Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness - Suzy Favor Hamilton (2015)

Chapter 1. A FEELING LIKE FLYING

We always played on the nature trails near the Wisconsin River, which flowed right below the house where I grew up in Stevens Point. My friends and I were walking together beneath the overhanging oak trees one fall day, looking for fallen branches to build a fort in the shape of a tepee. This would be a fort for girls only, where we could hide out. If the boys came by, they’d need to know the password, which we wouldn’t tell them. As we continued our search, I shivered in the cool air and looked toward the train tracks, hoping to spot some more building materials and thinking that if I ran a little bit, the motion might warm me up.

“I’m going to go look for some better wood,” I said, and took off.

My friends nodded, and we split up to cover more ground. As soon as I rounded the bend, I began to run. This had been my intention all along. I’m not sure why I lied to my friends. It didn’t matter. I was flying.

I gathered speed, my sneakers crunching the dry leaves beneath me as they flew over the uneven path with its divots of dead grass, scattered acorns, and twigs, my steps falling with such certainty, I didn’t have to look down. Running faster and faster, I discovered a totally new feeling: a perfect mix of euphoria and peace.

When I ran in gym class, I always landed on my toes, instead of on the balls of my feet, like most runners, and so I often thought of myself as a ballerina when I ran because they were always up on their toes, too. But on this day, even though I was running in the same way as usual, my body felt different. I wasn’t running because my gym teacher had told me to. I was running because my body was compelled to, for the sheer pleasure of it. Nature seemed so clear to me, the trees swaying in the breeze above me as I passed through the grove where they grew. My stride was so effortless that I picked up my pace even more, my biggest smile on my face. I forgot why I was in the woods in the first place, forgot everything, and began to run like a galloping horse. I was now the horse and didn’t ever want to stop. My arms pumped back and forth, my breath visible in white puffs that gusted out of my mouth into the crisp, cold air. I’d already run about a mile when I remembered that I was supposed to be gathering sticks for our dream fort. Suddenly I was afraid my friends would worry about where I was and what I was doing. I had to get back to them quickly. I also knew that I couldn’t tell them that I’d run off pretending to be a horse. I heard them calling my name in the distance. I turned back in their direction, and the horse began to pick up the pace again, to a blazing speed now. This was incredible. Am I really as fast as I feel? I had no idea, but I knew that I’d found something new to love.

It was such a relief to discover running. I had a very active imagination that made it nearly impossible to concentrate on reading or school, or even on one project at a time. I could never sit still. I always had to be moving, whether I was skiing, mowing the lawn in summer, shoveling the driveway in winter, or cleaning the entire house and scrubbing all the floors while my parents were at work. Our parents instilled a strong work ethic in all of their children, and I was the model child. I always wanted to make my mom and dad happy, like many children do, so I put my need to move into doing things that would please them. But I found as I grew older that constant movement kept my mind empty and at peace, too. If I was still, anxiety and self-doubt crept into my head. I could only stop the motion when I had completely exhausted myself.

Running made me feel better than any other movement, and it seemed I was good at it. I come from a very active and athletic family, but my father was especially gifted. A ski jumper and pole-vaulter in high school, he loved to tell us kids how he’d tried to vault over the fence surrounding his school, only to get his leg caught on the barbed wire. Having grown up poor in rural Wisconsin in a home made chaotic by his alcoholic father, my dad joined the navy as a way out. As an enlisted sailor, he took up boxing, eventually competing in the navy’s Golden Gloves amateur boxing competition.

It seemed like he was always jumping over—or off—something; his only fear was of jumping out of an airplane, which he vowed never to do. After leaving the service, he went to college, where he met my mom. When they were first married, my parents were so poor that they lived in a trailer and could only afford tuition for one of them. My dad decided they should flip for it to see who would stay in school. Heads, my mom would stay in nursing school and become a nurse. Tails, my dad would continue studying industrial design and become a graphic designer. The outcome was tails, and so my mom prepared to drop out. However, one of her professors was so impressed with her natural abilities as a nurse that she offered to loan my mom her tuition money so she could pursue her dream. My mom had a long career as a nurse, drawing on her natural nurturing tendencies, which were also evident in the way she raised us four children: my big brother Dan, who was six years older than me, my sister Carrie, who was one year younger than him, my sister Kris, who was three years younger than Carrie, and finally the baby, me.

My sister Kris was my best friend. Although she was only a year older than me, she loved to mother me. We were inseparable for most of my childhood. Because Carrie was quite a bit older than us, closer in age to Dan, she mostly hung out with him, except for when our parents asked her to babysit Kris and me.

When we were growing up, my dad was always the fun guy, so fit that he didn’t have a lick of fat on him, who went out for all kinds of behavior most people would consider risky. I had inherited my inability to sit still from my dad; he was always go-go-go. My brother Dan and I were always right there with him, pushing ourselves to keep up. I also shared a love of making art with my dad and Dan, and I enjoyed the fact that this was a common passion that brought me great joy and peace of mind, not anxiety.

