For Kelly Catlin

For Kelly Catlin

There’s no way to make sense of the death of Kelly Catlin. There’s no way to use a rational process to evaluate the suicide of a 23-year-old Olympic medalist and graduate student studying at Stanford University. That’s not a thing.

Knowing more detail, the exact how of her death, the method, the time, the anything, will not tell you anything that will allow you to let go of it like the news that Flint, Michigan, has an all-new water system. With such news one can say, “Okay, glad that’s resolved.” But Flint doesn’t have a new water system and not a single detail about Catlin’s death will help us find acceptance.

Cyclists all over the world are telling themselves, “But she had so much to live for?!”

Really? Says who? I don’t meant to argue or to say that there was anything wrong with her life. I meant to point out that where depression is concerned, the chair in which you sit can determine much. View is everything. The entire world can adore you—think Robin Williams—but if you look out at the world and you don’t see friends, if you don’t feel the warmth of their regard for you, then it is not there. We think she had it all. We think she had so much to live for. We think her future was bright. She couldn’t see her life the way we did.

Depression is an existential threat in a way few other things are. Depression can kill you long before your heart stops beating. You shrink from the world because it doesn’t feed you. You begin to see yourself as a burden, a blight on the world itself.

That Catlin was an Olympic medalist makes her death all the more stupefying to many. She’d achieved so much, people will think. She’d done something rare, something special, the sort of thing that is supposed to accelerate a career, mark you for future success. And the reasons why this didn’t immunize her from depression are diverse. If you’ve been trained to believe you’re a champion, that nothing short of winning matters, a silver medal isn’t an achievement, it’s a loss. If you think that you can’t possibly live up to that moment again, it’s easy to look upon your future and see 60 anticlimactic years ahead. If you look upon an achievement and think you didn’t fully deserve it, that you didn’t pull your weight or that there was something accidental, or ingenuine in your effort, that medal might not feel like it’s yours.

And that’s just one tiny facet of her life. A life is built, or torn down, on so much more than one public moment.

If nothing else, this is all the proof we need to appreciate that one cannot resolve depression from the outside. No award, no income, no significant other, no palace can fix that kind of depression.

I feel for her family and the devastation this leaves in the wake of her death. Suicide tears at the fabric of communities. Suicides rise within communities once one person chooses to leave by their own hand. It’s a chilling detail and one well-documented. I don’t know what her parents do to heal from this; I have no words to comfort anyone who loved her.

I feel even more for her. I feel for her, for the pain she felt, for the view she had of the world and how she concluded that the world would be, without her, a better place. I can report that nothing in this life feels worse than believing you are a source of pain to others. And when I think about pain, I return to the pain those who loved her are feeling. There’s an incredulity to the disconnect between how they felt about her and she felt about herself. And there’s an anger at that disconnect. Why didn’t she feel their love? It’s not a matter of anyone doing anything wrong.

It’s not enough to tell someone you love them. I don’t know why, but for those fighting for survival or departure, we don’t hear the message the way it’s meant to be heard. But don’t be dissuaded. Hug your loved ones close. And tell them. Tell them you love them at every opportunity. It’s as much for you as it is for them. As long as you love, you’re riding with the wind at your back.

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35 comments

  1. Tominalbany

    “As long as you love, you’re riding with the wind at your back.”

    I’m writing this one down.

    Thanks, Patrick. Keep writing, please.

  2. Mike Terrell

    I regularly work with people who are depressed (physical therapist who works with people with chronic pain). As I’m speaking with them, even about mundane, everyday things, I often wonder if I’m saying the “right” thing. What if chatting about my kids leads them deeper into depression? What if chatting about my kids helps lead them out of their depression? It is nearly impossible to know which way you are influencing them or if you are influencing them at all. Padraig is dead on – what you or I think is irrelevant. It is the inner monologue of the individual that matters.

    1. Robin

      A tangent, but hopefully a helpful one: I’m a person with chronic pain who has regularly seen physical therapists. I have also experienced life-threatening depression as a result of chronic pain and, I’m afraid, unskillful behavior by medical providers. I think your small talk is unlikely to lead someone deeper into depression. Much more impactful, at least in my case, was the person’s presence with me. (Did they seem happy to be there? Distracted? Interested? Bored? Annoyed?) Eye contact, a calm energy, validating language (believe the description of pain, don’t personalize lack of progress, etc.) were what made the difference for me. Others’ experience may differ, but after more than a decade, I cannot always remember each provider’s name. But I can always remember how it felt to be in their care.

      Thank you for your post, for your consideration and for your use of person-first language. Your clients are lucky to have you.

  3. Thomas W. Blair

    Profoundly helpful, and timely. During Lent, the practice of self-examination can get to be too much.
    This helps, especially the I’m not on the bike!

