The phone rang repeatedly but was not answered. Persistent knocks on the door were ignored. Friends and teammates were worried, and an entire city was confused. A billboard on Route 50 in Northwest D.C. said it all: "Missing in action — Chamique Holdsclaw."
She can smile about it now, but eight years ago, Holdsclaw recalls being home alone, engulfed by darkness from the closed window shades. Darkness invaded her thoughts. In what seemed to be mere moments, three days had passed.
As she sat on her sofa eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, Holdsclaw realized for the first time that something was wrong, and she had no idea how to fix it.
"I was living in a condo close to [Verizon Center], and I remember leaving practice and heading home," Holdsclaw recalled. "The next thing I knew, I had lost three days."
It was the defining moment of a two-year downward cycle that began with the death of her grandmother.
"My grandmother who raised me and had always been supportive passed away, and I felt really empty," Holdsclaw said. "I felt alone. I had so much — a great career, family support, awesome friends. But to me, I was just like on an island by myself, in my head."
A friend took Holdsclaw to see a psychiatrist. The initial sessions were intense, twice a day for a week. When she was diagnosed with clinical depression, her first reaction was denial.
"I was shocked," Holdsclaw recalled. "I've had ups and downs in life, trials and tribulations just like anybody else. But for somebody to look at me and tell me I think you need to be medicated for this -- it's going to improve your life, it really just threw me back. I was in denial for so long."
If denial was Holdsclaw's first reaction, embarrassment was her second. A star in the WNBA and the Washington Mystics' best player, Holdsclaw knew she couldn't keep the team in the dark about her condition.
"I was having extreme highs and lows and thinking, "I don't want to be here,'" Holdsclaw recalled. "But I was in a professional organization, and this episode happened during the season."
Holdsclaw would play just one more game in a Mystics uniform and requested a trade in the offseason. Weary of the rampant media speculation regarding her absence, ranging from pregnancy to cancer, Holdsclaw was embarrassed to tell the truth about her condition and wanted to escape the flood of bad memories that Washington held for her.
Today, she calls leaving Washington one of her biggest regrets.
"I ran. I was embarrassed. I didn't want to be here," Holdsclaw said. "I don't regret much, because it all makes you a better person, but I wish I would have learned how to deal with things and stayed here and finished out my career here. This is my city, this is my support system, my second home."
After leaving the Mystics, Holdsclaw spent two seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks then announced her retirement. She returned a year later, however, to play for the Atlanta Dream. Her last WNBA season was 2010 with the San Antonio Silver Stars.
But even with all the accolades, Holdsclaw believes her career could have been better had she confronted her condition instead of spending years trying to hide from it. Her mission now is to help bring the stigma of clinical depression and the mental health issues out into the open.
Holdsclaw has written a book, "Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot," was recently honored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for her work as an advocate and speaker. She is also spokesperson for Active Minds, a nonprofit organization which serves as a young adult voice in mental health advocacy.
The healing begins, Holdsclaw says, with not being afraid to admit that you need help.
"It was really hard to come forward," Holdsclaw said. "But when those words parted my mouth, it gave me so much strength."
Changing the Conversation
Depression is not a death sentence. That is the message Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, wants people who are struggling with this condition to know; a message Holdsclaw has helped to spread.
"One of the things I have loved about working with Chamique is that one of the thongs she does is provide that symbol of hope," Malmon said. "You can be on top of the world and be struggling inside. Depression is something you can manage and still live the life that you want to live."
Malmon speaks from experience. Her older brother Brian committed suicide when Malmon was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in March 2000.
"The emotion that was most salient for me was fear," Malmon said. "I realized that my brother and I were pretty similar people. I realized that if I had I experienced some intense emotions and thoughts I wouldn't have told anybody."
Malmon turned her grief into positive action. She began researching mental illness after her brother's death, inspired to do so after learning he had suffered in silence for three years before seeking help.
