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Former WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw on the stigma of bipolar and becoming an advocate

Chamique Holdsclaw, 41, played in the WNBA for 11 years — six of them with the Washington Mystics — and was a WNBA all-star six times. She is now a mental health advocate and the subject of the documentary film “Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw.” She lives with her wife outside Los Angeles.

You have become a mental health advocate, open about your [bipolar] illness and sharing your story with others. What was your journey like in terms of recognizing the illness and coming to terms with it?

At first I was like, “Whatever.” That whole denial phase you go through. I take it back to when I was a young kid and my mom went to rehab the first time. It didn’t work. She started back drinking. She was in denial. It’s kind of like my situation. I was really good at basketball. That covered a lot of stuff up, and I failed to really deal with the illness. I threw myself into sports. Distracting everyone. Wearing that mask. I became really good at that. I just wish that mental health was just talked about back then. It was a negative thing, a stigma. Like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want people to think that I’m crazy.”

I remember, in D.C., I became really paranoid that people were going to know. That was probably some of the worst times. I thought the best thing was to just distance myself. We would go out, and I just wanted to party, trying to mask it socially. And then you’re drinking and stuff and thinking that’s going to make things better. And it doesn’t. It doesn’t go away. That would relax my mind for only so much. That high. And then you go back home. And it’s just, like, “Ugh.” You’re still depressed.

The big thing has been accepting responsibility. That this is just my journey. This is my life. It’s not something that I should be ashamed of or embarrassed about. [Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat] Summitt used to tell us: Be accountable. And I think this is why now I’m on the other side of things. It’s very, very hard, but I choose to do the work.

Do you think all the training you put into sports over the years has helped with that?

Oh, for sure. Mostly because you know what a regimen is. That’s what sports give you: discipline and structure. I’m just taking that and putting it in my life right now. And I don’t get upset with myself so much when I fail at something.

In sharing your story with young people and others, what advice do you give?

You should not be ashamed. You don’t have to keep it inside. You keep things inside, it explodes. When you have so many resources around you, and this is spoken about, why wouldn’t you want to better yourself? If I would have really bought into and got the help that I needed, things might have been different on my journey. But I accept this is what I had to go through to be able to share. And I feel good about that. It’s given me a place where I’m living in my truth.

In your darker times, could you imagine the sort of truth you’re living now?

Not at all. For so long — can you imagine feeling so caged? Like, “Oh, my God, people are going to judge me.” To now — I don’t have that. I mean, I was at Duke the other day. And they were announcing me. And the woman, she was like, “Two or three times NCAA player of the year. ...” And she looks at me, and she’s like, “Is it two or three?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Because there’s so many things, mentally, my career, everything that’s happened — it was, like, a blur. So much that I probably just psychologically blocked out because of the stress. And to look back, and you see your growth, you can laugh about certain things or be like, “Man, I’m really improved.”

But this is still a recovery. I have to understand people, places and things that create triggers for me. I’ve had to say, “You know what? I love you. And I hope you don’t take this personally, but you’re not good for me at this time and place in my life.” Like, you have people that say, “Man, you remember that time in D.C. when you were, like, missing?” That makes me very uncomfortable, because I’m on from that. Or: “Man, remember when you were doing this and that?” Whatever those behaviors were. Like, first, I’m 41 now. I’m not 20-something. I’