Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton and her husband, Mark Hamilton, with their daughter, Kylie. (Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)
A little more than a decade after champion runner Suzy Favor Hamilton competed in the 2000 Olympics, she was working as a high-priced prostitute in Las Vegas — leaving her husband and young daughter in Wisconsin. In her newly released autobiography, “Fast Girl,” the three-time Olympian opens up about her hidden struggle with bipolar disorder, her double life as an escort, and her ongoing recovery from mental illness.
Suzy’s husband of more than 20 years, Mark Hamilton, stayed with her through it all. In this exclusive essay for Yahoo Health, Mark shares his side of the story.
I had no knowledge of bipolar disorder in the midst of Suzy’s spiral. My assumption as things progressed for Suzy in Las Vegas was that she was doing what she was doing [working as an escort] in large part to escape her depression, which had been diagnosed years before. I was familiar with those symptoms. I knew what depression looked like. Bipolar disorder never crossed my mind, despite what had happened to Suzy’s brother, who had suffered from the same disease and ultimately took his own life.
When Suzy was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I felt a sense of relief. Learning about the mental illness put the pieces to the puzzle together. Put very simply, people with bipolar disorder experience wild swings in energy and mood known as manic episodes and depressive episodes (among other symptoms, including hypersexuality).
After her diagnosis, I began to see that all of Suzy’s unusual behaviors were rooted in the disease, especially the sexual component. This was when I began to understand my wife again, and started to accept that her actions in Las Vegas — all the sex and thrill-seeking, the behaviors that I had seen as not only destructive to her, but also to our family and marriage — were part of her illness.
Suzy and Mark Hamilton recall the manic episode that led to Suzy’s bipolar disorder diagnosis, a day she calls “the worst day of my life.” (Video: ABC)
But then reality set in. I realized if I were to stay married to this woman, I would be living with bipolar disorder the rest of my life. Divorce is about twice as likely in marriages where one spouse has bipolar disorder, and I was beginning to understand why. Bipolar [disorder] feels overwhelming and scary as h—, and my first instinct was to run for the hills as fast as I could. I think that is probably true for most people in my position. But then you take a deep breath, remember how much you love this person, how much you love the family you have created together, and how running away is such an easy way out.
The diagnosis is only the first step, though. Here’s what happens after your loved one receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder: Various drugs are prescribed. You hope they will work, and even if they do, most take weeks to take effect, and then you have to find just the right dosages (and even then, they tend to need constant tinkering). There will be a ton of therapy, and much of the therapy will involve you and your spouse together. In fact, the best way to look at your marriage now is that there is a third individual, a therapist, who is an integral part of your marriage and will be for the rest of your life.
A good psychiatrist and psychologist are so important. It may take some time to find the right match in both cases. The psychiatrist diagnoses the illness and prescribes medication. The psychologist facilitates therapy, calms your fears, and assists you and your loved one in identifying triggers — the things in the afflicted individual’s life that can create severe lows or set off a manic episode.
The triggers are key. These things put a person with bipolar disorder over the edge. Their cumulative effect can be disastrous. In Suzy’s case, the death of a best friend, a job that overwhelmed her, a deteriorating marriage, dysfunctional relationships with family members, shame of a perceived failed running career, the initial shame of being a sex worker — all of these things bound together and triggered her mania.
The psychologist helps guide you through these triggers, providing perspective on some and eliminating others. When the triggers are managed, the lows (and highs) are less frequent and less severe. Combining trigger management with effective medication helps create a leveling out effect for a person with bipolar disorder.
My life did not end when my wife was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Far from it. Suzy, our daughter Kylie, and I have a wonderful life together — one that I would not trade for anything. Much of the time, things are incredibly normal in our household. Suzy goes about her day just like everyone else, if all the elements are in place (her medication, her therapy, and activities conducive to managing her mania, such as intense exercise and art). But that’s the key. If any of these elements are not managed properly, our relationship is impossible to maintain. So, the relationship is work, but it is so worth it.
Mark Hamilton and Suzy Favor Hamilton. (Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)
Suzy asked me to write about what it’s like to have a loved one diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as she felt it might assist others navigate successfully through some very challenging waters. Suzy always wants to help, to do some good, in her life. It is how she’s wired, and one of the reasons I love her so dearly. I am happy to help her do some good in this small way, by sharing my story.
With that in mind, here are my tips if you are a spouse, friend, or family member of a person with bipolar disorder:
- Don’t quit on your loved one. They need to know you’re going to be there for them in the long haul. Don’t be afraid to tell them so.
- Have patience and understanding. Allow them time to get better, show compassion, and know that they face a difficult daily task. Bipolar disorder can be managed, but it never goes away.
- Accept that there will be ups and downs. This is inevitable. There are good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours, and you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Your goal is to simply make things better. “Better” is a wonderful place to be.
- Accept your role. You will have a supporting role moving forward, whether you like it or not. Management of bipolar disorder is a full-time job for your loved one, and that is pretty much the case for you as well.
- Be gentle. It is hard to know how to communicate with someone who is bipolar. Kindness and patience are always best.
- If there was a bizarre act (or acts) associated with bipolar disorder, focus on the illness and not the act. This is tough, but very important. Remember, they had absolutely no true intent to hurt anyone.
- Lower your expectations. Accept the fact that there will be hiccups — some small, some big — along the way. Learn to appreciate the baby steps toward health.
- Embrace the positives of bipolar disorder. Yes, they do exist. In Suzy’s case, she wants to “live” — to travel, have experiences, and follow creative pursuits.
- Help create an environment that is conducive to managing bipolar disorder. This typically means limiting stress and triggers. For Suzy, I encourage exercise, travel, and her various forms of artwork because these things help her. Creating the right environment may shift your life entirely, but it creates a better result in the long run.
- Learn. Read everything you can, and talk with others in your situation. It will help you increase your understanding and compassion. You’ll never completely relate to what your loved one is experiencing, but this will definitely help.
- Don’t take actions personally. Understand that what comes across as selfishness and narcissism on their part is not intent to harm you. They often do what they need to do to feel alive and survive.
- If you have a child, educate him or her about bipolar disorder. This is a wonderful way to teach compassion and understanding at a young age.
- Do not stifle your loved one. Let them live, be independent, and be content.
Believe me, at times things may seem impossible when living with bipolar disorder. But nothing is impossible. Managing the illness is all about knowledge, patience, and taking the right steps. More than anything — even though it may be difficult at first — it is about love and support. Your actions can literally mean the difference between life and death.
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