Kendra Fisher, a Kincardine native, is an outspoken advocate for people with mental health issues. The story of her battle with mental illness appeared in our inaugural issue, Winter 2011. This is her story.
Kendra Fisher was on the cusp of achieving her dream and all she could do was sit in a stairwell and cry.
In 1999, as a 19-year-old, Kendra was a solid training camp away from being named one of Team Canada’s two goaltenders, and earning the right to wear the Maple Leaf on her chest in international competition. Since strapping on the pads as a six-year-old, she had been working toward this very moment.
Then, as she was about to reach the pinnacle of her burgeoning hockey career, she was beaten by an opponent unlike any she had ever stared down from her crease – herself.
“I had been feeling off for a year – having heart palpitations, stomach issues, pressure in my head – and I wasn’t coping well,” said the Kincardine native, who now lives in Toronto. “I was becoming less and less functional, isolating myself so I couldn’t feel things, and the time came when I couldn’t deal with the symptoms any more, and it happened to coincide with the Team Canada training camp in Calgary.”
After spending a minor hockey career backstopping boys teams in her hometown to All-Ontario championships and beginning her professional hockey career at 18 with the Toronto Aeros, in the now-defunct National Women’s Hockey League, Kendra was on a plane with about 40 other hopefuls looking to crack Team Canada’s roster. Instead of building off her natural competitiveness and a healthy dose of nervousness, the up-and-coming goaltender was a wreck.
“I spent most of the flight in the washroom breaking down. I couldn’t show my teammates I was vulnerable, but I didn’t know if I could handle camp, let-alone make the team.”
At a camp this intense, roster spots are won and lost with every practice, workout and coaches’ meeting, yet the netminder would seek solace – and a place to cry – in isolated stairwells in the arena. At the end of the first day, Kendra knew she was not well.
“My parents, in their infinite support, agreed to fly to Calgary and stay at a hotel down the street from mine, because I couldn’t let my potential teammates know I needed parental supervision at camp,” she said. “I told the coaches I had an emergency and had to leave for the day. I met my Dad at his hotel and didn’t sleep that night. We just talked.
“The next day I told the coaches I couldn’t stay in camp. Their response was they wanted me to be on the team and they hoped that would change my mind.”
The arena in which she was now battling was in darkness.
With Team Canada’s assistance, Kendra was diagnosed with a mental illness. Kendra’s affliction – what she matter-of-factly and without embarrassment calls her “sentence” – was an anxiety disorder with severe panic attacks, a deepening depression, and a fear of being alone.
She can’t pinpoint an event in her life, or a watershed moment that contributed to her illness. By many standards she had led
a charmed life – loving, supportive parents, a brother she
adored, the drive and ability to play her favourite sport at the highest level, consistently strong grades, plenty of friends and
a great job.
Mental illness shouldn’t happen to people like Kendra Fisher.
But while family history and traumatic events certainly play a role in the development of mental illness, which affects up to one in five youth in different severities, the disease truly knows no bounds, said Jackie Ralph, Youth Awareness Coordinator with the Grey-Bruce Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
“While the average age of onset is 15 to 24 years, 50 per cent of mental disorders begin by the age of 14, and some anxieties start as early as 11,” Jackie said. “Some youth have even reported self-injury as early as six.”
In hindsight, Kendra said her family and friends admitted to missing signs of the illness that eventually took hold of her life, but Jackie said these signals are often missed.
“Many symptoms can come across as just typical teen behaviours, but it’s all about the changes you see in your child, things that are different. You’ll see changes in behavior, school, eating and sleeping, or a large decrease in their enjoyment in their favourite things,” Jackie said.
“Family history can play a big part, but stress, traumatic events, bullying and negative changes in life like divorce, loss or moving can lead to mental health issues.”
Unfortunately, only one in five youth will seek help.
“That’s mostly due to the negative effect of stigma,” she added.
Kendra often wishes she had received a diagnosis such as cancer or diabetes, something people better understand. She has lost many people to cancer and knows the struggles and trials of such serious illnesses, as many people do.
“Mental illness doesn’t choose and it is no less devastating or real,” Kendra said. “When you’re experiencing treatments such as chemotherapy, people’s first reaction is empathy and support, but there’s this jaded perspective of craziness with mental illness. People are embarrassed.”
By January, 2000, she couldn’t sleep, and she was so afraid of being on her own that when one of the few friends in whom she had confided would go to the washroom, the tall, healthy, elite athlete would anxiously lie in wait on the floor outside the door. She couldn’t eat, and had shrunk from 160 lbs. to 123.
“It got to the point where I wasn’t living. I had to quit work and school, and I distanced myself from most of my friends. For three or four years I was living with this sentence, and eventually got to a state of numb.”
The only consistency in her life was hockey. Her psychologist demanded she keep one thing in her life, and she chose the game over all else.
“Without hockey, I never would have left my bed, despite the fact goalie’s a lonely position,” Kendra said. “When the puck was in my zone I was fine, but when it was in the other end and I was alone, I wanted to skate off the ice and find a place to hide, but I wasn’t willing to explain why.”
Eventually she discovered the benefits physical fitness has on a person’s mentality, and she began to channel her energy into getting fit. She soon discovered a renewed focus, and her light was reignited.
She then found naturopathy and yoga, and began to pay attention to nutrition. By 2010 she returned to a more comfortable state of what society considers normality, while continuing her hockey career in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, with the Toronto Furies.
“I found I was happy when I woke up in the morning. I was active, and things were making sense again.”
Then, in November, 2010, 14-year-old Daron Richardson, the daughter of former NHL defenceman Luke, committed suicide. As this final act often does, it blindsided the grieving parents, but instead of allowing the stigma of suicide to shame them or force them into hiding, the Richardsons spoke publicly about Daron, her life and her death.
It was a message that struck a chord with Kendra, and this past February, with the support of her psychologist, she began sharing her story about mental illness, sports, and life.
“I wanted to help get the conversation started, share my story and show people this isn’t a life sentence, and you can come through it,” she said, adding she also had to tell a lot of friends and teammates about her 13-year struggle at the same time.
She now speaks at high schools all over the Greater Toronto Area, has appeared on the CBC and Global, and is currently working on a documentary with the public broadcaster. She has a devoted following on Facebook, where online conversations shatter the stigma that surrounds mental illness, while helping people cope with their issues by showing they don’t have to go at it alone like Daron did.
“I spoke to a Grade 6/7 class and, going in, I thought they were too young for this message. Yet they kept me for an extra hour-and-a-half asking me some of the best questions I’ve ever heard.
“Kids that age are thinking about their mental health, depression, and suicide, and parents need to shed the ‘suck it up’ mentality and not be embarrassed to have the conversation.”
Jackie agrees. She said prevention is the best tool in the arsenal of parents and the CMHA.
“Prevention is the basis of all our programs,” Jackie said. “We are always saying a good offense is your best defense. There are four basic rules to good mental health – good self-esteem, having a good support system, not keeping things inside, and having good coping strategies that you can turn to when you’re having a bad day.”
She suggests parents talk about suicide and mental illness with their kids at the same time they broach the topic of sex and drugs. By proactively discussing mental health, you can show your children there is no stigma attached to the topic in your house and you open the lines of communication should they ever have those feelings, Jackie said.
For Kendra, that discussion came too late, but with every class she speaks to she shows youth it is OK to talk about their deepest feelings, and doing so could not only save their life, but also those of their friends and family.
“There are too many tragedies occurring because people are too afraid to look past the stigma of mental illness.”