A Former Olympian, Sex Worker And Mental Health Advocate On Overcoming Shame
Mental health advocate and author Suzy Favor Hamilton talks stigma, shame and shaking it all off.
You may have heard of the amazing Suzy Favor Hamilton from her three trips to the Olympics as an American middle distance runner. You may have heard of her when news broke that she had been working as one of the top escorts in Las Vegas. But today, Suzy is best known for her inspirational work as a prominent mental health advocate and author of New York Times Bestseller, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness.
I originally wanted to interview Suzy to learn her advocacy tips and secrets, but I learned far more valuable lessons on defeating shame, releasing your burdens, and not letting anyone stand in your way. Suzy is an inspiration for women everywhere who have ever felt shamed by society due to their mental illness, sexual history, or for merely living their authentic lives.
Linea Johnson: What got you into mental health advocacy in the first place?
Suzy Favor Hamilton: It just started after everything happened with Vegas and I was diagnosed with bipolar [disorder]. I had always been a speaker beforehand, and I had talked about running and about the race in Sydney when I fell, and depression, but I never really understood myself— what was going on, and where my issues and problems were really coming from. It wasn’t until everything crashed down and I hit rock bottom that I was able to get diagnosed correctly and see the right doctors. It’s taken so long to get to where I am now.
[I speak out because] just realizing in my particular story, with the sexual behaviors, that in many ways I’m a pioneer, because it just isn’t talked about. There was so much shame placed on me, and shame is stigma, and without my husband and daughter’s support, that shame almost took my life. Shame would have easily killed me, and I realized there are so many people out there that are silently suffering and they don’t have anyone to talk to. I really wanted to step out and be an advocate because it is a topic that really is not discussed. Specifically, the hyper sexuality associated with bipolar disorder.
What is one thing you want to bring out in the open when it comes to mental health?
Definitely hyper sexuality. 50 percent of bipolar patients are hypersexual and this isn’t being addressed by doctors and it should. Not saying every doctor doesn’t talk about it, but we need to start opening up the conversation and helping people.
And I never once said my bipolar is the reason I became an escort. I knew what I was doing, but the mania fueled what I was doing. [I personally] would not have become an escort and done all of that if I wasn’t misdiagnosed and put on the drug that set me off. By talking about it we are making a difference. Whenever I go speak it’s amazing how many people come up to me and tell me, “Oh my God, your story is my story” and I say, “Have you talked to anyone about it?” and they say, “No."
I feel good because they told me in the first place. That is a huge step and they see that it is safe to talk, and I encourage them to talk to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and now that they are talking about it, they are starting the healing process. They know it is safe with you. They know there is no judgement and shame placed upon you. And that is why we have to get society more educated and stop placing shame on people, and you know, everyone has issues in their lives. Focus on your issues, don’t criticize and don't judge others.
What is the hardest part about being an advocate?
The hardest part was after my book came out. Right afterwards I was doing tons of interviews and they were triggering. At the time I was still dealing with my issues, I still couldn’t figure out everything. The more I did interviews, the more light was shed for me. Now when I’m telling my story and there is a confidence I have. I have no problem telling my story and talking about the sexual aspects of it, because I don’t feel shame. I won’t let anyone else shame me. It has been really empowering for me.
If you don’t want to hear my story or listen to it and you want to judge me, go ahead and do that. But I don’t feel like I’m getting that, which is wonderful. Once I really realized how the brain and the chemicals are an imbalance and how this truly wasn’t me, that I was a delusional person who had no boundaries between thinking and my behaviors, I realized that I have to let this go. I want to be a great mom, I want to be a great wife, I want to be a person that is doing something for society. I want to make a difference. And that’s where the strength came.
Have you ever been scared or worried to be part of a cause with so much stigma?
No, I haven’t because of what I went through. The running world, that was my world. All these people in that world, my peers—when the story came out I was crushed. I felt so alone and so empty. Now I feel that anything that comes upon me I can handle. The mental health community has been enormously supportive because they get it. They understand the hypersexual behaviors of bipolar and they get me. I have a whole new outlook on society and myself.
I truly do not care what others think of me. Growing up, my whole life I cared what other people thought, and being able to let go of that, it’s like releasing this balloon into the sky. It’s so freeing. I don’t have to be what other people want me to be, I can finally just be me and I love that. I picture this red balloon just floating off into the sky, that’s all the pain, and all the stigma, and all the people trying to project on you. Just let it fly away.
Words: Linea Johnson