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Addiction Unscripted #001: Theo Fleury
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It affects people in every age group, socio-economic status and religious belief. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what type of work you do, whether you are a parent or where on earth you were born. Whether it’s an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or food, a common underlying cause is trauma.
What lengths will we go to numb emotional pain? How do we move past the shame and secrets that come along with experiencing a trauma?
In this episode, Theo Fleury, NHL All-Star, Stanley Cup Winner & Olympic Gold Medalist, talks about addiction, and how trauma is the human experience that binds us together and the freedom that comes with letting go of shame.
Created, Produced and Hosted by: Melissa A. Martin, M.S.
You may listen to the first episode of Addiction Unscripted below:
Melissa Martin: Welcome to Addiction Unscripted. We are having candid conversations on all things addiction, rehab and mental health. Addiction Unscripted is brought to you by Canada’s most comprehensive concurrent disorder, inpatient, outpatient and virtual addictions treatment, Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centers. For more information on Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centers, please visit us at Trafalgarresidence.com. I’m your host, Melissa Martin, and I’m the Director of Community Partnerships for Trafalgar, as well as a mental health counsellor.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It affects people in every age group, socioeconomic status and religious belief. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what type of work you do, whether you’re a parent or where on earth you were born. Whether it’s an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or food, a common underlying cause is trauma. What lengths will we go to numb emotional pain? How do we move past the shame and secrets that come along with experiencing a trauma? On this episode, Theo Fleury joins me to talk about how trauma is the human experience that binds us together and the freedom that comes with letting go of shame.
Melissa Martin: Welcome and thank you for talking to me today, Theo.
Theo Fleury: Yeah, no worries.
Melissa Martin: So I just finished your book “Playing with Fire“. You have an exceptional memory, the detail in your place and your time in hockey. And not only, you know, your personal experience aside, how do you recall so much detail?
Theo Fleury: And I’m not sure, you know. And especially with all the concussions I had in my career, too, it’s kind of remarkable that you remember so many things when you you know, when you play hockey for the majority of your life, you know, I think there are certain things that stand out in your career. The mundane things that the person who helped me write the book was very prepared and it was really great at asking questions and follow up questions. And, you know, that allowed me to jog in my memory and remember, you know, a lot of details, that she was looking for and and wanted to be in the book.
Melissa Martin: It’s so important, I think, to take a moment and pause and take notice of where we started and where we are at any particular time. It’s the picture that it paints when we look back on our lives and what we see, how it’s unfolded: good, bad, beautiful, ugly. And the questions that come up: Do we have regrets and choices we’ve made? Which are we proud of? Where would we want to do do-over? And your book, “Playing with Fire” does this very, very well. Are you familiar with Brené Brown?
Theo Fleury: Oh, yeah.
Melissa Martin: I know you do. You talk a lot on “shame”. And she talks about if we share stories and share can’t survive. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. And of all things, trauma takes away from us. The worst is our willingness or even our ability to be vulnerable. There’s a reclaiming that has to happen. And that was so clear when I read your book. Did you feel that after you finished writing, did you feel that there was a reclaiming before or was that part of the process?
Theo Fleury: Like I think it evolves. You know, when I sat down to write the book, I was only going to talk about my hockey career, that was it. And, you know, like I said earlier, the person that helped me write the book, first of all, she made me feel safe. And I trusted her. Then three years later, you know, we finish the book and, you know, I tell the whole entire story and I was really scared and fearful before I went out on the book tour, because I didn’t know how the public was going to react to what was in the book. What I quickly realized and discovered was that not only was I not in the minority, but I was in the majority. And by me finding my own voice and putting a voice to my pain and suffering that I can also help other people do the exact same thing and, you know, that was 10 years ago and we’re still out there helping people find their voice and talk about these things that we’re afraid to talk about. And it comes from a place of vulnerability. I think when we’re vulnerable, that vulnerability creates safety, and then when you have safety, that’s when the magic of healing happens when people feel safe.
