I’ve never spoken openly about the complications of my life; in fact, not even my family is aware that I’ve spent a lot of my life battling what I can only describe as a crippling depression.
I know the illness can’t be blamed or used as an excuse for poor results – I was able to swim some of my best times through some of the worst periods. And it also wasn’t a reaction to the high life of red carpets and speeches, and neither can I blame the media intrusion – although it certainly hasn’t helped and might explain my reticence to discuss my private life. It’s a terribly dark place in which to hide.
Even when I was a child I knew I was different. I didn’t have words then to describe what it was, but there were times I’d feel sad for no apparent reason. It’s probably why my early school reports annoyed me so much, glossing as they do over individuality to assure parents that their children are good and coping well when the truth is often very different.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, those sad periods were getting more frequent and longer, but I just tried to ignore them and get on with what I was supposed to be doing, which was plenty. I still had no words for what I was feeling, but that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t tell my parents. Life had become complicated by what was going on for me in the pool and I could already see that they were struggling to come to grips with the world I was entering. Even at 15 it just seemed that I needed to shield them from the fuss.
Besides, I wanted to be the perfect child and what I was feeling was a character flaw as far as I knew. I was also hoping that they knew intuitively that something was wrong and that there was no need for me to try to explain it.
But now I realise it’s time to be open. I need to talk to them about it.
It’s going to be tough.
I know how Mum will react; she’ll cry and ask me why I didn’t tell her and then she’ll tell me how proud she is that I’ve finally talked about it. Dad is different. I’m not sure how he’ll react. I know it’ll take time for him to come to terms with it and how it fits in with his religious beliefs. I hope it does, because family means a lot to me. He once said that he felt he’d lost me as a son. I hope, in my honesty, he’ll feel as though he’s gained me back.
It’s taken me a long time to accept that being depressed wasn’t my fault and rising above it is actually a strength of character. Just as I believe sexuality to be a genetic disposition, so too is depression. It was something that I would have had to deal with whether I was a swimmer or not.
I was 19 when I finally decided to try to get some answers. The Sydney Olympics had come and gone, I’d moved out of home and had begun my initial preparations for Athens, which was still three years away, but the illness had become crushing and I knew I needed to seek out other ways of managing it. The freedom of moving out of home had given me space, but it also meant I was more alone with my thoughts than ever before. And my success in the pool only compounded the misgivings: I should be feeling great; happy and invincible. Instead, there were nights when I would contemplate ending it all.
A clandestine visit to my doctor had provided some help, including medication, but little in the way of explanation. If anything, it isolated me even more because I felt as if I now had a secret and no one to share it with. It was something I’d already found as a 15-year-old world champion, a child among adults, someone without peers with whom I could share my fears and questions, let alone a classroom and school playground.
When my black periods grew more frequent, I found that the more I drank, the better I felt – or rather, the less bad I felt, although that only lasted until I woke up the next morning to go to training. My poison was always red wine, at times drunk in quantities that now seem unbelievable.
I suppose it was inevitable that I’d turn to other, artificial ways of managing my feelings, and I found alcohol. Ironically I was never really a drinker, hating my first sip of champagne at a family wedding where I recall agreeing with Mum, a lifetime teetotaller, why anyone would want to drink something that tasted awful. There wasn’t much room for it through my teens, either; my training schedule was too full to party with my contemporaries.
I succumbed rarely and when I did it there were other motivations, like the night I found myself in a nightclub after a function and accepting a glass of vodka to impress a girl. There were a number of other swimmers there, all older than me of course, including Samantha Riley, whose then-boyfriend, the speed skater Johann Koss, frowned at me and warned it would ruin my brain.
The more I tried it, though, the more I found it suppressed my feelings. And a few years later, when my black periods grew more frequent, I found that the more I drank, the better I felt – or rather, the less bad I felt, although that only lasted until I woke up the next morning to go to training. My poison was always red wine, at times drunk in quantities that now seem unbelievable.
