I had the great pleasure of interviewing Clint Malarchuk, NHL goalie, NHL coach, cowboy, horse dentist and now author of his first book "A Matter of Inches", the title refers to the bullet in his head, as well as the skate that was actually a few millimeters from his carotid artery! This man is indestructible, thank goodness, knock on wood!
He suffered from OCD, horrible anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, and finally PTSD because of a horrific hockey injury to his neck. Even dealing with all those mental illnesses, he became a great goalie, playing for, among others, the Buffalo Sabres. And then an NHL coach. While battling his demons and alcohol addiction, he put a bullet in his head and survived with no side effects! His book is a tour de force of honesty, truth and a no holds barred description of his life, good or bad, he put it all to paper. The book is a must read.
Talking with him was a pleasure, he was just as honest and forthcoming on the phone interview I conducted with him for my blog.
The interview is below. Enjoy.
And thank you again Clint. You are amazing. I am a huge fan.
Thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions for a post on my blog:-)
I am literally floored after reading your book "A Matter of Inches". I thought I had it bad with my bipolar disorder, but after reading about your struggles, battles, and triumphs over your illness, I understand that many more varied and severe forms exist. Your bringing attention to mental illness, opening up about your issues and bringing mental illness to the forefront to be discussed, recognized, confronted and hopefully destigmatized and most importantly treated, this is what you are doing by writing your book! It is extremely admirable and again shows your amazing strength!
Shall we start?
Samina: 1) In our society, it takes a lot of courage to admit you have a mental illness. And you said in your book "Mental illness isn't something people like to discuss." How and why did you decide to take the courageous step of writing this book?
Clint: I used to do interviews before I wrote the book and you know I talked about it pretty openly and I got feedback mostly from people suffering and it seemed to help to know that they weren't alone mostly by telling my story. And I guess when you're helping people by talking about it openly, it puts it into perspective.I thought the book would really help people.
S: Your book is amazing, how you talk about everything. Your book is totally Incredible. How honest you are.
Clint: I think the honesty part comes from if I only tell my story halfway, then I'm only gonna reach people halfway. Being suicidal, telling the story the whole way, the whole deep dark places that I've been in, it will reach most people, so I have to go to be honest, go the whole, way, the deep dark places, to make it relatable.
S: 2) Love the quote: "The truth is that I've been so many different kinds of crazy that its limitations insult me. Crazy is too simple a word to describe me." Brilliant!
Yet you found the strength to become a goalie in the NHL! In professional sports where you say "...the only wounds that matter are physical. The rest is just weakness." Can you say something about that?
Clint: Well I think especially as a goalie, you're supposed to be the block, the real block, that is very strong in the way he handles pressure, the one the team looks to to be strong and if you have problems then you are perceived as weak, and now I look back and think I must have been twice as mentally strong because I handled the pressure of being an NHL goalie and the problems of mental illness and trying to fight it. And it looked on the outside that you are incredible.
S: Yes, that is exactly what I thought, that you had to be be twice as strong, because not only were you suffering and you were not feeling well, but on top of that you had to show that strength that the goalie has to have to have pucks being shot at him at 100 mph. You have to be very strong to be able to handle that and it's amazing that you did that!
Clint: Yes, it was amazing, it's the perception, you learn to fight and now I look back and think "I must have been really strong" but at the time I thought I was weak.
S: Yes, I know, that's what mental illness does, it makes you feel very weak, but because you're coping and living your life, living it in a normal fashion, you are really twice as strong as someone who doesn't have mental illness. That's what I think too.
Clint: You're right!
S: 3) You say you found peace as a kid on the ranch and on the hockey rink. How did hockey relieve stress for you?
Clint: Well, I was doing something that I could channel all my focus into, so I didn't really have time to think about my disease. And for me that was where I was thinking only about the thing I loved, rather than the other stuff. For me that was the only thing that really got me away from my troubling thoughts and disease.
S: That happens a lot, when you are really concentrating on something, your symptoms sort of tend to go in the background and you can really function well. I know that happens to me too.
Clint: Yes, the only problem is it's hard to get into that zone of concentration, you almost have to be forced into it. In my situation, because I wanted to be so good at hockey, you are almost forced into that zone, because it is so hard to get your mind out of what you're going through.
