Gracie Gold Gets Real About Depression
Olympian figure skater Gracie Gold is bringing new awareness to what it’s like to face—and accept—mental illness. by Peter Chlebogiannis
Anyone looking at figure skater Gracie Gold’s life from the outside would see only success: In 2014, she won the Olympic team event bronze medal. She’s the first and only American women to be an NHK Trophy champion; she’s a two-time U.S. national champion, two-time silver medalist, two-time World Team Trophy champion, and the 2015 Internationaux de France champion. But in the last three years, anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder chipped away at that shell of perfection, culminating in a 45-day inpatient stay at a mental health facility. Now age 24, she’s sharing her experience with the world, bringing new awareness to what it’s like to face—and accept—mental illness.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
HC: What was your understanding of mental illness before experiencing your own?
GG: I didn’t realize it at the time, but my ideas about mental illness actually perpetuated the stigma. Not that I judged it, there was just a lot I didn’t know. I thought ADHD was when you move around a lot and in the middle of a conversation someone would say “squirrel.” Anxiety was when you’re nervous all the time and jittery, like worried and scared. Depression was when you were just sad and cried all the time. Eating disorders were just when you were very skinny and were afraid of food. I also thought that these illnesses always had to be triggered by some dramatic event. I really missed the broader concept of mental health.
HC: Tell us a little bit about what led to your hospitalization.
GG: So, I had a mental health crisis, that’s what I’d call it. It was shorter than some people’s, but it was extremely intense, and it went from zero to 60 so fast. It ended with me checking into an inpatient treatment center for 45 days, which is completely off brand from what my life is like or what it used to look like.
Before that, I was in denial. I was like, “Okay, I'm not depressed because depression looks like this and that can’t be me.” When I actually got into treatment, the doctors said, “It sounds like X, Y, and Z is happening….” And I was like, “No, no, this is a gross over exaggeration of what I’m going through. I don’t need to be here. This hospital is for people who are really bad.”
Then they explained the top 20 most common depression symptoms, and I checked off 16.
HC: How did it feel to finally have a diagnosis?
GG: It was scary, it was a relief, it was validating, it was embarrassing. It was a huge mix of emotions that went all over the board. I don’ t love that I have a diagnosis, but it was good to know I wasn’t just a lazy loser and didn’t just make the whole thing up. I was very back and forth on it.
HC: How did things change after treatment?
GG: I wasn’t trying to be a hero when I came back, but the fact that I disappeared for 45 days seemed to require some explaining at first. People wondered why I had disappeared off the face of the earth for over a month, and it became a big deal. Then as I started sharing, some people were like, “Oh, that’s way different than it was portrayed.” People started to understand that things had gotten serious.
Sharing those thoughts and feelings, and voicing what’s inside, is cathartic across the board. That’s why communication is so key. Whether it is in relationships, with your parents, or with your kids.
Now when I’m at the rink with my coaches I’m able to say, “Hey, I'm in the fields today. So just make a note, continue as usual, but heads up that X, Y, and Z is happening.” You know, it’s like if you went to a restaurant and had a nut allergy. We don't need to panic. Just be aware and possibly prepared to give some extra considerations.
HC: What kind of responses have you had since you started sharing your story?
GG: Almost every single person I have met, and I’m talking hundreds of people, have had an experience to share. I'll have a random mom in the stands telling me she had really bad postpartum depression. I met a doctor who told me what it was like getting though med school with ADHD. People have told me about their eating disorders. It's very rare to find someone who’s never experienced any of these things in any capacity.
And yet many people still don't feel comfortable stepping forward because they feel like their experiences aren’t serious enough to talk about. Of course people feel bad for you when you are so depressed you can’t move or are stuck in bed or are sobbing, but when it presents itself as irritability, mood swings, not wanting to be a part of your own life or drinking too much, those symptoms just become inconveniences to those around you.
When you have cancer no one’s like, “Oh my god, you only have like a little bit of cancer.” Instead, it’s all-hands-on-deck to support you in whatever you need. It's almost the opposite if you say you have bipolar, ADHD, addiction, or depression. People hear that and take two steps back, kind of like “that's a crazy person.”
HC: What do you want to tell people who are going through similar things and feeling scared to take the next step?
GG: I would tell them it doesn't hurt to take a look at what you’re dealing with. You have a chance to find some resolution, and even if it’s hard to get there, it will always be worth it.