Olympian, author and advocate Amy Gamble used her winning spirit, heart and determination to help her overcome her greatest opponent—bipolar disorder
When Amy Gamble walked into the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, during the 1988 Opening Ceremony, the young athlete was living her dream. The same spirit and drive that took her to the Olympics with the USA handball team ultimately helped her turn her life around when it came to facing down bipolar disorder.
Gamble, 53, now channels that energy into her role as a mental health advocate and executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) Greater Wheeling chapter in West Virginia, and her work earned her a coveted Voice Award from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) this past summer.
When she was first officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999, she wanted no part of it and didn’t stay on her prescribed medication.
“I felt shame and blamed myself for becoming ill,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t have bipolar disorder, I am an Olympic athlete.’ ”
Hindsight is always 20/20, and when Gamble looks back on her life, she is pretty sure that her first symptoms occurred when she was playing basketball as a sophomore at the University of Tennessee. Despite the fact that bipolar ran in her family, Gamble didn’t consider that the sadness and hopelessness she was feeling could have been a sign of bipolar depression.
After the athletic pinnacle of competing in the Olympics, Gamble finished up her college degree at the University of Arizona and went on to work in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. There were many ups and downs for Gamble during those years as she came to terms with her diagnosis.
In total, she says, it took about 13 years and 10 hospitalizations before she fully accepted that she is living with a mental health condition. The turnaround finally came during a manic episode that landed her in jail for trespassing and forced her to develop a plan to bring her life back into control.
“I got in my car and drove 2,000 miles to Montana and went into a house that I thought was mine and made some coffee,” she recalls.
After making herself at home, she went for a walk in the nearby woods and got lost. Gamble was eventually found, frost-bitten and dehydrated, by a search-and-rescue team. She spent three weeks in the hospital, where a nurse finally broke through her denial.
“She said, ‘You have bipolar disorder and it’s not your fault. When you are ill, you can’t believe your brain,’ and that just kind of registered,” Gamble explains.
As an athlete, Gamble knew that the best way to defeat your opponent is to know their strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to your advantage.
“If I had a chance of beating bipolar, I needed to learn everything I could about the illness,” she says.
She read as much as she could, including memoirs of people who lived with bipolar such as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. She started attending NAMI meetings, and began a stigma-busting blog called Shedding Light on Mental Illness that aims to bring mental health challenges out of the shadows.
She also took a cue from one of her early mentors: the late, legendary basketball coach Pat Summit, whom Gamble played under with Tennessee’s Lady Vols: “I saw how she spoke out about her early onset Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and I felt more comfortable talking about myself.”
Gamble began to put herself and her story out there. She even did a very personal commercial for Quiet Minds (Youth Services System) and detailed her journey in a memoir, Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor: An Olympian’s Journey with Mental Illness, published in August 2017.
The best offense is always a good defense, Gamble says. Knowing your family history when it comes to mental disorders can help you stay one step ahead, as can knowing your personal triggers. For Gamble, sleeping too much or too little is a big trigger.
“If I miss sleep, I make sure I make up for it,” she says. She feels fortunate that her job at NAMI allows such flexibility.
As they say in sports, there is no “I” in team, and Gamble relies on a network of close friends and family to stay the course, as well as her treatment team. “Medications are important for stable prolonged recovery, and having a good therapist really helps,” she adds.
Many athletes use visualization to help improve their performance, and this technique has helped Gamble on the courts and off. Once she accepted the reality of having bipolar, she visualized herself as a survivor and ultimately a mental health advocate and speaker: “I was going to recover, and when I recovered, I was going to help as many people as I could.”
Many of her talks and advocacy efforts focus on college-age students. One effort is Mental Health First Aid, which teaches individuals how to respond in a mental health emergency and to support someone who is in emotional distress.
As with athletes, commitment to personal training is key.
“If you learn how to manage your disease,” Gamble notes, “you can do incredibly amazing things and it will have minimal impact.”
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What works for Amy Gamble
FINDING HER FAITH: Gamble took a Bible study class and sought additional pastoral counseling when she began to come to terms with her diagnosis.
EMBRACING ‘OM’: Meditating and practicing mindfulness at least once a day helps Gamble stay in the present. “I focus on the here-and-now and don’t worry about the past or the future.”
JOURNAL-ISM: Writing out her thoughts and feelings is a big part of Gamble’s recovery and she still journals daily.
ANIMAL MAGNETISM: “My dogs have been real life angels. When I was alone, struggling to find my way in recovery, my dogs provided their unconditional love,” she says. “I was motivated to care for them.” She currently has one dog and one cat. “They warm my heart and give me a feeling of spiritual connection.”
Printed as “My Story: On Top of her Game,” Fall 2018
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