EXTENDED STORY: Professor begins Dora Project to prompt Suicide Awareness — (webujournal)

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by Brittany Ruess

October 6, 2010

Linda Holtzman’s fondest memories of her daughter, Dora, are also the silly ones. Dora’s goofy personality lasted throughout her college years when she attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Holtzman remembers Dora and an elementary school friend living in suites next to each other. At night, Dora’s friend could hear her singing. “And rather than Dora saying something like, ‘I’ll try to be quiet’ or ‘I’ll try to be more considerate, she said, ‘Oh, I’ll open up the window and door more so you can hear better,” said Holtzman, a Webster University media professor.

Dora Holtzman-Magrath performed at Hampshire’s president’s events and cut an album entitled “Heart Strings.”

She continued life as a singer/songwriter until her death on February 25, 2008 by suicide. She was 22 years old. For seven years, Dora suffered from severe depression.

Holtzman said she likes telling stories about her daughter to show that Dora was more than a woman with a mental illness.

“I like to tell those kind of stories about her because she wasn’t a saint,” Holtzman said. “She was wonderful but far from a saint.”

Dora’s brother, Alex Magrath, disagrees.

“I think she was a saint, but that’s just me,” said Magrath. “She was imperfect, but I think she was a saint.”

After the recent death of Webster University freshman Mason Gaddis, Holtzman felt like she needed to do something, as if there was a role for her to play. She said she could be useful to the Webster community.

“I was clearly saying to myself this is not about you, this is not about Dora,” Holtzman said. “This is about students at Webster and the faculty and his family.” Holtzman’s grieving process is on-going. During the Jewish holidays, Dora’s birthday and the anniversary of her death, Holtzman said her heart opens and she feels very raw. She said it’s possible to feel better after the loss of a child, but she doesn’t know if recovery is possible.

“I’m deeply sorry for Gaddis and his family,” Holtzman said. “You can’t ever say you know exactly what they are going through. You still don’t know what it’s like to lose a child until you lose a child, and you don’t know what it’s like to lose a child to suicide unless that’s really happened to you.”

Holtzman has attended Survivor’s Support Group for families, friends and loved ones of those who’ve lost someone from suicide meet. In the first year after Dora’s death, the group was very helpful for Holtzman. Although she can’t explain why, after meetings she would feel a bit better.

“Sometimes I would go and just sob but I knew that I was surrounded by people who just got it,” said Holtzman.

Finally, Holtzman made a decision.

“I had to decide that I’m not going to let…my spirit and life die with Dora, and I knew she would have wanted that,” Holtzman said. “I mean, why bother to be alive unless you’re really being alive. So I made that decision early on. It’s an on-going, daily thing where you have to say to yourself, ‘this is what I want to do. This is who I want to be in the world. This is how I want to be in the world.”

With the help of Marian McCord, executive director of CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, Holtzman started The Dora Project in 2009.

“At Dora’s funeral, among other things I talked about, was that my daughter was the victim of a terrible illness, whether it was cancer or leukemia or heart disease,” Holtzman said. “It was the illness that killed her, and what we wanted to do was to start that day to raise money for a project to help families learn about whatever resources there are locally and nationally.”

So far, The Dora Project has supported about 100 families.

“The Dora Project supports families that are dealing with kids with a mental health issues,” McCord said. “It offers educational support for families to tap into resources. It helps them navigate through the mental health system.”

Holtzman said she would trade the project, selfishly, to have one more day with Dora.

“Since that’s not possible, I want to be able to…help families going through what we went through when she first became ill, and also finding information that would help their child and prevent suicide,” Holtzman said.

Because Dora skipped the second grade, her friends were a year older than her. By her sophomore year in high school, Dora’s friends started having Sweet 16 parties.

“Dora and two friends had a Sweet 16 and Sweet 15 party together at an art gallery in the city,” Holtzman said. “They cleared out for us so that the paintings were still on the walls so they could have, as Dora would have called it, a kick ass dance party.”

Soon after her 15th birthday, Holtzman said Dora started having meltdowns. A doctor prescribed her the anti-depressant Paxil, which Dora had a central nervous reaction system to. For a period of time, Dora couldn’t stand certain noises and would only allow her mother to touch her. The world also looked different. “She couldn’t even eat with us because the sounds of the clanging of the fork or the noise of family she couldn’t tolerate so she would eat up in her room,” Holtzman said. “There’s one of her songs, called ‘The Sky is Blue,’ which eludes to how color would look completely different when she was having symptoms. The colors would change. It wasn’t like delusions. It was distortions. But mostly it was in color.”

In September, before Dora’s junior year in high school, she attempted suicide and then again the following March. Her third attempt was in December 2004.

“I went into my fierce mama lion mode after her first attempt of suicide,” Holtzman said.

