When we are depressed, we feel sad and heavy. When we are despaired, we feel alone and disconnected. In darker emotional states, we can feel unable to deal with our lives, overwhelmed sometimes by even the smallest things, like going outside to collect the mail.
Out of habit and sometimes due to socialization, we try to push our feelings away. We don’t like them. We may feel that they betray our image of ourselves. We may feel too exposed and out of control. We may feel that we will not be loved if we show our true colours. We don’t want to talk about the painful stuff, the things that hurt. We don’t know how to get out of the heaviness, the feeling of burden, the feeling of no hope and being at a dead end.
If you are in a state of depression or despair as you read this month’s magazine, you may have difficulty engaging with articles that encourage you to feel alive and energized. It may seem like too much to ask for someone feeling so heavy and down on themselves to make any changes. Worse, you may feel as though you need to keep up a brave front and not let anyone know you are suffering. While everyone experiences some degree of depression or despair at some point in their life, mental illness is unfortunately stigmatized at times in our society. This can make it all the more difficult to reach out and ask for help.
To look at Olympic cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes, you wouldn’t guess she had dealt with depression. Her bright smile and vivacious personality seem to show someone who engages with life with joy. But she faced depression in the two years following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (where she won two bronze medals in cycling) and went from severe overtraining to barely getting out of bed, let alone on her bike. It was when her doctor and her boyfriend told her things would be ok if she could talk about her problems that she began to regain her sense of joy in life. She went back to her first love, speedskating, and won a bronze in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 in that discipline.
Former Olympic cyclist Curtis Harnett has remarked, “She has this odd expression on her face where she looks like she’s having the time of her life when she’s on the edge of her seat, when she’s absolutely pushing the limit. I was a teammate of hers when she was young and, watching her skate in Torino [2006 Winter Olympics, where she won the gold medal in women’s 5,000m speedskating], I had tears in my eyes, witnessing the drive I know and seeing that look I know so well. When she has that look on her face, you know she’s exceeding even her own expectations.”
Now that Clara has retired from elite sport, she has made it her mission to help others to talk about the challenges they may be experiencing so that they don’t have to stay in the heaviness of depression and despair. She has parlayed the fame she earned as a multiple medalist to become the major face of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and is currently riding her bike across Canada, with stops at schools and other organizations every day to give talks, to raise awareness of the need to talk about mental illness without stigma. May the fierce vitality she is pouring into the tour help many people to lift the shroud of isolation and get the help they need to reconnect with life.