
The draft number doesn’t mean much to him, saying that being drafted sooner or later doesn’t determine the value or skill of the player. As example, he’s 61st overall for all-time scoring in the NHL. “My whole life, people looked at my height,” Fleury says. “That was always the question or statement… he’s too small, he’s never going to make it.”
He worked throughout his childhood and adolescence for the opportunity to play professionally. When the chance finally arrived, he “kicked down the front door,” proved himself and played in the NHL for the next 15 years. Looking back over the span of his career, he says initially he didn’t realize just how important and prestigious winning the Stanley Cup was.
He chuckles, saying men’s brains aren’t fully developed until the age of 30 (or thereabouts), so achieving great success at a young age didn’t click.
Fleury also assumed there would be numerous chances to achieve such greatness again, and again. However, he only managed to get close to the SC once more when he was playing in Colorado.
“Obviously, now that I’m getting older, I see the significance of what happened and appreciate it way, way more than I probably did then,” he says.
Getting into the NHL was more difficult than actually playing in the league.
He says that everything he went through in his childhood was preparation for the game. Fleury is also a “big subscriber” to the theory of 10,000 hours. Essentially, as the idea goes, it takes at least 10,000 hours of intense practice at a particular skill to become a master. Once this has been achieved, you are on the path to potential fame, fortune, and success.
Fleury was also able to participate in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Though, he was included in the very first time NHL players were permitted to participate in the Olympics (1998), making him one of the first in history. The team in 1998 finished in fourth place, but he says they learned quite a bit from the experience.
So, when the 2002 competition came about, they took that knowledge and arrived prepared. He believes it was likely the greatest Canadian hockey team ever assembled, and they took a “magical” journey for two weeks and ultimately won gold.
The Darker Path
Fleury was sexually abused by his junior coach, the trauma of which caused mental illness that haunted him, prompting Fleury to find unhealthy coping mechanisms. Statistically, he points out that one in four people have endured some form of sexual assault or abuse before they’ve reached 18 years old.
Fleury adds that the world’s conglomerate of child and human trafficking racks in over $150-billion each year. This means the sex-trade is making millions more than a legitimate business would. In Canada, it is estimated only 5 per cent of women who experience sexual assault have police reports completed. Furthermore, women in Canada who do go through the process of completing a rape kit may be left empty-handed as the rape kit remains unprocessed unless they choose to press charges against their assailant.
If someone’s local hospital has a rape kit (not all do), the victims go through processing (usually 2-6 hours), which can sometimes be just as invasive as the assault, before deciding their next steps. Even if the victim does decide to press charges, not all the evidence collected is transferred to authorities.
Fleury points out that trauma is a commonality throughout the world, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, financial status, etc. But it can lead people down roads darker than they could have imagined. “We tend to gravitate to substances as a coping mechanism to deal with it,”
Fleury says, calling trauma a “perpetual cycle.” He became sober in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he decided to continue searching for different ways to improve his life as he hadn’t seen advances in other aspects.
However, society doesn’t openly discuss mental illness, trauma or addiction, sweeping them under the rug instead. It’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist since emotional pain and mental illness aren’t visible.
However, Fleury believes it’s one of the most important discussions people can have. It’s not easy to step into the ‘limelight,’ so to speak, because of the stigma surrounding trauma and mental illness.
Society tends to tell people that vulnerability is weakness, however, it’s quite the opposite. Fleury calls it the “warrior mentality.” Judgment takes zero courage, but coming forward, speaking up and being vulnerable takes courage. Which means those who do speak should be celebrated not belittled.
“Vulnerability is truth, and not everybody wants to hear the truth.” He also notes that a majority of trauma happens within a family environment. Statistically, most abusers know their victims (family, friends, partners).
As it happens, people don’t want to upset the delicate balance of family so they remain quiet. But that’s where judgment, statements of disbelief and stigma can pour in, enabling guilt and “guilt kills.”
“You don’t one day wake up and have a mental illness or addiction,” Fleury says. “We have a systemic trauma problem.”
It took Fleury about three and a half years to complete his first book, Playing with Fire.
It reveals what happened to him in an honest, raw account of his trauma. While it hadn’t been hard to put pen to paper once he made the decision to tell his story, he hadn’t expected to become the face of sexual abuse survivors.
He says, “After the book came out, I got run over by people.” That’s when Fleury realized it was trauma people were experiencing and most people carry it with them. The release brought about numerous speaking opportunities, many of which were within the Indigenous communities.
