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

Chapter 7. A DIAGNOSIS

After eight months of this increasingly tenuous balancing act, I was trying to sneak into the office, late again, when my boss called me into his office.

“What time is it, Suzy?” he asked, as if I were a child.

I hated being patronized like this, and my adrenaline spiked with anger, but there was no way I was going to talk back. I just kept my head down, cheeks blazing.

“Ten o’clock,” I said.

“And what time are you supposed to be here?” he asked.

“Nine o’clock,” I said.

“This seems to be a real problem for you,” he said. “And I can’t help but think you’re overextended. I know you’ve been doing a lot of speaking on the side, and I’m afraid you’re going to have to choose between this job or being a motivational speaker.”

Instead of being upset by this ultimatum, I felt my spirits lighten immediately. Here it was: the escape I’d been so desperate for but unsure how to make happen.

“I quit,” I said, my mood soaring for the first time in months.

“Excuse me?” my boss said, clearly not expecting this response.

“You asked me to choose, and I just did,” I said. “I quit.”

As I walked back to my desk and started clearing out my personal belongings, I was practically floating. For once, I didn’t care what the other men in the office were thinking. I never had to come back there again, and I couldn’t have been happier. I just had to make sure Mark was on board.

“What do you mean you quit your job?” he asked that night. “You didn’t think to talk to me about it first?”

“He asked me to choose, and so I did,” I said, my mood sinking under his displeasure, hating to make anyone unhappy, especially Mark. “I hated that job. I’m so happy I never have to go back there again. I wasn’t meant to sit at a desk.”

“Okay, Suzy.” Mark sighed. “It will all work out. We’ll be fine.”

I started selling real estate with Mark again. On the one hand, we were a natural duo—my celebrity and bubbly personality bringing in clients, Mark’s business sense and negotiation tactics sealing the deals—and we rose to the top of our agency. But the busier we became, the more pressure I felt, and even with the fifty to sixty hours a week I was soon putting in, it felt like I was never doing enough. Mark was working even more, which meant Kylie was often with her babysitter, and when I was home an increasing share of our parental duties was falling to me, from meals to bedtime. I was quickly miserable again. I was working more than I had at my last job, and I hated not seeing Kylie and hated how swamped I felt. I saw the business as hurting our marriage, and Mark was disappointed by my displeasure. I had always told him that after my running career it would be his time, and now I wasn’t always holding up my end of the bargain. Tensions between Mark and me simmered, even though I could tell he was trying to be gentle. Still, I felt he was requesting too much of me. When overwhelmed, which was all of the time, I made mistakes and didn’t come through on my obligations. Mark tried to cover for me, but he did sometimes call me on my shortcomings, and when he did, I was hypersensitive. It was a clear case where a husband and wife shouldn’t have been working together, but we couldn’t see it at the time because we’d always done everything together. I hated how no one seemed to care what I wanted, and especially hated how I felt so powerless to do anything about any of this. I couldn’t bring myself to speak up and tell Mark I was unhappy and needed a change.

Over the next year and a half, I did my best to hold on, but the situation got worse and worse. By March of 2007, I was holding it together, barely, as long as Mark was home, but as soon as he went off to the office in the morning, I fell apart. My mind raced, my anxiety spiked, and I couldn’t slow down. I rocked myself, back and forth, back and forth, unable to stop the motion once it started, soothed slightly by the repetition, but still not feeling good. Everything overwhelmed me, even the smallest details of life. I was in our bedroom, sitting on the bed, rocking, when our two dogs started barking at the front of the house. Rage ripped through me. I can’t handle this, I thought, tears pressing out of my eyes. Why won’t they stop? I rocked harder, trying to calm myself. I can’t handle this state I’m in, I thought. I have this baby. I have this job. It’s all too much. I hate real estate. I don’t get along with my husband. I just want it all to end.

One of the few things that brought me any relief was to masturbate, and when Mark wasn’t around, I would do it constantly, compulsively, unable to stop myself from my urge, instantly agitated as soon as I was done, and filled with a need to do it again. The phone rang as I started. It was Mark.

“Suzy, you were supposed to be at the open house an hour ago.”

“I’m sorry, Mark.”

“I can’t keep covering for you,” he said.

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m on my way.”

