Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dark Days

I didn’t want to write today. The news broke last night that Rick Rypien had killed himself and I thought to myself, let someone else write about it. As a fan of Rypien the player, I felt a little gut punched and wasn’t particularly in the mood to share. I and others in Vancouver had the opportunity to watch Rick in the bigs. He was the type of player, as a hockey fan you loved to watch. He was tough, hard working, never backed down from a fight and truly seemed to love playing the game. When he signed as a Jet, I of course was thrilled; he was the perfect blue collar player for a blue collar town.  So his death by suicide was a loss that truly deflated me. Let someone else write about it, I’m sure there are plenty that will.

But then I started hearing the word depression, and mental illness thrown around, along with a lot of tired cliché’s and misconceptions.  I myself had always assumed Ricks absences where due to substance abuse, a disease that seems to claim a lot of young famous people that lead fast paced lives. However we’re starting to get just a glimpse of what was really haunting Rick, and to be honest substance abuse may have been preferable. We started to hear that Rick probably suffered from depression, and as a result I started to hear the question “why?” a lot. Why would a young man with so much going for him be depressed? Why we would he take his own life? From the outside looking in these are logical questions, unfortunately the answers don’t really adhere to logic.

I have myself have lived at arm’s length with mental illness, as one member (possibly more) of my immediate family openly battles depression every day of their lives. I have seen this horrible disease, and yes it is a physical disease, from top to bottom.  As someone not afflicted your first reaction is to say “snap out of it” but as you live with the disease day in and day out you realize how foolish that remark is.  A person with depression can no more just snap out of it than an amputee can just put their limb back on. The most insidious thing about depression is the victims often know that there is no logical reason for them to feel the way they do, but still darkness permeates their mind. It creates a frustration, and a sense that they are trapped in their own head by their own thoughts with no escape. Often this leads to self medicating with drugs or Alcohol, and when that no longer works, there seems to be only one escape left. Imagine waking up in a suffocating prison that follows you wherever you go.

Fortunately a lot seek help and can at least slowly step away from the brink, but this step is harder than you might think. The stigma that is attached to mental health makes this a painful thing to admit, not only to one’s self, but to family and friends. I can only imagine what it must be like to be an elite athlete and have to admit that you have been betrayed by your own mind.

I have also heard “If he had only sought the proper treatment”. Who’s to say that he hadn’t? Treatment is not a magical panacea; it is a long and tough road that can be ineffective in the beginning. Several victims of depression can spend years of painful trial and error finding the right combination of therapy, medication, diet, and exercise. It is however worth the effort, as depression is curable to some extent and there are several thousand people who have successfully broken through to the other side. But it is a journey in a very literal sense, and not everyone makes it.

So reader, I guess I did end up writing today. I guess I needed to, and in some ways it was me selfishly wanting to come to terms with the reality that depression can even affect our pro athletes.  I don’t know for sure what dark rider chased Rick or what his circumstances where. I do know that the story sounds all too familiar to me. I really wanted to see you play again Rick, this time in a Jets uniform .... I really did. 

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