Suzy Favor Hamilton: Olympic athlete to Las Vegas escort

Suzy Hamilton
Suzy Favor Hamilton left athletics in 2005 when she became pregnant but eventually ended up working as an escort

Suzy Favor Hamilton was a middle-distance runner who represented the US in three Olympic Games before becoming an escort in Las Vegas as she struggled with bipolar disorder. Listen to her story on Stephen Nolan, 12 February, 23:30 GMT on BBC Radio 5 live.

Mine is a story of misdiagnosis, but how did I get there?

There is a history of mental illness in my family. My brother lived with bipolar disorder and the household was often chaotic as a result.

Our family never discussed it. To the outside, we looked like the Brady Bunch. Looking back, there were signs something was not quite right with me either.

WATCH: Suzy Favor Hamilton talks to Stephen Nolan on 5 live

I did everything at a mile a minute and couldn't focus for the life of me. Growing up, I lived with an eating disorder, had suicidal thoughts and a suicide attempt in college, then experienced severe anxiety when I raced. But I kept it all in, trying to maintain the facade of the perfect Midwestern girl, strong and powerful.

If others noticed any problems, they looked the other way. I usually won, and they liked it that way.

Running seemed to be the one thing in life that quietened my brain, and because of that, I loved to run and grew to obsess about it.

I saw my winning races have a positive effect on my family, namely my parents. I strangely grew to feel that my success could make this a happy family, and take away any silent pain we were experiencing as a result of my brother's odd behaviour.

Suzy Hamilton is attended to after falling during the 1500m final at the Sydney Olympics, something she admits was intentional
Hamilton is attended to after falling during the 1500m final at the Sydney Olympics, something she admits was intentional

My running career was highly successful. I won more NCAA Championships than anybody ever had. I won seven US Championship titles between 1991 and 2004, set a couple of American records, and made the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams.

I won a lot, but tended to "choke" at the big, big meets. I didn't know why and it ate at me. My body would just tighten up on me unexpectedly towards the end of a race. Like I was running with a piano on my back. I even fell on purpose in the 1500m final at the Sydney Olympics when, as the favourite, I knew I would not medal with 50 metres to go.

That was easier to swallow than failure. I wanted so badly to win that one for my family, to ease the pain of losing my brother Dan to suicide the year before.

Incredibly, I never thought of myself as having any kind of brain disorder. All I knew was that I dreaded competing. Filled with anxiety most often, I could not wait to retire, but I marched on to please others.

Finally, in 2005, I got pregnant. Having a child would be my way out. This was my excuse, and I could not wait to be a mom. I would have a baby, maybe two, and live a life of perfect happiness. But that's not what happened.

Months after having my beautiful daughter, I was in a dark place.

Listen: BBC World Service speaks to Suzy Favor Hamilton

A new "real world" job in real estate, a suddenly strained marriage, a disintegrating relationship with my siblings, strain with my parents, a miscarriage, then another, feelings of inadequacy of being a mother. It was building up.

All I knew was that I had to hold my daughter all the time. I could not let go. I had no motivation to run. I rocked myself constantly. I was irritable like never before. And then I decided I wanted to run my car off the road, into a tree. I just wanted the pain to stop.

Thankfully, I thought of my daughter, resisted those thoughts, made it home, and told my husband.

Soon, I saw a doctor, was diagnosed with post-partum depression, put on anti-depressants, and things improved. Years passed. Triggers intensified. I was getting by, but had grown to detest the side-effects. I felt fat, sluggish, unmotivated. I stopped taking the drug that had been keeping me somewhat stable.

It didn't take long, but before I knew it, I was in that dark place again. Suicidal. Triggers everywhere. My marriage was deteriorating. My family was driving me crazy. I had a modest speaking career, but they insisted I not publicly speak about my mental illness or my brother's bipolar and suicide. I hated my real estate job. I just wanted to escape.

