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What Madison Holleran's Suicide Taught Me About Chasing Perfection

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

My chemistry professor stopped in the middle of his lesson this week and turned toward the quiet the room of freshman.

“If there’s one thing I would change about Washington and Lee students,” he began, “I would wave my magic wand to make you all less afraid of making mistakes.” He went on to preach about how mistakes contribute to the most efficient learning.

This week also happened to mark the third anniversary of Madison Holleran’s death. When my professor turned to the class, I couldn’t help but think Maddy was somehow speaking to me through his words. Maddy’s story has been publicized across the nation, as people over the last three years have become even more infatuated with the girl than they were before her death.

I knew Maddy as a teammate my freshman year. She was a track star, a soccer phenomenon and an academic genius. The girl practically had a fan club, made up of high schoolers, parents, news reporters, sports fans, teachers and coaches.

She had led the Northern Highlands Girls Soccer team to consecutive state championships. She set and beat her own records on the track. She was a member of the National Honor Society. She was absolutely stunning. She was a role model to us little freshmen, someone I personally admired for her beauty, humility and grace. More importantly, she was the daughter to two of the most loving parents in town. She was the middle sister to a crazy group of five siblings. She was the best friend to some, although she was honestly friendly with the whole school.

This is Holleran’s story as told by ESPN.

For those who don’t know the tragic events of Madison Holleran, I’ll provide you with the basics, although the over 700,000 hits from a Google search of her name can also serve that purpose.

On January 17th, 2014, Maddy left her UPenn dorm room to walk around the city of Philadelphia. She stopped at Rittenhouse Square to Instagram a captionless, scenery picture of the tranquil park lights just as dusk began to creep in on the end of the day. Maddy proceeded a block away to a parking garage. There, she would end her own life. Every person that has heard this story seems to have his or her own opinions about Maddy’s “cause of death.” While there’s no doubt that she struggled silently with anxiety and depression, both the media and Madison’s parents have rationalized this tragedy.

Most seem to think Maddy fell off the metaphorical pedestal that she — and we all — had constantly placed her on. People claimed when UPenn turned out to be harder in all aspects of life (socially, athletically and academically), she couldn’t quite manage the struggle. They said she didn’t know how to cope with her less than perfect college life and felt like she couldn’t ask for help. They said Maddy was the girl who once had it all.

Maddy ran after perfection. But now where is she?

While part of me hates how publicized this personal tragedy has become, her story does serve as a lesson to help students for the better. This is especially true in college, where the rigor of classes, intense social scene and demanding schedules can be quite hectic.

Maddy’s loving parents have since started a campaign for students, under the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK,” made famous by ESPN coverage.

In my chemistry professor’s 14 years of teaching at this school, the one thing he would change is our willingness to make mistakes, to be wrong sometimes, to struggle and ask for help. Whether this be by raising your hand in chemistry class to take a risk on a question you don’t quite understand or taking advantage of the free counseling services on campus, the idea remains. Might I add, college may be the last time there will be eager professionals at your full disposal.

College has its demands, but it also has an amazing, uplifting community. There’s no need to maintain a façade at all times with all people. Whether you find an outlet in a best friend, professor, coach, counselor or RA, it’s important to have someone with whom you can let down your walls. In the coming months, especially during the infamous college winter blues, I hope all of us students can support one another, cope with the tough stuff and most importantly, ask for help when needed.

When we find ourselves chasing unrealistic excellence, let’s slow down and take a step back. The only consolation I can give is that no one at this school, no one anywhere, can catch perfection.

For more information about Maddy’s story or how to give a kind donation, please see The Madison Holleran Foundation.

This post originally appeared on The Odyssey.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via In Memory of Madison Holleran Facebook.

Originally published: March 13, 2017
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