Coming clean: Sean Dooley launches mental health program

A Nelson Leafs assistant coach wants to help youth athletes avoid some of the things he has struggled with.

Nelson Leafs assistant coach Sean Dooley wants to help young athletes suffering from mental illness.

It’s taken Sean Dooley 25 years to admit what he’s known all along.

A quarter century to look in the mirror and speak aloud about what has haunted him, what he’s denied over and over to friends, family and himself. But here it is, finally, without censor, because he wants to prevent others from making the mistakes he made.

Dooley was sexually abused as a child. He suffers from clinical depression. He has attempted suicide. He has been addicted to alcohol and drugs. And, at 30 years old, he has spent the majority of his life being terrified of anyone finding out.

Dooley isn’t afraid anymore. In an extensive interview with the Star, the Nelson Leafs assistant coach revealed a history of tragedy that led to and sustained his mental illness, as well as his plans to prevent others from following the same path.

This week, Dooley and the Leafs will launch Breakout, a player assistance and mental health awareness program for young athletes, coaches and parents. The program, which will create a support structure at a local level, will be the first of its kind in Junior B hockey.

“When I was ready to give up on myself and I said that, I had people who weren’t ready to give up on me,” said Dooley.

“And that’s what we want to do with this program for these young athletes. I wish I knew about this when I was that age because it could have saved me. Things might have went exactly the same but had I asked for help and surrendered to this, then I could have nipped this a lot earlier in my adult life.”

•••

Dooley was born in Nelson and grew up in one of the city’s most public families. His father, John, is a former mayor and currently the Leafs’ team president. His mother, Pat, was a schools superintendent. He also has two older sisters, Shelagh and Erin. All people who loved him and, according to Dooley, knew nothing about how the family’s youngest child used to cry alone in his bedroom.

He was five when he was sexually abused. Dooley declines to say who did it, although it was someone he knew. He added he was too young to entirely understand what had happened to him for another six years when, after learning about abuse in school, he realized he was a victim.

In retrospect, Dooley wishes he had said something about the abuse. But he was too scared of the possibility that no one believed him, what other kids would say, or that it would destroy his dreams of NHL stardom.

“I felt dirty. I felt weird. I knew something had happened to me and I just felt wrong. I felt uncomfortable with myself,” he said. “But I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want it to affect me or my family or this thing with hockey … You’re this hockey player and athlete, you gotta be strong and tough, right? So it was that thing where I’m like, okay, I went through this but I just got to tough this out. I’ll keep it to myself. I’ll be fine.”

That was the first of several incidents Dooley says led to a prolonged mental breakdown, like a Jenga game made of painful memories stacked chronologically until his life eventually toppled.

The second event happened on a family visit to Ireland when Dooley was 12. He went out to play in a forest with his 14-year-old cousin Alan. The pair decided to climb a tree, but Dooley wasn’t the climber his cousin was. When he asked for his cousin’s help, Alan started moving down but grabbed a branch that broke. He fell, was flipped upside down and landed on his head.

The accident paralyzed Alan from the waist down, and Dooley silently blamed himself.

“I felt bad. I felt awful. I hated myself for this,” he said. “I saw the effect this had on his family, on everyone around him, how sad they were, the feeling of insecurity, the fear of the unknown, and how heavy this situation was. I didn’t want to make it about me. It’s something I ate up again.”

Martin Luther King once said, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” It’s a quote Dooley found in a car magazine of all places as Alan convalesced in a Dublin hospital. He used to look for inspiring quotes when he was a kid, and this one he highlighted and left for Alan to find. Alan later found his own inspiration in the quote, but Dooley returned to Canada with no stars in his sky.

This, he believes now, is when depression began to set in.

Dooley was drafted by the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders in 2000. Hockey always gave him purpose. He felt at home on the rink, and it was during the same year he started playing for the Leafs. But during a spring game Dooley injured his back. A kink in his spine led to nagging pain that required physio and visits to a chiropractor.

At the time, Dooley lied about how much he was hurting to stay on the ice. But the pain is still with him even now.

