Part of me was hoping for some answers. I knew they would not be there. Rarely are there answers in stories like these although we so desperately want to find one.
We want to point to a specific incident, a moment or an encounter. We want to find the ways the people in her life failed her. We want to blame social media. We want the opportunity to say oh that’s why she did it.
But we don’t get to do that. Instead we’re only left with more questions, more areas to explore both for the people we love and for ourselves. We’re left with an understanding that we don’t understand. But that we can move forward, one story at a time.
Kate Fagan does a remarkable job with her work “What Made Maddy Run.” Subtitled, “The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of An All-American Teen” the book examines the life and suicide of 19-year-old Maddy Holleran while she was a freshman track athlete at UPenn. Kate’s work is masterful, giving us as much a look into Maddy’s life as possible woven expertly with her own first-person accounts of her own mental battles as a Division I athlete along with research and interviews.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the work is how easy it is, for me at least, to relate to Maddy. Despite more than two decades between our ages, and the fact I was not a highly recruited athlete (hell, I wasn’t an athlete of any kind when I was a teenager), I understood some of what seemed to be going on in Maddy’s world. She had a drive for perfection. She had a drive to please. And her perception of herself was vastly different from the one of people around her.
Shortly after my grandmother died, things kind of fell apart for me. I was in my late 20s and already dealing with the adjustments of being a full-fledged adult, handling all my friends getting married and starting families while I was struggling to find my social footing. I felt like I was folding in on myself. So I looked for help from a mental health professional.
I never felt any shame about it and I know I was fortunate. My anxiety and depression wasn’t debilitating. It wasn’t soul-crushing. Talk therapy got me through it. As I moved past the acute stage, I was able to start working with a life coach. We worked together for years and she helped me develop a new skill-set to work through the times when my mind decided it want to tell wildly creative and detrimental stories. My dark days never lasted long, but by the grace of God. Because not everyone can get out of their head with a few key mental health tools.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Sometimes my perception is skewed and it’s not always simple to recognize it as such. While this happens in all areas of my life, it’s most easily identified through athletics.
I’ve been harshly criticized by some people who think I should stop running, or at least stop talking about my running. You can’t even run a decent 5K time. Why are you trying to run a marathon? You really should stop competing. You’re kind of embarrassing yourself.
So I did what many athletes do — tried to prove them wrong. But the more I tried to focus on my performance, the further away I got from the joy of running. I discounted the people who encouraged me, who thought what I was doing was awesome. They’re just saying that, I’d think.
It took a come-to-Jesus talk from a close friend to help me shift my perspective. She helped me see how far I had come, how good I was doing, how fleeting performances goals were.
Go ahead and say I’m a poseur. That’s fine. You don’t know my goals, my dreams, my intentions. You don’t know what running brings to me. Or why I train. Or what I truly want to accomplish.
But that attitude, that came from doing some hard mental and emotional work. It’s easy to say. Inspirational quotes are a dime a dozen. To live from that place is a different story. And for some of us, the road to that place is difficult to find.
Kate Fagan never tries to explain Maddy’s final decision, which is perhaps the biggest strength of the book. She instead starts a conversation about mental health, particularly mental health for student-athletes.
The discussion of freshman year in college really struck me. For all college kids, but especially for athletes, the build up to college has been constant. They’ve been building their resume to get into college, to get a college scholarship. Once they get that … well, what’s next? The options become greater, the path less defined, and it’s easy to get lost without the structured goal of “the college scholarship” to be working toward.
The other striking thing was that people around Maddy knew she was in trouble and tried to get her help. They just didn’t know how severe the trouble was. They couldn’t. Maddy didn’t tell them, didn’t let them that deep. Perhaps talking more about our inner lives, our inner struggles, can help make an impact on others, give another generation the words to describe what’s wrong.
Fagan powerfully describes this in the final paragraph of the book:
But there is no one thing. There are rivers that merge and create a powerful current. And we can’t fully know why they all merged, right then, right there, around Maddy. Still, we can try to analyze each one, the way it bends and curves, what it turns into when it blends with another. We can do this, learn everything we can, how to talk to other people about their pain or our own, in the hope that fewer people get caught in this same, fierce swirl.
What left me thinking most, however, was the discussion of social media. Human beings have alway presented a filtered image of themselves. The difference now lies in the scale and scope of curating our lives for public consumption.
“We start viewing our world through the lens of what shares well — a hybrid reality in which people and locations and pops of color exist both in our tangibles world and also as backgrounds for images that will share well,” Fagan writes.
“If you share a picture of yourself eating pie, instead of simply enjoying the pie in real time, is your absorption of the sensation diluted?”
It’s a powerful question. One I will sit with for some time. The nature of my job requires a social media presence. And truth be told for the most part I like social media. But I also take it with a grain of salt since it can be a no-win platform.
Share only happy times and people accuse you of being fake.
Share bad things and people will say you’re being a downer and just trolling for sympathy and attention.
Share what you’ve accomplished and people will accuse you of bragging. Or they’ll sarcastically ask if you someone can run a marathon without talking about it on social media. Haha, funny right?
I’ve been more conscious this year to not be so picky in the pictures I share. This is me. This is who I am at this moment in time. Perfect? No. Do I sometimes cringe? Yes. But authenticity can’t applied with the right filter.
I try to share my good and bad, because I have good and bad days, particularly when running. I still curate my image. I still pick the lens through which I present myself to the world. Because I’m not sure someone can ever fully get away from that. Maybe they can. This is what will ramble through my head on my upcoming long runs. Regardless, I will be more conscious of the fact that I’m filtering myself for the world, and that those filters will alter my perception of the world coming back to me.