  4. Scott

    She made a choice. It’s a choice we don’t like or understand because it scares us. It was her choice though and I respect it. My nephew took his life at 22. I wish I could known it was that rough for him and talked about it with him. We all die someday.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Suicide isn’t a choice we can or should respect. Because of the way it damages the immediate community around the person who took their life, it injects a kind of cancer that will inevitably grow. Everyone has a role to play in fighting against it.

    2. Brigitte

      No! No one want’s to die, even people in a major depression would love to live on – but they can’t!! They need help but most of them don’t receive it in time and enough of it. Every bright mind like Kelly that we loose because we aren’t aware of signs for a possible depression is a total loss on mankind.

    3. Chris

      I don’t respect it. I feel compassion and empathy for Kelly. But I don’t “respect” her choice.

      The choice was made in the depths of sorrow, helplessness and isolation. It’s utterly heartbreaking.

      I say that as someone who has experienced the depths and desperation of depression. And as someone who has spent a lot of time talking with a friend and the widow of a musician/songwriter I’ve long admired, who took his own life a few years back.

      The wake of suicide leaves and unresolved wreckage and it is one that spread far and wide.

    4. DT

      Choice. I definitely acknowledge that people’s choices should be respected. But, also important to understand: a- what are they seeing/not seeing when they are choosing; b- is their brain working well when they are choosing. I point this out because, in this time of our grief, I feel we humans still are faced only with living forward. So, how will we live forward? In this time, while we can’t reverse what we’re grieving about re Kelly, I hope that, going forward, we can notice how to helpfully engage ourselves in the world in ways that help all who we can to see/feel best of what’s around them and help all who we can to be in best mind condition when they are making choices. Just how we do this, I dont entirely know. ..but partly, I think, we will accomplish it more by knowing that it matters. So, I guess I’ll proceed, knowing that: Always helping people see/feel good stuff around them ..matters; Always helping people be in their best mind ..matters, and; it matters that I notice how to be onboard with folks when their perception or mind are hampered.

  5. Steve

    Living with someone for over 27 years who battles chronic depression, you are spot on. It’s nothing they can control and sure as hell nothing we can control. It’s hard for us to understand, but nothing compared to their internal struggle. Suicide should never be taken as acceptable, or a choice. It’s a hard lesson that lets us know we are not in control of much if anything really. Be there, talk, listen more, support, hug and love.

  6. Bill Webster

    Padraig, Given what you’ve courageously shared with us about your experiences with depression, I was hoping you’d write about this tragedy after reading about Kelly Catlin’s Death yesterday.

    Thanks for this – its articles like this that make me an avid RKP reader and supporter.

  7. James J McKenzie

    Thank you for these thoughful.words. those who live with depression are also very afraid to ask for help. Reach out to your friends. Hug them. Let them know you are there for them. If you cannot help, guide them to.someone who can. Do whatever you can to help.

  8. Kathy

    Patrick, your ability to put objective perspective from many views regarding this topic is in itself an Amazing Accomplishment. I admire your wisdom, courage and nonjudgmental approach most admirable. This is an extremely difficult topic involving many facets. I myself having worked in The Mental Health Profession Over 20+ years have been exposed to this ongoing topic. Gratitude for You Always. 😌

  9. John Botstelmann

    Such a tragedy! A wonderful, talented young woman clearly loved by her family and friends. The concussion and broken arm definitely affected her thinking. Too many demands and burdens, as she herself admitted, trying to be a world class track and road cyclist while pursung a hard masters degree at Stanford. Medals are trivial in that context. She was hurt and lonely and overburdened…I was shocked and befuddled by the talented toung climber Hayden Kennedy’s suicide a little more than a year ago, soon after he lost his girlfriend in an early season avalanche in the Montana mountains. People can do unfortunate, extreme things impulsively when stressed, hurt, lonely. And sadly our society has become more isolated in modern times…

  10. amanda

    it is never wrong to end one’s life if one is suffering. it is always wrong to demand that one who is suffering continue to do so. there is no afterlife so in ceasing to exist she is free from unhappiness. this is good.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I don’t want to start a debate on the merits of suicide; I need to push back against the idea that it is okay. Kelly’s immediate circle of friends and family all now face a 65 percent increased risk of suicide. Statistically, one in 10 people in a person’s immediate community will take their life. And just so there is no confusion, suicide is not the same thing as euthanasia. When someone wants to depart before a terminal illness has run its course it has a very different effect on the community. People react very differently. They grieve, but they have answers. Suicide does too much damage to those around us for us to normalize it.

  11. Mita Vogel

    I think this is a quite misleading- From all accounts I have read, Ms. Catlin was dealing with post concussion related symptoms- She had sustained a serious concussion after a crash on the bike and had a myriad of symptoms related to her concussion. Her family has said as much, and have actually donated her brain for study at a CTE research center. This is important and should be discussed and labeling this as “just depression” is really a misnomer, and misdirects discussion that needs to be had around riding/racing and concussions that are quite common for folks that ride/race bikes. From what is being said, she was dealing with a traumatic brain injury and all that may come with that- that is different that normal depression and needs to be treated as such.

