This is my second interview for the ‘Great Mental Fitness’ Interview Series to help those currently suffering from mental illness as well as anyone who might suffer in future (1 in 4 working adults will suffer with this over the next 12 months). I wish to help others ideally avoid, or worse case, to recover from poor mental health, whilst becoming more productive and happier in life.
You can help by reading on, and if you like it, please share it so we can help more people achieve great mental health, or maybe even save lives…
This week I am with Theo Fleury, an inspiring author and a relational trauma expert, a National Hockey League player and Olympic Gold champion. His Autobiography namely ‘Playing with Fire’ has become incredibly popular. More than 16 years of experience in working with people, who have a mental illness, Theo has achieved a lot in his life.
DW: ‘Theo, you have got some fascinating experiences. After some highs and lows, you have some great achievements in building strong mental health. Tell us about your background and how you have come so far?’
TF: ‘I have a very extensive trauma history from my childhood. Both my parents experienced childhood trauma in their life and that manifested to addiction behaviour. My dad was an alcoholic and my mom a prescribed pill addict. So I grew up in a very chaotic and insane atmosphere. Then I ran into a coach who has raped me 150 times in a period of 2 and 1/2 years which lead to my issues with mental health and addiction.
I played 15 years under NHL, National Hockey League and had an amazing career. In 2003, I was kicked out of the NHL as I could not stop drinking and could not stop the drugs. My behaviour was completely out of control.
In September 2005, I got sober. Since then it is 14 years and I am working on them and all these discoveries. Then in 2009, I wrote my autobiography called ‘Playing with fire’ which was an instant success. I start travelling all across Canada sharing my story. Everyone has the same story; people came to me and said ‘hey man, read your book, you told my story’. It is 2020 and I have given around 800 speeches in the last 10 years and worked extensively in the field of trauma…it’s been an amazing journey. I ran into many people who have helped me to heal.
According to a Mental Health survey, 1 in 5 people are suffering from mental health. It is bullshit; it is 5 out of 5 are suffering. It is all of us, and to get out of this it is going to take all of us. Why mental health is a big epidemic? Because we didn’t create a safe space in society where we can talk about this. And that’s the biggest obstacle we face because we have the highest awareness but on the other side of the coin, we have the highest suicide rates. Why is this awareness not turning into actual wellness of mental health? It is because we don’t have that safe space. Honestly, we don’t have enough education around us.
What I discovered is that there is a very holistic approach to mental illness or wellness. There are many practices like simple breathing exercises and going to yoga class, exercises and eating good food and so on. That’s just my overall experience from what I see. Mostly I see parents are suffering. I think it is necessary to create that safe space.’
DW: ‘What are the key aspects that kept you going in life?’
TF: ‘I would say hockey is my happy place. No matter what happens, like you UK guys say, “off the pitch”, whenever I was on the pitch, I was able to focus, I enjoyed what I was doing. The big problem was when I was not in the US, my faiths, feeling, emotional pain and suffering, you know I used alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, everything as a coping mechanism. As your addiction gets bigger, it makes you worse and worse. 16 years ago I had a fully loaded pistol in my mouth, ready to pull the trigger to end my life. Not that I wanted to die, but I was exhausted from emotional pain and suffering and pretty much-tried everything on the planet to get rid of it.
While writing the book in 2009, I have realised that I am not alone, and I am actually in the majority. Some massive people are suffering from mental illness or whatever label you want to put on it. You know what’s helped me is, “helping is healing”. The more people I have helped, the better I have gotten in my own life. I used to tell people that you cannot do it alone, I tried and I could not do this alone. You need to spill the beans and talk about it.
When I kept it secret, I was sick emotionally, physically and spiritually. I had to go and repair these three things in my life. People don’t understand that. And I am completely and 100% okay with that. I haven’t discovered a magic pill, I tried them all, and that cannot take away my emotional pain. Once I started working with other people who had similar experiences, it made sense quickly. Running into these spiritual practices, it changed my life and changed how I saw my mental illness. And I saw that there is a solution to the problem.’
DW: ‘When you said that you have helped others with their issues, I want to ask you how did you find them?’
TF: ‘Right after the book, I was in a book tour, so in every book signing, people are coming after me and sharing their experience. Then after the book, I started speaking. That puts me into lots of rooms with lots of people who had something going on in their lives. What I was best at is I take this scientific knowledge and labels and everything and put it into a nice and easy way for people to understand.
You know we can connect the mental illness with the addiction, people suffering from emotional pain is the mental illness, for coping with that they start with addiction but don’t talk about it. It is easy now for me to stand in front of a thousand people and say I was raped 150 times by my coach. And I know 4-5 people in my audience have experienced the same in their lives. This creates that safe space which I call vulnerability. Vulnerability creates safety and once you have safety, that’s when the magical feeling happens.
