Liam’s Story: Through the Gates of Hell

Liam Cavanagh is the Director of Hockey Operations for University of Massachusetts Boston Men’s Hockey and a former student-athlete. This is the first time he has shared his story publicly. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Imagine having thoughts running through your head. Thoughts that could turn into irreversible decisions. If I wasn’t here, would it be easier? I wouldn’t feel the pain. I wouldn’t feel lost. I wouldn’t question everything. I wouldn’t overthink things. Maybe it’s just better if I’m gone?

Life is hard. It’s not supposed to be easy. Everyone knows that. But it’s also not supposed to be like this – a terrifying downward spiral that seems as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I never thought that would be me. I never thought that my life would go down this path.

Oblivious Role Models

I always dreamed of being an NHL star. I grew up in the rink and can still remember the vivid imagination I had when it came to this game. The rink was essentially my second home; the place I would spend as much time as possible when I wasn’t in school. I guess this was what you would call my “happy place”. Hockey meant everything to me, all the way from when I first started to learn to skate in California, to minor hockey with the Bedford Blues and my days of playing for my high school the Charles P. Allen Cheetahs, to where I am now with the University of Massachusetts. It was an escape for me; a bad grade on a test, argument with a friend, problems at home, or maybe just having a bad day. It didn’t matter because as soon as I walked into a rink, it was almost as if every problem had vanished for the time being. Hockey made everything better, just as any avid hockey player would testify.

Growing up as an athlete, you are projected into a role that many are unaware of, and one that can unknowingly apply more pressure to one’s identity. You represent your team, teammates, school, city, province (or state), and all of those who look up to you. You often don’t think about it. You just go about your day. To put it into perspective, think back to when you were a kid and you would go watch that AAA game at the rink you always played at. The “superstars” that you were watching were only 16-17 at the time, but that didn’t matter because you wanted to be “just like them” when you grew up. What many individuals don’t notice is that you are a walking role model to many, whether you notice it or not; youngsters, teenagers and kids of all ages aspire to be like you.

Hiding Behind a Smile

Many find it easy to pretend like you’re happy, to put on a smile just to make it seem like everything is okay. For me, while I tried to put on this show to make it seem like everything was fine, I struggled.

A couple months ago, I drew the line and knew I needed to seek help. The struggle of going to work, the struggle of going to the gym, the rink, school or just doing the simplest things like getting out of bed became such a detrimental task. I would constantly wonder why I would compose such little interest for things I used to love; why I had no energy; why I couldn’t concentrate; why I felt hopeless; why my mind would race over meaningless thoughts; why the smallest things would irritate me; or why sometimes I just felt almost “emotionless”.   Each day began to feel like a step backwards.

I needed to accept that fixing this wasn’t something I could undertake on my own.

I was convinced for the longest time that nothing was wrong with me, and maybe I just take life too serious sometimes. I started to notice that my smile was empty, my feelings were absent and my head would be overwhelmed with constant uncertainties. Days began to spin into weeks, and the weeks twisted into months.  I never wanted help. I never wanted to feel like I needed a doctor to fix this. I never wanted to feel different. I never wanted to feel like I had “a problem”.

You hear about it all the time. But you never think it will come after you.

The Confession

I will never forget the day that I told my dad that I needed help. Let’s keep in mind that my dad is my biggest role model. The most successful person I know, or will ever know for that matter. He is the man that taught me that hard work pays off, excuses will never be a valid excuse, and that success will not come find you, rather you need to go find it yourself.

I regularly contemplated how I could communicate my silent plea for help. I truly felt that I couldn’t look him in the eyes and tell him that I needed help. I felt that I would be letting him down; showing him that I was not strong, that I have a weakness I cannot work around, and that somehow this is me trying to take an easy way out of my problem.

I remember walking into my bedroom and my head circling boundlessly with thoughts. I just couldn’t take it anymore and I really wasn’t even sure what it was that “I couldn’t take”. After re-reading a text message composed for my dad, infinite times, my finger trembled to click send as my heart sunk into my chest terrified to obtain a response.

Within seconds my phone rang. I ended the call as I panicked, fretting over what the first words he might say to me are. Instantly my phone rang again. I took a deep breath, trying to pull myself together as I clicked accept. The first words out of his mouth were, “Liam, are you okay? I am not hanging this phone up until you are.”

As I look back, my thought process would seem confusing. Many people would say, “Your parents will always be there for you,” or “Your parents will always love you”. But what many people don’t understand is that admitting you just can’t get a grasp on things is one of hardest things for people to do who suffer from this mental illness. You don’t want to be considered an outlier, out of the norm or viewed as if you have “a problem”.  As much as I hard-pressed myself to smile every day, just to play the role that everything was picture perfect, the reality is that my life is not picture perfect and things are not always as they seem.

The “Chemical Imbalance”

The truth of the matter is I differ from most due to a chemical imbalance in the brain resulting in reduced serotonin levels. This chemical imbalance is often referred to as depression and or anxiety.

