Wow!…Madison Holleran. May God bless you. Thanks to your parents. Your siblings. Your extended family and friends. Thank you Kate Fagan. Thanks to untold others.
Why is it that every single human being cannot be celebrated for whom and what they are beginning with conception if that’s how you feel, to birth, through life and forever?
And demonstrate a real ability to celebrate themselves? Instinctively. Unconditionally. No caveats.
No ‘restrictions’ imposed largely by the impolitic, uninformed, homophobic, just plain ignorant or whomever. By anyone.
Why can’t people be happy?
Happy with themselves to start? And to be eminently able and comfortable enough to go along peaceably in their own skin. With the one whom they should recognize as their very best friend — themselves.
For a good, long time if not all the way into the next galaxy.
Because that’s not the way life in this universe works.
I guess that’s another kettle of fish right there.
But where in God’s name is our independent and compassionate thought today? How do we think? Do we think? Can we think?
Why can’t we see things for what they really are? As Colonel Nathan Jessup angrily dressed down Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in a scene from A Few Good Men, is it because [we] “can’t handle the truth?”
Madison Holleran had it all to most everyone and especially to those who could be pardoned for casting an untrained, innocent eye.
Beautiful young woman, inside and out. Smart. An accomplished athlete. Loads of friends because she was a wonderful friend, by nature. Didn’t have to think about it. Self-effacing and kind.
And driven to the point of seeking perfection with a laser focus. She was a perfectionist for whom the sniff of failure and the uncertainty brought about by change were repugnant and powerful enough to kill her.
In fact, they conspired to do just that.
“Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult.”
A snapshot of a quote from Seventeen magazine posted on Instagram by Maddy Holleran a little over a year before her death. The image had been put through a filter. Because that’s how Instagram is used. It is passed off as real life.
Actually, things are not as they may appear, a common thread running through many social media mechanisms. Filtering your real self on social is old news. An hour before she jumped from the ninth level of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, Maddy Holleran posted an image on Instagram of Rittenhouse Square: holiday lights sparkling in the trees. (She put a filter on the image producing an ethereal quality and overview, graceful and elegant).
This was but one of hundreds of images on her feed which projected happiness and contentment. Her friends and family would painfully learn that the nineteen-year-old University of Pennsylvania freshman, a rising track star from New Jersey, was struggling mightily with her mental health — contrary to the intended messages of her carefully selected images hurtling through cyberspace.
And Maddy Holleran didn’t subscribe to the belief that it was okay to tell her friends that she wasn’t feeling okay.
Big mistake; the value of talking — truthfully and with no filter — about one’s deepest and innermost emotions and sensibilities can never be underestimated. Getting down to the bare bones of vexing personal issues through face-to-face engagement allows for the existence of the potential — the possibility — to rebuild. Removing the filter literally and metaphorically. Do that and you’re on your way.
Depression is not a one-size-fits-all condition. Hardly. Nor is fear of failure. If happiness is a choice then depression is construed as a weakness, a character flaw. Nothing could be further from the truth in either case. It is so much deeper and more complex than that.
As Maddy would only rarely and no doubt reluctantly concede to a sibling or her parents when dealing with tumult in her life, “It’s not normal. It’s not normal to feel like this.”
According to her therapist, she was “battling anxiety.” Her brain chemistry had changed; she was not seeing things as she had before. When she admitted to having suicidal thoughts her doctor gently cajoled her to refrain from acting them out. “Either call me or call someone in your family,” the doctor advised to which Maddy nodded in response.
It was never discussed again.
Maddy’s family never talked about suicide, considering it a tragic ending to somebody else’s story. Her father feared that speaking about it would increase its likelihood. As for depression, her sister Carli ruefully offered, “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”
As Bill Schmitz, Jr., the former president of the American Association of Suicidology explains, “…the course [of depression] varies. In a way, it’s the same as cancer. For some, we might prolong life for months, for years. For others it can be very sudden.”
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that happened when she was younger, growing up, that makes sense of the decision she made,” her mother Stacy confides. “Am I angry at her? Yes, of course I am.” Her father Jim recalls driving Maddy back to school after Christmas break and thinking, She’s still not happy; that’s not a happy kid I’m walking away from.
When Maddy had a meeting with Steve Dolan, the head track coach at Penn, he remembers his surprise at her growing dismay. In a letter she had written outlining her reasons for wanting to quit track Maddy explained, “I need to figure out if track is making me unhappy, or Penn, or if it’s something else.” The training? Her dorm? Angst over a sorority decision to be made?
To Dolan, Maddy had lost perspective; she wasn’t seeing things clearly. It was as if she was looking at herself and gazing at her reflection in a circus mirror. She had excelled in school (3.5 GPA) and in track in her first college semester in spite of her increasingly nagging fears that she was failing at both. Dolan comforted Maddy and said, “I support you, and I want you to be happy and healthy. The decision is yours. Do you not want to keep training, keep running?” He saw a college freshman in transition, struggling to find her place. After a pause Maddy replied, “Yes I do. I want to keep running.”
Stacy and one of Maddy’s sisters accompanied her to the meeting with Dolan and as they walked out of the office Stacy said, “He is one fabulous coach.” Stacy thought that Maddy might be turning a corner, starting to get better.
Unfortunately it was all an act.
“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.
She bought a few gifts for family and friends by which she wanted to be remembered.
“For you mom…the necklaces…For you, Nana & Papa…GingerSnaps (always reminds me of you)…For you Ingrid…The Happiness Project. And Dad…the Godiva chocolate truffles. I love you all…I’m sorry. I love you.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore. trying. trying.trying.”
I too am angry (as Stacy Holleran admitted she was) when those upon whom I’ve come to rely, depend and unconditionally love over a lifetime veer off course. But that anger is defused and in time dissipates; then it can disappear altogether in the face of seeing things for what they truly are.
How could you be angry with somebody who is ill?
Think. Behave accordingly, kindly and hopefully in kind. Show compassion. Try as hard as you can to help, whatever it may take.
Then try as hard as is humanly possible to accept.
It’s not easy.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in August 2017.]