Being not okay

It’s rare that I blog something specifically in response to a news story I’ve read or seen online, but in case you haven’t read this story yet, I implore you to. It’s from ESPNW, and while you should take the time to read it, the basic gist is that an intelligent, well-liked, athletically-gifted young female college student somewhat surprisingly committed suicide in Philly in January ’14 by jumping off a 9-story parking garage.

She was 19 years old.

I’m sure we have all heard stories that sound like this before, stories of people taking their lives and people being so surprised afterward, claiming they “never saw it coming,” but I think what unfortunately sets apart young Madison Holleran’s story is social media. Madison’s story is striking a chord with many simply because from her Instagram account, which she used to document her life (as many of us do), you’d never know that there was anything “wrong” with her or with her life. The pictures are beautiful, full of smiles and happiness and images from track meets, soccer matches, family gatherings, and good times with friends from high school and college. From viewing her photos alone, you’d never surmise that Madison had been suffering in silence from an untreated mental illness, that she desperately needed help.

Madison’s story is heartbreaking, to be sure. It blows my mind and frustrates me to no end that we can somehow live in the times that we do, in 2015, and that there still exists so much stigma associated with mental illness — and needing help — or getting help. We’re taught early and often how important it is to take care of our bodies, to be sure that every part of us is in good working order, yet somehow making sure that all is right with our brains and our brain chemistry makes us weak. One of the most heartwrenching lines from the ESPNW story explains that many times, we tend to think that happiness is a choice — which in turn, of course, means that being depressed is simply being weak. That’s just not right.

My entire career is in higher education, and I can vouch for the tumultuous years that often comprise many students’ undergraduate experiences. Part of Madison’s story is that college was “supposed” to be one thing, but her experiences were pointing to something different — and that somehow, that was her fault, something that she was (or wasn’t) doing. Not being okay — not being happy or content — during a time when she was supposed to be having the time of her life, running track at a D-1 school and excelling in her studies, making new friends, living away from home, joining a sorority, the whole 9 yards — was not an option.

Since Madison’s death, her family has been trying to get the message out on social media that it’s okay to not be okay, and they/ESPNW are encouraging people to continue the conversation by using the hashtag #lifeunfiltered to show that social media, and the images and story we project therein, are typically all but little constructs that we create — that social media doesn’t show the entire picture. Though the conversation is, unfortunately, reactive by nature, I still think it’s worthwhile and a fantastic reminder to all of us that social media, and the images we present of ourselves, and the “story” of our life that we curate online, most likely — more than likely — isn’t wholly representative. Social media isn’t necessarily a lie, yet at the same time, it’s also not necessarily the whole truth, either.

It’s okay to need help.

It’s okay to want to talk to someone, to want to make things right when you feel like they’re just … not.

My heart sincerely goes out to Madison’s family.

(Eds. note: like Madison’s family is insisting, it’s okay to not be okay. If you are in crisis, please get help. Among many other resources, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The call is free, and you will be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area.)

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To a younger me

Both Erica and Anne have written posts along these lines recently — things I would tell a younger me — and their insight is really quite good, in my opinion. I’ve been thinking about this topic lately as well, so I thought I’d contribute to the conversation. Some of this stuff is specific to running, but a lot of it isn’t necessarily.

1. Don’t be a dick — to other people. Maybe likening unsavory behavior and attitudes to male genitalia is a bit inaccurate (or not all that helpful), but I think the general point I’m trying to convey goes beyond the standard Golden Rule of treating other people how you’d want to be treated. I think a lot of times, it is so much easier and faster and more convenient to be a jerk than it is to be nice to people, and while I don’t necessarily fully subscribe to the idea of karma, I think we’re all better humans by going out of our way — even (or especially!) when it’s inconvenient — to be nice to other people, even if we feel we’re not being treated the same. I have this conversation with myself on a near-daily basis when I’m driving; it can be so much easier to flick someone off, call that person a name, and so on than it is to take a cue from Elsa and let that shit go. My daughter has now taken to saying GEEZ, DUDE! when we’re driving together because that’s the extent of what I’ll vocalize when I get frustrated by other drivers. If someone pisses you off in some way, 9 times out of 10, it’s not gonna matter to you any more tomorrow. Again: let that shit go. It doesn’t matter.

2. Don’t be a dick — to yourself. I’m my own harshest critic, and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. In school, anything less than straight-As was undesirable, and for a long time in my running, anything less than a PR or a 110%, balls-out effort, was kinda unacceptable. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned the beauty of this wonderful thing called perspective and again, like Elsa, have learned to let some ish go for no other reason than to maintain my own sanity. Simply put, as long as I know I put forth my best effort — in a race, in training, with my studies (when I was still in school), with parenting or being a good partner to my husband or with anything, really — I’m happy. Mentally calling myself a failure (or worse) because I don’t live up to some crazyass perfect ideal is trash. I wouldn’t talk like that to my loved ones, so I’m not going to talk to myself like that, either.

3. Related: perspective. I mentioned this a couple posts ago, when I was talking about Amy Poehler’s autobiography, and the gist is this: talk to yourself like you’re 90. If what you’re doing or worrying about now will matter when you’re 90, then figure it out. On the other hand — and what is probably more likely the case most of the time — if the thing that you’re fretting over isn’t going to matter to you when you’re 90, then don’t sweat it. Life’s too short.

