Sporting a black cowboy hat, a toothpick hanging out the side of his mouth, retired NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk spoke candidly about the two defining moments in his life.
Both times, he cheated death.
On March 22, 1989, in what was arguably the most macabre on-ice hockey injury in history, the blade of St. Louis Blues forward Steve Tuttle’s skate slashed Malarchuk’s throat, severing an artery. Thousands watched in horror at the Aud in Buffalo and on television as small lake of blood formed under Malarchuk, who helplessly clasped his neck.
Team trainer Jim Pizzutelli was the first person to get to Malarchuk, and ultimately saved his life. The cut needed 300 stitches to close.
The injury started Malarchuk on downward spiral of depression, insomnia, obsessive thoughts, and alcoholism as a way to self medicate.
Many years later, on Oct. 7, 2008, Malarchuk stuck a gun to his chin and pulled the trigger. He didn’t think a bullet was in the chamber. He was wrong. The bullet remains lodged in his forehead.
Malarchuk is in B.C. to speak at Surrey’s Fleetwood Community Centre as part of the “How Addiction Affects Families” family forum. Co-hosted by Langley interventionist Andy Bhatti and Mike Miller from The Cabin Treatment Centre in Thailand, the one-day public platform runs tomorrow (Saturday) from noon to 6 p.m.
Black Press sat down with Malarchuk on Friday to talk about his emotional journey and drive to help others.
What brings you to the forum?
This one is right down my alley. There’s some trauma talk that goes back in my history, big time, with my accident in Buffalo and everything. For me, that undiagnosed PTSD definitely led me down to self-medicating with alcohol. I definitely used alcohol for depression, for my anxiety, for my obsessive compulsive disorder. If I was anxious, I had booze to calm me down; if I was depressed, it made me happy; if I was having OCD tendencies, it calmed me down.
The problem was, it worked.
That’s the problem with addiction and mental illness, and I consider myself to be mentally ill: a lot of us can relate with the self medicating. The problem with that, my eight beers became 12 to 18 to 30.
Did the drinking happen during your playing days?
Mostly after. I was a really dedicated athlete. I was one of those guys where I would pick my spots. Summertime was a little bit different, I rodeo’d and partied with the boys a little bit but we all did in the summers back then. It was a different era.
So when you retired and had more idle time, did that contribute to your alcohol addiction?
No, because I got into coaching right away and then I started a horse business, so I was pretty busy. But it’s a progressive disease, so over the years it got worse and worse and worse.
So the PTSD came from the accident?
Yeah, but it was undiagnosed. I had no counselling, no treatment. I came back in 10 days and boom, I thought I was doing the right thing. You know what my counselling was? Me and Jim Pizzutelli, he’s the guy who saved my life, four or five days later we walked out to the goal crease, and stood there and said, ‘Yeah, that’s where it happened, eh? You good? Yep.’ A little fist bump and away we went. That’s the total extent of my counselling.”
Much has been documented about your attempted suicide. What caused it?
Put it this way, I was pretty depressed. A lot of the OCD was going, and I couldn’t turn my brain off. So it was just spinning and spinning and I would start to drink. It would help to a point, but after you get to about 15 to 18 beers, then it turned against me and made my OCD even worse. Would I have pulled that trigger sober? I don’t think so.
Did you feel like that was the only choice you had at the time?
No. It was a very random thing. I definitely had suicidal thoughts but I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t want this pain. I wanted to feel numb. I was shooting targets and not in a good mental state and when my wife came home, she asked me, ‘What is going on?’ And I said, ‘I just can’t f***ing do this any more, with my head! I feel like doing this!’ I picked up the gun and bop! It had a bullet in it. It wasn’t like I left a note, premeditated at 2:30 on this October 7 that I was actually going to do this. It was very impulsive. I meet a lot of suicide survivors in my journeys and talks, and I haven’t met one yet who isn’t so grateful that they were unsuccessful.
Looking ahead to the forum, what advice do you plan to give?
I am a doctor but it’s only honourary (laughing), so I try not to give advice. What I find is the most effective thing is, I tell my story of how I became the way I became, leading up to the trauma and then go into what got me into recovery, what I do now for my recovery, and so I kind of build it up. I went through all this and this and this, and I did play in the NHL but I also had this parallel alignment with demons. Even before the accident happened, I was this perfect storm. I did have OCD undiagnosed and depression and anxiety, all undiagnosed, and with the trauma of the slit skate, I was the perfect storm.
That’s where everything went south. I couldn’t leave the house, my OCD was off the charts, I was having panic attacks, then I started having nightmares where I’d see the skate in my sleep and then sit straight up in bed. It wasn’t like, oh, I’ll go back to sleep. My heart was pounding, I was shaking. It was relived not just in my memory of a dream but in my body and everything. It got to a point where I couldn’t sleep. I ended up sleeping in a chair just so I didn’t fall into a deep sleep. This is so I wouldn’t have the dream, and I did all this in silence. I didn’t tell anybody.
Do you still have that dream?
Fewer and fewer. I’ve had a ton of therapy and counselling and I take medication, so I still do have some flashbacks, yeah, but not as intense.
Is it one day at a time for you? Is drinking part of your past?
It’s never part of my past. God no. It’s what you learn in meetings. If you think you’ve got this thing licked, you better be careful. You’ve got to always be on guard. You can still have the thoughts (of drinking), but you don’t have to act on it. I always tell people you can ride the wave, whether it’s five minutes of craving or 20 minutes of craving, it’ll go away. The longer you go sober, the less the triggers, the less the cravings…
And how long has it been since you had your last drink?
You know what I tell people? Today. If you really want to know, I’ll tell you, but that really is my own motto. I think it bit me in the a** trying to work on a number. So now, today, is all we’ve got. And it’s a gift.