March 31st, 2014

Commentary | February 17th, 2014
Coming in from the cold
Remembering Madison Holleran, and facing depression
Written by | Visual by Jasmine Wang | The McGill Daily

On January 30, a team of my brothers from Alpha Delta Phi and I participated in “Stand in the Cold For Suicide Prevention.” The premise of the event was to represent those privately struggling with mental illness and suicidal ideation just by standing outside in the cold. We also made pamphlets, collected donations for the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP), and offered free hugs.

Though the event was enjoyable and accrued a modest amount of $600 for the CASP, I still feel that some of the point was lost. The free hugs were mostly afforded by those who were receptive enough to accept them, and able enough to even show up to campus. Most of all, we wanted to discourage the privacy of affliction, which can terminate in suicide. Personally, I cannot say what you saw, but I can say what I wanted you to see.

What I wanted you to see was Madison Holleran, a girl who grew up ten minutes away from me in our wooded cradle of northern New Jersey, and who inspired a truly rare adoration from everybody. She was a freshman runner at the University of Pennsylvania, having arguably compiled the most impressive athletic profile her high school has ever seen. On January 17, around 7 p.m., she jumped from a Philadelphia parking garage near Rittenhouse Square. She was the inspiration for the event, the girl around whom my fraternity rallied. I asked my cousin Juliet, who was one of her best friends, to describe her for this article.

What I wanted you to see was Madison Holleran, a girl who grew up ten minutes away from me in our wooded cradle of northern New Jersey, and who inspired a truly rare adoration from everybody.

“Driven, compassionate, personable, and friendly [...] she was what some might call close to perfect. From a best friend’s point of view, though, she was just another teenage girl trying to balance the hard juggling of social life, school work, and sports. She was one of those people you could immediately catch up with after months of not seeing and always had the biggest smile on her face. Regardless of her busy schedule she always made time to be there for you, and really be that shoulder to lean on through hard times.”

Her death has galvanized my entire community into substantial charity engagements, while her family is in the process of forming a foundation in her name to prevent suicide. Personally, I could not help but be vividly reminded of my own family’s encounters with the strains of mental illness I don’t hear or talk much about.

This, I think, is the critical point: mental illness tirelessly provokes an unresolved fear in our society. The undeniable fact is that mental illness is terribly mysterious to those who do not experience it. Depression is uniquely insidious in ways other illnesses aren’t, but it is also more intuitively comprehensible. Other mental illnesses haunt, like hands from behind a door.

So, we cast out the mentally ill, we distantly commiserate, and, by detaching ourselves in this way, we sever the ties of humanity that once bonded us to them, and which they need now more than ever.

Disturbing auditory hallucinations are a hallmark of schizophrenia, for example. You might react with fear if you begin to hear voices in your head; however, it is now known that many people hear voices without suffering any of the other symptoms of schizophrenia, like paranoia or delusion. Even so, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses present an ethereal strangeness which effortlessly fazes. This is problematic, as instead of trying to empathize, we shift our interpretation to ease our fear. Our trusted impressions become suddenly deformed, our perceptions and memories of afflicted friends are suddenly, yet distinctly, tinged. So, we cast out the mentally ill, we distantly commiserate, and, by detaching ourselves in this way, we sever the ties of humanity that once bonded us to them, and which they need now more than ever.

I emphasize perception for a reason. While I might say, hypothetically, that my friend’s illness has made them a different person, that they have been transformed, I don’t act as if they’re an entirely new person. I don’t reintroduce myself, nor engage them with a fresh politeness. If my friend is suffering from depression, I don’t regard them as I might regard someone who has suffered severe head trauma, as I acknowledge their illness is not physically grounded. There is a continuity to the transition that I accept, but instead of treating my friend like they are still the same person, I assume they were never the person I thought they were.

There has been a kaleidoscope of analyses interpreting Madison’s death. Some have perhaps oversimplified her plight, and, in so doing, we learn little (except that, of course, depression is no mere slump of happiness). Others have, I think, overcomplicated her struggle by emphasizing the unflagging subtleties of depression, which means that we cannot learn much, a recipe for estrangement. I do not think we are impotent in uncovering the reasons for her suicide – her sickness, after all, was a progression. The caustic climax was just that: a climax. To understand it we have to look for the steps leading up to it.

Even to the end, Madison was no different from us, and I think her struggles, though complex, are not unfamiliar.

Would she be unable to explain their path? Would we say that her once-happiness was as inexplicable as her depression? We now agree she could have been saved, and so we also agree that she could have been understood. She was still, to the end, completely recognizable as the same Madison Holleran, to others and to herself, and in the same way that we once knew her well enough to compliment her, so too can we now seek to understand her last moments. Even to the end, Madison was no different from us, and I think her struggles, though complex, are not unfamiliar.

My intentions are (also) therapeutic: if you have never grappled with mental illness, I want to destroy your fear of it by suggesting that there is an understandable component to each illness that can be the basis for support and healing. That ‘beneath’ a riddled exterior, a friend is there and always has been, and that you too can abstractly envision some circumstance in which you might be prone to, say, depression. In the same way that a tragic event can spark the onset of depressive symptoms, so too can an unremitting love, I believe, help undo them. This means, then, that we must be brave enough to try to understand. On the subject of Madison’s death, we should not distance ourselves from what we knew of her, a girl whom my cousin described best: as an angel.

I think that Madison’s death has a substance to it of incomparable importance. Her magnetism averts our old tendency to distort and distance her as another uncanny victim of mental illness. In the end, I think, more than anything else, Madison demonstrates what we have always seemed to refuse: that there is a humanity to mental illness, and though complex, it is not insuperable, nor is it unfathomable. Mental illness is not a great vanishing act, and it is not a shout in the street. I think it is, instead, the darkly beautiful picture Madison took an hour before she jumped, that she spent the time to upload in a sort of final signature, of the trees in Rittenhouse Square which remind me so much of our home.


James Mayers is a U1 Mathematics student, and can be contacted at james.mayers@mail.mcgill.ca.

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