S: 4) With all that was going on in your head, the anxiety, the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the insomnia, and later, the alcohol addiction, you somehow found a way to be functional, much of the time! How did you manage that?
Clint: Well it was through many trials and errors. Medication, and many therapies and again, self medicating even, thinking that that was a solution, not the best solution, but thinking it gave temporary relief from myself. Many different things, you know it's been a long road.
S: It definitely has! You know you're a year younger than me.
Clint: Oh I am?!
S: Yes you are! I was born in 1960.
Clint: Just barely (laughs.)
S: Yeah! So... It hasn't been that long, OK?
Clint: Laughs heartily:-) OK.
S: Ok! (laughing.)
S: 5) What would you think of a person who had done everything as you've done, become an NHL goalie, a wonderful father, all the while suffering from some very difficult mental health issues?
Clint: Well I guess that reflects back on the question of weakness and hiding and I would have to give that person credit for being strong and persevering through it all. I guess at the time for me I thought I was weak, and wanted to hide it. Now looking back at everything I've been through, I would have to say that person was really strong and persevering.
S: Absolutely. That is the thing I was struck the most by when I was reading your book, is how strong you were! Whether you knew it or not, how strong you were to have survived all that you have. You know not everybody can come through all that you have.
Clint: Well trust me, I didn't think I was strong and I thought I was weak, and when you're going through all that, you are not thinking the same way as you are now, looking back at it.
S: Right. Well because the illness makes you feel weak because you don't feel like you have control over your emotions, you don't have control over maybe sometimes, your actions. So it sort of takes that control and strength and it makes you feel weak, but really when you're coping, you ARE strong.
Clint: Well and the stigma attached to it makes you feel weak. Society and the stigma with mental illness...
S: That's is absolutely true. I don't want to tell people... I mean I do tell people now but I didn't used to want to tell people that I have bipolar disorder. Because then they would think "You're crazy, I don't want to have anything to do with you."
Clint: Exactly, because that is the misunderstanding, lack of understanding, lack of education. If you have diabetes or lets say an illness, and you needed to work at home a little bit or need time off for treatment, then you'd certainly go to your boss and say "Look, I've been diagnosed with something and this is what I have to do," and the boss would say "We'll help you in any way we can." But if you have mental illness, you're not even going to tell your boss, because of what the perception is.
S: Yes. People don't understand. And they also think that just because you have a mental illness, that you're a dangerous person. When in fact, people with mental illness, as a percentage, commit far fewer violent acts than people in the general population. But it just comes with that territory, unfortunately.
Clint: I agree.
S: 6) After the skate incident, the mask didn't come off, it was still all bravado. What would you say to a young goalie/athlete who had suffered a similar injury now?
Clint: Oh I would absolutely say to see a therapist and maybe a psychiatrist and make sure you don't develop full blown PTSD, which will magnify anything else along with PTSD, which comes in many forms, and illnesses like depression, anxiety. And to me, it is disturbing that there are 22 suicides a day with veterans! With PTSD, they survive the war but come back and end their lives because they can't get the help they need.
S: Yes, that's really awful! That's not a good way to pay back somebody who went and fought for your country. There's so much in this society that really is just not the greatest. But I guess there are a lot of things that are.
Clint: Well we're trying to make a difference.
S: We are. And that's one of the reasons I started my blog too, so, I feel we have that in common.
Clint: Well I commend you for that.
S: Thank you so much! And your book! My goodness! I sobbed through parts of it, smiled through other ones, and I was just really really incredibly amazed at how strong you are. You just have to know how strong you are!! You have to be very proud of that!
Clint: Thank you... Well, I still don't see it... you're telling me that, it's incredible, I still don't see it as strong. I don't. And it's probably a shame and it's probably due to the stigma and you know, I guess it is strange, but for me I still don't see it that way. Because maybe it was just survival. You know, I am probably like you, some days I just try to get through the days. And I think people that are in a dark place right now, it's a struggle just to get through a day.
S: True, very true. But, BUT, you don't see it but think of it as... that's why I asked you that question! That what would you think of a person who did everything you did along with all mental illness that you had and you said they were strong! Didn't you?
Clint: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I did!
S: So, you did.
Both of us laughing :-))))
S: So now what do you think?
