In 2012, I did an interview with Suzy for Competitor.com. Recently, I caught up with her again for another interview, this one about her book, "Fast Girl". Thank you, Suzy, for your thoughtful responses and for helping to raise awareness about mental illness. You are forever an inspiration both on and off the track.
|Suzy Favor Hamilton's book, "Fast Girl" covers her life as an Olympic runner and, later, as an escort in Vegas.|
Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton 2015
What was it that got you interested in running, and how old were you when you started?
As a young girl around age ten, I discovered my love for running while running in the woods and pretending to be a horse. It felt so natural, and it made me feel happy. I didn’t understand what it was doing to my brain at the time, but I quickly clung to it.
At an early age, you seemed to be a perfectionist, determined to be the best. What were some of the outside forces driving this need to be number one, or was this something that was entirely internal?
It was mostly internal. It’s been pretty well established in the book and other media that I felt this need to please, this need to bring happiness and pride to my family through my running, making up for what I saw as a family in silent pain from what was happening with my brother and his illness (bipolar). I saw the effect this had on my parents and wanted to do my part to make them happy. This only increased as time went on.
My dad was very involved with my running, and that put a silent pressure on me. Back then parents had to be involved, because young runners needed to travel to other states for the big races. There weren't many local races to run in. I began to feel at a very early age that I had to be perfect, not necessarily who I wanted to be. I believe a factor in what happened in Vegas was this repressed desire to finally be the “bad girl”. I really believe that, as do my doctors.
In your book, you mention that your brother was bipolar. How was it growing up with someone who had trouble regulating his moods? How did you and the rest of your family cope?
It was extremely difficult, because it was never really explained to me growing up, not as well as it should have been anyway. I saw his anger, his recklessness, his overall misbehavior, and just could not understand it. I just wanted him to STOP! My parents did what they could for him as far as getting medical attention, but it was never discussed in the family, at least not with me. Nobody really understood it. I know they tried to shield me from his behavior, but it was impossible to do. The focus was more on the behavior and not the illness behind it.
Despite tremendous support from friends and fans, you have been strongly criticized for coming off as insensitive to those around you while you were working as an escort. Can you give critics a better idea of what it's like to be driven by an imbalance of neurotransmitters, especially in the manic phase of bipolar disorder?
For me, during that 1.5 year period, I was in a pretty constant state of mania. My doctors attribute this to the Zoloft, an anti-depressant I was put on in early 2011. With the illness, comes this insatiable desire to get and keep the high. You do all you can to get it, even if it’s at another’s expense. It comes across as selfish and narcissistic, attributes often associated with mania / bipolar. You also can experience irrational thinking and behavior. While I knew what I was doing and made the series of decisions I made, looking back, I cannot say I made them with a clear mind. Sex was always at the forefront of my mind, and I acted accordingly. It all seemed perfectly rational to me at the time. My husband was the one I saw as irrational. Why was he objecting to my behavior? I was happy, independent, in control of my life, for once.
I mentioned in a recent blog post that the drug Zoloft is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Too much dopamine in the brain can cause unwanted behavioral changes, especially in those who are bipolar. How did Zoloft affect you when you were taking it?
It triggered my mania, in a HUGE way. I went on it in March 2011, and my husband and I had our threesome in May, which kind of flipped the switch for me. You see, I had never been diagnosed as bipolar. I went to a general physician who, after a 10-minute consultation, put me on Zoloft, an anti-depressant. It’s pretty well established that this is a huge “no-no”. Now, she didn’t know I had bipolar. I didn’t know I had bipolar, but what I wish she would have done is refer me to a psychiatrist. This is evidence of how poorly the current medical system handles mental illness. I was never asked whether there was bipolar in my family, whether there was mental illness in my family.
How have your parents, your family and your husband responded to your book and your speaking engagements around mental illness?
