“The extreme physical pain I was able to endure was a distraction from my emotional pain. I was like a traumatized person who slashes open a vein or with a razor to let the despair, the guilt, the repressed anger bleed out. I would cut myself to the bone, grinding and hammering before I’d give up.”
Clara Hughes is a prominent Canadian athlete, known for winning medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics in cycling and speed skating. In 2010, she was the flag-bearer when Canada hosted the Olympics in Vancouver. That year, she also became the public face of the Bell Let’s Talk initiative, which aims to raise funds and awareness for mental health issues. This was the first time that many people learned about the depression and self-doubt that lurked behind Hughes’ megawatt smile. Open Heart, Open Mind chronicles Hughes’ journey from party kid in Winnipeg, to Olympic athlete, to public health advocate and humanitarian.
Open Heart, Open Mind opens on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. As flag-bearer, Hughes was at the centre of media attention in the lead up to the opening ceremony. Although she was elated by the honour, no one had prepared her to be a de facto spokesperson for the Games. This moment on the steps of Richmond City Hall serves as the perfect illustration of the contrast between her public persona, and her private struggles. The Vancouver Olympics proved both a high and a low point, celebrating her athletic career, but also showing the hurt that came from not having her achievements acknowledged by her alcoholic father.
From the Vancouver Olympics, Hughes circles back to her childhood in the Elmwood neighbourhood of Winnipeg, with her divorced parents and rebellious sister. Hughes shares the fact that she partied a lot, cutting school, drinking, and doing drugs. She gives only a very general description of her behaviour, offering few specific stories to bring it home and make it feel immediate. We get hints that her sister was also getting into trouble, but throughout the book Hughes protectively deflects attention away from her, trying hard to maintain her sister’s privacy while also acknowledging the impact of her troubled family environment. She is more open about her father, who died in 2013 of dementia, a life-long alcoholic.
In 1988, watching Gaétan Boucher skate for Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary inspired Hughes to take up the sport. However, this only lasted a year before her coach moved to Ontario. The significance of a coach will be no surprise to any sports fan, and Hughes highlights it repeatedly throughout the book. Her next coach would shape her into an Olympic-calibre cyclist, but also crush her spirits and injure her body with his brutal methods, permanently tainting her love of cycling, and leaving her feeling like she was “rotting from the inside.”
In many ways, taking up sports was only trading one form of self-abuse for another, something it takes Hughes many pages to finally acknowledge outright. Whereas before she was using drugs and alcohol to mask her pain, sports created a socially acceptable way for her to drown emotional pain with physical pain, through brutal training regimens, and disordered eating. Cutting would have been frowned upon, but grueling workouts were a sign of dedication in an athlete. Closely controlled diets were also to be expected. Even as she writes, Hughes seems to be struggling to come to grips with the way her greatest achievements were also expressions of self-hatred. This is less surprising when you realize that she was still struggling to accept help for herself even while she was serving as the public face of a campaign to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Her reluctance about medication is evident, and she repeatedly uses the word “crazy” in a way some readers may find off-putting.
One thing this book does very well is demonstrate that depression isn’t about causes. Hughes acknowledges the damage her coach did, while also noting that finally leaving him didn’t fix her. She shares meeting her husband, the man who would support her through all her ups and downs, but admits that love couldn’t fix her either. She pushed herself to extremes in training, becoming known as an endurance athlete, but even Olympic medals couldn’t instill self-worth. She got out of a sport she hated to pursue the one she originally fell in love with, but still fell back into partying and alcohol when the strain of the sporting lifestyle took its toll. She isn’t miraculously cured by sports (quite the contrary) or anything else, for that matter. Open Heart, Open Mind is part of the journey of coming to terms with living with depression.
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