Dread. All-encompassing, suffocating dread.
I wish it were fear. Fear connotes apprehension of something whose outcome is unknown, making hope its inseparable partner. The state of things had been abundantly clear for a long time, and by now the question was not whether things were bad- they most certainly were- but rather, exactly how bad. That uncertainty was the immutable source of an unending, gnawing doubt, the type that relentlessly assaults your mind and pries the light from your very being.
As I sat in the waiting room of a clinic in Florida, I felt hope- already elusive by now- swiftly slipping out of grasp. The bland furniture, the white walls, the grim-looking patients; just like most medical waiting rooms, the atmosphere was no friend to one’s mental health. The irony that my foreseeable future appeared as bleak as the aesthetic of the room that I was sitting in was nearly enough to elicit a dry grin.
Then, the excruciating sequence struck again.
Trying to distract myself from the dull agony plaguing the very inside of my skull, I caught a glimpse of the light fixture illuminating the room. A momentary glance was enough to trigger the same sensation as always. White-hot needles plunged through my eyes deep into my brain. I felt as if my head was being tightened between vice grips and struck with a hundred mallets. Then the nausea struck like a punch to the gut after too much coffee before breakfast. It took everything in my power to not spew vomit all over the floor.
What was truly horrible was that this routine had become completely normal. The nonstop dull, fluctuating pressure inside the head. The dizziness and blurry, fluid vision that it caused. The spiking migraines triggered by anything from loud noises to sunlight to merely being startled. The feeling of being simultaneously famished and disgusted by the mere thought of food. Clenching my limbs and stomach while eating to keep myself from retching up what I had eaten moments before. The inexplicable irritability that produced rage at the slightest provocation that was then just as quickly suppressed. The endless dread. The spotty, sometimes thorough memory loss. Cowering in a pitch-black room during a symptom spike and internally begging for it to stop. Hiding it all from my family and daily lying, saying that things were improving because I didn’t want to project my pain onto them during their relaxing holiday vacation. After two months, all of these things had become facts of life. To call that existence nightmarish would be the understatement of the century.
Finally, I entered the office and went through all of the usual tests. The neurologist asked about my symptoms and what had caused the injuries. The results were horrifying.
I had been experiencing Post-Concussion Syndrome for two months, but nobody knew why I was not recovering. I was given a box of pills to take that were supposed to reduce the symptoms, but the course of the recovery process -not just the time, but if I would recover -was uncertain. Amazingly, in that moment there was only one thing that seemed to matter:
“How will I know when I can take the ice again?”
The response hit like a truck.
“We’ll hope for the best, but if things don’t improve soon, you may be done with hockey.”
In that moment, I wished I had never entered that office. All of that hell had been bearable just because there was a speck of light at the end of the tunnel. In what felt like five minutes, that light had been snuffed out. To visit a professional after two months of anguish and to be told not only that recovery may never happen, but that the thing that you love doing most in this world could be out of reach forever – that’s a feeling that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
The drive home took less than half an hour, but it felt like an eternity. Mired in dread and lost in my own thoughts, I fell into an all-too-familiar pastime; thinking about what could have been, how I could have avoided being conked on the head, dissecting every choice and moment leading up to the injury. When you’re a prisoner of your own psyche, you desperately latch onto anything that helps you escape from your personal hell.
For the ten-thousandth time, I asked myself, “How did I get here?”
When I was three or four, I watched ice hockey for the first time, and was instantly in love. Couldn’t think about anything else. When they asked in elementary school what you wanted to be when you grew up, I was that kid who said I wanted to be playing in the NHL. I used to spend hours out in my driveway shooting pucks against my garage doors before my parents noticed the hundreds of dents and bought a net. My dad would come back exhausted after a 10-11 hour work day and still take the time to shoot around with me in the driveway before my mom called us in for dinner. I would stand in front of the goal, working on tipping pucks, and sometimes take a heater right in the shin. My dad taught me to be the toughest guy in the room, even if I was often also the shortest. No tears, no complaints, just ready up for the next one. He was hard on me, but it all made me better as a player and as a person. My mom nurtured the more human side; from her I learned compassion, but also determination, because she always told me that I wasn’t limited by my stature, and that I could achieve anything that I set my mind on.