We’re in a crazy world where everything is on the telly or social media and it is all fear-based. And if you are already in fight, flight or freeze mode it reflexes the narrative for you and keeps you on that base. Then find such a group of people who help you to understand why are you in that state. I met a lady during my travel who was a neuroscientist. Together, we wrote a book called “Conversations with a rattlesnake” and what we did was we rewired the entire trauma I experienced in my life. So there is not much impact on me. That really sort of gives me hope if I can rewire my brain, anybody in this world can.’
DW: ‘Thank you, Theo. How can we connect with the person around us, in our family or work, who are suffering from mental illness, because sometimes it is not confirmed, and people can get embarrassed, ashamed of it?’
TF: ‘No, I think honesty is the best policy. How you approach it is important. For example, you can just say, “Hey, I noticed that you struggle with something. I may not be sure about it. But remember one thing I love you and I care about you. Whenever you feel ready just know that I am here to help.” that’s all you can do because the most frequent question I get asked is ‘I have a son, daughter, grandchildren, niece, nephew, who are going down and I don’t know what to do’. And then I email them back, does this particular person in your life want help? Because if they don’t want help there is nothing you can do to help them. The only thing you can do is take care of you at the end of the day.
DW: ‘If you suspect anyone, at work or elsewhere, that something is going on with his or her life, what would be the indicators that he or she has a mental illness?’
TF: ‘It is always their behaviour. If he/she is your co-worker, if they are on-time at work or they do their tasks flawlessly or if they come with bruises or they are always high, these are the behaviours which are pretty good indications that something is wrong in their environment. And just approach them like others ‘hey, I can see something is going on with you, can I help you with anything?’ if they say, ‘no’, then I can’t help them, unfortunately. But I always make sure to tell them that ‘hey, you may not be ready today for help, but when you are, I am here to help.’ You just keep planting the seed.
DW: ‘What would you say the most common causes of mental illness?’
TF: ‘Okay so it is a very good question. I have to think about it a little. So, number one I would say trauma. Some of the most common traumas are bullying, whether in school or workplace and also I would say spiritual trauma is another cause.’
DW: ‘Would you please explain to our audience; what is spiritual trauma?’
TF: ‘Well, it is funny when I work with addicts and alcoholic; I always ask them one question, ‘where is your spirituality at?’ See, we always are pissed off with GOD. It is a huge trigger for some people when we say, GOD. But spirituality has nothing to do with God, it is a relationship, and a relationship you have with yourself. If my relationship with myself is fine then all my relationships will be fine, be the same. Because of my trauma history and trauma experience I am so good with myself, more loveable. If I don’t love myself, then I can’t be in a good relationship with others. I can’t love others.
60% of the people on the planet are walking around and not feeling good… not feeling loveable enough because of their childhood traumatic experience. I am 51 years old and I grew up in a very tough love era. I was traumatised because of my parents who were traumatised because of their parents. My parents didn’t have tools to parent me, so that vicious circle continues.
For me, spirituality can be absolutely anything; it is your choice or your pick whatever it is. There are a lot of practices in meditation today. If you wonder how to find it then search on YouTube or Google and you will get around 50 million results related to meditation which helps you to rewire your brain. You pick from the results, put the earphones, find a quiet place and then practice it and you will feel incredible. For me, anything you do that looks after your emotional and spiritual wellbeing is spirituality. And for me, spirituality is all about relationship.’
DW: ‘What are the biggest obstacles while helping others with their mental health?’
TF: ‘I would say people who are not ready to take the help’
DW: ‘In my view many are embarrassed or ashamed and in denial that they have issues. There are many employers in the world hiring good people every day. What would you advise these business leaders, to increase their awareness about mental health?’
TF: ‘I think we need to change leadership. Leadership is always based on ego and fear. The leaders who have compassion, empathy, sympathy and these kinds of leaders get the best results. They have a clear understanding that if you want your people to perform at a high level, you better have a support system in place for when they crash and burn. Because people are going to crash and burn, the nature of competing every day, and everybody is built different and everybody has different chemistry, so you always need to have that support system. The door must be open for conversation around anything. The successful leaders understand that the majority of their employees are dealing with mental health.’
DW: ‘Thank you very much, Theo. I want to ask you that there are many people out there who feel that they have strong mental health. But they are also at risk as something unexpected can happen like divorce or a car accident. So what would you call this aspect?’
TF: ‘I call them “River in Egypt Syndrome”. This is denial because we wear lipstick well, you are wearing a shirt, your hair is done, but we always portray that to the world. But the insides sometimes don’t match the outsides. And that’s what mental illness is all about. I can present myself all being together you know, but as soon as I leave the environment I am a mess. I am sitting in a pub at the end of the bar I am drinking, or I am on the internet, watching porn, so whatever it is I don’t have to deal with my insides. That’s what it is about. Sometimes people say, ‘no I don’t have any issue’, that’s a good indication for me that something is going on with him. Then I just ask questions like ‘ how is your work going? How is your relationship with your wife, kids and all?’ That’s how you deal with them.’
