I first heard about this book while listening to the Another Mother Runner podcast about it, which you can find here. The co-host, Dimity McDowell said both she and her teenage daughter had read the book and she recommended that any parent with teenagers who might end up on an athletics team in college to read this book. Well, my teenage daughter is a runner now so I thought I should definitely read this book. Not to exclude the other co-host Adrienne Martini, who also had some helpful insight and comments of her own, having gone through depression herself and having written a book about it.
Author Kate Fagan is a sports writer for espnW, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine and was a college athlete herself. She doesn’t have children of her own, so she can’t write from a parent’s perspective, but she does write from a former college athlete’s perspective. Fagan interviewed Madison Holleran’s friends and family, read Maddy’s phone messages, emails, and social media feeds to try to perhaps portray a bigger picture of what might have happened to lead to the tragic death of Madison Holleran by suicide.
Right from the beginning, you know what you’re getting into by reading this book because you know how it ends. What you don’t know at the beginning is just how quickly things can turn from bad to worse to desperate in someone’s life, even when things appear fairly smooth on the surface. Despite telling her closest friends and family members she was not happy at the Ivy league University of Pennsylvania, no one could have predicted she was so completely out of hope that she would take her own life.
What stands out the most to me is the pressure kids have to face during college and for most of them, there is little to no professional help when they need it. When Madison sought help from counselors at college, she was given a lengthy wait time, which to me is unacceptable. More resources need to be available, especially for freshman or new students.
You may say pressure is nothing new; kids have always faced pressure in school that increases steadily through high school and peaks during college. True, pressure has always been there, but it does seem like the pressure kids are facing now is much greater than 20 years ago. All of this pressure results in anxiety and it seems like teens today are at an all-time high rate of anxiety. From the moment they enter middle school, they’re told they need to get good grades so they’ll get into AP and honors classes in high school, which they need to get accepted into “the best” colleges, then they need to excel in college to graduate with honors to get “good jobs.”
This is just the academic portion of the source of anxiety. When you add in athletics in college and how demanding the schedules are for college athletes, you have the perfect storm. Madison went from playing soccer, her self-professed true love in high school to running for University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship. She clearly missed playing soccer and wasn’t happy running at college partly because of the demanding schedule, to the extent that she typed a letter to her running coach explaining to him why she wanted to leave the team, and she brought her mother along for the meeting. However, her coach didn’t want to see her leave the team and ended up talking her into modifying her workouts but not leaving, to which she agreed.
Another aspect that Fagan covers thoroughly is social media and how it can downplay or mask negative feelings. For example, if I texted a friend that I had a bad day but then added in some silly emoticons, it might look like things weren’t really as bad as they were; the tone can easily be misinterpreted by the receiver. Tone is always difficult to portray electronically, whether through an email or text. Madison also was sure to always put up photos of herself and friends on Instagram that on the outside looked like everything was great.
So as a parent, what can we take away from this book? For starters, don’t assume you can just send your child off to college and everything will be wonderful- they’ll make friends, do well in their classes, and adjust easily. In fact, a majority of students that go away to college are woefully under-prepared both emotionally and physically. We aren’t doing our children any favors by doing their laundry for them all the time and never discussing difficult subjects with them. It’s the ultimate job of a parent to prepare their child to be an independent adult.
Keep the communication lines open, which you’ve hopefully done from the start with your child. Ask them how they feel about something rather than assuming how they feel. Make it clear that if they’re ever not happy about how things are going in their life, they should talk to someone about it, whether it’s a roommate, RA, counselor, friend, or family member. It should also be clear that if they want to transfer schools or drop out of a sport, that’s perfectly acceptable and while it’s a big decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly, it’s certainly a viable option.
When Madison mentioned to family members she wanted to transfer schools, she was told to wait it out just a little longer, but clearly she couldn’t wait any longer. I’m sure her family had no idea things were as dire as they were with Madison, and I think that’s a huge takeaway from the book. No one ever truly knows how another person is feeling. Maybe that’s the most important thing we all need to remind ourselves.
Did any of you play on a sports team in college and if so, what was your experience like? What about you guys with kids- do you tend to avoid “difficult” conversations with your teenagers? It’s tough, I know. Teenagers especially often become quiet or don’t want to talk about certain subjects with their parents, so it’s a fine line to walk as a parent to ask questions and get conversations going but not be so pushy you scare them away. Mental health is a subject many people shy away from talking about but it’s an important topic that needs to be discussed.