Theo Fleury talks sobriety, sexual abuse, healing...
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Nov 08, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Theo Fleury talks sobriety, sexual abuse, healing with honesty

Former NHLer Theo Fleury's second book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake, chronicles his healing process after disclosing years of sexual abuse and the alcoholism it triggered

OurWindsor.Ca

Conversations with a Rattlesnake is a book-length discussion between former NHL star Theo Fleury and Dr. Kim Barthel, a therapist who has worked with high-risk youth, and who Fleury calls “the Wayne Gretzky of therapy.”

Fleury has dealt with his past — one remembered for both a tremendous NHL career and the sexual abuse and alcoholism that nearly ruined it. The 46-year-old brought those tales to life in his first book, Playing with Fire. With Barthel, the book is a reflection on mental trauma and the power of healing.

Fleury and Barthel are on a cross-Canada book tour and, after speaking with the Probation Officers Association of Ontario and the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Offenders Unit, the two met with the Star for a question-and-answer session:

What’s the biggest difference between Playing with Fire and Conversations with a Rattlesnake?

Barthel: This book is a conversation. Fire was all about the story. This book is a path to healing, illustrated through a conversation. It focuses on the reorganizing and rewiring of that experience, so it’s very different. We’ve been told it’s a new genre for a book. There’s not many books built totally on a conversation.

What was the hardest part about doing the book for you?

Fleury: Nothing difficult about doing it, really. I guess Playing with Fire, really, it got rid of all those old feelings I had, you know . . . I think the information in this book is about acquiring a tool. When I did Fire, I didn’t have a lot of tools to work with. I was uneducated around the subject, except that I was brutally honest and not trying to place blame on certain individuals in my life. I think this is an idea no one has done before, a healing, self-reflective, loving, caring conversation about mental trauma and healing.

You were speaking in Kingston and Doug Gilmour showed up to say hello and lend support, and you’ve listened to 10-year-olds talk about sexual abuse they’ve suffered — is that the message in the book, that you are not alone?

Fleury: Right, the lesson in all of this is you never know who, what or where, or how you are going to affect somebody by being open and honest.

After two books now, how have you changed?

Fleury: I wouldn’t have gone into doing this book if the first one hadn’t changed my life so much. For me, sharing my story, if it’s helped people . . . like when a guy tells me he took the gun out of his mouth, or someone doesn’t cut their wrists, that blows me away, that you can have that kind of impact by being honest. Playing with Fire was not only (my) story . . . but for the thousands of people who have come to me, it’s their story too. And I guess I was looking to speed up the process. The people I have dealt with are 50, 60, and 70 years old, and they’re saying this is the first time they can tell their story about abuse. One of my best stories is, right after my comeback, my first book was out and I’m asked if I do speeches. Well, I’ve never done it, but sure, why not? I met this . . . group, about 50 people, and I see this guy at the back, and clearly he’s uncomfortable. He looks like Santa Claus, the beard, the big belly . . . he’s the last guy to come up to me from the group and he says his name is so and so, then he said “I was abused for 705 consecutive days in my life, and you’re the first person I’ve ever told about it.” He didn’t want anything more, just to talk about it.

What are you most proud of in your life?

Fleury: At this moment, well, it’s a question that I need more than a few minutes to answer. But, it’s that I’ve achieved over 3,000 consecutive days of sobriety.

For an outsider, talk of sexual abuse, alcoholism and mental health can sound like it’s very sad. What makes you happy?

Fleury: Hitting a golf ball 300 yards off the tee, right down them middle of the fairway . . . and having my two boys chase after that drive for me. Seeing my 15-year-old daughter blossom into womanhood. She’s a horse person, so seeing how incredibly responsible she is, but when she sits on a horse, that’s when Theo Fleury and Tatum Fleury have the same look of focus in their eyes. And my oldest boy, he’s suffered the most trauma from my (past) behaviour. He’s turned out to be this hard-working, incredible friend to his closest friends … and I guess looking forward to having a relationship with my 6-year-old daughter, Skyla.

Do you think hockey, especially at the highest levels, is fully aware of mental health and how to deal with it in players?

Fleury: Not a clue. They have a specialist for every aspect of the game, but not much for mental health. They expect guys will just tell them about their mental health issues, but sorry, that’s not going to happen on its own. I’m not sure they (teams) know what to look for. Kim says the work we do is like planting seeds, and I think the NHL has to plant seeds and let their players know it’s safe to come to them and talk about mental health.

You’re asked this a lot, but how has the game changed since you played?

Fleury: It triggers a lot of emotions when you ask me that question. They can compare eras and they can compare fitness and nutrition, things that we didn’t know anything about when I played. And you can talk about the game being better now, and yes, it’s better, but also, it’s not better in a lot of ways. You can talk about the epigenetics of the game (evolved genetics of the modern athlete), and all the new methods of guys taking care of themselves. But I’ll tell you, top to bottom, however many players there were when I played, it was the greatest era in the history of the game. The characters, the heart, the toughness, I don’t think you can compare anything to that.”

Here’s the classic question: Name three people, alive or dead, you’d like to have dinner with.

Fleury: Louis Riel, my kids and Robin Williams.

If they made a movie about your life, who would you want to play you?

Fleury: Robert Downey Jr. Let’s just say I think we have a few things in common.

Where does your life go from here?

Fleury: Well, I can tell you, for the most part I try to live my life one day at a time and it’s worked for me for over 3,000 days of sobriety. And yet there have been lots of incredible things happening during that time. So I’ll stick with that.

Toronto Star

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