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Bi-Polar Jockey Finds Salvation In Racing

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Bi-Polar Jockey Finds Salvation In Racing

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Bi-Polar Jockey Finds Salvation In Racing

Bi-Polar Jockey Finds Salvation In Racing

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Sylvia Harris made a name for herself as only the second female African-American jockey to win a major horse race. But what is less known, is that she was drawn into horse racing through her battle with bi-polar disorder. In her memoir Long Shot: My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me , Harris describes her love for racing and how the horses helped heal her troubled past.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

My weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary is just ahead in a few minutes.

But first, we go behind closed doors as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people often keep private. For our guest today, though, it was a very public endeavor that helped her deal with private pain. She rides horses. In fact, she races horses and she's very good at it. Sylvia Harris found that her relationship with horses was the best medicine for the type of mental illness she has, called bipolar disorder.

She wrote about overcoming her illness to become not only one of the oldest rookies to win a major race, but also only the second African-American female jockey in the U.S. to win a major thoroughbred horse race. Sylvia Harris's new memoir, out tomorrow, is called "Long Shot: My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me." And she's with us now from NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SYLVIA HARRIS (Author, "Long Shot: My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me"): Thank you for having me, Michel. I really appreciate this honor.

MARTIN: Let me just first explain to our listeners that the National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as a manic-depressive illness, a brain disorder leading to unusual changes in mood, energy and the ability to do everyday things. And of course we want to talk about racing. But I wanted to ask you when you first realized that maybe your brain doesn't work like everybody else's.

Ms. HARRIS: The first time it happened was very intense, yet of course you still tend to want to believe what doctors tell you. So it was kind of brushed off after being up for three days and having some very intense experiences, hallucinations, visionary, auditory, you know, that the doctor said, hey, this is just a little bit of stress, you're having a little bit of a nervous breakdown. I brushed it off, so to speak, until it happened continuously for the next three years. And I realized: this is not right.

MARTIN: And you were going through some stress. But just to clarify for people who may be asking this question, you didn't drink, you didn't do drugs.

Ms. HARRIS: No.

MARTIN: Just kind of just came on out of nowhere.

Ms. HARRIS: No. Not at this time, to be honest with you. That's what made it more perplexing. Had I been doing those things, then I would've thought, OK, that's what it's from.

MARTIN: So you were able to go on and live, you know, forgive me for using this term, like a normal life. You know, you married, you had children, you had a job, but then things would just come on you like that and you'd be manic, you'd have hallucinations. Is that how it what, it would just kind of come on you?

Ms. HARRIS: Yes. Probably if I had been a little bit older, like I am now, I could see it happening or feel the changes in my energy level. That's usually what happens, is the energy level changes. There's less sleep involved. You get these rush of ideas - I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. You know, you're getting this message from divinity, so to speak. You start writing poems, plays, ideas come very rapidly in succession and you want to act upon those things. For me it's never been anything negative, thank goodness.

MARTIN: But you also talk about, you know, you were throwing money out the window, thinking there was an apocalypse.

Ms. HARRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: You had visions of your mother and brother being burnt up, and so pretty scary.

Ms. HARRIS: It was, because it's very, very real. You almost can't separate the reality. And then if you want to call it a hallucination or a message, it's very hard to have any kind of linear thought because it could go one minute from the poetry, which was very beautiful, to, oh my goodness, there's acid rain coming down outside. The animals are (unintelligible) we have to get them in the house.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, there's a very painful episode in the book where you talk about the fact that your then husband couldn't take it anymore and wanted to take custody of the children and testify that you were a danger to them.

Ms. HARRIS: OK. This is years later...

MARTIN: This is years later. I want to ask you about that, because on the one hand, one of the things that's interesting about the book is you recount the fact that there's a lot more understanding of mental illness than perhaps there has been in the past, but on the other hand, there's still a lot of fear about what you could do, right?

Ms. HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: Or what you might do.

Ms. HARRIS: Oh, yes, definitely.

