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

Chapter 6. REAL LIFE

The stress of the race itself was over, but the nightmare went on and on. As far as I was concerned, this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, worse than any other loss, worse, even, than my brother’s death. My perceptions were totally distorted. I was a wreck.

The incident was big news; I was a veteran runner and the visual of me collapsing onto the track was dramatic, even haunting. In the immediate aftermath, Mark was terrified I’d really injured myself. And the media were clamoring for an interview. So I lied. To my husband, to journalists, to my coach, to everyone but the only person who knew the truth of the matter: myself. I pretended I had fallen, when I knew I had collapsed just to end the ordeal. The medic who treated me immediately after the race cited dehydration as the cause of my collapse, and so I gratefully went with that excuse, even though, as careful as I was with my training, I never would have allowed dehydration to befall me like that. During subsequent exams, it was revealed that I had a broken ischium bone, which had been the cause of the hamstring pain that had kept me from training adequately in the weeks leading up to Sydney. This injury had also contributed to my fall, at least in terms of the psychological toll it had taken on me. Any elite runner could have been thrown off by such a setback, and for me, it had been psychologically debilitating.

I was embarrassed and heartbroken. In my mind, I had failed not only myself, but also Peter, who had devoted so much to me, and I hadn’t even made good by winning him a gold. I felt the whole world viewed me as a failure, which was devastating after two decades of nonstop training and competition based on the idea that I had the potential to be the best.

In the wake of my fall, I couldn’t get home fast enough, but once we were back in Madison, I couldn’t bring myself to leave my house. Upon arriving home to our small town of New Glarus, we drove under a big banner that said something along the lines of, GREAT JOB, SUZY! It was well intentioned, but only added to my sense of embarrassment. When I went to the grocery store, I was sure everyone was staring at me, whispering behind my back about how I had failed and let down our whole state—no, our whole country—so I stopped leaving the house. I wanted the whole event to go away. It was months before I didn’t think about what had happened almost constantly. Mark was concerned about me and encouraged me to get out of the house and go running, which he knew would be more therapeutic for me than anything else, and spend time with our friends. But he didn’t press me. I did a good job of hiding the true extent of my anxiety and shame from him, and even though I’d always leaned on him for advice and support, when it came down to it, he’d been conditioned to go along with whatever I said was best for my training, and so he didn’t intervene now.

At the urging of an incredible doctor I’d found during our time in L.A., I finally forced myself to go see a sports psychologist for the first time in my career, in order to discuss what had happened. But even in the safety of her office, I was never really honest. I told her that I had fallen on purpose, but I didn’t reveal just how dark my mental state had been going into the race. She decided the fall in Sydney was due to the extreme stress of having so much riding on a single race, and nothing in our discussions led her to suspect there was any more to it.

When the dust finally cleared, it was time to take stock, of my running career and of the life Mark and I had built together since our marriage. I didn’t want to race anymore. I was terrified that the minute I strapped on my spikes I’d be crippled with panic. But I was too proud to end my career on such a low note. I rallied, kept training, and in 2001 things were on the upswing again. I actually had quite a good year in 2001. Or at least I had a good runningyear. My life continued to be dictated by my obsessive focus. I spent most of my time with my coach, Peter, and Mark. In his dual role as my husband and part-time manager, Mark was aware of my every move. I had remained close to Mary, even though she had married an old contact of mine from Nike we’d set her up with and moved to Portland to be with him. We talked on the phone frequently and saw each other as often as we could. Later that year, she called me with terrible news.

“Suzy, I have to tell you something,” she said, slowly and quietly.

“What is it?” I asked, instantly worried because it was unlike her to sound so serious. I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea, and I looked up at Mark, who was standing across from me.

“I have cancer,” she said, her voice shaking. “But don’t worry, I’m going to fight it, and I’m going to win.”

My heart tightened up and tears rolled down my face.

If anyone could beat cancer, it was Mary, who was still the most dynamic, charismatic force of nature I’d ever known. But her diagnosis—a rare cancer—and ensuing need for a particularly intense form of chemotherapy meant she had a hard battle ahead. I made a point to get to Portland several times that year to be with my dear friend. She always amazed me with her energy and good spirits, even when she was sick, and it was easy to pretend she’d be back to normal in no time. Plus, I knew that was what Mary wanted, and wanted me to believe.