Melissa Martin: Two excerpts in particular I’d like to share: You said “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a fucking raging, alcoholic lunatic. He destroyed my belief system. I didn’t trust what I was thinking or feeling. My parents had not instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in me, but I had developed one thanks to my Russell coaches and the Peltz family… The most influential adult in my life at that time was telling me that what I thought was wrong. I no longer had faith in myself or my own judgment. And when you come down to it, that’s all a person has. Once it’s gone, how do you get it back? Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years. An absolute nightmare every day of my life. I worried constantly. What should I do? How the fuck do I get out of the situation? What if someone finds out? Will I go to hell for this? So when I was 16 years old and I took that first sip of alcohol, it was like – snap! – medicine. I was like, oh, this is good stuff.” Thinking back on that, that just stood out for me so much. You had been playing hockey quite a bit, even up to age 16. You talk a lot about physical pain and emotional pain. Your tolerance for physical pain was out of this world. Looking back on that, how do you see the differences in your tolerance in and how we tolerate physical pain versus emotional pain? And what alcohol introduced you to?
Theo Fleury: The brain does not decipher between emotional or physical pain. And so, you know. Any kind of numbing agent, whatever that is, food, sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, you know, whatever it is, whatever you use as a numbing agent, you know, obviously works. I would say for a short period of time. But then and especially you don’t deal with either side of it, whether it’s emotional or physical, if you don’t deal with it, eventually that coping mechanism stops working. And then you’re faced with a choice and a decision. And I was you know, I was there, what, 16 years ago where I had the gun in my mouth and I was ready to end my life not because I wanted to die, but I was exhausted from living in pain for the majority of my life. And like I said, nothing was working anymore. And so I said, I better try something different. And I was getting into healing and therapy and then you name it. And so I’ve done every kind of therapy known to mankind. I think, along the way, whether it was a treatment center or a therapist or whatever it was. You know, I collected a bunch of tools that I use today that keeps me on the straight and narrow 24 hours at a time. And so, I also tell people that, yeah, I’m in therapy for the rest of my life and, you know, I’m OK with that. And, part of the stigma that we face is that therapy means you’re weak and all these catchphrases that are attached to the therapy. But, I found, all types of therapies, all kinds of modalities to be very, very helpful in allowing me to have this life that I have as opposed to the chaotic, crazy existence that I had 14 years ago.
Melissa Martin: Do you miss any of that or has that gone away in time?
Theo Fleury: Yeah, that goes away.
Melissa Martin: And you’re doing a lot of talking and awareness on mental health and on trauma. I listened to your presentation at the trauma, healing and the brain that you did, which was really, really informative. I love your quote: “My greatest adversity is my greatest gift! To watch you talk about what you’ve been through, what are those adversities, if you could name them. Because a lot of people don’t look at it like that, especially when you’re going through it. So somebody who is going through a lot of trauma and an addiction and emotional pain isn’t necessarily going to see what they’re going through as a gift or a growth opportunity.
Theo Fleury: Well, I think that comes with time and patience. You know, us addicts and alcoholics, we are not good with patience. If we want something, we go and get it. And that’s why, we wrote the chapter in “Conversation with A Rattlesnake” called Sitting in your Shit, because part of the process of healing is that you have to sometimes sit in uncomfortability and actually feel, you know, those feelings instead of running away from them or numbing them out or whatever it is. Because if we don’t understand how it is, like, you know, I couldn’t even identify if I was happy, sad, mad, glad I didn’t have any concept of that. I was always running away from my feelings. And, you know, the process of healing and recovery is to set in the uncomfortability of whatever you’re feeling and be able to identify and then be able to have the conversation when we are, you know, anxious, depressed or feel sadness, loneliness, emptiness. You know, all those things are things that we have to learn and be able to realize. You know what this is? This is part of being a human being and living, you know, on this planet is that not every day is going to be rainbows and unicorns. We are going to face adversity and we’re going to struggle because there are lessons in the pain and then the suffering which give us the tools to be able to live life on life’s terms and so, you know, I talk about, my parents being a gift, my abuser being a gift in my life. Because without those experiences, guess what? I’m not talking to you today or I’m not speaking or I’m not doing conferences or whatever it is. And so I’ve been able to find the positive in the most extreme negative that people would perceive, you know that to me. And it’s really quite interesting when I’m on the stage and I talk about Graham James, my abuser being a gift in my life. And to see, you know, the look on people’s faces is quite interesting because I think we have to eventually get there in order to move forward.