You learn to battle through everything and not get fazed because, as I would find out again and again over time, it really is all mental. If you have the right mindset, you don’t cower and fold when adversity hits because a solution is always within your grasp. Sports teach life lessons like that. Take the give-and-go play, for example. The simplest of sequences – you pass the puck, skate to open ice, and your teammate gives it back- you’re both more effective that way. There are layers and levels to that, though. The next step is to realize that you’re not passing the puck because you hope to get it back soon – you’re passing because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the same thing in everyday life. Don’t go out on a limb and help someone out because you’re looking for something in return – do it because it’s the right -and human-thing to do. You don’t need any motivation beyond that.
The selflessness and self-sacrifice of the old NHL- let alone my parents- was burned into my very soul. From my dad waking up at 4am to drive me to hockey games, to moments like Sami Kapanen crawling to the bench after having his head taken off so that Jeremy Roenick could hop on and go score on a top-shelf shot in OT, to Kimmo Timonen being a warrior and playing entire seasons through a swarm of injuries – it all left its mark. You can’t control the circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them.
Besides, I love this game so damn much that if I’m not dead or dying, I’m going full-throttle and battling. I always wanted to be the guy whose teammates and friends alike would want in a foxhole with them if it came down to that. For a lifetime, I’ve heard people say that valor has its soulmate in stupidity, and yet the choice remains easy. For at least the first half of my first hockey season at Bates, I guarantee that my teammates thought I was a pure psychopath. Part of the reason I switched to forward was because I enjoyed the hell out of lighting people up.
Sometimes, though, you have to know when to take the scratch and heal. I know firsthand that you can battle through most things, but head injuries are a thoroughly different beast. While trying, as always, to gut it out, I gravely underestimated them and paid a steep price.
I re-entered the house, made a beeline for my bedroom, and lay in the dark for hours with no company but my own thoughts. Alone and near the tipping point, I was more honest with myself than, perhaps, I’d ever been. I realized that by refusing to acknowledge fear in grinding through PCS, I’d actually let it possess me as much as my passion for my interests did. I returned too early from being hit not just because I wanted to play hockey again, but because I was afraid of missing out on what I loved doing the most. That caused me to sustain a worse injury when I was drubbed in the face again. I forced myself through classes and a full-time job just as much out of fear of falling behind and missing deadlines as from any other cause.
I was caught in a toxic snare, and the first step towards recovery was freeing myself from it.
After a while, I finally had a real plan. I stood up, stared fiercely at the gaunt man with sunken hazel eyes that appeared in the mirror, and growled to myself, “You can pull through this. This is a battle that you will win…”
I was lucky that I had the holidays to gather myself. I started really taking the rest that I needed, and gradually working myself back into everyday life, step by step. By the time that I was back on campus at Bates, I was well enough to take on my normal course schedule again. Missing the remainder of the season was rough, but I was lucky enough to have friends and teammates that understood what I was going through and helped me keep in good spirits.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent brevity, though; this was the long game, and it was not easy. The acute, lacerating headaches and lapses in memory had mostly gone away, but the other symptoms ebbed and flowed like the tides. The hardest part of the recovery process was retraining my very psyche. In place of a fearless, seemingly invincible warrior stood a withered shell, and the internal rebuilding, both mental and physical, was no swift process. Months later, things had much improved. I was not 100% there, but each day had seen progress, and by the preseason, I passed my physical and was cleared to play.
