Last Monday, I had the amazing opportunity to meet Clara Hughes, a mental health advocate and six-time Olympic medalist, at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital (JGH). Hughes has been my inspiration and gave me the courage to speak out about my own struggles with mental health. She is akin to a mental health rockstar to me.
The Jewish General Hospital awarded her with the Douglas Utting Medal for her work in the field of mental health. For the past five years, she has been the national spokesperson for Bell Canada’s Mental Health ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign. This year, she and Bell also launched Clara’s Big Ride which was a 110-day, 12, 000 KM stigma busting journey across Canada.
During her talk, Hughes didn’t dwell much on her sporting success. Instead she spoke candidly about her family life in Winnipeg with an alcoholic father who was verbally abusive to her mother. She spoke about following in the “delinquent footsteps” of her sister (who has now been diagnosed with bipolar disorder). She spoke, with a shaky voice and tears in her eyes, of the moment that changed her life; the moment she watched Olympic speedskater Gaétan Boucher in the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.
“It was the most awesome thing I had ever seen in my life and I knew that I was going to skate for Canada one day,” Hughes said.
But that moment wasn’t the end of her struggle. Hughes took a detour on her speed skating career with cycling. She was trained by an uncompromising and emotionally abusive coach, Mirek Mazur:
“On my way to the Olympics I was beaten down emotionally. I was too fat, too slow, too awful. [Mirek] gave me an eating disorder. Since I grew up in an environment of abuse that abuse was comforting. I turned into a training junkie. A winning junkie. I had a collection of medals and it was never enough. I was never enough. I thought once I made it to the Olympics I would finally feel like it would be good enough. But it wasn’t. I won two bronze medals. These medals were nice for everyone else but why did I still feel like garbage?”
These words struck a chord inside of me. My life and Clara Hughes are are vastly different. I’ve never been remotely athletic and my childhood wasn’t nearly as difficult as hers, but still there is a vein of similarity in our stories. I certainly wasn’t emotionally abused by my parents or a coach, but I was bullied relentlessly in school.
For anyone who thinks that bullying is a rite of passage in childhood, it isn’t. It isn’t natural for a sixth-grader to deal with death threats from other children, it isn’t natural to have rocks thrown at you during recess, it isn’t natural to have people trashing your school supplies and clothing, and it definitely isn’t natural to have chants made up about you.
To this day I remember seeing MSHMENTOS written on every chalk board and bathroom stall. It was an acronym for Marisa Sucks Her Mom Every Night and Twice On Sunday. As an adult, it’s gibberish and incredibly childish, but in eighth grade it was the epitome of humour and insult.
I am so grateful that I grew up pre-social media because if these kids could have invaded the safety of my home, I don’t know if I would be alive today.
The worst part was that it wasn’t just one school where this happened. It wasn’t the same kids. We moved a lot and I went to six different elementary schools. Each time I changed schools, I always thought that this time would be different. I would be different. But it didn’t matter where I went – there were always bullies in the schoolyard and I was always the target. The thing is, to this day, I still have no idea why. These girls who ended up tormenting me always started as my friends. Had I done something to them and had no idea? Or was I just an easy target because I was tall, chubby, and sensitive? Or did it have nothing to do with me and was just a result of a bunch girls with low self-esteem?
And you might be wondering, why didn’t my parents intervene. Because I didn’t say anything. They knew I was having a rough time at school, but I kept quiet about the worst bits of torment. They didn’t know I had to hide in the bathroom at lunch. They didn’t know I used to walk the schoolyard socializing only with a teacher on duty because I knew they wouldn’t physically hurt me in front of a teacher. They didn’t know about the death threats. As most kids think, telling your parents will only make the situation worse.
So how does this relate to Clara Hughes and her feeling like garbage after winning two bronze medals? The constant emotional abuse I suffered at the hands of other children has created a hole, an emptiness in my soul. As an adult I try and fill that emptiness with achievements, the praise of other people, and making other people happy (often at the expense of my own happiness).
In school, no grade was ever good enough. I used to make myself sick over my report cards. Going to university and getting a Bachelor’s degree wasn’t good enough, I had to get a Master’s Degree. But even that wasn’t enough. I was supposed to get a PhD (until my illness got in the way) and I still struggle with the fact that I’m not Dr. Lancione. The Dean’s List, honour roll, all of those things that my parents are incredibly proud of mean nothing to me.
Today I can’t just be okay at my job, I have to be the best. I have no tolerance for anyone who is mediocre at their job. I’d rather do it all myself and know that it’s being done right than depend on another person because people are inherently untrustworthy. I take criticism personally because everything I do is a reflection of how good I am.
And like Hughes and her medals, it’s never enough.
I’m an adult and I should be over this by now, right? Absolutely. I have spent 10 years in therapy working on these issues but they are so deeply ingrained in my soul that I wonder if I will ever get over them. Moreover, I wonder if my genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder would have manifested itself if I hadn’t been treated so cruelly?
Today most people see me as an intelligent, confident, articulate, and successful woman. But I don’t see it. At the end of the day, when I look in the mirror, I’m still that kid being torn apart by other people. I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough. It doesn’t matter how many people I please, I’m never happy with myself.
So why am I sharing all of this? Wouldn’t I want to keep all of this self-doubt and self-esteem problems hidden from the world? Well, this is another thing that Hughes said that resonated with me: “When you’re winning, you can share your weakness and still be seen as strong. But struggle is part of the human condition and if you don’t share your struggle then you are not a complete human.”
So, this is why I have opened my life to whoever chooses to read my blog posts about mental health. People perceive me as someone who is “winning” in life – I’m educated, employed, happily married, and have friends – but that doesn’t mean that I’m not struggling or that I haven’t struggled.
I’m celebrated for speaking about mental health because I’m winning, but what about those who aren’t? They’re the reason I speak out and share my story.
Check out this great video when Gaétan Boucher joined Clara on her Big Ride: