A few weeks ago I was in San Francisco for work. I had dinner with a few of my female coworkers (whom I also consider great friends) and as we discussed different stories we’d heard about lately in the news, I learned for the first time about the story of Madison Holleran. Without explaining in full detail, my friends told me how this beautiful and accomplished college freshman at UPenn had committed suicide by jumping off the top of a parking garage. She was a student athlete, a perfectionist, a real girl. And the part that caught my attention the most? Her tragic story seemed to have something to do with her perception of her friends on social media. Specifically, on Instagram.
To keep the mood light at dinner, we didn’t discuss it much further, but my friend promised to send me the link to the recent story about Madison written by Kate Fagan for ESPN. When I returned to my hotel room, I immediately read her story and watched the accompanying video. It was so honest. I struggled with my own emotions for a while afterward because there were so many things I could relate to. Moments of my life have been consumed by what I’ve found in the photos of those I follow on Instagram and the Internet. A perfectionist and former student athlete myself, and a girl who battles with wanting to be real, but sometimes fearing that real isn’t good enough, I could see pieces of myself in Madison. I could relate to the downward spiral of negative self talk that comes from constant comparison. Comparison of something real to something that isn’t (but seems to be) real.
I recalled a thought from Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a leader in the LDS church, that said…
“And yet we spend so much time and energy comparing ourselves to others—usually comparing our weaknesses to their strengths. This drives us to create expectations for ourselves that are impossible to meet. As a result, we never celebrate our good efforts because they seem to be less than what someone else does.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
It’s wonderful that you have strengths.
And it is part of your mortal experience that you do have weaknesses.”
(Watch the full video here – then watch it again and again)
The next morning, I continued to think about Madison. I had already found her on Instagram and swallowed the knot in my throat and a few tears of sympathy for her and her family the night before. Looking at her Instagram account, you would never know she was fighting such a painful internal battle behind the scenes. How could someone so beautiful and seemingly perfect herself be so so sad? In my own way, I knew exactly how.
The power of an idea.
An idea had crept into her mind that what she perceived to be real representations of happiness and success of those she watched on Instagram, was in fact real. When it actually wasn’t.
This is why Inception is my favorite movie. “An idea is like a virus; resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”
The thing that makes my heart ache the most for Madison Holleran is that I feel like I’ve shared her idea before. I’ve experienced deep depression and feelings of lack of control over my emotions and my life. Obviously, just because I think I can relate, doesn’t mean I actually can. I really don’t know everything she was going through or what she was feeling. But what I’ve taken away from this, is that I’ve always been able to eventually identify when my ideas are built on false perceptions. And I think Madison had gone too deep to remember what she once knew: that this image of perfection she had created in her mind was not real.
Ever since I read her story, I’ve had a different desire for what I want my life to be about. I want every girl out there who has also experienced the confusing and demanding idea of perfection to know that she’s not alone and that she is strong enough to know the difference between what’s real and what is not real. I want the people I connect with through pictures and social media to know that I am a real girl with some wonderful strengths and lots of weaknesses, and I’m okay with that. But if ever I forget, or if those who are like me also forget, I hope Madison’s story can be a reminder for us that it’s ok to not be perfect. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to show people you’re not ok.
Photo source: Madison Holleran Foundation