Clint: Well, we don't always look at ourselves in the same light as other people do.
S: I know! We give other people so many more breaks than we give ourselves.
Clint: That's true.
S: 7) How did you first realize that you in fact did have mental illness? What were your first symptoms of mental illness? I know even as a child, you had a lot of anxiety.
Clint: I didn't feel normal as a kid. And I know that I had anxiety as a kid. And probably there was some depression in there, but the anxiety overwhelmed me to the point where that's all I really knew. But I didn't feel normal. I really thought the other kids were doing better, functioning, happier. And so I'd ask my mum questions, off the wall things but I think I just made it through until the accident (skate to the throat while playing as a goalie in a Buffalo Sabres' game, March 22, 1989) happened and that just seemed to blow everything up in my face, as far as the anxiety, depression, OCD. It was hard for me to leave the house, and I wasn't diagnosed with PTSD then. That didn't come till later, but I guess what the accident did to me, was magnify everything! And it wasn't long after the accident where I was diagnosed with OCD and depression. So I guess that was when I was really diagnosed.
S: Right, right. So in a way, I mean not helpful, but in a way it sort of highlighted things that needed to come out, and so you got help after that I think.
Clint: Yeah, it brought everything to the surface.
S: 8) How would you define insight? 9) And was that helpful in your life?
Clint: How would I define insight? I think insight for me it comes with age and wisdom and experience. You have a better way of breaking things down and that's helpful and knowledgeable, with age. That's insight.
S: Right, right. So about yourself, in that sense, knowing, saying OK, I'm acting this way because maybe my OCD is acting up or I'm acting this way maybe because... in that sense. Like when I get manicky or depressed, I sort of, at certain points, have insight and think this is the sick me, this isn't really the normal me. Do you ever think that?
Clint: Well, now I am very in tune with my emotions and my thoughts. Today, I am very, very cautious. If I start to feel anxious or depressed, I have to immediately stop my day and check my emotions, check my thoughts. How are they related, you know, I have to have that insight. I also have the awareness and what do I do, why am I going there, what's going on and really get my balance.
S: Exactly! I mean people who are mentally ill and have a lot of insight, I think generally do better with their illness than people who don't know why anything is happening.
Clint: Well yeah, I think it takes a lot of learning though, to get to that point. You know it's taken me years to understand why my thoughts make my emotions go that way and and vice versa. So experience has taught me that.
S: True! And also, you have to know yourself. For me, if I can say "This is not me, it's my illness", that's insight.
Clint: Aah, yes! You have to be able to make a division between what's real, what's sickness, what's a trigger. If I have a chemical imbalance, I know it's not me, it's the sickness. And I have to address it. It's not normal, so I have to get to my normal state.
S: Exactly, exactly! And if you can do that, it really does help you. Then you can call up your doctor and say "Listen, I'm not feeling well because of this, this, and this."
Clint: Right, yes! You have a place where you can say, well this is what normal feels like and this is what sick feels like,
S: Exactly, and that helps with treatment, and that helps you cope with your illness, and that helps you get better.
S: 10) On the ranch, when you were young, you saw coyotes killing calves! You killed a bear at 14! Bull smashing planks and falling on you. Rodeo... Rush... adrenalin. All these things seem to be quite anxiety provoking. How do you think these affected your growing into a young man with anxiety?
Clint: Well I don't think those things made me anxious. In some ways, people would say you can face these dangers, these things, so in some ways they brought me confidence, because a lot of kids weren't doing what I was doing. Even though I didn't feel normal, they couldn't do what I could do, so that made me feel better.
S: Right. You know in some ways, it almost sounds like you were courting these high risk activities to bring up the levels of your neurotransmitters, because that's what happens, when you're in a high stress situation, your brain is making the chemicals that makes you feel better.
Clint: Yes, I would agree, that adrenalin and I think it helped me. Because even though I didn't feel normal, those kids couldn't do this and it made me feel better,
S: Wow! To other kids these things would be scary and you were out there going "Hey, I can do this! This is good, I'm good with this"
S: Wow, you were an amazing kid too!