Driving home from an appointment with a client that night, all the darkness I’d been feeling crested to the point where I couldn’t bear it anymore. I gripped my steering wheel and prepared myself to drive my car off the road and into a tree. As I followed the windy country road through the dark stands of large oaks, my headlights glided over miles of empty asphalt, not another car in sight. I didn’t want to hurt anybody else, but I didn’t have to worry as long as no other cars approached. A plan formed in my mind as I accelerated faster and faster, gripping the wheel tighter and tighter. My mind raced along the road I knew so well, picturing the landscape I was about to approach. It would be so easy. I just need to get my car up to a hundred miles an hour and then hit that patch of trees that’s right around the corner, or take that next corner as hard as I can and see if I can hit that barn that’s just beyond. I was just at the point of no return, pressing the gas pedal down hard, ready to wrench the wheel to the side and veer off the road, when an even worse thought rose up from amid the chaos in my mind: What if it doesn’t work? I can’t be in a hospital bed for the rest of my life. Maybe I should jump off a building like my brother did. That would be instantaneous. There would be no room for error.

As I drove, I was getting closer and closer to home, where my sweet baby girl was waiting for me. Her face kept rising up in my mind, pressing back the dark thoughts and reminding me that I had something so much more important than me to live for now.

You can’t leave your baby. What’s her life going to be like without you? You have to remember the people in your life who love you. You have to remember Kylie. You have to stay alive for her.

I was exhausted and wrung out by the time I drove up our driveway and parked in front of the house. I sat there for a long moment, my fingers still gripping the steering wheel, terrified by how close I’d come to ending it all. I was in a fog that whole night, my mind still partly back on the dark roadway, consumed by my dark thoughts, which I couldn’t quite shake. Mark and I were up in the loft of our house after Kylie had gone to bed for the night when he had to ask me the same question twice before I was able to focus on him enough to answer.

“What is with you, Suzy?” he said.

I was so tired, I couldn’t think clearly anymore. We were always stressed around each other, always short with each other. I always seemed to forget what he needed from me, and then when he asked me about whatever it was I’d forgotten, I got mad at him for bringing it up. I was angry that I had to do this job I hated. My mind couldn’t seem to hold a thought, and I was frustrated with how bad that felt—and what our marriage had become. I wanted to push him back as hard as I could so he’d finally leave me alone.

“Well, I almost killed myself tonight,” I said.

The air in the room grew very still and we both just stared at each other. I hadn’t been planning to tell him, ever. It just kind of slipped out of me. But as soon as I said it, I was glad I had. I knew I didn’t want to die, even if I didn’t know how to get better.

Mark immediately softened. The anger went right out of him and he walked across the bedroom and hugged me.

“Immediately, this second, I want you to call the doctor,” he said. “And if you don’t call, I’m calling for you.”

I didn’t want to call. I was scared of admitting how bad things had gotten, just like I was scared of everything else. But he had his arms around me, and his support gave me courage. I went downstairs and picked up the phone. And then, when the receptionist answered, I nearly hung up. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would have to tell a complete stranger what I was feeling.

“I need to see the doctor right away,” I said, finally.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t see her for three months,” the receptionist said. “She’s booked.”

I wondered if I should hang up the phone, but Mark came up behind me just then, and I knew I didn’t have a choice, because he was going to act if I didn’t. I knew I had to tell her, but I didn’t want to say the words out loud. Everyone in Madison knew me. What if they found out I’d nearly killed myself? What would they think? “I almost killed myself tonight, and I need to see a doctor right away,” I said.

“We need you to come in first thing in the morning,” she said. “Are you okay right now? Are you going to do anything that means we need to get you to the hospital?”

I looked over at Mark, who was watching me closely.

“My husband’s here,” I said. “I’m going to be okay.”

But I didn’t feel like I was going to be okay. When I got to the office in the morning, I could barely look at the nurse who filled out my chart.

“So what’s the reason for your visit today?” she asked.

I was filled with panic. I clasped my hands together in my lap and focused on not running out of the office right that minute.

“I’m not feeling good,” I said.

When my doctor walked through the door and smiled at me, I immediately started weeping uncontrollably. She sat down really close to me and made me look at her.

“I just want you to know, it’s going to be okay,” she said. “We’re going to help you and you’re going to be okay.”

Instead of feeling reassured, I was skeptical. Everything felt so hopeless. Are you serious? I thought. How in the world do you know I’m going to be okay?

At the same time, if a medical professional was telling me she was going to help me, then that meant that somebody was acknowledging that something was wrong with me, and after so many months of wading through the sludge of my depression, it was a relief. I knew I had to be completely honest about what I was experiencing if I was ever going to get better.

“I was thinking about killing myself last night,” I said.

“I think there’s a good chance you have depression,” she said. “I want to get you on medication right away. I’m prescribing you Prozac, and I’m calling it in, immediately, to the pharmacy. I want you to go pick that up as soon as you leave here.”

