Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'Before my Olympic victories I used scissors to self-harm to release the despair that I was feeling'

Opening up about depression has been vital for Dame Kelly Holmes, who's now determined to pass on what she's learned. She talks to Gabrielle Fagan

Dame Kelly Holmes aims to inspire wellbeing in other people
Dame Kelly Holmes aims to inspire wellbeing in other people
Dame Kelly Holmes aims to inspire wellbeing in other people

Challenge and adversity are no strangers to athletics icon Dame Kelly Holmes. The middle distance runner - who made history when she won gold in both the 800m and 1500m events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens - has battled a string of injuries and health problems during her career.

Behind the scenes though, for a long time she was quietly enduring mental health difficulties too, with depression and anxiety that at times led her to self-harm.

Since her retirement from athletics in 2005, she's forged a successful career in health and fitness, and founded a charity - the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust (www.damekellyholmestrust.org) - to help other athletes and disadvantaged young people.

She's also since talked openly about her mental health experiences, in a bid to help break down the stigma and highlight just how common depression and anxiety are - and that anyone can be affected.

Now, in her new book, Running Life, an inspirational guide to mindset, fitness and nutrition, the Kent-born 48-year-old opens up about the pressure of life in sports, the conversation that "saved" her life, the impact of her mother's death in 2017 and wanting to help others live well and achieve their goals.

"I've learnt so much about myself through what I've gone through, and I want to help other people and show them that the magic triangle of nutrition, fitness and positive thinking is the key to a happier and healthier life," she says.

Here, Holmes talks to us about wellness and the inspiration behind her new book...

What do you think contributed to your mental health problems?

"When I look back on my own (sporting) achievements, I can see that, to some people, I must have had it all. Lots of sports people have ups and downs: you are terrified you will never achieve your dream, but it is having the dream that keeps you going and pushing for success.

"But sometimes, sport can be the loneliest place in the world. You can be surrounded by a team and still feel totally alone. With running, there's so much physical and mental pressure. I had numerous problems for seven years of my 12-year career - a stress fracture, a ruptured calf muscle, a torn Achilles tendon, calf tears, glandular fever, tonsillitis. I was emotionally drained and worrying about not achieving my ultimate dream.

"I felt most anxious during my career because of having very specific goals that had a lot of variables - no matter how I prepared or what I did, there was no guarantee I would win, and this anxiety around potential failure definitely led to the start of self-harming."

What was the turning point for you?

"I've been very open about my depression that led to the self-harming, which acted as a release from the deep despair I was feeling. In 2003, the year before my Olympic victories, I had been picking up scissors from my bathroom sink and cutting myself regularly to release the anguish I was feeling. I was worried about appearing weak, so didn't tell my coach or training partners and didn't want to worry my friends or family.

"In the end, the person I confided in hardly spoke English. She was a doctor in the mountains of France, where I was having a massage. The reason I spoke to her wasn't because I wanted to, but because I lost the plot right there on the massage table, and the masseur was worried about this sobbing woman lying on her bed. The doctor came in and I just blurted it all out. Talking helped me come to terms with what I was doing and put things in perspective. That chat probably saved my life."

You lost your mother 18 months ago - how are you coping with that loss?

"Her passing, aged just 64 on August 7, 2017, was, without doubt, the worst year of my life. The first year was hell and each milestone, like her birthday and Christmas, was really hard. Part of my deep anguish was not being there with her on the morning she died, because it was so unexpected.

"I did self-harm just before she died - there's a risk you revert back to self-harming if something has a really traumatic impact on your life. I lost the plot and shouldn't have done it. I knew as soon as I did it, that it wasn't going to help. I was in a bad place at that one moment in time, but I stopped because I can handle it now, and can recognise the signs that may make me vulnerable.

"The first anniversary, last August, was a huge milestone and I did not cope well with it. I felt like I was having a mini-breakdown, but instead of retreating, I poured my heart out to thousands of people on social media.

"It helped to talk through the process and be real. I don't want to be someone on a pedestal pretending everything's perfect, just because I've had sporting success. In all honesty, it helped me, and I wanted to help others through my pain."

Has her loss changed you?

"What happened has made me realise that life is not a guarantee, it's a privilege, we need to cherish what we do and have, but also remember to live our lives to the full.

"Mum was only 17 years older than me, so who knows what's around the corner. I can't afford to assume I'll live to 80 or 90. I have to enjoy every day as it comes. I'm quite spiritual and I do feel she's still looking down on me and looking after me.

"I'm still very driven, have goals and am motivated to do well, but since my mum's death, I'm more disciplined about thinking of myself a little more, and taking time off. I've had a tendency to say 'yes' to everything because I want to help people and causes, but I was cramming too much in. I'm so impatient to achieve and do more and more, and I have to curb that a little and pace myself."

How do you look after your health these days?

"I like goals, and if I'm preparing for a half marathon or an event, I'll run regularly, but I like keeping fit in other ways too. I'm a fan of HIIT, cycling and circuit training. I work on core stability, with rope climbing, chin-ups, planks, monkey bars.

"I don't like the word diet, I prefer 'food intake'. I believe in balance and really enjoy my food. I have a lot of protein, fish, chicken, pulses, fruit and vegetables. I like sweets, Indian takeaways and Thai food, and I don't deprive myself of those, I just don't have them every day."

What else do you do to look after your wellbeing?

"Since my mum's death, I definitely talk more to people who are close to me, my family and friends, and I see them more and I make sure they know how much I value them.

"Getting stuck into my fitness and, I hope, inspiring and motivating others to be the best version of themselves is the perfect way to get lost in the moment and forget my own worries - seeing people smile makes me smile.

"I'm aware now of the stages I go through if I'm experiencing stress, which in my case can lead to anxiety and then depression, so I know when to ease off and try to stop things building up so I don't get overwhelmed. I stay busy, positive 90% of the time and it's only the other 10% when I sometimes struggle.

"I'm not a good sleeper as I have too much in my head. I've started using meditation apps to unwind and my favourite chill-out space is my bath. I take a long soak in Epsom salts, which helps the body absorb magnesium - vital for good health. It doesn't sound much, but it's far more than I've done before to make an effort to relax."

Running Life: Mindset, Fitness & Nutrition For Positive Wellbeing by Dame Kelly Holmes, photography by Peter Cassidy, is published by Kyle Books, price £20

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