One-time elite runner, Olympic athlete, and magazine cover girl Suzy Favor Hamilton changed dramatically once her glamorous life as a famous athlete ended. She became a fast-living, high-priced Vegas call girl, despite appearing to live a perfect life with a devoted husband and young daughter. Hamilton says what caused this dangerous 180-degree turn in her behavior was misdiagnosed bipolar disorder and the wrong drug treatment. When news of her double life broke in the media, she was forced to face her illness and start the long journey to recovery. Hamilton tells the story unflinchingly in her book Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness (2015, Dey Street Books), as well as at speaking engagements. She will share her insights and experiences as the special guest at NAMI of Collier County’s (namicollier.org) Hope Shines Luncheon December 1 at LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, Naples.
NI: Why did you decide to talk publicly about your life?
Hamilton: I wasn’t going to let my experience define who I was. I want other people affected by bipolar to understand not to feel shame or embarrassment. There were people who wanted to see me go away, and I wasn’t going to do that. It gave me more determination to be a voice for people who can’t stand up for themselves or silently suffering from mental illness.
How did being a famous athlete affect you?
Being in the spotlight, I felt a need to be perfect. Winning races was amazing, because you feel all this glory and praise. You are being told how great you are, and that can affect you. When you have that bad race, you feel like such a failure. Later in life you rebel or get into problems, and you don’t have the coping skills. The illness had its negative effects, but it had positives, in that I realize now how the illness drove me to be the success I was.
How do you talk about your life with your daughter?
My brother, who took his own life, was diagnosed with manic depression, which is now bipolar. At that time, it wasn’t talked about. Now the best thing to do is talk about it, especially in families. My daughter is only 10, but she understands my story completely. It is so important for children to realize it’s not their fault in any way. It’s my brain, I’m getting treatment, and getting healthy. But she has to understand the behaviors—we can’t overlook that and not explain it to her. She understands that 50 percent of people with bipolar suffer with hypersexuality.
What can you tell us about your recovery?
I use healthy coping mechanisms—exercise, eating right, hiking mountains. I owe a lot to my husband, Mark, who is incredibly strong and stood by me and encouraged me not to feel shame. After I speak, people come up and share their stories. Maybe they start crying; I realize they’ve been holding it in for so long, and they feel safe telling me. That’s when I know I’ve been a success, because that’s the road to recovery, being able to share your story. That’s what I do now; getting out and speaking is therapy for me.