HOW I GOT HERE - by Lift The Visor Founder, Jory Elliott
In May of 2016, at the first event of the season for our race team, the deterioration of my mental health was already well underway. As is the case with so many who struggle with mental health challenges, I was completely unaware that I was on the verge of a major meltdown.
That weekend, I lost my temper on my family and crew members over ongoing issues with the race car, in a way that was unhealthy, no matter how you look at it. I was in fact in such a bad place that weekend that I quit racing all together, right there on the spot.
Jory (far left) with family, crew and supporters, celebrating in the winner's circle at the MOPAR Nitro Jam Nationals, four years prior to quitting in the spring of 2016.
But that wasn’t the beginning of it, oh no, there were plenty of signs throughout my life that I wasn’t living a life that aligned with me fully, but instead was living in a dark shadow of thought, feeding me stories about what I needed to be to not only fit in, but get ahead. That included letting people down on multiple occasions, both in work and personal life, it involved overconsumption of alcohol to escape from day to day life, and I lived as though I had license to brush the moments off when I treated others in a way that I wouldn’t have wanted to be treated myself.
The culmination of all those bad behaviors really started to come to a head in the fall of 2015, during my first season as a full-time ice hockey coach. That experience, as it turns out, was when the writing first started to appear on the proverbial wall at a torrid pace.
I had made the decision in early 2015, at 34 years old nonetheless, that I was finally going to chase the goal of becoming a full-time hockey coach. That’s not a choice many ordinary people have the courage to attempt in their lives, let alone at that age and with as little experience in the game as I had. But it was a date with destiny, much bigger than any practice plan or score in a hockey game, that I was supposed to meet through that decision.
The year started out wonderfully, as is likely to be expected when you’ve gone off to chase a career in professional sports. It didn't take long though for the voices to start creeping in from my subconscious with unrelenting consistency. But here’s the thing about my mental health experience, I was completely unconscious to the fact it was happening. Does that sound familiar at all to you?
Those voices, made up mostly of negative self-talk, led to massive amounts of self-doubt when it came to my abilities to deliver as a coach. And yet, despite that, I still made it to every practice and game for the six teams I was contracted to coach with that season. But man oh man were there signs, lots of them.
It started with weekly distress calls to my dad. I would rehash the same complaints and worries week after week while trying to plan the weekly development sessions I was in charge of, as part of my Assistant Coach duties at the University of Waterloo. I was clueless as to the level of anxiety I was exhibiting during this time. And besides, I always pulled those sessions off as though I knew exactly what I was doing, so why change anything, right?
There was one particular instance that I remember very vividly, early on in the season. I recall a male parent questioning my grouping of players based on skill level or team. As a perfect example of how my mental programming had me pigeonholed, I snapped back at him immediately, with very unpleasant language and a highly uncooperative tone, just to ensure I didn’t have to defend my lack of knowledge. After all, didn’t he respect me and the role I was in?
That’s actually the way I used to think, because I hadn’t really taken the time to think at all, I was simply reacting to the world based on reinforced faulty programming in my subconscious.
From there, life got worse. The anxiety became crippling. I’d spend hours each week in turmoil, with every day being a little different as to how it would pop up and for how long. That generally included pacing my apartment for 30-40 minutes at a time, unable to decide if I could perform simple tasks such as getting groceries, doing laundry, or taking a shower. Still, I was making it to the rink every day, without really missing a beat.
I was constantly thinking things like, “I’m getting results, so why change anything?”, and “This must just be the way it feels to be a full-time coach, right?”, all the time simply reinforcing my faulty programming.
Fast forward to the end of the season and I was flat-out done. Depression had taken over from anxiety at this point, so I dragged myself into the Head Coach’s office and quit, again making a snap decision on the spot. Inwardly (and outwardly to those who would listen), I was blaming everyone and everything I could for my failure in that first year. Granted, the support I received in my role wasn’t nearly what I had hoped for going into it, but it’s clear my lack of success wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own.
Jory (top left) on the bench with the University of Waterloo Warriors, early in his first season as a full-time hockey coach in 2015.
That brings us full circle to that first event of the 2016 race season. Crushed that the career I thought I wanted so badly didn’t want me, and with my tail between my legs, I had moved back in with my parents. That added stress to our relationship, which when combined with ongoing issues with the race car that were directly affecting my driving ability, pushed me over the edge that weekend in May of 2016.
Now with no hockey career and no racing, I felt defeated and without direction. I spiraled out of control. I started partying more often, started showing more disrespect for others, and generally flipped the entire world the middle finger, including my family and friends at the race track.
That summer, I sustained a major neurological injury while coaching. It was caused by my piriformis muscle pinching my sciatic nerve, and it did so much damage that I couldn’t sit down normally for weeks. It took more than two months to be able to walk without a limp. This injury was no doubt compounded in severity by the poor condition of my health, both mentally and physically.
It was also the thing that pushed me over the edge.
The suicidal thoughts, although I had a few in the months prior, came on strong, 2-3 times a day without relent. Those thoughts combined with consistently nagging feelings of hatred for the world around me and everything in it, to create a volatile cocktail. That’s when I had the revelation that I needed help, and fast.
