Race Against the Stigma of Mental Illness: Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton
Suzy Favor Hamilton–US Junior Record holder in the 1500m; three-time national junior champion in high school; winner of nine NCAA Titles, 32 Big-Ten Championships, and seven USA National titles; American Record holder and a three-time Olympian.
And back in 2012, outted as a high-end escort in Las Vegas.
As the Olympic “sweetheart” of track and field, many were shocked by the news of Suzy’s “second life.” Amid the chaos of the reveal, Suzy began therapy to understand the reasons for her behaviors–and in doing so discovered she suffered from bipolar disorder.
Suzy reveals all in her memoir published this past September: Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness. I immediately read Suzy’s book with great interest and found it relateable in that with my eating disorder I fell into behaviors that my “normal” self couldn’t even fathom doing (like stealing/sneaking food from friends just to feed the high of the binge, for instance). And when Suzy touched on her own eating disorder in her book, I couldn’t help but want to reach out and hone in on the subject as it relates to her bipolar disorder and the enormous pressure runners feel that often drive them to an eating disorder.
Suzy’s honesty, openness, passion, and tremendous insight made this one of the most exciting, eye-opening interviews I have experienced yet. I am thankful for her willingness to share her experiences and offer hope, as well as blaze a trail for runners to live a more healthy, balanced life.
When did you realize you had a problem with food?
I remember it was in high school when I was improving on the national level and seeing girls who were much thinner than me running faster. I thought that I needed to be and look like that to run fast. There were a couple girls who were extremely anorexic. And I thought these girls were supposed to be the best.
That was the beginning of it all. I didn’t realize I had any issues with my mental capacity. Already I had insecurities with myself. In that time [the eating disorder] was the one area that was in control of my life but I wasn’t aware. I couldn’t control my running because I didn’t know what the other runners were doing. I couldn’t control these outside sources so I figured out I could control my body—that one thing. That gives me power, that gives me satisfaction, even though it wasn’t that simple. It actually caused more anxiety and issues. And at that age I didn’t know how to speak up. I couldn’t say that to my coaches–to anybody–because I had learned early-on as an athlete that you don’t show your weaknesses. Psychiatrists were only for people who were “crazy.” Because my brother had bipolar, and I thought, Okay my brother is not normal but I don’t need a psychiatrist because I’m “normal.”
Did it negatively affect any of your races or training?
I would have been able to train harder and rest injuries with more nutrition. I didn’t realize the harm the eating disorder was doing to my body. And what’s upsetting is no one interfered. I guess my coach didn’t realize I was bulimic. They also saw other girls in high school on my team who were anorexic and bulimic and it was just ignored. And I don’t know if that’s just because the coaches couldn’t speak up. I just believe it was something that was ignored. It wasn’t looked at as a mental issue—just a girl going on a diet. Almost applauded. Especially for runners—Oh you’re a runner, you’re so fit, I can see all your muscles, they would say. But it’s actually starting to show your skeletal body.
Do you think your bipolar disorder was part of the eating disorder?
I see this all as a part of the bipolar. The eating disorder was due to mood swings and feeling low so you’ll feel good not eating as much. I do believe eating disorders are a sign of some anxiety, a mental health issue. Everyone’s issues come in different forms with eating disorders.
Was it difficult to turn away/recover from your eating disorder?
I think eating issues—my personal opinion—I think it never goes away. I think you’ll always have issues with food your whole life. Now I don’t feel like I don’t want to eat—I don’t have that approach. Now that I know that it was a mental way to feel good, I have other things to replace that—with my yoga and running when I can run. But I don’t use the eating disorder now to feel good. I think that if I did, I wouldn’t have solved my problem.
Did any of your family members know about it?
I don’t believe so. My sister might have had some suspicion because she was the closest—she was a runner too. She had some idea but wasn’t going to do anything about it.
Did you ever feel like the eating disorder wasn’t “bad enough” for you to seek help?