S: 11) Your father was a raging alcoholic, with rages and destruction. You say "You hold on to the happy pieces and try your best to leave the worst in the rubble, but the dust of it all clings to you." Was internalizing the way you dealt with this? How do you think your life would have been if your dad had gotten treatment? In your book, there were many instances when you and your mum were traumatized by his action.
Clint: Yeah, but I try to ignore that, because so many families are like that. You know I try not to blame my father.
S: I understand you don't want to blame him, but just see what happened, just know what happened.
Clint: Yes I often wonder if he was mentally ill.
S: Yes. A lot of times people who are alcoholic are self medicating.
Clint: And especially back in those days, we talk about how far we have to go yet. If you think about back then, it was not talked about at all. If it was very, very severe, they'd be locked up.
S: Yes, yes, I know that some of my father's siblings used to be locked up at home some of the time. I'm thinking bipolar d/o. And back in the 30's, 40's in India, mental health treatment was probably worse than here.
Clint: And they would say they're crazy, lock them up and that's where society was back then.
S: 12) What would you say to someone who was struggling with a parent's substance abuse problem?
Clint: What would I say? Aw man, I would try to get you to get help. Because you can't force them to get help, and they're in their own sickness so I would try to encourage somebody that's around them, especially a teenager or something to get help or counseling or Al-Anon would do it.
S: Wow that's great advice.
Clint: Yeah, so they can try and understand the illness and themselves and their parent.
S: So true. Because if you can help yourself, then you can help somebody else. And if you're in a tizzy over things, then you can't help anyone.
Clint: No, at that point, you have no direction, so getting help, counseling, or Al-Anon would give you direction.
S: 13) You say: "I harboured a lot of resentment towards the people I cared about--particularly women." Why do you think that was?
Clint: Probably because of the failed marriages.
S: 14) Playing hockey in the NHL meant obsession, hard work, constantly playing hockey. An "I have to be the best!" mentality. Obsession and compulsion, a double edged sword, that's what allowed you to play at the elite level to play for the NHL, but at what cost?!
Clint: I think what I was trying to say there was, the obsessive compulsive disorder got me to work so hard that it helped me make it to the NHL and stay there. I think once we talk about my life, I don't know if it was worth it. I mean it (OCD) got so bad, I couldn't function as a player or a person.
S: 15) When you got the Staph infection in your leg and the doctors said you wouldn't ever play again. You said "They didn't know the will inside of me. "Sometimes my obsessive personality was a curse. In this case, it was a blessing." Your enormous amount of physical and mental strength got you back on the ice! Seems like when you had to be strong, you found the strength. Would you say something about that?
Clint: Yes, I think that would be the obsessive compulsive part. You know sometimes, you don't even rationalize things. It's all my doctor saying that to me, I didn't even rationalize it because there was no sense. It was me saying in my head "I was going to make it, whatever it took." So (laughing) I didn't even hear the doctor. You know, I didn't really register.
S: Wow, such strong will!
Clint: Yes, it was.
S: You mean because of the obsessive compulsiveness, you did what you needed to do to get back on the ice?
Clint: Yes, no matter what! No matter what somebody said, the doctor, or anybody.
S: 16) You say: "As soon as the puck dropped, I was transfixed. I didn't hear the crowd. It was just a hum in the background. Ability to concentrate while playing hockey"... You were in the zone! Right? Can you talk about that a bit, please?
Clint: Right. I think yes, the zone exactly, it's like the zone, it's like you're doing it, it's automatic, it's getting the result. But for me it's also, to attain that zone every game, it's impossible, but you always strive for it. But for me, I had two zones, the one with the relief, I felt for not having to deal with my demons in my head, because I was so focused on playing and watching the puck and stopping the puck. So you know I had two zones, one was for a relief from my demons and the other was for trying to be in the zone as an athlete.
S: 17) "Single-minded obsession is the most critical skill a goalie must have." The very skills you needed to do what you loved, were also the traits taken to extreme, that were part of your illness. On the one hand, these made you a star goalie, on the other hand, they almost cost you your life. If you didn't have these traits, perhaps you wouldn't have worked so hard and been a first rate goalie. Do you think that may have been the case?
Clint: Oh for sure! Yes. That was the OCD. I credit the OCD for getting me into the NHL, but then it overtook my life. A lot like I think with Robin Williams, his incredible comic genius brought him fame and fortune and it was so instantaneous and everything. But when he was alone with himself, with his demons, it's the extremes, just like extreme bipolar, you're in two different poles, you know? So, his blessing was also his curse. And it was the same for me.
