Life, And Death, Instagram, Unfiltered
May 8, 2015 8:46 AM   Subscribe

On Instagram, Madison Holleran's life looked ideal: Star athlete, bright student, beloved friend. But the photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on. "Maddy, have you found a therapist down there yet?" he asked. "No, but don't worry, Daddy, I'll find one," she told him. But she had no intention of finding one. In fact, she was, at that exact moment, buying the items she would leave for her family.

[O]n the evening of Jan. 17, just after dusk settled on the city, Madison took a running leap off the ninth level of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon (39 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
This piece is yet more evidence that the old chestnut "winners never quit; quitters never win" needs to be dragged out of the house and into the street and shot. So many people are hurt by that toxic little nugget of societal "knowledge".
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:54 AM on May 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


I read this yesterday and it made me impossibly sad, especially for her parents, who knew something was desperately wrong.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:13 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


What a sad story.
posted by GuyZero at 9:20 AM on May 8, 2015


Horribly sad story, indeed. I think the Instagram thing, though, is a bit of a beat-up. That disconnect, or rather, those disconnects: both the "she seemed so happy" and the "she thought everyone else was so happy" seem like the staple of this sort of story down through the ages. It's not some weird new internet-caused phenomenon that someone whose life seems, from the outside, to be a series of triumphs can in fact be thinly papered over suicidal depression, nor is it a weird new internet-caused phenomenon that someone who feels themselves to be foundering looks at all their friends and acquaintances and thinks their lives are seamlessly perfect.
posted by yoink at 9:32 AM on May 8, 2015 [32 favorites]


Except, yoink, there's never been a time where those illusions have been so easily available in such enormous, endless quantity. It's not just their friends. It's thousands of illusions available at once. The effect of such a level of saturation on a struggling psyche can be substantial.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2015 [34 favorites]


The best description of it that I've seen is "comparing your story to someone else's highlight reel". But I think that was just one piece of the puzzle - the push to excel (which was further amplified by societal pressure on women to need to excel in order to compete), our shameful attitude towards mental health in our culture, the conflation of taking other opportunities as being a form of "quitting" (yet another product of our wonderful cultural attitude) - I would bet all those contributed to her feeling like there was no way out.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


When I was out and about the other day I overheard a group of Tweens discussing Instagram and their popularity on there in somewhat strained voices. When I finally got within earshot I heard one of them say, "What's the point of having experiences without an audience there to share them with you?" and I spent the rest of the day dumbstruck by how profound an assessment that was of Instagram and Facebook culture in general. What's a life worth if it isn't being evaluated by others all the time? And then I see stories like this and that question chills me to the bone even more.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:43 AM on May 8, 2015 [84 favorites]


I recently found myself at the stage door for a Broadway actor I idolize, and I had one eye on him and one eye on twitter and thought, "wtf am I doing?" Social media creates this nasty feedback loop that is exactly what Hermione Granger heard: you don't experience something unless you've photographed it or shared it. It's awful.
posted by Mavri at 9:49 AM on May 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


What's a life worth if it isn't being evaluated by others all the time?

I really don't think that's the point being made. I found myself becoming more and more ambivalent about solo travel, even though I got to do all sorts of cool things - because it really felt pointless when it was on my own. On the other hand, the last trip I took was a wonderful experience because it wasn't a solo affair - not only did I have plans to meet up with people at the event I was attending, but I got to go with my girlfriend and share the experience with her.

I do think there is a difference between sharing and assessing, which people may lose sight of in the long run, though.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:51 AM on May 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Except, yoink, there's never been a time where those illusions have been so easily available in such enormous, endless quantity. It's not just their friends. It's thousands of illusions available at once. The effect of such a level of saturation on a struggling psyche can be substantial.

The suicide rate for people aged 15-24 has remained basically flat in the US over the years of the growth of the internet (see here for the data). The case that this "saturation level" of falsely-happy images has a "substantial" effect would seem to me to be highly speculative.
posted by yoink at 9:52 AM on May 8, 2015 [23 favorites]


A surprising number of young people I know (through friends and family) have been going through similar struggles in the last few years, but I don't know if it's different this time, and I'm hesitant to blame Instagram or social media.

My high school had a suicide attempt every year, sometimes successful, not always. One guy bound for Cal Tech was seriously brain-damaged by his attempt. He was found by my brother's best friend. This was back in the 70s.

The son of a good friend of mine has been diagnosed as bipolar and was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. My friend's father killed himself when she was a toddler, so she had always been on high alert for this sort of thing but it still took her by surprise.