Yeah I don’t think it was noticeable for anyone to step in. In my mind, I looked big. I saw myself as somebody who was not thin enough. I was comparing myself to these other girls and not seeing that we all have our own body figure and we should all be proud and happy about that.
What is your advice for those who are heading down the eating disorder path but don’t believe it’s “that bad”?
That’s tough because if you’re in denial, you don’t see anything wrong. It’s just like an alcoholic. I just deny it and say I’m fine. Also during that time when I was manic in Vegas I wasn’t eating much but that wasn’t a conscious effort not to eat–that was part of my mania. But I was completely in denial. Even when I was outed, I was completely in denial. I had to hit rock bottom.
So I would suggest to young athletes—really ask yourself why are you doing this? Are you doing this because you want to run faster and this is the easy route to getting there? Because you’re going to head down a dangerous road that’s going to spiral down. Really look at the problems in your life. It could range from anything. There are so many things that could go wrong in someone’s life—someone’s divorce or they have been raped or their coach says you just need to drop five pounds and you’ll run faster.
And that’s where it’s tough to go there and examine it. It’s easier to find a coping mechanism than to go down a dark road and explore. It’s hard at that age when you’re in high school and in college to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I think when you’re young you see everything—gosh, you’re really focusing on that day and not the big picture and what’s healthy for me and eating three meals a day—you’re not thinking about how important these things are. I look at love as a huge part of what life is all about—to be loved, to love somebody. I think in running I strove to please everyone and it’s a form of trying to get love.
If a coach is forcing someone or putting pressure on them to lose weight they need to leave that coach. If they can’t leave that coach they need to speak up. Somebody needs to intervene then.
As a coach what do you think is the best way to approach this topic among our young athletes to bring about awareness and prevention?
Educating these young runners is tucked away and totally not talked about. And there’s a high percentage of eating disorders among men, too! But oh my god, and for girls, losing your period. I think some girls want to prolong puberty—they don’t want to get boobs, they don’t want to get hips—they are afraid of the body changing. And you hear this from the coaches! “That girl developed too quickly.” That’s why I got a breast reduction because I’m not what the runner body type looked like. I should have been, I have boobs and that’s great! But I didn’t have confidence in myself. Getting a reduction is what gave me confidence. Which to me, looking back, it’s not like my boobs were ginormous. It was all about that body image. And that’s mental illness because you have a warped sense of who you are and what you look like.
You could see someone on the team dealing with an eating disorder and they seem to pull back, they pull back from reality. And that’s what the doctors in college would tell you to do—you would have to stop running and eat. And that is so not the solution for an eating disorder—to tell her to stop and just go and eat. So why are they going to stop that behavior? They’re going to continue and they’re going to sneak it and they’re going to pull back even more. They won’t like that people are telling them what to do again. So we have to get these athletes in counseling and it’s tough to find the right person for them. And it’s all about perspective—that running is a small percentage of your life, that there’s so much more to explore. My friend who passed (who I write about in my book) lived life—she didn’t fall into that running world trap.
As a coach you can handle it in a delicate way and maybe talk with the girl who looks like she may be having some issues. It shouldn’t be sneaky like telling her parents. You can ask the athlete, Is there anything you want to share with me? If not I think it would be a great idea to talk with a school guidance counselor because we all go through these things in life and sharing the experience is very helpful. If you share your own experiences that weren’t good but you learned from them, that can be something that’s very healing and make the eating disorder seem a little more normal, too.
And another way to approach it is to bring in a specialist. You can say, You know what? We’re going to have a nutrition talk so that we don’t go down this route because everyone I know goes down this route hasn’t been able to run due to injury. Really educating and then telling everyone the nutritionist is here if you want to email her opens the doors for some source of help.
What do you think we can do to lower the risk of eating disorders among athletes (especially in the running world)?
The praise of being thin—and we praise that—isn’t health. And you know, we see more runners on the cover of Runners World magazine that aren’t stick figures and that’s healthy to show a different body type.
