Exclusive: Patrick Burke’s battle with depression

Adam Proteau
Patrick Burke (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Patrick Burke (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Long before he made his name with the You Can Play Project as a champion of gay rights and acceptance in the NHL and sport in general, Patrick Burke was just another smart, funny kid with a bright future. It was the spring of 2005 and he was 22 years old, on the verge of finishing a degree from the prestigious University of Notre Dame with grad school lined up. But something was wrong – deeply, agonizingly wrong – inside his head. And Burke couldn’t lie to himself about it any longer.

He couldn’t do anything any longer.

Mere weeks from graduation, his mental framework shut down in March of that year and the rest of him followed. He couldn’t attend class. He couldn’t leave his Indiana apartment. He barely left his couch. He was having what he would eight years later call “a full-on nervous breakdown”. Burke’ mother, Kerry, had to fly out from their family’s Boston home to tend to him. He couldn’t pick her up at the airport and she had to drive Burke’s car – that he couldn’t operate – back to Boston.

“It was an awful drive,” Kerry Burke said. “There was nothing there. He couldn’t carry on a conversation, really. He just sat in the seat and was pretty blank.”

It was devastating to Burke – who had been a confident, quick-witted teenager – to have his life swallowed up by so many “couldn’ts”. Even at his low point, with Kerry in his apartment trying to do what any mother would for a child who’d lost their way, his view was all trees, no forest.

“I remember getting to Patrick at his place in Indiana and rubbing his back, and I remember promising him,” Kerry said. “I said, ‘I promise you, there are going to be really good days,’ and I knew there would be for him. But you could tell he just didn’t think there was going to be any fun, that there wouldn’t be anything that was enjoyable.”

Patrick was wrong and Kerry was right. However, the road to really good days wasn’t going to look like a movie montage, three minutes long with an inspiring soundtrack and a guaranteed happy ending. This would be the hardest thing Burke had ever done. And eight years after he began his rise from ruin, he is ready to talk about it publicly for the first time.

“People ask me if I’m nervous about being stigmatized, or if I’m worried it would cost me a job down the line,” Burke told THN in regard to his outspokenness on his depression. “I don’t feel stigmatized about this in the least. I feel incredibly proud – incredibly, incredibly proud of this. I got through something. I survived something.

“My own brain was trying to hurt me.”

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There are three things you ought to know about depression, and the first is its stealth. Mental health disease doesn’t confront you at high noon in the middle of a dusty town square. It’s a hidden IV drip delivering an acidic doubt to corrode your brain and bloodstream. It’s a vest of boa constrictors that every day has another snake added to it to strengthen the slow squeeze. It is far stronger and sneakier than you could ever imagine.

The second thing about depression is what it steals from you. It blunts your highs and amplifies your lows. Whatever gave you joy in the past now seems a flower with every petal withered and died. You lose inspiration and then, simple function. You withdraw from everyone you know, including yourself.

The third thing you need to understand is that mental health afflictions do not discriminate based on a human being’s profession or proficiency, their status or ethnicity, or any other label. It cheers your silence and flourishes when left unattended.

Patrick Burke knows all those things now. But when depression had him by the throat, he could barely summon the wind in his lungs to power his brain into considering what was happening to it.

“It’s hard to describe depression to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” Burke said. “The analogy I use is it’s like trying to describe color to the blind. You either know what it’s like, or you don’t know. You either know what it’s like to be able to only sit on your couch, to not be able to leave, to not be able to move, or you don’t. It’s this grey. It’s this constant grey. I’ve had some pretty big highs in my life, some pretty big lows, some great moments and a lot of sadness, but this is different. This isn’t an emotion, this isn’t a feeling. It’s the sense that you’re stuck.”

When his life first began to unravel, he spoke to his father, longtime NHL GM Brian Burke. But he wasn’t ready to be honest with him about the depths of his misery.

“Like a lot of people do, I lied about it,” Burke said of his discussions with his father. “I said, ‘I’m fine, I’ll be fine’. You want to tell yourself you can do it. The worst thing in the world is when someone tells you, ‘Aw, suck it up’. And you tell yourself that you can force your way through it, you can willpower your way through it. Obviously, that’s not true.”

It took Burke weeks and months after he left Notre Dame and was home in Boston to begin to get a handle on his life again, but when you talk to him these days, he has no qualms detailing the factors that led to his collapse.

“The biggest step was acknowledging something was wrong,” Burke said. “I needed a combination of: medication; some stability around me, both in being around my family and in having a psychiatrist I could talk to; and I needed to make some lifestyle changes so that I was being healthier. I needed all three. I could not be where I am today if I had not had all three.”

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You’d be mistaken if you thought the aforementioned recipe for recovery was easy for Burke to follow. Nothing could be further than the truth. When he dropped out of Notre Dame, he essentially barricaded his life inside that Boston house. His mom, siblings and friends offered to do anything to try and make him feel better, but Burke didn’t know what to tell them. How could he? He had no clue how to feel good any longer. Nobody could reach him. His spirit was paralyzed.

“When somebody is so blank, it’s hard to connect with them,” Kerry Burke said. “You started a conversation and said, ‘We want to help,’ or ‘What can we do for you?’, and he wasn’t really giving back anything.”

He was unable to access or describe his pain to his family, but Burke wasn’t completely unaware of himself. Awful memories of that period still resonate.

