The Dark Lining of the Prefontaine Mantra: Lessons from Hale Ross’ life at Yale
A personal essay by Hale's father
Editors’ Note: Please be advised, the following piece includes sensitive material relating to depression and suicide.
Several months ago, I received a “save the date” flyer about the Yale graduation events this May. I will not be in attendance. On Oct. 30, 2016, my son Hale, class of 2018, ended his life.
Hale’s death was a tragedy on many levels — a profound loss not only for his family and close friends but also for the hundreds of people who had been touched in large and small ways by his compassion, kindness and keen sense of humor. At a candlelight vigil on Cross Campus after his death, many students reflected on Hale’s impact on their lives and wrote kind notes to his family.
I think of Hale every day but recently reflected more deeply on his remarkable life as I read an obituary of Roger Bannister, who first broke the four-minute barrier in the mile run in 1954. Bannister observed in his autobiography that spectators “fail to understand … the mental agony through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort. And how rarely, if he is built as I am, he can give it.”
Hale put his heart and soul into his running. He was inspired by Steve Prefontaine, known in running circles as “Pre,” who competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics before his life was cut short by an automobile accident. In his riveting and insightful essay for his readmission to Yale after a mental illness tragedy his second semester, Hale focused on a quotation from Prefontaine displayed on a poster of the runner that adorned the wall of his Calhoun bedroom: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Hale was inspired by Prefontaine’s all-out commitment, noting in his essay that “every time he toed the line, he charged into battle not only with his competitors, but also with the upper ranges of his own body’s physical and mental limits.” He explained, in words that assumed a portentous tone after his death, “I sought to emulate his doctrine. ‘To give anything less than your best … ’ became my mantra not only for my training but also for my academic and other various endeavors.”
I have countless images of Hale. Undoubtedly the darkest is when I first saw him at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital in February 2015 following his shocking leap from the fourth floor of Bingham Hall early in his second semester. I thought then that it was my worst day as a parent: seeing my normally vibrant, positive son in a near catatonic state, immobilized mentally by the throes of depression and physically by a broken pelvis and cracked vertebrae. As I drove back to central Massachusetts that dark and frigid evening, I could not comprehend the calamity nor envision where Hale’s life would go from that point.
As I visited the hospital over the next several weeks, I tried to draw on my own battles with severe depression to provide Hale with some perspective on his situation. (Hale struggled with an anxiety-based variant of mental illness but was stricken by depression after his ordeal.) I had experienced disruptive depression and social anxieties during my years at Yale and continued to be beset by severe episodes of bipolar depression throughout much of my adult life. (I also struggled with alcohol, which I used at times to medicate depression and anxiety.)
In fact, as my legal career and marriage in Washington, D.C., were disintegrating when Hale was 7 years old, I descended into a dark state of hopelessness and would have suffered the same fate as my son had not someone in the basement of a group recovery house where I was living seen multiple empty pill bottles and called 911. Sometimes random events dictate the courses of our lives.
During those visits to the hospital, between games of cribbage and Boggle, I did my best to penetrate the sinister fog enshrouding Hale’s brain and convince him that the dark thoughts he was experiencing were mere cognitive distortions caused by his illness and did not reflect who he was as a person. I developed a visual construct: “Put the thoughts in a box, and work on the box.” It was a way of trying to drive home to Hale that the kind, thoughtful and unselfish person we all loved was still there buried beneath the veneer of the depression and that this core being was more important than Yale and career paths.
A miracle happened. During his stay at the hospital, as he hobbled around on crutches and enjoyed the cake — a football theme with goal posts — I brought on Feb. 12 to “celebrate” his 19th birthday, Hale gradually returned to life. His Boggle skills improved markedly. On my last visits, he was able to joke about life at “Liberty Village” (his ward) and focus on his return home to Washington, where he would enter an outpatient hospitalization program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
In early March, Hale’s brothers (both also accomplished runners) and I gathered in Washington in a show of support. As the four of us watched the Yale-Harvard Ivy League championship basketball game, I was encouraged to see that Hale — although he sometimes seemed distracted — was beginning to assimilate himself back into the stream of life. Light was gradually emerging from the darkness.
