Forging connection through struggle

Clara Hughes shares her battle with mental health in hopes of helping others

Published on April 16, 2014

NEW GLASGOW – Mental health awareness rode into New Glasgow on Wednesday on the back of Clara Hughes’ bike.

Hughes spoke to more than 400 people at the Pictou County Wellness Centre as part of her 12,000-kilometer ride across the country to get Canadians participating in a conversation about mental health.

The six-time Olympian brought many to tears as she told her story of using sport to try to fill an emptiness she felt inside.

“It’s so easy to look at someone who has done so much, who has succeeded so much, who stands and looks so strong and rode 165 (kilometers) into their town today. It’s easy to look at that person and to think they came from a certain place - to think that’s it’s always easy and to think that this smile is always here,” she said during her keynote address.

The smile that was glued to her face as she received a standing ovation from Pictou County isn’t always there.

Hughes turned to drugs and alcohol when she was a very young teenager in Winnipeg after watching her parents fight over her father’s alcoholism for many years before their eventual split.

She was inspired by Olympic sport when she was 16 and got off of a dangerous path.

It was what she needed at that time, but even Olympic medals couldn’t fill the hole she had inside her.

“Sometimes I was the best in the world at what I did, but I still felt the same inside.”

She came back from her first time on the world stage, and needed sick leave.

“When I got those medals and I came home to Canada and everyone knew who I was, I just wanted to hide. I wanted to not go out. Those weeks turned into months, turned into day after day of being in bed and eating and sleeping and crying. That’s all I could muster myself to do.”

It was after two years of her life had passed, she realized while on a bike tour in Mexico with her now-husband that she needed to change the way she viewed herself.

“How I was talking to myself, treating myself, that had to stop and I couldn’t stop it.”

She got the help she needed, thanks to an infinite amount of support, and realized it’s a battle she couldn’t trudge through alone.

Hughes tried for many years to suffer in silence because of a fear of judgment. It is that stigma and her desire to get rid of it that is the reasoning behind the ride and the Bell Let’s Talk campaign.

“It is about connecting Canadians in a way that is much more than joy, much more than happiness, much more than celebrations like I’ve been able to have … It’s about the struggle, the real life struggle that connects all of us.”

Hughes joined a line-up of entertainment featuring George Canyon, Dave Gunning, Karen Corbin, and The Third Step as well as master of ceremonies Starr Dobson, president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, and a speech from Tim Daley, local lawyer and past president of the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society.

On Twitter: @NGNewsAmanda

More to come 

Olympian Clara Hughes is greeted by local supporters as she enters the Pictou County Wellness Centre Wednesday evening. The athlete is on a cross-Canada cycling tour, Bell Let’s Talk Clara’s Big Ride, in an effort to raise awareness about mental health. Amanda Jess – The News