Everybody has handled it at their own pace and comfort level. Some show their support in different ways. I’m appreciative that my parents, for example, love me and want what they believe is the best for me, but I think it’s safe to say they don’t understand my behaviors, were not very supportive of the book and would prefer me not to speak about mental illness. At one time, that angered me, but I’ve come to realize I can’t force it. They have to go at their own pace. It has to be mentioned that they have had to deal with the shock that their daughter was an escort in Vegas. I get that they’ve had difficulty understanding, and am grateful they show any level of support they can. I know they love me, as I do them.
My husband has been great, very supportive, though this whole book ordeal has been very stressful for him. I know he’s looking forward to the hype dying down, as it’s beginning to, and us moving on with the rest of our lives. He’s been doing his best to help keep things manageable for me, but it’s been tough for both of us behind the scenes.
People have also criticized you for including vivid descriptions of the sexual activity you engaged in while in Vegas in your book. With the understanding that anyone writing about their vice, be it alcohol, shopping, food or gambling, it seems nearly impossible to describe what was going on for you without including at least some of these details, but what would you say to anyone who thinks you went too far?
The sex is in there to show how out of control things got, to show what was happening in my undiagnosed bipolar mind, which was being fueled by an anti-depressant that was triggering constant mania.
And, you have to understand, the publisher / editor has more control here than most probably realize. In the memoir, we had over 500 pages to give the editor to work with, and the editor obviously preferred focusing on the Vegas stuff. I suppose in some people's eyes, sex sells. I would have rather had fewer details relating to sex and more information about recovery, and I communicated this. Fortunately, some of the passages relating to sex were removed, and more mental illness education was added, along with a recovery prologue. It’s not exactly how I wanted it, but I think it’s a good, effective book that many are relating to.
Have people struggling with bipolar disorder, anxiety or eating disorders reached out to you specifically because of this book, and, in turn, have any readers offered helpful suggestions to you regarding mental illness and any struggles you have or have had to face?
Yes, both. This has been the rewarding part for me, seeing that sharing my story has helped others. Literally hundreds of notes where someone says they totally relate with my story have come my way. Reading my book gives them the feeling they are not alone. They thought it was only them who felt the way they do, and many are now willing to talk about it with others, get help, etc. Many people have shared with me they have taken an anti-depressant with adverse effects. Reading what I went through gave them inspiration to look at things differently, to get help, etc. Many letters from family members of people affected by mental illness have also come my way. My story seems to help many of them better understand what their loved ones must endure.
In your book, you mention that you lost a lot of weight while you were working as an escort. Do you feel you were dealing with any traces of the eating disorder you had overcome earlier in your life, and how are you doing with that now?
My eating disorder was related to the lack of control I felt I had in my life when I was young. Also, it was related to the unhealthy perception I had to be thin, to be a faster runner. When I was manic, though, it was more that I just lost my appetite, and food was something I wasn’t thinking about. I was too driven by the mania to have clear, rational thinking.
How quickly were you able to find a medication or a combination of medications that worked for your bipolar illness?
I was diagnosed in about two to three weeks. Then, I was put on a mood stabilizer called Lamictal, but at a very low dose, as the primary side effect is a rash that can actually kill you. Once we realized that I did not get the rash, the dose was increased. I started noticing a difference after about two months. During this time, they kept me on Zoloft (the anti-depressant) since they knew I was more susceptible to depression during this time than ever. Once the Lamictal kicked in, then I was weaned off the Zoloft. At that point, it was difficult for me, because the Zoloft always made me feel good / manic. The Lamictal calmed me and provided more clarity, but I missed that high of the mania. I took Xanax for times of heightened anxiety, and still do. I was also put back on the birth control pill to take care of mood swings associated with my period. I had been off that for several years.
Do you think people who are bipolar are diagnosed properly and effectively?
While some are, in general, I would say, no. One in five individuals eventually diagnosed bipolar are misdiagnosed with depression initially (as I was). Too often, general physicians do the diagnosing and prescribing of medications, as is what also happened with me. The system must change dramatically to make sure everybody has access to a psychiatrist for the correct diagnosis. The good news is that once properly diagnosed, there is hope. Effective medications, therapy, reduction or elimination of triggers and support can all lead to a fulfilling life.
