There’s a saying in recovery groups, that you are only as sick as your secrets. Some of those secrets are rather benign, like maybe we used to wet the bed when we were in junior high school or we have inappropriate crushes. But I think a lot of us – actually, most of us – have secrets that are dark and sad, the kind of secrets we’d rather not have and would prefer if they would just go away. There’s a sense that we are somehow shameful, defective or mortally flawed as human beings because have those secrets, like there is something terribly broken inside of us in ways that alienates us from the rest of the world.
At least this is how I have felt in the past, which is part of why I am so adamant about what I think of as “radical honesty.” I don’t mean radical honesty in terms of my interactions with other people – I actually think that practitioners of “brutal honesty” are more about the “brutal” and less about the “honesty” – but in terms of sharing information about myself. I write a lot about surviving abuse, for instance, because I hope that maybe in doing so I can help other people who have been abused or who are being abused to feel a little less alone and broken. I guess my hope is that as more of us feel comfortable sharing the darkest parts of our history with one another, it will help to bridge the gaps between us, and maybe ease that sense of alienation from one another that seems so prevalent in our society.
It’s this belief in the power of radical honesty that has me doing a three-part Girl Crush Chronicle. Each of these women would be deserving of an entry on their own merits, as each woman is a world-class athlete whose accomplishments just gobsmack me on a regular basis, but each of these women has another thing in common, and that is that they have chosen to be open about their secrets in hopes of helping others who are going through the same thing.
Kellie Wells is one of the nation’s top hurdlers, with national titles in both the 100-meter hurdles and the 60-meter indoor hurdles. She’s got her eye on the 2012 London Olympics, which will hopefully end in a medal on the podium, unlike her time in Beijing in 2008, which ended when she tore a hamstring at the end of the semi-finals. She’s been a star at every level, starting with high school and going all the way to her pro career.
In 2010, she published a blog post that I imagine was very difficult for her to write. In it she revealed that her stepfather had sexually abused her for years, abuse that culminated when he raped her. She had told her mother what happened, only to be met with silence, and so Wells moved out of the house and in with a friend. Weeks later, her stepfather and mother died in a fatal car crash. Wells unknowingly drove past the scene of the car crash.
From an interview with the Telegraph:
Talking is good, says Wells. So good, in fact, that she wants to use her rising profile as an athlete to encourage other victims of sexual and physical abuse to share their stories.
She also plans to open a foundation for battered women and abused children, and has already appointed a business manager to put her ideas in motion. “I would love to have placement homes for families that need to get away from abusive situations, and have girls and boys being able to tell their stories and actually be listened to,” she said.
She says her goal is to show people in similar situations that it’s possible to heal and to even thrive:
“I know my story is very common to a lot of people, and it’s swept under the rug a lot,” she said. “If I can help at least one person and show you don’t have to be a product of your environment, you don’t have to keep secrets, and you don’t have to hide, that would be amazing.”
Amanda Beard earned her first Olympic medal at an age when most of us were first trying to navigate the horrors of junior high. In all she has medaled seven times in three different Olympics. She once held the world record in the 200m breaststroke. She’s had a high-profile career outside of the pool, with anti-fur ads and Playboy centerfolds and appearances in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and even a few gigs as sports correspondents.
All of the shiny success and the huge smiles hid a mess of secrets, which she has written about now in her new memoir, entitled “In the Water They Can’t See You Cry.” (By the way, the title of that book is just…omg. So sad.) The memoir was accompanied by a blitz of media as people realized Beard had written candidly about cutting, depression, eating disorders, drug abuse and destructive relationships, a spiral of trauma that started with her parents’ divorce when she was 12 and no doubt compounded by the intense pressure on her as an elite athlete.
From an Associated Press article:
“It was definitely a snowball effect,” she said Thursday from New York where she was promoting the book. “It started with my parents’ divorce, the pressure I put on myself after the `96 Olympics, not dealing with puberty. All of those things I just constantly pushed down and tried not to deal with. Those things just kind of built off each other.”
Beard started drinking in high school, when she hated her looks and felt unlovable. Adding to her burden was a case of mild dyslexia that made her cry daily and led to grades of Cs and Ds.
Swimming was the only area in which Beard rarely wavered. Although she briefly quit five months after the Atlanta Games, she soon returned and earned an athletic scholarship to Arizona. That’s where her bulimia began, a problem five-time Olympian Dara Torres also dealt with as a college swimmer at Florida.
Like Wells, Beard hopes her book will encourage others to seek help and to understand that they aren’t alone:
“We can’t be ashamed of who we are or embarrassed of the things that we’re going through,” she said. “It makes me almost emotional in a way to hear people’s stories especially if they’re still struggling with overcoming things. It breaks my heart because it’s not a fun place to be and you feel so lonely.”
Chrissie Wellington is kind of a superstar in the world of Ironman, as she won every single Ironman she has ever entered. That’s thirteen total Ironman competitions. She won the world championships in Kona even though she had torn her pectoral muscle two weeks earlier in a bike crash. She is a bad-ass of epic proportions.
Wellington recently published a memoir in which she wrote about her experiences with anorexia and bulimia, which were fueled by her insecurities with her body, coupled with the perfectionism and the drive that has made her so successful at such a challenging endurance events:
“The victims of such illnesses are often very ambitious, outwardly successful young women who pursue these ideas of control and achievement,” she says. “We’re driven, compulsive, obsessive, competitive, persistent and seek perfection. That can be channelled incredibly negatively.”
Wellington said she often hears from other female athletes, and she recognizes herself and her life all over their messages:
“There is still a stigma and so I swing between wanting to talk about it and being ashamed because to me it’s still tantamount to weakness. But every week I receive letters from women and young girls. They don’t know I’ve suffered from eating disorders but they explain how they’re suffering from these same afflictions. I’ve got a message in my inbox now from an American girl saying: ‘I don’t know where to turn, can you help me?’ She’s a triathlete.”
When I think about my own life and the things I’ve gone through, I think of two things that have helped me to heal: talking about my own stories, and hearing the stories of other people. When I listened to other people, people who seemed so smart and tough and accomplished, as they shared stories that resonated with me on a deep, almost subconscious level, it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t as weak and damaged as I thought. I might have felt that way, but feeling something doesn’t make it true.
I tremendously admire all of these women, not just as athletes, but as survivors. I know how scary it can be to speak honestly about your vulnerabilities, how terrifying it can be to stand up and expose your soft parts in such a public way, and I admire them for being able to rise above that in hopes that they could be of service to others.