Chamique Holdsclaw on coming out and changing the conversation on mental health in “Mind/Game”

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In late ’90s, Chamique Holdsclaw was one of the best basketball players in the world. She led the Lady Vols to two SEC regular season titles and three SEC tournament championships between 1996 and 1999. She was the first round draft pick for the WNBA after graduating from Tennessee, joining the Washington Mystics and being named Rookie of the Year. Then she went on to play on the gold-medal winning US Women’s Olympic team. It would seem to the outside world that she was at the top of her game, but inside, Chamique was struggling with depression and emotional issues she’d been ignoring since she was a kid, and things were about to come to a head.

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In the new documentary Mind/Game, Rick Goldsmith tells Chamique’s story, which is one of struggle but ultimately triumph. Chamique’s family history with mental illness led to her slow acknowledgement of her own issues (she is bipolar), and in 2012, the professional athlete wrote a book, Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot after Shot. But that same year, the media reported on an incident between Chamique and her ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Lacy, which resulted in Chamique’s being indicted for shooting at and attacking Jennifer’s car with a baseball bat. This was another turning point for the athlete, who pled guilty and was sentenced to probation and community service for her actions, which she accepted with full responsibility and admitted regret.

Mind/Game does not not shy away from these difficult moments. Instead, it has Chamique opening up about the kinds of things that were going through her mind when she was in these harrowing situations, and how they served as much-needed reminders that taking care of her mental health was not only crucial for her, but for the well-being of others, too. Since this highly-publicized event took place, Chamique has dedicated her life to being an advocate, speaker and noted figure in the mental health arena.

We spoke with Chamique about letting cameras tell her story and why her sexuality is just a facet of her life, not a focus.

AfterEllen.com: Can you tell me a little bit about your initial feelings on having a film made about you?

Chamique Holdsclaw: Well, my initial feelings—I was definitely nervous about it. What happened was I had been doing advocacy work at different universities and one of the top writers at the New York Times, William Rhoden, he wanted to highlight my service and my advocacy work and he made me the front page of the New York Times Sports section. And at that time, the film’s director and producer Rick Goldsmith was searching for his next story and he woke up one morning and is reading the New York Times, and he’s reading the story and he’s really like, “Wow, this is great!” He does social consciousness documentaries and he’s like, “Man, why do I know this young lady?” And he started thinking about it: “Holdsclaw. Holdsclaw.” And he called one of his childhood friend and one of his best friends, Lon Babby, and Lon’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s one of my clients!” [laughs] So Lon connected us and we talked, and at first I just wasn’t up for it. I didn’t know about having to invest two or three years into something. I wasn’t really sure, but after he came here and we of course had to get a feel for each other. I got to learn more about him and his uncle was a war vet who struggled with mental health as well as having some struggles with one of his daughters. Once he opened up to me about that, I felt an instant connection. I felt like he was going to explore it the right way, and that he had an interest in making a great film.

 Chamique with Rick Goldsmith2015 Nashville Film Festival

AE: And it is a great film. Were you happy when you saw the end product?

CH: I was like, “Wow, OK!” It all comes together. You know I had to watch this over and over before it even got to final edits, if I had to explain about something. For me, I hate when my story is told in fragments. Like, it’s not the truth if somebody changes it. But I want to tell you, I had not one thing to complain about. It was exactly how things happened. It was a first.

 

AE: Did you have any say in things that you didn’t want to be included?

CH: Definitely. I had control because at any time, I could say “Hey, I’m not doing that” or “I’m not talking about this.” When I watch the film over and over, I just see a person who had these struggles. What I see now is different stages of my life which I grew, how I dealt with things, so I look at myself and I’m like “Wow, I am pretty resilient. I am pretty courageous, and I’ve done somethings that really impacted me that I looked at as a negative and turned it into a positive because I got the help that I needed and I’m inspiring others to do the same. So it’s been great to have that feeling of I was great at something—I was a pretty good basketball player and did all these cool things—but this is definitely more rewarding to be able to share your journey and be able to help people that are struggling. It’s one of those things where there are so many people who are suffering in silence—so many young people feel like they have no options or are in situations where they consider suicide and taking their lives. They hit me up and say “You gave me the strength to keep going.” That’s just like, wow. Or a parent that’s come home and seen their child hung telling me, “You cannot stop using your platform or your voice. You have to continue” sends chills through my body. I know this is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.

