Thoughts on “A Skating Life” by Dorothy Hamill

A cover of Time Magazine from shortly before the 1976 Olympics with Hamill on the cover doing a flying entry to a spin. The heading says “Artistry on Ice.”

A friend who has been following my little project suggest I read Dorothy Hamill’s autobiography called “A Skating Life” which was published in 2007, so its a bit dated. Dorothy Hamill is probably the first figure skater who caught my eye as a child. The 1976 Olympics were the first Olympics I remember watching and probably my first real exposure to figure skating. I, like every other kid of the 70’s, got the haircut (sort of, mine never panned out as well as hers did), pretended my white ankle socks were skates, and slid around the linoleum floor making up skating routines to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” Shut up, if you were there, you did it, too. Admit it!

She was probably responsible for my starting to skate as a child (after bugging my parents about it for some time.) I remember checking out a library kid picture book about her life, and I didn’t want to give it back so my mom photocopied and stapled together every page of the whole book at her office for me. ¬†Incidentally, my first coach in Omaha was Juli McKinstry, who was of Hamill’s era and placed second to her in the US Nationals back then. McKinstry is mentioned a few times in the book, so that was fun. I still admire Hamill’s skating. She was of the era where compulsory figures counted for up to and over 50% of the score, and hours perfecting those boring figures gave skaters of a previous generation an edge quality speed and control that you just don’t see today.

The book was suggested because it, too, talks about skating as mental health therapy. Hamill and members of her family struggle with depression, and it deals with that. I thought the book did a good job of showing a complex picture of her relationship with her mother. She both appreciates, loves, admires, and resents her mother. She empathizes with her mother’s probable mental health issues, while being honest about how some of her mother’s behavior was very hurtful and damaging. I get a bit annoyed when people are like, ‘my parents are the greatest and they did no wrong!’ because its just not true. Neither is it true (in most cases) that parents were the most terrible, wicked people on earth who are totally and 100% responsible for all your adult problems. Parent/child relationships are complex and nuanced and it was nice to read an honest hashing out of that fact.

Hamill comes from (or came from when she wrote the book) the “chemical imbalance” philosophy in regards to mental illness; specifically depression. This idea was really pushed by the psych community and by pharmaceutical companies in the last couple of decades so it isn’t hard to understand why she came at it from this angle. There is a growing pile of evidence that is pulling away from that theory in the past few years, though.

A disclaimer: This isn’t me saying Dorothy is all wrong about this and I’m right. This is just my thoughts and confusion over this issue. I do not claim to be an expert nor to even be well-read and up on the latest research.

But here is the deal: I have always wondered why everything can be blamed on a chemical imbalance when sometimes bad shit happens in life (either single traumatic events, or a series of events or a pervasive issue). I mean, bad stuff happens and it makes you depressed sometimes. If we always say if you are ever depressed it is a chemical imbalance, it seems a nice easy way to have an excuse to buy a pill and not change anything in your life.

In the book, Hamill describes a summer of debilitating depression where she had suicidal thoughts and laid on her parents couch for weeks and couldn’t get up. This is when she seemed to figure out that she had a hereditary chemical imbalance that was causing her depression. Okay. But also, in a very short period of time (its hard to tell the exact timeline, but it seemed to be in just a couple of years) she divorced her “love of her life” and then he tragically died in a plane crash, she got married and had a baby, her new husband started mooching off her and she was paying for everything, then he got her involved in a bad deal and she lost all her money, a job she loved, and had to declare bankruptcy, and like, at the EXACT same time, she found out that he was having multiple affairs on her. It was at this point, that she took her young daughter, became a single mom and got depressed on her parents couch.

Well, Yeah. After all that, you are SUPPOSED to lay on the coach and not be able to get up.

