A recent issue of Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt from the upcoming book by Suzy Favor Hamilton. You may recall she is the former track star that through her own need for excitement began working as a highly paid escort.
The story was shocking at first. But as details emerged about her challenges with mental illness, it all made strangely logical sense. The book outlines how her brother faced similar difficulties with bipolar depression. He engaged in thrill-seeking behavior as well, and ultimately succumbed to his illness.
Her own story strikes at the heart of women trapped in perceptions. At one point her own breasts became a source of torment. They were large enough to attract male attention even (or especially) when she was in peak running condition. As reported in her book, one of the coaches at Wisconsin showed a video to his male athletes of her breasts bouncing as she ran. It can be difficult for female athletes to run past the male breast fixation.
Living in this world where her athletic accomplishments were not enough to distract from the objectification of her beauty motivated her to have an $8000 breast reduction surgery.
Between two worlds
When she finally met a man she loved and married, their relationship took twists and turns that evolved in difficult ways that became exaggerated when Suzy retired from competitive running. She’d made it several times to the Olympic Games, but the last effort was essentially a commentary on her mental state. She dropped to the ground in a state of collapse.
Throwing herself into the next phase of life, she worked toward a career but found it unsatisfying. Such is the transition for so many world class athletes. The purity of competition can be both a blessing and a curse when compared to the world of business, where a sale or a business deal are supposed to fill the space in which winning a race once sated the mind. But it does not always work. It’s simply not the same rush.
Be like Mike?
And so, like many athletes, Suzy Favor Hamilton went off on a new thrill-seeking mission that led her to become a highly paid escort providing sexual favors to wealthy clients. And as she put it, she’d found her new rush.
But she’s not alone in her pursuits of excitement and new experiences. It’s a pattern of sorts with athletes. Look at Michael Jordan and his baseball career. The death of his father and the pressures of pro basketball pushed him into a mental state where something had to give. So he quit basketball and took up baseball.
Who knows if the man does not also have some emotional baseline of depression, anxiety or other mental illness that has never been revealed? The death of his father was an emotional challenge that even his far-reaching athletic prowess could not serve to obscure. So he returned to something in his roots, a rediscovery. Some criticized him for the decision. Yet when he returned to basketball and own three more NBA championships, the criticism fell away.
Running into trouble
The book Duel in the Sun about the lives of marathon runners Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, documents the mental illness and substance abuse issues of those two runners.
To treat his underlying depression, Salazar ultimately benefitted from using the drug Prozac.
Meanwhile Beardsley struggled to halt his addiction to painkillers stemming from medical treatment for a farm accident. This contrast in needs illustrates the difficulty of diagnosing or even understanding the correct approach for those faced with emotional challenges.
Million to one
More than 10M people in America experience chronic depression. That means they have to work hard just to get to the emotional baseline of a so-called “normal” state of existence. If you are fortunate enough not to have to deal with mental illness on that order, it can be difficult to imagine why or how it manifests itself in the lives of those who do.
But know this: mental illness produces real emotional pain. It’s as real as a biomechanical deficiency that leads to running or cycling injuries. None of us is perfect. It is important to have compassion.
Often depression is paired with an equally difficult state of function known as anxiety. The twin conditions often trade off roles in the minds of those who are chemically wired to be anxious and by turn of mind, physically and emotionally depressed.
Fortunately for many people, there are now intelligently crafted drugs that can help people manage their emotional baseline and deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Look around you. It is highly likely that some person you know experiences these symptoms every day. They may not talk about it. But they should. Cognitive therapy can be just as vital as drugs for treatment of mental illness.
Living with chronic emotional pain is exhausting. Some people “self-medicate” as a release from the work it takes to achieve basic functions. Maintaining and sustaining relationships at home and work can be next to impossible at times. People then fall into patterns of engagement that are not healthy. Marriages can dissolve. Friendships break up or can be strained to the limit. Work performance can suffer. All these pressures acting together can cause a person to break down, cry out, or behave in unhealthy ways.
Keep an eye out
So before we judge someone like Suzy Favor Hamilton for becoming an escort, we all ought to step back and look at our own lives, and keep an eye out for friends or associates who seem to be struggling.
You won’t have to look far. It may be someone in your running or cycling or triathlon group. Endurance athletes gravitate to these sports because they can help people fight depression and anxiety. It’s clinically proven that exercise can help brain chemistry.
But that does not mean it solves problems. Sometimes the pull toward athletics is so strong it becomes its own drug. Then, when a big event is over, the withdrawal begins. Training ebbs and the rush toward a goal is over. What does life have to offer then?
We’ve all been there
Going back to daily life can feel mundane. We all know that feeling. In some manner, we’ve all been there. So have you, most likely. The push toward completing a marathon or qualifying for Boston or Kona or some other big goal is a life force unto itself.
But I think about the former wife of a friend. It was not until recently through conversation during a long bike ride that I learned she had profound anxiety. None of us ever knew. But my friend explained that she once wound up in the hospital due to anxiety attacks centered around their negotiation for a mortgage. Ultimately the marriage did break up, and it can never be known what portion of that outcome could be attributed to anxiety, or something else. But back then the drugs for anxiety were blunt and forceful, and it was not so practical to treat anxiety as it is today. Today she might have been able to better manage her anxiety, and both of them might have been able to work through their relationship challenges.
Big time problems
Mental illness is no imaginary thing. It is not choosy either. Men such as Winston Churchill fought through depression. He called it the Black Dog.
Depression can steal sleep as well, leading to a wicked cycle of exhaustion, fear and insomnia that can take people down a devastatingly difficult road.
It is best to get help for these challenges.
NAMI is there to help
In a week or so our local NAMI chapter is hosting a 5K to raise money for the National Alliance for Mental Illness. If you’ve never heard of NAMI, you should look it up. The organization provides vital mental health services and referrals for the families of those with mental illness. Much of its funding comes from contributions, and our local 5K does a great job of outreach and raising money for this local chapter. NAMI provides services to millions of people. And it’s worth it.
Perhaps, if Suzy Favor Hamilton had an opportunity to meet and talk with a NAMI chapter, she might not have run off to Vegas on a thrill-seeking mission. But like the lead character in the movie Wild said about her own journey, and I paraphrase, “What if all this was supposed to happen the way it did?”
In other words, do not be quick to rush to judgment. The vagaries of our lives teach us things we might not otherwise learn any other way.