Melissa Martin: I think that it also helps to keep us from staying in a victimized space.
Theo Fleury: No question. Absolutely. Well, you know, the victim role is totally warranted and people end up staying in that space for a long time. But, well, we know about addiction is eventually we get to that rock bottom place where we have to make that choice and have to make that decision to get rid of the coping mechanisms and face the the truth and the pain and the suffering and face it all and change it. And the brain and and the body are incredibly resilient. Whatever behavior is learned can be unlearned and retrained and rewired and all that stuff. So it’s just pretty exciting stuff when we think about it.
Melissa Martin: It is and I think that when you come through trauma and difficult experiences, I think one of the biggest things I have learned is that we are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for and so much more resilient.
Theo Fleury: Yeah, there’s no question! There is no question that we can go through a lot and still come out on the other end way better person. And it’s those experiences that we need along the way in order to to learn. And unfortunately, pain is one of those things. And but, you know, pain is a great motivator for change because it tells you there’s something wrong in your world, the universe that needs to change. And and how do you change that? Well, usually if you talk to somebody or you need to, be around people who are in recovery and on a path of healing. And you learn from those people and their experiences. That’s why I always say the greatest, cheapest type of therapy is, and then probably the most effective is, group therapy. Because you get into a room full of people who had the similar experience and you use vulnerability to create safety and once you have safety, then, the majority of those people start to stand up and talk about what happened to them. And then, you don’t feel alone and you don’t feel like you’re the only person who’s ever gone through whatever you’ve gone through.
Melissa Martin: What’s been your biggest takeaway from treatment?
Theo Fleury: Well, I think the person has to be ready because if they’re not ready, then I think it’s a waste of time. But for me, I was able to pick up tools along the way. You know, I used to say that my old toolbox was filled with, addiction and chaos and all this stuff. And then, I had to switch up the toolbox and require different tools and different coping mechanisms that are part of my daily routine now that help me stay sober for the last 14 years.
Melissa Martin: What’s in the toolbox now?
Theo Fleury: Well, there’s lots! There’s meditation, there’s therapy, there is spiritual practices. Breathing exercises, you know, you name it. All healthy ways of coping with uncomfortability.
Melissa Martin: So you’ve been sober 14 years. Have you had any relapses?
Theo Fleury: No!
Melissa Martin: No? That’s remarkable.
Theo Fleury: Yeah, I’ve been very lucky.
Melissa Martin: What can you attribute the most to that, because you’ve probably seen with addiction, relapse does happen.
Theo Fleury: The relapse is a part of recovery, you know. I would say there’s very few people who get it on the first go around, you know.
Melissa Martin: Yeah.
Theo Fleury: Relapse is a part of recovery because, you know, as we’re acquiring these tools that we need to stay sober one day at a time. There is going to be times when we sort of fall off the wagon because we get overwhelmed and we go back to what we know until we find something better.
Melissa Martin: And the last 14 years wasn’t your first go around either?
Theo Fleury: No, it took me 10 years to get 14 years. Right?
Melissa Martin: 10 years to get 14.
Theo Fleury: Yeah.
Melissa Martin: Because you were in a residential center in 2001. Was that your first attempt?
Theo Fleury: When did I start? I think 1999 was the first treatment center I went to and then I subsequently went to three more after that. Well, like I said, you know, I did relapse after each facility that I was in, but I picked up a lot of the tools that I use today, that I acquired from these places.
Melissa Martin: You were seen as a pretty tough guy. When I say that in talking about mental health and asking for help. It’s not a negative or positive. I think there’s a lot of stereotypes and stigma. So I think that this is a really helpful conversation for for some listeners who are afraid to ask for help because of what it looks like. Well, “I was strong. I’m a man, I am tough.” You’re seeing in this certain light. Could you have done this on your own?
