When men­tal ill­ness, col­lege sports and so­cial me­dia con­verge.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

new mind­set new ev­ery­thing i can do this i will do this you CHOOSE your fate will­ing to give it an­other chance DON’T LOOK BACK LOOK FOR­WARD SET­BACKS ARE NEEDED TO GET STRONGER

When Madi­son Holleran re­turned for her sec­ond se­mes­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, she wrote th­ese thoughts in her iPhone, a check­list of “forced pos­i­tiv­ity,” as jour­nal­ist Kate Fa­gan de­scribes it, a mantra Madi­son hoped would im­prove a thus far mis­er­able col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence.

Days later, on the evening of Jan. 17, 2014, Madi­son leapt over the ninth-floor rail­ing of a park­ing garage in down­town Philadel­phia, leav­ing be­hind gifts for fam­ily mem­bers and friends, and a brief note. “I love you all . . . I’m sorry,” it con­cluded. “I love you.”

How Madi­son, a ta­lented 19-year-old stu­dent ath­lete with a lov­ing fam­ily, sup­port­ive com­mu­nity and loads of friends reached this mo­ment is the sub­ject of Fa­gan’s “What Made Maddy Run.” Fa­gan first wrote about Madi­son in a 2015 ESPNw fea­ture that em­pha­sized the gap be­tween the cu­rated im­ages of care­free hap­pi­ness Madi­son shared on In­sta­gram and the tur­moil she suf­fered within. Now, Fa­gan has ex­panded that re­port­ing into a book that draws on in­ter­views with Madi­son’s par­ents, Jim and Stacy; con­ver­sa­tions with other rel­a­tives, friends and coaches; and ac­cess to Madi­son’s emails, in­stant mes­sages, texts and com­puter files. The re­sult is a poignant study of the con­verg­ing pres­sures of men­tal ill­ness, col­lege ath­let­ics and so­cial me­dia.

Madi­son grew up with two older sib­lings and two younger ones in an up­per-mid­dle­class New Jer­sey sub­urb about an hour out­side New York, a place where col­lege is a fore­gone con­clu­sion. A strong stu­dent and stand­out soc­cer player since ele­men­tary school, Madi­son be­gan run­ning track in high school to stay in bet­ter shape. “Jim and Stacy had al­ways felt that Maddy, self-suf­fi­cient and clever, was the child they’d never have to worry about,” Fa­gan writes.

Her first love was soc­cer — “the sport that, be­cause of its im­pro­vi­sa­tional na­ture, forced her out of her own head,” the au­thor ex­plains — and dur­ing her ju­nior year she ver­bally com­mit­ted to play for Le­high Uni­ver­sity. But she ex­celled on the track as well, be­com­ing one of the top 800-me­ter run­ners in the state. Penn came call­ing. “Maddy needed to see if she could re­ally get into the Ivy League, which was a dream of hers,” Fa­gan writes. “Or rather, a dream she felt she was sup­posed to have.” As soon as she re­ceived her ac­cep­tance let­ter, she posted it on In­sta­gram.

Col­lege was not what Maddy ex­pected. Where once she’d been the star, now she felt she was strug­gling to stay in the mid­dle of the pack, whether in the class­room or on the track. She’d never been graded on a curve be­fore, and she wor­ried she’d fail her cour­ses. She wasn’t crazy about the coach train­ing her, and now cross-coun­try rac­ing was in the mix for the first time. Af­ter col­laps­ing at the end of a race dur­ing her first se­mes­ter and fin­ish­ing 44th out of more than 100 com­peti­tors, she held on to her mother. “Mom, I’m just not happy,” she said. “I’m not right — some­thing is not right.”

But as soon as the iPhone came out, Fa­gan writes, “Maddy trans­formed: she pulled back her slump­ing shoul­ders, wrapped Stacy in a hug, and smiled for the cam­era.” The In­sta­gram shot is re­pro­duced in the book, among many pic­tures of a smil­ing, seem­ingly un­trou­bled young woman.

Fa­gan dwells on this im­pulse to present a happy ve­neer of suc­cess, what stu­dents called “Penn Face,” or “the cul­ture of ap­pear­ing ef­fort­lessly per­fect.” That cul­ture is mag­ni­fied in the so­cial-me­dia era, when our im­ages and sto­ries are fil­tered to max­i­mize ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion. “We start view­ing our world through the lens of what shares well,” Fa­gan writes. But “com­par­ing your every­day ex­is­tence to some­one else’s high­light reel is danger­ous.”

Madi­son’s par­ents were hardly dis­tant or un­aware of her strug­gles. They helped her find a ther­a­pist over the win­ter break; they talked through op­tions with their daugh­ter: Per­haps she should trans­fer to a new school or quit track. They knew some­thing was wrong but failed to grasp its depths. Some par­ents “aren’t pre­pared for this new ver­sion of their high-achiev­ing kid: doubt­ing, sad, tired, con­fused,” Fa­gan writes. “When it came to Madi­son’s trou­bles,” Stacy and Jim “both felt they had one com­mod­ity in abun­dance: time.”

