The car crash in 1999 was no accident.
Impaired driving put me in a wheelchair. Thank goodness I did not kill a friend. Thinking about the choices I made, it should have been clear that a red flag was waving in my face. The red flag had bold writing on it: “has a problem with booze” Maybe I could ignore the warning. Or maybe I could stop, take ownership, and see it for what it was.
National team wheelchair rugby tryouts. My career and my elite sporting life took flight. Three personality traits worked together. I was hyper competitive, just a bit Type ‘A’, and definitely wired so that “if it makes me feel good I want more”. It all made for a quick obsession to build: smashing my wheelchair into others with some basketball skills thrown in.
My basketball game was thankfully honed in my formative years at Harrow Elementary School. Better late than never: Thanks Mr.B for all your time you spent with us. You were correct, I got out what I put in.
Traveling the world, competing against the best in the business, it was a feelgood experience, to say the least. I loved every moment. I was educated and groomed by the best team staff in Canada. What an organization. What a fun group to have a few beers with.
I took every opportunity to celebrate. This is where and when some old habits began to show their face again… Over the years, the incidents piled up. Missed flights home. Misrepresenting our organization. The slips were becoming more frequent. Winning Paralympic medals, seeing the world with your best friends, it always made for memorable times… but I was often drinking to excess.
June 6, 2013
Time for help. I missed the red flag earlier in my life. Now it was time to wave the white flag. I was very grateful to our team and staff. Everything was in place when the moment came. I was asked to leave our training camp and that was the bottom for me.
I went home and then headed straight to a recovery facility in Merrickville, Ontario. That was one lonely drive. After my first few meetings in recovery, I quickly arrived at a useful analogy.
When I was figuring out how to live in a wheelchair, I needed to learn from other wheelchair athletes. The same principle applied when I was learning to have fun without booze. I was changing my daily habits while I was working on my physical and emotional sobriety. And while this was going on, rebuilding my relationships with my family was a top goal.
Leaving that training camp was when I bottomed out, but without the help of others, I might have found an even lower bottom.
Being a Paralympic athlete is a privilege. Wearing the Maple leaf on my chest feels like driving an 86 GT Mustang, fast. But this car has better brakes now. And I can go into neutral when the occasion demands it.
As the time has passed, my life has continually improved. Some unexpected surprises along the way: Coaching injured soldiers gave me a new outlook altogether. Opportunities keep presenting themselves. I am properly able to focus on priorities within my family.
Another good, new experience for me has been becoming a coach myself. In particular, joining the Canadian Armed Forces Soldier On Invictus team. Being part of this has made clear to me how the sport community can aid recovery. Community helps all of us, and community brought me hope. I've been very fortunate to have my family, friends and employers supporting me. None of my positives would have been possible without them.
For anyone out there, struggling with substance abuse issues, still crashing cars, missing flights, or struggling at work, help and hope is available.
You can reach Michael Whitehead at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Top large photo by Wheelchair Rugby Canada; Middle photo by Getty Images)