Theo Fleury: No, I tried. I tried. I tried to do it on my own and I failed miserably. Every time you think you’ve been doing this on your own, good luck. And if you figure it out, let me know. Recovery isn’t about being a tough guy. It’s all about being vulnerable, being open, being honest,and talking about those feelings. I don’t think I met anybody who has been on their own.
Melissa Martin: You said in an interview that the biggest epidemic on Earth is mental health. What tools have you learned and what tools are you teaching when you talk with people that have the biggest impact on this? Because I think you had said we have enough awareness, right? We have awareness of mental health. Now, what to do?
Theo Fleury: Well, you know, I think, first and foremost is, we have to get away from big pharma and there are a whole bunch of, you know, holistic practices that have been used for thousands of years that are more effective than using what I call synthetic brain chemistry to help you regulate your brain chemistry. So I talk a lot about spirituality, you know, holistic practices, which is, if I eat that, if I exercise and if I practice some sort of spirituality, it’s like probably the best kind of brain chemistry you can give yourself.
Melissa Martin: What’s your favorite practice in a 24-hour period that helps you the most?
Theo Fleury: It really depends where I am during the day and having anxiety or depression, you know, I usually try to meditate or do some breathing exercises. The biggest thing is when you’re anxious and depressed that you get to move.
Melissa Martin: I think it’s the hardest thing to do.
Theo Fleury: Yeah. Maybe the hardest thing to do. But when we do it, it completely changes our chemistry and allows us to get out of those times when we are anxious or depressed. The hardest time in a year is wintertime for me. Because, in the summertime I play a lot of golf. The mini golf is like meditation. And so because I can’t golf in the wintertime, I get into lots of depressive and anxious states, because I can’t do the one thing that keeps me sane and keeps me healthy, you know, playing golf. And I don’t play hockey anymore. I don’t skate anymore. So, winter time is the hardest time for me.
Melissa Martin: Is that a conscious choice that you’ve made or?
Theo Fleury: Yeah, it’s just I get stuck in that state, you know, during the winter or whatever it is. But I know this is part of my process and this is part of me needing to learn something. And so I sit in the uncomfortability of it and try to understand it and go see somebody and talk about it.
Melissa Martin: And I love how you say you sit in the uncomfortability. I think that’s one of the tools and the skills that we need to learn from day one, from when we’re little. I think we’re sold the story of “We are born. We grow up. We go to school. We have career, whether it’s choice of family, kids, and we live happily ever after.” There is so much in between that we are not equipped to handle and teaching our children and future generations that things get messy and they get ugly and they got uncomfortable. And we’re not always happy and it doesn’t always feel good.
Theo Fleury: That’s it! Right there.
Melissa Martin: And we can’t always numb it. We have to feel it in order to move through it.
Theo Fleury: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s part of the stigma that, you know, when you tell people that they don’t believe it. They don’t believe that sitting in pain is a part of the part of the process of healing.
Melissa Martin: Well, it’s a beautiful process. It really is! Doesn’t feel it at the time, absolutely not.
Theo Fleury: No!
Melissa Martin: Then you come through it.
Theo Fleury: The learning part. So we don’t have to go through it again. But the thing about lessons is that we don’t get them the first time, they always come back until we get them.
Melissa Martin: They do, don’t they? And I think the beauty of it is I think every time you do sit through it, it is magic happens when you when you walk through it, it’s like another blind or another layer is lifted from your eyes and you can see things that were there all the time, but they were just blocked and another blind goes up and you see things in a totally different way. You see other people and how you interact and how you feel.
Theo Fleury: Yeah, I call them light bulb moments.
Melissa Martin: Light bulb moments. Yeah.
Theo Fleury: You know, light bulb goes off, right, and we know, OK got the lesson, there it is.
Melissa Martin: Some are hard, there are hard lessons.
Theo Fleury: Oh yeah. Yeah. Life is difficult at times. Right. It’s not always going to be like I said, unicorns and rainbows.