As in many cases involving mental health struggles, there was no surprise to the ones closest to me, as they had witnessed the unraveling of my life first-hand.
The next day, I had an appointment with the family doctor. A seemingly kind and caring man, he knew the minute I started opening up that this was serious. He suggested I start taking meds immediately to help me deal with the dangerous thoughts. But, for reasons I am still unsure of to this day, I thought better of that and asked him to refer me to a therapist instead.
Despite having one of the best health care systems in the world in Canada, this wasn't something that the system supported financially. Seeing that that is a barrier for so many others to get the help they need is one of the main reasons that Lift The Visor now exists.
Finding a therapist was no easy task, either. The demand far exceeded the need. I was told by two friends (who had both worked through their own traumas with therapists) that it could be a real challenge to find someone capable of helping me. Another hurdle I was more than ready to overcome, but again for reasons still unbeknownst to me.
I got lucky and hit the jackpot on the first try at an agency recommended by a friend, a friend who would become one of my greatest allies over the next two years of healing and growth.
Sally was my therapist's name, and what an amazing woman she is. I visited Sally weekly at first. Then bi-weekly. And then on a need-to basis. It was a major challenge to find the money to pay for those sessions, but I believe that was the beginning of life showing me that, if I really wanted something, I was going to have to figure out how to get it in a way that was much healthier than anything I had done before.
I was far from being in the clear though, and the worst of the self-destructive behavior was yet to come, as I started to purge and rewire my subconscious mental programming.
I was lucky enough to have the Head Coach at Waterloo recommend me as a replacement for the departing goaltending coach for the University of Western Ontario Mustang’s Women’s Hockey team.
Looking back, I was in no condition to take on this role. But I did know that it was a crucial stage in my healing and growth process. And strangely, having been torn down to the point of suicidal thoughts, had led me right to a place I had dreamed of being since 2004.
Since I moved to London, Ontario, I had always thought, if I could ever coach at UWO, that would be the greatest. And man, would people ever respect me as a coach then. Of course, that was the old programming running in my subconscious, feeding my ego that thought process for all the wrong reasons.
I survived and hung on that season at UWO, and I did what I'd call an admirable job of forming relationships with the goaltending trio. Coming in almost a month after training camp had finished, I helped them improve at their craft enough that the team earned a playoff berth. But I was still partaking in reckless, self-loathing behavior, which in the end led to my dismissal from that team.
That equated to the first time I can recall being let go from a job I wanted, for sheerly being too irresponsible to fulfill its requirements. Another low point.
I caught a great break though, and was offered the opportunity to reprise my role with the University of Waterloo the following season.
After some very deep soul searching and consideration as to whether I was ready to take on such an opportunity, and after having failed so hard on the last two attempts to become a full time coach, I accepted the offer. That was in the summer of 2017 and I haven’t looked back since, serving in an Assistant Coach role until the spring of 2019, when I made the decision to form my own hockey training business, SHFT Hockey.
Through that business I serve as the Goaltending Coach for 15 teams, across four organizations, including a continued relationship with the University of Waterloo, and I teach more than 50 students annually. My duties have also expanded to include the role of Director of High Performance Goaltender Development with the Waterloo Girls Minor Hockey Association. Since the formation of SHFT Hockey, I have raised/donated more than $1500 to a hockey specific mental health initiative called Lift The Mask, which was in fact the inspiration for this initiative.
I returned to the cockpit, taking to the controls of the family’s new race car, to test in the fall of 2017. With the many lifestyle changes I had made to face my mental health challenges head on, I had by association enhanced my ability to consistently focus as a driver, and subsequently took the team to the winner’s circle at the first event of the 2018 season. It was the second anniversary of my outburst at the track back in 2016.
Jory launches off the starting line, in his family's Super Stock Cavalier, during the 2018 season.
Sure, there have been ups and downs along the way, but the work I've done and continue to do - to promote positive self-worth and a can-do attitude regardless of the situation at hand - not only led to the opportunity to redeem myself, but an improved ability to learn and collaborate as a coach and racing competitor. Something that would have never been possible had I not gone through what I did.
In the end, struggling through a mental health challenge has been the single greatest teacher I could have asked for. It empowered me to understand and flat-out be better at things like: exhibiting patience during analysis of situations, communicating emotions and choosing direction effectively, understanding the value and role that making healthy choices can have on performance, and how to behave in a way that is beneficial to and respectful of both myself and those around me.
Most of all, it taught me that acceptance of ourselves and others, through humility and perspective, is the single best skill we can possess.
And for the record, acceptance doesn’t mean that you are complacent and do nothing about the experiences you have, both internally and externally. Instead, you acknowledge their existence and alignment with your journey, then proceed to do whatever necessary to ensure they only impact your success beyond that point in time in a way that serves you fully.
Simply put, don’t let the things you encounter on your journey become the end of the journey. When you apply consistent and purposeful effort towards being the single biggest influence over your performance in the future, you will find success that meets your expectations, with only your very own expectations as the true measurement of that success.
I wish you all the best on your journey and offer my support to anyone who wants it. We’re all in this together. Be kind to each other, and most importantly yourself.
~ Jory Elliott - Founder, Lift The Visor