Kelly Hrudey used to catch his youngest daughter blinking, blinking one eye, then the other, and then both, and then blinking some more. She was about 11 years old at the time and the former NHL goaltender and affable Hockey Night in Canada host did not think too much about Kaitlin’s blinking since, when he would ask her about it she would shrug it off, say it’s nothing, Dad, or say nothing at all.
Kelly and his wife, Donna, chalked up the blinking to a phase, to just another one of those curious little things that kids do. Kaitlin, though, was doing other things. Begging off sleepovers with friends, complaining of stomach aches, missing school, barely eating and always wanting to be around her mother. And a little girl who loved nothing more than to dance, stopped wanting to go to her dance classes.
Looking back on those years now the old hockey player can see all the warning signs, plain as day, of a little girl who loved to dance struggling with the onset of the anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder that she still struggles with to this day, and that the Hrudey family has never spoken about publicly until now.
“I remember having all these obsessive thoughts,” Kaitlin, now 20, says from Calgary during a conference call with me and her father, who was on the line from St. Louis where he was working the Blues and Los Angeles Kings playoff series.
“I was scared I was going to go blind. I was scared I had cancer. I was scared of death. Those thoughts would just stay in my mind, and they were real to me.
“And to me, the only way I wouldn’t go blind — or get a disease — was to stay at home, to stay with my Mom. And to me, if I kept blinking it meant that I wouldn’t go blind. To me, everything that was happening was real and when my parents would ask me questions, honestly, I just remember acting like I was sick even though I wasn’t.
“If I was supposed to go to a friend’s I would say they were people I didn’t want to hang out with anymore. I had all these random excuses, and my thoughts became so obsessive that I just couldn’t escape them anymore.”
The breaking point was the first day of school in 2005. Kaitlin Hrudey sat, paralyzed, in her mother’s car in the school parking lot. She couldn’t get out.
“She literally became a prisoner of her own thoughts,” her father says.
Donna Hrudey opened the phonebook and found a number for a psychologist. From there it has been a long, hard journey, with many steps forward and many steps back to get to today, where Kelly and Kaitlin are telling her story as part of RBC’s “Know the Signs” campaign in support of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 5 to 11).
“In the beginning I thought we were going to be out of the woods in no time, because I had no experience in any of this,” Kelly says.
There was no history of mental illness in the family. It was a crash education, and an ongoing one, and in the beginning it would involve marathon sessions with Kaitlin and her psychologist — plus hours more at home or over the phone if Kelly was on the road working — practising breathing techniques that the doctor had taught them to ease Kaitlin’s crippling anxiety.
Father and daughter might sit in the family room for two or three hours at a time. Breathing, all in an effort to get Kaitlin to her “safe zone,” which, in her imagination, was the garden out back of the house.
“She would lay down in the grass, in our backyard, and to get her there it took time — and the garden would be a drab place at first, but then she would start seeing flowers,” Kelly says. “And as we kept breathing and I kept talking to her she would see more and more colours — and we had two dogs — and they would be playing in the garden, and I can’t tell you what it was like to be able to get her to that safe place.”
It would be four years before Kaitlin was, as she says, “having more good days than bad.”
“I still have those thoughts,” she says. “Lately I’ve been thinking I have a brain tumour, and I know it is irrational.”
Kelly and Donna have been together ever since they were teenagers. When they needed a shoulder to lean on — they leaned on each other. And they still do.
“All I was worried about in the beginning was helping Kaitlin,” Kelly Hrudey says.
There is a long pause.
“It’s hard,” the old goaltender continues, his voice breaking. “We’ve gone through some of the hardest things that you could ever imagine and I can’t tell you how close Kaitlin and I are because of it.”
It is not over yet.
Kaitlin’s illness is a life sentence. (In a small twist of grace her obsessive fear of death has meant she has never had suicidal thoughts). She went off to study at the University of British Columbia’s Kelowna campus last September. At first she was fine. Then she fell apart. The bad thoughts came back, about some horrible disease, and it could be a different disease every day. She stopped leaving her dorm room and within a month her parents were on their way to Kelowna to bring her home.
‘It will never be as bad as it seems in the beginning’
“Something really bothers me about the Kelowna experience, because I just couldn’t do it,” Kaitlin says. “I am much better than I was in the fall…”
“I decided to talk about this because I don’t want other kids to feel like they have to keep it in, or to feel like [having a mental illness] is something embarrassing.
“It is not. It took me a long time to realize that. And you are not alone. It gets better, and it will never be as bad as it seems in the beginning. And if I can just help some people…”
Help. That’s all Kaitlin Hrudey wants to do: help kids like herself, who are struggling. She is working at a retail store now, teaching dance classes, living at home. She is doing OK.
“Kaitlin has got such great strength,” Kelly Hrudey says, his voice wavering.
“I’ve met superstars. I’ve met celebrities. I’ve met all these people in my life, but what Kaitlin has accomplished and what she has gone through in her life to get where she is — it has been a long road — and I am just so proud of her.
“I am just so proud.”
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