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Clara Hughes on Her Struggles Growing up and How She Found Success in Sports

Clara Hughes on Her Struggles Growing up and How She Found Success in Sports

Olympic athlete Clara Hughes shares her story of growing up with mental health issues, her teenage struggle with drugs and alcohol, her toxic home life, and how she ultimately found success in sports in her memoir Open Heart, Open Mind. Clara appears in conversation with Michael Landsberg at Indigo, Bay and Bloor, at 7:00 p.m. tonight in Toronto. In this excerpt from her book, she talks about her success with an energy doctor:

My massage therapist, Shayne Hutchins, who was interested in alternative medicine, gave me a great gift one day in 2007 when he told me: “You know, I’m working with a Calgary energy doctor whom you should see. He’s also a physician. He’s a weird dude — you’ll either love him or never want to go back.”

So, I made an appointment to see Dr. Owen Schwartz, who practiced out of an ugly building on Sixteenth Avenue. He greeted me in his waiting room, all decorated purple with crystals. “Clara, nice to meet you.” His hair was wild, and one eye looked sideways. Clearly hippie trippy. Clearly out there. But wasn’t that why I was here?

I followed Dr. Schwartz into his office, where I suddenly started talking about things I’d never shared with anyone — how shitty I felt inside, my issues with food, my sense of being surrounded by selfish people who took advantage, the toxic environment of sports, my dad and his drinking, my sister’s illness, my mom and her difficult life.

As Owen came to know me, he said, “Clara, the gift you have for others is just being present. You offer an example of focus, of dedication of intensity. You don’t need to give any more than that. If you choose to help someone, ask yourself if that person is going to pass on your gift. If so, maybe it’s worthwhile. If not, just be there, be you, and realize that’s enough.”

His words reinforced what Xiuli (Xiuli Wang, former Chinese speed skater) had been telling me for years. “Clara, you need to be careful to whom you open your heart, because some people don’t belong inside and some do, and you need to know the difference.”

Owen was the first person to tell me that just being “me” was enough. This was such an epic realization that it allowed me to continue training, day in and day out, taking me through that difficult time from Torino to Vancouver.

After a number of sessions, Owen suggested that I try regression therapy to deal with my overwhelming feelings of guilt about the unhappiness in my family. “I’m not going to hypnotize you, but I’ll guide you back into your past. It’s different for every person, but I think it’s worth a try if you’re interested.”

I agreed. I remember lying down on Owen’s examining table, closing my eyes, then hearing his soothing voice: “Go back in time, back to Clara as a young athlete, as a teenager. Now, I want you to return to the first time you felt helpless, to that very real place where everything was out of your control.”

I began to feel as if I actually was somewhere else.

“Do you see yourself?”

“Yes, I’m a little girl.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“I’m in my family house. I’m standing in the area behind the kitchen.”

“Do you hear anything?”

“I hear my mom and dad.”

“What time of day is it?”

“It’s night, and my dad has just come home. My mom has set out his dinner, and he’s telling her everything is wrong with it. He’s yelling at her. He’s drunk. My mom is standing there, not saying anything.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m sitting, or maybe I’m standing.”

“What are you feeling?”

“I want the angry sounds to stop. I want my dad to stop yelling at my mom, but I can’t make him stop!”

“Is anyone with you right now?”

“I’m alone.”

“Look around you. Do you see anything at all?”

I found myself staring at my finger. “I see a bird. It’s sitting on my finger.” I actually did feel the weight of that bird. It was so strange.

“What is the bird doing?”

“It’s looking at me.”

“How is it looking at you?”

“With loving eyes.”

“How do you feel when you look at that bird?”

“I feel relief, because it’s telling me with its eyes that everything is okay, and that I’m going to be okay.”

“What’s happening now?”

“I’m smiling at the bird.”

“I want you to look at your mom, and I want you to tell her that you love her, but that you can’t rescue her, and that you can’t fix what’s happening between her and your father.”

I looked at my mom, and I told her those things. She didn’t look at me, but I heard my own words.

Owen continued, “I want you to look at your dad and tell him the same thing.”

I did as Owen said. I told my dad that I loved him, but I couldn’t fix him or rescue him from his problems.

“Look back at the bird. What is happening now?”

“The bird is smiling at me.”

At that point, I started coming out of the trance, or whatever it was, and I remember feeling I was suddenly physically present with Owen, after my having been alone in that other space.

Owen said, “Clara, take as much time as you need to return to this reality. If there’s anything you want to say, say it now, or just be still within yourself.”

I started laughing. “I feel as if my heart is enormous. I feel possessed by this huge, huge heart, and I feel so free, and I feel so good.”

Then I opened my eyes. “Oh, that was weird!”

Owen confirmed, “You went back, and you were able to be that kid in that difficult situation, and now I want you to take the words you said to your mom and dad, and I want you to live them. You cannot rescue either of them. They are who they are, and now you are free to be who you are.”

The regression treatment was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had, and it left me better equipped to return home to Winnipeg. That was when I ended for good the insanity of family get-togethers in which everything went to hell. Instead, I would tell my mom and my grandmother, my dad and my sister, “Okay, I have two days, and I want to see you all, but not at the same time.”

In this way, I could love each one, deal with each one, then leave each one. I established control over my visits that I didn’t have as a child. I also realized that, since I was the one who had escaped, my coming home often made everything worse. My guilt didn’t completely disappear, but at least I had a handle on it.

Clara Hughes/Open Heart, Open Mind