Melissa Martin: It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, no.
Theo Fleury: We sure love it to be that way. But you know…
Melissa Martin: I think life would be kind of boring. You have to have the downs to appreciate the ups, that old cliche, which I hate, but it’s true. Yeah.
Theo Fleury: Yeah.
Melissa Martin: How has interaction with your family and friends changed pre-treatment or before you, you know, stopped with drinking and drugs, your relationships with family and friends, I’m sure evolved and changed dramatically. Did you lose friends? Did you find that you had to do things differently? How did your family dynamics change?
Theo Fleury: I learned about boundaries, right. You know, because I learned about boundaries. You know, I learned a lot of those people that were in my life were, you know, no longer in my life because, I want to live a very drama free life and a lot of the people that were around me were obviously sick as well. And you know that sickness causes a lot of drama. The more I’m around drama, the more likely it is I am gonna drink again, you know, having healthy boundaries, keeps me wait further away from falling into those old habits and reaching back, you know, use those old ways of dealing with family.
Melissa Martin: So in your book, this kind of pertains to your relationships with family and friends. So back when you were in the NHL substance abuse program, you were being watched basically in everything that you did. And you said someone on the team had told the coach about you. “That’s how I thought I could hide in New York. But it turned out someone was spying on me. I figured out who it is. And to this day, I have no time for this person. But I won’t mention his name because unlike him, I’m not a rat.” That’s interesting. I find that interesting because you do talk about a lot of people knowing what was going on. But you were upset that somebody had told on you basically.
Theo Fleury: Obviously I was not ready for help. Right? And here I was on this program with them trying to help me when I didn’t want help.
Melissa Martin: Being forced into it, because when you’re not ready, you’re not just going to invest in it and follow it.
Theo Fleury: And so consequences didn’t work, right? Ten years ago when I wrote the book, I still was angry and had a lot of resentment and stuff like that. And so today I feel, you know, completely different about what I said at that time.
Melissa Martin: Yeah, I was wondering if that have changed.
Theo Fleury: Oh yeah.
Melissa Martin: So I’m curious, what’s your life like now? I feel like I have to go get your other book because it kind of it stops in one place, hearing about your family, your life and getting married. And in my research, I did get to go on the Fleur’s home tour that you did in 2018. Still in the same place?
Theo Fleury: Yeah, we’re still in the same place and you know where am I at today? I’m better! Am I where I want to be. No. You know, that’s why I always say I’m in therapy for the rest of my life and I’m completely OK with that. The things that I have zero expectations that somebody has a magic wand, that’s just going to punch me on the top of my head and everything is going to go away. You know, it’s just baby steps, right? Like the last couple of years have been really interesting because I suffered more physical trauma than I did emotional trauma because I played a physical sport. Now that I turned 50 a couple of years ago and, all this physical trauma that I neglected when I was playing and when I was working on my emotional and spiritual side are now at the forefront of what I do every day is because I’m in pain. I mean, physical pain from the sport that I played. And so now a lot of my focus and a lot of my recovery is now I’m working on the physical part of my being so that I’m not living in pain every single day. And so that’s been what I’ve been working on.
Melissa Martin: Yeah, and you know that brings up a totally different topic. And it’s something that we’ve implemented at Trafalgar as Pain Management. 1991 goal and your knee. I had to look up that video. I watched it a couple of times and I am not a hockey fan. I know nothing about it. But it was fascinating reading the state that you were in physically. See, your knee was destroyed. I don’t know how you physically were able to even stand. Tell us about that goal, because I’m just fascinated by the amount of pain you were in your physical condition and what you were able to do with it.
Theo Fleury: Well, I think pain is mental, right? You learn how to block pain out. You know, as an athlete, you never want to be sitting in the stands watching your teammates go to war without you, right? That’s probably the hardest thing. Sitting and watching your team play and you’re not able to contribute. And so that’s part of the reason why, you know, and it was obviously a very important time in the season. And so, you know, you just want to deal with it. We had a really different sort of attitude towards that old school mentality was suck it up you just went out and you got to do what you are expected to do. But obviously, I am paying for all now. It’s interesting is that I can’t block it out like I did when I was playing, which is kind of interesting and weird at the same time. And so, I am in a lot more physical pain now. And so, you know, I see chiropractors, acupuncturists.