Suzy Hamilton at the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Alberta, Canada
Hamilton, pictured at the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Alberta, Canada, says she would often 'choke' at big race events

My doctor put me on another anti-depressant. The effects were immediate. I felt great. I felt beyond great. I felt alive. I wanted to live. Time for my fantasies to now become a reality.

Our 20th wedding anniversary was coming up. A nice dinner date out on the town with flowers perhaps? Not for me. I wanted to go to Vegas, jump out of a plane, hire an escort, have a threesome. Bucket list stuff I never thought I would actually do. Never. I wanted it now.

Skydiving was amazing, something I would never dare do, but I was doing it. Then the threesome. Now this was life changing. I was a new woman.

What is bipolar disorder?
One in every 100 adults will be diagnosed with the condition at some point in their life
People with bipolar experience significant mood swings including manic highs and depressive lows
Men and women of any age can develop the illness, although it often develops between the ages of 18 and 24
Symptoms can first occur and then reoccur when work, family or emotional pressures are at their greatest
More on bipolar from NHS UK

How had I been missing out? Freedom. I wanted sex. It was all I could think about. Our marriage was on fumes.

I asked for and was granted permission to stray. An open relationship we would try. Divorce was not an option, not for my daughter or for business. To keep things steady, or at least seemingly steady.

Over the next six months, I made several trips to Las Vegas on my own. First meeting with a male escort, then hooking up with men I met at casino bars, then insisting on gifts in exchange for sex. And then the light bulb flashed. I wouldn't hire the escort. I would be the escort.

Within months, I was the number two-ranked escort in Vegas (yes, there actually are rankings out there), and top 10 in the world. I was never happier, never higher, never more alive.

For the first time in my life, I was independent, could take care of myself. I loved the taboo, the riskiness, the slight danger to it all, and I always had to take it a step further. It was never quite enough.

The money was intoxicating, but not the driving force. It was the thrill, the risk, the taboo, the attention, the power, the sex. All the while, an infuriated Mark covered for me, protecting my reputation, raising our child, keeping the real estate business going on his own, while I was off, totally out of control.

A year into my life as an escort, I was outed by a jilted client. A tabloid told of my activities to the world. My life had been taken away.

Suzy Hamilton
Hamilton no longer runs competitively but does take part in charity races

Suicidal thoughts crept back in. The world came crashing down on me. My husband would leave, take my child, my parents would abandon me, as would my friends, or so I believed.

To save these relationships, I felt compelled for once to seek help, even if for appearance sake.

Admittedly, I was beginning to feel there was something wrong with me after months of denial. This was the first time I had ever visited a psychiatrist. I tried my best to fool him that I was fine, that I could continue with my life "as is".

But within a couple of weeks, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, weaned off the anti-depressant that the doctor believed had driven me to a mostly constant manic state over the past year and a half.

The process of recovery would begin, slowly, with several bumps and relapses along the way.

My husband did not leave. He did not take my daughter from me. My parents failed to understand why, but they stuck with me, loved me the best they knew how.

Friends bailed on me, but many remained, though confused by it all. I had some support in the athletics world, but some considered me an embarrassment to the sport and wanted me to just go away. I also had to quit the real world job as it was not good for my bipolar.

How did the sweet, innocent Suzy wind up here?

My bipolar is manageable now. I learned to feel no shame for what I did. Regrets yes, but no shame. Shame holds you back and prevents recovery.

Suzy Hamilton and her family
Hamilton feared her husband would leave her and take their daughter when her secret life was revealed

What hurts most though is what I put my loved ones through. My journey, as odd as it was, moulded me into a person I'm happier with.

I have more of a voice. I'm more independent. I'm a better wife, mother and friend as a result. I teach yoga and I am a public speaker on mental health matters. I'm healthier than I ever have been, I believe. I've found healthy coping mechanisms. I'm more compassionate than ever as I know what it's like to be shamed and shunned on an intimate level.

I'll never be cured, and I'll live with bipolar for the rest of my life. I know it won't always be smooth sailing ahead. But I'll always know that as dark as things might get in the future, it always gets better.

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