In late 2021, former Team Canada snowboarder and Whistler local Harrison Gray started making plans to end his life.
After years of battling depression and substance abuse issues; after time and again speaking with therapists and counsellors to no avail, Gray felt like he was no longer in control of his life. And despite having suicidal thoughts before, this time it was different. This time, Gray saw it as his only option, and even had a plan in place to kill himself in the new year.
But before the calendar rolled over to 2022, Gray wanted to give himself one last chance at healing—so he turned to psilocybin.
Initially just looking for microdose options to help with his daily anxiety and depression, Gray was connected with his now mentor, Brittany, who, based on their initial discussions, believed Gray needed much more help than just the quick fix a microdose could provide.
So Gray joined her and two others on a guided psilocybin journey.
“It was my last effort or sort of attempt at anything to do with healing,” he said. “I thought I tried everything—so many counsellors, therapists, antidepressants, all the different stuff. But that first ceremony is kind of what I credit with saving my life.”
For Gray, the 24-hour ceremony started with a large dose of psilocybin (the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms, which is now undergoing extensive studies to better understand its benefits on mental health), followed by a few hours of introspection before guided group discussions, where he was able to open up about his life and his past in an unbiased and non-judgmental way.
“It really removes the veil of ego and makes one comfortable with being vulnerable. I was able to view myself in an honest way without it being an upsetting thing. And then through hearing the stories and discussions of the other gentlemen, I also learned a lot,” said Gray.
“But for me, it was life-changing, and I [realized] I wasn’t allowing myself to feel loved in any way. I always had love so directly correlated with physical relationships, with a person. But after that, it really sort of opened up that love is unconditional. The aspect of giving without the expectation of receiving.”
THE HEALING PATH
After his guided psilocybin journey, Gray was urged by his mentor to check into an actual addiction treatment facility to continue down the healing path he had already started.
While he agreed, Gray initially only saw it as a chance to have a “mental-health reset,” after which he would be free to return to using drugs and alcohol as he had before. But through the treatment, Gray started to realize just how deep his addictions ran, and how long they had been prevalent in his life—even if he hadn’t realized it.
“The way I look at it is, the psilocybin certainly saved my life, but treatment and AA, and the work I’m doing now, is giving me the tools to live life,” he said.
Gray’s issues first started as an early teenager while he was travelling internationally with Canada’s national snowboard team, and would routinely use a fake ID to drink with his coaches in the bar at just 14 years old.
And as he got older, the athlete lifestyle got more intertwined with the party lifestyle, to the point where they became one identity for Gray.
“It was how I defined myself. I was Harrison the snowboarder, or Harrison the skateboarder, or Harrison the guy who could drink the most beer,” he said. “And there was always a reason to drink. Someone’s always either landed a trick, or it’s a celebration, or it’s a failure. But it’s so linked. Any contract meeting, any trip, the first stop is always the beer store.”
At 18, Gray ended up breaking his back, effectively ending his competitive snowboard career. So he moved to Whistler full-time and began working with Snowboard Canada as a competition judge, all while continuing his heavy drinking and drug-use lifestyle, which was perfectly suited for Whistler’s non-stop party scene.
“As it often is in this town, it was [cocaine] from 19 to 24, and lots of psychedelics,” said the now-29-year-old Gray.
“But then over the last year, the realization of how depressed I was really came into play. I went from drinking for fun to drinking for management. And the number of fun drinks really started to shift. The first three were good, and then after that, it would start spiralling into hyper focus. And I got really good at wearing a mask, I got really good at faking it. And it was really easy to surround myself with people who support those habits—this town is good for that.”
‘FEAR IS WHERE THE GROWTH IS’
During his time at the addiction treatment centre, Top of the World Ranch, in Fort Steele, B.C., Gray learned many different tools for dealing with his addictions and depression in a healthy way, from cognitive behavioural therapy to break up the cycle of self-hate speech, to the impact that physical wellness and routines can have on recovery.
Now back in Whistler and more than three months sober, Gray wants to share his story, and hopes that what he went through might be just what someone else needs to hear to finally take that step to get better and realize they aren’t alone in their struggles.
But stepping back into an environment like Whistler that caters to a party lifestyle is no easy task for someone in recovery. And with many of his biggest passions—like skateboarding—now being a trigger for him, a relapse is always knocking on the door.
“There’s always a fear, for sure. I like to say I have, like, a healthy fear that keeps me going in the right direction. And I think fear can be used in a really good, healthy manner, because I think fear is where the growth is,” he said.
“Relapse is part of the journey, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone has to have their journey and walk the journey to get to where they need to go. But I feel if I stop, if I get cocky with it or complacent, that is when things are going to slide backwards.
“Now I have to be vigilant, because otherwise I will slide back into my negative ways. As they say, when you’re inside a meeting, the addiction is outside doing pushups. It’s always going to be there.”
Even though his athletic career was his first step down the drug and alcohol rabbit hole, now that he has the tools to cope with his issues, Gray hopes to untangle his passion for sports with his former party lifestyle, and even use sports as a method of further healing.
He wants to get back involved with the town’s skateboard scene, where he hopes to build connections and forge deeper relationships with the people around him than he has in the past.
“There’s always a lot of friends that we can call to drink beer. So I’m like, ‘Why can’t we call them for a talk or to go for a coffee?’ And so I really want to create a space that’s open and safe for people to start discussing their issues and just chat and start changing the stigma,” Gray said.
“[Sport] was such a big, positive part of my life as well as a negative that … I want to now use it for myself as a tool for me to find the joy and love and fun again, but also to create connection between people.
“I do love this town, and snowboarding and skateboarding brought me so many amazing things, and I think it can keep doing that through this avenue and for a lot of people.”