Bipolar Disorder As A Family Disease: Diving In With Former Olympic Runner Suzy Favor Hamilton
By Kim Constantinesco
No different from cancer, severe mental illness is a disease that affects the entire family.
Former middle-distance runner and three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton, 48, knows that all too well. As a top athlete, she has performed on the world’s biggest stage, but the spotlight never illuminated her more than after she was outed by a reporter for living a double life as high-priced call girl, happily working the bustling city streets and sheets of Las Vegas.
Suzy, a dedicated wife and mother by day, transformed into “Kelly,” the escort, by night. She had up to five clients a shift. She was making $600 an hour. But, the thrill of it all is what really hooked her.
Up until 2011, she never had a hyper-sexual side to her. She married her college sweetheart, Mark, a week after they walked across the graduation stage at the University of Wisconsin. Together, they had Kylie, their now 10-year-old daughter.
Her focus was always on reaching the finish line first, clocking a new personal record, and ultimately, earning a gold medal for her country. But, running wasn’t just a profession. It was her outlet, something to mask all of the pain inside of her. When her professional running career ended, the thrilling Las Vegas lifestyle took its place.
“I didn’t even know why I was doing what I was doing, but looking back, I can see that it numbed me from what was going on in my brain; the pain that I was dealing with in my life,” Favor Hamilton said. “I was taking the easy way out. I wasn’t addressing any of my problems because I didn’t see that I had any problems.”
Only after Favor Hamilton was exposed did she realize that her call girl ways were really a by-product of bipolar disorder, a classified mood disorder characterized by severe shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels, and the same illness that her late older brother, Dan, suffered from.
Being The ‘Healthy Distraction’
Favor Hamilton grew up in Stevens Point, Wisc., a small conservative town 110 miles north of Madison. It was the quintessential “everyone knows everyone’s business,” so a good image was dutifully guarded.
“You wanted to try and look like the perfect family and hide your dirty little secret,” Favor Hamilton said.
The Favor family secret? That Dan, who was six years older than Suzy, suffered from severe mental illness. They just didn’t call it bipolar disorder at the time.
“He was seen as more of a problem child,” Favor Hamilton said. “More like, why don’t you just snap out of this, or this kid needs to be grounded or punished.”
Dan was constantly causing problems. As a teen, he could be found blaring his music, and driving like a wild man on his motorcycle. Things took a nasty turn when Dan’s girlfriend died.
“That’s when his bipolar started to show its ugly face,” Favor Hamilton said. “He became delusional. He thought she was still alive, and he’d drive hundreds of miles to go and find her.”
Alcohol eventually became a coping mechanism to numb his malfunctioning brain circuitry, but it couldn’t tame the true root of the problem raging inside of him.
“It was odd because I didn’t understand what was wrong with him.,” Favor Hamilton said. “We called it manic-depression back then. I think if I was educated about this illness as a child, it would have helped me to better understand his behaviors. In my mind, I just associated his behaviors with him being a bad kid. I kind of labeled him as crazy. As a sibling, I could have had more compassion for him in understanding that he wasn’t trying to be like this on purpose.”
Their parents tried to shelter her from the chaos, but shielding siblings really isn’t the answer. It teaches kids that the problem is shameful, and shouldn’t be talked about. That’s when kids are left to their own devices to come up with their own coping mechanisms, often founded in maladaptive beliefs.
As healthy as running and exercising are, Favor Hamilton took it to unhealthy levels.
“I felt like I became the healthy distraction for my parents,” she said. “If I won races, they would be happy. They could focus on that instead of on Dan. I almost became like the trophy for the family.”
Her mom worked as a nurse and her dad, a graphic artist. The more races Favor Hamilton won, the more her parents’ co-workers and friends approached them with praise.
She developed bulimia at a young age because she felt like being lighter would maker her run faster, bringing more accolades to her parents and the family.
“As a child, a lot of the times you don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Favor Hamilton said. “I didn’t understand why I had this eating disorder. Now, I see that I needed to feel like I had control. Whether I put food in my mouth or not was the one thing I could control in my life.”
According to Favor Hamilton, the lack of education related to Dan’s illness played a major role in her life.
“It would have taken away these coping mechanisms that I had developed,” she said. “That’s just the way my parents dealt with it, and the way the pressure of the community made them deal with it.”
A Crashing World
Dan jumped off a building at 37 years old, taking his own life on September 9, 1999. Before that, he showed the “classic” signs of someone planning to commit suicide. He made amends with those he was on shaky ground with, he told everyone that he loved them, and he gave away large sums of money.