For seven years, Dora was in and out of hospitals and on different medications. In the first year, doctors tried to diagnose Dora but could not pin point the cause of her illness.

After her third attempt, Holtzman started trying to convince their insurance company to pay for Dora’s treatment at Menninger’s Psychiatric Hospital in Houston, Texas. Even though Holtzman said Menninger’s specializes in diagnosing patients, Dora’s illness was still a mystery to them.

“She clearly had some form of depression, but she wasn’t bi-polar, she didn’t have a personality disorder and she didn’t have a psychotic illness,” Holtzman said. “She had some anxiety but wasn’t diagnosed with an anxiety or panic disorder. So she just never had a definitive diagnosis. As a parent it was terribly frustrating.”

Dora left Menninger’s when she was 19. For the next three years she was in, what Holtzman calls, remission. In that time Holtzman said Dora didn’t have severe depression.

“She was very clear about taking control of her illness and managing it, just like if someone had diabetes and had to take Insulin,” Holtzman said. “She kept taking her medication and went to a psychiatrist regularly.”

During this time of Dora’s improvement, she was a Residential Assistant for two years and cut a CD in January 2008. She died a month later. In January 2008, Holtzman underwent open-heart surgery. Dora came home from Massachusetts to care for Holtzman.

Holtzman began to recover and it was time for Dora to go back to Hampshire College.

“When I first started talking to her when she went back she just sounded funny,” Holtzman said. “She sounded really tired, but she sounded funny.”

When they spoke on the phone, Holtzman would write down what Dora said because she was having memory problems. Dora told Holtzman she was feeling highly at risk for suicide.

Dora felt like she needed to constantly be around others to prevent suicide. Together, Holtzman and Dora decided for she should come home.

“The second week of February, the week before the medicine kicked in, she slept in my bed with me because she want to make sure she was safe,” Holtzman said.

Dora began reading her Menninger workbooks and journals. She wrote about all of her reasons to live.

“This was a young woman who knew what was going on and didn’t want to die,” Holtzman said.

In the second and third week of February, Dora started feeling better because her medicine kicked in. Dora had more energy, she slept in her own bed again and she was still writing in her journal. Dora also took jazz dance classes with a friend and a belly dancing class with her half sister.

“She talked about going to Webster and shifting her focus a bit,” Holtzman said. “She was thinking the life of a singer/songwriter wasn’t stable enough for her to be able to manage her illness at this point. And she seemed to be doing very well.”

Then, in late February, Dora disappeared for four days.

“The police came to our house at 3 a.m. and told us she had died from suicide-self inflicted wounds is what they said,” Holtzman said.

The day Dora disappeared was a cold day. Dora and Holtzman were supposed to meet with Dora’s therapist at noon and then go to Webster to register for classes. However, snow prevented the therapist from leaving home and Webster was closed.

“She called me that morning and asked if she could borrow the car and that was the last time I ever talked to her,” Holtzman said.

For the longest time, Holtzman said, she couldn’t understand why Dora would commit suicide because she was doing better, she had more energy and she was planning for the future.

“I just had such a hard time because the day before she died she was writing all this stuff about trying to figure out how to hang on, how to stay alive,” Holtzman said.

Holtzman discovered Dora was in a sensitive mood during the first week when her medicine kicked in. The medicine gave her energy, but her depression was still severe and lingering. Holtzman said if she’d known this information, she wouldn’t have allowed Dora to be alone.

“The medicine gave her energy to design a plan and execute it,” Holtzman said.

About 1,000 people showed up to Dora’s funeral and Hampshire College held five to six memorials because they kept filling up.

“I just can’t tell you how many people told me later what a strong person Dora was and how she had a life changing affect on them,” said Holtzman. “Dora challenged people to be their best, but she also didn’t take shit off anybody.” When Holtzman was recovering from open-heart surgery, she said everybody in her family was dealing with different life challenges.

“I do remember the night before she disappeared, and although things deteriorated, her and Alex were having a really good time when they were going to Lee’s Chicken to get the food and they were being goofy and crazy,” Holtzman said. That was really good to see.”

Magrath said he was angry that night because, in retrospect, he felt something was off but he didn’t know it was serious.

“My girlfriend was in the car with Dora and she wanted a biscuit from Lee’s and my sister wouldn’t give her the biscuit,” Magrath said. “In retrospect it was stupid. I think that was a testament to the fact that she was already in some other place because it didn’t even register with her.”

A couple of weeks ago, Holtzman and Magrath were cleaning their home in University City and Dora’s absence was particularly prevalent.

“When Alex and Dora were kids we would put on Marvin Gaye really loud, dance around and sing while we were cleaning,” Holtzman said. “When we were cleaning, Alex said, ‘This is really great, but I wish Dora was here’.”