Holdsclaw recounts fight with depression

The Washington Mystics made Chamique Holdsclaw the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft in 1999 after a legendary college career at Tennessee. She draws inspiration from Pat Summitt's battle with dementia. AP Photo/John Bazemore

In the summer of 2011, I added the job of swim instructor to my résumé.

My one and only student was six-time WNBA All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw. When we met in the Atlanta social circle, my past as a lifeguard and high school swimmer came up. Holdsclaw, then 33 years old, thought swimming would be a great way to diversify her exercise regimen.

At 25, I was nervous about teaching a world-class athlete how to swim. It had been years since I had given my last lesson in the pool. We met twice a week at Georgia State. After six lessons, Holdsclaw was able to swim a continuous lap with proper technique.

I'd like to believe she caught on quickly because I was an awesome teacher, but the truth is she's an awesome athlete. As a 2000 gold medal Olympian, three-time NCAA champion (1996, 1997, 1998) and 1999 WNBA Rookie of the Year, she had no trouble catching on to the simple cues I gave her in the water.

Eventually our swim lessons became more chitchat than workouts (probably thanks to my lack of work ethic and love to talk). During one session she told me, "I'm going to write a book." As we jogged up and down the pool lanes during warm-ups, she talked about what she wanted to accomplish in her book.

"I've had a book written about me before, but this one would be different because I'd write it myself," she said. "In my last book, I was just coming out of the sheltered environment of my grandmother's home and University of Tennessee. With this book, I can touch many more lives with how much more I've experienced in life."

Almost a year after our first conversation, she is at her alma mater, Tennessee, promoting her self-published autobiography, "Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot." In it, Holdsclaw pulls back the curtain on her life and discusses her battle with clinical depression and its effect on her playing career.

Holdsclaw accomplished her goal, following through expeditiously in writing her book. Not surprising, considering the body of work that is her life. Holdsclaw is the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in Tennessee men's and women's basketball history, had a signature Nike shoe and was once pegged by basketball analysts as the female Michael Jordan.

Rock bottom

The book opens in 2006, with Holdsclaw experiencing the lowest moment in her life. A season after requesting a trade from the Washington Mystics to the Los Angeles Sparks, she had succumbed to depression.

    I looked up at the ceiling of the ambulance, confused. I soon realized that I was being rushed to Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles. As we tore down the street, the sounds of flowing oxygen and machines controlling my heart filled the air. The EMTs hovered above my body, taking my blood pressure and doing their best to keep me alive. I went in and out of consciousness, wondering how I'd let it get this far. I was taught to be stronger than this and yet, here I was, possibly minutes away from death.

    I was so tired of always having to be the strong one. My grandmother was gone now, and I wanted nothing more than to be with her. In the days leading up to this, my thoughts had been filled with images of me losing control of my car or jumping from a building to end it all. I didn't see a way out of the darkness that had come to consume me, so I finally chose to overdose on my anti-depression medication. The self I once knew was fractured and I just could not fit the pieces back together.

    During my stay at the hospital, I suffered through one of the worst nights of my life. I had severe hallucinations; I was freezing cold, and vomited on a good friend. I repeatedly asked my friend and the doctors if I was going to die. The next day as they moved me to another room and under suicide watch, the doctor came to me and told me how lucky I'd been. He said I could have really messed myself up, aside from actually dying. That's when I promised myself [and God] that I would never let it get this bad again.

Holdsclaw said she "thought it was important to catch readers in the beginning with this moment because it was the first time I realized I needed help and I couldn't fight [depression] alone."

By revealing her darkest moments, Holdsclaw attempts to demystify mental illness and show that even the strongest people can have moments of weakness.

In 2010, she joined a panel on emotional and physical well-being sponsored by the NFL and the Morehouse School of Medicine. The town hall format was designed to educate, motivate and mobilize communities at a grassroots level to address issues such as dementia, depression and financial and relationship stress and drug and alcohol abuse.

Holdsclaw also has dedicated her time to speaking at universities about her struggle with depression and has become a spokesperson for Active Minds, an organization working to use the student voice to change the conversation about mental health on college campuses.

"When I was in that bed in that hospital in L.A., I told God, 'If you get me out of this, I'm going to make a change,' and with that being said I decided I would become more open about my depression and share my story with whoever would listen," Holdsclaw said.

Road to the top

Holdsclaw's ascent to WNBA was impressive. A tall, awkward young woman, she used basketball to escape from a broken home. Her parents both battled alcoholism, and her father was later diagnosed with mental health issues of his own. Holdsclaw and her younger brother eventually went to live with their grandmother, June Holdsclaw, in the projects of the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y.

Holdsclaw spent her days on the court.

    I played every sport I could, but basketball was my favorite. I had a natural ability and loved the creativity of it. ... I was the only girl on a team full of boys, but I still shined as the best player.

