Note. This post will contain swearing. It will also contain discussion of potential triggering topics like self-harm, suicidal ideation and verbal abuse. If you feel vulnerable to be triggered by any mention of these, feel free to stop reading at any point.
People follow hockey, like any sport, for many reasons. Some love the competition, some love the sense of community, some love to watch athletic feats very few are capable of.
Hockey, for me, is a crucial part of my life. I need the sound of an Easton Synergy striking a puck, the sharp swish of skates on ice, the sight of a forward going end-to-end before beating a goalie, or the primal yowl of a goal horn like a drowning swimmer needs oxygen. It flows through my blood like water. Whenever there's a game on there's a good chance I'll be trying to at the very least find a way to either read about it on Twitter or watch it live.
So far, so "obsessed sports fan". This post isn't different to many others, is it?
Except for me, it is. One of the reasons I watch hockey so obsessively and it dominates most waking moments is because the thought of missing the next game and the community around it has, at times, been one of the few things keeping me alive during my battle with clinical depression.
People who've never suffered it get funny ideas about mental illness. They think that it's something that people "bring upon themselves" or that people "choose to be miserable". They think it's something that can be joked about - "banter" in the hateful modern sense of the word. They also think that because you can't see evidence of mental illness the first time you meet a person, or even often any evidence of suffering, that it's somehow not a "real" thing.
And I envy anyone who can dismiss mental illness like that. Because they have no idea just how lucky they are.
Depression, and indeed any mental illness, is a bastard of a thing - because unlike most "physical" illnesses it's not something you can get rid of after a while with the right bandage or a few days bed-rest. It also appears to have no discernible cause. You can't "catch" mental illness, or take measures to avoid it through healthy lifestyle/exercise or whatever else. It either hits you or it doesn't. And if it does, bad fucking luck.
It's a thing that sufferers have to fight with every single day just to function like "normal" human beings. In the case of depression: imagine having a vicious demon sink its claws into your back, tear your soul to pieces in front of you and then spend every moment of every day whispering in your ear that the world would be better off without you in it...that you're a burden on everyone and everything you love, and that every accomplishment and sense of self in your life has no value.
But also imagine that every so often, that demon leaves you for a little while, and so you get a glimpse of how life can be for those "normal" people. You think you're doing better. Then, back they come again and every single thing you've done seems utterly pointless. And imagine that when you go to bed each night, you simply don't know whether your own mind will leave you in peace for a little while or do its level best to kill you the following day.
Depression lies to you. It plays with your head, your view of the world and everything you know about yourself like a dog playing with a chew toy. On its worst days, depression makes the endless black hole of oblivion sound almost welcoming compared to what its putting you through.
On its worst days, like it did with me last year, depression can lead to you standing by a level crossing with the gates down, listening to a train approaching and hearing a seductive, evil whisper in your ear, over and over again.
"Go on. Step onto the track. Then all the hurt will go away and I'll leave you alone. You'd like that, wouldn't you? Just one step onto the track. What's stopping you?"
In my case, one of the things that stopped me was the thought "if I don't step onto the track, I'll still get to go and play hockey tomorrow".
The struggles of hockey players with mental health have been well documented. Cases like that of Theo Fleury, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and others have gone a long way to publicizing player mental health issues among hockey fans. They've been dealt with in print previously, so I'm not going to touch upon them here.
But here's a thought...it's struck me massively in my travels through hockey writing and hockey fandom that while there appears to be slow improvement across the hockey world as far as player mental health goes, the hockey community still seemingly has a lot of people who can't accept that there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions among them who are fighting their own daily battles with the black dog.
That brings us to the second part of the whole. Hockey fandom. Whilst there are many, many supportive hockey fans out there who have either suffered their own struggles with mental health or know people who have, there are many, many others who seem, still, to think that diseases of the mind are things to joke about, belittle, attack, and ignore. Or who simply don't realize that being sad about a player's death and then in the next breath viciously abusing a fellow fan on social media, using terms like "mental" to describe player actions or generally attacking people is doing far more damage to the mental health cause than they realize.
Some of those elements of hockey fandom (some of whom like to set themselves up as "prominent mental health advocates" nearly contributed to me stepping in front of that train. They likely push others to consider doing the same, all over the world, and probably without even realizing it.
The worst thing, still, is that whenever people like me try to speak out against the stigmatizing and marginalization peddled by some in the hockey community (notably, for British hockey fans, a team owner disparagingly referring to a rival as "mentally ill" live on a TV broadcast to get a cheap laugh) we're told WE'RE the ones with the problem, not our attackers.
After all, making jokes about mental health to a whole community is exactly the same as calling someone a cunt on social media, threatening them, firing misogynistic or homophobic insults around amongst your friends about people who have a different opinion to you. It's just...banter, right? It's only words. Stop choosing to be offended! Lighten up a bit!
It's not. the regular horrendousness found in comment threads and sites like Barstool Sports in North America, and the dismissal of our concerns over it by the "cool kids" in hockey fandom is something that, for me and many others, makes one of the things I love the most not only something that keeps me alive, but at times something that makes my and many others' battle with themselves harder. And it's something that could be avoided so easily by people taking a few seconds before sending that abusive message, tweet or yelling that homophobic or racist slur at a player who's annoyed you and thinking "is this REALLY the best way to express myself here? How would I react if the same thing was fired at me?"
At the moment, mainly due to the above, hockey fandom is far from an ideal place for people like me. However, the number of people who are working to change that and make it a supportive, welcoming place is growing. It's struck me recently how many people out there use hockey, both playing and watching, not just as a leisure activity, but as balm for wounded souls. It's also struck me how many of them are now refusing to be ashamed by their feelings, and asking for help, or admitting that yes, they are mentally ill but whatever the black dog might say, they are still valuable.
Surely that's a good thing. Surely a hockey fandom in which people can feel welcome whoever they are and whatever they're suffering is better than one in which team owners can make jokes about it uncensured, and people can claim to be sad about one person's depression and its effects because they happen to be a prominent hockey player while trivializing and even exacerbating it for many others.
Today is "Bell Let's Talk" day in North America. It's a yearly exercise run by the Bell telecommunications company to raise money for mental health causes. It's also aimed at spreading the conversation about mental health and removing the stigma attached to it. It's something prominently supported by North American players in the UK every single year.
Maybe it's time for us - all of us - in this corner of the internet to let our actions speak louder than our words, and start considering - seriously considering - what we say, what we do, and how we affect others around us.
Maybe it's time to make a change.
Because those of us like me, who are hockey fans and also happen to suffer from mental health problems, aren't going away. There are far more of us than you realize, and it's our sport too. For some of us, it's part of a life-support system.
We're here and we want to talk.
The question is, do you want to listen?
If you do, then the sport will be better for all of us.
So come on. Let's talk.