Welcome to Tuesday Q&A! This week we’re hearing from Clint Malarchuk, a man who is supposed to be tough, who isn’t supposed to admit to feeling weak—but he’s shattered misconceptions and is speaking out, particularly about his struggle with OCD, to help others.
Clint is tough, by the way. And he’s really, really nice. Really. I introduced myself to him and his wife, Joanie—who’s also incredibly nice—at the OCD Conference in Boston. They were the keynote speakers, so I recognized them from their photo in the conference program—and then everything started to come together and I realized I’d heard of him before.
Maybe you have, too. Clint was an NHL goalie who made headlines and shocked TV viewers in 1989 when his carotid artery was slashed by St. Louis Blues player Steve Tuttle’s blade during an attempt at a goal. (I’ll spare you the link to the video—finding it is up to you.)
Clint is lucky to be alive, and he’s not likely to be forgotten anytime soon. But his legacy will last far beyond this one bizarre, life-threatening incident: He’s become an advocate for mental health awareness. He’s a voice for other men who aren’t comfortable talking about mental illness, and his story of survival—off the ice—serves as an inspiration for us all. He shares it all in his new book, A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond.
You’re a well-known guy, and as you mentioned in your keynote, it’s largely because you had a horrific accident on live TV. One cause of OCD is a traumatic event. Do you think this accident contributed to the onset of your OCD symptoms? What effect did it have on your day-to-day life?
Yes, the trauma really set my OCD off. I certainly already had OCD, though. As a kid I struggled a lot with germs and worrisome thoughts, usually about my mother’s health and safety. I went through different phases of OCD, and even some times where my OCD wasn’t seemingly there. After the accident, my OCD became so magnified: Intrusive thoughts, checking, worrying, along with severe depression. It was difficult to leave the house. This all seemed to worsen within months after the accident.
I was born and raised in Minnesota, and I often say I grew up at the hockey rink. I’ve always thought goalie would be the most stressful position on the team, with the pressure of guarding the net against that tiny puck, hearing the crowd gasp and then groan in unison if it gets through—not to mention the fear of it flying at you with sometimes incredible speed. Did having anxiety affect your performance as a goalie? Did being a goalie cause anxiety?
Being a goalie in the NHL is said to be the most stressful positions in sports. All factors considered, I’d have to agree. With stress comes anxiety. Leading up to games my anxiety would increase immensely. As a result, so would my OCD symptoms. After games I would have a small window of reprieve. Looking back, how I managed to play at the highest level is beyond me. OCD did help me with game preparation. The anxiety was at times unbearable before games. Thank God, once the game started, I was able to perform and the anxiety would leave.
Although you were diagnosed with OCD fairly early on you managed to slip through the cracks of the treatment system a bit, getting refills on medication for 12 years without ever seeing a psychiatrist. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently following your diagnosis?
Not having to really check in with the team doctor was a big downfall for me. I thought as long as I took my medication I would be fine. I could just tell the doctor I need a prescription refill and that was it. Over the years my body got immune to the meds and I definitely got worse. I think it was so gradual that I didn’t realize how bad I was getting. Knowing what I know now, I would have educated myself better and seen a psychiatrist regularly.
You reached a point when you attempted to self-medicate with alcohol, which led to an addiction. Here you were dealing with OCD, PTSD, depression, and addiction. Life had become so unbearable you attempted suicide in 2008. We all have our own ideas of what rock bottom means, but that must have been yours. How did you move on from that moment?
Looking back on my life, I would say I hit more than one rock bottom. At certain times my OCD was so unbearable that I just wanted to die. In 2008, my attempted suicide was a result of one of those states of mind. The only difference is that this time I acted on it, and I am very lucky I didn’t die. I ended up getting the real professional help I desperately needed, but I hope others get help before reaching this sort of rock bottom. Acceptance is a huge word here! I had to accept how sick I was. I had to accept things and go forward and get well. I also had to believe that I could get well, and be happy. I had to accept that it would take accountability on my part. I had to do the work that was required on my side.
You weren’t exactly thrilled about checking into treatment, but your wife, Joanie, gave you no choice. What can you tell my readers who may be hesitant about getting the help they need, even if it means residential treatment?
Checking into a treatment center was where all this began. I was so scared, the fear was paralyzing. I did not want to be admitted into a facility. I was forced into it. My wife and the NHL team I was coaching for insisted on it. Well, thank God they did—it changed me. I got on the right medication, I got educated, I learned tools, and I got healthy. I was so extreme that I don’t know that outpatient therapy would have done the trick. It was life saving and life changing.
It goes without saying that having OCD is hard for us. But it can also take a toll on our loved ones. Joanie stood by you through some of the darkest moments of your life, and it couldn’t have been easy for her. Do you have any advice for my readers whose family members have OCD?
OCD is torturous for us sufferers, but it really hits the whole family as well. When I went into treatment, it was a dual diagnosis facility. Meaning I had to work on my OCD and my self-medicating with alcohol. My wife, Joanie, went to a five-day family program. This was a big turning point for her and us as a couple. Our marriage was in shambles. It was there where she learned about me and my disorder. She was educated and advised. The other families shared their experiences dealing with their loved ones. The biggest thing for Joanie was understanding that I was sick, that the OCD was not who I am, but what I had. There was hope and support for her. Education for family members is crucial, as is counseling.
You’ve noted that men often feel uncomfortable discussing mental illness, that they think they need to be indestructible. As an athlete in one of the rougher sports you especially felt the pressure to remain stoic, but you’ve since written a book and have given several candid interviews. What was the turning point that convinced you to start talking about your struggles with mental illness?
I think being open in my interviews and getting feedback from fellow sufferers really helped me realize that I was not alone in my struggles. My candidness helped other people, and men started reaching out to me as well. Surviving a suicide attempt, waking up out of a coma with a bullet in my head, really made me reflect: Why was I spared? Why was I successful in that I played in the NHL? Why did I have all these demons through my life? Well, I put it all together and figured the success gives me a platform to speak publicly. Conquering my demons gives me something to speak about, and help those still in the dark places, still struggling. The book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s been the most gratifying as well. The emails and conversations from people who read it makes it all worthwhile. Playing goalie in the NHL, you have to be tough, both mentally and physically. Men see that and know I did it while struggling with OCD and other problems. I guess I’ve made it easier for them to admit they’re struggling too.
You’re doing well now. How do you stay on top of your symptoms and prevent relapse?
Today, I have to be accountable and do my part to stay healthy. I stay on top of my medication and doctor visits. I try to work out regularly. I meditate to keep balanced. I go to meetings. I support others and be of service to others. I’m grateful every day. I try not to take anything for granted. My wife and family mean everything to me, so I have to be healthy for them. They’ve seen me at my worst and I want to be there for them in every way I can.
If you could give just one piece of advice to others with OCD, what would it be?
You don’t have to suffer. It was a long, hard road for me getting well—today there is a lot more help for us. Get help. I know I couldn’t have gotten better by myself. The OCD Conference in Boston really encouraged me. We’ve come a long way in research, medication, therapy, and support. Never feel shame in being ill with something that’s not your fault. Have hope…because it’s real.