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What Collapsing in Front of 18,000 People Taught Me About My Depression

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It was a night like any other. Working for an NHL hockey team is awesome. It’s also a lot of work. Being the hockey equivalent of a stage hand, I do a lot of running around trying to not let things break. I know everyone –cameramen, cops, season ticket holders. They see me every game before puck drop, standing in the same place, watching to make sure everything goes OK before running off. Only this time, something went very wrong.

I remember standing right next to some fans where I always am, staring up at the ceiling. Few people even realize there is a huge catwalk up there, with spotlight operators and equipment. I stared up at them for a while as they fixed a stalled motor. Once it was all set, I turned and walked away like I always do. And the next thing I knew I was strapped down on a stretcher with EMTs, security and my former boss Steve standing around me, in the medic room I had never been to. I felt like I woke up there, when in fact I had been unconscious for about 20 minutes. I had no memory of that time at all. So to me, I just woke up.

As the story was told to me, I walked away, collapsed and had a seizure right by the cameraman. Right by the stairs. Right in front of the whole arena. Everyone ran over, EMTs were called, my friends were shocked, fans were confused. I woke up kicking and screaming. I was shoving cops and paramedics off me, trying to get away. “Combative” is the nice word they used. Later I found out it is not uncommon for people to be combative after a concussion, which it was certain I had from landing on concrete. Somehow they got me on a stretcher and to the medic room. I couldn’t answer the most basic questions of where I was or what day it was, but I still wanted to go. I wanted everyone to just leave me alone, forget what they saw and let me go back to work. I was embarrassed, and I didn’t even remember what had happened. I didn’t know what I was embarrassed about, but I was.

When I woke up in that room, my first instinct was to play it cool. Despite having no clue what was going on, I tried to laugh and pretend like everything was fine. I failed terribly. It’s hard to play it cool when a medic asks where you are, and you just laugh because you really aren’t sure. What day is it? Smile and shrug. I’m fine, seriously. So what if I hit my head on concrete, I’m all good. No, I don’t know what time it is. Oh yeah, I forgot I wear a watch. Who is the president? Um, of what? As my former boss told me, “You were trying so hard to play it cool, it would have been funny if we weren’t so worried.” Yeah, I was real cool.

It’s an instinct that comes from decades of depression. Constantly putting on a happy, strong face. My instinct is to always “be OK.” It doesn’t matter what is going on, I have to be OK. So if I wake up clueless, I’m going to go with my instinct and be…OK. Eventually I was coherent enough to go home, and as I threw my backpack on and stood there next to Steve, I did something unusual. I leaned over and whispered, “I’m so scared.” Why would I say that? Even if it was true, I would never admit it. But I did. I had collapsed and had a seizure in front of 18,000 people, with no memory of anything. Why did I say that to him? Simple. Because I really was scared.

Word spread very quickly, and those who didn’t actually witness it soon found out. My phone was flooded with texts from everyone, telling me they love me and hope I get better soon. No one knew what had really happened, as I have no history of any of it. But I had in fact been rapidly changing antidepressants over the last few months, very rapidly. Ultimately that was the likely cause, but no one knew it. It was somewhat shocking, and it rattled my friends as much as it did me. As the texts came in, I couldn’t help but cry. All of these people were worried. They were sending love and support. They cared. After so many years of hiding my depression and never letting anyone help or support me, I suddenly realized I had been wrong. I had been wrong to think I had to be flawless. I had been wrong to think that I had to be invincible. I had been wrong to think I would be unlovable if anyone knew I wasn’t the perfect ray of sunshine I tried so hard to be.

People didn’t care despite me being unwell. People cared because I was unwell. It was a revelation.

The concussion had lasting effects, including making me extremely emotional and edgy for over a week. Post-concussive syndrome. I didn’t do myself any favors by returning to work and running the next three games solo. Each time, I could feel myself getting worse. I was really overworking myself. I wasn’t giving my brain a chance to recover, and it was turning me into an unstable mess. Finally I broke down crying. My always understanding boss came over and put his arm around me and told me we would figure it. Two days later, I told him I was taking some time off. And for a week I did basically nothing but rest. But the texts kept coming. People checking on me, sending love and support. I couldn’t believe it.

After taking some time off I returned to work, much closer to my old self than I had been. Everyone would stop me and ask how I was. Even the guys in the catwalk had heard and told me on the radio they were glad I was back. I was overwhelmed by the care and compassion people were showing. It was exactly what I never thought I would have. Support, when things aren’t going well.

Depression will never be easy to talk about, but it will always be a part of me. I realize now that the people who care about me will still care just as much if they know. In fact, if I give them a chance, they will be there to lift me up when I need it most. Depression has a way of isolating you from the world even when you are surrounded by people. It forces you to hide behind a curtain and put on an act. It convinces you that if anyone finds out, they will want nothing to do with you. Depression is insidious and heartbreaking. It pulls people away from the very support they so desperately need.

I collapsed in front of 18,000 people, but I have never felt so alone as I did then. It wasn’t until I sat silently on my couch, by myself, that I realized I was actually surrounded by love. I had let depression blind me to the people in my life who genuinely care about me for who I am, flaws and all. I had felt so alone in the middle of a crowd for so many years, I simply couldn’t see what was right in front of me.

But the most shocking thing of all is this: I have battled depression for over a decade, always hiding it from the world. Finally breaking down and starting to trust that I can be honest with people, has done more for me than any medication ever has.

I will always have depression. I will always struggle. I will always want to be strong. I will always want to be perfect. But now I know that it’s OK to fall apart sometimes — and let the people who love you pick you back up.

Lead photo via contributor

Originally published: August 9, 2017
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