Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Kevin Hall

By Jennifer Dann

America's Cup and Olympic sailor Kevin Hall says losing two testicles to cancer was 'the easy part' compared to living with bipolar disorder. The Devonport dad opens up about his mental health challenges for the first time in his memoir Black Sails, White Rabbits.
Former America's Cup and Olympic sailor Kevin Hall. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Former America's Cup and Olympic sailor Kevin Hall. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1 You've been diagnosed with a rare psychosis called 'The Truman Show Delusion'. What is that?

It's named after the movie which actually came out ten years after I started having these episodes. When I'm in this delusion I think there are cameras everywhere filming me for a TV show and I hear the director's voice in my head telling me what I have to do for each scene. There's an overwhelming feeling that I've finally seen through the façade and discovered what's really going on.

2 What has been the scariest moment you've had during such an episode?

I tried to drive my wife Amanda off a shipping dock into the harbour. The narrative in my head was that I had to do it for the scene and there were divers down there ready to save us. Luckily I crashed into a barrier and nobody was hurt but Amanda still has post-traumatic stress issues around that.

3 You're a Californian-born professional sailor. Why do you live in New Zealand?

I was based in New Zealand for the 1999 and 2003 American's Cup contests racing for American teams and then joined Emirates Team New Zealand as navigator for six years including the 2007 America's Cup campaign in Valencia. Auckland feels like a good fit for us. We own a house in Devonport and my wife works at Auckland City Hospital as an emergency doctor.

4 Why were you hospitalised here during your first America's Cup campaign?

I stopped taking my medication and went to the Sweetwaters music festival. I danced all night in the rave tent and close to dawn decided I had to see the sunrise. So I climbed up one of the support cables to the top of the Big Top. A crowd gathered and some policemen arrived with a loud hailer and talked me down. They asked me what drugs I was on and I said, "I'm not on any drugs. I'm totally off my meds." I ended up in psychiatric care at Auckland Hospital. I told my managers at America One and I'm so grateful they gave me another chance and kept me on.

5 You've been hospitalised in New Zealand and the United States. How do our mental health services compare?

In America they smack you down with really heavy meds until you're laid out flat and drooling and then dial them back until you start moving again. Then they get you back on the street as fast as they can because care is expensive. In New Zealand they bring you down more slowly, talking to you all the while and giving you time to work things out. You get to do art therapy, friends can visit. They do a great job here given the number of variables inside a psychiatric hospital. I'm sure there are cases where it doesn't go well for people but I've been really fortunate.

6 You've been hospitalised 11 times in your life with psychotic episodes - each time because you stopped taking your medication. Why do you keep choosing to go off your meds?

The meds put a layer of gauze in between you and the world. Everything just happens a little slower and less sharply. That's no good at an elite level of sport where decision making is often based on instinct and feel rather than processed thought. I learned to compete on the meds and have lived on them for 25 years. From the outside it looks like things are alright because you're doing the things you're supposed to do. But things are not right. They're an approximation, a compromise. That's the battle I've had my whole life. It's not a conscious decision to stop meds and screw everything up. It's a response to psychic pain. I just want to feel like myself, natural and at home in my own skin.

7 Your father has often been the one to pick up the pieces when you've been arrested during a psychotic episode. Can you understand the stance he's taken?

He's a doctor from that old authoritative medical model. His stance is, "We all know if you don't take your meds there's a problem so just take your meds. If you haven't, don't call me." I get that and I forgive him but right now we have nothing to say to each other because there's no common ground. I've done that robot thing but that's not enough for me. I will slowly wither and die.

8 How did testicular cancer affect your Olympic sailing career?

I had won the junior world champs and thought I was in with a good chance at the 1996 Olympics in the Laser class. But when I lost my second testicle to cancer I no longer made my own testosterone so I had to inject it weekly. Testosterone's understandably a banned substance. There was no therapeutic use exemption back then and the International Olympic Committee didn't want to establish a precedent so they stonewalled me. It took eight years to finally get them to agree to let me compete.

9 The tagline for your book is "Cancer Was the Easy Part". Why do you say that?

With cancer I had tremendous support and understanding but with bipolar there's still stigma and shame and lack of understanding. 

10 You were on board the ill-fated Artemis catamaran which capsized in the 2013 America's Cup killing British sailor Andrew Simpson. How did that affect you?

I had nightmares for months. Pulling his body out of the water was horrific... I'd known Andrew since our days sailing Finn class before the Olympics. He was a great guy, extremely skilled and he always gave 100 per cent. Part of survivor guilt is to wonder what you could have done differently or if you could have done more. Everybody knew that type of boat wasn't safe, but nobody's going to say, "I'm too scared to sail today." After Andrew's death I quit Artemis. It was an agonising decision that effectively ended my America's Cup career but they wanted to compete in their second boat which was never designed to foil and I genuinely feared more people could die.

11 You then wrote your memoir Black Sails, White Rabbits. What was it like opening up about your mental illness publicly for the first time?

I felt quite exposed and even though the feedback was really positive it was scary. While I was writing I was on a new medication regime and it seemed to be great. My artist self came back a bit. That's when things started to spin out of control and I ended up back in hospital. I've been on meds since I was 19. They do a really good job of flat-lining everything, so I've always been the super steady, even-keeled one at home. When the meds stopped working, I was a 40-year-old dad with three screaming kids and a 19-year-old's coping skills. My long term aim is reduce my meds but that will take a lot of work in building stress reduction tools; things like meditation, giving up alcohol, eating better and getting more sleep.

12 How does your wife Amanda feel about it?

Amanda has worked very hard over the years on being my partner and confidant rather than my doctor. At times it has been really hard on her and the kids. She sometimes feels like, "How can you trade away all this? Your family and kids - just to just to feel like that?" I'm so grateful that we're still here together. It's been quite a ride for both us.

www.kevinahall.com

- NZ Herald

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