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I'm an Olympian, Former Escort and Now – a Mental Health Advocate

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My name is Suzy Favor Hamilton. I was once one of the top middle distance runners in the world and a three-time Olympian. After my running career, I was a successful businesswoman, wife and mother living in Wisconsin. To many, my life appeared perfect. An image I had tried to live up to my entire life, the squeaky clean all-American girl who won races and played the role of “good girl” to a tee.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

But in late 2012, at the age of 44, I was outed by an investigative tabloid as a high-end Las Vegas escort. I had been secretly escorting for the past year, and at the time, I would have told you I loved every minute of it. I was devastated when I was outed not so much because of the public scrutiny and ridicule that were coming my way — not because I had tarnished my family name. I was devastated mostly because exposure would likely put an end to the secret life that had brought me everything I wanted and needed at the time. Thrill, taboo, admiration, money and most of all, sex.

Weeks later, reluctantly seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in order to keep loved ones from completely abandoning me, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and told the antidepressant I was prescribed and had been taking the past year and a half had likely triggered a mostly constant manic state, and in my case, an intensely sexual state, irrational in thought and oblivious to any ramifications of what I was doing. Antidepressants can be a big “no-no” for those with bipolar, I learned.

So here we are, three in a half years later, and I can say at times, recovery was a living hell, especially in that first year, but I’m doing quite well these days. My life is usually quite normal, I guess you could say, though I’ve found that various forms of intense exercise are useful to take the place of previous coping mechanisms that tended to get me in trouble. I crave independence these days, creating art, a little thrill here and there, and an extremely active outdoors lifestyle helps. Yoga has been a godsend and I’m now a certified yoga teacher. I have my moments where my triggers get the best of me and I’m best left alone until I come out of a depressive episode. I’m manic occasionally, but nothing like before. The mood stabilizer I’m on has worked well for me. Generally, life is pretty good.

I’m blessed to have a wonderful husband who amazingly stuck with me through all of this, though at times, he had one foot out the door. With education, he began to focus on the illness and not so much on the behavior. There was therapy and major bumps along the way, but we’ve made it. My daughter is as amazing as it gets and she totally gets my illness. She’s mostly patient with me when I’m not quite there. She’s the light that keeps me going when I’m struggling. Most of my family and friends have stuck by me. Support is so, so key in recovery. I know how fortunate I am for so many reasons.

I decided to tell my story initially for selfish reasons. I simply wanted to be understood, on my terms and in my words. So I wrote a memoir, and it turned out to be a New York Times Best Seller. Who knew? To be understood is what we living with mental illness want so desperately. But I realized as the writing progressed this book might help others living with mental illness. We tend to take comfort in knowing we are not alone, and storytelling has a way of doing that. How many notes do I receive every week from people who say they relate to my story, whether it’s my mania, my intimate relationship with anxiety and darkness, my history of eating disorder, my obsession for perfection and to please others? I can tell you the notes I receive (this happens a lot when people know you’ve been through some serious shit) remind me I’m not alone. I believe telling my story has done the same for others, and for that, the painful reliving of much of my journey was well worth it (the book was very challenging to write and at times, I just wanted to chuck it).

So now I travel the country, speaking my truth and advocating for the cause. I try to show others what mental illness looks like. I try to bring out in the open the rarely discussed sexual component of bipolar disorder. Even a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists have trouble going there. I try to show that one can hit rock bottom, as I did in the aftermath of being outed, and still come out of it OK, that there is hope.

It’s been an evolution, but I’ve come to feel strongly that we should never feel shame about our mental illnesses, nor should we feel shame for the behaviors that may have resulted, at least in part due to the illness. I found that the shame — and believe me, I felt plenty of it initially — holds us back from moving forward in recovery. What we need is compassion and understanding. Simple as that. That’s the message I try to spread each and every day, at least when my brain cooperates. Thanks for listening.

Originally published: July 29, 2016
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