Addiction

·13 min read

I wasn’t fully honest with you.

When I shared my story here last year, I was holding something back.

I opened up about my OCD. My retirement from hockey. My successes and my failures. But I left something out. And I justified it in my head because I didn’t want it to dilute my message — or my goal to help people. I told myself it wouldn’t make sense, that it wasn’t necessary. But I was lying to myself. The truth is … man, the truth is simple: I was ashamed. Deeply ashamed. I held it close, scared of what people might think of me.

The truth is, I was an addict.

And when I saw the story in The Boston Globe about Jimmy Hayes’ autopsy, everything that I’d suppressed about my own addiction came flooding into my mind. I’m two-and-a-half years sober — and in a way, I guess, I thought I had beat it. But you never beat it. You just live with it. And what happened to Jimmy … it could have happened to any of us. It could have happened to me.

I texted his dad and his wife, Kristen, the morning that article came out, and I let them know how powerful it was — how brave they were to share what they did. I’ve known Jimmy since I was 16, and he was a great, great person. Everyone cared about him so much. I can’t speak highly enough of the Hayes family. They are all great people. And I know they want to help, just like I do. Because we’re in the middle of a massive opioid and mental health crisis. Those two things are inherently connected. And I believe the first step toward change is honesty and vulnerability.

I let myself down the last time I did this. I won’t do it again.

So this is my truth.

In October 2018, I was lost. And for those of you who didn't read my first story, I can give an extremely quick recap here, because I think it’s important.

I’ve had OCD for as long as I can remember.

It’s a severe case that impacted my life, my hockey career and everything in between. I had these intrusive thoughts that pushed me into dark corners of my mind, where I no longer knew who I was, or what I wanted to be.

And it ultimately led to what came next.

Chris Brown/Cal Sport Media via AP Images
Chris Brown/Cal Sport Media via AP Images

I was with the Colorado Avalanche in 2018, and my OCD had completely taken over my life. It had driven this deep hole inside of me. This void. I didn’t feel normal. I hadn’t felt normal in a long time. When I was around other people — even my friends — I couldn’t relate to them. Because I knew their mind wasn’t at war with itself like mine was. Whatever they had, whatever sense of self-worth they felt ... it didn’t exist in me. I would look over people’s heads, or at their shoulders when I spoke to them, because eye contact scared me. I didn’t want to see them, to see how normal they were — to see what I couldn’t be. I felt blessed to have the life I did as an NHL player. I really did. But it isolated me even more. I was Colin, the guy who made it.

I was constantly searching for something to block my pain. To make me feel good. For peace.

I was put onto Ambien when I was just 20, and it became this crutch in my life. I couldn’t sleep without it. And if I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t play like I wanted to. My career — my everything — was tied to this pill. I wouldn’t call it addictive … but it was an introduction to an abusive relationship to a remedy. I was vulnerable, and Ambien instilled in me this idea that, my regular self? The one who tries to go to sleep sober? There’s something wrong with him.

My regular self? The one who tries to go to sleep sober? There’s something wrong with him.Colin Wilson

I tried a more therapeutic option in weed when I was 22, and I found something I’d never felt before: Normalcy. I remember, as the high rolled through me, I wondered, Is this how everyone feels? My OCD, my intrusive thoughts — they’d fade into the background when I was high. I called weed my best friend because it truly felt like when I was smoking I was with a friend I never knew I had.

But weed couldn’t save me from what was happening in my brain. My OCD was growing, evolving. And as I got older and further into my career, nights out became traps.

Look, if I’m going to do this…. This is where I need to be honest.

I feel like people don’t want to have this conversation.

But, man — to me?

This is the conversation.

When I used to go out, it felt like there was cocaine everywhere.

It seemed like when I was out for the night in NYC or L.A. or Vegas, somebody always had cocaine.

So, when I was 22, I did it. Because like so many cocaine users, I was just a lost kid who wanted to feel something. What I wanted to feel, what I needed to feel, might be different from the guy beside me. But there it was, right in front of me — offering me control over my mind, my feelings, if just for the night. I didn’t do it often at first. Once or twice per year. But by the time I was 28, I was doing it every few weeks. And those nights ruined me. Because those nights became the only ones when I could feel anything.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

What they don’t tell you about cocaine, or ecstasy or any similar drugs, is that they undo years of your brain’s wiring in seconds. The chemicals released in our mind when we succeed, when we fall in love, when we have that amazing moment — cocaine and other drugs will bypass all that and release them immediately. It hammers on that button, that feel-good button, and it presses it a thousand times a minute. Buttons that should only be pressed a few times a week, or a month. It hijacks our natural physiology.

And if you have deficits in these parts of your brain, from either past traumas or underlying mental health issues, and if you never really get those buttons pushed naturally?

Man….

Cocaine makes it so you finally feel like you’ve come home.

Like you’re finally feeling what everyone else is feeling.

Love. Life.

Peace.

But it ends. And it hits you square in the chest. Like I said, those nights ruined me. I’d be so afraid of the comedown that I’d bring a sleeping pill with me to the club. Xanax or Seroquel. I’d take it before I got home so I could just fall asleep. It was such an awful cocktail of drugs and alcohol that I’d be in a cab home, and I’d look out the window and think….