When Hale told me he was reapplying to Yale, I had mixed feelings. I had never encouraged him to apply to Yale to begin with, but he was determined to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, a Whiffenpoof from the class of ’51. After the incident freshman year, the least of my concerns was whether Hale would return to Yale. I just wanted him to be healthy. I wondered whether he could return, would want to return, and, if he did return, how he would face the challenges of living in the shadows of Bingham Hall. I wondered how much the pressure he put on himself at Yale to achieve academically and athletically — to meet Steve Prefontaine’s severe standard — had contributed to what happened, and whether he would be better off restarting his life in a different venue. But Hale was determined to return to the school — and the peers — that he loved so much. After all, as he had noted in his application essay, his name derived from my family’s genealogical connection to Nathan Hale.
In the conclusion of his readmission essay, Hale recalled the 2014 suicide of Madison Holleran, an accomplished runner at the University of Pennsylvania who had been featured in an ESPN article. He noted the similarity of their stories: “While seemingly put together and happy on the exterior, an internal turmoil boiled beneath her.” He expressed a desire to use the second chance that Holleran did not have to help spread awareness of mental illness and assist others suffering from the affliction.
Hale’s essay concluded with the words, “I used to think that my ability to run and my capacity to learn were my gifts, but I have since come to realize that my true gift is a second chance at life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. And I will always remember: ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.’” As I read these words again recently, I found them eerily haunting.
At least initially, my concerns proved unfounded. Hale’s mental and physical recovery, and return to Yale in fall 2015, was the most courageous feat I have ever witnessed. Showing characteristic strength and determination — and with two steel plates in his pelvis — he worked his way back to running and assumed a leading role on the cross country team.
Rarely does a walk-on in a Division I sport have the impact that Hale had on the Yale cross country program. It was the product of Prefontainean hard work and determination. A little more than a month before his death, Hale was named men’s runner of the week by HepsTrack.com after he ran his personal best and finished second at the Fordham Fiasco meet. A tribute issued by the track program stated, “He was relentless in training, a fierce competitor, and a stalwart teammate. His warm smile, wit, and friendship are irreplaceable; he was truly the best that Yale had to offer.” Surely “Pre” would have concurred.
But Hale’s mark on the Yale community transcended the cross country course at the Yale golf course, where I proudly watched him run against Harvard and Princeton his freshman year. As was true at the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, where he was selected by his peers to speak for his class at graduation, Hale’s friends, teammates, teachers and coaches universally were touched by his warmth, compassion, kindness and wit. Probably only a few had a clue about his inner struggles. Even at the end, he put on a brave face and kept pushing himself.
Hale had a great sophomore year and was doing well the fall of his junior year until he collapsed in a meet at Notre Dame after overextending himself — refusing to give less than his best. The dreaded demons returned. I spent a Saturday with him in October. We had breakfast in Silliman College, where I lived while at Yale, after which we took in the Dartmouth game at the Yale Bowl, huddled under a golf umbrella in a light drizzle. The Elis prevailed. During a leisurely dinner at an Italian restaurant, the conversation, as always, ranged among a variety of topics. Hale was ever curious about the world, and I enjoyed our talks. Characteristically, though he was immersed in his own struggles, he was concerned about how I was doing.
I knew that day that Hale wasn’t himself — I could see it immediately in his eyes when we met in the Calhoun courtyard. He seemed slightly off, less confident. Sensing that he was struggling, I explained that anyone who has recovered from an experience such as his will have bumps and that working through the bumps makes us more resilient. He seemed to be doing the right things — seeing his doctor, consulting with his dean on his academic schedule, working hard with the cross country team. I was concerned but not alarmed and left New Haven with the conviction that he remained on course.
When I dropped Hale off at Calhoun, I sensed that he wanted me to stay longer. He suggested taking a walk up Prospect Street to look at the new residential colleges under construction. I declined, feeling the need to get on the road back to Worcester. I have recalled that moment on the sidewalk of Elm Street countless times since and wished I had stayed an hour or two longer. But I am grateful that I had that last day with Hale. It was a good day.
