Christie Blatchford: Physical pain of Clara Hughes’ epic ride for mental health paled next to emotional toll

Christie Blatchford | July 2, 2014 8:02 PM ET

National Post






Clara Hughes’ enormous heart is sore.


After riding a bike for 110 days over the vast, rough country she now knows so intimately, this is where she most aches.


“There is so much loss that we never hear about — the suicides,” she said in a lengthy interview Wednesday, the day after she completed an 11,000-kilometre-plus, around-the-nation tour called Clara’s Big Ride in aid of raising awareness of mental illness.


“I leave this ride, it is bittersweet,” she said, “not because it’s over. It’s bittersweet because I’m so inspired, but at the same time, I’m just like, bloody hell, there is a loooong way to go.”


Her determined optimism is noticeably tempered by what she saw, the stories she heard, in more than three months on the road. She was clearly shaken.


Yet she managed, one more time before she disappears for a while from public view with her husband, Peter Guzman, who was at her side the entire way, to rise to the occasion, to find the smallest slice of bright.


“It may be audacious,” she said, “but I do have hope that we can treat each other better and that our system can change and not leave people for dead.”


The ride’s sheer physicality — through every province and territory, in every sort of weather this country can dish out in late winter through early summer, over Canadian shield and prairie and the great stretches of emptiness many Canadians see only from a plane — was daunting, even for a six-time, two-sport Olympian who is one of Canada’s most decorated athletes.


And that was exhausting, so much so that whenever friends would join her on the road for a day or two, as fellow speed skater and Olympian Christine Nesbitt did near Winnipeg, they would remark at how uncharacteristically tired Ms. Hughes looked and, in Ms. Nesbitt’s case, how quiet the normally garrulous Ms. Hughes had fallen.


“‘Omigod you look tired’” was the refrain, Ms. Hughes said, and this from people with whom she once trained or competed hard. “I should be tired. Bloody hell, I should be!”


But it was nothing compared to the mental and emotional toll.


“I literally, for 110 straight days, had people reaching out to me, and telling their stories,” Ms. Hughes said.


“I’m not this in-one-ear, out-the-other person. I’m a person of heart and it was really hard. It was really hard when you have mothers who are afraid of losing their daughters or sons [to mental illness] and who are asking you, ‘What can I do?’


“And you have to say, ‘I don’t know.’”


In those 110 days, Ms. Hughes spoke at 235 community events, giving a keynote speech almost every night, and did more than 80 school visits.


“I thought it was going to be hard,” she said, “but I really underestimated the emotional side of it, and I had to, in the latter part of the ride, I had to work a lot with my psychologist in Calgary.”


Ms. Hughes has had her own battles with depression, but this was different, she said, felt different.


“I didn’t feel I was going into that dark place again. It was definitely circumstantial, like situational, depression: Like, if I was removed from that I would have been OK.”


This time, she was wearing the pain of all those she met — the kids who have gone through suicide attempts; the people in Nain, Labrador, who two years ago suffered one of those teen suicide plagues; that girl out West who needs to see a psychiatrist but is on a waiting list until 2015.


“She was in emergency, saying ‘I am going to hurt myself if I’m alone’, and she was sent home with some pills,” Ms. Hughes said.


“But this is not the fault of the person in the emergency room. This is an ER that is overworked, understaffed and not equipped to deal with mental health issues,” she said. “There are so many layers to the dysfunction of the system that we have.”


She cried “so many times”, she said.


Sometimes, as part of a school visit, the kids would have done a video, and she’d watch it on the way to the school, in the back of her bus, with her husband and her friend and former competitor, the German cyclist Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, who rode with her for much of the way. They’d all be bawling.


Or Ms. Hughes would be in some school hallway, waiting to be called in for her speech, and a young person — there were “community champions” in every town and burg she visited, chosen locally — would speak first. “I would have the door cracked,” Ms. Hughes said, “and I was listening.”


Still, she said, she realized, “This is situational, but if I don’t do anything about this, it can go beyond that.” It’s a useful athlete’s view of pre-emptively treating mental injury, catching it before it becomes crippling.


‘It’s also just the world we live in, which is so fast-paced, that we cannot slow down. … We’re so connected we are disconnected from ourselves’
Even so, even with her psychologist’s help, Ms. Hughes said that by the end of the ride, she was almost out of emotional gas.


“I just realized, in one of the communities, ‘I can’t deliver any more’. This is not good for the crowd that is here, either for inspiration or answers or just education.” She leaned then on her master of ceremonies more, and switched from having to give all-out speeches to a question-and-answer format.


She wasn’t surprised by the pain she found in young people; she works with youngsters in the time she gives to Right to Play, and she and Mr. Guzman do a lot of volunteer work privately.


“I am not surprised at the struggle,” she said. “It’s also just the world we live in, which is so fast-paced, that we cannot slow down. … We’re so connected we are disconnected from ourselves.


“The problem now, too, is that everything is so immediate that we don’t have patience with anything, including ourselves, so you can have situational depression or anxiety and that can be the end of the world for someone and can end up being the end of the world. Instead of actually being able to talk to someone, and have someone explain what a situational depression or emotion is, that you can deal with this, you’re going to be OK.


“They don’t get that. They just get the end of the world.”


She looked at her forearm, which was flush with heat rash. “I can see my heat rash all over my body,” she said. “It’s tangible. Can’t see what’s broken inside, you know?”


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