The greatest athletes are all about controlling the body with the mind, and for a long time, Chamique Holdsclaw could do that. She could hover around the basketball rim and create any shot, her imagination pulling the strings of her arms and legs. Then one morning, her mind quit on her. She couldn’t make herself put on a pair of shoes, much less elevate. She lost track of three straight days sitting on a couch in the dark, eating Fruity Pebbles. The devastating onset of depression was “my little secret,” she says.
It’s not her little secret anymore. It’s the subject of a big-hearted autobiography called “Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot After Shot,” and in it, Holdsclaw details her mortal struggle with despair, including her nervous breakdown as a star with the Washington Mystics in 2004, and a never-before disclosed suicide attempt when she played for the Los Angeles Sparks in 2006. The WNBA season will open Friday without Holdsclaw on a roster; the former No. 1 draft pick and six-time all-star injured her Achilles’ tendon in 2010. Instead of rehabilitating to get back to the court she has devoted her time to the rehabilitation of her head. The result is a different kind of comeback, a riveting confessional of how a vulnerable mind undid a strong body, but how a different brand of strength is winning out.
“You get labeled as a quitter with mental health issues like mine,” she says. “People would say I was an ‘enigma.’ Or a ‘problem.’ All along I knew that wasn’t me.”
I’ve known Holdsclaw since she was a 19-year-old college star for Tennessee, and long been fascinated by her talent and her obvious frailty. She’s the child of alcoholics and a schizophrenic father from the same Queens, New York, projects where the troubled Ron Artest grew up (they played basketball together for the same Boys and Girls Club team and she actually started ahead of him). She was always reticent and hard to know, but not any more. The Holdsclaw who emerges from her book, and a long telephone interview, is an unmasked and piercingly honest 34-year-old woman who is in the midst of building a new career as a powerful speaker and mental health advocate.
Page one begins with a semi-conscious ambulance ride and Holdsclaw awakening in Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles in lockdown and on suicide watch, staring at four white walls. All the training that had sustained her as an athlete — the self -denial, the tunnel vision, the mental toughness, the you’ve-got-to-play-hurtness — had turned on her. It was killing her.
“When it started happening to me, I was shocked,” Holdsclaw says. “I felt I had no control, and it was a constant struggle. I said, ‘Hey, I’m successful, I’m in control on the court and able to do these great things.’ But when it came to issues of the mind, I couldn’t get a grip on it.”
Washington Mystics fans will remember the spiral of events that led to Holdsclaw’s deterioration. She was a player with almost shape-shifting ability and an angelic face and disposition when she came out of college after winning three straight national championships at Tennessee, so natural with the ball that her coach Pat Summitt said she seemed to “wear the sport like her own skin.” Holdsclaw was the Mystics’ No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, and in her first season she was WNBA rookie of the year. The following season she won an Olympic gold medal. She hit her apex as a pro in 2003, when she averaged 20.5 points and 10.9 points a game.
But underneath, Holdsclaw was floundering. In 2002 she was destroyed by the loss of her grandmother, June Holdsclaw, a nurse who had raised her from the age of 11 after her parents drank their way to divorce. June had compensated for the emotional fractures, and kept her safe within the housing project.
“You may be living in a ghetto neighborhood, but this is not a ghetto home,” June said. Holdsclaw also missed the firm parental hand of Summitt, whom she called her “second mother.” She struggled to find connections with the Mystics, a mess of a team that underwent a half-dozen coaching changes. Holdsclaw felt isolated, emotionally cut off.
“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.