Mar 2 2016
It was my first Christmas at home in 10 years. My family always has a big party with all our relatives — aunts, uncles, friends, turkey, beer, stories, laughter.
I can hear people start coming in the door upstairs, asking, “Where’s Adam?” The sound of their footsteps is like thunder. It’s breaking my brain. I’m supposed to be the big-shot pro hockey player, telling crazy stories about my adventures playing in Europe.
Instead, I’m hiding in the basement.
All the lights are off. I’m literally in the fetal position on the couch with my earplugs in, my eyes closed.
I’m uncontrollably sobbing.
My mom comes down to check on me, and she sees that I’m in the middle of another impromptu mental breakdown. She knows there’s nothing she can do to help. She just sits next to me like moms always do, and she hugs me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why this is happening.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she says. “I wish I could help. I just wish I could help.”
We sit there and cry.
I don’t have a history of depression. I’ve never done steroids. I’m not a fighter. I’m not some dumb goon. I am a professional hockey player and I have an Ivy League degree from Dartmouth.
And yet right now, I am a shell of my former self.
Six months ago, I took a hit in practice, and it turned my life upside down.
I was starting my fifth professional season. I was in training camp with a new team, BIK Karlskoga, which plays in Sweden’s Allsvenskan League. It was a great situation. Twenty-six years old. Decent money. Great teammates. Cool little city. I was in the perfect position to have a big year.
Then one day in practice, my teammate accidentally caught my jaw with his shoulder. It wasn’t even a car-crash collision. It was unspectacular. But for some reason, it took me three seconds before I could get back to my feet.
I thought, Huh … that was weird. And I kept on playing.
But then my ears kept ringing. Remember when the bell rang in high school, and it was that strange low-pitched tone? This happens a lot in hockey — for a few seconds. Only this time, it wouldn’t go away. When I woke up the next morning, I had terrible tunnel vision and the school bell was still going off. I had this horrible … I don’t know what to call it … Anxiety. Dread. Fear.
The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I stayed out until 6 a.m. I felt brutally hungover.
I wish I could tell you that I went straight to the team doctor. But I’m a hockey player. I mean, are you kidding me? What am I going to tell him? “Hey doc, you know what? I feel a little anxious and I hear this weird tone. I think I should sit this one out.”
I’m laughing just thinking about it.
I’ve played through a broken jaw, broken nose, multiple missing teeth, stitches, staples, fractures. I was on a one-year contract in Sweden. That’s the dream destination for North Americans playing in Europe. There was just no way I was going to risk losing my spot. Plus, my symptoms were vague. I wasn’t throwing up. I didn’t even really have headaches. So I kept on playing.
A week later, I showed up to a practice, and the arena lights were blinding. Every time a teammate missed the net and the puck hit the boards, it was like a bomb going off. I would actually flinch.
So I did the smart thing. I went to my coach’s office and explained to him how I was feeling. To his credit, he was amazing about it. He told me to take as much time off as I needed. “Go rest,” he said.
So I rested for a month. I sat in a dark room with earplugs in every single day. I did nothing. I thought about hockey. Dreamed about it. Fantasized about stepping onto the ice and hearing that crunch under my skates again. But I basically laid on a couch for a month.
I did what you’re “supposed” to do.
Photograph By Luca Santilli
In the meantime, rumors were flying around the town that the new American player was an alcoholic and the team had suspended him — that’s why he had disappeared. So I was desperate to play again. After four weeks, my headaches went away. My hearing seemed a touch better. The ringing was still there, but softer. I felt … O.K.
So I called my coach and told him I was ready. I played in my first game with my new team in front of an incredible home crowd and notched three points in a win. I played for seven more games. Statistically, my game remained consistent. We were 7-1 as a team, and I had eight points in eight games. Anyone watching would have thought my health was perfect.
The only issue is, they didn’t know what was going on in my head. My headaches were gradually coming back, and by the end of the eighth game, I could only hold my head in my hands. My ears were so sensitive to noise I couldn’t even be in the locker room without ear plugs. I would sit on the bench in between shifts and repeatedly try breathing exercises to stay calm. Every person in the building thought I was completely fine, but I was out there counting down the seconds until the game ended.
When I got home to my apartment after the game, I felt absolutely miserable. I was exhausted, but somehow I couldn’t fall asleep. My anxiety was so bad that I could barely breathe. There were times when I would get up to pee, and I’d find myself standing in the kitchen, completely zoned out, wondering what I got up to do.
