EJ began officiating when they were thirteen years old and, like many young hockey players, officiating was just a part-time job that involved hockey. Officiating took on a much more prominent role in EJ’s life when the effects of multiple concussions forced them to quit playing competitive hockey at the age of fifteen. Suddenly, officiating was EJ’s primary connection to the world of hockey in which they had grown up.
At the age of three, EJ started skating, and by the time they were five, they had convinced their Dad to enrol them in hockey. They were absolutely in love with hockey from an early age, and haven’t looked back ever since. Today, EJ is a Level III official working out of Victoria and has recently worked as a linesperson in the Canadian Sports School Hockey League, BC Female Midget AAA league, Junior Women’s Hockey League, and in Canada West University Women’s Hockey competition.
Away from the rink, EJ is known around Victoria for their work in advocacy and community support around mental health, LGBTQ+ issues. This was not an intentional choice on EJ’s part. It all began when they enrolled in a course entitled “Social Justice” at Royal Bay Secondary School in their Grade 11 year. EJ was honest enough to admit that their primary motivation in taking the course was to ensure they could have a class with their best friend.
As part of this course, students are required to create an action plan; something that the student can execute to advance social justice issues in their community. From that action plan sprang Westshore Youth Pride; an organization focused on providing support for the LGBTQ youth once they had left high school. From that starting point, there was no going back and EJ has been deeply involved in community advocacy ever since.
Despite their current professional focus on issues of mental health, EJ was never particularly open about their own struggles. From the age of eleven, EJ began experiencing what they can now identify as depression, anxiety, and PTSD caused by physical abuse they suffered from the age of 5-15. Their overwhelming feeling was fear and that fear led them to self-isolate. Mental health was not talked about in school and EJ didn’t know anybody else who was experiencing similar problems. At that time, EJ saw a counsellor, but it didn’t really help. At the age of eighteen, EJ went back into therapy as those issues became more prominent but they were still not ready to share their story.
“It was scary… [I was] very much trying to keep it a secret. I didn’t want to be seen as a freak”
If mental health came up in conversation, EJ would quickly quiet down. They didn’t want others to know what they were going through. This was primarily because mental health was still being talked about something that happened to other people. For EJ, it was still too personal to discuss openly. As EJ became involved in mental health advocacy and community support, they knew that would have to change. A key part of being a leader in mental health advocacy is sharing your own story but that didn’t make it less scary for EJ.
Officiating was an escape during EJ’s teen years as they tried to keep feelings of depression and anxiety from “creeping” up on them. Officiating was an outlet for them to focus on something positive and build skills that would help them on their mental health journey. However, the pressure of officiating also combined with issues with mental health. EJ remembers challenging games and abusive coaches that would increase their anxiety about stepping on the ice. EJ also struggled with their fair share of injury problems, and there were definitely times where officiating was too much of a challenge. However, the experience of officiating was overall, an overwhelmingly positive one and EJ felt the pull of getting back on the ice far stronger than the anxiety of what might happen once they did so.
The impetus to be more open about their mental health journey came from a deeply personal and urgent place. EJ refereed the gold medal game at the 2015 Bantam Female Championships in Kamloops and their performance in that tournament caught the attention of BC Hockey’s leadership group. But on the heels of that success, EJ was assaulted by a player in November 2015 and missed the remainder of that season. In only their second month into the 2016/17 season, EJ suffered a traumatic brain injury while refereeing a Female Midget A game. Only a few years after they were forced to step away from playing hockey at an elite level, EJ was faced with the possibility of having to leave officiating behind as well.
Post-concussion syndrome is not limited to headaches and inability to exercise. EJ was suffering severe neck and back pain as a result of their injuries, as well as irreparable brain damage. Their speech was impaired, they couldn’t sleep; everyday normal activities had become an ordeal. It was only after multiple intense neurology tests that they were diagnosed with a permanent brain condition. They had been prescribed opioid medication to help manage their pain. As they attempted to manage the pain, both physical and emotional, EJ quickly became addicted to their pain medication.