I’m not an alcoholic, because this isn’t about addiction; I’m not dependent. I used alcohol as a means to rid my head of terrible thoughts, a way of managing my moods – but I did it behind closed doors, where many depressed people choose to fight their demons before they realise they can’t do it without help. Now I am getting that help and managing my depression properly.
But in the past, it was a different story. There were occasions when I would have friends over for dinner, drink moderately through the meal, enough to suppress my thoughts, then wait until my guests had left before opening another bottle and getting plastered. It was the only way I could get to sleep. It didn’t happen every night, but there were numerous occasions, particularly between 2002 and 2004 as I trained to defend my Olympic titles in Athens, that I abused myself this way – always alone and in a mist of disgrace. I know I never did anything really bad when I was under the influence, but there are definitely nights that I regret.
Yet I never missed a training session. Somehow, the reality of the morning always forced me out of bed and into the pool, where I worked as hard as anyone, as if to erase the memory of the night before. And even though I was training for the Olympic Games with a hangover, my performances were some of the best of my career, including the world record for the 400 metres that I set at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
I was also able to hide my drinking from the battery of sports psychologists and coaches who work with the elite athletes. I appeared psychologically strong, a determined, dedicated athlete with all the answers about goals and directions to satisfy their criteria, yet beneath it all I was a wreck.
I can imagine how some people, when they look at my life and all its opportunities, could say that I have no right to be depressed. For a long time I thought so, too, and questioned myself constantly, but if it’s something inside you that’s different, there’s not a lot you can do about it on your own. But somehow I swam, competed and won in spite of an illness I didn’t understand and was too fearful to admit to. It’s the reason why I chose to study psychology at university – it wasn’t just a desire to finish school and get a degree, but to satisfy a craving to find answers about myself.
Exercise can play a very powerful role in managing stress, but I sometimes wonder if the relentlessness and intensity of my training schedule over more than a decade did the opposite and exacerbated the condition, the physical exhaustion wearing me down psychologically.
My illness was so severe that, at times, I considered suicide. My blackest periods would often last a month, and it was during those times that I thought about “it” happening. I even considered specific places or a specific way to kill myself, but then always baulked, realising how ridiculous it was. Could I have killed myself? Looking back, I don’t think so, but there were days in my life that, even now, make me shudder.
My worst moment came when I was playing by the rules, so to speak – getting out of the house, communicating with friends and family and not drinking – but I wasn’t getting any joy out of even the simplest things that used to make me happy, like being with my dogs or cooking. All of a sudden the suicide notes in my head started to feel rational. I needed help.
The psychiatrist asked a series of questions which gave me a score on a depression and anxiety scale that was quite scary. He concluded that my medication had stopped working and it meant I had to change – not a pleasant experience – and also that I had to go on anxiety medication, something I’d never had to take before.
Even today, at a time when I’m pretty happy with my life, I have to manage what is quite a severe illness. It’s a day-by-day proposition. When I wake up, every day is potentially a dark one and I realise that it’s something I’ll have to live with all my life.
I want the message to be positive: that things can get better.
The key is to accept that it’s an illness that can be managed properly. Like so many others before me, I wanted to fight it by myself. It felt
embarrassing – particularly for an elite sportsman – and it became a weakness that couldn’t be shown. In hindsight, I realise that it would have been much better to share it with my family and close friends.
I sense that the incidence of depression is quite high among elite athletes, probably much higher than in the general population, and not just because of the enormous physical and psychological stresses we put ourselves under. Perhaps we’re attracted to sport in the first place because the exercise helps the way we feel. The first person I told about my depression was another swimmer because I recognised that they were suffering from it, too. I felt we shared common ground. It was only last year.
But I don’t want my depression to define me. I’ve lived with it all my life and have now reached a point where I’m comfortable acknowledging it.
Edited extract from This is Me: The Autobiography by Ian Thorpe (with Robert Wainwright), published by Simon & Schuster on November 1.
* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
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