As of 2021, he’s visited 420 First Nations communities out of the 630 in Canada. He discovered there was a great deal of abuse and trauma these people were trying to deal with, and says they were seeking him out to act as a leader, stating he’s a very proud Métis.
Upon visiting these communities, Fleury discovered a small hub still practicing their traditional Indigenous spirituality.
It piqued his interest so he began speaking with spiritual leaders, elders and medicine men. This prompted him to delve deeper and begin utilizing the provided tools in his own life, beginning to see a difference with longer periods of peace and joy.
He was eventually invited to a Sweat Lodge, a very sacred ceremony, and had one of his greatest spiritual experiences. Fleury describes the process in which addiction recovery programs run; the first three steps are about spirituality, or finding what’s greater than yourself which will assist you in returning to “sanity.”
He was enraptured after that and began regularly participating in Sweat Lodges, finding himself becoming extraordinarily healthier, referring to Indigenous spirituality as “untapped resources of healing.”
“The neat thing is in that particular program, you get to pick your own god, whatever that looks like to you,” Fleury says.
Helping Society Heal
Within the First Nations culture, people can choose how they look at spirituality. Fleury describes it as being a holistic approach to healing with plant-based medicine, community and relationships.
“I love it,”
he says. “It’s been one of the biggest catalysts of taking me to the next level of healing.” Fleury believes one of the biggest keys to the healing process is simply listening. If someone tells you their story,
you don’t need to have an answer or solution. Nine times out of ten, you only need to hear them out. “I just have to listen, that’s all they want,” Fleury says of his work assisting abuse survivors. “Then guiding them through their own journey, and being there with a very compassionate and empathetic heart.”
People who experience trauma usually exhibit anger and resentment. As it pertains to anger, it’s a coping mechanism that helps people survive and deal with stressful situations.
The reaction of rage is a way of shifting focus, allowing them to feel like they can endure.
“This is an individual journey,” says Fleury. “Everybody is different, but it comes down to three core ideas: physical, emotional, and spiritual cores. I need to nurture those three things, when I do that there’s less drama, chaos…”
It’s not a mutation of genes, however it is epigenetic, which means it changes the physical structure of DNA and the way the cell reads a gene.
The term Generational Trauma is now being coined as studies progress. While anyone is susceptible to it, the most pronounced cases appear to be in groups who historically continually experience trauma of some form. Photo Courtesy of Theo Fleury.
Fleury says that looking through the genetic code, trauma can be passed along for at least seven generations. However, there is a bright side: people can heal. “You get to the point where you gotta make that ultimate choice,” he says.
“Am I gonna live or am I gonna die?” When examining the world as a whole, it’s clear to see every single person has experienced some kind of traumatic situation. He uses political and country leaders as an example of leading causes for “traumatic environments” over the centuries. To exemplify that, a couple of the largest groups of people who have experienced Historical Trauma (another area within the study) includes Holocaust survivors, Indigenous Communities, forced immigrants and slaves.
Trying to help is the biggest thing, along with convincing people it’s possible to heal, and much of it depends on how hard someone is willing to work. There’s an “art of conversation” to healing, and that’s why he wrote his second book with Kim Barthel.
Conversations with Rattlesnakes
It’s a four-year conversation between two friends, Barthel and Fleury, that evolved to a book on healing, compassion and empathy. Fleury doesn’t believe in coincidence; he strongly believes everything happens for a reason.
Despite going through terrible abuse, he can now look back to see everything from a different perspective. He feels it’s a very spiritual way of looking at his circumstances. “Going through it at the time was very, very difficult,” he says. “But now I have done a lot of healing.”
It’s vital to view his experiences in such a way so he can more easily move ahead. Fleury believes it was presented to him as a gift from the universe to help him build resilience. “If you’re comfortable, you’re not going to change,” says Fleury of taking the challenge to sit in one’s “shit.” By doing so, one must deal with the emotions that bubble to the surface. Even if the feeling can’t be identified, it’s still present and waiting for you. The more people shut off their brain, which is constantly lying, the more people are capable of listening to their heart (or gut feeling).
This is why ancient practices such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga are making massive comebacks. These activities allow people to shut their minds off and simply allow themselves to exist in the present. The more someone practices, the easier it gets. “When we’re traumatized, our nervous system gets frayed and out of whack,” Fleury says. “When we’re in high stress, we release cortisol, and it starts to do damage to the nervous system.
How we deal with that is using these mindful holistic practices.” Fleury Enterprises offers people the opportunity to heal themselves through open conversations, practices, and offering people the security and safety they need in order to allow vulnerability and begin the healing process.