Years ago, a cowboy on a horse whipped a lasso in Chamique Holdsclaw’s direction, trying to capture and kill her — or so she believed. The six-time WNBA all-star and Olympic Gold Medalist was actually lying in a Los Angeles hospital’s psychiatric ward, rattled by hallucinations. A years-long battle with depression had culminated in this moment: She had just taken an entire vial of her once-daily antidepressant, swallowing one pill at a time in a matter of minutes. Holdsclaw then called a friend who noticed the way she slurred her words, repeating that she was “Just tired. So tired.”
The death of Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams — who was found hanging in the bedroom of his Tiburon, Calif., home this week and said to have received treatment for depression recently— struck a familiar chord for Holdsclaw, whose suicide attempt and personality shifts are indicative of mental illness’ indiscriminate and misunderstood nature.
“People ask, ‘What does this rich and successful man have to be sad about?’ Mental health is a taboo topic, and people judge a book by its cover,” says Holdsclaw, 37, who watched Williams on the 1970s sitcom “Mork and Mindy.” “He made us laugh. But he wore a mask. He was a performer; no one can know what someone else is dealing with.”
Holdsclaw was also a performer, often playing hurt regardless of her mental demons. She mustered the wherewithal to show out on the basketball court, first leading the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols to three consecutive NCAA championships and then on the rosters of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, Los Angeles Sparks, Atlanta Dream, and the San Antonio Silver Stars.
One of only 10 women in history to score 3,000 points in her undergraduate career, Holdsclaw was dubbed the female Michael Jordan. This girl from Queens, New York, was living her dream.
“I was in my twenties with my own home and my own cars. I had this great life, but I could barely get out of bed in the morning,” she says. Personal traumas — alcoholic parents who drank their way to divorce and a fractured relationship with her mother (the two appeared in a recent episode of “Iyanla, Fix My Life”) — came to a head when her grandmother, June Holdsclaw, passed away in 2002. Chamique had lived with June since the age of 11, after she was removed from her mother’s care.
“She helped me cope with the success. [When she died], my world spiraled out of control. So there I was, a world-class athlete in control of my body, but I couldn’t control what was happening in my brain,” she shares.
One year after losing her grandmother, Holdsclaw noticed a shift in her personality. When she wasn’t on the basketball court, she rarely left home and often closed her curtains, sitting catatonic in front of the television. Friends noticed a change as well, often referring to her as Sybil, the fictionalized psychiatric patient whose multiple personality disorder was highlighted in a 1976 TV miniseries. “My friends tiptoed around me because they didn’t know how to approach me. One minute, I was the great teammate everyone wanted to hang out with. Then I would flip and isolate myself,” Holdsclaw says. She began skipping practices and games, much too exhausted to do anything but stay in her darkened home. After sharing her suicidal thoughts with a friend, she was taken to a psychiatrist. It was during those hours on the psychiatrist’s couch that Holdsclaw verbalized the upset she’d suppressed for years.
“Growing up, I’d see my dad talking to himself and thought it was because he was an alcoholic,” she admits. Holdsclaw didn’t learn about her father’s schizophrenia until she was in college. “Some say that these issues are genetic. You can imagine how much that scared me.”
By 2005, Holdsclaw had moved to Los Angeles, believing the sun, surf, and good vibes would cure her personal angst. She’d been traded to the LA Sparks, and the change of scenery coupled with therapy and an antidepressant had her feeling healthier than she had in years. “I started feeling better and decided that I didn’t want to take the [pills]. I felt like if I could run and jump on the basketball court, then I could get through the sickness,” she says. She was wrong.
A familiar foe crept into Holdsclaw’s thought life during a brief stint in Europe. “After a traumatic experience in Spain, I wondered about running my car into a tree,” she says. The subsequent diagnosis of her stepfather’s terminal cancer and a flare-up of father’s schizophrenia led her to a breaking point. Soon after returning to Los Angeles, she swallowed 10 of the antidepressant pills that had long gone untouched.
An intermittently lucid Holdsclaw woke up in a psychiatric ward and overheard a physician telling a nurse that she was in for one of the worst nights of her life. The beep-beep-beep of the heart rate monitor sent her reeling, its increasing tempo hinting ostensibly at her imminent death. And if her heart wasn’t going to beat-beat/beat-beat/beat-beat out of her chest, the cowboy she envisioned galloping toward her would kill her instead. She headed home after the hallucinations subsided, her heart rate stabilized, and the medicines had exited her system. “The doctor told me that I was lucky, that I could have had seizures or lost the use of my limbs from the overdose,” Holdsclaw reveals. “I started saying thank you and praying to the Most High, vowing to get the help that I needed. I promised I would be vocal and unashamed.”
Holdsclaw recounted the experience in her 2012 memoir, “Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot after Shot,” and now works as the national spokesperson for ActiveMinds, a mental health awareness organization. Months after the release of her book, Holdsclaw surrendered to police after an incident in which she threatened her ex-girlfriend and fellow WNBA star Jennifer Lacy, later swinging a baseball bat and firing a gun at Lacy’s car as Lacy, who was uninjured, sat in its driver’s seat. While the law sentenced Holdsclaw to three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine, she further investigated her violent outburst. “What happened was serious, and I had to ensure that I was okay,” she says of seeing a forensic psychiatrist. A thorough review of her health history revealed that Holdsclaw had been suffering with bipolar II disorder. “With bipolar disorder, there are extreme highs and lows. Remember how I reminded my teammates of Sybil years before?” I’d get so agitated and fly off the handle; the next minute, I’d be a different person,” she says.
Holdsclaw prioritizes self-care by attending therapy weekly, staying on her medications, meditating, and exercising. “It takes the mind, body, and spirit to be healthy,” she says. She also refrains from isolating herself on days when she feels down. “I used to shut myself in, but now I’ll call a friend. My friends say, ‘Come over. Let’s cook, let’s eat, let’s give you some life!” As she lives, she recognizes a trigger in others’ deaths. “I don’t do funerals. Death is a trigger that has sent me into dark places, considering the loss of my [grandmother.] I carry [death] differently than other people. So I go to a quiet place, pray, talk to my therapist. I cope the way I cope.”
In addition to advocating compassion during her speaking engagements, Holdsclaw imparts that mental illness is no different from any other ailment. “Just like a torn ACL, mental illness is a medical condition—you have to treat it. And as a community, we have to be sensitive about how we treat each other. We have to stop judging mental illness, and we have to talk about it.”