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Dame Kelly Holmes reveals mental health problems and how she self harmed in new book

Middle distance runner Dame Kelly Holmes - who made history when she won gold in the 800m and 1500m at the 2004 Olympics in Athens - has battled a string of injuries and health problems during her career.

Behind the scenes though, for a long time she was quietly endured mental health difficulties too, with depression and anxiety which at times led her to self-harm.

Since her retirement from athletics in 2005, she's forged a successful career in health and fitness, and founded a charity, the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust to help other athletes and disadvantaged young people.

Dame Kelly has opened up about her mental health problems in her new book. Picture: Peter Cassidy/Running Life/Kyle Books/PA
Dame Kelly has opened up about her mental health problems in her new book. Picture: Peter Cassidy/Running Life/Kyle Books/PA

She's also started talking openly about her mental health experiences, in a bid to help break down the stigma and highlight just how common depression and anxiety are.

In her new book, Running Life, an inspirational guide to mindset, fitness and nutrition, the Pembury-born 48-year-old, who grew up in Hildenborough, opens up about the pressure of life in sports.

She also tells of the conversation that "saved" her life, the impact of her mother's death in 2017, and wanting to help others live well and achieve their goals.

Dame Kelly said: "I've learnt so much about myself through what I've gone through, and I want to help other people and show them that the magic triangle of nutrition, fitness and positive thinking is the key to a happier and healthier life.

Running Life: Mindset, Fitness & Nutriton For Positive Wellbeing, by Dame Kelly Holmes, Picture: Peter Cassidy/Running Life/Kyle Books/PA
Running Life: Mindset, Fitness & Nutriton For Positive Wellbeing, by Dame Kelly Holmes, Picture: Peter Cassidy/Running Life/Kyle Books/PA

"When I look back on my own (sporting) achievements, I can see that, to some people, I must have had it all.

"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.

"But sometimes, sport can be the loneliest place in the world.

"You can be surrounded by a team and still feel totally alone.

"With running, there's so much physical and mental pressure.

"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.

"I was emotionally drained and worrying about not achieving my ultimate dream.

"I felt most anxious during my athletics career because of having very specific goals that had a lot of variables - no matter how I prepared or what I did, there was no guarantee I would win, and this anxiety around potential failure definitely led to the start of self-harming."

Kelly Holmes celebrating winning the 1500m event at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Picture Phil Noble/PA
Kelly Holmes celebrating winning the 1500m event at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Picture Phil Noble/PA

The turning point for Dame Kelly came when bizarrely she was having a massage in France.

She added: "I've been very open about my depression that led to the self-harming, which acted as a release from the deep despair I was feeling.

"In 2003, 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.

"I was worried about appearing weak, so didn't tell my coach or training partners and didn't want to worry my friends or family.

"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 wasn't 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 in perspective.

"That chat probably saved my life."

Dame Kelly Holmes with her mother, Pam. Picture: Kelly Holmes/PA
Dame Kelly Holmes with her mother, Pam. Picture: Kelly Holmes/PA

However, just 18 months ago the retired athlete, who lives in Hildenborough, lost her mother and she says that was the worst year of her life.

She added: "Her passing, aged just 64 on August 7, 2017, was, without doubt, the worst year of my life.

"The first year was hell and each milestone, like her birthday and Christmas, was really hard.

"Part of my deep anguish was not being there with her on the morning she died, because it was so unexpected.

"I did self-harm just before she died - there's a risk you revert back to self-harming if something has a really traumatic impact on your life.

"I lost the plot and shouldn't have done it.

"I knew as soon as I did it, that it wasn't going to help.

"I was in a bad place at that one moment in time, but I stopped because I can handle it now, and can recognise the signs that may make me vulnerable.

"The first anniversary, last August, was a huge milestone and I did not cope well with it.

"I felt like I was having a mini-breakdown, but instead of totally retreating, I poured my heart out to thousands of people on social media.

"It helped to talk through the process and be real.

"I don't want to be someone on a pedestal pretending everything's perfect, just because I've had sporting success.

"In all honesty, it helped me, and I wanted to help others through my pain."

Dame Kelly with her two Olympic Gold Medals for 800m and 1500m events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Picture: Rebecca Naden/PA
Dame Kelly with her two Olympic Gold Medals for 800m and 1500m events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Picture: Rebecca Naden/PA

She also says her mother's death made her think she has to enjoy each day as it comes.

Dame Kelly added: "What happened has made me realise that life is not a guarantee, it's a privilege, we need to cherish what we do and have, but also remember to live our lives to the full.

"Mum was only 17 years older than me, so who knows what's around the corner.

"I can't afford to assume I'll live to 80 or 90.

"I have to enjoy every day as it comes.

"I'm quite spiritual, and I do feel she's still looking down on me and looking after me.

"I'm still very driven, have goals and am motivated to do well, but since my mum's death, I'm more disciplined about thinking of myself a little more, and taking time off.

"I've had a tendency to say 'yes' to everything because I want to help people and causes, but I was cramming too much in.

"I'm so impatient to achieve and do more and more, and I have to curb that a little and pace myself."

A statue of Dame Kelly Holmes is unveiled in Tonbridge

So she is certainly looking after her health these days.

She added: "I like goals, and if I'm preparing for a half marathon or an event, I'll run regularly, but I like keeping fit in other ways too.

"I'm a fan of HIIT, cycling and circuit training.

"I work on core stability, with rope climbing, chin-ups, planks, monkey bars.

"I don't like the word diet, I prefer 'food intake'.

"I believe in balance and really enjoy my food. I have a lot of protein, fish, chicken and pulses and fruit and vegetables, and make sure I have variety every day.

"I particularly like sweets, Indian takeaways and Thai food, and I don't deprive myself of those, I just don't have them every day."

Dame Kelly has opened up about her mental health problems in her new book. Picture: Peter Cassidy/Running Life/Kyle Books/PA
Dame Kelly has opened up about her mental health problems in her new book. Picture: Peter Cassidy/Running Life/Kyle Books/PA

He mother's death has also made her value her family and friends more and says she also stops things building up so she doesn't fall back into depression.

She added: "Since my mum's death, I definitely talk more to people who are close to me, my family and friends, and I see them more and I make sure they know how much I value them.

"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.

"I'm very much aware now of the stages I go through if I'm experiencing stress, which in my case can lead to anxiety and then to depression, so I now know when to ease off and try to stop things building up so that I don't get overwhelmed.

Kelly Holmes celebrating winning the 1500m event at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Picture: Phil Noble/PA
Kelly Holmes celebrating winning the 1500m event at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Picture: Phil Noble/PA

"I stay busy, positive 90% of the time, and it's only the other 10% when I sometimes struggle.

"I'm not a good sleeper because I have too much in my head.

"I've started using meditation apps to help me unwind, and my favourite chill-out space is my bath.

"I take a long soak in Epsom salts, which helps the body absorb magnesium - vital for good health.

"It doesn't sound much, but it's far more than I've done before about making a real effort to relax."

Running Life: Mindset, Fitness & Nutrition For Positive Wellbeing by Dame Kelly Holmes, is published by Kyle Books, priced £20 and is available now.


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