Three time Olympic runner, Suzy Favor Hamilton wants her story of hypersexuality, scandal, bipolar diagnosis and recovery to inspire others to go the distance.
By Scott Pitoniak
Suzy Favor Hamilton knew that writing a memoir about her bipolar disorder would be incredibly challenging—in some ways even more difficult than preparing for and competing in the Olympics, which she had done three times.
It would mean reliving her transformation from one of the world’s most respected middle-distance runners to a highly paid Las Vegas call girl. Still, Favor Hamilton felt a powerful compulsion to put pen to paper.
The woman who was born to run believed she needed to confront her past instead of run from it. She also wanted to set the record straight. And by doing so, with brutal honesty, she believed she could help others successfully deal with bipolar disorder as she has.
“There are so many people who are silently suffering that don’t have a voice, who are afraid to seek help because there is such a stigma attached to mental illness,’’ says Favor Hamilton, whose memoir is titled Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness. “I’m hoping my story convinces more people to seek help, to make them and their loved ones realize that it’s the illness that’s causing the destructive behavior.
“In my case, my bipolar was driving me toward sex. It could have just as easily have been driving me toward drugs and alcohol or gambling, the way it does many people. The message, though, is that it can be treated if diagnosed correctly, with the help of medical people and family and friends. There is hope, and I’m living proof.’’
Favor Hamilton, 47, wants to address the many misconceptions and stigma attached to bipolar.
“There are still people out there who don’t regard this as an illness, or don’t understand how, if left untreated, it can lead to some really serious things,’’ she says. “I want to use my story as a platform to educate people.”
Born to run
Suzy Favor discovered the joy of running early in life, while growing up in Wisconsin. The activity came so effortlessly to her, felt so natural. Unlike most runners, she always landed on her toes instead of the balls of her feet. She often thought of herself as a ballerina because they were always on their toes, too. Occasionally, she would allow her hyperactive imagination to run wild and pretend she was a horse.
The exhilaration she experienced while running suited her perfectly because she couldn’t sit still. She always had to be in motion, whether it was skiing, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the house and scrubbing all the floors while her parents were at work.
It quickly became apparent that she had a gift. Before she knew it, she was being asked to put that gift to use in competitive races.
Over time, she would develop into one of the best middle distance runners in the United States. At the University of Wisconsin, she won a record nine NCAA championships. But despite her enormous success, she grew to hate the stresses associated with competition. Running stopped being an expression of freedom. She came to loathe the activity she once loved.
She kept on, in large part, to please others. Striving to be the “good child” in her family established a pattern that carried forward into her adult life.
Internal pressure to perform became her enemy at the Olympics in 1992, 1996 and, most dramatically, at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Nothing else in international track and field competition compares to that world stage, with the hopes of a nation and the eyes of the media pinned to one’s back along with the bib number.
Favor Hamilton had failed to medal in her first two Olympic attempts. At age 32, she believed Sydney would be her last chance.
“I wanted to win so badly for my family,’’ she writes in Fast Girl. “I had a gold-or-bust attitude; anything less than the best would be a complete failure.”
As she toed the starting line for the 1,500-meter finals, she was consumed with doubt and dread. When the gun sounded, she tore off. After running three laps in what she described as “sheer panic,” she found herself in the lead with a lap to go. But she couldn’t outpace the fear that something terrible was about to happen—and in a self-fulfilling prophecy, it did.
Overcome with anxiety as the finish line loomed nearer, she stopped and fell to the track. She forced herself back onto her feet and completed the race. But when she saw the media waiting for her, she couldn’t bear the shame of coming in last in her last Olympics. She dropped to the ground again. Medics lifted her and rushed her away.
“As far as I was concerned, this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, worse than any other loss, worse, even, than my brother’s death,’’ she writes. “My perceptions were totally distorted. I was a wreck.”
She lied in her post-race interview with reporters, not telling them—or even the people closest to her—that she had collapsed on purpose. The medic who treated her immediately after the race cited dehydration as the reason she fell. She gratefully went with that excuse, even though she knew it wasn’t true.
Bipolar symptoms & hypersexuality
Favor Hamilton returned to competition a few weeks later and even contemplated trying to qualify for the 2004 Summer Games in Greece. But when she pulled her hamstring during the preliminary round of those Olympic trials, she decided to retire.
Many athletes find it wrenching to leave the sport that has consumed their lives for so many years. That was not the case for Favor Hamilton. Not only had years of competitive stress taken a huge mental and emotional toll, but she was longing to take on a new challenge: starting a family with husband Mark Hamilton, whom she met when they were students at the University of Wisconsin.
When she gave birth to their daughter, Kylie, in 2005 she was overcome with joy. But in the weeks and months that followed, Favor Hamilton experienced intense separation anxiety whenever she wasn’t holding her daughter.
Other symptoms of peripartum (formerly postpartum) depression set in. She became increasingly agitated, often arguing with her husband over “foolish things.” She frequently broke down in tears. She grew so lethargic she could no longer think clearly. As even the simplest tasks became overwhelming, she quit her job in ad sales at the family real estate business.
