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Story on ex-cross country star who killed herself

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Mystery_Meat, Nov 13, 2006.

  1. Mystery_Meat

    Mystery_Meat Guest

    Partial outing alert: I covered a couple of meets she ran in, and reading the story, for as shocking as it is, it's not in the least bit surprising. Anyway, here's the story:

    Track star was driven to perfection - and to suicide

    By VICKI L. FRIEDMAN, The Virginian-Pilot
    © November 13, 2006

    VIRGINIA BEACH - "Perfectionism is a disease."

    Startling words, given they are spoken by a father to a room full of parents who likely urge their children to reach for the stars.

    Last fall, Dan Edwards spoke those words inside a packed Community United Methodist Church in Kempsville. The Virginia Beach School Board chairman was delivering his daughter's eulogy.

    "Trying to be perfect rendered her unable to enjoy many of the simple things in life," he said. "We did not recognize this at first, but when we did, no amount of coaxing, playing or praying could relax her mental focus."

    Pamela Sue Edwards was an accomplished cellist and distance runner at Tallwood High School, where she won two state track championships and three Eastern Region cross country titles. She was co-valedictorian of her class, got an athletic scholarship to Wake Forest and entered college as a sophomore because she had taken seven Advanced Placement classes at Tallwood.

    She went on to study for her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. It was in Philadelphia that Pam took her own life.

    She was 24.

    Pam resisted fanfare throughout her stellar athletic career. She wouldn't have liked all this talk about her life - and death. The Edwardses know that, yet they hope their words will help another family.

    They hope others will see what they didn't. Pam's perfectionism, they came to realize, hid a more desperate problem: a deep depression that haunted her for most of her life.

    Dan Edwards apologized for Cocoa, the friendly schnauzer pup that isn't shy about hopping on the sofa. Cocoa headed in the direction of Billy Edwards, 28, who was happy to welcome her onto his lap.

    The Naval Academy graduate and former Marine is a runner, too. Like his sister, Billy is highly motivated, but unlike Pam, Billy is outgoing and gregarious. He found ways to manage his goals while seeking outlets for the stress along the way.

    "Pam," he lamented, "was never able to do that."

    Their senior pictures sit side by side in the family's Lake Christopher living room. Billy, grinning, hair nearly touching his shirt collar, looks carefree. Pam wears a thoughtful expression. Her brown hair with blond streaks hangs neatly past her shoulders, serious brown eyes gazing forward. Around her neck hangs a running charm.

    "That's Pam," her dad said with a nod.

    Dan had just spoken with his daughter on a Sunday.

    He was relaying details of Billy's performance in the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon earlier that morning. Pam's mother, Sue, talked again with her that evening.

    "Do you want to talk to Pam again?" she asked Dan.

    "Ah, no, I'll call her tomorrow," he responded with a shrug.

    Choking back his tears now, Dan removes his spectacles and stammers, "I never called her."

    He tried. First on Tuesday. Then Wednesday. Finally early Thursday, Dan checked with the front desk in Pam's Philadelphia apartment building. No answer at her door, he was told.

    "I know that," Dan said, and he urged the attendant to go inside. "She might have tried to hurt herself."

    The attendant said Pam was probably in the group of students that had just left for classes. Please go in, Dan insisted.

    Dan and Sue waited by the phone. Within an hour, the call came. It was the coroner.
  2. Mystery_Meat

    Mystery_Meat Guest

    When her parents arrived at Pam's apartment, they found a refrigerator full of fruits and vegetables, still fresh. Her black and white SPCA kitty, Gimli, had plenty of food and water. Books Pam had recently purchased were lying about. Pam left no note detailing why she took a lethal combination of pills, Dan said, but they knew.

    "Life simply was too painful for her to go on."

    Since childhood, Pam was task-focused. She thrived on organization, control, achievement.

    "There were times we'd wish we could get Pam to go outside and play," Sue said. But as a parent, Sue kept asking herself, what's wrong with achieving?

    Pam was recommended for the gifted and talented program in third grade. With each passing year, grades became more significant, and by fifth grade, Pam was obsessing over school projects.

    In her Brownie troop, no one made earning badges the priority Pam did.

    Sports became another avenue where she could achieve. She played middle school field hockey but was frustrated by the lack of teamwork and organization by her coaches. She enjoyed basketball and soccer, but nothing captured her like running.

    Dan was an avid runner. So was Billy, and Pam loved being part of anything that involved her brother. Plus, running offered what the other sports didn't: the chance to be her own boss. She could turn running into a science - one reason why she studied Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, even writing a paper on it.

    "When she was 9 or 10, she was hell bent on breaking 20 (minutes) in a 5K," Dan remembered. "The funny thing is, she did it in a Ronald McDonald House race when it was pouring down rain."

    Bill Bernard was among her first coaches. Pam and Billy joined his running group, New Energy, when Pam was a first-grader, and she stayed a part of the group until junior high.

    Bernard never felt close to her. While other runners routinely greeted him with a bear hug, Pam didn't. She rarely hugged.

