Stories of Hope: An Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked Suzy Favor Hamilton, former Olympic athlete, best-selling author of “Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness,” and mental health advocate to share a little about her journey and how she’s doing today. Here’s our interview:
DS: As we know, mental health issues don’t just emerge overnight. Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you and those around you before you sought treatment?
SFH: My first awareness really began shortly after giving birth to my daughter in late 2005. I was experiencing suicidal depression at levels that shook me. It didn’t take long for my husband to realize that I needed to get help. I knew it too. I was scared. The thought of taking your own life, and leaving this beautiful newborn without a mother was terrifying.
At that time, I was diagnosed with depression, placed on meds, and from there, things improved for quite some time. I went off the meds a few years later thinking things were fine and not liking the side effects, but the deep depression quickly returned.
I was placed on a different antidepressant by a general physician and that’s when everything changed for me. That drug helped amazingly well for the depression. It made me euphoric. I had never felt so good. I wanted to live life to the fullest.
But I think you know the rest of the story as my life took me to a place I would have never seen it going in a million years.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help and how difficult was it for you to accept that you had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder?
SFH: Really, it was the fear of losing my daughter, my husband, my parents. I knew I was off, but was in a great deal of denial as to how derailed I had become. So it was less of a “I need help” attitude at the time, and more of “If I don’t seek help here, or at least give the impression that I’m doing so, I’m going to lose these people who are dear to me.”
I truly felt I could convince my psychiatrist that I was fine and everybody around me had nothing to worry about. That’s where I was at that time in my life. So when he diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, I didn’t buy it for a second. I was angry. But the silver lining was that it provided hope for those around me that I could get back to my old self.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
SFH: Well, Lamictal (a mood-stabilizing medication) has worked pretty well for me. I still have my challenging periods of course, but the meds created some degree of clarity so therapy could have a chance to work.
My psychologist was amazing. She didn’t demonize my behavior. She helped me understand it, and we went deep to look for the reasons of why I would take things to such extremes. Why I would do what I did. Why I did what I did as a child, as a runner, as a wife.
Putting it all together provided me with a sense of peace over time. With clarity, I felt great shame for what I had done. My psychologist recognized that regret was healthy, but the shame would hold me back from recovery.
So lots of effort was made of eliminating shame for the illness, and of the behavior. We worked on identification of triggers and plenty of changes made in my life to reduce those triggers, from job, to family, to friends, to environment. Plus finding healthy coping mechanisms to replace the not so healthy mechanisms.
Alcohol, drugs and sex remained my secret coping mechanisms well into recovery. Yoga, hiking, art, and a new-found healthy approach to my running have taken hold as my “go to’s” these days.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
SFH: I’ve had a couple of periods where things were going well for an extended period, and I started to wonder, do I really have bipolar disorder? Do I really need these meds? Then it hits, and you realize, “oh yeah.”
But the key for me has been those triggers. I can be very sensitive, easily overwhelmed, wanting to push away and be alone. I still have times where I crawl into a ball and just cry. I still experience suicidal thoughts. I still have periods where I think about my life in Vegas, even when I try so hard not to. But the extremes are not there to the same extent it seems.
My life is mostly great, and my disorder is mostly managed. I try to stay around positive people who get me, who love me unconditionally. My husband and daughter are most always by my side, keeping an eye on me to some extent, but knowing that I need freedom and independence too, and that’s good for my mental state. Travel, exercise, getting out there: all of that is part of my recipe for management.
DS: You’ve been very active in recent years as a mental health advocate. How have you found this new role and tell us about your involvement in those activities.
SFH: It’s been rewarding to “give back” so to speak. I’ve always enjoyed helping others, making a small difference, perhaps allowing others to feel less alone.
Sharing my story has become easier over time. At first it was a triggering event to share. When my memoir was released, it was a difficult time for me.
Recently writing about my not always smooth recovery has been difficult more recently. But it seems, the more you share it, the easier it gets. And it truly is therapeutic. So it’s win-win if it helps others too.
DS: What do we need to do to reduce the stigma associated with having a mental illness?
SFH: Talk. Like anything that’s stigmatized, put a human face on it: good people, sometimes doing things that are difficult to understand. Talking. Sharing. Educating.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
SFH: That recovery is the most challenging thing I have ever been through. But recovery is absolutely, absolutely worth it. There will be times where you want to chuck it, where hope seems lost. But it always gets better, eventually. And those are the times where you realize it’s all worth it.
Thanks so much to Suzy for sharing her incredible story of hope!
Suzy Favor Hamilton is a 3-time Olympian, 7-time US National Champion and Record 9-time NCAA Champion track and field athlete. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness, which documents her unique journey from child phenom to Olympian, to top Las Vegas escort. Her complex life story was shaped by anxiety, depression and mania while living under the façade of the All-American girl. She has survived rock bottom and seeks to share her journey of recovery to educate, provide a roadmap, and hopefully, allow others to feel less alone. She is a spokesperson for the International Bipolar Foundation (IBF) and Run Like a Girl, and received the IBF “Imagine Award” in 2016 for her mental health advocacy. Suzy is married to Mark Hamilton and the couple has one daughter, Kylie. You can connect with Suzy via her website, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
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