“It would be easy to not tell my story, to just get on with the rest of my life. But I feel like I have to open up this one time. There were hundreds of nights when I felt like the loneliest kid in the world. I was alone, but I know now that I wasn’t the only one going through what I did. By telling my story, I’m telling others’ as well.” (Patrick O’Sullivan) ~ Breaking Away.
I think it’s initially hard to feel sorry for a person who has played hockey or experienced success at such an elite level. Someone who has won a World Junior Championship. Someone who has played in the NHL. I suspect many of us have this idea that people with such skills and who get to live their dreams have had some sort of advantage, or at the very least, a stable foundation.
I sat down to read “Breaking Away”, the autobiography by former NHLer Patrick O’Sullivan (with Gare Joyce) knowing a little about his story. Or I thought I did. Patrick’s life seemed like the most extreme version of the over-involved parent (father) who saw a child with a lot of talent and pushed him regardless of limit or preference or even ethics. I knew that his father had been accused of abuse. I recalled something about a restraining order. I expected the book to read as a warning to parents about pushing their kids too hard or far or soon. I expected the book to provoke me to reflect on what is crossing the line in terms of support versus pushing your child.
From the opening line, “I was sixteen when I decided to fight back,” Patrick takes us through his story, a lifetime of secrets, lies, and turning a blind eye to ongoing mental, emotional and physical punishment that would break most adults, let alone children. This is a story of talent, drive, and what happens when a sports parent goes overboard with their own misplaced dreams and ambitions. It’s also a story of ongoing and pervasive abuse, and our tendency as a society to avoid getting involved.
As a loving parent, you will be disturbed by this book. But you will also be inspired. You will be inspired not only by Patrick’s resilience and ability to achieve great success despite his childhood, but perhaps more by his courage in openly talking about mental health and deciding to deal with his demons and choosing a life filled with love. If you are like me, you will reflect on times in your own life when something seemed off, a child seemed to be crying for help, and you wondered what was really going on. You may reflect on times when you did nothing to help.
Few autobiographies have had as much impact on me as “Breaking Away”. The memories shared from Patrick’s childhood were alarming, there is no debating that. Perhaps even more alarming, though, are the chapters where Patrick describes his visits to his old teams and coaches to ask if they had ever suspected the abuse, and why they did not speak up and help him. You get a very real sense from these chapters how abuse is able to continue almost in the open. It happens because good people, like you and I, are afraid to speak up, despite knowing, or at last strongly suspecting, that something is very wrong. I closed the last pages of this book vowing that if I have strong suspicions, I will always stand up for that child in need. If I have a say it will never be left to that kid to call 911 in the middle of the night.
I strongly encourage you to read “Breaking Away”. It is an inspiring story. If it helps one child, it will have been worth it.