At her husband’s urging, Favor Hamilton saw a doctor and a psychologist. She started on an antidepressant that helped her resume her activities. Four years later, she and her therapist decided she was ready to go off her medication. Within a month, her depression returned.
A new doctor prescribed a different antidepressant that dispelled the “dullness of depression” and made her feel more energetic than she had in years. But as sometimes happens when an individual with undiagnosed bipolar is treated for major depression, she got more of a boost than she bargained for.
As her mood escalated, she threw herself into the risky and risqué behavior that almost destroyed her life. In the grip of hypersexuality, she reveled in her new role as “Kelly,” a high-priced and popular escort.
Favor Hamilton says the sex, the risk, and the rewards in money and gifts all fueled her manic euphoria. And typical of mania, she was unable to fathom the possibility of unhappy consequences. Over the course of a year, she got sucked further and further into the fun and freedom she found as Kelly, leaving Mark and Kylie at home.
The party came to a screeching halt when the website Smoking Gun posted an expose of “U.S. Olympian’s Secret Life as Las Vegas Escort.”
In retrospect, Favor Hamilton and her doctors believe her bipolar disorder was largely held in check during her running career by the intense regimen required of top-flight athletes.
“When I stopped running competitively to have my daughter, the combination of this change to my system and my postpartum depression kicked my bipolar disorder into high gear,” she says. “Not that anyone in my life—including my doctors—knew it at the time.’’
Although her older brother, Dan, had been diagnosed with bipolar while she was in high school and the condition runs in families, no one made the connection to Favor Hamilton’s symptoms. She herself knew little about the disorder despite the exposure to her brother’s mood swings.
“Of course, back then, getting the diagnosis wasn’t the same as gaining an understanding of what it meant,’’ she says. When Dan’s behavior threw the family in turmoil, Favor Hamilton recalls “wishing he would just snap out of it so my mom would stop crying.”
She and her parents were devastated when he died by suicide in 1999.
“Looking back, I’m embarrassed by my own ignorance … I still had so much to learn back then, and unfortunately, I would have to learn it the hard way,” she reflects.
Journey to bipolar recovery
In January 2012—a month after the news about her double life broke—Favor Hamilton received an accurate diagnosis of bipolar I.
“For the first time, it all made sense to me,’’ she says. “I began to understand how the combination of my condition and the [antidepressant] sent my behavior into overdrive. I had all the bipolar symptoms. In a way, it was liberating to finally get to the bottom of why I had done what I had done.”
In a way, it was liberating to finally get to the bottom of why I had done what I had done.
The work of healing was just beginning, however, for Favor Hamilton and for those close to her.
“The fact I had been this well-known athlete made it even harder on my loved ones, particularly my parents, because they’ve been forced to deal with the public backlash, too,’’ she says. “I can handle it. I just wish my family didn’t have to be subjected to it.”
Favor Hamilton gives major credit to her husband, Mark, for helping them all get through the ordeal.
“I wouldn’t have made it without his support,’’ she says. “He was the rock who held everything together while my world was spinning out of control. He kept our real estate business going, and, most importantly, he held things together for our daughter. He taught Kylie that mommy’s brain was sick and that we needed to work to get it healthy again.”
Favor Hamilton says one of the essential things Mark taught her was forgiveness.
“He said he forgave me, but it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t forgive myself,’’ she says. “And that was so true. I couldn’t truly heal until I forgave myself and realized that it was the untreated illness that was causing my problem, and that it would do no good to beat myself up and continue to feel shame.”
I couldn’t truly heal until I forgave myself and realized … it would do no good to beat myself up and continue to feel shame.
In an essay for Yahoo Health, Mark reveals that he initially saw his wife’s trips to Vegas as her way of escaping depression. Her bipolar diagnosis was “overwhelming and scary,” he writes, but also made her destructive behaviors more understandable. After some soul-searching, he renewed his commitment to their life together.
The couple separated for five months while Favor Hamilton fought her way back to some kind of equilibrium. It took another year or so after that, she says, to “get our marriage to a healthy place and become a family again.”
She went through extended experimentation to find the proper dosage of medication to quiet her mania. Bringing her problematic behaviors to a standstill was also a long-term process. Therapy with Mark and on her own yielded insights into their relationship, her actions, and the triggers that sent her off-balance, including stresses at home and on the job.
“It took a long time to get healthy,” says Favor Hamilton. “I’m still in recovery to this day.”
In addition to her meds and psychotherapy once or twice a month, she relies on lots of physical activity—everything from yoga to cycling to hiking to intense cross-training. The rigors of her athletic career took a toll on her tendons, so she limits runs to about 30 minutes three times a week.
“I still need the ‘pain’ of working out to feel good,’’ she says. “But I’ve found other outlets. Intense exercise definitely is great therapy for me.”
Favor Hamilton feels that she’s at a good place in her life now. In addition to spending time with her husband and daughter, she teaches yoga, dabbles in abstract art, and speaks to groups about mental illness, eating disorders, and the stresses young athletes face.
She’s heard from scores of people who were touched by Fast Girl.
“It has been so inspiring, because so many of them have shared their stories about dealing with bipolar,’’ Favor Hamilton says. “I want people to know that they aren’t alone, that there is help out there. We all want to make a difference, and, hopefully, this book will help me do that.”
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