    "I knew her for a long time," Bernard said. "But I felt like I hardly knew her."

    Pam flourished as a long-distance runner, but in high school it seemed she'd have to wait her turn to shine. Kempsville's Adrienne Parker was the star in the Eastern Region. Parker won the Beach District title in Pam's freshman year, but a week later, Pam stunned Parker at the regional meet.

    Billy cheered Pam on the entire race, and afterward, the two begged their mom for tickets to a Bush concert. Anyone who knew Pam would have trouble picturing the zany kid Billy describes dancing at that rock concert, but then, Billy was often able to bring out a side of his sister no one else could find.

    "She'd get mad because he would always make her laugh while she was drinking milk at the dinner table," Sue said.

    The regional victory marked the beginning of a brilliant high school career but also a downward slide in Pam's health.

    Pam had always been a finicky eater, so her parents hardly noticed when she pushed food around on her plate during family dinners. Eager to join his friends, Billy often had to wait through drawn-out meals because of his sister.

    "At the time, I thought it was annoying as hell," he said. "She'd play with her food.... I hated that dinner had to last three hours."

    Pam passed out more than once at outdoor track meets, failing to finish the season. But no one in the family realized she had stopped eating.

    Pam had to sit her parents down and tell them she was in trouble.

    She was 5-foot-3 and weighed just 80 pounds.

    "I was naive enough to think thinner is better," Dan said.

    The family decided against hospitalization, agreeing with Pam's doctor that she had enough support at home. But it was hardly easy. Pam wanted to be in control. She wanted to get better - but on her terms.

    Weekly counseling sessions didn't go well. Pam balked at the idea, and after a few months, the appointments ended.

    "They were telling us things we didn't want to hear," Dan said. Doctors were telling the family that Pam's issues went beyond anorexia.

    "We were in denial," Sue said.

    "We treated the symptom," Dan added, "not the problem."

    Their focus became ensuring Pam got proper nutrition. Sue quit substitute teaching and began driving to Tallwood at lunch.

    "We would go out and eat her bagel in the car," Sue said. "She needed that encouragement to eat."

    It was a slow process, but Pam had a goal: to run again.

    By the start of her sophomore year, Pam peaked as a high school runner. She won a pair of state track championships and multiple regional titles, setting the cross country course record at Newport News Park.

    She ran perhaps the best race of her life, ironically, at the very place where she would commit suicide: the University of Pennsylvania. As a junior at Tallwood, competing at the Penn Relays, she went up against the nation's best prep runners in the 3,000 meters and was third in a personal best time of 10 minutes flat.

    It was, for Pam, the perfect race.

    "We made this long drive home from Philadelphia that night," Dan recalled. "She was really happy. It showed how scientific she was. It was really more important to her to run this phenomenal time than what place she finished."

    It was among the few times Dan remembers his daughter truly feeling a sense of accomplishment.
  3. Mystery_Meat

    Mystery_Meat Guest

    Pam wasn't one to boast about herself. She never displayed her state championship medals, said Kevin Rhue, one of the few peers close to Pam.

    "I asked her about the state stuff," he said, "and she started rooting around in a drawer."

    Rhue said one of the few times Pam wasn't all business was when he was her date to the junior ring dance.

    "She danced," he said. "Clearly that was a first for her and she felt awkward about it. She got all dolled up to go, and that really freaked her out. That's the one time I ever saw her let loose."

    Football games, parties, homecoming - all the social trimmings of high school - didn't appeal to Pam. She liked to be disconnected from the world. Sometimes she would study with others, but largely, relationships were a distraction.

    Pam injured her knee just before cross country season began during her senior year. The obvious favorite to win a fourth regional crown, she finished fourth.

    As others celebrated, Pam sobbed quietly by a tree. Dan and Sue watched nearby, knowing that their daughter wanted nothing from them.

    "She was closed," Dan said. "We were used to giving her space."

    It was a somber drive to the airport after that meet. Pam had a visit to Wake Forest scheduled for the next day.

    Pam's collegiate running career never took off.

    An injury and coaching change led to a painful decision: After her first year, Pam quit the team.

    When Dan looks back, he thinks that decision may have been a turning point for his daughter. "I think she always had this mental picture of herself as a runner," Dan said. Recreational running failed to be an outlet.

    "She'd say she went for a run," Sue recalled. "I'd say, 'Did you have a good run?' She'd answer, 'No, I didn't.' "

    At Wake, Pam sought help for the depression. She told her parents about the counseling, but they thought it was for academics. Pam didn't correct them.

    She later admitted: "I told you guys a lot of things I thought you needed to hear. "

    That's why it surprised the Edwardses in November 2002 to learn that Pam had been hospitalized after having exhibited suicidal tendencies.

    Dan found out only by making calls and "asking the right questions," something he would get used to over the next few years. Sometimes that meant calling the hospital and asking for Pam's room before he was even sure she had been admitted. Pam was older than 18, and she wasn't shy about exercising her right to privacy.

    "She never told us about any of her hospitalizations," Dan said. "Every time she was in the hospital, we had to do research."

