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In The Paint, And In Pain: Chamique Holdsclaw's Fight With Depression


Now a legend in women's basketball. Chamique Holdsclaw has been compared with Michael Jordan. She's a six-time WNBA all-star, and she was an Olympic gold medalist. But despite all the glory on the court, in her personal life she's had her share of knocks. At one point she was diagnosed with depression and later with bipolar disorder.

These days, she's an advocate for mental health, and a film documents her journey. It's called "Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey Of Chamique Holdsclaw." She talked about it with our regular host, Michel Martin.


When did you start to feel that there was something not quite right?

CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW: Probably at the age of I would say 9 or 10. I was really moody - temper tantrums, you know, high levels of irritability. And my grandmother noticed it, and she actually took me to a therapist.

MARTIN: And what did they say?

HOLDSCLAW: Oh, you know, that I was dealing with the transitions in my life because my parents had separated and me and my brother went to go live with my grandmother. And, you know, just typical stuff youngsters go through. But it's been something that's affected my life from day one, kind of.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, I wanted to talk a little bit about that. Your childhood was not the easiest. I mean, both of your parents were alcoholics. You know, your father was later diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and you mentioned that you went to live with your grandmother.

And at some point - so do you think it was a situation where people just figured well, your circumstances are difficult so there can't be anything personal or internal that you're struggling with? Or was it because you were successful? I mean, at some point people figured there can't be anything wrong you.

HOLDSCLAW: Right. You know, when I first came out to talk about it, you know, people were like, really? Like, you're depressed? They want to take it back to your childhood. I could've been depressed because it could've been something genetic. Like, my dad really has schizophrenia.

And it could also be the pressures and the stress that I was dealing with - you know, the death of my grandmother. I've dealt with instability as far as, you know, losing my parents - not physically, but, you know, not - them not really being in my life because they went through their, you know, demons.

MARTIN: I actually want to play a short clip from the film about that that speaks to that. Your grandmother knew that you were struggling, and this is the advice that she gave you.


HOLDSCLAW: She told me, hey, you go out there, you take out your frustrations and anger on the basketball court. Go out there and you can just be aggressive and intense. And that's exactly what I did.

Basketball was like my therapist, you know? I would sit there a lot of times just by myself when no one was on the court just shooting, you know, just trying to forget about everything that was going on in my life.

MARTIN: Does that work?

HOLDSCLAW: Well, it works for a short period of time, and then of course it catches up with you. It caught up with me. I basically - basketball was like my drug. It was like my coping mechanism. But after a while, if I'm not getting the professional help I need it just - everything just blew up out of control.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end - I mean, at one point you said that for a while, it seemed as though the worse things were in your personal life, the better you played. And that sounds like something that you sometimes hear artists worry about. They worry that compromised mental health is actually the source of their creativity. And I wonder - you can see how confusing that could be.

HOLDSCLAW: Oh, definitely. As I got older I realized that OK, something's not right. But I loved this high. I loved chasing this high. And when they told me I was bipolar, it all made sense. You know, when it's that, you know, smell of popcorn and to go out there on that court, that's what I want to chase.

And so when they told me to take the medication that made it - the medication numbed that, I didn't like the way it felt. And so I thought it would really affect my playing. And actually, it did. And I think that's a lot of times where I was like, OK, I'll take it when I'm not really playing. But once I get back on the court during the season, I don't want to take this.

MARTIN: You know, in 2004, actually, you came out and publicly explained that you were suffering from depression. How did that go? What was that like?

HOLDSCLAW: It was like - I felt relief because so long I've had so much guilt and shame. In sports, you're supposed to be strong, fierce, tough. I didn't want be considered weak.

MARTIN: So what made you finally come out?

HOLDSCLAW: Honestly, I saw how this illness tore apart my family. I see how this illness has taken me on this roller coaster ride. And it's time - I need help. You know, I don't want to consistently be judged as this person that, you know, is all over the place. I just wanted to say, hey, this is what it is. Either you love me or you don't.

MARTIN: I was curious about something you said about how - you know, you've worked with kids. And you've also had experience of people just saying, oh, this kid has a bad attitude, right?


MARTIN: I'm wondering if you feel that that's a particular issue for African-Americans. Are people more inclined to look for - say you have a bad attitude than to think there might be something else going on?

HOLDSCLAW: When you're doing work in the inner city, when you have a kid that is showing behavioral stuff - issues, they're just like, oh, he's bad (laughter). And I'm like, there's not - no such thing as, like, really a bad kid. There's something else going on at home.

And, you know, when I'm doing work in the suburban areas, I can see a kid acting out and they're always like, oh, they're just spoiled or something. So it's always, like these thoughts going through my head that's just like, they're kids, you know? No matter what environment - there's something going on. There's always something. Peel back the layers. Like, let's try to figure out what it is.

MARTIN: But on the other hand, do you feel that perhaps among African-Americans there's still a stigma around addressing mental health issues?

HOLDSCLAW: Oh, definitely. We take it back to that old-school frame of thought, what goes on in our house stays in our house. A lot of times, though, it's not that we don't want to get the help. It's the resources.

MARTIN: And how are you doing now?

HOLDSCLAW: Oh, I'm doing great, and it's a blessing. I'm just - great to be in this space and repair relationships. See, the thing is when you're dealing with this type of illness you fracture, like, friendships and relationships with family. And I was always running away because I was overseas playing basketball, so I was able to hide.

And healing, you know, from my illness and trying to get better has also been mending these relationships, you know, with my mom and my brother and my close friends.

MARTIN: Former WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw's film "Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey Of Chamique Holdsclaw" is available on DVD.

Chamique Holdsclaw, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HOLDSCLAW: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.