Fa­gan ze­roes in on the tran­si­tion from high school to col­lege as a danger­ous pe­riod. The peo­ple who know you well are sud­denly far away, un­able to no­tice the changes in you, while the peo­ple around you all the time — class­mates, room­mates, team­mates — don’t know you well enough to re­al­ize some­thing is wrong. The chal­lenge is unique for stu­dent-ath­letes, who have been taught that tough­ness and per­se­ver­ance are ev­ery­thing and that weak­ness is anath­ema. Madi­son made up her mind to quit track but wor­ried about dis­ap­point­ing her coaches and par­ents. “The idea of bur­den­ing oth­ers, of drag­ging down her fam­ily and her team­mates, ap­palled Maddy.” Soon the bur­dens she kept to her­self grew un­bear­able.

Madi­son’s story is in­ter­spersed with Fa­gan’s in­ter­views with men­tal health ex­perts, sur­vivors of sui­cide at­tempts and the au­thor’s mem­o­ries of life as a col­le­giate bas­ket­ball player. As a writer, she has a weak­ness for ex­ces­sive me­taphor. Fresh­man year of col­lege is like walk­ing through an ob­sta­cle course wear­ing a blind­fold, and like walk­ing a path lined with land mines. Thoughts break into one’s mind like a train cut­ting through a snow­storm, or like an iron fist on a col­li­sion course with its des­ti­na­tion. But she makes up for it with her in­sights into the pres­sures stu­dent ath­letes face and the rel­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion men­tal health re­ceives in col­le­giate ath­letic de­part­ments. (Fa­gan cites a 2014 col­lege sur­vey find­ing that 28 per­cent of fe­male stu­dent-ath­letes and 21 per­cent of male ones re­port feel­ing de­pressed.)

Here, one im­age proves apt: “If a foot­ball player pulls a ham­string, nearly half a dozen li­censed pro­fes­sion­als hover over him, dis­cussing the most in­no­va­tive ways to re­ha­bil­i­tate his strained mus­cle,” Fa­gan writes. “Yet if most ath­letic de­part­ments’ com­mit­ment to men­tal and emo­tional health were vi­su­al­ized as a weight room, it would more closely re­sem­ble this: a few rusted dumb­bells, a cracked mir­ror, cob­webs, and plenty of open space.”

Though Madi­son met with a coun­selor dur­ing win­ter break and had at least one ini­tial screen­ing ses­sion with a ther­a­pist at Penn, it is not clear that she was of­fi­cially di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion or that med­i­ca­tion was con­sid­ered. Fa­gan is smart enough not to of­fer any ul­ti­mate ex­pla­na­tion for Madi­son’s death. “A de­fin­i­tive story is needed for those of us left be­hind, so we can feel bet­ter,” she writes. “But there is no one thing. There are rivers that merge and cre­ate a pow­er­ful cur­rent.”

On the day she died, Madi­son ran into the Le­high soc­cer coach who had ea­gerly re­cruited her. He tried to tell her, even sub­tly, that she was still wel­come at Le­high. “If you ever re­ally need any­thing, please don’t hes­i­tate to call,” he said. And if this were a feel-good movie, that chance en­counter in down­town Philly might have helped Madi­son re­al­ize that she could still start fresh.

But her de­ci­sion was made. In the shop­ping bag Madi­son car­ried while chat­ting with the coach were the farewell gifts — a neck­lace for Stacy, Go­diva choco­lates for Jim, an out­fit for her new­born nephew — that she would leave on the park­ing garage floor. The verb “run” in the book’s ti­tle ap­pears to re­fer to Madi­son’s life on the track, un­til read­ers learn that her body landed in a bike lane some dis­tance from the build­ing. “If she had taken a run­ning leap,” Fa­gan writes, “then Maddy never had to stare at the ground, truly con­tem­plate it, be­fore choos­ing to let go.”

When you know how a story ends, the out­come seems pre­or­dained, but of course it didn’t to those close to Madi­son. “Jim and Stacy were sur­prised at how quickly col­lege had over­whelmed their daugh­ter,” Fa­gan writes. And to her old high school friends and team­mates, Madi­son’s death was in­con­ceiv­able. They knew she was un­happy at Penn, but they never imag­ined how strong the cur­rents or deep the river.

Later, the text mes­sages kept ar­riv­ing in her phone — heart­bro­ken, con­fused, self-ex­cul­pat­ing. I love you. God rest your soul. I just don’t get it mad. You had it all. I’m sorry if you needed more from me. I had no idea.


Rel­a­tives and friends carry Madi­son Holleran’s cas­ket out of Guardian An­gel Church in Al­len­dale, N.J., af­ter a fu­neral Mass in 2014.

WHAT MADE MADDY RUN The Se­cret Strug­gles and Tragic Death of an All-Amer­i­can Teen By Kate Fa­gan. Lit­tle, Brown. 305 pp. $27

Car­los Lozada

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