“It’s heartbreaking to look back on it,” Burke said. “I have vivid memories of sitting on the couch, and my sisters Molly and Katie coming in, sitting on the couch next to me and crying because I couldn’t leave. They’d say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to the movies?’, or “Do you want to go to a Red Sox game?’. But you can’t. Your best friends in the world are your siblings; they’re the people you’re closest to, and you’re unable to get off your couch and play street hockey with them. And then you feel like you’re letting the people around you down, and that adds guilt on top of it.”

While he was home, Burke was prescribed antidepressants: first he tried Zoloft, but it didn’t do much, if anything for him; he then took Paxil and it did help. He began partnering with a counsellor he first worked with in high school and committed to a rigorous fitness and nutrition schedule. He spoke to a therapist almost every day. And even with all those changes, the results didn’t come quick – and they sure as hell didn’t come easy.

“It was a long process,” Burke said. “Every time one of my friends has called to ask about it, I say, ‘This isn’t easy.’ I don’t ever want people to think you get on a drug and all of a sudden things get better, or if you just talk to someone, things will get better. It was a grind. It was months and months of hard, physical, mental and emotional work. It was rebuilding who you are and what you think about yourself and how you see the world. It was about realigning your body, realigning your mind. It’s hard.”

“Gradually, you could see him getting better,” added Kerry Burke. “Thinking back on it, I want to say you could see him getting better, faster. But I know, truthfully, that it wasn’t the case. It took a while.”

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In his new role as the NHL’s director of player safety, Burke intends to make mental health awareness and treatment as stigma-free in the players community as the staggeringly successful You Can Play initiative he founded in honor of his late brother, Brendan. A pioneering gay rights advocate who passed away in a tragic, February 2010 car accident, Brendan was one of those Burke family members who rushed to Patrick’s side when he left Notre Dame. Brendan was one of those people who told him they would always be there for him. According to their mother, that’s when the real change in Patrick took root.

Kerry Burke can recall the period it happened as if it were yesterday. She describes how, in the year Patrick spent out of school (he’d go back to graduate in 2006) and was nowhere close to a full recovery, Brendan also happened to be home for a week because he’d come down with shingles. The brothers were in the family room, one on the couch and the other on a chair, watching TV. The adult cartoon South Park appeared on the screen – and that usually meant Kerry coming in and turning it off. She knew they’d watched the racy show before, but never when they were in her house. But because both young men were going through a tough time, she let them enjoy the show. And she believes that in those days the brothers spent in the wake of Patrick’s breakdown – and the realization of what it meant to be a family – altered Patrick forever.

“It was a point where they connected really well, because I know Brendan said to him, ‘Patrick, I don’t know what to do for you, but if you tell me what to do, I’ll help you,” Kerry Burke said. “And I think at a certain point, Patrick realized he really meant it. And then he wanted to do the same for Brendan. When Brendan came out, Patrick realized, ‘Oh boy, someone I know has had a hard time and I could’ve helped’. That changed him. And then when Brendan died, he really took over what he thought was Brendan’s plan to do: to help people. And that wasn’t Patrick before.

“He realized he could do something and was in a position to do something. I think that deepens his connection with Brendan. I know it deepens his connection with Brendan.”

Before Brendan’s death, he and Patrick discussed visiting high schools and educating youngsters about the issues that had affected their lives: Brendan would talk about the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender world, and Patrick would discuss depression. Fate robbed them of the opportunity, but Patrick has fought valiantly for Brendan’s cause through You Can Play – and now he is bringing another spotlight on a different cause: mental health, not only among NHL players, but in society-at-large.

He is approaching the task with the same philosophy in mind: empathy and assistance for those who are affected by the issue, education and forgiveness for those who don’t understand it. And he says all NHLers should know that mental health assistance is available if they need it – and needing it doesn’t make them any less of a teammate or a man.

“The NHL and NHLPA have done a tremendous job of making these resources available,” Burke said. “What we have to do a better job of as a society is making sure players don’t feel in any way hesitant about utilizing these resources. That’s where we’re lacking right now. Those resources are there for the taking, they’re there for the players, and they’re easy to access. We just have to make sure people know that, not only is it OK to do this, but it’s important to do this.”

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The best part of this story is Patrick Burke today: back in control of his life, back in good humor, back as a contributing member of society and a loving member of his family.

Back.

“I am very proud of Patrick and how hard he worked to get better,” Kerry Burke said. “To see someone going through what he went through, especially someone you love, you want to say, ‘C’mon!’. But you can’t do it for them.”

Burke never asked anyone to do it for him. He knew he had to author his own change. Did he need help? Absolutely. But he is who he is today because he realized that mental health issues can be faced head-on – and beaten. That’s the message he’ll have for hockey players and anyone who’ll listen.

“If someone’s definition of toughness or masculinity or doing things the right way entails ignoring a potentially life-threatening, but treatable medical disease, then I want no part of that definition,” Burke said. “I know I’m not the first person in the NHL who has dealt with depression and I know I’m not the last.

“This is something society as a whole has to talk about. The number of people who suffer through this silently – for no reason other than misunderstanding, other than shame, other than fear, when it’s something that can be beat – it’s unacceptable. It can’t continue. Although it’s not easy, it’s not fun, and it’s incredibly difficult to confront the fact your own body is trying to hurt you, you can fight it and get better.”