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

Epilogue: A WORK IN PROGRESS

It is a crisp, fall morning. I dropped Kylie off at school about an hour ago, and now I’m ready for my time. I look forward to this time, when I can move in the way my body knows best, wind in my hair, finding the rhythm that feels as natural as breathing.

I run now for the freedom it gives me. I run because it feels good. I run because it is good for me—for my heart and for my head. But it isn’t all I do. I am still constantly in motion; in my running shoes, on my bike, on my yoga mat, exercise is my drug of choice now.

In these moments, on the path with my feet hitting the ground, I feel peaceful. I am myself, living the life I want, not the one that others expect from me or the one that I created out of fantasy and confusion. My life now isn’t perfect. Far from it. But it is a life of contentment, and for this I am incredibly grateful.

I am grateful for the little moments in life, like walking my daughter to school, sharing a meal together as a family, dancing to our favorite songs in the kitchen while we bake chocolate chip cookies. I am grateful that the love of my life stood by me through the destruction that was my illness. If I’m honest, I wonder if maybe he cared about me more than I cared about myself. I almost destroyed our family, and myself, but Mark stayed, finding the strength to do so once I received my bipolar diagnosis, and he dedicated himself to learning as much as he could about my illness and supporting me to get better. And when the time came to start again, he was the one who told me that I had to forgive myself first before I could move on. Without him, I never would have found that courage. Without his love, I might never have been diagnosed. I might still be stuck in my cycle of risky behavior, always pushing for more, more, more. I might even have pushed too far. Bipolar disorder needs an outlet. Sex, drugs, alcohol, danger, adrenaline—these all feed the mania that sets a bipolar brain on fire.

Being diagnosed wasn’t enough to turn off my mania. The year that followed my diagnosis was actually the most challenging of all, for my family and for me. Even when I was prescribed Lamictal, the drug that finally quieted my mind, it took months for us to find the right dosage. Until then, I self-medicated with alcohol and Xanax and when nothing else gave me the sensation I craved, I occasionally slipped up and resorted to my previous coping mechanisms. Finally, with the help of a skilled mental health team, we identified the triggers that were setting me off: my job, my family, and certain aspects of my marriage. We cleaned up the wreckage I had created, paying the taxes I owed for my escorting and finally making it clear to all of my clients that my time as an escort was over forever. We made a plan to manage my exposure to my triggers, so I would be set off as little as possible. And we found better ways for me to achieve the high I craved, including intense exercise and travel, often paired together, such as a challenging hike in a beautiful new locale.

With Mark’s support, I stopped feeding the flames, and I reached deep down into my soul to find the true source of my pain and to begin to heal it. With Mark’s example of unconditional love as their guide, Mark’s parents also stood by me with so much love and support, as did most of my family, many of our friends, a good amount of people in Madison, as well as some in the international mental health and running communities. I know it wasn’t easy for my parents to come to terms with what I’d done. At first, they focused on the way my illness had manifested itself, instead of my illness. But, recently, they have begun to understand more and offer their encouragement, which means so much to me. When I consider the wealth of love and support in my life, I feel so very fortunate and grateful.

It is not easy to admit you have a problem, that you are sick. Denial grabs hold and clings for dear life. Denial can ruin lives as much as mental illness can. I know that now. The denial in my own family, the way we looked away from the very truth before us, was destructive. My parents can’t be blamed for what happened to Dan, or to me, of course. They did the best they could. We all did. Our mental illness was up to the algebra of genetics, our unlucky equation. But treatment was and is available. So many people are left untreated, even today when there is much aid available to them. You don’t have to hide or be ashamed for being sick now. You can reach out and be helped, and thank God for that.

As I run, I feel my muscles loosen, stretching and contracting from memory. It was once my running that made me a role model, even though I had little desire for the attention or that burden. I came to hate the thing I loved most, the thing I was born to do. But now, I have a new purpose, new goals that have nothing to do with crossing the finish line first. I want to share my story. I want to have courage and keep fighting. I want to show the world, but mostly my daughter, that you have to live your life for yourself, and that with love and help you can claw your way back from a dark place. I hope my daughter never goes toward darkness, but if she does I’ll be there to tell her that shame and guilt are wasted emotions. The shame and guilt that I wrestled with kept me stuck for a long time. And while I am deeply sorry for the hurt I caused my family, I know that I didn’t do it out of malice or lack of care. I had no other choice but to act as I did. That is the power of bipolar disorder.

No one asks for mental illness, but now I see my long battle as a gift. I would never have gone down this road if I weren’t bipolar, but if I weren’t bipolar I wouldn’t have found my voice to live my truth and tell my story, and I wouldn’t be here now to help others to know that they are not alone.