Over the next week or so, Hale and I exchanged telephone calls and text messages, and, at his urging, I shared more details about my struggles. He seemed to derive hope from my recovery. After his death, I wondered whether I had shared too much. But I have since freed myself from any responsibility for his death. I am in peace with the facts that I did my best to help Hale and could not have altered the events of Oct. 30.
For reasons I will never understand, Hale was unable to work through that bump. We talked after he returned from a meet in Princeton Saturday evening. That final conversation is forever etched in my memory. He was distraught about his performance. I fumbled for things to say to make him feel better. I later wondered whether I could have been more supportive or asked more questions. But he had told me was going out that night to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I didn’t see any cause for concern.
By all accounts, Hale seemed his normal self that night. He participated in the customary Sunday morning run with the team. But late that afternoon he was found unconscious in his suite in Calhoun. It was too late to revive him. Unlike in the basement of the recovery house where I might have met a similar fate in 2003, no one found Hale in time to intervene.
After receiving the call that no parent wants to get, I summoned my best friend in Massachusetts for support and drove to New Haven that dismal, rainy evening to see Hale at Yale New Haven Hospital. It was a surreal experience. I found him propped up serenely in a bed. I kissed him on the forehead, as his mother had requested, and talked to him for a bit. I told him we were all proud of the person he was and how courageously he had fought, that I wished I could have known how much pain he must have been in. He looked to be in peace. I regret that I was unable to help Hale find peace, over time, in a different way.
More than 800 people, including the entire Yale track team, attended the service for Hale at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington — a testament to how much he was loved. Julia Adams, the head of Calhoun College, now Grace Hopper College; Paul Harkins, his cross country coach at Yale; and Jason Dwyer, his Potomac School coach, spoke movingly about Hale. I tried to greet as many of Hale’s teammates as possible at the reception. I was inspired by their presence.
So what can we take away from Hale’s life and death? How can such a vibrant soul and accomplished athlete participate in a meet on Saturday, socialize with friends that evening, run with his team the next morning, then perish quietly in his dormitory in the afternoon?
None of us can know for certain what was going on in Hale’s mind over those last few weeks and on that fateful day. His doctor found Hale to be a puzzle; he never understood the impulsivity that struck twice, ultimately taking his life. But clues emerge from things Hale said at the hospital and wrote in his readmission essay and from conversations with his peers, coaches and doctor. In addition, there are inferences that I can make from my own experience with depression and anxiety at Yale and later in my life.
I know that Hale pushed himself very hard and had extremely high expectations in all of his pursuits. At Potomac and at Yale, he had been on an accelerating path of academic and extracurricular accomplishments; like most of his peers, the sky seemed the limit. Perhaps, in his adherence to the Prefontainean mantra, his relentless striving to reach a nearly unattainable version of “his best” contributed to the sacrifice of the ultimate gift.
Most students at Yale are able to embrace such challenges in a healthy way. But for those who, like Hale, struggle with mental illness, academic, extracurricular and social pressures can escalate into a severe loss of mental calibration. In extreme cases, such maladies can cause a profound loss of perspective of oneself; in this dark and unsettled state, one can lose the ability to accurately perceive oneself and one’s connection to the surrounding world. The novelist William Styron once aptly analogized severe depression to insanity on account of the cognitive distortions it induces.
I experienced depression and social anxiety at Yale, but I initially didn’t recognize them as manifestations of mental illness or consider seeking help. I often felt like I lived on the fringe of the social and academic order and struggled with low self-esteem, poor work habits and lack of direction. Although there were many good times, I look back on Yale in part as an unfilled opportunity resulting from my own “internal turmoils,” as Hale described them.
No one likes to talk about mental illness on a college campus; it is a grim distraction from the exuberance of academic and extracurricular pursuits. But we need to talk about it because it lurks in the shadows of the Old Campus, Sterling Memorial Library, Commons, the residential college dining halls, even the athletic fields. We need to talk about it because of the devastating consequences that can result if it goes unidentified and untreated.
Most importantly, we need to talk about mental illness at Yale in the hope that better awareness and support will prevent some students from descending into the dark and irrational abyss in which Hale found himself. Nothing can bring back a life that — as friends and family could see so vividly — possessed immeasurable value and promise. Tragically, at that fateful moment, I believe that Hale was unable to perceive the vast worth of his life that far transcended Yale or to comprehend that what he was experiencing was a transitory phase of mental illness from which he had recovered once and from which he could have recovered again.