“After my brother died, I wanted to believe that he was on a manic high,” Favor Hamilton said. “I didn’t understand the illness, that he was like a person on fire. It’s like you’re on top of the building and the flames are approaching you. You decide to jump because you figure that will be better than burning; better than suffering.”
Dan’s death leveled the Favor family and their community. Naturally, Suzy turned her attention toward running and her last Olympic appearance in 2000 in Sydney. Wanting to bring some joy to the family again, she put tremendous pressure on herself to medal, especially because she had come up short of the podium in her previous two Olympic Games. So much pressure that in the last 100m of the 1500m race, when she saw she wasn’t putting together a podium-worthy race, she collapsed to the ground, faking an injury.
That was it. The end of her career as an athlete. It was time to move forward, but what could replace her coping mechanism — her “whole world?”
She immersed herself in the high-stress environment of real estate, going into business with her husband, Mark. After having Kylie, she experienced relentless postpartum depression. That, coupled with a rocky marriage and the void left from leaving competitive running, sent her spiraling. She came close to taking her own life before getting a prescription for an antidepressant from her physician, who thought she suffered solely from depression. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the medication if someone has bipolar disorder is hyper-sexuality.
Thus, the new profession and the “enchanting high” she found in Las Vegas began. Mark was completely aware of what was going on, and tried desperately to get her to stop. At the same time, he silently kept her secret from going public. Once she was properly diagnosed, that’s when he committed to stay and stand by her. He educated himself on bipolar disorder and focused on the illness as opposed to the behavior.
“I feel like with my behaviors, I embarrassed a lot of people, certainly some of my family, and I’m able to now realize that those people aren’t capable of understanding the illness,” Favor Hamilton said. “My husband stood by my illness and supported me 100%. He could have easily taken the easy route, to walk away and desert me. But, he chose to deal with it and go the hard route. I truly don’t believe I would be here today if he left and nobody supported me. There’s no way.”
Healing as a Family
After being exposed as an escort in 2012, she went through extensive treatment in California, which included heavy doses of medication and therapy. Still, she had relapses, and would see clients as she was being treated. That was her “go to” coping mechanism, but alcohol and pills played a role, too, when it came to numbing the pain.
“In hindsight, I should have been in a facility where I was being monitored,” Favor Hamilton said. “But at the time, that was something I didn’t think I needed. I was in denial for a long time.”
As treatment progressed, she officially received her bipolar diagnosis.
“It was amazing because I started to understand my brother and some of his behaviors once I was diagnosed,” she said. “I wished he were there and I could talk with him, and we could share this together.”
The first year of recovery was “hell.” Mark stayed back in Wisconsin with Kylie to keep her life as normal as possible.
“He put our daughter in a healthy place, where she could understand how much her mother loved her,” Favor Hamilton said. “He told her that I was sick and in treatment just like somebody with cancer. He started right away educating her about my illness, so she would understand that it wasn’t about her. It’s really important to make sure the child doesn’t feel that this is on them, or that they’re unloved, or that they did something wrong.”
As Kylie learns more about her mother’s story from the media, Mark and Suzy fully open themselves up for age-appropriate discussions.
“We never say, ‘We can’t talk about that,'” Favor Hamilton said. “Sometimes she goes to television interviews with us. Recently she asked if we had a threesome. We were surprised she knew of such a thing, but we were age appropriate honest with her. Bits and pieces that we didn’t really go into yet, she’s starting to understand. It’s been really good that she understands things because that way she’s not going to the internet or friends for information. She’s part of the conversation. Kids are very capable of this at an early age. She was seven when it all started. We educated her at that time, too. I think it’s very important for parents to incorporate them in the healing process.”
Onward and Upward
Because stress brings Favor Hamilton back into a depressive state so easily, she has traded real estate in for public speaking gigs, where she talks about bipolar disorder and engages with those who have it, or their loved ones, in order to offer a beacon of light. It’s the perfect responsibility for someone who has experienced the illness first hand.
“You often have to hit rock bottom to get help. That’s the hard part of this illness,” she said.
Nowadays, she runs less due to arthritis in one of her knees, but she has found sculpt yoga and other various forms of exercise to be equally fulfilling.
“You need to find healthy coping mechanisms. That’s crucial in recovery,” she said.
Not only is she learning how to manage her disorder, but she’s pulling her family into the process instead of shielding them.
And that deserves a top spot on any podium.
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