4. If you run every race and train through every cycle expecting to PR come race day, you will be thoroughly disappointed more often than not. This is related to #3, perspective. I love to train and work hard day after day, week after week, in the hopes that my tenacity and grit will carry over to race day and allow me to execute a flawless, beautiful PR performance. There are so many other variables that affect how things flow on race day, though, that in the big picture (again, perspective!), we probably can’t control as much as we’d like to believe we can. As long as I do the best I can given the day — the conditions, the course, whatever — then all is well. Toeing the line being physically and mentally prepared to kick ass is no small feat; managing how the day unfolds, and all its many variables, may be an even bigger deal in and of itself. If I train my heart out for a race and toe the line to the backdrop of 100% humidity, or a snowstorm, or sideways hail — all elements that I have raced and/or trained in — there’s only so much I can do. It’s not me making excuses or giving myself an out; it’s me being realistic.

5. You’re your own best advocate. Empower yourself with knowledge. This resonates most with me in the realm of managing my health. Though it may be kinda scary (or morbid) to admit, just because things look and seem okay on the outside doesn’t mean that all is well on the inside. I think it’s critical and kinda inexcusable to not take care of yourself, especially if you have access to healthcare (which is a whole separate topic). It’s silly to even have to say, but again, treat yourself how you’d want to treat your loved ones — by making sure you get yourself to a physician, dentist, whatever each year just to make sure things are alright on the inside. A real-life, in-person medical professional far exceeds Doctor Google (and Doctor Oz), gang.

6. Read. It’s good for your soul. True story: when I was young, around the elementary school years, each night, I’d put a book (or two) out with my clothes that I was planning for the next day. I was a voracious reader and looked forward to any opportunity that I’d have to read my book(s) of choice for the day. Come middle school and early high school, when reading wasn’t really super cool any more, and puberty and peer pressure and all that wonderful stuff was in full tilt, I barely read any more, except what I had to for school — sad but true. It wasn’t until I was partway through high school and befriended some other folks who were voracious readers, themselves, that I felt “comfortable” reading as much as I did before and talking books with folks. Crazy what peer pressure and the tumultuous pubescent years can do to you. Reading is good for the soul, but more importantly, be proud of, and comfortable with, who you are and what you’re about.

7. Don’t gossip. It’s bad for your soul. I’ve had my fair share of pretty horrible “friends” in life, especially early on, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to have essentially zero interest in gossip – about people I know, celebrities, or whatever. I all but shut down in conversations now when people start ranting about others. I just don’t care.

8. Ensure that people know you love them. I joke that motherhood has made me a bit of a sap, but I think it’s true. I am known to end conversations by telling people I love them or that I miss them or that I enjoyed our time together — stuff that may seem kinda awkward, if not a touch treacly — but to me, it’s more important that the other person knows that I care about him/her and our relationship than anything else. I think sharing our love, affection, appreciation, admiration — whatever you want to call it — with people we treasure is one of those “good for the soul” things for both you and the recipient.

9. Take care of yourself. This goes along with what I said above, about being your own advocate. Ensure that you do the stuff each and every day that is going to make you lead a healthy and happy life: eat well, exercise in some form, get sufficient amounts of sleep… yadda yadda yadda; it’s the same stuff we’ve all been hearing since we were wee ones. As a runner, it drives me damn near batshit crazy to read stuff online from others that basically goes along the lines of I have this horrible (insert serious malady here) in my (insert body part here), but I really want to run the (insert name of race here), and my doctor thinks it’s a bad idea for me to keep training unless I want to have surgery in a couple months, so… do you know the name of a doctor who’d say that it’s ok for me to train and race through a (insert serious malady here) because I really want to do it? No, no, no, and … no. Don’t do it!!! RDs host races each and every year, each and every weekend, and you sacrificing your health to be able to run this one event this year, in a sub-par state, is just silly… ridiculous… and irresponsible. Yes, I’m judging you, and no, I don’t feel bad about it. Look at the big picture. Take care of yourself first. No race (or any other endeavor) is that important. I promise.  I have DNSed races like a champ before due to injuries or overuse, and yeah, sure, it sucks to have that financial sting, but I absolutely did not regret my DNS decision then … or now. Do what you need to do today to ensure that you will be able to run — or hell, to ensure that you’ll be alive — years from now. It really is that simple. I know it can be really tempting to fall into the traps of social media, especially when it comes to things like going after our goals or being physically tough or whatever, but seriously. Don’t be silly. Take care of yourself.

10. Have some foresight with your money and finances. This is probably impossible for 18 year-olds to understand, especially when they think they know everything (I was totally guilty of that), but still… try to think long-term with money. I really wanted to go to the prestigious, research-heavy, and highly-regarded University of Chicago for undergrad  and was admitted, but because they offered no merit-based scholarships, my family and I would have to shell out a TON of money in loans, to the tune of around $40k each year (!). That’s a LOT of money, even though it is “for college.” I ended up going to a different school instead, one that wasn’t necessarily as prestigious but still was quite excellent, and in the process, I earned a ton of scholarships and was able to financially cover most of my expenses and only take out a minimal amount in student loans. Not entering adulthood with over $160k in student loans is something I have my parents to thank because to 18 year-old me, $40k a year for college totally made sense because it was “for college.” SMH … I’ve been really fortunate to have gotten a lot of great financial guidance from my family since I was little and have always known that there was at least some value in putting away a little money into a savings account, and I have come to appreciate this financial knowledge more and more as I’ve gotten older, started working, began (and grown) my family, and the like. Money and finances can suck and aren’t very fun to talk about, but it’s really important that you figure this stuff out early on.

11. You don’t know everything. No one does. If someone claims to, run far, far, away — and fast. Ah, 18 year-old Erin, you were hilarious. You were going to grow up to become a psychologist of some manifestation (?), live in a high rise in Chicago overlooking the lake (okay) with your goldfish (um), dread your hair (!), get your tongue pierced (eye roll), never get married or have children (oh boy) … I could go on. Yeah. Don’t plan your life away. Be open to the experience and its many adventures, and quite importantly, never say never.

I think that’s enough didacticism for one post.

Ruminating on my love of the run