“They were giving me street-level narcotics… and from there I just slowly spiralled… November to June 2nd was the darkest time in my life.”
EJ likens their mental health journey to a water balloon. Over the years of neglecting their mental health the grip on their water balloon got tighter. When they started their social justice work the grip got looser, but slowly again the grip on the water balloon got tighter. When they took those drugs, their water balloon popped and their life started falling apart.
Their grades in school dropped, they stopped their social justice work, they isolated themself from their friends. EJ was spending all of their money on drugs. They wanted to numb themselves from the pain. They didn’t know they could reach out for help until it was too late.
EJ knew they were in trouble but, at the time, there was a twelve-month waiting list to access youth mental health services. It seemed like the help they desperately needed just wasn’t available. On June 2nd 2017, EJ had ten painkillers in their pocket; enough to cause an overdose. But something kept EJ from taking them.
“I had the pills, I had them in my pocket for two days…”
As much as EJ hates construction traffic, it saved their life. Because of construction, EJ decided to take a different route home and drove past West Shore Child Youth and Family Services. When they saw the building they thought of their Dad and their best friend. They made a decision. EJ pulled an illegal u-turn and decided to go in and demand counselling. EJ’s determination saved their life. Within a few months, they were able to look back and see how close they had been to dying and EJ was doubly determined to share their story and help others before they reached that point.
“Once you share your story… that’s where you create change. If you look [people] in the eye and share your story… you take things out of fiction and add a human element, and they can’t deny you then”
It was not smooth sailing from that point but EJ was determined to succeed. They continued to struggle with injuries during the 2017-18 season but they were happy to be back on the ice. During the off-season, EJ’s physical health improved tremendously and in October 2018, they earned their first Canada West University Women’s Hockey assignments as well as a nomination to officiate at the 2019 Canada Winter Games. Both were unthinkable even twelve months ago. Although EJ missed out on selection for this event, they say even being nominated was an honour because it’s a recognition of how far they’ve come. As recently as Thanksgiving, EJ was told that they had a “roughly eight percent” chance of being nominated. This quick change was completely down to the work they’d done over since that pivotal day on June 4th 2017.
“You can’t go over to a coach and say ‘hey, I know that was tripping, but have you heard about depression?’ You know what I mean? [laughs]”
Even now, EJ would say that while they are open to discussing their mental health journey, they still aren't advertising it. They struggle with the lack of a connection between hockey and mental health. It was very easy for them to move from LGBTQ+ advocacy to mental health because of the connection between the stress of being a queer adolescent and mental illness. The connection has improved over the years with research into issues of post-concussion syndrome, CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and mental illness but EJ is hopeful that the officiating community can continue to actively build that connection.
“I hate to say ‘awesome’ but it is awesome [to have a group of officials] that can talk about it”
As EJ began to share their story, they quickly found a community of officials that were not only sympathetic but were experiencing similar issues of struggling with mental health. Not only was this overwhelmingly positive feedback a relief for EJ but they also felt like they were giving positive feedback to those people with whom they shared their story. In doing so, EJ has found a community of people who are able to support each other. The ability to say “hey, I’ve had a tough game or a rough couple of days and I need some support” without having to explain why has been hugely beneficial.
“At the end of the day I’m still a drug addict, right? I just don’t have drugs. I’m still a victim of abuse. They’re not affecting me as much anymore now because I know how to live with these things and I have a supportive and loving community around me. They’re not drowning me as much anymore. As much as these things suck, I’m grateful for them. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without these experiences. I am who I am today not despite these things, but because of them.”
For EJ, the most important thing is to create an environment where officials can discuss issues without feeling judged, as well as creating a platform to help officials feel like their stories will be heard and acknowledged. There is also a role for governing bodies to include issues of mental health into their certification and educational curricula to help normalize the issue and eliminate the stigma.
On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share EJ’s story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.