"He had never told us, his family," Malmon said. "His friends had noticed some changes in him, but they didn't know what to say. They didn't know what it meant, didn't know it was their place to say anything. Since he was trying to keep it quiet, they wanted to keep it quiet to honor him."
Malmon's research uncovered some startling facts. According to the American College Health Association, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. Most students who show symptoms of depression don't think it's serious enough to seek help, or are embarrassed to do so. One in ten college students contemplates suicide.
Determined to start a dialogue on the issue, Malmon started Open Minds while still a student. It evolved into Active Minds and has grown to more than 300 student-led chapters on college campuses nationwide. Malmon believes that the more people can share their stories, the more they understand that depression is not a sign of weakness. Like her brother, they'll realize that they aren't alone.
"The next generation will change the conversation, they will be the parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers of tomorrow," Malmon said. "They are going to get rid of the barriers that stop people from seeking help.
Next Generation of treatment
Depression is different in everyone who suffers from it. The most common symptoms are changes in eating and sleeping habits, anxiety, guilt, a loss of interest in work or other activities, a depressive mood and thoughts of suicide.
"It's important to keep in mind that depression is not just normal sadness," said Dr. Carlos Zarate, a psychiatrist with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). "It's a state where you have significant distress, you might have impairment in your ability to enjoy things or to experience pleasure."
A Harvard-educated psychiatrist, Dr. Zarate specializes in neuro-psychopharmacology and is the chief of experimental therapeutic treatment at NIMH.
"We are working on developing the next generation of treatment by trying to understand the causes and biology of depression," Zarate said. "We are looking for treatments that work in a couple of hours so we can minimize depressive episodes and allow people to get on with their lives."
Medication is the most common treatment for severe cases, while psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is equally and sometimes more effective in mild to moderate cases. While clinical depression is a combination of genetics, mental factors and environment, Zarate says, the good news for athletes is that NIMH studies have shown exercise to be effective in treating milder cases of clinical depression.
"Like Miracle Gro can grow your plants, there are growth factors in the brain that can make the neurons stronger. Athletes who keep in shape might have more protective factors in their bodies."
There is no cure for clinical depression or bipolar disorder, but new treatments can dramatically improve the quality of life for those affected.
"Our goal is to reduce the impairment on one's life, comparable to a medicine that could control malignant hypertension or sugar in a diabetic within hours, instead of days or weeks," Zarate said. "That's what we're trying to do."
One of the toughest problems for athletes who suffer from depression is that it's often mistaken for something else, such as laziness or a lack of discipline.
In a culture where being tough and aggressive is part of the job description, being diagnosed with clinical depression cannot only come as a surprise to a professional athlete, it's often met with denial.
Some of the most well-known athletes who have battled depression include Ken Griffey Jr., Terry Bradshaw, Jerry West, Mike Tyson, Ricky Williams and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest). World Peace and Holdsclaw are outspoken mental health advocates and have supported one another's struggles. They are lifelong friends who grew up together in Queensbridge, N.Y.
For D.C. native and former Mystics player Nikki Teasley, the battle against anxiety and depression began during a difficult upbringing in Southeast and manifested itself during her junior year at North Carolina when Teasley announced to her coach that she "didn't want to be herself anymore."
Diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Teasley sat out the 2000-01 season while being treated with therapy and anti-depressants.
"I wasn't doing well academically, basketball wasn't going great, my social life wasn't the greatest," Teasley said. "I started thinking of ways to hurt myself. Not necessarily suicide, but messing up my ankle or taking some pills and putting myself out of commission for a month or six weeks. Then I thought, 'Whoa, this is bad.'"
Teasley left school for year and worked two jobs before returning to UNC and finishing her college career being named first team All-ACC. Selected fifth overall by the Portland Fire in 2002, Teasley was a two-time All-Star in eight WNBA seasons.
Like Holdsclaw, Teasley is former athlete who feels no stigma in talking about her depression, and hopes her story will help others.
"It's part of who I am," Teasley said.
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