Dad’s energy and daring often made for an unusual, even remarkable childhood. He had a saying he repeated often, which became our family motto: Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all. And we had a poster in our house emblazoned with these words. He was the dad who scrambled up to the highest branch of an oak tree to hang a swing for us. He was the guy firing up his snow blower at ten o’clock at night in a snowstorm, insisting that all of us kids come out and help him. And because he had so much energy, he’d stay outside late into the night clearing our neighbors’ driveways, too. I always felt lucky that my home life was so different from my friends’; they mostly just sat around watching TV with their parents. Not us. My dad liked to get out in the snow as much as we kids did. There was a toboggan run with rental sleds right near our house, and we didn’t even have to convince Dad to take us. It was his idea. He volunteered to build us snow forts, too, tunneling into the huge mounds of snow in our yard until he had cleared out chambers big enough to hold me and Kris and all of our friends. He used to build the walls so thick that I was scared they would come crashing down on us, but I never admitted my fear to my dad. I wanted him to think I was as brave and strong as he was.

Dad was friendly and talkative, always full of stories and a desire to help people. He often did odd jobs and repairs around the neighborhood. He seemed to be good at everything he tried, and his strength and competence meant that I felt protected when I was with him. But he also liked to push the limits to the extreme, and a part of me was frightened during our adventures together. My father had a great love of sailing, and we often took our sailboat out on the weekends to Lake DuBay, a small lake in central Wisconsin. I was not a big fan of all of the preparation required, so I usually played on the shore while he worked on the boat, sinking my feet into the sand or splashing in the waves. When we did go out together, I never really paid much attention to the actual sailing part, preferring instead to jump into the lake and enjoy a swim while trying to avoid the dreadful seaweed that my imagination transformed into long nightmarish tendrils that could twist around my body and pull me under.

One day I clambered onto the boat with my father, his best friend, and the man’s son. My father’s friend wasn’t any more experienced a sailor than I was. The trip began smoothly enough, even though the lake was strangely deserted for a summer day.

We loaded our supplies, and then my father took control and motioned to me.

“Sit over there, Suzy,” he said.

I did as I was told, used to being instructed on where to be and when to duck my head so I didn’t get knocked into the water by the boom. As we passed tall pines on our way out of the bay, the skies began to turn gray and the whitecaps started building. The water was even rougher ahead. The gray sky was changing to black, and the wind had become so strong that when we hit the open water, the boat took off like a cannon blast. I had to grab onto a rope and brace myself to avoid falling over.

“Tighten your jackets!” my dad yelled through the gusting wind.

He was the only one without a life jacket, but there was a flotation cushion by his feet, which I kept an eye on as I tightened my own vest until I almost couldn’t breathe. I saw fear in my father’s eyes, something I had rarely seen before, but he had decided we were going to go sailing, and so, sailing we would go. Once my father had something in mind, there was no stopping him. My dad’s sense of determination lasted for a few minutes, and then, with the boat bucking beneath us, even Dad had to admit that this was no day to be out on the open water.

“We need to come about,” he yelled, meaning we needed to reverse the boat in order to escape the storm that was about to engulf us and quite possibly tip us over.

I’d experienced what it was like to go under once before, when my father had given my brother control of the boat’s rudder. Dan had made a sudden sharp turn, and the boat had flipped. The next thing I knew, I was submerged in the water with the sail pushing my body down. I panicked and fought with the fabric, trying to release myself, but it was wet and heavy, and it wouldn’t let me go. At that moment, I remembered my father telling me to always swim down—without panicking—if something like this should happen, as it was the only way to free yourself from the sail. I was determined to survive and found myself kicking my legs hard, until I was clear of the canvas. As my lungs burned, I finally spotted the light of the sky above me. When I popped up, I took the biggest breath I could. I wanted to see my dad because he was my protector. And there he was, pulling me back aboard our boat with his strong arms. Despite the happy ending, the experience scared me, and now here I was, in trouble, on the same lake that had once nearly taken my life.

The waves were coming in over the side of the boat now, the sails whipping around us, as my father struggled to turn us back toward the bay. And then, just like that, my father was gone. I looked back and saw him bobbing in the water, the angry waves covering his head. He was an extremely experienced swimmer, but the fury of the water was unstoppable on this day. My father was in danger. I noticed the flotation cushion was still near me in the boat, but I sat paralyzed with fear until we were too far away for me to reach him anyway. Why didn’t I throw it to him? I berated myself.

