I am sitting at a picnic table outside the laundry building at Vacation Village in Clermont, Florida, where some of my Athletics Toronto teammates and I have been enjoying a sunny southern training camp for the past few weeks. We don't have wifi in our rental house, so we often come to this communal space to pick up the Village wifi and connect with the online world.
I woke up early this morning and headed to the gym for a strength training session and a short run, picked up some groceries on the way back and spent the following three hours refuelling and chilling out on the couch in preparation for my afternoon 10-miler. I meandered over to the laundry building to check my e-mail, catch up on the headlines of the day and finish a blog post recounting my time here in Florida.
Instead, I saw a photo posted by Runnerspace on instagram of a beautiful young woman donning her school's colours and gazing confidently past the camera mid-stride at a cross-country meet. The photo is striking and caught my attention -- the caption is devastating and made me catch my breath: "The track world lost one way too soon this past weekend...U of Penn freshman Madison Holleran died Saturday night after jumping from a Philadelphia area parking garage."
The death of a member of the running community is always startling and heartrending in a way that hits close to home. When we lose a fellow runner, even if we didn't know the individual personally, we grieve collectively and mourn the loss of "one of us." To learn that a 19-year-old runner committed suicide is tragic in a way that is nearly impossible to express, never mind to comprehend. To know that a young woman was so profoundly unhappy with her life, with her supposed lack of success, with the mounting stress of academics, athletics and the transition away from home, and with things that none of us will ever truly understand, that she felt her only option was to kill herself is beyond words....
...Except that this should not have happened. Madison Holleran should not have died this way. This teenager's life should not have ended on the edge of a parking garage roof.
My heart breaks for Madison's friends and family, who are currently living through the indescribable horror of losing their daughter, granddaughter, sister, teammate and friend. My hearts breaks for lovely Madison, who must have been experiencing a pain and hopelessness that she thought nothing could fix, and that drove her to the most extreme ending. And my heart breaks for every other person suffering with mental health issues; for every person who feels lost, confused, hopeless, depressed, anxious, inferior and scared; for every person who suffers silently, who hides or diminishes their anguish, and who thinks there is no other way out.
I know how this feels. I know what it is like to feel so overwhelmed by fear, pain and despair that you consider the most final and otherwise unimaginable option. I know what it is like to want anything other than the hell you feel trapped in. I know what it is like to think about, even fantasize about, ending your life.
But I also know how unbelievably freeing it is to find your way to greater peace, happiness, calmness, fulfillment and control, and to be able to look back at these thoughts as a part of your life, not the end of it. I am grateful every day that I had and continue to have the love, support and care to see me through my darkest moments, and I am devastated that so many people don't get to experience the light at the end of their tunnel.
Dear Madison's death comes one week before the annual Bell "Let's Talk Day" (Jan 28), an initiative born greatly out of Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes' own struggles with mental illness and her commitment to raising awareness of the harsh realities of mental illness in the world of sport and beyond in Canada. This is just one of many recent attempts to broaden the discussion about mental health/illness and it is a good step in the right direction, but so much more must be done. This work must be done in our schools, our homes, our places of worship, our offices, our political arenas, our sports fields, our town halls and our dining rooms. Madison Holleran's story should have been that she was a beautiful, talented, hard-working young woman who struggled with mental illness but was ultimately equipped with the tools and resources required to guide her to happiness, strength and success.
Nothing will bring back the life of this young runner, but the least we can do is work every day to prevent this tragic story from recurring. I wish that Madison will rest in peace, but that others will live in peace.
To Madison: I am so deeply sorry for the pain you felt. I am so sorry that you weren't able to find the support and treatment that you needed to prevent this tragic outcome. I am so sorry that there isn't more dialogue about, better understanding of, and deeper compassion for mental illness. I am so sorry that at some point you were failed by a society that was supposed to protect you, nurture you and hold your hand as you grew into whomever you dreamed you would be. I am so sorry, Madison, that your life ended this way. May you rest in peace.
This post first appeared on Kate's blog, See Kate Run.
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