This is the third of a series where high-performance athletes discuss their battles with mental illness, an affliction that affects millions of Canadians.
Last night I was putting my stepdaughter to bed, when she ran downstairs and frantically opened every cupboard in the front entrance looking for two flashlights.
Once she found the two flashlights, she moved them to another drawer, aligning them meticulously. When she was satisfied they were aligned perfectly, she closed the drawer and went happily to bed.
My 20-year-old stepdaughter has profound autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder. Her name is Kilee, and she is turning out to be one of my life’s greatest teachers and a source of unexpected joy. Kilee has torn out chunks of my hair, slammed me into a wall, and pushed me into a ditch. She has driven me to the edge emotionally, to places of fear and anger that I didn’t know I could feel.
Kilee has also stomped out almost every last piece of judgment in my being. She shows me over and over that whatever I think I know may well be wrong.
When she reaches out to me and laces her fingers in mine, she looks at me with so much love in her eyes, I literally melt. When she laughs as she reveals the last piece of the puzzle she has been hiding, I laugh with her, thinking how funny and clever she can be.
She shows me that we are complex human creatures and we need to always seek to understand one another as we are, not as we were, or as we think someone is. We live together, and sometimes apart, in a dynamic, endlessly complex thing called a family unit — and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Love and parenting
I, like so many Canadian families, come from parents who were divorced. I went through my own divorce and have children I gave birth to, children that I was gifted through marriage and children who have become part of my life because they need love and parenting. I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world.
It’s hard to imagine a greater departure from who I thought I was as an Olympic athlete. Sport is a relentless, somewhat selfish pursuit of personal excellence. I rowed in four Olympic Games, became a world champion, and earned multiple Olympic medals.
The first thing I would think when I woke up in the morning was how much I would train that day and who I had to beat.
Everything in my life revolved around me becoming the best rower in the world. Sometimes, when I was still an athlete, I would think about what it would be like to be a parent. It terrified me. What if I became my mother?
Growing up was no picnic
My mother is a smart, creative and beautiful woman. She is an artist, full of energy and a love of life. I love her and respect her journey. Growing up with my mom, though, was no picnic.
When I was a child, she had an undiagnosed mental illness, an illness that affected her ability to feel empathy and compassion.
My mom could be relentless and cruel with her words. She could, and would, make irrational, terrifying threats. Reading her moods became an essential life skill. In those days, people didn’t get help for their emotional problems. If they were diagnosed with a mental illness they often went to a sanatorium. Getting help as a family didn’t seem like a viable option.
When I thought of being a parent I wondered if I could love my children the way a mother should. I wondered if I would have the patience and capacity to raise my children without damaging them. Then I held my gorgeous nine-pound boy William in my arms, and everything changed.
My desire to take care of my children led me to counseling and that planted the motivation to discover the origin of my rage and relentless drive. Becoming a mother forced me to come to terms with my depression and anxiety and deal with it.
On my healing journey I learned about how growing up with my mom created warps in my personality and now it was my job to change my future. I learned about vulnerability and compassion, especially how to be compassionate with myself and all of the ways I wasn’t perfect.
Through this work of becoming mentally healthy, I gained knowledge and insights; I developed new skills and a totally different way of looking at the world. It took seven years of hard work to get to the place I am today. It was a great investment because by becoming that person, I attracted the man of my dreams.
A man who is irrationally in love with me and a person who I refer to as a “fellow traveler,” a person who sees life and himself as dynamic, actively in the process of growing and changing. Most importantly, I broke the cycle of abuse and dysfunction in my family and created a different future for my kids.
Dealing with depression, anxiety
Life is a funny thing. It turns out that some of the hardest, crappiest things I have had to go through have set me up quite well to do the most amazing and remarkable things. Had I not experienced a mom who had mental health issues, I would not have developed the strength that has brought so much good into my life.
Being emotionally unprepared to be a mother took me down a healing path and finally brought my depression and anxiety to a head. I gave birth to two highly competitive, persistent, strong children. Raising them and helping them through their own issues with attention disorders and the mental component of these disorders has increased my knowledge, but also made mental health a very open and natural discussion in our family.
When Kilee started to behave differently five years ago, I was the first to notice it, in no small part because of all the experience I had in my life with mental illness. When I work with clients in my coaching practice, so much of what they are working through I can reflect back through my own life experience. This Christmas seemed to be a season for emotional meltdowns.
On Christmas Eve my teenage son was working through his own issues of competitiveness and worth. After some tears all round he said, “Man, there are just so many big personalities in this family.”
Yes there are: big personalities, some places of dysfunction and some really, really big love. I don’t think so much in terms of mental health or mental illness.
This is my family and my life, and it’s big and messy, wacky and funny, and sometimes, even profound. I am grateful for all of it.
(Large photos courtesy Silken Laumann and Beth Hayhurst Photography)