I didn’t tell anyone besides a very few people who were close to me because I didn’t want people to know I had “a problem”. I didn’t want people to look at me differently. I didn’t want people to treat me any differently. I constantly wanted to just pretend that everything is as the way it seems on the outside – perfectly fine. I’m sure you could ask anyone that I have played hockey with, went to school with, or grew up with and I highly doubt they ever would have had a suspicion that something was going on in my life that I couldn’t seem to find a solution to.

Deafening Stigma

Unfortunately, people have this stigma attached to depression and anxiety. I’ve learned more and more about this as I’ve traveled down this dark road and some of the facts in relation to the stigma are quite intimidating. One in particular that stood out to me was that 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination.

This stigma needs to be erased. You hear these dreadful stories of both kids and adults who make irreversible decisions, and there is an awful humiliation attached to what caused this.

A small, uncontrollable chemical discrepancy within one’s brain should not be a reason to look at someone differently or treat them differently.

Merciful (or Merciless?) Distraction

When I didn’t have time to let my mind ramble, it almost seemed as if my problems didn’t exist. So I figured that working three jobs averaging 60-70 hours per week while commuting about three hours to school every day in the summer would force my mind to be occupied enough to prevent it from going down its own destructive path. I learned the hard way that pushing your body this hard will only have unwanted results. My body slowly started to shut down.

However, as I intensified my struggle with this depression and anxiety this past summer, I have committed myself to taking care of myself. Enough is enough, and sometimes you really do need to listen to your body. Many athletes pride themselves on their healthy physicality levels, but often disregard their mental health.

The further I make it down this road, I realize how many lives are affected by mental illness in some way shape or form. The more that I learn, I want to help remove this stigma of mental health and encourage people to seek assistance.

Stop Fighting Yourself

I have learned that I do not need to be ashamed because I struggle. Nor does anyone else who suffers.

I wish that before my battle with depression, I would have known that the people closest to me would support me as much as they have.

I wish that this stigma was easier to break free on your own. But the reality is that the stigma revolving around mental health is an immense influence of why people are so afraid to ask for help.

To those of you who are struggling: you are not alone. And believe it or not, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just need to keep digging until you find it. I am not telling you that it will be easy, in fact, I will tell you right now that it might be the hardest thing you’ll do. But I will also tell you that it could be the best thing you will ever do for yourself.

To those of you who are not personally struggling – I challenge you. I challenge you to be more open minded. I challenge you to not make assumptions. I challenge you not to judge. I challenge you to lend a hand.

I challenge you to end the stigma of mental health.

Liam

Comments (9)

  • Deirdre murphy Reply

    Liam, Thank you so much for your honesty and your strength in sharing your story. You may never know how many people you have touched and encouraged to get help. There are so many who suffer in silence from different mental health problems. As you have found, there is help, but the first and extraordinarily difficult step requires that you ask for it. Sadly, some cannot, and the repercussions of an untreated illness can be fatal. My own son was taken too soon as an indirect result of his mental health struggles.
    With love, respect and admiration, your American mom

    January 18, 2017 at 10:05 pm
  • Amy MacIsaac Reply

    Good for you, Liam, for reaching out; firstly for yourself and secondly for others. That step is one of the bravest and most important you will ever take. And if you find yourself in that place again, it is just as important to reach out again as well.
    One foot in front of the other…stay the course.

    January 19, 2017 at 12:32 am
  • Helena Bortolin Reply

    Thanks for sharing Liam! Biggest hugs!! You are helping so many by sharing what you have been going through!

    January 19, 2017 at 1:28 am
  • Larry Sampson Reply

    Liam,

    It takes more courage to hit “send” than it does to put on an empty smile – thank you for sharing your story. It’s important people know this is ok to talk about, and the example you have set will help them do it.

    January 19, 2017 at 6:02 am
  • Clare Mackenzie Reply

    Liam,
    Thank you for having the courage to speak out and share your story. My 20 year old son came to us a year ago and admitted he needed help after suffering silently with mental illness since junior high. It is a way more common problem than people think and the more it’s talked about the sooner the stigma surrounding mental illness will end.
    Stay strong.

    January 19, 2017 at 12:16 pm
  • Aaron A Reply

    For the record I never would’ve guessed you’ve battled depression (although I don’t know you that well). But im so happy you shared it. I really believe that stigmatized things are so hard for hockey players to talk about in our community. So it’s huge of you share, thanks and I hope you’re doing well!!

    January 19, 2017 at 2:51 pm
  • Aaron Reply

    For the record, I never would’ve guessed you’ve battled depression (although I don’t know you that well). But im so happy you shared it. I really believe that stigmatized things are so hard for hockey players to talk about in our community. So it’s huge of you share, thanks and I hope you’re doing well!!

    January 19, 2017 at 2:55 pm
  • Margaret Alexander Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this Liam. As you know we have lost a friend of our family to depression and you’re insight has helped to give me some insight. Whether you want to be or not you are still a role model and you’re helping all of us. Please keep taking care of yourself. You are so right…we tend to take care of our bodies and not our brains and our understanding of this is just beginning.

    January 19, 2017 at 10:30 pm
  • Chris Magee Reply

    Hi Liam,

    Well done. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help but even more to share your story in order to help others. I know your Dad, Mom and the rest of your family are very proud of you. All the best and be well.

    January 22, 2017 at 2:13 pm

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