As the boat sailed itself toward the shore, my father became smaller and smaller in the distance. He seemed to be trying to swim to the nearest shoreline, but that was a half mile away, and he would have to swim directly into the wind and waves. Neither his friend nor I had any idea how to turn the boat around to rescue him. Terror and helplessness gripped me. I knew my father was going to drown, and I could do nothing to help him. I could barely see his head bobbing out on the lake. Had he already drowned? Panic engulfed me like iron claws. Then I saw a motorboat racing toward where I had last seen him. I prayed they would get to him in time. Just when it seemed that my father was gone forever, the boat reached him. An enormous sense of relief washed over me as I watched them pull him up and out of the water, saving his life. My protector was safe.

My father’s friend managed to regain some control of our boat until the speedboat that had rescued my father pulled alongside us. Even in his weakened state, Dad was able to scramble on board. With tears in my eyes, I watched him struggle to lower the sails and finally slow us down enough to ease us back to land. I could see how much the experience had shaken him up, but it did nothing to mellow him. My dad couldn’t stop either.

Dan, unlike me, had no trouble keeping up with my dad. We lived near a small ski hill, where my dad was a member of the ski patrol, and we skied every weekend during the winter. I loved to ski, but I was nowhere as talented as my father, who still had the confidence of the youthful ski jumper he had been, and soared down every slope with ease. Dan was really good on the slopes, so good that he was soon racing competitively. It was easy to tell from the look of pure joy on his face that he loved the speed and the adrenaline rush of skiing. In order to emulate both of them, I found myself on the expert hills during our family ski trip to Colorado. Only, I was not a daredevil like them, and I didn’t have their skill set, either. In way over my head, I was so terrified to go down the steep slope that I had to slowly slide sideways down the hill on my butt. The moguls became my safety nets, because each one held me for the time I needed to catch my breath and gather the courage to slide down a little farther toward the welcome flat ground below.

I didn’t have the same daring personality as Dan, either. As much as I thought I wanted to be like him, and shared his love of art, I didn’t chase the rush of dangerous activities the way he did. The older he got, the more erratic his behavior became and the more difficult it became to admire him, much less emulate him. He was quite serious about his high school girlfriend, and when she died of a rare condition called Reye’s syndrome, he was devastated. He went to Minneapolis to look for her, even though he’d been told she was gone. He couldn’t let her go and truly believed he could bring her back. Her death became a turning point for Dan. As his grief intensified, his mood swings and aggressive behavior worsened, and he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given shock treatment and lithium. After the treatment, it was as if his true self had been lost, and Dan was never the same again. When my dad lived on the edge, he always clung to some level of control over the situation and himself. I knew my dad would protect me. But now with Dan, it became hard to know if he would stop before hurting himself—or me.

Dan was no different behind the wheel. He once took a curve on his motorcycle so fast that he nearly killed himself in the crash. On the rare occasion I went somewhere with him in his beat-up blue car, he always tore down the highway, REO Speedwagon blaring, the windows down, causing my blond hair to whip around my face. The excitement built as we approached whatever adventure he had planned for the day, just like it always did with our dad, but with an added edge of fear. I wanted to believe he wouldn’t risk my life with his, but I wasn’t sure. I often wondered if he had no thought of dying at all. When he jumped out of an airplane in his early twenties, I swore I would never, ever do anything like that. But that was only the tip of the iceberg for Dan.

Dan teased me, too, much more than the average big brother harassing the pesky little sister. It wasn’t so much any one thing he said or did; it was the intensity with which he pursued me. He pushed and pushed, constantly, trying to make me as upset as possible. I was sensitive, so it didn’t take much. And Dan gave more than enough. For some reason, he never targeted my sisters in the same way. Maybe because he saw Carrie as an ally, and besides, as soon as she started dating her boyfriend in high school, she was never around. And Kris didn’t challenge him in the same the way I did. It wasn’t that I wanted to make him mad. It was just that I couldn’t understand why he had to be so loud all the time. He loved Queen, especially the band’s songs “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and when our parents weren’t home, he cranked them loudly on the stereo in the living room, listening to them again and again and again, until finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I strode into the living room, all righteous indignation.

“Can you please turn it down?” I shouted over the music.

Dan stared at me with a wicked gleam in his eye and turned the music up. Tears started to press against the back of my eyes.

“Please, Dan,” I said, my voice shaky. “Turn it down.”

He turned the stereo up as loud as it would go. The noise pressed on me, as did his gaze, which was challenging and mean, all trace gone of the big brother who’d once filled my kiddy pool with hot water so I could swim on a cold spring day. Finally, I couldn’t fight back my tears anymore, and they poured free. Dan just glared at me. Now, I understand it was Dan’s illness that made him behave in this way. But, at the time, I couldn’t take his meanness anymore, and I ran to the phone to call my mom. Of course, having me tattle on him only made Dan more determined to show me that he couldn’t be controlled. In the summer, he chased me around my grandparents’ yard with a snake, waving it wildly in front of me while I ran around screaming. In the fall, the giant dead sunflowers in my grandparents’ yard had cracked black centers that looked like burnt-out eyes, and when he came after me with one of those, that was enough to make me cry and beg him to stop, too. But nothing I, or my parents, did or said seemed to have any affect on him. He only harassed me more.

