Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton shocked America with news that she was leading a secret life as a high-priced prostitute in Las Vegas. Now she’s telling the other side of her story. (Photo: Getty Images/Brian Lowe)
In December 2012, three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton was receiving a stream of hate mail after the Smoking Gun published the shocking — and true — story that the former elite athlete, wife to a Wisconsin realtor, and mother of a young daughter was leading a double life, working as a high-priced prostitute in Las Vegas.
Recently, however, Favor Hamilton has been receiving notes thanking her for finally talking about the mental illness that led to her bizarre behavior — which she now understands was a part of manic episodes. In her memoir, Fast Girl, released this week, Favor Hamilton candidly shares the heartbreaking, and ultimately redeeming, story of her life with bipolar disorder.
Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton talks about bipolar disorder and her life as a Las Vegas escort on Good Morning America. (Video: Good Morning America)
By its most basic definition, bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of frenzied high energy (known as manic episodes) alternating with deep depression. But calling a manic episode “a period of high energy” is kind of like calling the Tasmanian devil “feisty.”
“[During a manic episode,] I feel like I’m sparkling and in a tunnel of light, and everything around is magnified to an incredible intensity,” Favor Hamilton tells Yahoo Health. “I felt on top of the world. It’s like you’re walking through this room and you just feel so grand, so important,” she says of the year she spent as an escort for high-profile clients in Las Vegas, from roughly December 2011 until December 2012.
After the Smoking Gun revealed her secret identity to the public in a post on December 20, 2012, Favor Hamilton seriously considered ending her life. She was admitted to the hospital and heavily medicated for two weeks. It ended up being a turning point for Favor Hamilton, who for the first time received a proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It was also a monumental time for her family, who could finally start to understand the origin of her bizarre, risky, and unpredictable actions over the previous few years.
Favor Hamilton’s journey from Olympian to escort to mental health activist is singular. But her experience with bipolar disorder isn’t drastically different from that of the 6 million other American adults who live with the condition.
“People with bipolar disorder often go undiagnosed for years with volatile relationships, poor boundaries, unpredictable reactions to events, situations, and loved ones, and dissatisfaction with themselves, while never quite understanding why,” says Sanam Hafeez, a clinical psychologist, director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in Forest Hills, New York, and a faculty member at Columbia University’s doctorate program of clinical psychology.
Manic phases may include seductive, provocative, and socially inappropriate behaviors, Hafeez tells Yahoo Health. “Hypersexuality is also a common and often-missed symptom.”
In the midst of mania
While she was working in Las Vegas, Favor Hamilton’s husband, Mark Hamilton, was aware that his wife was working as an escort, and he warned her to be discreet. But she was becoming more reckless. When the thrill of sexual experimentation started to fade, she revealed her true identity to a handful of clients.
In retrospect, Favor Hamilton clearly realizes that her actions were out of character, she tells Yahoo Health. “It’s so easy now to look back and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, how could that have ever happened? How could I as a person do that?’”
But at the time she had no idea. “I didn’t see it at all when I was in Vegas. I didn’t know that I had bipolar disorder at all,” she says with a tone of slight disbelief, free of defensiveness.
“People with bipolar disorder feel like they can do anything, and they lose contact with standard rules of behavior,” explains Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist who specializes in helping couples. “They feel they can do anything and lose contact with standard rules of behavior. Even the rules of nature, like that you can’t walk on water, can get abandoned,” she tells Yahoo Health.
Favor Hamilton clearly remembers a meeting with a psychiatrist shortly after her secret identity became public. The doctor asked her standard questions about her mood. But she also asked Favor Hamilton if she was spending money recklessly. “I said no,” she says.
But that night she called Mark, and they discussed the appointment. She told him what the doctor had asked and mentioned that she thought the question was so bizarre. She hadn’t been shopping any more than usual, she said.
But Mark had recently added up the couple’s receipts. He told his wife, “You have no idea how much money you’ve spent. You’ve spent about $50,000 on stuff.” The news was a surprise to Favor Hamilton, who genuinely didn’t realize she had been spending so frivolously.
