Truth Talks: Carli
older sister to Madison, and the Director of Communications for the Madison Holleran Foundation.
i first came across Madison’s story years ago, and can’t quite put into words how i felt when i realized how much in common we had as well as how much urgently needed to be done to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.
suicide prevention has been a cause that i hold close to my heart ever since, and i have so much respect for what Carli and the Foundation are doing in order to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and help prevent suicide.
world suicide awareness day may fall on september 10th, but the reality is this: suicide is 100% preventable. every day we should be taking steps towards helping to prevent suicide.
i am so grateful to Carli for taking the time to talk to me, and i hope that this interview makes a difference to you and inspires you to do your part in suicide prevention like it has for me. 💛
Tell me a little bit about Madison. I want to share who she was as a person, not just in the context of her story - without trying to take away from the significance of her story, but she was so much more than just her story.
It’s funny because whenever someone asks me this question, I feel like I need to share who Madison was as a little girl as well as who Madison was as a young adult because they are so different. Madison is the middle child in our family - #3 out of 5. She was so quiet, shy and reserved as a kid. She never had tantrums or threw fits, was never loud or attention-seeking. She was a tomboy and loved to play outside. She enjoyed riding bikes, playing soccer, being with her family. I think playing sports, especially soccer, really broke her out of her shell. By the time she was in high school she was outgoing, funny, popular, and silly. She seemed to never take life too seriously and you knew you could always count on her to make you laugh and have a good time. For as determined and driven as Madison was, she was also messy. It was almost like all her effort and energy went into sports and academics so there wasn’t any time left over for organization. Her room was always the messiest in the house; the floor could barely be seen with the amount of clothes that were all strewn about.
One of my favorite memories with her was when we were at my grandparent’s lake house in Vermont and my husband challenged her to a race. It was probably 2011, so she was still in high school. However, the race had its challenges - it was on the floor, while laying on their stomachs and they could only use their arms to drag them across the floor as fast as they could. Madison hopped right up and met the challenge, without any question, excited to take him on (and obviously win.) The race lasted all of about 20 seconds. My husband was determined to beat Madison. I think she ended up losing from laughing too hard. We all were. It just showed while she was always determined and competitive, she was also silly and loved making others laugh, as well as herself.
I think when something devastating happens, people want to retreat, or internalize it. I know I do. How did you decide to share Madison’s story with the public, and to be so transparent as well? Where do you find the strength to be so open with people?
I wasn’t always this willing to talk about it and share. I took a good 4 to 4.5 years to grieve, talk to others, read self-help books, all the things you can think of, before I really immersed myself in the foundation and sharing Madison’s story with others.
Helping other people, helps my grief process. I feel like it gives Madison’s life a whole new meaning.
Don’t get me wrong, there are moments that still get tough. They usually come out of nowhere. I will be fine and then I’ll find out Madison got honored in some way or won an award posthumously, and I’ll breakdown. And you know what? That’s OK! It’s all part of the grieving process.
Some days are great, some are just ok and some suck. But I have come to realize that even the bad days end and I am able to wake up the next morning with a new mindset and start all over.
Educating others and being able to hear how Madison’s story helped them to realize they were suffering too or expedited the process of seeking treatment, that makes it all worth it.
Tell me a little bit about you, the Madison Holleran Foundation, and what you do as the Director of Communications.
I started my role in the foundation about a year ago now. It is some of the greatest, most fulfilling work I do, however it is also the hardest. I am also a mom to two little boys and sometimes it reminds me of that, so fulfilling but so demanding, too. I take my work with the foundation seriously. I feel the need to not only share Madison’s story and give her a legacy but also help others see their value. For the foundation, I answer all emails that come in on a daily basis, respond to interview requests, plan, arrange and facilitate speaking engagements. I also attend our regular board meetings where we go over upcoming events, vote on current options and go over what all needs to be done before our next meeting. I like to think of our foundation as “small but mighty.” We have only been around for a few years but I feel like the work we are doing really is making a difference. Maybe it’s just nativity, but we hear from people all over the world on how Madison has changed their life and how our foundation has helped them realize they need to seek help. That makes it all worth it.
How do you balance your advocacy work? Do you find that it ever becomes “too much” or hits too close to home?
I’ve become better at separating my work and my home life. I also have learned not to do any work at least an hour before bed. I need that time to decompress, take a break from it all and just appreciate the life around me. It can be an overwhelming job to work daily with people who are survivors of suicide, who are grieving a suicide or who are mentally ill and are recognizing that they need help. Like I said before, it is so fulfilling but can also be emotionally draining. Giving myself the time to sit back, unwind and appreciate everything and everyone around me.
What’s next for the Foundation?
We are working on some upcoming fundraising events, planning more speaking engagements for the new year, starting a grief counseling group and so much more. I think 2020 will be our best year yet and I can’t wait to see all the great work we can get done.
How can people get involved?
With suicide, you can be your own worst enemy, but the AFSP is doing great things and showing people that suicide is never the answer.
They currently have a goal to reduce the suicide rate by 20% by 2025. This would save 20,000 lives over a 10-year period. We support them in every effort and hope and pray they can achieve this goal. Also, follow The Madison Holleran Foundation on Facebook and check out our website: www.madisonholleranfoundation.org. We are posting updates, news and events on there and it’s the best way to stay up to date with everything we have going on. If there is ever a need at a college, corporate event or community event to share Madison’s story, we love doing so. Just reach out and we can start planning.
Reducing the stigma is the first step in suicide prevention and letting people know that its ok to not be ok and helping them feel comfortable talking about their mental health openly is extremely important.
Reading Kate Fagan’s book about Madison, I found myself identifying with Madison a lot, and what struck me the most was the fact that I didn’t really talk to anyone about what I was going through at times, either. And I don’t know exactly why I didn’t, but I do think the visibility and overall social acceptance of mental health has increased a lot over the years, making it a bit easier to start the conversation with someone else. But there’s still a long way to go. On a larger scale, the “Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act” was passed in New Jersey in 2016, which requires institutions of higher education to have individuals who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available 24 hours a day. What was the legislative process like?
We actually have to thank our friends and family for this one. Madison’s old 5th grade teacher, Ed Modica, started the crusade to make and establish the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act. At a time when all our family could do was grieve, he focused on action and change. He worked hard to write the two proposals, rallied for signatures, met and discussed the act endlessly with state legislators and finally made the passion project become a reality. We are so grateful for him and all the work he did to get the law passed. He passed away unfortunately in 2017 but I am so grateful he got to see all his hard work pay off in such a big way.
On a larger scale, what else needs to be done?
Because we’re talking about something that is truly preventable - we can and we must work harder to prevent suicide. We need to get into the schools; middle school, high school, and teach these kids about mental health. They go to health class and learn about their bodies and what is happening to them physically. They are taught about drug prevention. But what about suicide prevention?
My son just started kindergarten. By the time he gets to middle school, I would love to see mental health and wellness being taught as part of the curriculum. Change doesn’t happen overnight but if enough parents are making a call for action, it will happen. Madison never learned about mental illness, anxiety, suicidal ideation in school. If I had to guess, she probably felt alone and ashamed when it actually happened to her and there weren’t many people or resources to turn to. I want better for my kids and I’m sure others do too.
What about on a smaller scale, like in regards to more interpersonal relationships? Something that really struck me with Madison’s story was when one of her college friends said there wasn’t a “before” to really compare things to. Do we need to establish education in schools, or is this something that should be taught elsewhere? It almost feels like intuitively, we just need to reach out to other people and be there for them, but it’s such a delicate subject at the same time. And sometimes we don’t say anything because we don’t know how to start the conversation.
Have the difficult conversation with your loved ones. Let them know how you are feeling with regards to your mental health. You don’t have to name it — many don’t know what might be wrong until they are diagnosed. However, opening up and letting someone know that you don’t feel right or you need to talk or that you are even having suicidal thoughts—its important and you should feel comfortable enough talking about it with someone in your life. Ask your family, friends, classmates, teammates, etc. how are they? Let them know you’re there for them if they ever want to talk or if they just need someone to listen. I think people would be surprised at how many others feel the same way they do. Knowing you’re not alone is an extremely comforting feeling.
And also thinking of it from the perspective of navigating through and around the standards society sets… how we have somehow built up an idealized, “one path” towards future with a predetermined picture of “success,” even though everyone is different. How do we change the stigma of mental health and de-stigmatize the fact that not everyone transitions through life changes the same way, or that we all aren’t meant to walk the same path in life?
I think we have already come a long way with this. Young adults are taking a break between high school and college. They’re relying more on real-life experiences instead of standardized tests and grade point averages. Overachievers, just like Madison, have the hardest time though. My parents never pushed Madison really, she was her own worst critic.
People today need to realize that perfectionism isn’t worth happiness. If the goal you are pursuing isn’t making you happy and is detrimental to your mental well-being, it isn’t worth it and it’s time to find a new passion. It is OK to fail!! Failure is what can make you stronger, more understanding, more compassionate and lead you to one of your future greatest accomplishments. Meet failure with optimism instead of defeat.
If everyone who reads this interview does one thing, or takes one thing away from this interview, what should it be?
Depression, anxiety, mental illness… it can happen to ANYONE. Since starting my role in the foundation, I have met a countless number of people who say the same thing to me: “Madison’s story is so similar to mine.” Or, “She reminded me so much of myself.”
For some people, I think they assume kids or young adults who are clinically depressed are bullied or minorities or introverted or struggling with addiction. But Madison was none of those things. She was smart, outgoing, kind, popular, beautiful and talented. And depression still took her away from us. I don’t say this to scare people, but rather be aware and be cautious. Just know that it can happen to anyone. So it’s better to educate yourself and know what resources you can use if you or someone you know becomes depressed or starts having suicidal thoughts.
What is one thing everyone should know how to do?
Ask for help.
It seems so simple but you would be surprised how many people feel shame or fear in seeking help. Whether it’s the mundane, day to day stuff or if you are feeling overwhelmed and anxious. It speaks great volumes of your character and shows real courage to ask for help, seek help and acknowledge that you may need help.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no typical day for me! If it’s a mom day, I am carting my kids to school, activities, making lunches, etc. If I am traveling for a speaking engagement for the foundation, I could be anywhere—a college, a community event, video conferencing for a foundation meeting, managing social media and more. And then there are some days I am just in the office. I enjoy the variety I have on a day to day basis.
the quick fix:
I can’t go a day without… talking to my mom. I always heard people say you won’t really appreciate your mom until you have kids of your own and I think it’s so true. After becoming a mom myself I realized how much my mom sacrificed for me and my siblings. I can’t thank her enough for all she has done for me. Now that I’m older (and wiser) I try not to take her for granted. She is my best friend and I’m so grateful to have her in my life and my kids’ lives.
Everyone should listen to… the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking with Nora McInerny. Her husband died of brain cancer and she has since started the podcast that answers the question “how are you?” It’s real, raw, honest and Nora has an amazing way of pulling you into each story. It’s for people who are grieving but it’s also for anyone who wants to hear real-life stories of people on their worst days. I recommend it to everyone.
Life is better with a little… coffee! I can’t go a day without it.
Everyone in their 20s should… travel! You will never get the opportunity to explore the world like you can now. Or even just the US. You don’t have to travel far to experience new places and societies. There are so many cities I want to visit right here in the US that I have never been before. Take the time to visit other cultures, learn from them, take them in. Any time you get an invitation to visit a new city, country, etc. take it! No one has ever regretted traveling and experiencing something new.
One insider thing to do in New York… go to the Farmacy Soda Fountain in Brooklyn. Great atmosphere, feels like you stepped into a 50’s diner. Amazing milkshakes but if you’re feeling nostalgic, try the egg cream.
What the world needs right now is… to take a break. Get off social media, get off the internet, take a break from work. I love how so many people today are so driven and motivated but sometimes we just need to go outside, get some fresh air and RELAX. You would be surprised what it can do for your mood.
One way to spread love is… say THANK YOU!! No one says thank you anymore and I think it means so much to people. It is so simple but so appreciated and I think it makes people understand they are valued.
Thank you so much to Carli for doing this interview with me.
Click here to check out the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).