Then I got really, really scared.
I would go to the doctor, and they would literally ask if I could feel them touching my face and my arms.
“Yes, you can feel this? O.K. You’re fine.”
Then I’d go to another doctor and describe my symptoms, and they’d say that if I was still feeling this two weeks after a hit, the problem was psychological.
I’d spend all night on the internet, reading every article on concussions known to man. I Googled everything. I was going to chiropractors, osteopaths, doing acupuncture, sitting in float tanks. I was spending $1,000 at the vitamin store.
Nobody could tell me how to fix it. I’m not blaming Swedish doctors. The problem is international. Nobody can see what’s going on in your brain. There’s no test. I got MRIs, CT Scans, X-rays — nothing showed up.
The thing that was making me a shell of a human being was completely invisible.
That’s when I got beyond scared. I called my parents. “I’m taking a buyout. I’m coming home. I need help.”
My thinking was, if I can just get home to be with my family and rest — if I just rest long enough — all this will go away. This will pass. I will be myself again.
More than a month after returning home to my mom’s house, I was laying in the basement on Christmas Eve, sobbing uncontrollably. I wasn’t sad. Nothing had happened. There was no reason for me to break down.
But I broke anyway.
My mom bought paper plates and plastic utensils for the party, because the scrape of a stainless-steel fork on a ceramic plate would drive me into hysterics. She texted everyone and told them to please use a whisper voice in the house. Anyone reading this who knows my family is dying of laughter right now. Whisper voices? Are you kidding me?
I had been doing well for a few days. I was going on walks with my Grammy around the neighborhood. I had seen a few different neurologists who put me through more sophisticated examinations, but they all basically gave me the same advice: Just keep resting.
How did this happen? I’m an outgoing, happy person. And now I’m an emotional wreck.
I could hear my relatives shuffling around softly upstairs, trying to whisper. These people that I love. And I just couldn’t move. I couldn’t go up the stairs. I was frozen.
At that point, I almost had an out-of-body experience. I’m seeing myself crying on the couch, and it’s like: Oh my God. I’m the guy you read about. How did this happen? I’m an outgoing, happy person. And now I’m an emotional wreck.
Before, I would read about these NHL and NFL guys who had these problems, and I would think, as bad as it sounds, “I can’t believe people get like that. That would never happen to me. There must be something else going on.”
I was completely aware of what was happening to me, and I couldn’t stop it. That’s terrifying.
For two months, I was up and down. I would feel good, then small things would send me into a tailspin. In January, I watched the movie Concussion, and I had a stomachache for a week. I wondered if the broken guys I was watching on the screen were previews of what life would be like for me in 20 years. Watching TV hurt. Walking hurt. Googling the scores from the Swedish league would drive me crazy. Once, I stumbled on an Instagram picture of my teammates out having fun, and I was crippled for a whole day.
College Hockey: ECAC Hockey Tournament: Dartmouth Adam Estoclet (23) in action vs Colgate during 3rd Place Game at Boardwalk Hall.Atlantic City, NJ 3/19/2011CREDIT: Lou Capozzola (Photo by Lou Capozzola /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)(Set Number: X85650 TK1 R6 F19 )
I killed time by working on a thousand-piece puzzle of a vintage Pepsi truck and playing Euchre with my parents and grandma.
All the while, doctors kept telling me, “Well, post-concussion syndrome is tricky. Could be a week. Could be a year. We just don’t know. You just keep resting.”
One day, I got an e-mail from a former professor at Dartmouth, now the head of concussion research for the NCAA, that changed my life. I told him how much I was struggling, and that nothing seemed to be helping. So he recommended that I reach out to a neurologist who was at the University of Michigan named Jeff Kutcher. He told me that Dr. Kutcher was a leader in the sports concussion field and had started a new specialty clinic called The Sports Neurology Clinic.
I asked around, and heard about the mind-blowing track record he had of successfully rehabbing NHL players, and I realized he wasn’t (finally) a reputable guy to help me, he was the guy.
I’m going to stand on that freaking surfboard and hit ping pong balls and watch hockey.
In my position, any positive information was like winning the lottery. I was through-the-roof excited. I sent him an e-mail at 7:30 on a Friday night. Most doctors would have got back to me in a week. I got a response 15 minutes later:
“Come see me in Michigan on Monday morning.”