Holdsclaw helped Christ the King High School win four state titles before going to Tennessee and leading the Lady Vols to the first championship three-peat in the history of the women's NCAA tournament.

The Washington Mystics made Holdsclaw the first pick of the 1999 WNBA draft. She remembers the exact moment when she realized how basketball had changed her life.

    A week and a half into training camp I was handed the keys to my new house. I had no furniture yet, but I was happy to have a space that was my own. I walked into my new home for the first time and sat on the floor and sobbed. Not so long ago I had called the walls of a project apartment home and now I had more space than I knew what to do with.

Death to darkness

Just as she appeared to have the world at her fingertips, Holdsclaw's reality came crashing down. Her first head-on battle with depression was triggered two years after the 2002 death of her beloved grandmother, June. At that moment, Holdsclaw's life began to spiral out of control.

    I sat on the couch in the darkness for days eating Fruity Pebbles between my fits of tears. None of my responsibilities mattered to me and I was completely consumed by the darkness. After a few days of not leaving my house, I saw a note under my door from the doorman. He wanted to make sure I was okay. I had no idea that so much time had passed. After I read his note I was prompted to check my cell phone. I had several missed calls from teammates, agents, and other concerned friends. Somehow, three whole days had disappeared. I called my agent and told him that I was a wreck and that I didn't know if I was going or coming. He told me he would talk to the team and see how they wanted to proceed. The media was aware of my absence and wanted to know what was going on. I realized that I needed help…

    I spent the next week meeting with the same doctor two hours a day. She told me I'd had a breakdown as a result of delayed grieving and I laughed. My grandmother had passed away two years ago, and as much as I missed her I know life goes on.

    Over the course of that week it was determined that I was clinically depressed. As we talked, I discovered that I had been dealing with this condition for the greater part of my life. The breakup of my household and my mother's alcoholism marked the beginning of my struggle. For as long as I can remember basketball had been my drug of choice. I would obsessively pour all of who I was into being great and I had finally maxed out on the dosage.

Holdsclaw said reflecting on that time was not easy.

"Writing about that and forcing myself to relive that moment took me through a lot of emotions," she said. "I think about all the people in my life I could have talked to and how I could have handled that situation differently. Looking back on it, I can't believe I got to that place. It feels like a dream."

After being diagnosed with clinical depression in 2004, Holdsclaw was prescribed lithium, which alleviated her depression symptoms but made her feel like a "zombie." It also made her useless on the court. Her emotions had finally caught up. She decided to leave the Mystics to focus on her newest opponent: depression. Although her departure helped her gain clarity, it clouded her reputation and caused the media to question her behavior.

    The Mystics supported my decision and I took the rest of the season to heal. The media curiosity over my departure never died down and speculation only increased. People wrote that I was pregnant, had cancer, and one publication even said I had Lou Gehrig's disease. At the time I didn't understand why they wouldn't leave me alone to work out my issues in peace.

To make sure she never returns to that dark place in her life, Holdsclaw fights her depression by staying active, opening up to people around her and working through her feelings.

"In my house, the blinds are always open and I never let it get dark like that," she said. "When the sun starts peeking through the clouds, I'm up with the sun. Exercise is now my medicine. I always have to go outside and work out. I don't stay inside and let the walls feel like they are closing in on me."

Summitt an inspiration

Holdsclaw has recently realized she isn't the only one fighting to maintain her emotional and physical well-being. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt revealed last August that she is battling early-onset dementia.

    When Coach Summitt came forward with her own diagnosis, she gave me strength. ... Her mantra throughout her battle has been, 'Dementia has never fought against an opponent like Pat Summitt.'

When Holdsclaw talks about Summit, a smile comes across her face as she recalls the coach who became like a second mother. The two women are so connected in Volunteers folklore because of their shared championships that intersecting streets in Knoxville were named after them: Chamique Holdsclaw Drive and Pat Head Summitt Street.

"Coach Summitt was tough on me because she saw that talent in me," Holdsclaw said. "She believed in me when I didn't believe in myself, that's just how she is. As a tough kid from New York City, I had to let go of my ego and realize it's not the way Chamique wants to do it, it's the way Pat Summit wants it done. And after a while I realized her way was the way to success."

Holdsclaw's success on the court had been on hold because of an Achilles injury that forced her to miss part of the 2010 season and all of 2011. A free agent, she is back on the hardwood and recently took part in basketball practice with Tennessee.

"I had an Achilles injury, which is miniscule compared to Coach going through dementia," Holdsclaw said. "If she can display such strength during a life-altering moment like this, I can certainly get back on the court. Me and Coach always talk about once basketball is over, it's over. It won't last forever. So I have to go out and make the most of my God-given talent. I have to roll it up and get to work. I have to give it a shot."