MARTIN: And so you did have an outburst in court. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Ms. HARRIS: Yes, I did. We were going through a custody battle and at this point I'd had my children on my own for two straight years. And I was under the supervision of a doctor. And this is where I think some of the education needs to come into play, that just because you're taking medication or under doctor supervision does not always mean that your emotions are going to be stable. It's the stresses in life, particularly around relationships, that seems, for me, at least to be a trigger. And think there's a lot more education because a lot more people are being diagnosed with bipolar, especially, you know, we have a lot of stars that have been diagnosed that are more open. We do have new medical therapies, and at the time, it was very upsetting for me. I was on five different medications, if not more and yet, because this was such an intense event, I went into court and I did make a very, very intense threat that if they let my children leave this country without my permission I was going to blow the whole county up. And I had dressed like a fool to go to court that day. Why they didn't stop me from even entering the courthouse, I have no idea.

MARTIN: But it was devastating for you to lose your children. You said at that point you were suicidal.

Ms. HARRIS: Yes. That's probably one of the only times I've thought about it. I've never actually taken any concrete action but the feelings of the depth of the despair and the loss, especially because it was two of my children that were in question with custody and I was left with one. And I kind of felt like there was something wrong with the system. If I am an unfit mother for two of my children, why are you leaving a third with me?

MARTIN: But to that end Sylvia though, I have to ask though, were you fit to care for your children at that point? I mean you did wind up; your third child did wind up in foster care. You did wind up...

Ms. HARRIS: Yes, years later.

MARTIN: ...living you know, years later, being homeless. Were you fit?

Ms. HARRIS: I think I needed more of a support system within my family and my community. Even back then there was a little less understanding about the ups and downs of bipolar, or possibly what you might do. But at this point, I had never done anything dangerous to my children, to myself or any other person.

I think if we had come together more as a family to help rather than judge and demean and alienate, that we could've made it through this. I was fine with those children up until the custody battle. That imbalanced me to a point I think of where I was out of control; I needed more help, but I was not a threat or a danger to anyone.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about life as a winning jockey and also, a person with bipolar disorder. Our guest is Sylvia Harris, author of the new memoir Long Shot: My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me. So now we've talked about, you know, the bad times. How did it start to turn around?

Ms. HARRIS: It turned around drastically out of being homeless and having someone really save me and get me off the streets. I hadn't lived on the streets before. I hadn't been in the depths of, you know, addiction or anything to that degree, and they finally asked me what did I love to do. And I answered them and within half an hour they had me on a van going to Ocala, Florida, which everyone that's a horse person knows, is a major epicenter for horses and horse people. And being around the horses, it brought back a childlike quality and feelings of hope and what one would maybe perceive as happiness outside of oneself. The horses really was like therapy. It was probably better than any medication that I'd taken up to that point in my life.

MARTIN: Why do you think that horses are so vital for you, so therapeutic for you? Why do you think that is? You clearly have a relationship with them.

Ms. HARRIS: The main thing is that I've always been very connected with animals of all types. I just didn't have the kind of relationship or ability to be around them when I was younger for a long period of time. And I think as with a lot of people that we know, there's been studies done now, when you have some kind of emotional, physical, mental disability - and I don't like to use that word - or something that's not quite right, even chemically, animals can perceive that, and yet they don't usually judge in a very negative way - unless it's something, of course, that you're trying to hurt them. And I think they're very keen to those quote/unquote differences that we label amongst ourselves as human beings, but theyre attracted to that. Animals are very, very healing, but especially horses. Theyre just fascinating to me. They don't judge you. They love you.

MARTIN: You know, it wasn't an easy road. We don't have time to go into the whole...

Ms. HARRIS: Oh, heck no.

MARTIN: ...the whole thing. But your first job didn't go well. Your first job cleaning manure...

Ms. HARRIS: Oh geez.

MARTIN: ...out of stables, you were fired from that. So...

Ms. HARRIS: Yeah. I wasn't even good enough.

MARTIN: You weren't even good enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So...

Ms. HARRIS: Again.

MARTIN: But somehow you stuck with it. I mean it's hard for me to even describe like, you know, going from track to track, you have get your license, you have to train, at times you were living in your car. What made you stick with it?