Did your husband see what you were doing as simply a compulsion or a phase that might eventually pass, or was he concerned there was something more going on with you?
You could say we were leading a life of separation in the months leading up to my escorting. I convinced him on the open marriage concept, as there was very little intimacy in our lives, but we both wanted to stay married primarily for our daughter. So, when I started seeing a male escort and hooked up with a couple of guys, he saw it as a phase, just a girl who had been repressed much of her life experimenting and finding her sexuality. Once the escorting turned into more than a one-time arrangement for discreet sex, he realized something more was going on. From there, it was constant conflict between us.
How did the two of you protect your daughter from any negativity relating to this situation, both in terms of the tension between you and your husband and also the choices you were making, and how have you dealt with explaining to her what happened?
While I knew what I was doing should remain hidden from Kylie, it was all Mark who did the protecting during this time. She saw us argue a couple of times, but, by and large, our arguing took place when she wasn’t around. Mark focused on what he could control. He learned pretty quickly he could not control me, but he could protect Kylie. Most of his efforts went in that direction. I will be forever grateful that he protected Kylie during that time and never tried to turn her against me.
As for the aftermath and how we handled Kylie, Mark and I separated for a few months after I was outed by the Smoking Gun article. It was best for me to get well first before we tried to work things out. So he and Kylie stayed in Wisconsin, while I was in California getting treatment. Mark would bring Kylie for a quick visit every three weeks during that time.
Kylie knew before all this that I had dealt with depression, so she had a rough understanding that my brain didn’t work quite right. When things got really crazy after Vegas, he just emphasized that point more. “That’s not your mom.” “She needs to get well.” “She’s going to get well.” As things progressed, I started to come back to Wisconsin every couple of weeks, and gradually, very gradually, things got better. It took about 1.5 years before we really had a healthy family life again. It took lots of therapy, including lots of talking with the psychologist and other experts on how to handle things with Kylie.
As a result, she learned what I had been doing in a kid-appropriate way. She knows about sex. She grew to understand as well as she could. We saw her understand mental illness and encourage her, like everyone else, to focus on the illness and not so much the act associated with it. As a result, we have an incredibly compassionate, and very aware 10 year old. I would say she understands mental illness better than 99% of adults out there. I don’t think we give our kids enough credit for what they can handle sometimes.
Do you feel you understood the potential consequences of the risks you were taking when you were in Vegas?
Absolutely not. I felt I was untouchable. I felt my husband, the only one trying to pull me out, was being an unreasonable ass. This is the stuff that hurts the most today. I look back and see what I put him through.
What was the turning point? In your book, it seems to be the article that caused you to look more closely at what was happening in your life. Do you think you would have eventually reached a turning point without being outed?
I believe if I were not outed, I would have kept going with my life in Vegas. I was beginning to engage in riskier and more reckless behavior at the time I was outed. I was picking up clients outside of the agency, in bars. I was taking ecstasy and cocaine was being offered, and I was getting closer and closer to saying yes, anything to bring the thrill up a notch. If I had to guess, I would have become addicted to drugs and kicked out of the agency. Mark would have left and taken Kylie away. I would have gone into a very dark place, and either overdosed or taken my life. I know it sounds dramatic, but that is the path I was on.
There are times you speak in the third person, as if Suzy and Kelly are two different people. Do you try to integrate the two and accept that they are both parts of yourself, or do you really feel like Kelly was a different person?
I try to separate the two, as that person was not the person I am right now. That being said, there are bits and pieces of Kelly I admire and try to bring into my current life. She had a voice. She was a badass. She was independent and confident and certainly not ashamed of her body or her sexuality.
Was there ever a time when you felt you were working in Las Vegas for the money?
Well it was always a factor. It enhanced the thrill, the taboo of the whole thing. I had a plan to make enough money, so my husband could quit his job, the job that I saw as destroying our marriage. Remember, this was my unhealthy brain at work here.