‘Homelessness is a mental health issue’

Spent a decade running from mental hurt, then someone listened

Paulie O'Byrne is stick handling across Canada to raise awareness about mental illness and sexual abuse.

Paulie O'Byrne is stick handling across Canada to raise awareness about mental illness and sexual abuse.

Former hockey player Paulie O’Byrne was used to living out of his 1992 Honda Civic, in a parking garage.

In the depths of his addiction and anguish, he thought that’s simply the way it should be.

“I was comfortable there. I thought that’s all that I deserved,” O’Byrne said.

“I didn’t choose to be homeless. I chose what my brain thought I deserved. I think that happens a lot in Canada. Our homeless population in Canada is not good,” O’Byrne told Maple Ridge council at its May 12 meeting.

Yet there was a story that led O’Byrne to that place and Maple Ridge council heard it.

Recently out of junior hockey then later coaching college in Ontario, O’Byrne, then 20, was sexually assaulted in 2006 by a man who was interviewing him for a possible coaching position. The man later received only house arrest.

“It changed my life forever.”

While he grew up in a good home, with a military background, O’Byrne said he was never taught how to deal with sexual abuse.

The trauma and shame had deep effects, and O’Byrne’s life became focused on avoiding the pain.

“Instantly, I got into self harm. I started burning myself. I got into addiction. I was using crystal meth and cocaine, just to get rid of the pain that was inside me.”

O’Byrne didn’t want to tell anyone because he was afraid he’d be called weak for not being able to fight off the assault. Even stoned or drunk, he kept the secret.

“I still didn’t want to let people know.

“I was a hurting unit,” he said.

He figured if he could just treat the addiction, “things would get better, and it didn’t.”

He told politicians that he had no idea he could get so deep into addiction. By the time he started going to addiction centres, he’d gone from a hockey-playing weight of 196 pounds to 96 pounds. He’d lost his teeth.

O’Byrne kept trying to get help through his almost decade-long period of darkness and visited 65 counsellors.

“I needed someone to believe me. The only people who believed me were the police.”

One counsellor eventually did. Since then, “I haven’t felt the urge to drink since.”

Sexual abuse victim and former NHLer Theoren Fleury helped, as well.

“I wouldn’t be here without that guy,” said O’Byrne.

He realized eventually, that it’s OK to say that you’re not OK.

Now, he wants to pay back what he consumed in his downtime.

“I owe a great debt to people.

“I know now that I deserve a more than just living in my car.”

He also wanted to get out the message, to others out there, that they’re not alone and they don’t have to suffer. For those who know such people, saying you believe someone goes miles, he added.

This month, he started a 9,600-kilometre cross-Canada trip, during which he’ll be stickhandling a ball down the Trans Canada Highway from coast to coast to raise awareness for his “I’m 1in5” non-profit organization, which helps the one in five people he says are affected by trauma, addiction or mental illness.

O’Byrne, originally from Nova Scotia, said Maple Ridge was his first time in a city hall.

Coun. Bob Massey, who’s on the homeless solutions task force, invited him to make the detour as a means of adding to the discussion on homelessness, one of council’s current priorities.

Masse said O’Byrne’s account is one story about homelessness. There’s a new approach in dealing with the homeless that says a vulnerable person facing traumatic circumstances is all that’s needed to put that person in a downward spiral, he added.

“When we talk about mental illness, that’s part of what we’re talking about. Deep depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – it’s a mental health issue.”

O’Byrne said there needs to be more treatment for male survivors of sexual abuse.

He doesn’t care how much he raises during the long walk to Newfoundland that’s expected to end in October.

“It’s about someone waking up saying, ‘I’m not alone.’

“I don’t want hockey players to hate hockey. I don’t want ballerinas to hate ballet. I don’t want boy scouts to hate boy scouts.”