Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Jane Adey : What I learned during a day at HMP with Theo Fleury

The CBC's Jane Adey recently spent a day at Her Majesty's Penitentiary and also interviewed an addictions counselor. She writes about the impact both stories had on her view of mental illness and addictions.
Theo Fleury and Kim Barthel on a visit Her Majesty's Penitentiary. Reporter Jane Adey came away with a new appreciation for the hockey player. (Twitter: @theofleury14)

I'm going to let you in a little behind-the-scenes information: reporters are humans. As humans, we have interests, interests that sometimes make us gravitate to certain stories or make us really glad an assignment landed in our laps, an assignment that we would have begged to do anyway.  

One of my recent lap-landers involved a trip to Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. Former NHLer Theo Fleury was talking to inmates about mental health and his decades long struggle with addictions. Some might have seen that as a pretty dark and taboo subject to cover in a pretty dark place.  Not for me.  See, not only are reporters humans, but, like most people, they are the product of their environment.  

My environment was as good as it gets. I had an idyllic childhood. I was raised by loving, hardworking parents. They devoted every minute of their waking hours parenting me and shuttling me around to various sports and activities designed to expose me to every possible experience.

My dad was a history teacher and he is a lover of all things Newfoundland and Labrador with a great sense of humour. There are lots of stories that I gravitate to because of what I learned from him.  I find, though, that my curiosity about human behaviour and mental health is probably more my mom's doing.

My mother was a psychiatric nurse. She was the nursing supervisor at the Waterford Hospital in St. John's for 50 years.  She worked there longer than anyone has ever worked at that institution. As a result of her work, there was never a taboo surrounding mental illness in our home. I grew up hearing words like schizophrenic, bipolar, depression and addiction. I visited the hospital quite regularly, even had holiday meals there when Mom had to work a Christmas day shift.

"The Mental", as it was called, wasn't a scary place for me and neither is mental illness. In fact, I'm fascinated by the human brain and how it works. So you see now why Theo Fleury's talk to inmates, in a jail, would get my attention.     

Fleury and therapist Kim Barthel, were on a tour promoting their book Conversations with a Rattlesnake. We all gathered in the gymnasium, the speakers, the prisoners, a few invited guests and me.  

Fleury opened with some background about his childhood. His mother was addicted to Valium and his father drank. He saw a lot of arguing and dysfunctional behaviour. Hockey, he said, was the only place he found happiness.  

His parents, he told us, never came to watch him at the rink.  As if that lack of support was hard enough on a kid, Fleury then laid out an even darker truth.  

"From the ages of 14 to 16, I was raped over 150 times by a coach of mine and that set me on this path of addictions, anger and bad behaviour," Fleury said.  

Still, he was able to continue with an amazing hockey career. Fleury won the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and played alongside some of the most respected players in the NHL.  

Fleury's drug and alcohol addictions eventually forced him out of the game in 2003 and another dark period followed.

"It's hard to believe," he told the inmates, "That 10 years ago I had a fully loaded pistol in my mouth ready to pull the trigger and just sort of end it all. And it wasn't about wanting to die, it was about wanting to kill this emotional pain and these emotional scars that had been a huge part of the first 40 years of my life."

That was Fleury's rock bottom. After that, he got help. 

"It's been almost 10 years and people ask me what's your proudest achievement, what's your greatest accomplishment and I always say that my sobriety is my greatest accomplishment. Without my sobriety, I have absolutely nothing," said Fleury.

I'll never forget the looks on those inmates' faces. The wins in the hockey rink were entertaining stories, but they wanted that other victory that Fleury had achieved.  At the end of Fleury's speech, the feeling of hope in the gymnasium that day was palpable. 

Addiction affects every walk of life

Coincidentally, that same week, I interviewed addictions counsellor, Vanessa McEntegart,  with Eastern Health and on the front lines in the battle for sobriety.

She is cheerful and bright eyed. I imagine her pleasant demeanour is an asset in her line of work. McEntegart has likely heard some of the saddest stories imaginable.  

She told me those sad stories come from all kinds of people, from every walk of life.  