    Pam didn't want to discuss the suicidal tendencies and instead offered another explanation one doctor had mentioned as possibly being her problem: attention deficit disorder.

    "That seemed a more acceptable thing, something we could deal with," Billy said, disgusted by how willing the family was to cling to the most acceptable diagnosis.

    Pam didn't let her problems get in the way of her goals. She graduated from Wake magna cum laude and headed to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Three months after she arrived at Penn, Pam swallowed a concoction of pills. Dan and Sue were awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call.

    "I knew something was up," said Billy, who had graduated from the Naval Academy and had just returned from a seven-month deployment. "I had only gotten two letters when I was in Iraq."

    Dan and Sue were again surprised. Pam had met up with her family in Washington 10 days before the suicide attempt. She had been chatty on the drive down from Philadelphia with her aunt and uncle. Much of the weekend was spent at the Marine Corps Marathon, cheering Billy.

    "She was in this program that was exactly what she wanted," Dan said. "She had a neat apartment, not too far from the campus. She had gotten a cat. There seemed to be all sorts of positive indicators."

    False positives.

    By the time her parents arrived at the hospital, Pam had been transferred to a psychiatric wing. The doctor was frank: The attempt was no plea for attention.

    Pam, they were told, "has no desire to live."
  4. Mystery_Meat

    Mystery_Meat Guest

    Dan and Sue didn't play counselor over the next few months. They told Pam how much they loved her.

    Billy was a frequent visitor, the only one granted permission to take her out for the afternoon to a nearby coffee shop, where he'd coax her to finish her tofu taco.

    By the fall of 2004, Pam was strong enough to return to classes. She would take the train from Philly to Newport News for visits, sometimes toting Gimli along. Only a cold kept her from a planned run in the Shamrock Marathon in Hampton Roads that spring.

    "I was worried but hopeful," Dan said.

    But Pam couldn't conquer her depression.

    By the summer of 2005, she was in a private facility and seemed more accepting of treatment. She had finally agreed to make her parents part of the process, allowing counselors to share information with them. For the first time, Pam began to interact with other patients.

    "When she came out in August, I was probably more hopeful at that point than I had been in a long time," Dan said.

    Pam took her life on Sept. 8.

    The void of a lost child, a sister, continues for Dan, Sue and Billy.

    They cannot say that revealing Pam's story has been cathartic, but they now believe it is important to speak openly about topics they had avoided such as depression, anorexia and suicide.

    "These are words people don't like to talk about," Sue said. "Depression is a disease, and people need to realize it's a disease."

    People with cancer aren't embarrassed by it, Billy said. People with depression shouldn't be, either.

    "With Pam, it was a disease, bad chemistry," he said. "She needed support."

    Dan continues his work on the School Board and still heads a screen-printing and embroidery business. He's treasurer of the Tidewater Striders, and both he and Sue are timers for high school cross country meets at the Sportsplex. The Striders recently started a scholarship race in honor of Pam. Sue, though retired from teaching, remains busy with church work.

    Billy helps coach the Cox cross country team and is seeking to become a professional triathlete. It's clear who dominates his thoughts when he runs.

    Sue showed off a photo collage Pam had in her apartment. Her parents are a huge part of it, and one photo shows long-armed, long-legged, oversized Billy plopped comically atop Pam's shoulders. Her eyes an imated, Pam shows off a wide grin.

    Sue recalled how Pam used to say, " You could ask me now how I am and the answer is fine. In an hour, it might not be. "

    "Maybe we could have prolonged her life a little longer," Dan offered in reflection.

    But like Sue and Billy, Dan doesn't wallow in regret. "Pam found life very painful," he said, then paused.

    "I say that, and yet I have no idea what a painful life is."
  5. Cadet

    Cadet Guest

    Wow. Props to Vicki.
  6. shotglass

    shotglass Guest

    Thanks for posting that. Quite a story.
  7. Song Seven

    Song Seven Member

    that was both the best and the worst five minutes i've ever spent reading something. excellent reporting of a very sad story.
  8. joe

    joe Active Member

  9. henryhenry

    henryhenry Member

    why is that a sports story? why is it more newsworthy than any other suicide? it doesn't reveal anything new about depression or anorexia. the story doesn't really deliver much - it's kind of pointless.
  10. KP

    KP Active Member

    Good find. Meat, you said you covered a couple of her meets and weren't shocked by the news, how did she come across to you?
  11. blondebomber

    blondebomber Member

    I agree with Hank Hecht. The tale was interesting. The writing was clean and satisfactory. Not a wowser by any stretch in my book. But a worthwhile read.
  12. Double J

    Double J Active Member

    I wouldn't say it was pointless. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the people who seem to have everything -- smarts, athletic ability, a drive to succeed and to excel, a supportive and loving family -- are often just as messed up as the rest of us. The grass isn't always greener on the other side.

    A tragic but well-told story. Meat, I'm also curious about your "not surprising" remark. Was it that obvious even to outsiders that Pam needed help?
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