In the mid-seventies, Burger King had these television commercials with this silly little jingle, “Have It Your Way,” which Dan turned into its own form of psychological torture.

We were both home alone after school, Mom and Dad still at work. I was in the kitchen looking for a Twinkie to eat. Dan rushed in and slid across the linoleum, always in motion, just like our dad, just like me. He hulked over me, pinning me against the cabinets.

“Have it your way, Suzy,” he crooned at me, singing into an imaginary microphone. “Have it your way. Have it your way at Burger King.”

“Dan, stop it,” I said.

“Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us,” he continued, completely ignoring my pleas.

“Dan, I mean it,” I said, my bottom lip trembling as the tears rushed forward. I cried easily and often as a kid, which only gave Dan that much more pleasure. Maybe it was because I was the baby of the family, and Dan was so much bigger and older than me, but I felt like I had no choice but to get my parents involved. And because they always took my side against my brother, I came to expect and need their protection.

He slid back just enough to let me pass, but as soon as I crossed into the dining room, he was right there behind me, singing the stupid jingle over and over again, following me from room to room.

“I’m calling Mom,” I cried.

“Have it your way,” he sang, totally immune to my tears and threats.

There was nothing I could say or do. Dan was on a tape loop, animated and totally amused. By the time I reached my mom on the phone at the hospital where she worked as a nurse, I was bawling so hard I could barely choke out words. She felt terrible, but there was nothing she could do. She was at work, yes, but there was no stopping Dan when he was like this. And he was like this more and more by the day, even with his medication.

My dad always expected Dan to be able to maintain the same degree of control over himself that Dad did, and he became furious when Dan could not.

One night, my dad came home already on edge, because it was one of those nights when I’d called my mom at work about Dan, and she hadn’t been able to get him to stop doing whatever it was he had been doing. All six of us were at the table, and Dan’s behavior set my dad off.

“Dan, stop it,” Dad said. “We’re trying to have a nice dinner here.”

As usual, Dan could never stop once he got started, and he kept carrying on.

“Dan, go to your room,” Dad said.

Dan did not get up or curtail his behavior. My father grabbed his plate from the table and threw it against the wall, away from where we were all seated. It shattered, the broken pieces making tiny holes in the wallpaper. Still fit and fast, Dad then grabbed Dan and pulled him the four feet across the floor to his room, forcing him inside and slamming the door. The rest of us sat in silence, our heads down, our food untouched. This was so unlike my dad, who was high energy, yes, but maintained the orderly discipline of the navy throughout his whole life, assigning us kids to specific seats at the table and giving us a particular order in which we had to get ready every morning in the one bathroom we all shared, limiting us all to three-minute showers. I had seen Dad and Dan fight before, but this was too much. I began to cry, and as we sat in silence, the only sound was my snuffling.

Dan started to self-medicate, the way so many mentally ill people do. One day, when I was twelve and Dan was eighteen, I came home from grocery shopping with my mom to find him passed out on the floor, clutching an empty vodka bottle. Instantly, I could feel Mom’s panic rising. This was the first time I’d seen him like this, but I knew it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Having his bipolar disorder identified hadn’t done anything to lessen his desire to obliterate his dark thoughts, and we all worried he was drinking way too much, often to the point of becoming argumentative and reckless, especially when our dad attempted to discipline him, hoping it would help Dan pull it together. My brother had moved down into the basement by now, and another time, our cousin and my dad found him in his bedroom, an empty vodka bottle nearby, pointing one of the shotguns he and Dad used to hunt geese at his head. He didn’t respond when our cousin called his name, so Dad rushed in and grabbed the gun out of his hands. Although no one in my family ever mentioned these scenes after the fact, it was impossible to deny the anguish they caused, and a shadow began to creep over our house. I could sense the great tension, even as the youngest, and I began to feel very alone. My oldest sister was close enough to Dan’s age that she wasn’t home much, and when she was they had an easy camaraderie left over from the childhood years they’d shared as the family’s only two children, despite Dan’s manic behavior. And although Kris was only a year older than me, and we remained close, she too began to find ways to be out of the house as much as possible.

To me, ours was a family of secret pain. We didn’t talk about the moments of fear we felt when Dan went too far, or when my father exploded into a rage. My mother just kept doing what nurses do—care for the hurting people without ever healing them. And I, doted upon as I was, still bore the brunt of Dan’s behavior. Nothing was normal, though we pretended it was. I wanted to make up for all of the pain my brother caused. I was going to be perfect.