"Addictions don't discriminate. There's no certain type of class, gender, race, who are impacted, we can all be impacted and I'm sure if we both took a moment even ourselves here sitting in my office to think about our own lives, we wouldn't have to think too far about either someone who we know directly — someone close or even indirectly we know through someone else who struggles with an addiction," said McEntegart. 

The oil industry has meant prosperity for many in this province. McEntegart says high paying jobs can mean easier access to cocaine.  

"The big thing that we hear with cocaine, it's kind of an elite drug. For people who can afford it, it's the party drug of the elite." Unfortunately, for addicts, prosperity often turns into despair.

McEntegart says she's concerned about a continued rise in the abuse of painkillers like OxyContin and morphine. 

"We have people present who were prescribed them and it kind of snowballed into something a lot more. Withdrawal can be unbearable and that continues the cycle of abuse. What's driving their use is avoiding the withdrawal trying not to be sick, it's not about getting high anymore," said McEntegart. 

But the biggest problem Vanessa McEntegart sees in her practice is a drug that's legal and available without any kind of prescription. 

"Alcohol is still number one as being misused and abused in our province. It's kind of a cultural thing here more so than other places.  We often don't even recognize the impact that it can have on an individual's life," she said.

Alcohol was Theo Fleury's poison.  

"You know that first drink, I think I was sixteen. I was 20 years of hard living and hard drinking," he told the inmates that day. 

I thought of him and the prisoners during the interview with the addictions counsellor. Fleury had the resources and the profile to get the help he needed.  What will happen when these men are turned out of HMP? Will they go back to the troubled environments they came from?  Will their addictions take hold again? Will they repeat the behaviour that landed them behind bars in the first place?

According to one of the guards I chatted with at the prison, the answer is yes. He told me there is 80-90 per cent recidivism rate at that jail. Same fellas. Same problems. The cycle goes on and on.  

Vanessa McEntegart says Eastern Health is trying to make it easier for anyone with an addiction to turn their lives around.

Adult Central Intake 

There's a new system in place to help people connect with addictions and mental health services. It's called Adult Central Intake. If you think you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, pick up the phone. 

"They can call 752-8888 and they can make a self referral," says McEntegart.  

Self referral is a an important piece of this program. As doctors' work loads increase, it seems to be harder and harder to find a family doctor.

"Some people don't have access to a GP and that's certainly an issue with people we're working alongside but you can actually self refer and I don't think people realize that," says McEntegart.  

"They actually do all of the assessments over the phone, so they can make their referral, they'll be given a appointment time to have their intake and screening assessment done and then they'll be fanned out to the appropriate service based on the assessment so no worries about the GP, you can refer yourself."

I asked Vanessa McEntegart what she might say to someone who had an addiction to convince them to get help. This is what she said: "If there is anyone listening who is struggling, I know it's really scary and it takes a lot of courage to reach out but I hope that you would. There is help, there are services and there's no judgment here."

I think fear of judgment is a big reason why people don't ask for help. Nobody wants to be made to feel worse about their lives. And what right does anyone really have to judge?

Some of those men in the penitentiary didn't have parents like mine. Many didn't have safe homes and stable, caring role models. I wish they had, they wish they had, but they probably didn't. They're playing the hand they were dealt.

I wish there was more compassion and understanding for those inmates and for anyone who suffers from an addiction or a mental illness. We're getting there but we haven't quite put the puck in the net.

I don't know if I would have been a fan of Theo Fleury's style on the ice but I do know I was impressed with his skill and agility in a totally different arena. 

From my seat in the stands, Fleury communicated a deep understanding of addiction and he is committed to making a difference. He connected with those inmates that day on a level few others could have. Without hockey, he pointed out, he might have been sitting in prison too.  

"I am not any different than you. With the exception of being a hockey player, that's it, everything else, I have in common with every one of you," Fleury told the men.  

"You can change. You have no idea what a difference you can make in this world if you can get your life together. You can change."  

Yes, I know, Fleury is on a book tour and he will benefit from sales and any attention from reporters like me.  But he has walked the walk and now he's talking the talk. And as a reporter, I was privileged to have been able to listen. 

About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.