Shortly after Hale died, I was interviewed for an article in the Yale Daily News about the mental health counseling system at Yale and students’ experiences after returning from leaves due to mental illness. Some students expressed reluctance to use the counseling program because of confidentiality concerns. I believe that it is critical to make mental health support on campus as accessible as possible. I work with a mental health advocacy organization coordinating a program that allows college students to form clubs to increase awareness of mental illness, reduce stigma and provide peer supports.
Unfortunately, there is no panacea. Hale had recovered from a devastating episode, seemed to understand himself better, acquired recovery tools and benefitted from outstanding family and medical support. Yet when the demons struck again in October 2016, he was unable to ward them off and failed to reach out for help in the final hours. But I firmly believe that if we continue to boost awareness of mental illness on college campuses, reduce stigma, encourage students to seek treatment and provide more student-based peer resources, some students who might have suffered Hale’s fate will survive.
In December 2015, I decided to return to treatment for my alcoholism. The disease ultimately would have killed me, and I didn’t want alcohol to rob me of a full life with the sons I loved.
When I was in treatment on Cape Cod, Hale, who had returned to Yale that fall, sent me the most meaningful card I have ever received. He told me that he could not have recovered without my support and wanted me to get better so that he could have me in his life for a long time. I still have that card on my bulletin board, along with a poem I wrote about him.
I have recovered and now have 28 months of sobriety. I have a full and happy life and have not experienced an episode of severe depression in 10 years. Some of my friends have told me that my life is a testament to the maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Perhaps. Yet it is one of life’s cruel ironies that, though I have recovered, I have lost Hale. We can’t bring him back, but all of us who knew and loved Hale can continue to keep his spirit alive by being kind and compassionate in our dealings with the world.
To all of Hale’s former peers at Yale, I would urge you to endeavor to maintain a healthy perspective on who you are as a person — your intrinsic worth — apart from all the accomplishments and goals that drive much of what you do and how you think about yourself. It was a deadly loss of perspective, I believe, that contributed to losing Hale.
I suffered an episode of depression during law school at the University of Virginia. At the time, I measured my self-worth by reference to obtaining a position at a prestigious law firm. A psychiatrist, sensing that my struggles ran deeper than my academic and career pursuits, suggested that I take a leave of absence. “You are more important than the law,” he told me. I thought that was an absurd remark and found a new psychiatrist. Decades later I realized the profound truth of his statement. My life was more important than law school.
Most of you will go through Yale and life unhindered by mental or emotional obstacles. But some of you, like Hale, might now or in the future face unanticipated demons that will rattle your frame of reference and threaten to derail your carefully delineated life plan. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness. If you broke your leg, you’d go to the emergency room. Mental illness should be no different.
Like Hale, you might be adhering to some version of Steve Prefontaine’s mantra: “nothing less than the best.” You might define yourself primarily by reference to your GPA, graduate school admissions or getting that perfect job. One day, you might attain a different perspective, where you can appreciate that bumps in life — even severe bumps — can be navigated, that there is more than one route to a happy life and that your true worth as a person ultimately is measured not by career achievements or material successes but by the lives you touch along the journey.
Hale believed that we should all “strive to be the best version of ourselves.” As you go through life, try to be open-minded and flexible. Be kind to others, and, most importantly, be kind and forgiving to yourself. Be the best version of yourself as measured in light of the circumstances in which you find yourself, not by some Platonic ideal. You matter more for who you are than for what you have accomplished. Tragically, Hale did not have enough time to attain that perspective.
Finally, to Hale’s friends in the class of 2018 who will gather on Old Campus for Class Day in May, I hope that, although Hale can’t be with you, his spirit will speak to you in the midst of all the joy and jubilation. But the message I hope you hear isn’t the daunting mantra displayed on the wall of Hale’s bedroom but a kinder, gentler sentiment: Strive to be your best, but accept yourself for who you are. As my father once told me when I was in the throes of a major depressive episode that threatened to upend the world as I knew it, “You’re already a success.” I didn’t believe him then. I do now. I hope you do too.