    Instead of asking questions like “Why didn’t she feel their love?” (which honestly, is just an odd question- in the depths of depression, and TBI, complex emotions like love are often times muted by pain and confusion) we should be asking what better brain injury recovery therapies should we be making sure our cyclists get? How are we as a community handling brain injuries? L


    1. Author
      Padraig

      To call what she was suffering “just depression” is to minimize the way that TBIs can manifest. As someone who has suffered both, I can’t separate one from the other, and other people I know who have suffered TBIs have been similarly unable to separate the effects of the two. The VeloNews piece concerning her final months are chilling and the descriptions of her behavior read like classic depression. I respect that you believe that asking a question like “Why didn’t she feel their love?” is irrelevant to her experience—fair enough; I shared that because it is a classic survivor’s question. It is the question family members invariably ask.

      The more I read about how Rally allowed her to ride following her fall, how USA Cycling allowed her to leave a training camp while clearly showing symptoms of a TBI and how Stanford refused her individual counseling and only permitted her group sessions—which I can confirm are a waste of time, just as she said—the more outraged I become. It’s impossible to say her death was preventable, but not enough was done to try to prevent it. I do not fault her family. I do fault Rally Cycling Team, USA Cycling and Stanford University.

    2. Seth Smith

      Concussions exacerbate depression and vice-versa. It is a toxic soup that can take quite a bit of therapy (and rest) to overcome. Been on both ends and my heart just goes out to the Catlin family.

      This is a great piece.

  12. Dizzy

    Not to enter the debate over depression vs concussion but to respond to Selene’s comment “Take concussions very, very seriously” I mention two quick anecdotes:
    A brother-in-law suffered a concussion via a motorcycle spill. Six months later, in a total personality change, he walked out on his wife and two kids, moved across the country and never looked back.
    In 2010, I did a header over the bicycle bars. Immediately, I was socially mean; beyond rude. My wife prayed it wouldn’t last and thank God, my personality returned to baseline.
    Great advise Selene, take concussions very, very seriously.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m so sorry for what you, your brother and your families suffered. Thanks for sharing your experience; I hope it will help illustrate just how difficult head injuries are to understand.

  13. MNMc

    First of all, thank you for writing this. I met Kelly and her family through the high school cycling league and the Minnesota cycling community. This has been devastating news for so many of us in a tight group. It’s been overwhelming at times to see the constant coverage and tributes, realizing how many lives Kelly never knew she had touched in her short life. And someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I applaud her family for being so open in what is an unfathomable time of grief.

    Remember, you seldom know what others are going through. Check in on your friends and family, say hello ask them how they’re doing. Let them know you care, unconditionally.

  14. Simon

    Those who have followed the life of Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree – world pursuit champion, Hour record holder and described as a maverick genius who changed our sport – will know a little about the immense difficulty those who suffer with depression have with day-to-day tasks. Graeme attempted suicide but thankfully is still with us, and inspiring us, today.

    It is terribly sad that young people feel these terrible pressures and, in the case of so many athletes, never enjoy the success (as seen with our eyes) that they have achieved. It will take more than a hug and “how are you?” to really help them even contemplate the idea of climbing out of the very deep hole they’ve found themselves in. Recognising the signs and getting expert help is most vital thing each of us can do for anyone we know.

  15. Eddie Whittemore

    Patrick, thanks for your thoughts and work on this. Like you, I have experienced TBIs, several in fact and subsequent depression. It’s horrendous. Reading your writing, Kelly’s fathers summary and a host of other pieces about her suicide are at best, very humbling. At worst, a glimpse into the cogs and workings of a brain that’s kinda gone into short circuit mode and is not functioning effectively and safely.
    Thanks again for your work and the awareness it creates.
    The “….wind at your back” quote is a gem. Thanks for that too. It serves as a subtle, maybe not so subtle reminder of life’s merits and joys.

  16. David Arnold

    A perfect storm that left family and friends devastated…broken and gutted. Like the Hemingway quote, “Life breaks you, and afterwards many are strong in the broken places”. I hope this can be true for the Catlin family.

  17. Daniel

    Thanks for this, Patrick. Your words on perspective are especially poignant. Along these lines, I would just add that beyond the external pressures and negative relationships that contribute to the decision to end one’s life, often it is simply an overwhelming feeling of inexplicable internal misery and the need to end that misery that drives these types of actions. This is the mental illness aspect of depression that is typically misunderstood by people who do not suffer from depression.

    In my experience, if you have a loved one that suffers from depression, the best thing you can do is offer them unconditional love. The expression of that love can take many forms and everyone suffering from depression has different preferences for how to receive this love. Thankfully, because no one who is depressed actually wants to be depressed, usually asking directly how you can help your loved one is generally well received and they will likely tell you what they need to help them feel better. Just know that these efforts can only mitigate depression, as it is a mental illness, so don’t be discouraged when you aren’t able to restore your loved one to happiness.

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