I had a great season in 2002, running three 1,500s under four minutes and earning a ranking of number three in the world. My training was going so well that I began looking toward competing in one more Olympics, in 2004. But as the trials approached, my nagging injuries began to get the best of me. I was traveling to Limerick once a month for deep-tissue treatment, and also making trips to Germany for injections to remove scar tissue. My body was telling me: enough. Although I had run through worse injuries many times, I was worried about my mental state more than my physical body. I was terrified of what might happen if I tried to race when I knew I wasn’t at my best. I pulled my hamstring during the preliminary round of the Olympic trials, and I just didn’t have it in me to push through the pain and the fear. I had learned something from Sydney at least. So I pulled out of the final race.

Mark and I had been talking seriously about starting a family. We’d both always wanted children, and now that we had a space in our life that running used to fill, it seemed like the perfect moment to welcome a child. When I found out I was pregnant in early 2005, we were overjoyed. I loved being pregnant and couldn’t wait to be a mother. Mark and I were living in Blanchardville then, a small town thirty minutes outside of Madison. Our house was timber framed and cozy, nestled in a grove of grand oaks and maples on sixty-plus acres of woodland that included a creek and a running trail Mark had made for me. I continued to run through the woods daily during my pregnancy, but I was glad to be focused on picking baby names and getting our daughter’s room ready. I had yet to officially announce I was retiring, but as soon as I announced I was pregnant, people in the running world and my own family assumed I would retire, or at least take a break, in order to become a mom. My parents were overjoyed to be grandparents again, and their focus on my running was soon transferred to their excitement about their new granddaughter.

I pretty much knew it was time to put my dream on the shelf. Many athletes have a hard time retiring, because without the daily routine of training to give their life structure, and the positive reinforcement of winning to make them feel like they have value, they become depressed, or worse. This was not the case for me. I had hated competing for decades, since high school really, and had been looking forward to retiring for years. My demons had taken me down in Sydney. Any joy I had ever experienced in competition, and there hadn’t been much, was gone, never to return. I didn’t want to be a runner anymore. I still ran every day, but not with the need to complete the same number of miles, or with the same intensity, day after day. It was a huge relief. I loved lacing up my sneakers to go for a mellow ten-mile run. I was thrilled to have a break from the exhausting nonstop cycle of training and traveling, and then training some more. It was time to do something else.

Mark and I had begun to make a tentative plan that he would practice law, and once I was ready to return to work, I would coach, do motivational speaking, and make appearances, or some combination of the three. Life in Wisconsin was less expensive, and we had no reason to worry about supporting ourselves. The transition seemed likely to be an easy one. I did have to make one difficult trip that year when I visited Mary at her new house in Boston. I had seen her several times since she’d been diagnosed with cancer, and she’d filled me with hope with her resolve to get well. This time, things were different, though. I knew it as soon as she came to the door to welcome me on the first day of my visit. Mary had lost a lot of weight, as well as her thick brown hair, from the chemo, and she looked extremely frail. When I hugged her, I was alarmed to feel her bones through her skin. But then we pulled back and looked at each other, and she flashed her great crooked grin, and it was just like old times again.

I stayed with Mary for several days, and during that time, she insisted on taking a walk with me every day, even though she had to go slowly. This was such a change from our freshman year, when we ran so fast on the track that our teammates complained. Mary was still so young, only thirty-seven years old, and I wanted to believe in her. As we walked, our pace began to match, our arms swinging lightly by our sides, and our hands found each other, the fingers linking.

“How’s Mark?” she asked.

“He’s so excited to be a dad,” I said. “And I know he’s going to be great.”

“Mark was born ready to be a dad,” she joked.

That was Mary, always making me laugh.

“He’s definitely always been a lot more mature than me,” I said. “You know, I still feel really bad that I wasn’t able to make it to your wedding. It would have meant so much to me to be there.”

“You were racing,” Mary said. “If anyone should get that, it’s me. I wish you could have been there, too, though. It was the happiest day of my life. I feel so lucky that Fred came into my life when he did. He really is my guardian angel. Especially now.”

It felt so normal, talking about boys like we always had, even though now those boys were men—our husbands—and I was about to become a mom, an experience Mary was hoping for once she completed her cancer treatment, having put aside some of her eggs. But by the time we got back to Mary’s house, her already slow pace was flagging, and she had to stop and rest before she was able to climb the stairs to her front door. I reached for her arm to help her, but she leaned on the railing instead, independent as always. By the time we got inside, Mary felt ready to lie down. But she had something else she wanted to do. When we walked into the living room, she unrolled her yoga mat on the floor and had me sit down on the floor near her. We both crossed our legs and placed our palms together in front of our hearts.

“Okay, close your eyes,” she said, leading me through a simple introduction to yoga. “Slow your breathing.”

