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5 Lessons on Fighting for Mental Health from 3X Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton

Suzy Favor Hamilton is a 3X Olympic Runner, Best-Selling Author of Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, and mental health advocate. Her unique story comes from striving for perfection to falling into destruction and coming out on the other side. From her many heart-wrenching, powerful experiences, Suzy shares life lessons of living an imperfect life and advocating for mental health.

1. Eating Disorders Have Nothing to Do with Food

From the beginning, Suzy put an enormous amount of pressure on herself with her running career. She felt like she couldn’t lose or handle the humiliation that would come with it. We know that people handle pressure in many different ways. For Suzy, that meant food and an eating disorder. Out of this experience, Suzy learned that eating disorders have nothing to do with food, but more of the destruction happening in other areas of life. For two years, Suzy suffered with her eating disorder.

Suzy recognizes that eating disorders never really go away, but once you’re aware you can get the training and support you need to deal with mental challenges in a healthier way. “I just want people to open their eyes and hearts to have more compassion for people with mental illness,” Suzy commented. Instead of being judgemental and pointing fingers, we can be caring and compassionate for all kinds of mental illness.

2. Your Brain May Not Be Chemically Balanced

With her athletic peers on drugs, Suzy sent herself into an anxiety spirals telling herself that she could never win at a disadvantage. The 2000 Olympics were the beginning of Suzy’s downfall. She had just run the fastest time in the world in Oslo, but couldn’t have felt worse. Suzy had been recently injured and lost her brother to suicide. The pressure on Suzy mounted as she hoped to bring her family back together with a win in the Olympics.

At the starting line of the 1,500 Olympic race, Suzy wanted to be anywhere else. Suzy started leading the race because she was in such a panic mode, but she started to see white spots and her body began to fail. Knowing her failure, Suzy fell and mentally attacked herself for her loss. With a mental imbalance what wasn’t the end of the world really felt like it. “It’s amazing how out of perspective we can get with sports. Everybody knows everybody, pointing fingers at everybody,” Suzy shared.

What Suzy realized later was someone with a chemically balanced brain wouldn’t have had such anxiety and pressure. While it wasn’t until later that Suzy found the help she truly needed, Suzy’s story shows how important it is to be mindful of your mental health and reach out for help when you need it.

3. Recovery Comes in Baby Steps

Misdiagnosed and put on an antidepressant, Suzy began to do things she would never imagine doing. Her personality changed immensely and she turned to coping mechanisms like sex. At the height of this experience, she became an escort in Vegas. Everything came crashing down when a client exposed Suzy’s double life to a nasty tabloid.

At 42 years old, Suzy was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she began the journey to recovery in baby steps. “If your life looks perfect,” Suzy said, “you probably have more problems going on that you don’t want to admit.” When her book became a best-seller, Suzy realized that people got it. She was no longer labeled a whore or slut. Those labels disappeared as people wanted to understand. While some will never understand, Suzy deals with it in very small doses.

4. Focus on the Illness, Not the Behavior

Suzy was able to recover mainly because of her husband. After everything that happened with the scandal, he realized that he needed to focus on her mental illness and not her bizarre behavior, driven by the need to make her brain feel good. By focusing on her mental illness, Suzy’s husband helped her find the best doctors to begin her recovery. They didn’t know where their marriage would go, but decided to focus on health first.

In many cases, the spouse will walk away not seeing the underlying issues that need to be addressed. Suzy advocates going to therapy and figuring out what those issues are. By getting the help she needed, Suzy and her husband were able to save their marriage and focus on their daughter.

5. Stop the Shame

When speaking in front of a crowd, Suzy finds it amazing how many people will come up to her and share their story. Sharing our individual experiences is when we begin to heal. Suzy advocates that shame will hold you back forever and stop the recovery process.

Suzy felt shame because society was telling her to feel shame for what she did. Her husband told her that she’d never recover unless she forgave herself. This experience taught her that the people who shame you are the people you don’t need to let into your life. You don’t have time for those people.

For those that need more help and support in their lives, Suzy wholeheartedly suggests finding a good psychologist. They will talk with you about what’s happening in your life and send you to a psychiatrist if you need medication. “Every single one of us deserves an incredible life. And we all need help, so don’t be afraid,” Suzy said. “If I can go rock bottom from where I was, you can do it too.” The more we reach out with our stories, the more we’ll get rid of shame. We need to advocate for the people who are silently suffering. Your story can be a gift to those people.

Listen to Suzy on the Tough Girl Podcast


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