Most people know the benefits exercise can have on our mental health. But for Catriona Bisset, the benefits have been — quite literally — life changing. Initially running to help her work through feelings of anxiety and suicide ideation, she is now the fastest woman in Australian history over 800m, and an Olympian to boot.
In this episode of The Imperfects, Catriona shares her astonishing story: of overcoming severe mental health issues, of her complicated relationship with exercise, of surpassing all her own expectations of herself, and of now being seen as a role model to young women.
“I started having a lot of issues in my early teens and then through high school, I had an eating disorder and some periods of very bad anxiety,” Catriona says. “[Then] when I was 18 and having all the new stressors of moving out of home — the drinking, sex, all this sort of stuff you go through in the first few years of uni — it was just too much.
“I became suicidal and displayed a lot of suicidal behaviours. So I was kind of forced into seeing a psychologist and starting to deal with those things. Because it was kind of life or death at that point; it was an emergency.”
As well as working with a psychologist, one of the key ways Catriona was able to work through these feelings was to take up running. While she had been active in the sport at a young age, she quit when she was 12 due to the pressures associated with trying to become an elite athlete.
“When I was starting again, I was like ‘I’m 22 and I can’t run as fast as I was when I was 12’,” she laughs. But she said having the pressure removed meant she was able to enjoy the sport for how it made her feel, rather than what she achieved.
“I had already learned how to be a runner when I was a little kid but now, I could be a runner without all the pressures … I could just get all the good stuff.”
However, her talent for the sport meant it wasn’t long until she was put on everyone’s radar. In 2019, she ran 1:59.78 at the UniSport National Championships, becoming the first Australian woman in a decade to break the two-minute barrier.
“I just broke down afterwards,” Catriona says. “When I was little, I used to say ‘I want to go to the Olympics’ but then a few years later, it was like, ‘You’re never going to make it. You’re mentally fragile, you don’t have the mental strength to do this’. So, to go from that to running sub two minutes like it was no problem, I think it was just very challenging.”
At the time of recording the podcast, Catriona was on her way to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. While she says she feels mentally up for the challenge and more confident in herself than ever, her mental health is still her priority.
“I was using athletics as my medication for my mental health, and it’s been really interesting having my medication become my career,” she says. “I think that’s something I’m still working with — maintaining athletics as something that’s still mine and I’m still having fun with.
“I always think that the most powerful thing is proving yourself wrong. It’s great proving other people wrong but changing your own mind by having a go … It’s been incredible.”
Catrona’s top tips for helping young women find their power
- Talk to your friends – “When I speak now to my friends from school and tell them I was going through a really tough time, they say to me ‘I was going through that too! I thought I was totally alone’,” Catriona says. “So having those conversations is so important.”
- Get angry – “Seeing the racism and misogyny and body shaming and that sort of thing that goes on in athletics and sport in general… I just want people to get really angry,” she says. “Young women are really forced to be humble; they’re forced to be likeable and sweet and take up as little space as possible. I think women and young women should just make a bit more noise about what they’re going through and not be silent or meek about how they’re feeling.”
- Set big goals for yourself – Catriona describes meeting Sally Pearson as a turning point in how she now feels about herself and her own power. “The thing I loved about her and what I found so inspiring was that she was so uncompromising about going for what she wants,” Catriona says. “She was like, ‘I’m a champion, I’m going to go and get what I want’. I feel like as women, we’re told to be humble, to not take up much space, to be quiet. But I want people to gave big goals … because when you have big goals, it means you love yourself.”