Chamique Holdsclaw shares struggles with mental illness in hopes of helping others

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Chamique Holdsclaw decided she would share her struggles with mental illness in the hopes that her story would help others also facing some of the same issues.

For most basketball players, the name Chamique Holdsclaw conjures images of smooth pull-up jumpers, of fierce crossovers and fadeaway J's. She is forever wearing Tennessee's burnt orange, a hand on Pat Summitt's shoulder, her head tilted toward the coach to absorb her sideline instructions. She is long and athletic -- that's the part so many of us saw.

On Tuesday afternoon at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Holdsclaw filled in the gaps of her story, shining a light into the darker corners and the places few are ever allowed. The sports world had always known the highlights, but here we heard the rest: the history of mental illness in her family, the separation from her parents at a young age, the various mental breakdowns that occurred during her WNBA career, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and how she copes today.

Below are a few of the insights Holdsclaw provided. (For a full, rich look at Holdsclaw, please also read Allison Glock's piece on the 40-year-old star.)

1. The big transition: Holdsclaw talked about her transition from high school, at Christ the King in New York City, to the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and about how that move was one of the first catalysts in her mental health struggle. The culture change, along with being away from home -- from her grandmother, who raised her -- affected Holdsclaw. She also made the larger point that this transition, for so many athletes, can be challenging, especially as they enter communities often very different from the ones in which they were raised.

2. Genetic history: When she was just a young kid, Holdsclaw shared, she went to live with her grandmother. She made this move, in part, because her father had mental health issues, including dealing with schizophrenia. For so many people, the genetic component of anxiety, depression and personality disorder goes undiscussed.

3. Footing the bill: As a WNBA player, Holdsclaw said, teams quickly addressed, and paid for, the treatment for any physical ailment, for every MRI and appointment and surgery. Then, one time, when she reached out for help to secure a therapist, the team found one for her but said it would be unable to cover the cost. The point Holdsclaw was making was a larger one, crucial for athletes on all levels: Millions of dollars are poured into their physical health, but too often the mental and emotional component goes underfunded.

4. Isolation: Holdsclaw said that at various points of her career, she would isolate herself, especially when she was at her low points, because she didn't want people to know about her mental illness. She shared a story about her time playing for the WNBA's Washington Mystics, when she shut herself into her apartment, and even when Summitt showed up, having flown in from Knoxville, Holdsclaw didn't answer the door.

5. Helping others: Eventually, after years of struggling, much of it without openly discussing what was happening, Holdsclaw said she realized she needed to talk about what was happening. She decided she would share her story, that through that story she would attempt to help others facing some of the same issues. But even as she shared that she's the happiest she has ever been, she emphasized that she is not "better" -- she is coping, and staying on her medication, and feeling the added benefit of speaking openly about her experience.

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