I could feel Mark keeping an eye on me after this episode. Just like I’d felt at the doctor’s office, it was a relief to finally have everything out in the open and a feeling that some relief might actually come. And slowly, it did. Not right away, but once the Prozac started to take effect, it made all the difference. The fog I’d been living in lifted and I actually had moments when I felt happy, seeing the sunshine out our window in the morning, catching my daughter’s smile. We decided to move back to Madison to shorten the commute, and so Kylie would be closer to school and friends as she grew older. I threw myself into the excitement of the move, setting up a new house, and exploring a new neighborhood.

My doctor also referred me to a psychologist the day after our initial appointment, and that did not go quite so smoothly. He decided that I needed to have a group therapy session with everyone in my family—Mark, my parents, my sisters, and my brothers-in-law. I knew this was a bad idea, and I never allowed it to happen. As soon as the session was over, I called my medical doctor and had her refer me to another psychologist, who I saw twice a week for a year.

I still felt that my sisters resented me for the way running had singled me out from them and taken me away from our family, for being ungrateful for all my parents had done for me, and for pushing them away and acting like I was better than them. I thought my parents had never really forgiven me for moving away to California. With my brother’s suicide still casting a shadow over all of us, we were still very raw around each other. And even subjects that could have brought us together didn’t. Around that time, I learned that I was not the only member of my family who had been on Prozac, and I thought it might help them to understand where I was coming from if they knew I was being treated for depression, too. One day, toward the end of a family visit, we were all in my mother and father’s kitchen. As I prepared to leave, Kris mentioned a family friend who had thought about killing himself.

“Yeah, I thought about killing myself, too,” I said as casually as possible, putting on my coat. “And I take Prozac now.”

Kris looked at my mother but neither said anything. Even after what had happened to Dan, silence was still the way in our family. I hadn’t really been expecting a reaction, but their lack of response stung a little. I went to find Mark and Kylie so we could go home, where I felt safe to be myself.

After a year of therapy and medication, I started to feel like I was all better, like I was cured. It seemed like my therapist and I had run out of things to talk about, and she released me from treatment. In fact, I felt so good that about four years after I’d started taking it, I decided to go off my Prozac, too. I didn’t like the side effects; I’d gained weight and felt sluggish and lethargic. After being an incredibly active, fit professional athlete my whole life, I was embarrassed by the way I looked now. I hated it.

At first, life without Prozac was fine. We’d settled into a life we liked in Madison, and I was busy with Kylie and the work I continued to do with Mark at the real estate agency. Although my state of mind was much better than it had been, my job was still a source of stress. I couldn’t seem to do anything right, and I was constantly making mistakes, missing appointments, and embarrassing Mark, or that’s how I felt. I was convinced he was always unhappy with me, and yet I couldn’t tell him how overwhelmed I felt or how much I wanted to stop doing real estate.

Within three or four months, my depression crept back in, my mind once again spinning out of control. It started with a dark thought I couldn’t shut off about hurting myself. The thought went away, then came back again. If someone had told me to smile, I couldn’t have done it. Eddies of anxiety whirled through me. I couldn’t sit still. But I couldn’t seem to finish anything I started. I paced. I rocked. I started masturbating obsessively again. Everything was back, with a vengeance. I needed help, again.

I called my doctor for an appointment, and again, I was told it would be nearly three months before I could get in. Well, this time, I wasn’t really on the verge of killing myself, and so I didn’t want to make a fuss. I figured if I could just go back on Prozac, everything would be fine. I found a different doctor who could see me that week. When I went in for our appointment, I explained what was going on with me.

“I’ve had depression, and I went off my medication,” I said. “Somebody told me that if you go off the drug you were on and then try to take it again, it won’t have the same effect.”

“Well, let’s have you take Zoloft, then,” she said. “It’s good for depression.”

“Okay, great,” I said.

I was relieved to think it could be as easy as that, and in a couple months, I’d be feeling better again, just like I had after taking the Prozac. And it’s true, it only took about six weeks for the drugs to kick in and start changing things. Only, this time, everything didn’t go back to normal. Just as with Prozac, in a matter of a few weeks, I could feel the Zoloft working. I didn’t feel depressed anymore. In fact, I felt great. I definitely didn’t want to die. I wanted to live with a capital L. I wanted to live like I had never lived before. I wanted to run half marathons. I wanted to experiment, try new things, and have adventures far beyond our ordinary life in Madison, which now seemed too predictable and boring.