When I got to his clinic, I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
There was a big room. In the big room was a ping-pong table. In front of the table was an electronic surfboard. Behind the table was a huge projection screen playing an NHL broadcast.
I looked at Dr. Kutcher like, ?????
He looked back like, You’ll see.
I spent three hours with him going through a clinical evaluation and chronicling my symptoms. I liked him right away, because he was the first person to look at me and say, “Why do you think it’s weird that you’re an emotional wreck? Of course you’re an emotional wreck. You have a brain injury. You’ve been going to a hockey rink every single day for 20 years. Your brain is wired to expect that. Now you’re sitting in a dark room, so let’s fix that.”
He didn’t bullshit me.
And he promised that he could fix me. Not through rest. But through slowly rehabilitating my brain — by building its systems back up from scratch.
That’s where the surfboard ping-pong comes in.
“Step up on the board,” he said.
He fetched the remote control and put it on the baby setting.
The first time, I could barely stand on it without feeling like I was going to pass out.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “In a few weeks, you’ll be balancing on that thing and hitting ping pong balls while telling me who scored in the hockey game. We need to get all your systems working in tandem again. That’s how we fix you.”
I got into the car with my mom, aunt and grandma and we started the long drive home. I broke down into tears for no reason at all. My grandma held my hand while I sobbed.
After a while, it passed. And I thought, I’m going to beat this. I’m going to stand on that freaking surfboard and hit ping pong balls and watch hockey.
Three weeks later, this happened:
Today, six months after taking a routine hit, I am not 100 percent. But I am out of an extremely dark hole because of the help of Dr. Kutcher and his team. This isn’t an infomercial. There is no happy ending here … yet.
I still have bad days. I still, at times, get scared I may never play hockey again. I still wake up every single day and battle to get back to the level I was at before my hit, both physically and emotionally. But at the same time, I have become confident in my rehab. Confident that I can and will get better.
But I’m not writing this to blame hockey, or to call for hitting to be taken out of the game. I am writing this because I know there are probably hundreds of hockey players who will read this who are suffering from the exact same weird feeling that I felt. And they aren’t going to do anything about it.
One-hundred percent of them.
One-hundred percent will do nothing about it. They will pop some painkillers, keep on playing, and then one day, they will show up to practice and fall into complete darkness.
I know, because I did the exact same thing. When I first got hit in September and was feeling weird, I was sitting in my Swedish apartment reading Bryce Salvador’s Players’ Tribune article about his horrific battle with post-concussion syndrome.
The weird feeling.
Then the nausea, the feeling like you are floating through space.
Then the regret that he kept playing through it.
Then the feeling like he was turning into a monster.
I read all this, thought damn, then I still kept on playing.
I know people are reading this thinking, “You idiot.”
And that’s fine. Maybe we’re all just filling the dumb jock stereotype. Maybe we should all be smarter. But that’s just not how real life works. When I’m having a good day, I’ll get on the ice and not throw up, or maybe just throw up a little bit, and I’ll call my dad and tell him, “I’m ready to go back. My agent talked to a team today and they need a …”
And then my dad will interrupt me and say, “Are you freaking crazy, Adam? You were in bed with a migraine two days ago. You threw up three times.”
I’m not an idiot. I know what’s happening. I have an Ivy League degree. I could get a real job. I could move on and never play hockey again.
Never lace up my skates again.
Never feel the crunch of ice underneath my blades.
Never hear the roar of 10,000 people in a packed arena, going crazy.
Never snipe a big overtime goal and go nuts with the guys.
I could get a real job, and sit at a desk, and type out e-mails all day. But who am I kidding? You can’t replace the rush. If a doctor could tell me tomorrow that the next 10 hits — or the next 100 hits — could turn me into a vegetable when I’m 40 years old, maybe I would be convinced.
But they can’t. So I remain positive and confident I will get back to where I was. That I will be 100 percent, and get to do what I love to do.
So I dream about playing again, every single waking moment.
I’m just being honest.
One-hundred percent of hockey players reading this who are feeling weird will keep on playing. Then one day they’ll wake up crying for no reason.
Or, who knows, maybe one of them will be smarter than that.
Maybe they’ll reach out and find help.
My e-mail is email@example.com
Drop me a line any time. I’m just sitting here doing puzzles.
Adam Estoclet / Contributor