“I stand before you kind of half broken at this time,” Clara Hughes admitted to an audience of about 90 at the Lower Kootenay Band (LKB) gymnasium on Monday evening.
Hughes, who won six Olympic medals in speed skating and cycling, stopped in Creston as part of 110-day bike circle tour that started in Eastern Canada and took her through Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon before turning south to Vancouver last week. She is sponsored by Bell Canada in Clara’s Big Ride in support of mental health.
“I’m here to share a little about my life,” Hughes said. “I have gone through mental illness in my lifetime. It came to me in the form of depression.”
She said the stigma surrounding mental illness prevented her from seeking help when she struggled with depression after winning two bronze medals at the Summer Olympics in 1996.
“I thought I had to fix myself,” she said.
Hughes grew up with mental illness in her family. Her sister was bipolar and struggled with addictions and her father was an alcoholic and had undiagnosed mental illness. She herself took to drinking alcohol in Winnipeg at the age of 13.
“That changed when I saw my first Olympics,” she said. But after winning a pair of medals in 1996 she plunged into a lengthy depression and stopped bike racing in an effort to get better.
“Two years later, I finally accepted help and I began to heal,” she said.
With Hughes still on Highway 3A after a day of battling weather conditions, the audience heard presentations from LKB Chief Jason Louie, Dr. Randy Grahn, Barb Basil, Angie Louie and Anne Jimmie after an opening welcome by Creston Mayor Ron Toyota.
Chief Louie admitted to being a sufferer of mental illness, having experienced bouts of overwhelming depression since childhood. His struggles were heightened when as a member of the Canadian Army he arrived in a country he left unnamed. Buildings were burning, people were screaming and the air was filled with the smell of burning flesh and the sound of gunfire, he recalled. Eventually he found himself lying in a fetal position, unable to cope with what he was experiencing.
He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction that makes it difficult to sleep, to be in crowds and to cope with stress. Louie said that when he was elected chief, he thought he would get support from a community that would understand his challenges.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” he said.
Angie Louie, a Ktnuxa-Kinbasket Child and Family Services wellness educator, spoke at length about her own experiences as the daughter of a woman who had been taken away to a residential school. She told of her commitment to learning more about the effects of such displacement on the children, their adulthood and, later, their offspring.
Band councillor Anne Jimmie was the final speaker before Hughes’ arrival. She told her powerful story of being a student in a residential school.
“Sixty-one years ago I left home to go to residential school to learn how to read and write, my grandfather told me,” she said. “Nobody told me that I would not be going home at the end of the day.”
She would go on to spend eight years at the school, where she said she learned to lie because telling the truth inevitably led to punishment.
“You feel like you are losing your mind,” Jimmie said. “You are alone, even though you share a dorm with 15 or 20 other girls.
“In 2003 I fell apart. I thought of suicide. But I decided to give myself a chance and I went to see Dr. Grahn,” she said, expressing thanks to the doctor who had spoken earlier about the impact of mental illness on individuals and communities.
Jimmie said that she has spent 22 years as a recovering alcoholic.
“Today, I love my family and I love my community,” she said. “And I am really proud of our chief. He is young and he’s done a lot for our community.”
A community welcome at Millennium Park was cancelled on Monday, apparently with Hughes’s support team reducing her exhausting schedule to help her conserve energy. She plans to arrive in Ottawa on Canada Day. Hughes has attended 180 community events during the 74 days of her ride to this point. She was scheduled to make an appearance at Prince Charles Secondary School on Tuesday morning before cycling on to Cranbrook.