When the Olympian retired her running spikes, she became a popular public speaker, wife, mother and successful real estate mogul with her husband Mark. So how does a woman who achieved the American dream become outed by a gossip website tabloid as an expensive, Las Vegas escort? How does the consummate perfectionist land on the front page of the New York Daily News beneath the headline, “On Your Mark, Get Set, Ho?”
Bipolar disorder; a disease often misdiagnosed and mistreated. A mental illness criticized by those lacking the education to understand its parameters. Today, Favor Hamilton is back on track and still a champion. But also, she uses her celebrity status to advocate for those, like her, suffering from this insidious disease.
Favor Hamilton will deliver the keynote speech on Living with Bipolar Disorder at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla on Monday, May 15, at 11 a.m. Hosted by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, the New York Times-bestselling author of “Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness,” will discuss living with bipolar disorder.
“The Behavioral Health Committee is determined to de-stigmatize mental illness in all of its forms; to increase the openness, transparency, and understanding around mental illness,” said Michael Hopkins, Jewish Family Service CEO. “Suzy Favor Hamilton will offer great insight for helping family members and friends serve as partners along the path to healing.”
Favor Hamilton hopes to impact others to support, not judge, those suffering from bipolar disorder.
“Those who don’t understand bipolar disorder judge those who suffer from the illness,” she said. “Bipolar is a disease, an illness, like cancer is a disease, an illness. Support is key. Without support, there’s no reason to get healthy.”
The components of bipolar disorder include manic highs and depressive lows and excessive use of drugs, alcohol and/or sex. Fifty-percent of bipolar patients suffer from hypersexuality. While exhibiting classic bipolar symptoms, rapid speech, endless energy, insomnia and reckless spending, Favor Hamilton became consumed by manic hypersexuality.
“I was not a sex addict, I was hyper-sexual,” she said. “There’s a distinction, one that’s often misdiagnosed. I freely slept with strange men, knowing that my behavior wasn’t right. But it felt normal; a delusion caused by the illness. The chemical imbalance caused by bipolar gives the brain power. Reflecting, I can’t believe that was my life.”
But how does the tale of the victorious competitor segue into the narrative of the high-class hooker? A doctor’s rush to judgment. Favor Hamilton was misdiagnosed with postpartum depression – not bipolar disorder – and prescribed Zoloft following the birth of her daughter, Kylie. Zoloft triggered a bipolar mania for sex. She remained in denial, cognizant that something was terribly wrong but confident that “tomorrow would be better.”
“A 10-minute conversation with a medical practitioner who didn’t ask the correct questions as to why I was depressed changed my life forever,” she said. “Zoloft was a trigger and triggers have negative outcomes. The drug didn’t trigger me to have sex. The drug removed my inhibitions. I became unprofessionally flirtatious. I had no filter. I changed.”
Struggling through their now 20-year marriage, Mark and Suzy decided to refuel their relationship by doing something “enjoyable,” like skydiving, and “risqué,” a sexual threesome tryst in Las Vegas.
“Neither event would’ve happened had I not been on that drug,” she explained. “But my inhibitions were gone. Mark was surprised at my ‘bizarre’ behavior but went along because I was so excited.”
The sexual encounter fueled Favor Hamilton with an incredible high.
“I felt so alive,” she said. “Mark and I shared a new and exciting, secret taboo. I wanted to do it again, so we agreed to engage in an open relationship which gave me the power to stray. I returned to Las Vegas monthly. Within six months I became an escort. Driven to up the ante, I became a high-end escort catering to clients that paid me hundreds, even thousands, of dollars an hour.”
Returning as “often as I could,” life became a duplicitous tug-of-war between Kelly, the Las Vegas escort and Suzy, the Wisconsin homemaker and entrepreneur.
“I created a second identity – as many escorts do – to become Kelly who lived in a world of sexual exploration as a strong, powerful badass. I hated Wisconsin Suzy, the athlete who had to be perfect. Kelly didn’t have to live up to anyone’s standards.”
Athletes, actors and company CEOs showered “Kelly” with lavish diamonds and pricey clothing. “Suzy” lost all sense of reality.
