Triggers: Suicide, mental illness, eating disorders.
When my editor reached out to a few writers asking if any of us would be willing to write a reaction to the ESPN piece on Madison Holleran, my gut reaction was to close the Facebook message and never look at it again. For over a year now, I have tried to avoid articles about Madison - the beautiful, talented, fellow UPenn Quaker that I never met. I follow her memorial page, but even that's hard sometimes and I've considered unfollowing it, but I never do. Whatever it is that stops me from unfollowing her page caused me to reopen the message and reply that I would do it. Something told me that I needed to.
When I read the article that had been appearing every time I opened Facebook, I cried. I climbed into bed and sobbed. I cried for myself, for Madison, for her family, for my family, for everyone. The sad thing is that each time I read a story about Madison, I am not surprised. There is no shock, no confusion, no "I never would have seen it coming". Madison's story is one that is all too common at Penn and at other universities across the country. Madison was not the only Quaker we lost to suicide that year either, although her story is the most public. And a few months after Madison posted that now famous Instagram photo, I lost a relative, one of my dearest friends, to suicide as well.
For me, Madison represents someone I am and someone I have always longed to be. As many people now know (I've written about it publicly before in both our school newspaper and other sources), I have survived anorexia, depression and anxiety - things that have made me stronger, but also still challenge me on a daily basis. I was Madison in many ways and in some ways I still am. Because of that, I love her dearly. Like many people, I wish I was there for her freshman year to tell her that it gets better with time and work.
After my freshmen fall I had to leave Penn on a medical leave. I was slowly killing myself, eating less than half the calories I should have been eating a day. Every day. I was doing poorly in my classes and had alienated all of my friends. In a word, Penn sucked. I hated it. The one place I had been longing for my entire life had become a prison. When I went on leave after only a few months, I felt like I had failed. I even had an extended relative tell me exactly that - I was not living up to his expectations. Only I soon realized that leaving Penn was the best, bravest thing I had ever done and that I should be proud of it. Therapy was hard, but it helped and it made everything bearable again. I even decided to return to Penn, despite getting accepted to a variety of schools closer to home that I considered transferring to. I am so grateful for that time I had to take care of myself and I hope that others consider taking time to take care of themselves as well.
As for the Madison I have always longed to be? In a lot of ways, I was killing myself to be more like Madison. Strong, athletic, skinny with classic girl-next-door looks. It's what I always wanted and was always willing to suffer for. Even today I look at pictures of Madison with envy, and then immediately feel guilty because I was lucky enough to be saved and I know I could have just as easily missed out on all the beautiful things that I have in my life every day. To be honest, I'm crying as I write this because I keep running through a list in my head of all the things I would have missed out on if I hadn't received the treatment I needed. I have found a major that I love and a career after I graduate that I'm passionate about. I have sisters and an amazing boyfriend that I would give anything for at any time. I have great friends and even better allies. I am so lucky.
In the end I'm glad I read this article about Madison. Despite the pain it brings up for myself and for so many others. It's important that everyone is exposed to stories like this, especially all of us perfectionists that are so afraid of asking for help because we may be seen as broken. I hope that if anything, all of the media coverage surrounding her story reminds us all that it's okay to need a hand sometimes. It has taken me 21 years and way too many tears to learn that myself and I'd give anything for others to learn it sooner. So please, if you need help, ask for it. And always check in with friends that seem a bit down, even if you're just asking them to grab coffee with you. Things do get better and you're not alone.