From the darkness, finding light

Former football player Jesse Topley speaks on his struggles with mental health

Photo: 

This article talks about mental health and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.

Jesse Topley didn’t want to say out loud that he was thinking of killing himself.

Instead, he slid his phone over to the nurse speaking to him. Written on it were the words he couldn’t say. For him it was hard enough to say to himself, let alone  to another person.

That was last January. Now, nearly 11 months later, the former Queen’s linebacker for the Gaels’ football team speaks candidly about his struggles with mental illness and post-concussion syndrome.

Topley works with the Concussion Education and Safety Program (CESAP) — a Queen’s-based concussion awareness group — speaking publicly about how the concussions he suffered during his football career worsened his depression.

The fifth-year student isn’t alone. One in five Canadians will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. Statistically, that’s one starter in basketball, one offensive lineman in football, one member of a hockey team’s power play unit.

There are over 400 athletes spread between the university’s 13 varsity teams. If the average holds, Topley would be far from the only Queen’s athlete to find themselves suffering from a mental illness.

Back when he was a part of the football team, there wasn’t any discussion regarding mental health. Topley added that it’s a problem that’s being ignored in sports right now.

That’s part of the reason he’s speaking about what he’s been through. “If I can share my story and let someone else know that there’s someone else talking about it, I can normalize it,” he said. “By normalizing it for other people, then they can find the ability to talk, and they have a voice.”

***

To truly tell Topley’s story, you need to go back to the start. 

Growing up in Florida, Topley was bullied for a mix of being Canadian, his personality and other factors.

When he moved back to Canada in grade six, things didn’t change. He still felt like an outsider, coming to a school where he had no pre-existing relationships. 

“I never really had an identity,” he said. “I never really had a group that I associated with.”

When he was in grade eight, Topley started considering suicide. A year later, he found a “saving grace” in football. 

Topley gained the identity he’d been missing when he joined the football team at Lorne Park Secondary in Mississauga. On the football field, he gained friends, popularity, and a sense of self. 

But it came at a cost. Even through three diagnosed concussions and torn muscles, he kept playing.

With the fear of losing his identity and reverting back to the place he was in before high school, Topley wasn’t going to come off the field willingly. 

Concussions started impacting Topley in high school. He suffered from a score of symptoms; headaches that lasted for weeks and slurred speech. But his play in high school led him to join the Gaels for the 2012 football season.

There his play continued to improve, ultimately earning him a spot as the starting middle linebacker for Queen’s in his second season, a  year in which the Gaels were Yates Cup finalists.

Even though he had success on the field, Topley still felt the ill effects of his concussions. He struggled academically, as the concussion impacted his ability to complete readings.

To cope, Topley began drinking to mask the pressures that came along with playing football and his academic struggles. 

***

What happens when the place you’ve found joy is taken away? If you find something that pulls you out of the darkness of depression, what happens when that coping mechanism is gone?

Topley faced this question his third year on campus, when he left the football program. One final concussion — the only one diagnosed while he was at Queen’s — spelled the end of Topley’s playing career. In the Gaels’ 

season-opening contest with the Windsor Lancers, Topley was concussed on a tackle. Today, he has little memory of the play, just a sense of confusion.

Throughout his time at Queen’s, he had played through pain. He’d blacked out and seen stars but he played on. A warrior’s mentality and the possibility of losing his position as a starter spurred him on.

“Football — it’s a meat market,” Topley said. “If you’re not going to play, someone else is going to play.

Topley went home to see his family doctor, who told him his health was at risk. The doctor put it bluntly — continuing to play could kill him.

Topley was crushed. The defining factor of his life for years, something he held so dear, was gone and not coming back. 

He couldn’t play football, but he couldn’t look at his concussion with a clear mind. The head trauma he had suffered over the years didn’t give him the chance.

With his Queen’s career over, Topley spoke to his head coach Pat Sheahan about his decision to hang up his uniform. Sheahan asked for his copy of the playbook back.

Looking back, Topley calls Sheahan’s reaction understandable, a reaction based on surprise rather than any malice. At the time though, Topley felt abandoned since he was seeing things through a lens of “paranoia, twisting the actions of others through a haze of head trauma and depression.”

Without football, Topley’s mental health took a downturn. He again felt as though he was searching for an identity. No longer able to be a football player, Topley began to panic about losing the one thing pulling him from a dark place. 

His drinking intensified during this period, as alcohol made him feel accepted and liked. It also helped him numb the pain from his concussions.

“Everyone found me enjoyable when I was drinking, they found me fun,” he said. “So that was what I perceived as what I needed to be.”

At the time, he felt ignored and deserted by his former teammates. Topley has since talked to those teammates, realizing their actions were a result of them not knowing what was going on with him.

As the year went on, his depression continued to get worse. There were days when Topley wasn’t able to leave his bed. When he did, the need to appear happy and put on “a mask” in public was daunting and left him physically exhausted. 

“You don’t want people to see the depression, you don’t want to be judged,” he said. “You don’t want to tell people the thoughts you’re thinking about.”

These feelings continued and Topley began having suicidal thoughts. Thoughts like “things would be easier”. At the time, Topley didn’t have the coping mechanisms he needed as the thoughts continued. 

***

As he returned for the 2015-16 school year, Topley suffered a personal tragedy. His best friend back home passed away, and Topley’s mental health worsened.

Topley began cutting himself, feeling the self-harm was something he deserved. Topley was ready to end his life, having a date set and a plan in mind. It was at this point he made the decision to check himself into the hospital for the first time.

Topley had a moment where he saw what the effects would be if he took his life. He told his mother he needed to go to the hospital.

Topley went to both Hotel Dieu and Kingston General Hospital (KGH), passing his phone to nurses at both hospitals. Topley says he felt like he made the right decision at that time, but his experience at KGH left him feeling embarrassed as the nurse there spoke publicly about Topley’s mental health.

After meeting with the staff there, he was put on an anti-depressant. Though the drug initially helped, he found himself falling back into a dark place. 

Topley continued drinking, as he still struggled with his concussion symptoms and the self-esteem issues that plagued him. He began seeing a therapist, who he cited as a source of help during the past two years.

Since then, he’s become more open about what he was going through.

As he became more open, he also realized he wasn’t suffering alone. Topley started to work with his family and friends to cope better.

“Once you realize you’re not alone and that you have other people to fight this figure, you can use these people and these resources along the way when it gets harder,” he said.

Rather than facing the stigma  he feared when talking about mental health, Topley received support. 

Topley says that for now it isn’t a matter of being cured, but a matter of using the coping methods he has to deal with his depression. 

And what about football?

While the student who was once an athlete didn’t run out on Richardson Stadium’s field in the tricolour uniform in the last few seasons, it was still there for him.

The sport is where he gained his work ethic and his perseverance. When he was suicidal, it was the lessons he learned on the field he recalled, the tough practices and workouts that gave him strength and allowed him to “grasp at the light,” as he puts it. He doesn’t mince words on the impact the sport had on him.

“If it wasn’t for football, I don’t know if I’d be alive today.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.