S: Yes and he also had some drug problems, I think.
Clint: Yes, and that was the self medication probably. I mean, I didn't drink to get high. I drank to get relief and to numb my thoughts and emotions.
S: 18) You developed PTSD after your neck injury, a major life threatening injury, you were having bad dreams and just awful symptoms. And nobody really did anything. How do you think helping people with sports injuries can be accomplished?
Clint: I think they're addressing it, they are making new rules in hockey for it. There is counseling for traumatic head injury, not just for the player but for the family. So I think that's a big step. I think the next step would be having more of a support for players, that they can confidentially talk to someone. Just like they do with substance abuse. They can confidentially reach out and I think that would be good.
S: Wow, that's a great idea. So if you don't want anyone to know, you can still get the help you need.
S: 19) After reading the part in your book about the shooting accident/incident (suicide attempt), the cocktail of meds that the psychiatrist gave you, which contributed to the shooting incident, and then the next doctor told you that they should never have been given together and at those doses. Do you think the shooting could have been a result of being on the wrong meds?
Clint: You know I can't honestly answer that. I think they contributed to it. Whether I would have done it either way, it's hard to say. I believe that they contributed to it.
S: Yes, yes. I mean as much as psychiatric medications help, they also have some really strange side effects, like hearing voices and strange things like that. And you were given things that shouldn't have been given together and not at those doses, not good!
Clint: Well that's true. I think the doctors are still working too.
S: You're such a nice guy! You really are a very nice person!
Clint: (Laughing.) So are you!
S: Awww! Thank you!
S: 20) Your story is such an enormously powerful one. Against all odds, because of strength and love, you are still here!!! How do you feel, dodging a potentially lethal neck injury from a skate, respiratory arrest, and literally dodging a bullet?
Clint: Well, I think everything I went through, there was a reason. And I think that we all have a purpose in life, unfortunately we're always searching for that purpose. I feel my purpose now is to speak on mental health and to help others. Whether it be the book or speaking or just be an advocate for mental health and also getting rid of the stigma. I used to think my purpose was to play in the NHL, and then I did that. Then I thought it was to coach in the NHL, and then I did that. The way I look at those things, and everything that I've survived and gone through is the reason, my real purpose is, all those things happened so that I could speak and help people with mental illness. Having played and coached in the NHL gives me a platform to reach out and speak and be heard because I played and I coached. And now people know who I am. And I think all that happened, and all the things I went through as well, is for me now to be in a place where I know my purpose.
S: That's amazing really, when you know what you're supposed to be doing and you do it! Do you have a lot of talking engagements? Are you going all over Canada and the US talking about this?
Clint: I am getting more and more.
S: Great! I thought about something, since you have a ranch, you could do some equine therapy for mentally ill people. As you know horses are amazingly healing animals. And a lot of people who have mental issues can benefit from equine therapy:-) Would you do that?
Clint: Yeah, I have a few ideas about what to do and how to help and that's one of them.
S: You could have Canuck Ranches all over the US and all over Canada.
Clint: Well that would be awesome if that happened. Yeah.
S: Yes it really would. Well, we are at the end of my questions. I also wanted to say that your wife is amazing too. As amazing as you are, she might even be a little more amazing than you!
Clint: Well what's really incredible is that when we go for book signings, people that have read the book already, they want her to sign the book. Pretty cool!
S: I would definitely have asked her if I'd gone to a book signing. She is an amazing woman. Is there anything you'd like to say or add to these questions?
Clint: You have to keep up your good work. I think you're doing a great job. You know, together, people like us can make a difference. Always remember that!
S: Thank you. And thank you SO much for agreeing to answer questions and being so gracious and open and honest. Would you like me to send you a transcript of what I am going to post on my blog?
Clint: No. I'll just follow your blog now.
S: (Big smile on my face.) Oh good. Yaaay.
Clint: Yes, and I'll try to get others to do the same.
S: Oh my goodness, that would be great. Thank you. You are am amazingly strong and wonderful person! It was lovely to talk to you and thank you again.
Clint: Same here. Bye.