Olympic figure skater Elizabeth Manley was at Erin Public School on April 10, bringing her story of hope as an inspiration for families dealing with mental illness.
The “Finding Light Through Darkness” event was organized by the Erin Parent Connection, with volunteers from several local schools, and included a Mental Health Fair with information from supportive agencies and businesses.
Manley grew up in an Air Force family and spent many hours at rinks, determined to be better than her hockey-playing brothers.
Moving to Ottawa, she progressed quickly in her early teens, with her figure skating talents honed by professional coaching and a tough training schedule. She would be on the ice by 6 am, in school for the morning, and then back on the ice in the afternoon and evening.
“I loved skating so much I didn’t know what else I was missing,” she said. Socially and emotionally she had some difficult years, especially with the divorce of her parents. She was bullied in school, but developed a tough mindset, in which “you never let your competitors see you weak.”
Her coach had to quit as she was preparing for the Olympics. She learned later it was because of AIDS, but at the time she was blaming herself. She felt guilty for making mistakes on the ice, since her mother was making so many sacrifices to keep her in the sport.
“I felt like my world was falling apart,” she said.
As a 16-year-old national champion, she felt the pressure of representing an entire nation. After moving to Lake Placid for training she had a nervous breakdown, losing her hair, gaining weight due to fluid retention and being diagnosed with clinical depression.
Because of her sport, she wanted to avoid all drug therapy. Talk therapy was limited and expensive, so she resolved to heal on her own and forge on with skating.
“People avoided me like I had leprosy,” she said. “But I said, no one’s going to tell me I can’t do something I love.”
Things were especially dark after she lost her title at the Nationals competition, with thoughts of suicide and a feeling that she had disappointed so many people. She did get help from a psychologist who donated his time, enabling her to release and deal with her emotions, and within seven months, she was back to skating.
“Sometimes we forget the things we love – we get distracted by fear and guilt,” she said.
With the help of supportive coaches and club members, she made the 1988 Olympic Team. She had some rough treatment in the press, and was competing with a high fever, but she continued to push herself.
While in third place after the short program and at risk of dropping out, the entire Canadian men’s hockey team showed up to watch her practice and give her encouragement. Coach Dave King told her later that his guys “needed to be inspired by a real champion”.
Manley is proud of the silver medal she won in Calgary in 1988, but the opportunity to help other people has become more significant for her. She raises money with the help of other skaters through the Elizabeth Manley and Friends Ice Show.
She supports research into Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, in honour of her parents, and for organizations like Community Living that work against stigmas in society. She is part of a growing effort to bring mental health issues out into the open for discussion.
“You never get over it – I still suffer,” she said. “But you can learn how to live a very fulfilling life, so don’t be afraid. Take time to take the pressure off. Parents, make a point of having conversations, take the time to know what’s going on. I want kids to know that there is help out there.”