It's really always a good time to remember that It's OK to not be OK. It's OK to show people you're not OK.
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:54 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, fwiw, my friend's son is not on facebook or instagram and never has been.
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:57 AM on May 8, 2015


Nox, the assertion being made by the Tweens I overheard was that in having too few followers on Instagram the lives they were documenting didn't mean very much. It's not about who was there in person to experience something, but rather who's there to evaluate the validity of that experience later when photos have been posted and videos have been made to document what happened.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:07 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Okay, now that is depressing. And yet not at all surprising, given celebrity culture here.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:09 AM on May 8, 2015


Actually, scratch that - it's not celebrity culture that's to blame, it's the quantization movement. When you reduce everything to numbers, it destroys meaning.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:11 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others.

I think this is always worth remembering, and I know what it's like to get bogged down into (a much less intense version of) that negative thought spiral of comparing self to others that Madison was stuck in.

I also have an Instagram that shows me doing fun things. I don't think I would post on Instagram about sitting in my house by myself being bored and frustrated. It's not because I'm trying to project a different image of myself from the one that really exists, it's because on a bad day there's nothing to document; there's no news. "Doing nothing"? Wearing pajamas at 2PM selfie"?
posted by capricorn at 10:19 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


you don't experience something unless you've photographed it or shared it. It's awful.

Is it, though? Storytelling is the foundation of human communication. We may have new tools for communicating the elements of these stories but the fundamental process is the same. The stories of our lives end not when we ourselves end, but when we lose the ability to share them with others.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:27 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


But if all you focus on is documenting, not actually living, are you having a genuine, authentic experience or you becoming a spectator to your own life?
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:28 AM on May 8, 2015


I always thought it was the unexamined life that wasn't worth living.
posted by mikurski at 10:35 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


But if all you focus on is documenting, not actually living, are you having a genuine, authentic experience or you becoming a spectator to your own life?

Christ, this tired crap.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:40 AM on May 8, 2015 [21 favorites]


(My comment was mostly sarcastic, in case that wasn't obvious.)
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:04 AM on May 8, 2015


I always thought it was the unexamined life that wasn't worth living.

The line's from Plato's Apology. In context, it means Socrates would literally rather die than end his investigations into the nature of virtue. (And that's exactly what happens.)

I don't think photographing all your meals means you're superficial or inauthentic or whatever. But I would also argue that constant self-representation isn't necessarily the same thing as the deep self-interrogation Socrates was after.
posted by Iridic at 11:05 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Now that I think about this more. I think this young woman's problem wasn't that her experiences were "inauthentic" or whatever. It's more that she was experience anxiety about her life that was all out of line with what it should have been.

For example, I'm terrified of heights. Get me 4 feet up on a step ladder, and my emotional response is similar to if I was 400 feet up. Even as I am consciously aware that I have no reason to be frightened, even as I rationally understand that no real danger exists - I am still terrified, and my experience is that of fear and terror - and questioning why they had to put a stupid lightbulb ten feet in the air. The experience is "authentic" - I am actually feeling it - but it's not... correct, for lack of a better word. It is all out of proportion to the actual reality.

When I was this young woman's age, I was a total screw up. Honestly, the only thing that saved me from suicide is the realization that I have forever and ever to be dead. I've only got a few short years to live - and so I might as well have at it. And in much the same way as my example above, my fears and anxieties at that age were far out of proportion to the reality I was faced with.

I've gotten better at handling the anxieties. But, they still pop up. It's a constant battle to reassess and question my senses - am I responding to an actual cause of fear (400 feet up) or am I trumping up a false fear (4 feet up). I feel like this young lady didn't have a problem with twit-gram-book or whatever. She had a problem squaring what she felt with what she experienced. She's not alone in that, and it's a shame she didn't grab the many ropes that were thrown to her.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:17 AM on May 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


Storytelling is the foundation of human communication. We may have new tools for communicating the elements of these stories but the fundamental process is the same.

I dunno. I feel like it's easier and more convincing to lie and conceal with a camera, which means I doubt the stories being told through photographs more.
posted by Quilford at 11:22 AM on May 8, 2015


This is a sad tragedy. I wish more people would realize they need to teach their kids how to lose and how to quit. Both skills are just as valuable as the abilities to win and persevere, but so much harder to teach. Along with the ability to figure out which the situation calls for and why.

Some days I reflect on my own mental illnesses past and present, and it seems like it might be anxiety more than depression that's the silent killer. I feel for her and feel so bad for her.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 11:34 AM on May 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's OK to show people you're not OK

Yes, as long as you don't take too long to get better. What's too long? Anything before they throw up their hands and walk away is not too long.
posted by tigrrrlily at 11:45 AM on May 8, 2015 [17 favorites]


the assertion being made by the Tweens I overheard was that in having too few followers on Instagram the lives they were documenting didn't mean very much.

If we were really honest with ourselves, this feeling isn't limited to tweens. It's one of the reasons that I keep coming back to Metafilter despite its Metafilterness: I've just never gotten any traction on Twitter or any other asynchronous social media platforms, and if you don't have many followers who want to engage with you, what's the point? It's like being at a crowded party, talking to the microwave.

