“I thought I was on an island by myself in D.C.,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nobody understands. Nobody knows what I feel.’”
In July 2004, Holdsclaw collapsed from a combination of delayed grief and pressure. She pulled a no-show for a game against Charlotte, locking herself into her townhouse with all the lights out, clutching her cereal bowl. She refused to answer the door even when Summitt flew in and stood on the step, knocking and calling. Eventually, the Mystics got Holdsclaw treatment, and she went public with her diagnosis of clinical depression. But that was just the beginning.
“If you are an athlete, you are told to be a machine and to find strength,” she says. “It’s ingrained in your brain to say, ‘I gotta push through it.’ So when I had mental health issues, I started thinking, ‘Push through.’ And then it took over my being.”
Ashamed of the reputation she had acquired in Washington for emotional flakiness, she asked for a trade and was sent to Los Angeles. There, she drank heavily and again collapsed.
“I was masking all these feelings, and then partying,” she says. “It tore me down even more.”
One night in 2006 she poured all of her depression meds into her hand, and swallowed them. Then she panicked and called a friend, who summoned the ambulance.
The next morning she woke up in the white-walled room. A doctor entered, and for the next few minutes gently scolded her. “I don’t know much about women’s basketball, but I know who Chamique Holdsclaw is,” he said. He proceeded to tick off the varieties of harm she could have done by overdosing, apart from killing herself. She could have blinded herself. She could have gone into seizure. She could have lost the use of her hands, or feet.
“After he walked out of the room I went through hours of feeling shame,” she says.
When the drugs and the shame wore off, she made a promise with God: “If you get me through this and get my feet on the ground, I will help others,” she said.
She was weary of the tendency to suppress problems, taught by years of high-stakes competition. Basketball, she understood, had become a form of denial. Not long after the suicide attempt, she went to Knoxville to stay with Summitt, and confided her struggle for well-being, and said she was thinking of retiring.
Summitt had always been a hand in Holdsclaw’s back, pushing her through difficulties and back to the court. But now Summitt said something different. “’Mique, just do what makes you happy and what’s best for you.”
The words “made me secure in my decision to step away from basketball and gave me the courage to take care of my inner demons,” Holdsclaw said.
Holdsclaw retired from the Sparks shortly before the 2007 season, without public explanation, but her reason was that she had decided mental health needed to become her main job. Basketball since then has been a part time profession. She played only sporadically in Europe and the WNBA, including a successful stint with the Atlanta Dream in 2010. But mainly she has spent the last two years working on herself, and her book, reviewing the lost episodes of her life.
“I knew these things happened, that I lived through them, but I was like, wow, I can’t believe I was that selfish and so weak that I tried to take my own life. That still shocks me. There were times I would just cry.”
But the result was a refashioning of herself into someone stronger. Holdsclaw has made good on the promise she made in the L.A hospital room. Her self-published volume has been well-reviewed but more importantly, it has led to a successful speaking tour, and a new job. She is now a mental health advocate for Active Minds, a group that counsels college students who find themselves in emotional trouble.
The book “has put some completion in my life,” she says. It sounds like she has finally found the right line of work.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.