Dame Kelly Holmes: ‘The chat that saved my life’

She was a gold-medal-winning Olympian, yet in private Dame Kelly Holmes felt so lonely and pressured that she resorted to self-harm. In this moving extract from her new book, she reveals with brutal honesty how learning to talk about her struggles helps pull her through dark days.

Kelly, 48, won gold medals for both 800m and 1500m at the 2004 Olympics in Athens – but she has known agonising lows in her life too. Drawing on her experiences, she has written an inspirational guide to mindset, fitness and nutrition – the Big Three, as she terms them. 

Photo by Peter Cassidy

When I look back at my achievements I can see that, to some people, I must have had it all. But I spent my early years torn between being driven and struggling to find my identity. The turning point came when a PE teacher spotted my talent for running. I started competing when I was 12 years old, so from an early age I had a determination to be the best. I hated losing but I learned from my mistakes. I continued my junior international career until I was 17.

I then went on to join the British Army, serving for nine and a half years as a sergeant before devoting myself full-time to athletics and pursuing my dream of becoming an Olympic champion. Looking back I had an amazing career. However, the demands on my mental health were huge and things weren’t as perfect as they may have seemed.

Lots of sports people have ups and downs: you are terrified you will never achieve your dream, but it is having the dream that keeps you going and pushing for success. Sometimes sport can be the loneliest place in the world: you can be surrounded by a team and still feel utterly alone. I felt like this for a long time but the wake-up call came when I couldn’t see any light at all.

One of life’s great ironies is that our deepest moments of mental despair can often come as we experience huge success in other areas; it is no coincidence that my first dark moment happened as I was winning medals. With running, there is so much physical and mental pressure. Often the wear and tear can lead to injuries that linger because you can’t give them enough time to heal and this in turn creates pressure and worry about not being at the top of your game. I had numerous problems for seven years of my 12-year career – a stress fracture, a ruptured calf muscle, a torn achilles tendon, calf tears, glandular fever, tonsillitis… the list goes on. I was emotionally drained and worried about not achieving my ultimate dream.

Kelly in her Army days.

I have been very open about my depression that led to the self-harming, which acted as a release from the deep despair I was feeling. Like a bolt of lightning in 2003, I was struck down by an all-consuming, incomprehensible pressure in my head that led me to pick up some scissors and cut myself – many times. In the year before my Olympic victories, I had been picking up scissors from my bathroom sink and cutting myself regularly to release the anguish I was feeling. Self-harming was almost a relief. I used to hide it with make-up and make the cuts in places you couldn’t see.

I knew things were just not right but I was afraid to tell my coach or training partners because I didn’t want them to think I was weak or distract them with my problems in any way. I also didn’t tell my friends or family because I didn’t want to worry them.

In the end, the person I confided in hardly spoke English. She was a doctor in the mountains of France where I was having a massage. The reason I spoke to her 2004 was not because I wanted to, but because I lost the plot, right there on the massage table, and the masseur was worried about this sobbing woman lying on her bed. The doctor came in and I just blurted it all out. Talking helped me come to terms with what I was doing and put things into perspective. That chat probably saved my life.

I once went on a TV programme called Mission Survive with British adventurer Bear Grylls and seven other people in the public eye. Before the show I thought it best to mention that I had a fear of water and jumping into water from heights, as well as a deep fear of drowning.

As the show progressed, all my fears seemed to be realised. Every day we came across water as we travelled through the Costa Rican jungle to the coast over a 12-day period.

Kelly with her mother: ‘I will hold on to the fact she was proud of me,’ says Kelly.

Our first task was to jump into what can only be described as a swamp as our helicopter hovered over it. Bear told us that we must jump and I have never been so petrified in all my life. I thought I was going to be sick and that, if I jumped, I might not survive. That in itself was debilitating and created so much fear as I imagined the worst-case scenario. I also worried about what people would think of me if I didn’t do it. Most of all, I was afraid of letting myself down. Well, I did it, it was awful and I never want to do it again, but I think coming face to face with your fear and doing it anyway helps you to deal with other situations in a more reflective way.

My mum, who I affectionately called ‘Mother Dear’, had multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell. Her passing on 7 August 2017 was, without doubt, the worst day of my life. She died on a Monday and I wasn’t there. I was out of the country on a pre-planned trip, after spending nearly every day with her the previous week, visiting her in hospital and keeping her company during her various treatments.

I was far away from everyone and, out of the blue, one of my brothers sent me a text on the Monday morning saying that Mother Dear was not in a good way. What happened in the next 20 minutes changed my life for ever.

I locked myself in the toilet of the hotel where I was staying, got some scissors and cut my leg – all I wanted to do was ‘take the pain away’ from my mum. I knew it was wrong as soon as I did it and that it wouldn’t help. At that point, the phone went again and I rushed to get it. Mum passed away ten minutes later.

The next 12 hours were an utter blur and I can hardly remember anything except an extended plane and boat journey home.

I was numb and, as I write this, I still am. Part of my deep anguish is that I was not there with her the morning that she died – she was just 64. Another thing that really breaks me is that I know she really did not want to die – just a couple of weeks before she passed away, she was crying as she told me that she was too young to go. That conversation will stay with me for ever.

I still well up and get emotional for different reasons. Part of me wonders if that will ever stop: I see something my mum would have liked in the shops – but she’s not there to get it for. I go somewhere she wanted to go – but she’s not here to come with me.

I was considering counselling as I know a lot of people benefit from talking to an independent person about their troubles, but I wanted to get the first anniversary of her death out of the way, as it was a huge milestone. I did not cope well with it. I felt as though I was having a mini breakdown but instead of totally retreating I poured my heart out to thousands of people on social media. Why? Because it helped to talk through the process and be real. In all honesty, it helped me and I wanted to help others through my pain.

What happened has made me realise that life is not a guarantee, it’s a privilege. We need to cherish what we do have, but also remember to live our lives to the full. Getting stuck into my fitness and, I hope, inspiring and motivating others to be the best version of themselves is the perfect way to get lost in the moment and forget my own worries – seeing people smile makes me smile.

Kelly showing off her gold medals as Team GB arrive home from Athens in 2004. Image: Christopher Lee/Getty Images.

The power of persistence

I love the Japanese proverb nana korobi ya oki, which means ‘fall down seven times, get up eight’, as it reflects an important and shared ideal. This speaks to the Japanese concept of resilience: no matter how many times you are knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall a thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again.

It is especially important to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. Success does not have to be fast – what’s more important is that you simply do your absolute best and remain persistent.

I use this analogy in relation to my athletics career when I talk about being knocked down for seven years (because of injury) and standing up in the eighth year to win double Olympic gold.

Why it really is good to talk

Talking about your feelings is a sign of personal strength and of being able to take control of your life. It can be difficult to know how to start a conversation about your feelings or worries, but some of the tips below might help you to manage the process:

  • Find the right moment for the conversation – you want to have time to talk and not be interrupted.
  • You might find it easier to start the conversation when you are doing something else –
    such as on a walk or travelling in the car together.
  • Knowing what to say always feels hard. It’s OK to start off by saying you have been going through a tough time and to describe what you’ve been thinking and feeling.
  • It is normal to feel nervous. You might worry about how people will react, but when you let someone know you need their help, they will usually respond positively.

This is an edited extract from Kelly’s book Running Life (Kyle Books, price £20), which shows you how to improve your overall wellbeing, alongside recipes to help you change the way you eat. For some of Kelly’s delicious recipes, see you.co.uk/food