Much had passed in the meantime, too much to tell in a short time. My teammates had voted me co-captain for my final season. That meant the world to me; not the position, which was an honor in and of itself, but the fact that the guys who knew the bilgy, sordid details of the battle that I was fighting and still had enough faith in me to put me in that spot. I seized the situation by the horns and swore not to squander it. I owed it to myself and the others to recover and for us to make the best out of that situation. To earn every second of it.
I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t fighting the pressure a little. The morning of the season opener, I ran into a friend while walking to breakfast. The ensuing conversation eventually turned to the upcoming game, and I was brutally honest about the fact that the burning desire to make this last season count was eating me from the inside and probably doing more harm than good. The response was the reminder that I desperately needed, but hitherto could not locate:
“You know, it doesn’t have to end here. Not if you don’t want it to.”
Thank you for that. It must have seemed like common sense, but to someone who had been told not long before that it all might be over, and not on their terms, it was everything. I felt as if the weight of the sky had been lifted from my back. Little did I know at the time that my friend would be more right in the end than I could ever have imagined.
That night, I had more fun with the game than I could remember for a long time. I played on a line with my best friend and we buzzed around the ice like we were kids again. He set me up for two of the easiest tucks I’ve had. Two of my other buddies tallied three more. The bus ride home and the rest of that night was a complete gongshow.
A couple weeks later saw a dicey one. We were doing a flow drill and I cut wide on the rush around the defenseman, blew a tire, and careened face-first into the boards. Not being funny, I went blind for at least two minutes–probably longer. My vision returned, but so did some of the old dull, vision-blurring headaches. What I only found out later was that the hit that had sent me to the dark room for two months had also slipped a disk in my neck, causing a sequence of muscular adjustments that culminated in chronic stiffness and crippling hypertension. It was the perfect (in the driest sense of the word) storm of injuries. I sardonically call it the Crucible.
Thankfully, this one was fully in my hands. I was allowed to fight the periodic hypertension and keep my normal schedule up, thanks primarily to the most fantastic physical therapist I’ve had. I finished the first half of the season along with a 112-page senior thesis, the vast majority of which was drafted amidst intermittent headaches. Sounds like a lousy draw, but it was child’s play compared to what I had fought–and beaten–before. The satisfaction of having ground it out and won that battle did more for my internal confidence than most things could.
This story could not be considered complete without spilling some ink about January 13, 2018. Several things happened on that frigid and windy evening: myself and several others threw off the fetters of injury, the meaning–however obscure–of immortality was discussed, and a throng of people piled into Underhill Arena at Bates to watch us take on WIT in a game that, on paper, there is absolutely no way in fiery hell that we should ever have won. That’s the beauty of this sport, though, that on any given evening, anything can happen. Everyone stepping up and grinding fearlessly in the trenches for a full 60 minutes was a microcosm of the season, and a memory that I will carry to the grave. It was one of many instances that season that showed the mental fortitude of that squad and our coach’s alchemist-like ability to transform anything into gold.
Even now, thinking about it still causes my arms to erupt with swarms of goosebumps. The roar of a rowdy and probably quite intoxicated fanbase when one of us bundled a yellow-and-black sweater against the wall. The searing sting of taking a rocket off the foot so that your goaltender wouldn’t have to. The mayhem when my buddy and fellow captain sniped a hat trick in the first period. The sweet sound of the biscuit ringing iron on its way to the back of the net. The chants, most of which, however delightful, would almost certainly not be permitted to grace these pages.
Halfway through the third period, we found ourselves trailing 5-4, with matching minor penalties giving us two minutes of 4-on-4 play. Tons of room and the boys were buzzing. After some slick marinara spaghetti sauce on the give-and-go I went for a middle-lane drive and our defenseman wired a laser past my ear and into the upper left. Goalie never even saw it. 5-5.