Melissa Martin: Does anything work better than the next or is it a combination of different things?
Theo Fleury: The combination of all and because I am in physical pain, I can’t work out. Right? And so I know that working out would probably help me, but I can’t.
Melissa Martin: What’s in store for you coming up? What are your plans? Are you doing any more writing? Are you doing any more presentations?
Theo Fleury: Yeah. Let’s see. I’m off to Pittsburgh next week and then I come home and I’m in Creston, BC, and then we have a full schedule till the beginning of June. So a lot of speeches, a lot of conferences. So we’re we’re quite busy. And then June is golf season.
Melissa Martin: Yeah, and I forgot in my introduction, you also have two honorary doctorate degrees.
Theo Fleury: That’s probably the funniest thing that’s come out of all of this, right, I am a doctor!
Melissa Martin: Dr. Fleury! Anybody call you Dr. Fleury?
Theo Fleury: No, no.
Melissa Martin: You are doing a lot of work too in talking about mental health. I think that it warrants the attention, even though it’s got to be a little bit humorous, I’m sure. Well, your candid discussions on mental health and on abuse… One out of three girls is sexually abused, one out of five. I believe those numbers are still about the same.
Theo Fleury: Yeah, but look, let’s be honest. I think it’s equal between girls and boys. My 10 years of research has sort of told me that there are as many boys as there are girls that have had some sort of unwanted experience.
Melissa Martin: And we can only base it on people who are talking about it, the ones that are able to talk about it. It’s always fascinating. And when I was in private practice, it was such a… That was a gift to be able to do what I got to do with private practice. Because I would have people that would come in 50s, 60s holding on to secrets that they’ve never told another living soul and so many will hold on to them and don’t tell anybody.
Theo Fleury: You know, the thing you don’t talk about is trauma. We don’t talk about trauma. And trauma is what brings us into mental health and addiction. I find it interesting in “Bell, let’s talk”. What are we talking about? What are we actually talking about? Well, we’re actually talking about trauma! Trauma leaves us an emotional pain and suffering, and that emotional pain and suffering, any kind of emotional pain in mental health. And until we unpack the trauma, we’re going to struggle with mental health. How do we end up dealing with this emotional pain or we gravitate towards the dark side of life and you get involved in addictions? How we cope with the emotional pain. You know, the addiction is the medicine, which helps with our mental health issues. Fear, anxiousness, depression, panic attack, you know, those kind of things. I understand that there are certain types of mental illness that need medication like bipolar and schizophrenia and these type of things. They need medication. You know, general anxiety and general depression is easily managed by using holistic practices.
Melissa Martin: Do you recall who said the quote, “Trauma is the human experience that binds us together?” That’s a new one for my wall. I am a quote collector. And when I heard you say that in one of your interviews, it went up on my wall: “Trauma is the human experience that binds us together.”
Theo Fleury: Yeah. I heard it was some lady stood up at a conference, I think it was in Brantford, Ontario, home of Wayne Gretzky. I said, yeah, that’s it, right. That’s why we’re all here. That’s why we’re all being this.
Melissa Martin: Any plans for presentations or discussions in the Toronto area.
Theo Fleury: If you go on my website, we have an event tab on our website that basically tells everybody where we are.
Melissa Martin: And that would be TheoFleury.life.
Theo Fleury: Yeah. theofleur.life
Melissa Martin: I really have enjoyed my time talking with you. Thank you so much.
Theo Fleury: Well, my pleasure.
Melissa Martin: Yeah, that’s it for today.
Theo Fleury: Awesome.
Melissa Martin: Until next time, this is your host, Melissa Martin, and you’ve been listening to Addiction Unscripted, the official podcast of Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centers. For more information on what Trafalgar can do for you, visit us at TrafalgarResidence.com or call 855-976-9760.