Trigger warning: Concussion, Anxiety, Depression, Suicidal thoughts
Since I was 4 years old I’ve been, in one way or another, involved with ice hockey. It has been my life, my everything. I shaped my life after ice hockey. It all started at an outdoor rink in a small club in one of the Stockholm suburbs, the same club in which I started my career as a senior player, and later ended my career. Way too early, in my opinion.
In the years 2007-2010, I missed only four games, but after that my senior career was paved with injuries. It started in 2011 when my life, just as many other players’, took a horrible turn. I’ll try to tell you the story.
We were playing an away game and it’s a Friday night (the beauty of playing in a lower division). Halfway through the second period, I skated with the puck on the right side. I faced an opponent that I tried to avoid, but he hit me with his hip and I lost balance. My head got low as I tried to get the puck deep in the offensive zone, just when I looked up I saw the defenseman’s butt and it hit me right in the head. I fell backward with full speed and slammed my head into the boards, then everything went black for a couple of seconds. The game continued and I got to the bench. I sat there for a while and even though I felt a stiffness in my neck I didn’t really think about the hit. I stepped on the ice for the next shift and started to feel a little off. Something was not right, my head was aching, and we made the call that I wasn’t going to play the rest of the game.
All of you that suffered a bad concussion know what happened next. My brain got tired, I had headaches and suffered from dizziness, I became easily annoyed and forgot stuff. This stayed with me for a month. The first two weeks I couldn’t leave the house, but at the same time the pressure from my coaches was increasing and that didn’t make it easier. I felt stressed, pushed myself to a comeback too early, and was set back a step in the recovery protocol.
When I finally returned I played for about one-and-a-half season without any issues. But after I signed with a new club I suffered two more concussions over two seasons and chose to return to my youth club. Unfortunately, I only got to play four more games before one last concussion ended my career.
Every time I was away after a head-injury I felt like I was letting my team down. That always led to me hurrying the recovery process, cheating with the step-by-step program and coming back too soon. I convinced myself that there was nothing wrong with me, it was just a little headache. It would pass. That’s the classic mentality in hockey. Bite the bullet. Just keep going. A hockey player is tough, not weak.
But lately, these last couple of years, the concussions caught up with me. Before the headaches were my only struggle, and I still get them when I’m strained, but they often cease to bother me rather quickly. Now, my issues are those of a mental character. I have a lot of negative thoughts and I worry about the future. My constant anxiety is tough to wrestle on a daily basis. I have a feeling of not being enough, that no matter what I do I am still useless.
I’ve heard the stories and seen the movies about people who suffered the same head injuries that I did. The thought of potentially suffering from dementia, to become a person even your family and friends won’t recognize, scares me tremendously. To wake up and not be able to tell if the day is going to be good or bad.
It happens – a lot – that the smallest things annoy me, things that never bothered me before. I get scared when I find myself yelling at players of my team (I’m a youth coach today), for things that should not be yelled about.
Every day I’m scared to death someone will punch, or even just touch, my head. That’s the thing that terrifies me the most and that fear can ruin a whole day for me. I yell at people, I yelled at my sister for touching my head in the wrong way. It’s awful, it’s scary how things turned out. I affrighten people who love me, people close to me, friends, girlfriends. And it’s only because of my fear of telling them exactly what’s going on in my head.
Trying to explain it all in writing is hard, too. It’s difficult to find the right words when all I can think are negative thoughts. This last year has been the worst ever, and I don’t know how to turn it around. I’ve thought about ending my life a couple of times, I even wrote my goodbyes. The few friends I’ve told about my issues tell me to just keep fighting, that things will get better, but the truth is things don’t get better at all. I’m genuinely scared of what I’m going to feel in a year, I can’t promise anyone that I’m going to finally manage this. And the worst part is I have to put on a smile every day when I go to practice, I have to pretend everything is okay, I have to find an energy that just isn’t there to be found. I have to keep motivating the young players because they, just as everyone else, expect their coach to be energetic, come up with new ideas, be alert, be the one that pushes them. You can’t have bad days as a coach.
I’ve seen therapists and tried to talk about it, but I never tried this before. Writing it all down and sharing it with people out there. I would like to connect with old players that suffered from the same things I do, but I never dared to reach out to anyone. However, now that I’ve seen other athletes opening up I feel a little bit encouraged to write and to share my story.
Again, I don’t know what will happen to me, if I’ll be able to continue facing this. It’s hard asking for help, I don’t want to be a burden. And I’ve been dealing with this by myself for a long time. Even though I don’t know what the right way is, I now believe that dealing by myself is not the way to go. Even though I struggle not to, some days I just want to crawl into a hole and cry, some days I don’t want to wake up, some days I don’t want to live. I have good days too, but they are few.
I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel good again, or if I’ll ever learn to handle this. But I want people to learn that if they open up and deal with the problems sooner rather than later they can make a huge difference in their lives. Don’t wait too long, as I did. I think things can turn for me too, but my waiting made my uphill is a little steeper. I believe I have more to work with and to find something that I really love, I think, can be a start for me. Not knowing how to get there is my biggest problem.
Nicklas Stensson, 29 years old, former ice hockey player