I knew that yoga, and especially the meditation component, had become incredibly important to Mary during her cancer treatment. I knew she loved it and I was eager to support anything that made her feel better. But the whole thing was quite a mystery to me. I was able to slow my breathing, but not my mind, which raced ahead at a million thoughts a moment, just like it always did. I followed along as best I could as Mary led me through several basic poses, but as soon as she brought our session to a close, I popped up off the floor, needing to be back in motion. Mary, on the other hand, was more than ready for her afternoon nap. An hour later, I found myself sitting on the couch, staring into space, a magazine discarded next to me. I’d never been much of a reader, and I really couldn’t concentrate now. All I could think about was Mary, how she’d always been my idol because of her style, independence, and zest for life. She just had to beat her cancer. She just had to. I stood and quietly tiptoed into her room to check on her. It was hard to see her, she looked so small in her bed, her thin limbs barely raising the blankets that covered her. I stopped short. The room wasn’t just completely quiet; it was full of peace, a palpable energy that was warm and golden like sunlight. I smiled through my tears, thinking how lucky I was to have this exceptional friend. If anyone could beat cancer, it was Mary.

I LOVED EVERYTHING ABOUT BEING pregnant, and I even loved giving birth, thanks to a well-timed epidural. I was so aware of everything in that moment, as if the preciousness of it all heightened my experience and brought everything into the sharpest focus. Kylie was born six weeks before her due date, and even though my doctor had told me there was nothing to worry about, it was hard not to fear that something might go wrong until I finally saw her and knew that she was healthy.

When Mark first saw Kylie, his face was filled with the glow of so much love. A nurse helped Mark cut the umbilical cord and place Kylie in my arms. All the love and joy within me rushed up to the surface, overwhelming me, and I began to cry. I looked up at Mark, who was beaming down at us and crying, too. My eyes returned to Kylie. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was so beautiful, perfect, with the cutest little nose and cheeks.

“My little peach,” I said, leaning forward to kiss her sweet face.

Everything I had done in my life before Kylie, save marrying Mark, seemed so small in that moment. Mark and I had created a miracle. I looked up at him again and we locked eyes, both smiling and crying at the same time, totally in the moment together.

Because she was born prematurely, Kylie had to stay in the hospital for ten days, which was hard for me. I just wanted to take her home to our little house in the woods, where I could care for her and we could begin our life together as a family. As my doctors had warned, I couldn’t breast-feed because of my reduction surgery. I wanted to feel as close to my daughter as possible, and it was hard not to fear I was failing her because my body wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do. From there, things got worse. Once Kylie finally came home, my fears amplified. I loved her. I loved her so much. I loved her so much that I couldn’t put her down. I literally could not bear the intense anguish of separation I experienced every time I set her down in her swing or her bassinet, even when she was sound asleep and didn’t notice I wasn’t holding her anymore. My brain started to spin and whirl like it used to when I was a little girl and needed to do something, anything—cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, or running, of course—to calm it down. When Kylie napped, I ran up and down the hill behind our house with the baby monitor in my hand, pushing myself as hard as I could. The only thing that made me feel better was to sit on the couch with Kylie in my arms, but even that wasn’t enough to recalibrate my brain. I stopped eating, except for protein shakes and Pop-Tarts, and as had happened before, eating less gave me this strange serenity, like I finally had control over at least one aspect of my life. I lost the twenty-six pounds I’d gained during my pregnancy very quickly, and still, I didn’t start eating more. And still, I didn’t feel normal. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.

One day, when Kylie went down for her morning nap, I set her in her bassinet and went into the kitchen to make myself a protein shake. As I stood at the counter, a rush of profound anguish overcame me, and I started to cry. All I wanted was to hold my precious little girl, who needed me, and I went back into her room and picked her up, rocking her in my arms on the couch for the rest of the day. When Mark came in from work that night, he found me sitting exactly where I’d been when he left in the morning, with Kylie in my arms.

“Hi, honey, how’s our little girl?” he asked.

“She’s perfect,” I said, looking down at her sweet little face.

“Did you have a chance to make those phones calls that I asked you to?” he asked.

“No, I didn’t,” I said, my voice rising at anything I interpreted as criticism from him, unable to see my own hypersensitivity.

Mark looked at me with concern, and I tried to smile.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll make them on my way into town tomorrow.”

We had scenes like this often during those first few months after Kylie was born, and as Mark’s worry grew, he tried to find little ways to help me. One morning, instead of rushing off to the office or a meeting with a client, he lingered over a cup of tea at the dining room table, while I held Kylie, as usual.