He started drinking and experimenting with drugs in high school. The curiosity became a habit by the time he was 18. After graduating, Dooley decided to take a year off hockey. He took a summer job and on the first day was driving home when he encountered a car moving slowly along the highway. Without warning, the car sped up and flipped off the road.

Dooley stopped his car and ran down a bank to find the car upside down on the forest bed. He pulled an elderly woman and man out of the car and remembers holding the man as help arrived. He later went to the hospital where he found the man, on vacation from Italy with his wife, had died.

The incident, and Dooley’s increased substance abuse, led him to become suicidal. He once again returned to hockey, but during the Christmas break decided he was going to kill himself. He tried and failed. No one in his family knew.

“I’m thinking I need help but I’m afraid to ask because I still had this feeling of validation where I wanted to be this hockey star,” he said. “I came from such a wonderful family, I didn’t want it to reflect badly on them. I didn’t want it to tarnish my image.”

Dooley soon ended up in a hospital because of a near overdose. It outed his substance abuse to his family, but he told them nothing else.

•••

Dooley moved to Calgary when he was 21. Out of hockey and in a crummy job, he started to drink and abuse drugs again. He went to a family wedding in Italy and decided he’d stay and work in Ireland.

Coincidentally, a new rink had just been built in the city of Dundalk, just south of the Northern Ireland border. Dooley was offered a job running a hockey and skating school. That led to a coaching gig with the Dundalk Bulls and a role in junior development.

It was a positive time in Dooley’s life. During his nearly four years in Ireland, Dooley played for the Irish national team, and started an under-18 team intentionally built on a roster made up of Catholic and Protestant players. The team won bronze at the IIHF World U-18 Division 3 Championship in 2009.

“In my head I felt like I had an obligation that I wanted to help kids. What I experienced, I didn’t want anyone to experience,” said Dooley. “If I could go out there and make them feel a part of something, and put a smile on their face, it helped me on my own level. Not only was it something good for them, it was good for me because it was almost healing in a sense. Here I was being productive, I was building this for these kids so they had something.”

But the job wouldn’t last. The global financial crisis in 2008 gradually destroyed Ireland’s economy. The Bulls began to lose sponsors and the privately owned rink they played on suffered from job losses and dwindling crowds. Dooley, whose own drinking had ramped up during his stay in Ireland, now watched as people who cared for him lost their livelihoods.

He returned to Canada in 2010. He had a job lined up with the Boston Bruins and Irish American Ice Hockey Association, but then Pat Dooley’s appendix burst. While hospitalized she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and her son backed out of the job in Boston to stay with his mother.

“That was a real breaking point for me, because my mom never harmed anyone in her life,” said Dooley.

Dooley joined the Leafs as an assistant coach in 2010, then returned to the team again after two years coaching major midget hockey. During this time he was drinking less, but taking more pain medication to deal with his back injury. His depression and anxiety worsened, and he became addicted to pain meds.

“I was so into pain medication that I wasn’t using it to get high,” he said. “I was using it, for one, to mask my emotions and if I didn’t use it I’d go into withdrawal. So I’d be using this stuff because my body had become so dependent on it that if I didn’t use it, it was like I was dying. So I’d have to take more. And I hated it. I didn’t want it, I hated it.”

His depression was getting worse. His body felt weaker. Friends started to notice all the pills he was taking. When his fiancee Courtney gave birth to their son Boone last March, Dooley finally decided he needed to act.

He first asked for help from his employer at Selkirk Paving, Tony Maida, who is also on the Leafs’ board of directors. Dooley started counseling through an employee assistance program, but it didn’t stop his addiction. For that, he went to Top of the World Ranch Treatment Centre in Fort Steele.

It was a decision he says saved his life. During his 52-day stay, Dooley got clean and finally let go of all the guilt he’d carried with him for decades. He at last told his family about the abuse he’d suffered. He found peace.

That peace requires daily work to maintain. Dooley continues to see a counsellor and go to self-help meetings. Depression and addiction don’t just go away after one trip to rehab. “I live my life with my recovery in the front of my mind at all times and I do the work,” he said.

On his wrist is a bracelet that says in bold letters, “One day at a time.” It’s a reminder of what Dooley has in front of him, and a lesson he hopes to pass on in Breakout.

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