“Clients liked me because I was crazy,” she continued. “And yet, I thought I was normal. I was in a bizarre state, thinking why isn’t everyone doing this? I’d often hear, why can’t my wife be like you and I’d think, why isn’t your wife like me?”
Stints became longer.
“I stayed in Vegas for a month with no recollection of my time there,” she said. “Mark knew about my life as an escort, but not my behavior. While he regrets that he didn’t do more, he feared that if anyone knew, our lives – family, business and my reputation as the All- American Girl – would be ruined.”
And one day, Kelly’s facade detonated. Outed by an embittered client “who had a bizarre reaction to my refusal to marry him,” a writer from a website tabloid found her working the Las Vegas Rock ‘N Roll Marathon – not as an escort – and threatened to “ruin” her life. And he almost did. Once public, the media onslaught became relentless. While refusing to reveal the client’s name because “I’d never glorify or be like him,” the chastened escort became suicidal and checked herself into a recovery program in Malibu.
“Shunned and labeled a whore, a slut, I couldn’t return to Wisconsin,” she explained. “People suggested that I kill myself like my brother Dan – who also suffered from bipolar disorder – did. I was shamed and judged – badly. That’s why I fight to educate those who don’t understand the reality of bipolar. I fight for people’s lives. I serve as a voice for those who have no voice.”
The proper diagnosis and medications followed suit. Weaned off the wrong medication while being treated with the correct one, she initially continued to service clients because “nothing changed in my brain.”
“I lied to everyone,” she said. “I was still incredibly ill, drinking and drugging. I had no healthy coping mechanisms. As an athlete, running was my coping mechanism. I didn’t deal with my problems, I just ran. But no one ever made a connection to the mental disease, despite its layers within my family tree.”
Mark Hamilton concentrated on getting Suzy well while she focused on Mark and Kylie during her recovery. “Mark focused on my disease, not my behavior,” she said. “He’s the hero. He’s the blessing. I focused solely on Mark and Kyle, realizing that the outside world had no right to space in my head. I never meant to hurt anyone. My behavior kept me alive. I did what I needed to do to survive.”
Favor Hamilton noted that doctors often sidestep the sexual component of bipolar disorder because it’s “embarrassing” to discuss unhealthy sexual behaviors and excessive masturbation. Certain that “my story would be different” if drugs or alcohol headlined her illness, the activist works tirelessly to change perspectives because “no one has the right to ruin lives.”
“There’s no drug test, secret or miracle cure for living with bipolar,” she said. “It’s unchartered territory. I didn’t understand the depth of my illness until I became healthy. I could’ve lost my life through risky behaviors and drugs. Fortunately, I had access to the best doctors and the proper medical treatment. Many don’t. Some lose everything. People think it’s their fault. It’s not. An imbalance of brain chemicals drives those suffering from finding comfort in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“Education is paramount. Mental illness should be addressed as early as high school. Society’s quick to label young teens absurd or wild when illness may be the reason for the occurrence of bizarre behaviors.”
People have encouraged Favor Hamilton to sue the doctor and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Zoloft, who have now publicly stated the drug is not suitable for anyone suffering from bipolar disorder. While she holds no blame, she encourages patients to educate themselves with the proper “questions to ask the doctor.”
“Bipolar disorder has no easy route to wellness,” she said. “Drugs should require a consultation with a psychologist and a psychiatrist, not a family practitioner. I wasn’t guided to the correct professional.”
Favor Hamilton also stressed the importance of sharing one’s family mental health history. Her brother Dan jumped off an eight-story building at age 37.
“Those who die by suicide don’t want to die,” she said. “They simply want to end the pain. Their bodies are on fire. They’re burning. And death is the only way they can put those flames out.”
Today Favor Hamilton lives with bipolar disorder “one day at a time” while serving as a beacon of community outreach stating that her experience has gifted her with strength.
“My destructive path made me the person I am today,” she said. “I can handle what comes my way. I could’ve crawled in a tunnel, changed my name and escaped to a different country. But I’ve chosen to do something good, one person at a time. Public speaking is a cathartic outlet that’s part of my recovery process.”
The Olympian runner remains determined to cross this finish line draped in gold for those suppressed by the stigma of shame and blame.
“I speak to everyone but especially to those who lack a supportive family,” she concluded. “You have me. I support you. I understand you. I know it’s real.”