June 16, 2023

By Chris Therien

Hockey Rink Illustration

As a former professional athlete for the Philadelphia Flyers — and a current mental health advocate for Pennsylvania Behavioral Health Center — I have had the privilege of using my platform to share my lived experience with addiction and mental illness.

My mental journey includes some truly devastating lows. One of the most shocking and shameful experiences of my life was that I had to drink during NHL games just to survive. And that was just one of the lowest points in my life. The passing of my sister only worsened my decline into depression and grief. Losing a loved one caused me to lose a part of myself.

Depression is a complex and deeply personal experience, and for me, it manifested in ways I never anticipated. Depression felt like a heavy weight pressing down on my soul. It was a constant sense of sadness, emptiness and hopelessness that seemed to permeate every aspect of my life. Simple tasks became overwhelming, and I struggled to find joy or motivation in the things that once brought me happiness. It felt like I was trapped in a never-ending cycle of negativity and despair.

I turned to alcohol as a form of self-medication to escape these overwhelming emotions. Alcoholism crept into my life gradually, and before I knew it, it had taken a hold of me. It became a way to quiet the racing thoughts, numb the pain and escape from the weight of depression. Recognizing the destructive path I was on was a pivotal moment in my journey.

Through this journey with alcoholism and mental health challenges, I have come to realize that lived experience can be just as valuable as traditional expertise when it comes to helping others and creating change. By sharing my story, I have been able to connect with help others who are struggling with the same issues I once battled.

Recovery is a Journey

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that recovery is a journey, not a destination. It is a process that requires commitment, dedication and support from others. It is not something that can be achieved overnight or through sheer willpower alone. In fact, many people who struggle with addiction and mental health challenges often feel shame and guilt for not being able to "just get over it."

I was a “big, tough professional hockey player,” yet I was struggling just as much as anyone else. Mental health and addiction do not discriminate. However, it's important to recognize that recovery is a complex and ongoing process that requires time, patience and compassion. It also requires seeking help when you need it.

It can be difficult to admit that you need help, especially if you are used to being self-sufficient and independent. However, as I have learned, seeking help is a sign of strength. There are many resources available that can help you on your journey to recovery, such as therapy, medication and support groups.

Self-Care is Critical

As a professional athlete, I was always pushing myself to the limit, both physically and mentally. However, I soon realized that this was not sustainable and that I needed to take care of myself to be able to perform at my best. This is especially true when it comes to mental health.

Physical exercise is a cornerstone of my self-care routine. Staying active helps me release stress, boosts my mood and improves my well-being. Whether it's hitting the gym, going for a run or engaging in other physical activities, exercise allows me to channel my energy positively. Meditation and mindfulness exercises help me center myself and maintain a calm and focused attitude. I engage in activities that bring me joy and stimulate my mind, like reading, listening to music or spending quality time with loved ones.

Additionally, as someone who advocates for mental health and addiction recovery, giving back to the community is an integral part of my self-care. Through sharing my story and providing support to others, I find a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It reminds me of the journey I've been on and reinforces my commitment to helping those who are struggling.

Sharing Your Story Can Be Healing for Everyone

I have come to realize that sharing your story can be incredibly powerful. When I first started speaking publicly about my own struggles, I was nervous and unsure of how people would react. There were several reasons why I was afraid to talk about my struggles with mental health and addiction. There is a prevailing stigma surrounding these issues, especially within the realm of professional sports.

I worried about how my teammates, coaches, fans and the entire hockey community would perceive me if they knew I was facing these challenges. The fear of judgment, rejection and potential negative repercussions was overwhelming. However, I soon realized that sharing my story not only helped me heal, but it also helped others who were going through similar challenges. By openly discussing my experiences, I've been able to connect with others who may have felt isolated or alone in their journey. It's through this connection that healing and growth can truly take place.

Sharing my story has provided a sense of validation and reassurance to those who have faced similar challenges. I've received messages from individuals who have been inspired to seek help, start therapy or embark on their own recovery journey. Some have even reached out to share their own stories, finding solace in knowing that they are not alone.

Ultimately, my journey has taught me that lived experience is a powerful tool in helping others who are struggling with addiction and mental health challenges. By sharing our stories and supporting each other, we can help break down the stigma surrounding mental health and create a more compassionate and understanding world.

Chris Therien is a former NHL Philadelphia Flyer, esteemed analyst and Chief Wellness Officer of the Pennsylvania Behavioral Health Center. With an illustrious career in hockey and a deep commitment to mental health and wellness, Chris has become a driving force in advocating for positive change and supporting individuals in their journey towards well-being.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction or mental health challenges, please visit www.pabehavioralhealth.com for resources and support.

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