I think there are so many issues in life (like with my bipolar) to educate people. We have to have the professional come in and educate the people. It’s not as easy as telling them what they should eat. It’s about finding out what the problems in your life are that are causing the behavior. I think that until you can get to that point with the athlete, nothing can change. Nutrition is great to tell the negative effects, but you need a sports psychologist.
I think it’s important to express how counseling for everyone is a step towards wanting to be a better person. And praise the fact that someone would want to talk to a psychologist. Society needs to do this more. People have psychiatrists in their lives. We always bounce our ideas off of our friends but our friends can’t always handle all of that. It can even ruin friendships.
What role do parents have in their child’s mental health as a runner?
I strongly think that somebody who is down that [eating disorder] path is going to have a hard time recognizing [their eating disorder]. It’s always in hindsight. I think parents need to really be aware and handle it in a delicate manner—not the “just eat” method. I think if a parent doesn’t force it and instead maybe sits down and says, Whatever your feelings are, these feelings aren’t going to last forever so if you’re feeling down and depressed I can help you and get you help. I know with my own daughter I would ask her to share her feelings with me and ask her what is causing her to feel so low. Because my daughter says, Mom, I don’t know why I don’t feel happy. So I’ll go, Is it something with your friends? Did you eat? She may say no. Well, let’s start with that. So we’re going through the things of why you don’t feel good and tackle those.
I think parents have a huge role in the child but it can also be difficult if the parent is the one who is causing the problems. And parents don’t ever think about that they could be the problem and if you have a strong parent and your loved one has an eating disorder, the daughter needs to get counseling and the parent needs to get counseling to examine their own life to understand what the are doing to harm the child—something they are not even aware of. I see moms who have eating disorders and see young girls develop the same issue because they see their mom starving themselves. Like my daughter. She only eats plain food, her diet is not a variety, and I realize I do the same. So I realize, okay, what I’m eating she’s seeing, and as a parent, it’s safe to eat all these other foods.
Do you have any extra words of advice, insight, etc?
Friendship is so important—friends willing to express their imperfections, friends that have issues or have gone through a lot of shit and are in such a better place now. I’m very much attracted to that type of personality. I had a hard time in the running world and didn’t have many lasting friendships because they felt artificial and I didn’t want to let everyone in because it was such a perfect little world and sometimes runners create this façade and create this type A. For me friendships are more important than anything—developing these new friendships makes me so happy.
And yoga! Yoga is so mindful and you can find a bliss through meditation and through yoga. Meditation isn’t something you just learn overnight—it’s a process. I just brought it back into my life just a few weeks ago—and what a change it’s been in the few weeks I’ve started. There are some weeks where I know I’m not doing well, and as hard as I try to snap out of it, I know I’m just not feeling good but I’m conscious of it and I can then call my psychiatrist and try to figure out why I’m feeling down again.
So it never ends. I’m going to continue to have down days. Coping mechanisms are the key in recovery. If you don’t have a coping mechanism, how are you expected not to resort back to that old behavior? And for me going to Vegas was my coping mechanism, because it just took away everything in my mind and it was like bliss for me. And I’ll never forget that feeling. And that’s the hardest thing—I went down that road and now I have to live with that feeling and knowing how great that feeling was and not having it back. But I’ve found coping mechanisms.
For me when I was outed, I immediately started therapy and medication. And you’re going to lie to a psychiatrist and lie and manipulate to get back to what you want. You know if you’re doing that, there are huge issues you are still hiding.
So having the strength to face the obstacles in your life to get healthy—to be willing to look at it and become healthy–that’s better than training or winning any race. That—to me—is the biggest accomplishment in someone’s life.
Wow. What a fantastic interview. Suzy, it was a thrilling day when Rachael met you in Wisconsin, and the impression was so strong it has stayed with her all these years. I loved every wonderful healing thing you said in your interview and I believe your advice and Rachael’s part in spreading the word will go a long way in help other young women find a good path for themselves. Thank you both for contributing so much to the mental health community.
Suzy’s story is inspiring. She is helping many.