Islanders Goalie Robin Lehner has opened up about his struggle with addiction and bipolar disorder.
Lehner, 27, is a Swedish professional ice hockey goalie for the New York Islanders, who was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The goalie received the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs with the champion Binghamton Senators.
In an essay on The Athletic, Lehner revealed that on March 29, 2018, while he was still playing for the Buffalo Sabres, Lerner contacted his goalie coach, Andrew Allen, telling him that he was struggling both mentally and physically. Allen suggested they speak in the morning at the rink. When Lehner arrived, he said he “was good to go,” even though he knew he wasn’t. After playing for a few minutes, Lehner felt exhausted and began experiencing chest pain, though he kept it to himself.
When the second period began, the pressure in his chest increased, and his vision became blurry. Back in the locker room, he could barely get undressed. Thinking he was having a heart attack, he went to the team doctors who managed to calm him down and sent him home. After drinking that evening to ease the anxiety, Lehner woke up in the middle of the night and told his wife, “I have to go away.”
Lehner had been struggling for a while with thoughts of suicide, which he dissipated by drinking and self-medicating. As he grew increasingly depressed, he drank more, often putting away a case of beer a day and taking pills to sleep. “I was self-treating myself because I could not be inside my own head by myself. The thoughts of ending it all … it was real and close,” he writes.
Lehner had considered going to rehab before but thought he could wait until the season was over. However, after his panic attack on March 29, he knew he needed to make a change. His wife supported his decision, believing it had been a long time coming. “I was addicted to alcohol and drugs and I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t,” Lerner recalls.
Aware of the pain he was causing his family, he called a program supported by the NHL and the NHLPA, which set him up with a treatment center for addiction and trauma in Arizona. In the days prior to leaving and while waiting at the airport, Lehner drank. Once he arrived, he was put in a room to sober up. His detox lasted three weeks. “I was told my detox was one of the worst that they had seen. I had not had an honest sleep in so long, my mind was in shock. I was hallucinating, fighting demons in my mind and having extreme and vivid dreams. I was stuck in a constant state of REM sleep and the dreams kept waking me up and making things worse. Sleep was only in short spurts. I was truly living on autopilot for three weeks in a constant fog,” he remembers.
As he entered the treatment phase, the doctors realized that his problems went beyond addiction and were related to his childhood experience of abuse, addiction, and mental illness. After five weeks, he was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder with manic phases. The treatment led Lehner through stages of grief, anger, sadness, and hopelessness. “I was broken and they were trying to put me together. My mind had been tricked into thinking that the terrible things that had happened to me were somehow OK. I didn’t try to change it. It was what I was used to,” he writes.
The goalie now recognizes that he was living at extremes, from manic to depressed. When in a manic state, he felt great yet impulsive. When he plunged into depression, he could barely function. He felt indifferent, paranoid, angry, and tired. All these feelings led to thoughts of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. While in Arizona, he made the decision to stay for four more weeks of additional treatment.
“I was scared to leave the doors. I was told if I ever drank again, I would probably die. Now, that mattered. The next few weeks in there would be life-altering. I started to get very emotional and determined. I wanted to feel happiness. I had not felt real happiness for a long time. I deserved better for myself and so did my family. I started to make a lot of big life decisions during this time,” he writes.
Lerner credits The Meadows with helping him map out his life. He says he also discovered religion. He now wants to focus on making up for the time he has lost with his family. “When I saw my kids for the first time after this … I broke down. I was ready to really be a husband and dad for the first time. I was finally ready to love and feel love,” he writes.
On July 3, 2018, Lehner signed as a free agent to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the New York Islanders.