Swift Current, a documentary premiering in Winnipeg Tuesday, explores the trauma and long road to recovery of former NHL-er Sheldon Kennedy, who was sexually assaulted in his youth by his former hockey coach, Graham James.
"My childhood was stolen," Kennedy said. "I used to dream — before I met Graham James — of scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7. From the time I left Winnipeg after my first trip of meeting Graham James, I did not dream that anymore."
In 1997, James pleaded guilty to 300 counts of abuse against Kennedy, who had played for James and went on to an NHL career, and 50 counts against another player.
Kennedy said he hopes the documentary helps people better understand what he and his former teammates endured, and exactly how difficult it is for sex assault survivors to find the help they need.
Connecting 'emotional pain to risky behaviour'
"It's about looking and connecting the dots to the impact of the invisible damage that comes with early childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse," he said. "What is that impact, how does that connect, what happens to the developing brain of children and the connection to addiction, to mental health and self-harm. The list goes on."
Kennedy said people who haven't experienced assault in childhood often have a tough time making sense of the self-destructive behaviour that sometimes appears in survivors later on in adolescence and adulthood.
"I think we don't connect emotional pain to risky behaviour," Kennedy said. "We know that when a child has been living in toxic stress environments, kids growing up in violent homes, addicted homes, being sexually abused constantly.... That stress; it's like you're being chased by a saber-tooth tiger 24/7. That's the way your brain gets built."
Once people understand what trauma does to the developing brain, it's easier to understand why youth who have been abused often struggle in school, for example, he said.
"We look at these kids, we wonder why they can't concentrate in school or why they've checked out, and then why they turn to drugs and alcohol to turn their heads off ... or why they look to suicide," Kennedy said. "They feel it's the only way that may work because they can't stand the emotional pain that they're in."
Long road to recovery
It took a long time before Kennedy got to the point where he was ready and willing to do what it took to get better, he said. After disclosing what happened to him, Kennedy said he felt as if his internal battle had met its end and that everything else would fall into place. But that's not what happened.
Many people believe once they share their story of abuse their struggle is over, Kennedy said. He maintains that is just the first step in what can be a long, arduous healing process.
"It was a long journey … from the time I told my story until I got any type of emotional reprieve," he said.
Kennedy believes communities need to rally around the issue and push for better mental health services that tailor to the unique needs of people who were assaulted when they were young.
Organizations that only address addiction or mental health issues often fall short offering adequate support to sexual assault survivors, according to Kennedy. Rather than being strictly handled as a justice and child protection issue, Kennedy said, child abuse needs to be first understood as a public health issue.
"All of this stuff is connected. We have to look at the whole picture — we can't just look at a sliver and think we're going to fix the problem," he said.
He said despite being focused on such a difficult topic, the film has an overwhelmingly hopeful message for survivors.
"You can have a good life, you can be the person you want to be, but it's going to take some work and it's going to take commitment," he said. "Lots of times we look outside of ourselves for people to fix us. The only person that's going to be able to do that … is ourselves."
Swift Current premiers at The Metropolitan Entertainment Centre (The MET) Tuesday night in Winnipeg.