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This is why: My story

| Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When Madison Holleran took her life in January 2014, the University of Pennsylvania reeled at its fourth suicide within a year, which sparked the question: “Why would these kids — top of their class, the elite, bound for success — choose to kill themselves?”

The closest I ever came was a letter. I kept that letter for a year in a small drawer on the right side of my desk, where it sat until I folded it up and tucked it into the trash while I was packing to leave for my first semester in college. I had kept it all that time not because I still felt like I did when I wrote it, but because it reminded me I was alive and that I had made the conscious decision to stay so.


In high school, I was the overachiever. I was the 4.0 student who was bound to be a valedictorian and go to a prestigious university and then become a doctor, or something of the sort. That was my track; that was the way life would work out for me, for people like me. I was constantly working towards success, and though I was in high school, the competition was suffocating at times. It always felt as though I constantly had to prove myself and my worth and my intelligence to my peers, people that really had no right or authority to judge me on any of those things.


Anything less than my best was failure. This may sound clichéd, but it was the reality. Everything I did was to go towards the goal of getting into a good college, of making something of myself. It was as though I had something to prove to the world, to my peers, to my teachers, to my family; I had to be the best at any expense. I was exhausted, I was worn out, but I plastered that smile on my face so no one would guess anything was wrong. Anything other than the happy, positive person that others regarded me as would be strange and out of place. This was the person I had created, and I had to maintain her for as long as I could.


I had read that depression was a serious problem, but I ignored it even as it was eating up my mind. When I began to feel empty or apathetic, I worked harder; I didn’t want to dwell on the fact that I was slipping away from myself. The breaking point didn’t occur until my first thought of taking my own life. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide I didn’t want to live anymore. It developed gradually, until one day I was driving home from school and the thought of running my car off the bridge didn’t scare me, it reassured me. This was in my junior year of high school. I didn’t want to die; I didn’t want to hurt my family or my friends. I didn’t want to live, either; the days weren’t hard, and they blended seamlessly together as I floated through them aimlessly. It was around this time I wrote the letter. It was only a page, with a few paragraphs addressed to my parents and some of my closest friends. I had planned on using pills because the thought of doing it any other way scared me.


I am a survivor of my own psyche. I have never battled a life-threatening physical illness, but I have battled a life-threatening mental illness. I am here, as a survivor and as a fighter, to tell you to speak up. Don’t talk yourself out of reaching out to seek help. It is a terrifying thought, the idea that you can no longer get through this life without seeking professional assistance. But it is not something you should be ashamed about. You should be proud of yourself, for keeping on the fight when it feels hopeless, and none of us can get through this life on our own regardless.


If you feel as though you need to seek help, do so immediately. If you are concerned for a friend and are worried that he or she may not go without some convincing, sit with them, listen to their worries, work with them to get them to St. Liam’s. Do not play the hero when you help a friend that is struggling. You are being a good friend, yes, but they are not yours to save, their fight for life is not your achievement. Be their equal, be their heart when they are hurting. But never, in your attempts to help them, make them feel as though they are “crazy,” do not tell them to just “cheer up” when they admit to feeling depressed. Do not trivialize their struggles with half-hearted words of “encouragement.” It’s time that “depressed” stops being thrown around like it is a casual emotion. It’s time to take away the stigma of seeking help.


I can accredit the majority of my recovery from depression to the ones who stuck by my side when I was at my lowest, who never left even when I myself wanted to leave this life, and desperately so. I know the importance of people, the importance of having someone there for you and the importance of unrequited support. My support system never expected anything back from me, except for effort and a determined will to live. They weren’t getting public praise for their help; they never thought twice when trying to help me. I’m terrified to imagine what would have happened had I not been lucky enough to have those beautiful people. 


Get off your phones. Just go. Go be with each other. Be with each other and support one another. 


Be there.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Johnny Whichard

    The best way to escape depression is to stop thinking about one’s self and start helping others.

    • Timothy D Siegler

      Terrible sentiment. Perhaps this is helpful advice for someone going through temporary “depression”, like for people getting over a breakup. But for people suffering from clinical depression (who btw are definitely reading this article and its comments), saying this is equivalent to calling them selfish for being ill. It’s hard to help others when you are struggling to help yourself, and the cathartic effects of doing so are less present if there at all.

    • MJ

      This is one of the most heartless comments I have ever read on the The Observer’s pages.

      Yes, helping others does make one “feel good”. But depression isn’t some kind of temporary, selfish thing. It’s a mental health condition. Thinking you can just “escape” it is…well, it’s a mind-boggling cruel opinion.

    • Susan Zhu

      I would just like to say, as the writer of this article, that although I was taken aback by this comment I was sadly not surprised. You are not the only one to have this opinion, but I have to disagree. As Timothy says, your comment infers that depression is a choice and that one can just stop having it, or living with it. Would you say the same thing to someone with cancer? Heart disease? Diabetes? Would you say to someone with cancer, “please stop thinking only of yourself and your ill health, go out and help others instead”? Just because depression is a mental illness does not make it any less than a physical ailment. In fact, some sources of depression are physical, such as imbalances in the brain. Before making more comments like this to those who are struggling with depression, just remember that it is a mental illness, not a choice. No one chooses to live with depression. No one should be made to feel selfish or less of themselves because they have depression. Overcoming depression, at least in my case, had a lot to do with self-inquiry and focusing on making myself better. It takes thinking of one’s self to battle depression; otherwise, it would just be ignoring the problem.

      • Johnny Whichard

        My apologies if my comment came across as too harsh. I was only stating that I and many others have recovered from depression by refocusing our lives on helping others. Obviously I understand that sometimes that isn’t enough for some people and they may require therapy or brain chemistry changing drugs. However, much like how people frequently have to “admit they have a problem” before they can truly heal, I would counter your argument that people often DO have to make a choice to heal their depression…Not all solutions are for everybody obviously…I just wanted to point out something that worked for me and I know has worked for many others.

        • Johnny Whichard

          And for the record, to equate depression with cancer is ludicrous.

  • Anonymous

    What an amazing story. It’s incredibly brave of you to share, and I can relate to it in so many ways, having also battled suicidal thoughts in the past (and having recovered from them with the help of a therapist). Thank you so much for your bravery not only to write this article but to keep facing each day and to advocate reaching out for help. I greatly appreciate your effort in the fight against the stigma. You’re an inspiration.