I suddenly had more energy than I could remember having for ages, and it felt amazing, especially after the heavy dullness of the depression. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning, and I made plans for all the things I wanted to do every day, zipping from one task to another, while already looking ahead to whatever I would do next.

Since officially retiring from competitive running following Kylie’s birth in 2005, I had been able to build a successful side career as a motivational speaker. I had soon started going far beyond the talks about self-esteem and positive visualization given by most athletes and begun talking candidly about my depression and my brother’s death. Even on my darkest days, when it was hard for me to get out of bed, speaking came naturally to me, and I never felt nervous before an appearance. It felt so good to finally open up about a topic my family had never let me discuss, and to find that I had the power to help people, who came up to me after my events to confess their own problems and tell me how much strength and hope they’d drawn from my words. And now that the Zoloft had kicked in, I was being asked to make more and more appearances, which I loved, because all of my energy and enthusiasm seemed to be focused in the best possible way when I was speaking to a crowd.

I kept hearing that people liked the pep and positivity I brought to my talks, which usually found me getting the whole crowd up and dancing at the end. I wanted the people in the audience to feel as happy and free as I did, and for me, that meant being in motion, always in motion. I loved looking out over a sea of faces and seeing their expressions transform from reluctant embarrassment, when I first told them to get up and dance, into the kind of unselfconscious happiness I felt. That, to me, was a successful event. I wanted to do as many of them as I could. The only damper to my happiness about my public speaking success was my family’s reaction. Wisconsin was a small state, and it didn’t take long for word to reach them that I’d begun talking about Dan publicly. My mother was so upset that she called an all-family meeting. While I knew she just wanted her family to be as close as possible, it felt like she was asking my sisters to gang up on me and take her side, and I left the conversation feeling more misunderstood and distant from my family than I ever had before.

Overall, I was excited about life again. As Mark and I began planning a special way to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary on May 25, 2011, I was full of ideas for fun adventures we could have together. We both knew we needed to do something big, not only because we were approaching such a milestone in our relationship, but also because conflict at work and at home had been rising for years. Over the course of the five years we had worked together, as tensions escalated, it had gotten to the point where Mark often chose to spend long hours away from home, sometimes staying at the gym after work until past midnight. And when we were in the same place at the same time, it was common for us to fight. Although we were careful to always wait until Kylie was asleep or out of the house, sometimes our emotions got the best of us, and we even had a huge argument in front of Mark’s father not long before our anniversary. Once again, I had messed up something Mark had asked me to do for a real estate transaction, but this time it was really serious, or so Mark said. Even though his dad was standing right there, we lit into each other, my hypersensitivity instantly touched off by any hint of criticism from him.

“Suzy, we could get sued,” Mark said angrily.

“Come on, Mark,” I said. “In the scheme of life, is it that big a deal?”

“Oh, it matters,” Mark said. “It matters a lot. We could get sued for a hundred thousand dollars. When something comes in, pass it to me from now on, okay? I won’t screw it up.”

“Oh, come on, Mark,” I said.

“No, seriously, Suzy, I keep telling you that you need to learn this shit, but you won’t. Are you just lazy, or what?”

“I have a learning disability,” I shouted. “You know that. Give me a break.”

Mark didn’t believe I was doing all I could for our business, but that being said, he didn’t like being mad at me any more than I liked being mad at him. His solution was to take on more of the work himself. If we weren’t working together, we couldn’t argue. We began to grow distant from each other, and I blamed the job, never my behavior.

By this point, I was fighting back tears. I hated when he talked to me like this. I did try, but I couldn’t focus. Simply passing the real estate exam had been difficult for me, and I’d had to use all of the four hours allotted.

But even with these tensions, we’d been married for a long time, and many of those years had been extremely happy. I’d always thought I had the best marriage ever, one that was unique and incredibly special. Mark had at times put my running before his own career, and he’d done so gladly because he knew I had a special talent and a rare drive, and he’d wanted to do everything in his power to help me succeed. We’d both always loved each other unconditionally, in a way we’d rarely seen among our friends. Even though I was the life of the party and a total flirt, and Mark was quieter and painstakingly meticulous in his preparations for every detail of life, we both accepted each other exactly as we were. We both got everything we needed to thrive in the relationship and knew how loved we were. Even with the recent tensions we’d experienced, we still loved each other deeply and wanted our marriage to work. When I started on the Zoloft, we were both optimistic that maybe this would lighten the mood in our relationship. And it did, at least a bit. Going into our anniversary, we were fighting less and looking forward to having the kind of romantic weekend that could reignite the spark.