A Conversation With Julie Heldman

Julie Heldman is a retired American tennis player, Olympian, and legend within the tennis community. She ranked number 2 in the U.S. and number 5 in the world. Her mother, Gladys Heldman founded World Tennis Magazine, was a world-renowned tennis promoter and engineered the women's tennis revolution. However; she suffered from a lot of emotional abuse that was hidden from the public eye.

 

In her recent memoir, ‘Driven: A Daughters Odyssey’, Heldman opens up not only about her professional tennis career, but about her career in television and law afterwards, her suffering from bipolar disorder, and her abusive relationship with her mother. We spoke with Julie about how she overcame her journey, why it’s important for young women to open up mental illness, and what advice she has for starting fresh.

  

It's incredibly brave of you to open up about your life and struggles. Why is it important for you to tell your story now?  

My mother, Gladys Heldman, was one of the most important figures in the history of tennis, and the outside world rightly revered her for her contributions to the game. I became one of the top women tennis players in the world, and many believed that my mother had been highly supportive. No one knew that she had mistreated me with powerful verbal abuse, humiliation, isolation from other children and adults, and emotional and physical neglect. She ruled the family with an iron fist, and one of her powerful edicts was that the family was not allowed to criticize her, even amongst ourselves, or to reveal the abuse that I suffered. As I grew older, I held on to many painful childhood memories, and although rationally I knew they were accurate, I doubted them on an emotional level, because, in large part, it had always been taboo to discuss them. One reason I wrote the book was to be able to “own” those memories. Another reason was I’d had enough of hiding the abuse and my wounds. Even now, I sometimes doubt the intensity of the abuse I suffered, and when I do, I open up the book and randomly read a chapter, which always helps me hold onto my truth.

photo: Julie Heldman

photo: Julie Heldman

How did you maintain your ranking in the tennis community and become the legend you are today and balance self-care at the same time?

My mother wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and she didn’t pay much attention to my care taking. Starting when I was 8 or 10, I learned to take care of her instead of me. In a chapter I call “Bring Me My Scotch,” I describe a typical nightly scenario, when I was 10 years old and in charge of the dinner preparations. I had to do everything exactly as required, for fear that she would otherwise blow up at me. I brought her first double scotch exactly 24 minutes before dinner, then I began cooking the nightly meal, then I brought her second double scotch 12 minutes before dinner, and then I finished cooking the meal, after which I ran in to tell her the meal was ready, so that she could eat before she became too drunk. Because my mother never cooked for me and rarely helped me with self-care, I always struggled with self-care. I competed in tournaments while I was sick, and for most of my life I ignored my own needs and channeled most of my energy into a ferocious need to succeed. Only later in life have I learned to ask for help and get good care.

photo: Julie Heldman

photo: Julie Heldman

There was a point where you had a complicated relationship with your mother. It's hard to step back and look at the situation you're in when a loved one is involved. How did you overcome that?

My mother was brilliant and accomplished and very, very complicated. There are many reasons why it took me such a long time to understand her strengths and her weaknesses. Perhaps the biggest reason is that when I was growing up, she ran our family with what I call the “Cult of Gladys,” where she promulgated many rules that no one was allowed to break. After I spent years in therapy and analysis, I began to grasp that she too must have suffered greatly as a child. That understanding led me to see her as a flesh-and-blood person, and not solely the tyrant whom I had feared so much.

photo: Julie Heldman

photo: Julie Heldman

You've opened up about your depression and suicidal thoughts; what was it that gave you the motivation to power through and realize life is beautiful?  

My depression is due both to my painful childhood and to bipolar disorder. The latter began to surface in my late teens, but it wasn’t diagnosed until I was 50. For many years, I suffered without any help at all, and even once I was diagnosed, my doctors didn’t arrive at the right cocktail of medicines for nearly 20 years. I was able to achieve some measure of peace beginning in 2015, after a nearly 15-year breakdown. Since then, I’ve traveled a bumpy path, but I keep feeling better and better. Writing my book has been a significant factor in my improvement, because it helped me break free from the secrets of my abusive childhood and from any remaining stigma arising out of my mental illness. I’m thrilled to report that I now treasure each moment that I feel stable and happy.

photo: Julie Heldman

photo: Julie Heldman

You achieved an incredible career after your time playing tennis - what advice do you have for anyone pursuing their goals at any age?

I started UCLA law school at 32, when the vast majority of my classmates were in their early 20s, having just finished college. So many of them were disillusioned about the hard work required in law school, but I was thrilled! I’d spent my life in the tennis world, and now I had the wonderful opportunity to start a whole new career. In many ways, law school was easier for me than for the young ones, because I was so fresh and eager. If you’re anything like me, and you want to start over or just turn a corner, try to embrace your decision and enter into your new world eagerly. If you like what you’re doing, as I did, you’ll be more likely to succeed.

photo: Julie Heldman

photo: Julie Heldman

Stigma about mental illness still exists, because many are still ignorant about what ‘mental illness’ means, and also because many who are afflicted remain frightened and hidden in the shadows, worried that the world will reject them.

We're slowly breaking the stigma when it comes to mental health. Why is it important for young women to speak out if they're struggling and share their stories?

Stigma about mental illness still exists, because many are still ignorant about what “mental illness” means, and also because many who are afflicted remain frightened and hidden in the shadows, worried that the world will reject them. Those fears can lead you down a rabbit hole, unable to climb out and get help. It’s incredibly important to find a caring soul whom you can talk to about the distressing symptoms you are having, and who really tries to understand what you’re going through. Revealing what is happening to you is the first step to healing.

 

Another important step is realizing that you are not alone, and that plenty of others have suffered just as you are suffering. I have benefitted enormously from the help of a therapist, who has helped me unravel my difficult childhood, and a psychopharmacologist who has diagnosed just the right drug cocktail. Modern medicine can work wonders, but it can also cause harm, so be sure to trust yourself when you know that a medicine is not right for you.