“Why don’t you let me take Kylie for a little while so you can go for a run? That always makes you feel better.”

Just the thought of handing over Kylie, even for an hour, made me nearly choke with panic, but I knew Mark was trying to be kind and that he was probably right. I forced a weak smile and passed the baby to him.

“Thank you,” I said.

I was still under contract to Nike, and they hadn’t let go of the hope that I might return to running after I gave birth. Although I knew deep down that I never wanted to return to the world of competitive racing, I felt like I should at least try to stay in shape. I had a specialized treadmill that could allow me to run a four-minute mile in the house. After changing into my running clothes and sneakers, I climbed onto the treadmill and began to walk with the intention of getting warmed up. I lasted about two minutes before the panic and sadness overwhelmed me completely. The next thing I knew, I was curled up in a ball on the floor, face in my hands, with tears streaming down.

Why is this happening to me? I wondered. I lifted my head and looked out into the peaceful woods that surrounded our house. We lived in a beautiful home. We had each other, and now, Kylie. I didn’t ever have to face the stress of racing again. There was nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. And yet, even as I told myself all of this, wishing I could feel better, nothing soothed my frayed mind. I thought of Mark upstairs with Kylie and the way he’d been watching me closely with a worried look on his face, and how I couldn’t explain, even to him, what was happening to me. I thought of my parents, who were devoted to Kylie, and how any tension that had existed between me and my family because of my running had melted away, now that they could involve themselves in her care, which Mark and I were happy for them to do. I even became closer to my sisters, who had so badly wanted me to have a baby who would grow up with their own children that my sister Carrie had even offered to carry a child for me if we’d wanted to start a family while I was still competing. Our little angel had not only brought great happiness to Mark and me, but she had also brought my family back to me. I didn’t want to admit how weak and vulnerable I was feeling, especially at what was supposed to be such a happy moment for us. I just wished all my feelings away.

Weeks went by, and nothing changed. Finally, I couldn’t deny it anymore. The next time I took Kylie to the doctor for her shots, my doctor smiled at me as she examined Kylie.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

I took a deep breath, knowing I had to come clean.

“Actually, I’m not doing very well,” I said, trying to hold back the tears.

“Well, it’s normal to experience some postpartum depression after having a baby,” she said.

It was a relief to know there might be an explanation for what was wrong with me, but her words didn’t seem right. I had always thought that postpartum depression was when a new mother didn’t want to be around her baby, and I felt just the opposite, like being close to Kylie was the only thing that could make me feel better.

“Do you ever have thoughts about hurting yourself or your baby?” she asked.

“No!” I said, appalled she could even suggest such a thing.

“Good, I’m glad to hear it,” she said. “Try to take care of yourself and come back in two weeks. If you feel worse before then, call me.”

I nodded, grateful to gather Kylie up in my arms and carry her out of the examining room, so I could get home with her where I felt safe.

In an attempt at normalcy, I threw myself into preparations for Kylie’s first Christmas. Even though she was far too little to know what was going on, it was so much fun to dress her up in cute little holiday outfits and to buy her gifts and toys. And then, on December 15, the phone rang. It was Fred, Mary’s husband, calling with the news I’d secretly feared.

“I’m so sorry, Suzy, but Mary passed away,” he said.

The tears were instant and thick.

“She was fighting until the end,” he said. “Never wanting to die, and determined not to let the cancer get the best of her. But she couldn’t beat it. She’s gone.”

I was crying too hard to talk and I got off the line as soon as possible, collapsing in upon myself. Mary was not only my best friend, the only person besides Mark who I could be anything close to honest with, she was also the person I most admired for her strength and confidence. When I was still so far away from having a voice of my own or standing up for myself, I could at least look at Mary and feel like there was hope for me if I could just be a little more like her. And now, she was gone forever. I’d never be able to make it up to her that I’d missed her wedding so that I could race in Switzerland. She’d never have a child of her own. She’d never get to hold Kylie. We’d never again walk or talk or run together. She was really gone.

My depression deepened. Nothing calmed me except for holding Kylie, and soon even that wasn’t enough. As a well-recognized celebrity in my home state, I’d frequently been approached by people who wanted me to get involved with a charity or business, and because I’d never been able to say no, I’d often agreed to even questionable collaborations, much to Mark’s frustration. That was how I’d agreed to become a real estate agent, although it wasn’t a career path that had ever held a particular appeal for me. Of course, what this really meant was that Mark, who already had his real estate license, ended up running our new real estate business when I failed to have the focus and organization necessary to do so. Although the business was our own, we were essentially independent contractors under the umbrella of a larger real estate firm, and our offices and website were a part of their overall organization.