Ms. HARRIS: Its an addiction, just like a mania gives people with bipolar when they - that's part of why people like to self-medicate or not medicate at all. Your manias are such a high when it's in the good space of it. There's no other drug that can mimic that feeling. For me, horses do. When were coming out of the gate theres a rush. Theres an inner joy that you feel being around these creatures and when they could really kill you with one kick or with one, you know, drop, so to speak. It happens every day. Theres a kindness in these beasts that are so huge that could kill you any minute and they don't do it.

MARTIN: Theres this one passage which I like where you are at the Arlington track, which is in Chicago.

Ms. HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the skepticism, first of all, youre older. You're not just - not its youre a female. It's not just that youre African-American.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Its also that youre pushing 40.

Ms. HARRIS: Right. Hello.

MARTIN: And people its not exactly like hello, welcome, welcome, welcome. People are kind of were trying to give you some hints and a trainer says hey, use your stick to make the horse move and you say I don't take directions from people when I'm on a horse. I take directions from the horse.

Ms. HARRIS: You know, I still keep in touch with this woman, and it's very interesting because come to find out after this happened and we had our little clash, so to speak, her son is bipolar and he is one of the best jockeys in this country and in Canada. So she may have already even seen or felt something was not quite right with me, but she didn't judge, she still doesnt to this day, and I learned a lot from her at Arlington Park.

MARTIN: What does it take to be a great jockey? I think that one of the things that people see and they can kind of instinctively understand that that is a tough sport. It's a brutal sport for both man and or woman and horse. What does it take to be a great jockey?

Ms. HARRIS: Its a tough sport, as anything in life is if you really want to do it, there's going to be obstacles. But being the jockey and especially starting at 40, you have to have some determination and you know what, you have to have people that are willing to help you. Its not like then just go out there and start jumping on horses, somebody has to give you a break.

MARTIN: Whats your favorite part of a race?

Ms. HARRIS: Oh, to be honest with you, coming out of the gate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: I love coming out the gate. And just the whole thing, you know, all of it, the stands contact is a rush.

MARTIN: Whats it like that? What's it like? Yeah, talk about it. What's it like?

Ms. HARRIS: Probably, okay, you probably fly a lot - that excitement that you get when the plane takes off.

MARTIN: I hate to tell you, but I fall asleep when the plane takes off because I'm so excited to be by myself for a minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: With nobody saying, mommy, mommy. So...

Ms. HARRIS: Do this. Do this. I need that.

MARTIN: So that wouldnt be me. I know. It maybe skiing, you know, maybe going down, a downhill skiing.

Ms. HARRIS: Okay, downhill skiing, or rollercoaster.

MARTIN: Rollercoaster. Okay.

Ms. HARRIS: Or being on a rollercoaster when youre going, theres that adrenaline rush, theres an excitement when you cross the finish line, whether you win or not. But for me, that's the biggest rush part is coming out that gate.

MARTIN: So how are you doing now?

Ms. HARRIS: I'm feeling a little bit of the winter blues. I've been away from the horses a little bit this winter. We're starting back next week, so I'm looking forward to that. You know, I came back from an injury. I actually broke my neck and my shoulder blade. I wasn't really sure if I was ever even going to be able to ride again. I was lucky that I could walk, let alone I rode Delaware Park last summer and that's where I'm currently going to be based in Delaware Park, and I'm looking forward to just being around the horses every day again. It's such an integral part of my healing and my being.

MARTIN: What would you like people to get out of your story? It's been such an amazing trajectory from a beginning that lots of people would recognize. You know, the kind of typical upbringing a lot of people experience, you know, some bumps in the road, parents divorced and some things like that. But now, you know, you're in the history books. What would you like people to get from your story?

Ms. HARRIS: Inspiration, to never give up. Don't let anybody else tell you can't do something or you're not allowed, for one reason or another. And keep your determination, no matter what. It's not going to happen overnight. It may not happen when you want it to, but who are we to tell each other when your dreams should come true?

MARTIN: Sylvia Harris is the author of the new memoir Long Shot: My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me. She is the second African-American female jockey in the U.S. to win a major thoroughbred horse race. She's also one of the oldest rookies ever to win a major race, and she was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Sylvia, thank you so much for joining us and our very best wishes to you.

Ms. HARRIS: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate it. Thank you.

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