In 1996, dual-season Olympian Clara Hughes seemed on top of the world. At the Summer Games in Atlanta, she won two bronze medals in cycling for Canada, and stood beaming on the podium, basking in the glow of well wishes from teammates and fellow Canadians.
No one – Hughes included – would have thought she was about to slip into a depression so severe that she felt utterly useless, ugly and unable to cope.
The Winnipeg native learned to manage the often debilitating mental illness without medication, by focusing instead on exercise, nutrition and regular visits to psychiatrists.
On the mend but never expecting a full recovery, Hughes says that she still has bouts of depression that last “days, weeks, sometimes months.”
For years now, Hughes, 41, has been a tireless advocate for mental-health awareness, including her work as spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk.
On Friday in Toronto she kicks off her latest project: Clara’s Big Ride. She and her husband, Peter Guzman, will visit 95 communities on a 12,000-kilometre, 110-day ride across Canada to get people talking about mental health and eradicate the stigma that dogs mental illness.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Hughes shares her personal journey to becoming a mental-health activist.
When did your depression strike?
I was 23 years old, and it was after my first Olympics in 1996. I had not experienced depression before that, but I have a history of mental illness in my family. My dad was an undiagnosed bipolar and an alcoholic. He passed away last June, and had bad dementia and was in a psychiatric ward. I grew up in a dysfunctional family environment. But sport changed my life. It was my outlet. It got me out of a lot of trouble and gave me something to live for and pour myself into. But cycling can be particularly gruelling. A lot of people say [the depression hit] because I had too much pressure on me, and was pushed too hard by the coaches and by myself. But even after I’d become the athlete I wanted to be and won the Olympic medals, it was just nothing. It was really bad, and led me to very dark places where I struggled for two years. I was injured in body and spirit and it took coming back, finding a new coach, and a new way to get me on a road to recovery.
How has your husband helped you through this?
He is everything. We’ll soon be married 13 years, but we’ve been together 18. He knows me better than anyone, and if sees me going into a dark place, he tells me to go to my psychiatrist. I thought quitting the racing environment would make my depression go away, but it didn’t. I didn’t feel any better. Looking back now I know I would have struggled, with or without sport. In fact, I think I would have been far worse off without sport. I have friends who I grew up with in inner-city Winnipeg who have been on medication most of their lives for depression. When I had the chance to do something more than Bell Let’s Talk, I knew I had to do this ride and take the message to youth and schools.
Some say the stigma attached to mental illness is lessening, do you agree?
Yes and no. The stigma is still there. It takes so much time to change ideas and perceptions. The shift has started but we have so much more to do. I admire the work that countless people are doing to keep people alive, to give them a chance, and have hope. I’ve learned that story and I’ve lived that story. This ride is my own small part to hopefully help that shift in public thinking.
People talk to you about their personal struggles. Do they sometimes overwhelm you?
The stories are heartbreaking. And I meet parent after parent, kid after kid, who have no idea where to turn. Then, if they find a place, they’re put on waiting lists. It’s not a pretty picture in our country, and I don’t think it is anywhere in the world. But I believe we can make fundamental changes in Canada to show and lead the way when it comes to access to care, resources, support and compassion as a nation.
What treatment did you turn to?
I’ve never taken any medication, but exercise, nutrition and especially counselling have been key. I know a lot of people who are on medication and you would never guess. It’s what they need to keep their head above water. For me, I worked with many different psychologists and counsellors. But I’m one of the lucky ones because I was in sport and I didn’t have to go on waiting lists. What I had, and continue to have access to, is not the norm.
Describe your current state of mind.
I have my good days and my bad days. My good months and bad months. And I will have them for the rest of my life. I try to keep myself on the side of making good choices every day. I’ll continue to work with a psychologist on a regular basis. A lot of people look at me and say, ‘You’re always smiling.’ But they don’t see me all the time. There are days I sit at home [in Canmore, Alta.], crying for no reason at all. And I feel like this big, fat, ugly piece of nothing that hates herself. Honestly. Those are the feelings I have, and they’re my feelings, and I own them. There are many days that I hide out because I don’t want to be seen. But I’m not ashamed. I know through experience that I can get myself through the dark spells. And because I can do that, I want this ride to raise hope for others, too.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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