Society would have you believe that being pretty and smart and privileged somehow insulates you from pain and suffering and self-loathing. Isn’t that why we’re all fighting so hard to “have it all”? Because once we have everything society values, we’ll be happy. Right?
Newsflash: society lies. It’s built on a messy web of consumerism and superficiality and spiritual emptiness. There’s no shield that protects from mental illness.
A Buzzfeed story about the suicide of 19-year-old Madison Holleran has garnered a lot of attention on the interwebs, and the very fact that the article was written at all speaks volumes about our society’s deep-seated beliefs and priorities. The headline reads, “Popular 19-Year-Old UPenn Track Star Dies In An Apparent Suicide”.
Suicides, tragically, happen every day, but Madison’s made national news because she was beautiful and popular and athletic and an Ivy Leaguer.
“What girl wouldn’t want to be her?” is what the world seems to be saying. The outside her, that is. We know little of the inside.
There’s a more insidious undercurrent at work with these assumptions. If we buy into the notion that beauty = happiness, than what’s the alternative? That unattractiveness (a subjective concept at best) = unhappiness? That it would somehow be more understandable if an unpopular, not-so-conventionally-pretty girl had taken her life? Pain and suffering doesn’t make distinctions based on physical characteristics.
Madison was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. Undoubtedly, the pressure was stifling, and her dad said she’d lost confidence in her athletic and academic abilities and had gotten depressed. I can’t speak for Madison, but I can relate to the duplicitous drumbeat of NOT GOOD ENOUGH that comes with depression; an incessant chant of self-loathing and loneliness and seemingly inescapable despair.
I hear a similar drum beating in my head. I fight it. Every day. But there are times it’s been deafening, and not always easy to drown out. Well-meaning comments like, “You have everything. How can you be depressed?” don’t make it go away.
The truth is, who can say what this lovely little girl saw when she looked in the mirror? That’s the curse of mental illness — your mind weaves elaborate lies and you believe them. Because how could your mind possibly be wrong? How could the voice in your head speak anything but the truth? It’s hard to dispute what comes from within. This, I know.
Madison’s story and so many others are a reminder that depression (and mental illness in general) doesn’t discriminate based on race, color, age, looks, socioeconomic status, ability, weight, intelligence or any other external characteristic. It’s the great equalizer.
Until we all stand up and start talking about what’s on the inside — instead of the shiny, glittery constructions we tend to showcase on the outside — these outmoded stereotypes will continue to fester. Beauty is not a moat that wards off the dragon of depression. When we all start speaking more openly about the struggles we’re facing, the stigmas will start to disintegrate, and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be fewer acts of desperation and more acts of compassion and connection.