Death and the over-achiever

March 13, 2019 § 4 Comments

I read this story a couple of times about Kelly Catlin’s suicide. It was a disturbing story on many levels and one worth thinking about.

Kelly was an over-achiever. She graduated with a degree in math and Chinese, enrolled in Stanford’s graduate school, and won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics … all by the age of 22.

She was a classical violinist, a heavy-metal aficionado, a skilled gamer, and a community volunteer.

At 23 she was also dead.

Poring over the news story for clues, they were all there, in her own words and the words of her family:

Talented at literally everything she did. She just felt like she couldn’t say no to everything that was asked of her …

Disciplined, strong, and endlessly hard working … There wasn’t anything Kelly couldn’t do …

She was strong and cold, austere and terrifying.

Kelly always had a nihilistic and occasionally morbid sense of humor.

It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

Of course Kelly herself had a tall order explaining how one person could do so much and be so superlative at all of it. In a statement that sounds like it was crafted straight out of a PR department, she described her reasons for pursuing such an amazing array of interests at such a high level thus: “Through a synthesis of these interests, I aim for a well-balanced life and the opportunity to touch people’s lives.”

Yet candor about the obvious impossibility of being the best at everything you attempt came out in this VeloNews interview: “But the truth is that most of the time, I don’t make everything work. It’s like juggling with knives, but I really am dropping a lot of them. It’s just that most of them hit the floor and not me.” Most.

In a sentence that looks prophetic, like all post-hoc attempts to piece together self-inflicted death, she adds, “You cannot plan for the unplannable, and — to go back to the juggling analogy — sometimes those knives will hit you.”

A factor in Kelly’s suicide may well have been that in addition to an impossible lifestyle in which everything teetered on a knife’s edge, she suffered a horrific concussion several months before her death. Whether she received psychiatric counseling for its after-effects is unknown, but her family talked about how after the concussion she seemed to be suffering in a variety of ways that affected her mental state.

No one to talk to

What is clear, at least from the news reports, is that Kelly had no one in whom she could confide. The closest she came to talking about the unbearable pressure of her life was in an interview with a stranger in a bike magazine.

It’s easy to chalk up her death to the extraordinary stress of an extraordinary life, but people kill themselves all the time under much less over-achieving conditions than these. What suicide has in common is that the victim feels unable to talk to the people closest to her, a kind of estrangement from intimacy that becomes its own self-perpetuating wall of eternal isolation. Where did that come from?

I think John-Paul Sartre wrote a play about being locked in the cage. No Exit.

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