Yesterday, two young women in their twenties captured the attention of Newfoundlanders. 23-year-old swimmer Katarina Roxon returned home from the Rio Paralympics with a gold medal to a hero’s welcome and a highway named in her honour. And 20-year-old Hailey Baker took her own life several months after a highly-publicized car accident that was clearly no accident but a cry for help.
I’m not sure why these two young women’s faces are juxtaposed so strongly in my mind, except that their names frequently turned up within a few minutes of each other in yesterday’s news. And maybe because I teach young adults and I’m the parent of two young adults, I never stop thinking about both best-case and worst-case scenarios.
Best case: your child, born with a physical disability as well as a stunning natural athletic talent, overcomes all hardships, perseveres through difficulties, and brings honour to her country while achieving personal success.
Worst case: your child, struggling with mental illness, spends years seeking help and support through the health care system, and finally dies by her own hand, one more victim of mental illness.
Two young lives: both beautiful, valuable, full of potential. Like so many others. One an inspiration, the other a tragedy.
What’s the takeaway here? Why does the image of those two faces side-by-side haunt me so much? Is the lesson that maybe it’s easier, maybe society offers more support, if you’re born with part of an arm missing than if you have borderline personality disorder? Maybe. Some people have both physical disabilities AND mental illness. Some have neither, and still struggle.
I also know you can’t simplify people into representatives of groups. Not every physically disabled person is going to win a Paralympic gold medal, and why should they? Katarina Roxon is an athlete and presumably would have been a great swimmer with or without a left arm. As a disabled person, her job on earth is not to be an inspiration for the rest of us. She’s living her life: it just happens to be one that involves having a gold medal around her neck.
Not every person with mental illness dies by suicide (thank God). But too many do. And too many of those, like Hailey Baker, feel (and their families and friends feel) that they’re not getting the help and support they need when they go looking for it in our health care system. There’s a message for the rest of us there, for sure, and it seems that Hailey Baker, after media attention focused on the story of her car accident, wanted to share that message the world. But again, Hailey didn’t live her life intending for its end to be a lesson to the rest of us. I’m sure that’s not what those who loved her wanted for her.
Young lives lost too soon break my heart. Young people accomplishing great things inspire me. But everyone lives out their own story, and almost everyone has a team of family, friends, teachers and others supporting and cheering for them. Some stories feature mountaintop moments like Olympic medals — most don’t. Some stories end tragically and too soon — most don’t (again, thankfully).
I guess my only lesson here is: cherish the young people you love, whether they’re your kids, grandkids, students, neighbours, whatever. Help and support them when they need it. Cheer for their successes and share their struggles, if they’ll let you. We can’t always know why one person’s story is an inspiration and another’s is a tragedy. Maybe most of us, at any moment, have the potential to be either, especially those who are still young with so much of the tale still unwritten.
This week we celebrate Katarina, and we mourn Hailey. And we celebrate and mourn the young people we love. We hope for the best; we fear the worst. We don’t stop loving and cheering and crying.