“I wasn’t even aware enough [of my actions] to tell my doctor about all the symptoms I had,” she says. “Because of the illness, you’re delusional, so you’re not seeing things as they really are.”
Heitler explains that people with bipolar disorder “want to do, do, do, and with that can come spend, spend, spend. They lose the capacity to use good judgment. Impulses predominate over thinking.”
Reflecting on her time in Las Vegas, Favor Hamilton says that “‘bizarre’ is the word to describe it all. I’m not happy with what I did. I regret these things. But at the time, that’s what I needed to do to feel good.”
From depression to mania as a Las Vegas escort
After the birth of her daughter in 2005 — six years before Favor Hamilton would begin working as an escort — she fell into a deep depression. She remembers trying to go for a run on the treadmill. “I basically walked for like 10 steps and got off and started crying. I was on the floor crying, wondering, ‘Why I can’t even run on a treadmill? What’s wrong with me?’ Here I am a professional runner, and I can’t even run 10 feet.”
When the depression didn’t lift, she reached out to a psychiatrist. “I knew something was wrong right away [after giving birth], but it took a little while before I finally admitted that something was wrong,” she says.
The new mother was prescribed Prozac, and while it lifted her mood, she didn’t like that it also robbed her of her drive and her motivation to exercise, she says. She decided she was going to stop taking it and told her doctor she’d be going off of the antidepressant.
After she stopped taking Prozac, “It was very quick that I started feeling bad again — depressed, unhappy, and crying all the time. I just couldn’t feel good,” Favor Hamilton says.
So she went back for help, this time to a new doctor. “Within 10 minutes, I was prescribed Zoloft,” she says.
Once she started taking Zoloft, another antidepressant, her character changed drastically. She booked a skydiving trip with her husband in Las Vegas for their 20th wedding anniversary. “Never in my life could you have paid me a million dollars to jump out of an airplane. Here I jumped out of an airplane with no second thought.”
Favor Hamilton explains Zoloft also intensified her hypersexual impulses, which are a known symptom of bipolar disorder for some individuals.
Heitler confirms that while the medication is effective at treating depression, it is not suitable for people with bipolar disorder.
“One of the rule-outs for giving Zoloft is a history of manic disorder, because the medication tends to exacerbate manic symptoms,” Heitler says. “When someone is depressed, Zoloft lifts them out of the hole. If they become manic, it can lift them up to an excessively high-energy state. Manic states can intensify sexual feelings at the same time as they decreases rational thinking and awareness of consequences.”
A hard road to recovery
The darkest day of Favor Hamilton’s life came shortly after she was outed publicly as a prostitute. She seriously considered attempting suicide, and when she arrived home, she confessed to Mark, who had been aware of her sex work the entire time. “That was the breaking point where he said, ‘We’re getting you to a doctor right now.’ I hit rock bottom.” (Read Mark’s first-person essay of why he stayed with Suzy, his spouse of more than 20 years.)
The shocking reports of the Olympic star’s secret sex work made news for weeks. Meanwhile, Favor Hamilton spent about two weeks heavily medicated on the antianxiety drug Xanax. “Things were really rough, so it was better that I was kind of unaware of the media and everything that was being said about me,” she says. “That would have just been too hard to deal with in the state I was in.”
After some trial and error, Favor Hamilton found a medication (Lamictal) and dose that worked for her. She also started going to therapy regularly. Seeing a therapist with experience treating bipolar disorder is a practice she and Mark continue to this day.
“For me, the first year of recovery was the hardest of anything that I’ve been through,” she says. “I always question, which person is me? Am I the manic person, or am I the person taking drugs now? Who am I? You feel like you don’t really know which personality you are.”
Eventually, however, Favor Hamilton decided she would rather be safe, healthy, and a good example for her daughter — while, yes, taking medication — rather than doing things that could risk her life and hurt the people she loves. “I don’t question who I am anymore,” she says. “I know that this is who I have to be.”
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