TORONTO — Theo Fleury began his destructive dance with alcohol and drugs at a fairly young age. He was in his mid-teens, away from home and playing hockey when a coach sexually molested him.
“That left me with pain, confusion, guilt and anger, and the only way I could cope with the abuse was drink, drugs and go to the dark side of life,” he said.
It took him years to end his dependence on drugs – it prematurely ended a very successful NHL career in which he was an all-star and Stanley Cup winner.
Today, he is an inspirational speaker, addressing audiences with his cautionary tale of substance abuse. He delivered his message last week to an audience of more than 700 at Forest Hill Collegiate, in an event sponsored by JACS (Jewish Addiction Community Services) Toronto.
Today, kids are even younger – 12 and 13 – and hipper than he was when he was first enticed by drugs, Fleury told The CJN. They exchange information through social media and begin experimenting in late adolescence. As teenagers, they are often going through emotional turmoil and like him, turn to drugs as a crutch to help them get by. They can become hooked if they have an “addictive personality,” having inherited a gene that makes them less able to rein in their impulses.
It’s something parents have to be concerned about, as it is quite widespread, he said.
So what can parents do?
“It’s all about keeping the lines of communication open, always having an open-door policy with your kids and allowing them to tell you what is going on in their lives,” said Fleury, who won the Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989.
Fleury, who told his story in the bestselling book Playing With Fire, advises parents to avoid being judgmental. “The presentation is very important,” he said. “Don’t yell and scream. They’ll tune you out in five seconds. Get to his level, talk, and be calm.
“You want to deter kids from experimenting, but present it in a way that scares them a little bit. Tell them nothing good comes out of drinking too much alcohol, experimenting with drugs, staying out late or getting involved with the wrong peer group.”
Fleury advises getting kids involved in other activities and to stay involved in their lives. It doesn’t really matter what the activity is, just be there with them, he suggested.
Despite busy lives, parents have to organize their time “for each child and let them know they are the most important part of your life.”
JACS assistant director, Mark Freedman, hopes Fleury’s advice will strike a chord among some of the spectators who came to hear his “Don’t Quit Before the Miracle” presentation.
“His career ended because of substance abuse problems and the behaviour that goes with it,” Freedman said. “Shortly after he was let go by the New York Rangers, he sought recovery.
“He speaks candidly about substance abuse and the road to recovery.”
In addition to the public address at Forest Hill Collegiate, Fleury spoke to high school students at Westmount Collegiate. It was part of JACS outreach program, in which JACS representatives visit more than 50 high schools every year to educate young people on substance abuse and addiction, Freedman said.
JACS is affiliated with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. “It services the community in many different ways, in terms of helping individuals, families, couples deal with substance problems.” JACS helps people with other forms of addiction, including gambling, he added.
From January to September 2011, “we reached more than 6,600 people in all JACS activities,” up from 5,500 in the same period the year before, Freedman said.
“Often the common thread that brings people together is the position they find themselves in and the realization of what their families are going through – that it’s not something they can fix themselves.
“They recognize they need support, and JACS offers confidentiality and anonymity. They can come to groups or for counselling and talk about what is going on in their lives.
“The Jewish community is no different than anyone else in terms of addiction and substance abuse. Removing the shame factor is a big thing. It’s not something to be ashamed about, but that’s how the healing can begin,” he said.