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AE: One thing that doesn’t come up in the film that I had a question about: Did your sexuality ever factor into your mental health?

CH: You know what? It really didn’t because my family—people ask me that all the time. I knew when I was, like, 21 or 22, and I just remember my mom came to one of my games and I’m like, “I really gotta talk to you in private.” And I told her, “I have dated women, I date men”—she said “OK, you know what? Just don’t tell a lot of people—you might change your mind.” She goes, “You’re my daughter. I love you.” And my whole family was so accepting and I know that’s not everybody’s story. Even so many of my friends are like, “Wow, your family talks about everything. It’s just out there on the table.” And I’m just really really lucky it is because once my family knew, no one else is going to make me feel any other type of way, so I am just very comfortable and confident in who I am.

 

AE: You had never discussed it publicly, though, so when that incident happened with your ex, did it feel like you were being outed in a way?

CH: Everyone who knew us—our friends and family and stuff—they knew that we were involved in a relationship. I just felt like the media took it and really turned the story around and it was heightened more because it was two women. Anyone that knew me was like, “Chamique dates women.” So I felt like, I’m not outed. I’m just looking at it from the view point of “OK, keep talking about this, because you honestly have no clue what really went on and you’re discussing it because it’s two women.” So that was my perspective on it.

 

AE: In the film, it seems like the timing of when you entered the WNBA was when your mental health struggles really came to a head. Was that because you felt a lot of pressure on you?

CH: It was not because of the pressure. I struggled with mental health stuff since I was 11, 12 years old and I was in therapy and also in college, I did see someone. But it was a more protected environment, you know. My grandmother controlled things and Pat Summit was there to help me. And then [after college] I was like “I”m here!” My face is everywhere in DC, I lived by myself, I make my own decisions and I was just kind of lost in managing things and then my grandmother—my grandmother was really helping me try to get a grip on things and then she passed away that just kind of like—woo! That kind of just knocked me down and I think that was the thing.

It wasn’t so much sport. Because pressure—I look at things like, it’s pressure when you don’t know what you’re doing. [laughs] It was really losing my grandmother. It just felt like my world was rocked because of my instability as a child. I never really had control of things. My parents weren’t really there, but my grandmother was. She was the one woman who had really sacrificed and been there for me and now she’s gone—who do I have? And I just got really, really in a funk, and it was a funk I couldn’t get out of.

 

AE: Do you feel like institutions like the WNBA and NFL, NBA, etc. are better equipped now to help athletes with mental health issues?

CH: Oh, definitely. More athletes are coming out and discussing their issues and their struggles. I think the big thing with the NFL and concussions brought a lot of attention to it. And now you have NBA players—Metta World Peace, the gentleman from the Pacers—these are seven foot guys saying “I struggle with mental health issues” and people realize this is serious. It doesn’t matter your gender, your race, or your occupation. Everyone’s affected by it—if not directly than indirectly with family members and close friends. We have to open our mouths in order to get help and say “I need help,” also, but it’s learning how to deal with a friend or family member that’s going through this.

That’s why all we need to continue to educate ourselves. I know a lot of people use the church and things as a source of strength but you can’t pray everything away, especially when it’s a real chemical imbalance. I saw it growing up. My dad was a schizophrenic and I thought he was an alcoholic. I wasn’t educated. When I became educated, I went, “Oh, my dad was talking to himself. Full-on hallucinating.” This was serious. This was his brain. He has to take his medicine. I’m learning a lot, also. 

 

AE: What do you hope people take away from the film, especially those who may have not have any idea what it’s like and haven’t had a personal struggle themselves?

CH: Just changing the conversation and to understand, like I said, that this is real. It’s not something people make up. Because we’ve had a politician saying, “Mental illness is not a real illness. It’s all up in your head.” The guy that was running for governor of Texas. What is he talking about? This is real. When you see people—like half the homeless population or more. Yeah, OK, some people make some bad choices in life, but a lot of times, those people are homeless because they’re not getting treatment for mental illness. They have mental health disorders which doesn’t allow them them to function in society, which allows them to make poor decisions. So I’m really just trying to change the conversation for people to see that’s it’s real so that they can be less judgmental and help others.

Mind/Game will be playing at Atlanta’s Out on Film on Monday, October 5th with director Rick Goldsmith at 7pm and on Tuesday, October 6 with both Rick and Chamique at 8:45pm. Visit the film’s website and Facebook page for more info on screenings and the DVD release.

Follow Chamique on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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