Luckily, Mark’s naturally calm demeanor and good nature, as well as his law background, made him a natural for his new career path, and he was soon doing quite well at a job he liked. I also enjoyed and was good at real estate, as long as I didn’t have to work too much and stayed in the role that was a natural fit for me, interacting with the easier clients and staging homes and getting them ready for market.

That spring, another opportunity came my way that seemed like it might contain a solution that would smooth things over at home and maybe even lift me out of my depression. I was approached about going to work for Badger Sports Properties, an agency that sold advertising for the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department. It was a great job with amazing benefits we did not have from the real estate job, and given my passionate relationship with my old alma mater, it seemed like a natural fit. I love sports, especially University of Wisconsin sports. Mark was all for me taking the position. I wanted to be as excited as he was, but that old doubt and worry crept in, as it would be something new, without him there to hold my hand, and I felt inadequately prepared. Deep inside, I knew I was already hanging on by a very thin thread and that this job, with demands for meeting sales levels, was the last thing that would help me. I felt, though, that I owed it to Mark to try, as the income would be steady, rather than the uncertain income we earned from real estate. I thought I had to take the job. As my start date approached, a rising dread lapped at my insides, almost as bad as my pre-race anxiety. By the morning of my first day, I could barely climb out of bed, and when I finally forced myself to get ready, I started to cry.

Mark came into the room, already showered and dressed, Kylie in his arms. Since our real estate business was just in its infancy, he was able to stay home with Kylie while I was at work, and we had childcare lined up for when he needed to go to an appointment.

“Mark, I can’t go,” I said through tears, desperate to convince him.

“You’re just overreacting,” he said, taken aback by my sudden reluctance regarding a job I’d previously seemed to be excited about.

I was nearly hysterical by this point, but I forced myself to get on with it, the way I always did.

I had been right to be nervous about my new job, which I immediately hated, even though I tried to pretend to others—including Mark—that I liked it. I loved landing new clients. That part, at least, was fun. All I had to do was talk to people, mostly men, which was easy for me, and it seemed like everyone I reached out to was thrilled to take my call and schedule a meeting with me. But I noticed my clients weren’t necessarily just interested in buying the advertising packages I was offering. Instead, most wanted to show me off, introduce me to their associates, and say that they had gone to lunch with three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton. Or they asked me to make an appearance at their daughter’s school, or some other favor that had nothing to do with my job, which I felt like I had to do to keep them happy and perhaps close a sale. Even so, it was better than being in the office, where I worked with all men who I felt treated me like a blond bimbo and a boss who seemed to be constantly looking over my shoulder and second-guessing my work. Of course, looking back, I realize that my coworkers could probably see what I couldn’t at the time: that largely because of my name, I had landed a job I was woefully underqualified for. Although I was making sales, it was impossible to earn a higher salary, and I felt trapped in a no-win situation. I started to wonder what I was doing, staying at a job I hated that took me away from my most important role in life, as a mother, but I felt powerless to push for what I needed. In addition to my ad sales job, I was helping Mark with our real estate business in the evenings and on weekends. And what had started as a few motivational speeches here and there was blossoming into a busy motivational-speaking career that often required me to travel. I was increasingly exhausted and frayed, but I just did my best to hold on to all of the strands.

Information is power, and this is especially true when it comes to mental illness. Unfortunately, we are still far behind where we need to be as a culture. Take the link between postpartum depression and bipolar disorder, which doctors are just beginning to understand. As recent studies have shown, all women run the risk of developing bipolar disorder in the wake of childbirth because of the hormone plunge that occurs at this time. And women with a history of depression, or a family history of depression, are even more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, many of the extreme emotions surrounding childbirth, from elation to the irritability that comes with sleep deprivation, seem normal, and so they are not properly evaluated as symptoms of bipolar disorder. And because of the lingering stigma surrounding mental illness, women are not always as open about the history of mental illness in their family tree as they should be. In my own case, with my family history of bipolar disorder, I should have been flagged as at-risk for becoming bipolar after I gave birth. But I was too conditioned to keep my family’s secret, and too enraptured by the experience of being a new mom to think about saying anything to my doctor. And even when symptoms began to emerge, neither Mark nor I thought bipolar disorder might be a factor. We just didn’t know what we were up against. Hopefully my story will help other new mothers to get the help they need sooner, without the dangers of misdiagnosis and mistreatment, and without any feelings of shame.