Am I going to wake up tomorrow?

I had one of those nights earlier in my career.

I wrote a note in my journal in case I didn’t wake up.

I don’t remember doing it.

But … man, it just breaks me up thinking about myself in that moment.

How could I do that to myself?

I just ... I was just an addict. I was in the NHL. I was scoring goals. Playing in a Cup final. Living a dream. But I was an addict. And I didn’t even know I had a problem. I only party every couple weeks, I’d tell myself. I’d go weeks without doing anything, then I’d start back up and I’d get afraid of who I’d become when it got dark — when my mind needed peace. It was a slow process. It was insidious. But at some point I crossed this invisible line where I couldn’t find the off switch anymore. I couldn’t curb the feeling of wanting to be high.

I wrote a note in my journal in case I didn’t wake up. Colin Wilson

In October 2018, I had another one of those nights.

It’s the last one I ever had.

I had it all in my system. Alcohol. Coke. Sleeping pills. More than ever before. And I had a practice the next morning. I almost never did that. But that night, for whatever reason, I couldn’t take it — my life, my mind, everything. I knew the light would come, and the dark would fade, and morning would bring hell.

Hell.

That’s the only way I could describe waking up that next morning. Hangover doesn’t even come close. I hadn’t taken anything in over eight hours and I couldn’t see straight. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. Walking into the rink … I thought I was going to pass out. I decided right there that I couldn’t do it anymore. There was no alternative. I was going to talk to our coach, Jared Bednar, and I was going to tell him everything. I was going to get help.

But a few minutes after I got to the rink, our coaches said practice was optional.

I turned around, went home, and went straight back to bed.

I didn’t end up getting help until the end of that season.

I fought my mind so damn hard the rest of that year.

I’m lucky I didn’t end up having another night like that. And it was luck. Because I wasn’t in control that year. I hadn’t been in control in a long time. If I had another night like that…. I don’t know, man. I don’t know.

I’m lucky to be here today. I do know that.

There are a lot of people who had nights like that, and they aren’t here.

Addiction is a beast.

It’s a monster.

The rise of fentanyl has completely changed what drug addiction means. The most vulnerable in our communities, the ones who are feeling an insurmountable pain and have limited options to cope — fentanyl preys on them.

Addiction, to so many, is just this thing. It’s the word we say to put a group of people in a box that we don’t understand.

We see the guy on the street corner shooting up heroin, and we just say in our heads, Oh, he’s an addict.

It’s so much more complicated than that. I know, man, I lived it. I was a regular person just like you. But I got hooked, I got stuck. I didn’t know the way out. I wish I could have said “no” more often, but when you just want relief … “no” doesn’t make any sense to your brain. And I don’t know if that would have even helped. I was just susceptible to it all. I know I have to take blame for how things turned out. I get that. And trust me, nobody is harder on me than me. I just don’t want anyone out there, anyone struggling, to think it’s their fault.

I’m telling you right now that it’s not.

Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images
Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

For me, the way out was hard. I leaned on those around me. I confided in who I needed to.

I also want to make one thing clear: The NHL and the NHLPA’s player assistance program have done a good job in this space. They’ve helped me so much. I’m so thankful to all those who played a role in my recovery. They do so much for so many guys.

But I do think the league, all major leagues, can do more around what’s happening right now. Sports are just a microcosm of society, and we can all play a part in this.

And we need to call it what it is. It’s a crisis.

By the end of December, there will have been more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021. In fact, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.Colin WIlson

The stigma around cocaine, around ecstasy, around drug use in general — we all have to do better in the way we speak about these things. We have to do more to really understand what addiction is, and how it works. I’m not writing this to say that all addicts are victims, I know there is a responsibility on us to take the right course of action. But these substances, there’s a person behind them. A son, a daughter. And we need to be there to help them.

As a pro athlete, every time I thought about going to someone for help, I froze.

It seemed so risky.

Cocaine is just one of those words that isn't said. Not in offices. Not in locker rooms.

And not enough.

And I know there are people, and athletes, all over who are going through — or about to go through — the things that I did. I don’t want them to be ostracized by their community, to be left out in the cold. I think our society is making really great strides around mental health and its importance. But, to me, addiction is just as important a frontier. Of course, they are connected, as I said before. Both aren’t clear to see, and both require empathy and patience and love. We need more of all those things.

I don’t want my role in this battle to just be words. That’s why I’m at school in Boston right now — I’m working toward getting my degree in psychology. I want to be on the front lines. I want to be on the battlefield. What I put myself through ... it can’t be for nothing. I won’t let it be. I am still working every day to survive it. Addiction is for life. And so I’m going to use it now. I want to make a difference. I know I can.

I just really felt like I had to do this after what Jimmy’s parents did. They are heroes for that. The world needs more people like them, and it needs more people like Jimmy. He was caring, genuine and an incredible friend. I never knew I could feel this type of aching pain until Jim passed. We are all going to miss him.

So I hope you’ll forgive me for leaving out my addiction.

I’m still learning. I’m still working toward my peace. This is a part of my story.

But I hope you know that this wasn’t the story of a bad person. This wasn’t the story of someone who should have known better. This was the story of someone who couldn’t find peace.

And I know I’m just one of many.

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