Last August, I read Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, and was immediately overcome with emotion. Fagan describes Madison Holleran as the All-American teenage girl, the girl every other girl wants to be. Maddy is beautiful and popular, a straight-A student, and a state champion soccer player and track star. She is the epitome of what every teenage girl desires to be. Madison was an active Instagram user, consistently posting photos of her seemingly perfect life. In fact she was so good at portraying herself as the perfect, high-achieving, popular teenager, it seemed her family and her closest friends had no idea just how badly she was struggling. Within months of starting her college career at the University of Pennsylvania, as a Division 1 cross country and track athlete, she walked up the steps of a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, and jumped, taking her life at the age of nineteen.
I was haunted by Maddy’s story for many reasons, but probably the biggest reason was that I saw myself at the same age. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I started what would be a 7-year battle with anxiety, depression, and severe anorexia. I had always been a high achieving kid. I was a straight-A student and I excelled athletically, receiving multiple Division 1 scholarships to play softball. However, looking back, I never felt comfortable in my own skin, but I hid it well. I did eventually recover, but had spent most of those years wishing I were not alive. I can’t fully explain why my story has a different ending than Maddy’s, but that’s the thing about mental illness. Each story charts its own course.
Maddy’s story also made me think of my students. I teach Chemistry at an all-girls Catholic high school, and many of our students have an intense desire, almost an innate need, to achieve and succeed. Many of our high-achieving students are terrified of making mistakes and failing. A high stress approach to education is the status quo, and a high GPA and acceptance at a top-rated college are the ultimate goals.
My concern is whether or not we are teaching our children the value of learning from mistakes and failure. My most important life lessons were learned from picking myself back up after getting knocked down a few times and coming back even stronger. Life doesn’t always follow that ideal path that we hope for, and it is crucial to know that those plans can be recalibrated and that perhaps a different path in life is, in fact, our destiny, or God’s plan even. Many kids follow a particular path because of appearances and expectations from others. Maddy, for instance, thought her family and friends expected her to attend an Ivy League school and to play a Division 1 sport, but she was miserable and afraid to let anyone down. She spent her energy trying to maintain her image rather than directing her energy to making the necessary changes to get healthy.
How can we let our kids know that it is okay, even important, to fail? How can we make sure that our children know that it is okay to not be okay? We should do a better job of educating children on the signs of anxiety and depression and letting them know that it is okay to ask for help and how to ask for help.
In the age of social media, appearance is everything to kids. Even adults fall victim to comparing our own lives to what we envision others’ lives to be, simply based on what we see and read on Facebook and Instagram. What we see is only the highlights reel and not a true representation of real life. We need to make sure our kids understand this and find ways to be more real with their friends and family. As the adults in their lives, we need to model this and talk to them about it. Otherwise, they will grow up to believe that asking for help when they need it is a sign of weakness and a blemish on that image they have worked so hard to craft. Talk about your bad days. Encourage them to share the good AND the bad. That’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us “us”. Perfect is unrealistic and, frankly, pretty boring. Our flaws and quirks and idiosyncrasies make us interesting and relatable.
The feeling that I remember most from my darkest days when I was struggling in my late teens and twenties was feeling completely alone. I thought for sure that no one around me could possibly be feeling so incredibly depressed. I was certain that my peers thought that I was a total freak. What I needed so badly to hear was that others had struggled with depression or anxiety or anorexia, and that it was okay to ask for help and that I could and would get better. I needed to hear that this was not how I would feel for the rest of my life. I think Maddy needed to hear this as well. This is why I make sure to share my story as an adult and let my children and my students know that mental illness is more common than they think and that it is okay to let someone know if they are struggling. The story of Madison Holleran was a wake-up call for me, as a mother and an educator. I will forever carry Maddy’s story in my heart, in the hopes that both of our stories can help those who are struggling to realize that they are not alone, that recovery is possible, and that life after recovery is so incredibly beautiful and worth the fight.