Clara Hughes was already in the history books as the only Canadian to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. The wide-smiling former Winnipegger became the darling of the sports world (and the country) with her drive, ambition and athletic prowess.
Now she’s a hero for another reason. When Hughes decided to disclose her two-year battle with depression, she put a familiar face onto the stigma of mental illness. She, in the parlance of the business, normalized the disease.
When we spoke this week, she described her descent into despair.
“I tended to internalize things,” she said. “I thought I should be tough enough to deal with it.”
She wasn’t and she couldn’t and so she got help. She deserves kudos for her candour from the hundreds of thousands of Canadians affected by mental illness and those who love them.
“Clara has so much admiration for doing this. I think in the mental health field she deserves a medal,” says Tara Brousseau, executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba.
“She’s giving strength.”
Anyone who has spent time skittering their way around the edge of depression’s abyss understands the strength Hughes’ disclosure took. The battle back to wellness required similar guts. Hughes doesn’t sugar-coat her experiences.
She felt let down after the 1996 Olympics. She attributed it to a normal post-Olympics deflation. But it didn’t stop and she was crying all the time and sleeping too much and gaining weight and wanted to quit cycling.
In fact, she did quit, unsure whether she’d ever come back.
“I knew I couldn’t go on like this. After I quit, I still didn’t feel better. It progressed to something I had never experienced before,” she said. Depression does that, disguising itself as the blues, winding tendrils of doubt and self-loathing around the sufferer. Obstacles become insurmountable. Self-worth, even for an Olympic champion, vanishes.
Hughes reached out, first to her now-husband. She talked to a doctor. She switched up her diet and changed her training schedule. She fought with the drive and single-mindedness that earned her those medals.
“I had to change my thinking. I’d look at my competitors and think they were probably training harder. I still like to revert to that to train way too hard and way too much.”
She didn’t require medication. She knows she’s lucky there, that many people with depression need drugs and therapy and crossed fingers to get them across the abyss.
“Medication was an option,” she said. “I just wanted to see if I could change things in my life. I wanted to try to get through it without being medicated. I think it’s different for everyone.”
She’s right. It is different for everyone. And everyone with clinical depression has suffered the advice of the unknowing, people who think they should just cheer up, count their blessings, be glad it’s not cancer and generally stop and smell the roses.
There are no roses when depression has you in its unforgiving grip. Depression is one of the cancers of the mind. It can be fatal, although some people insist that’s a personal choice.
Hughes came back, of course. That’s why she has those extra medals in speedskating and the endorsement contracts that allow her to train and, through Bell Canada, to get the word out on mental illness. Lucky her. Lucky us.
Because if you think of the mentally ill as weak, as people who just need to snap out of it, look at Clara Hughes. Canadian sports has never had anyone like her, with the medals in two sports and the grit and the never-ending desire to compete.
The mental health community has never had anyone like her, either. In Hughes, they have proof illness can strike any of us, that even the strongest competitor can be felled. She has given face and voice and hope for the silently shamed.
If that’s not worth a medal I don’t know what is.