That doesn't mean, of course, that I think the life I'm pointlessly tweeting about is useless...but I recognize enough of myself in their comments to say that if I were 14 and a big part of my social standing involved Instagram popularity, I would absolutely feel the same way.
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:51 AM on May 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


I feel like it's easier and more convincing to lie and conceal with a camera, which means I doubt the stories being told through photographs more.

Sure, but that's part of the narrative art, too. Telling a story is just as much about defining the story, by choosing what to leave out, as it is about illuminating the story, by choosing what to include. Storytelling with a camera is no different; you choose what to focus on, you choose how to place it in context, and you choose what to omit. If it is easier to lie and conceal, it is also easier to highlight and evoke, because these things are duals of each other.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:05 PM on May 8, 2015




If it is easier to lie and conceal, it is also easier to highlight and evoke, because these things are duals of each other.

But this means that when we want to lie and conceal, our lies and concealments become glossier and more convincing. Suddenly they have high production values. We're using expensive DSLRs and Photoshop and spending money on costuming and the mise-en-scene.
posted by Quilford at 12:18 PM on May 8, 2015


That disconnect, or rather, those disconnects: both the "she seemed so happy" and the "she thought everyone else was so happy" seem like the staple of this sort of story down through the ages.

Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina spring to mind.

From the article: "They had all shared some form of their struggles with Madison, yet in her mind, the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing."

This article seems to be suggesting that her life not living up to Instagram was the basis of her suicide, but that seems to diminish the true effects of depression while amplifying the power of Instagram.

I'm also a little uncomfortable with the way the narration speaks on her behalf, like here:

"Madison was unable to identify exactly what had cast her adrift. Was it the disappointment with Penn, once her dream school? Was she homesick? Was track overwhelming her?

And the most pressing thought of all: If she quit, wasn't she just a failure? Wouldn't that be the first in what would become a lifetime of letdowns?"

Her friends and family say they couldn't figure out what she was thinking, so why does ESPN assume the authority to write her pre-suicide inner monologue? I find that really troubling, actually.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:04 PM on May 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


I agree completely with a fiendish thingy. The author of the article states repeatedly that Holleran's family's mission now is to spread awareness about mental illness, yet the article repeatedly posits a cause for her suicide that dismisses out of hand depression as a mental illness. Which one is it? Do we respect the family's wishes (and, IMO, medical science) or assert for the nth time a tired social commentary?
posted by telegraph at 1:09 PM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others.

That wasn't about fucking Instagram, it was about her having a mental illness.

This is what depression really looks like.

That is a great link, fffm.
posted by jeather at 1:45 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't even think it's about being judged by your Instagram presence, but rather, the fact that everybody puts their best foot forward on Instagram.

Being depressed, and feeling like you're the only one who feels this way must be devastating.

I've never formally acknowledged it, but the fact that my high-school LiveJournal friends were angsty as fuck was an enormous blessing in hindsight. If I only had access to the "Shiny Happy People" social network, there's no way that I'd have been able to work through my issues.
posted by schmod at 2:24 PM on May 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


Very sad story. But I thought the article was a little gross. Save that "Maybe she could only imagine the freedom of flying" stuff for your short fiction workshop, not for your piece on a person who died 16 months ago.
posted by threeants at 6:55 PM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I lived in Philadelphia for a year and during the entire time I was dealing with some health issues on top of a very, very rough period of depression. This happened a few blocks away from my apartment. I remember when it happened very vividly - This particular incident really bothered me I thought about the girl often wondering what she was going through to do this.

The article is extremely sad, and the story is very sad. Depression is such a horrible thing and so complex to deal with. I hope more people read this and gain an understanding of what people go through.
posted by punkrockrat at 8:30 PM on May 8, 2015


Something I've never understood was how does knowing someone else feels the same way you, how is that supposed to make me feel better? I won't be less depressed if I know you're depressed. I need the lie that some people are okay to make getting better, or trying to, feel possible.

Although, at the same time, that's just the power of depression. You feel terrible if you're alone, you feel terrible if everyone around is the same. It's not logical, this isn't getting comfort from the fact that both you and your friend have blisters or something. It's an illness.
posted by Braeburn at 6:35 AM on May 9, 2015


Something I've never understood was how does knowing someone else feels the same way you, how is that supposed to make me feel better?

It's more of an "I'm not alone" thing. For some people, knowing there are others who feel the same as you, helps. For some, it doesn't. We're dealing with mental health and depression, which is about as individualized a malady as you can possibly get.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:44 AM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


"We were both so fearful of what was to come," Emma says. "The way her mind worked, it threw her off when she didn't know what the next step was, or what the future would hold. Knowing the end result was something she always wanted."
As someone in this space right now, it's damning just how much this feeling of ambiguity can fuck with your psyche.
posted by divabat at 10:21 PM on May 9, 2015


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