DW: ‘Many of the larger companies with 000’s of employees look after mental wellness of employees. However, many do the minimal as they focus more on short term cost saving and profit maximisation. Would you like to suggest something from your experience, Theo, how they can change this approach?’
TF: ‘When things go sideways in a company everybody poles apart from the goal. If you don’t get them together and make them work as one, then the production level will go way down. Any kind of programs for employees that can make them focus on work can be an option. For example, Sports at a professional level is 5% talent and 95% mental which is kind of a shocking thing. But if the team is mentally well then they love to come to the pitch, they enjoy playing and that kind of joy they will have. We see the neuroscience behind your joy, happiness and excitement, if you can bring that to your business then everyone is going to perform at the highest level. It is incredibly important for you to support your employees.
As a leader, you cannot yell at people or scream at people. You have to be compassionate to get the best out of them. Because a lot of people under this kind of leadership are going to be failed.
DW: ‘I love the comparison to Sports where there is a lot more happening behind the scene. We only know what we see on the pitch/arena. But a team cannot be the best without the support of a tactics manager, recovery expert, fitness coach, nutritionist, coach for mental health and more. In business different expertise and training is essential to build an environment that breeds success and happiness combined.’
TF: ‘There come the three things, Mind, Body and Soul, if those three things are living together in unison, and then things are going to be fine. I believe the less is more, if you are doing something every single day to nurture these three things, I would say, your mood or mental state will improve exponentially in a very short period, It does not take a whole lot of work to improve your mental state. A short walk, a short period of meditation, stay away from processed food can be options; these are like less is more.’
DW: ‘Thank you so much, Theo. I like your saying that ‘less is more’.’
TF: ‘We get into these bad habits and there is always a reason for this behaviour. That behaviour is learned. And if we can learn it, we can unlearn it and put in new practices which will be going to help us. If we say I am going to spend half an hour on my wellbeing every day for the next 7 days. And if we see what happens at the end of 7 days, we are breaking the old patterns and habits and get into a new routine where we are looking after ourselves and having a relationship with ourselves and all these things. We are going to improve. We will improve our mood, health and sustainability, we can stay away from pressure, anxiety and such labels that we struggle with.’
DW: ‘If you spend even a little time on wellness then you become a happier, more productive and clearer mind.’
TF: ‘Yes, the depression and anxiety, these things we only think about.’
DW: ‘Any final comment or guidance you would like to share for the leaders, or businesses and all?’
TF: ‘From a leadership perspective, I would say, whatever relationship I enter into with the people I am working with, I want to learn more than I can teach them… People who work with compassion, humanity, empathy and such are the leaders’ people look up to and follow. The old school military ways are going away now and this new type of leadership that looks out for their employees and their lives from every aspect and supports each facet of each employee’s life. It is like if we don’t care, they don’t care. If you are good in relationships, you will perform well.
DW: ‘Final question for today, considering the challenges you have faced, what would you say is your biggest achievement until now?’
TF: ‘Without my sobriety I would not be able to do anything. Alcohol and drugs are like solvents, you put it into body things start to disappear, family, wife, jobs, houses, cars – everything disappears. If I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, my life is pretty good.’
DW: ‘Now that you are in a great place, you can help others.’
TF: ‘Absolutely. You know, helping is healing. The more people I have helped, the more I have helped myself. Healing is forever. There is no endpoint to it. There is a stigma in mental health that it has an endpoint. But it does not. Meeting 2-3 therapists are the beginning. The healing is forever and lasts for the rest of your life.
One of the parts of the stigma is people can’t accept that there is any problem with them and it is going to take the rest of my life to come up with the result. That is why I say less is more. You are awake for 12-16 hours a day and can’t find half an hour for yourself? Once you start liking yourself, liking being yourself you will increase that half an hour as well.
Looking at my own life I can say, my parents and the abusers are a gift to me. Because without their presence in my life, I would not be here talking to you now. I think we need to see the brighter side instead of being the victim.’
DW: ‘Thank you so much Theo, for joining me today and speaking about mental illness.’
To our readers – we hope you enjoyed this read, and hope it gives you a higher call to action in helping yourself and others either recover from, or ideally avoid poor Mental Health and illness completely. Poor Mental Health really can kill and at least seriously hamper or damage many happy lives, careers and businesses.
We hope you do more about it from this read. Even just sharing this interview on your social media channels could change a life for the better, or even save a life. Every little helps.
Watch out for our next interview to be shared in the coming weeks…