One of my favorite longform pieces I’ve ever read is about Madison Holleran, a young woman who died by suicide about halfway through her freshman year of college. It discusses how her Instagram feed served as a façade for her true feelings and experiences, so those who viewed it could see the type of life she wanted them to see. After reading it again more recently in light of the book about her that was recently published by the same author of the article, Kate Fagan, I ventured to her Instagram account. It likely has quite a few more followers than it did before she died: more than 14,000. As a result, many of the likes and comments below each photo are from people who didn’t know Madison, though her story had touched them, like it had for me, to the point that they felt they needed their voices to be heard.
That day, I clicked on one photo, a striking yet heavily-filtered sunset. After the caption, she had posted the hashtags #finals and #someonesaveme. As if on cue, the barrage of over-thinking, over-analyzing, began:
“The hashtags in this picture speak volumes.”
“Like that last hashtag. It wasn’t about finals.”
“God I wish I could’ve saved you and I never even met you.”
“You could have been saved!”
But what are these well-meaning people envisioning exactly? That they would take every (probably) haphazardly-posted hashtag so seriously that they might stage an intervention each time the common and often colloquial “someone save me!” appeared during finals week? That this young woman’s friends weren’t the type of friends she needed to help her fight her mental illness? That if these complete strangers been friends with her, she would still be alive today?
• • •
For me, going to Gonzaga University meant proving to myself that I could thrive not just outside my hometown, but far away from the state in which I’d grown up. Almost by default, all the friends I’d make would probably not be from California, but from states in the Pacific Northwest. And for the first few weeks, that’s how it was: my roommate was from Washington, a few other people I met were from the Seattle area, and even the Californians I came into contact with were either from southern California or way northern California – far enough from my hometown that in almost any other part of the country, they would have been from other states. We friended each other on Facebook, tagged each other in photos, and for a while, the illusion I’d wanted so badly, that I could leave my hometown and thrive, was intact.
When my depression that had been festering in some form since the beginning of high school got a lot worse very quickly, it wasn’t like I could let anyone back home know. Admitting that maybe Gonzaga wasn’t the right fit for me, that the friends I’d made those first few weeks of classes had found new friends, that I was more excited than ever for Thanksgiving break or winter break because those vacations came with a trip home, not only meant to me that I wasn’t happy, but that I might even be homesick. And admitting that I was homesick felt like a betrayal to the person I envisioned myself becoming in college: the person that was sad to leave campus because it meant leaving friends behind, who couldn’t want to get back to see those friends, and so on.
So even though inside I knew that being at Gonzaga meant fueling my depression – which wasn’t necessarily related to being homesick, but just being there – I kept up the charade on social media. I posted Facebook status after Facebook status about how excited I was for the next basketball game, how annoying the snow was, how prestigious the theaters downtown that I performed concerts in were. Every time a friend from home posted about their California college, the comment I posted would involve something about Washington, reminding them that I had left the state for no reason other than to justify my decision, to trick myself into believing I was happy.
Of course, I was drowning. But looking at my social feeds, aside from the occasional ambiguous sad song lyrics, even my closest friends from home (or the few friends at school) wouldn’t have guessed how bad my depression had become.
At the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year, after a lengthy hospital stay a few months before had essentially forced me to open up to people on both sides of my life – home and college – I was the most candid I had ever been online in a Facebook note I wrote titled “Ten Things I Learned in 2009”:
Never go to the emergency room on a Sunday night. Ever. Even if you have to. Wait until Monday morning or call an ambulance instead, so you’ll at least bypass the waiting room.
Reach out to someone who can help, even if it’s your professor. Even if they’re not technically allowed to handle the issue themselves, they’ll do everything they can and make sure that they hand you off to someone with whom you feel equally comfortable. Then after your issue is resolved, you can go back to your professor and become best friends and they will buy you coffee.
But while the hospital stay had taught me a lot about my mental illnesses and how to better address them, I wasn’t cured – and I will never be, as the clinical term for “depression that’s a little better now,” just like for cancer, is “remission” – but I still wanted everyone to think I was. Because even though many people had heard by then that things weren’t going well, all they’d have to do is read these items on this list and be content with the fact that things were, at least, better than they were.
In reality, for every #someonesaveme, there’s an #everythingisgoinggreat, and as much as we truly care about the people in our lives, by design, one of those expressions tends to outweigh the other in life, and one tends to outweigh the other after death.
• • •
It feels like after someone dies by suicide, everyone who knew them – and if their story extends outside of their immediate circles, everyone who wished they knew them – begins philosophizing about what could have been. If their friends had done this differently, then this would have happened instead. If they’d known the person better, had reached out to them at the right time, they might have been able to stop them. Much of this is a natural part of the grieving process and the guilt that comes with it. But for those who simply want to insert themselves into a stranger’s experiences, it can quickly become a circlejerk of living, often able-bodied people proselytizing that they knew what was best for this person they didn’t know. It can quickly turn into a whole new list of grievances for the ones who did know the person, further compounding their guilt: if so many strangers see their dead friend as “saveable” now, how could those close to them not have seen the signs before it was too late?
The further removed you are from a person who’s died by suicide, like the strangers posting comments on Madison’s Instagram, the easier it is to wildly speculate. It is easier to assign meaning to someone’s life, to the hashtags they post with a seemingly benign photo, if the person is no longer here. It’s a morbid game played only by those who see it as such – a true-crime mystery to unravel. It’s House trying to figure out who killed Kutner, when all the signs of a suicide are right there, so simple and therefore so easily ignored.
You can be intimately familiar with the signs of suicide, from personal experience or research or both, and still not foresee this outcome. You can pore through a friend’s social media history, wondering where something shifted, if something shifted, if something could have been done, if there’s something you should have noticed. If there was a singular way to define mental illness, then perhaps fewer people would see suicide as an option, but there isn’t. Because of this, so often in the wake of a death by suicide, there’s only an endless supply of questions left that can never be answered. But equally often, the most authentic realization one can have is when to stop asking these questions and mourn in peace.