A few minutes later, down 6-5, one of my linemates took a flying elbow to the face on the breakout. A year and a half before, I’d have charged over, fists flying, taken the living piss out of the guy, and selfishly eaten the suspension. That was another time. The Crucible had, quite literally, drilled into my mind how much each second on the ice was worth, and my new and improved instinct took another avenue. Turn on the jets. One feint step to the middle to draw the crossover from the strong-side defense and lure the weak-side defense into stepping in for a hit. Quick shift and full throttle wide again. Cut hard to the middle – right arm pulling the puck across the crease too swiftly for the poke coming from the goaltender, left arm to the ice to ward off the defenseman’s last-ditch sweep check. Deposit the payload into the back of a yawning net with authority. Fire a volley of arrows at the WIT bench from one knee to top it all off before making a beeline for my comrade who had just been smoked so that all of that could happen. 6-6.
With a minute to go, our line had been hounding the opposition, penning them in their zone and unleashing a cannonade on their goaltender. I had a line-change on my mind when my linemate stripped the puck off the opposing forward with surgical precision. My eyes blazed brighter than flames as the disk slid right to my stick. Shooters shoot – instinct seized the wheel once more and snapped a backhand underneath the goaltender’s arm, causing the arena to erupt into chaos. 7-6.
When I looked into the stands and saw my parents in pure ecstasy, a switch flipped. I thought of my tour through hell a year before. My father’s defeated look as he attempted to help me solve a problem that seemed as inexorable and fluctuant as the tides. My mother’s tears as she watched her son suffer and deteriorate, sinking into hopelessness, agony, and depression. I turned and saw my teammates, some jumping up and down on the bench in elation, others charging over to celebrate the tally. Pandemonium in the stands. The entire scene was enough to make me lose it. We piled into the wall, beating the glass with our fists and yelling things that sullied the very concept of speech. One minute later, sweet victory was ours.
My friend was right – my gripping, occasionally destructive, but always thoroughly rewarding relationship with the game of ice hockey was far from over. Seven months later, I found myself landing in Reykjavík, Iceland, starting graduate school and competing in a tryout for Björninn, a team in Iceland’s top ice hockey league. I was fortunate enough that they gave me a chance, and I ran with it and never looked back. I had the time of my life playing third-line minutes, PK, blocking shots, throwing my (rather slim) weight around, and being a complete and utter pest.
Wear-and-tear is inextricable from such a tough game, though. In December of this past year, I suffered a broken ankle while blocking a one-time bomb from the point. Two days later, I was back on the ice, gutting it out as always. Psycho stuff, you may say, but each time I thought about the alternative, my mind went back to the Crucible, when I was actually unable to do anything, and I knew there was no way in hell I wasn’t fighting through this one. On December 18, 2018, I tallied an assist, the only point of my season in the Icelandic Hockey League, and exulted in the roar of the arena while playing on a broken ankle, the pain dulled by adrenaline as well as some tequila that friends visiting from Philadelphia had brought along. Fins up.
I recovered over the holidays and finished that season with no regrets. Two years after going to hell in a bucket, I was living the dream, chasing my passions while enjoying a marvelous country and playing the sport that I loved the most. I’d say things turned out alright.
For me, the greatest takeaway from the experience narrated here is that something is always in your hands, even if it’s merely the defiant manner in which you stare down adversity. No matter how dire the circumstances seem, there is light on the other side. If anyone reading this ever faces a similar situation, don’t eat it and take it on alone. My respect to the people who have the courage to dig in and fight, but head injuries have to be taken seriously. Get the help and take the rest that you need, and utilize a good support system. Be honest with your friends and family and reach out for help when you need to. They are the ones who hold you back from loneliness and depression, and keep you positive during that long and arduous battle.
To my family, friends, teammates, coaches, and everyone else who has helped me along the way, regardless of situation or location – words cannot express the gratitude that I have for your being there. You all are the reason I went through hell and made it out whole on the other side, and the reason my passion and enjoyment for life never wavers, even when things are far from simple or easy. Thank you.
Sam Levin is a graduate student, studying at the University of Oslo. In his spare time, Sam enjoys historical video games and watching the Philadelphia Flyers.