On a cold night, a warm chat with a rattlesnake about trauma, addiction, and healing.
Theo Fleury: from hockey to healing
Outside the church was that rare icerink cold that Vancouver Novembers rarely see—more black ice than rain.
Inside the small chapel was all golden, warm light reflecting off hard, polished wooden benches and pews. On stage were three empty chairs, one with a Calgary Flames sweatshirt draped over it.
About 50 of us were waiting for Theo Fleury to take that chair and tell us about his new book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake: Raw and Honest Reflections on Healing and Trauma.
The centre chair was reserved for Kim Barthel, Fleury’s co-author whom he calls the “Wayne Gretzky of therapy.” The chair on her left was reserved for Gabor Maté, author and therapist, who wrote the book’s preface.
“Hey, good to see you here, man.” The voice came from above and behind, in the aisle next to the pew where I was sitting.
Confused, I notice the voice was attached to a hand reaching out. I shake it. It wasn’t so much the grip as the hint of an easy snap in the wrist that was the tell. The kind of deep muscle forged in a million passes, tempered in thousands of wrist shots, slap shots, back hands, dekes.
It was Theo Fleury. The man who had been called one of the NHL’s smallest players but biggest stars, whose hand had raised the Stanley Cup the hard way, not to mention Olympic hockey gold.
It was also a hand balled into a fist and thrown in anger that was a key part of the infamous “Punch-up in Piestany,” a bench-clearing, lights-out brawl against the Russians at the ‘87 junior world championships.
And it was a hand that, after Fleury walked away from the game he loved for the addictions he couldn’t control, loaded a gun, put it in his mouth, paused, and then threw it into the New Mexico desert.
We know these things because of his 2009 tell-all, Playing with Fire. The book told how he became a star making millions, and then snorted, drank, and gambled it all away. And it told of the sexual abuse he endured from his junior hockey coach.
Yet, despite all the difficult confessions in Fire, a bitter aftertaste lingered.
Anger remained. Too many grudges held, not enough forgiveness granted, to himself and others. So, while that book closed one chapter, how the next would play out was unclear.
The next chapter, playing out
After welcoming a few others to the event (billed as “a healing conversation”), Fleury sits in the chair. Leaning back, often with hands clasped in his lap while talking about difficult topics like trauma and shame, he seems relaxed, open. Less pugnacity, more serenity. He was that way all night.
Who was this guy? Didn’t seem like the same person who flipped the bird to fans in New York who were taunting him about his drug problems. But it was. What could accounts for the transformation?
The full answer is in the book itself. It explains, in the form of a conversation, the science of trauma and the spirituality of healing through the prism of Fleury’s struggles.
The lay version goes like this. Kids who feel disconnected from their caregivers develop trauma and with it a nagging, insidious sense of shame—that persistent feeling one is crazy, broken, fucked up.
That leads to a painful inner life, which, Maté says, sets people up for addiction, to avoid the pain, and for further trauma at the hands of predators who target those with poor boundaries and a need for external approval.
Fleury’s mom was addicted to valium. His dad, alcohol. Fleury’s trauma and shame started early. He became a people-pleaser seeking approval and connection, often not finding it. Enter his junior hockey coach and abuser. Enter addiction. You know the rest.
If disconnection is the problem, then connection is the solution. Genuine, deep, loving relationship built from safe, non-judgmental conversations.
It’s brain science, says Barthel. “When we are connected to each other... where two people are awake and present and available, there is a change in me and you,” she says, speaking to the assembled from her chair.
“And so this whole book is about what happens when there is vulnerability, presence... It doesn’t have to be a therapist, per se, but people who are truly interested in creating some kind of safe connection.”
The old Fleury would probably want to punch me in the face for this but I can’t help notice that “fleury” is french for “flower.”
The thing about flowers is that they stay balled up in a bud to protect themselves until the sun tells them it’s safe to open and bloom, kind of like a fist opening up into a welcome handshake in a warm church on a cold night.
Intrigued, we contacted Fleury to talk about that welcoming gesture and how he’s come so far, so fast.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
On shaking hands and welcoming strangers:
“It’s all about creating safety for people. If they see me as Theo Fleury, this Olympic gold medalist, Stanley Cup champion, la-la-la, then that puts a wedge into the conversation. And so if you take it down a few notches and show people that I’m just a human being who has the same problems and the same issues as everybody else and through having these public conversations, not only are the people in the audience getting help but they’re helping me as well.”
On the importance and limitation of anger:
“I always knew my biggest obstacle was the anger... Anger saved my life... But now it’s not a characteristic that I need any more. And so it was a process of taking a look at why and having those ‘aha’ moments along the way that have helped me sort of rewire that anger part. And, really, anger is sadness turned inward. And for many years I couldn’t get to that sadness and the process has been getting to that sadness and through that it’s lessened the anger.”
On why self-empathy has to come first:
“First of all I need to have a relationship with myself first before I have a relationship with anybody... You’ve got to forgive yourself. You’ve got to understand yourself. You gotta figure out what makes you tick. Figure out what your triggers are, what you’re feeling. All those things. And that comes through self reflection.”
What Good Will Hunting got right about shame:
“What took away all the shame was the science. Understanding the science part and realizing that I was predisposed... There’s that classic scene in Good Will Hunting ... when Matt Damon’s therapist, Robin Williams, has to say, I don’t know how many times, ‘It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.’ And you see Will getting to the sadness part, right? Because he starts to cry. And the next scene we see him getting in his car, he’s going to get the job, going to get the girl. Well, you can see someone who got rid of the shame and realized it wasn’t his fault and now he can go on and live his life without that burden, or without that identifying him.”
How spirituality heals:
“When we go through abuse, it’s our spirit that’s taken away from us. So the journey back to becoming a whole person is finding some sort of spirituality. And for me, as human beings we’re put on this earth to interact with each other, to converse with each other, to have relationships. You know, we’re not put on the earth to spend the entire time alone. And so to me, relationship is spirituality.”
How to know when a conversation is safe:
“You can feel it. But, safety is created through vulnerability, right? Because I’ve had lots of therapists who would never reveal anything about themselves and if you’re not going to reveal anything about yourself I’m certainly not going to reveal anything about myself. Being vulnerable creates trust which then creates safety.”
On indigenous spirituality [Fleury is Métis]:
“[It] has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with relationship. Relationship to your environment, animals and life and mother earth and the grandmothers and the grandfathers. It’s a spirituality that you get to choose what you feel comfortable with believing in. I don’t understand the white bearded guy in the sky. I don’t understand these stories in the Bible. They don’t make sense to me. But [this] is something that I can understand and grasp and when I practice and do it, I feel connected.”