Fast Girl - by Suzy Favor Hamilton
I appreciate this memoir and commend her courage in sharing her story. The sensations of “feeding my high” resonate deeply with me. While I concur with the sentiment that “exercise is my drug of choice now,” I don’t share the belief that “shame and guilt are wasted emotions.”
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
To all those with any form of mental illness, whether diagnosed or not, and anyone whose differences cause them to be misunderstood, with the hope that we are moving toward a time of greater understanding and compassion for all
It was good to be desired, and even better to be desired by a successful man, to have him choose me as his favorite and request me the next time he came back to Vegas.
all I wanted to feed was my high
We didn’t share our emotions in my family anyway, and by training constantly and pushing myself on the track, I could deny I had any.
I knew that I was in constant danger of failing at any moment. I knew that I was never good enough. But my coach was confused and frustrated, though he finally let me warm up where I felt like I really belonged: in the parking lot.
I worked out a complicated system, where I binged on a whole tray of brownies or a bunch of pasta—I think my body craved sugar—and then I purged. Right afterward, I felt awful, worse than before I had stuffed myself. It was a vicious, terrible cycle, and one that I hid completely.
My parents loved Dan and did what they could to help him, but they just didn’t understand him or his illness. It became easier for them to let him fade into the background and focus instead on my sisters and me, and especially my running and the great sense of pride it inspired in them. Perhaps it was just the culture, or perhaps it was our own culture of denial, but I do believe if we’d had the tools, the knowledge, and the bravery to openly face that truth, the history of my family could have been altered. I think that more than mental illness, however, the most serious issue that plagued our family was silence.
When I’d appeared on the cover of Runner’s World the previous year, they’d severely airbrushed my photo, decreasing my bust size so I appeared flat chested, the way female runners were supposed to look. I hated that my breasts still drew attention to me and made me look anything other than the absolute ideal runner. That summer, I secretly paid eight thousand dollars for breast reduction surgery, even though the doctors warned me I might have trouble breast-feeding if I ever became a mother.
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.
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.
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.
When we got home from our anniversary trip, life seemed flat and stale. There was nothing to look forward to now that our adventure was over, and I couldn’t seem to concentrate on my regular life.
I thought about sex all the time, until it got to the point where my fantasy was more real than my real life was.
While we’d enjoyed our time together there, we’d come out of the experience in such different places that we’d both shifted our focus to finding ways to stay married while satisfying ourselves on our own terms, even if that meant opening up our marriage in ways not everyone would feel comfortable with.
I just wanted to find the next adventure, the next thrill. The mechanism within me that would have clicked on to trigger embarrassment, fear, or even self-protection wasn’t working.
My marriage was still important to me. But I craved everything it was lacking: passion, intimacy, and sex. And I would find these elements I so deeply desired elsewhere if necessary.
I was beginning to dress a little bit sexier lately, and I wore tight black leggings. But I also wanted her to think I’d be professional, so I wore a collared shirt, almost as if my bottom half was applying for a job as an escort and my top half was applying for a job at a bank.
Being bipolar means being insatiable. The high of the mania is never high enough. There is always a desire—a need—to push the high to the next level, in the same way that a drug addict constantly requires more and stronger drugs. For a person with bipolar disorder, risky behavior can be the best drug of all. And there are particular kinds of dangerous activities that feel better than others; sexually provocative behavior is near the top of the list. Also up there are spending large sums of money, and taking drugs and drinking alcohol.
It wasn’t Suzy who’d decided to become an escort in Vegas and thrived in this new hypersexual reality. It was bipolar disorder. It was the disease that brought me there and kept me there even when the risks to myself, and to my family, mounted and mounted. While I fully support my friends who still work as escorts and all the women who choose to be sex workers, and I have no shame about what I’ve done, understanding my own behavior has been crucial for me. It has not only allowed me to make sense of what I’ve done, but also, it’s helped me to truly forgive myself for the pain I caused my family with my behavior. I have also come to realize that, while the life of an escort is not appropriate for me, I believe two consenting adults should be free to exchange sex for money, and so I cannot pretend to feel ashamed for having done something I don’t think is wrong, just because it is taboo in our culture. That is my greatest hope for this book, to put an end to shame. And especially that anyone who suffers from bipolar disorder—or has a loved one who does—can finally set down the burden of shame related to any of the behaviors caused by the illness, or the illness itself, and finally focus on getting healthy and celebrating the many different ways there are to share our gifts with the world.
I am still constantly in motion; in my running shoes, on my bike, on my yoga mat, exercise is my drug of choice now.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.