In terms of her mother, she felt like her parents drank a lot to self-medicate, and that meant that they also had a chemical imbalance. Again, I think lots of people have vices to avoid dealing with their problems. (Actually, I think we all have vices to get through the day. Its part of being human. Its just that some are MUCH more self-destructive than others. We all have to choose one or two, but we must choose wisely.)

I think her mother was very unhappy being a skating mom. Moving around the country away from your husband and other children, living in shit apartments, and then sitting in a cold rink all the time sounds like a crap way to live. I would have probably been depressed, too. As parents, we all sacrifice something of ourselves for our children. Mostly we do it willingly, its a part of parenting. But I think for mothers–especially mothers of previous generations–it is incredibly hard to find the balance of acceptable and worthy sacrifice vs. throwing out your whole identity and being miserable in sacrifice to our children. I think parents struggle with this daily. If the delicate balance gets way off, either way, there is going to be trouble. I think probably for Hamill’s mother, the balance was way off, and it was way off for over a decade. After that long, even if you wanted to hide your resentment, it would be hard to maintain. Even if you wanted to do whatever you could to help your daughter reach her goals, it would be hard to not feel grief for the other things you could have been. Its complex, and I think Hamill’s mother struggled with it and probably did not know how much her struggle was hurtful to her daughter at the time.

Again, real external life reasons for depression. Not some magical chemical imbalance…maybe.

I’m not saying there isn’t biological and hereditary causes for depression and other mental illnesses. Nor am I saying that “its all in your head.” Its real and I get that. But I get a little nervous when so much emphasis is put on some unmeasurable but scientific sounding “chemical imbalance” instead of looking at real life circumstances and trauma that may be able to be changed or modified to improve someone’s situation. It makes it all too easy for systemic and societal problems to be left unsolved and blamed instead on individual vulnerability to mental illness that can’t be changed.

Hamill said that whatever SSRI she started taking (Paxil, IIRC) helped her get off the couch so she could makes changes and put her life back together, which she did. I get this. I get that medication can take off the debilitating edge that makes looking at your life and making changes impossible. She noticed later than her mom was also taking an SSRI and that made her feel better about her relationship to her mom because she empathized with her. Okay.

But there was real work to be done with her mother and her and eventually, she got around to doing it (on her part). Perhaps her mother also tried to make amends and apologized for some of the hurt she caused her daughter. Or perhaps she didn’t. Hamill seems to be all ok with it because she believes her mother had a chemical imbalance and that gave her an excuse.

Its a hard thing, there are certainly biological, physical aspects of our personality that we do not control and we are just born with. And then there is free will and personal responsibility. I think we all (most parents, especially) do the best we can with what we have. I believe we are mostly well-intentioned and try our best. Sometimes, our best isn’t good enough and we screw up our relationships a bit in the process. No one person (parent) can be all things to every type of person out there (every kid.) Sometimes you are going to fall short.

It seems to me that Dorothy’s mother often fell short without meaning to. She also just as often went above and beyond. Dorothy, in her own life and failed marriages and business dealings,, also both sometimes fell short and went above and beyond. The good intentions were always there to match the exact balance of self-sacrifice vs. compassion for others. Not being able to be all things to all people is being human. Being depressed when you screw up (or life screws you over) happens. That is a good thing that–when used correctly, like fear–can get you to get and give what you need. It seems to me that this is what the book was truly about, much more than any kind of case for a mysterious “chemical imbalance.”

Again, I’m not pooh poohing biomedical causes for depression, nor am I anti psychopharmaceuticals. I”m just doing what always needs to be done, trying to balance the biophysical with the environmental. Its probably a different balancing point for everyone. I do think that–when not too under pressure–skating was/is a healthy mental health vice for Hamill. One of the reasons I am insisting on skating is so I can swing my own pendulum between self-sacrificing mom who is there every waking moment for my kids and neglectful parent who goes off somewhere to pursue my own pleasures for hours on end. Will I get the balance exactly right? No, I won’t. Not every day. And that’s kinda depressing, but I’ll just keep working on it.

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