Gunn alumni on overcoming loss and depression


Annie Shuey—Gunn Class of 2011

shueyWhoever said that high school is the best four years of your life sure didn’t spend their weekday evenings in grueling, three-hour-long SAT prep classes. They didn’t spend an anxiety-ridden senior year applying to 19 colleges, only to be rejected by a solid majority. And they certainly didn’t see their teachers in tears, struggling to explain yet another loss of a precious, young life.

I graduated from Gunn High School in 2011, and while I was in high school, I lost several friends and experienced the same emotions as many of you. I know the feelings of grief, of raw loss, of dreading the next letter from the district superintendent. Despite the countless times my parents told me that everything would eventually get better, I didn’t believe them. Why would I? I knew nothing different, and they didn’t understand the burdens we were shouldering. I’m here to promise you, from one Gunn student to another, that it gets better.

I graduated from Gunn fewer than four years ago, but many details of high school have faded away. I liked my teachers, but looking back, I can only remember the names and attributes of a handful. I can’t remember what classes I took, and I have absolutely no clue what my grades were.

What do I remember from high school? I remember skipping class with friends to go up to the City for the San Francisco Giants’ 2010 World Series victory parade. I remember scaling down a steep incline to camp out on Tunitas Beach with nearly the entire senior class. I remember attending student journalism conventions in Washington, D.C. and Anaheim, Calif. I remember the relationships and the bonds that were tacitly strengthened by this tragic and difficult shared experience.

There were times I hated being a product of Gunn and Palo Alto. But I know I went to high school with some of the most brilliant, driven, innovative and talented young minds in the nation. I also know that they happen to be some of the most empathetic, compassionate and inclusive people I’ve ever met.

I didn’t believe that Palo Alto was a bubble until I left it. After graduating from Gunn, I landed at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution in the faraway, snowy state of Wisconsin. Marquette is based on the ideal of cura personalis, a Latin phrase meaning “care for the whole person” that is the cornerstone of Jesuit education philosophy. At Marquette, an equal emphasis is placed on academic achievement and supporting students’ endeavors and personal development outside of the classroom. It’s a fresh approach that has transformed my confidence, leadership abilities and outlook on life. Until I came to Marquette, I had forgotten it was possible to be so happy at school.

There is no doubt in my mind that Gunn High School students will graduate as more resilient individuals who deeply value human life. It is my every hope that each Gunn student will find a supportive community where they will begin to put these experiences behind them, which is what I have found at Marquette. But first, I challenge you to break down. Because after you break down, you can begin the process of rebuilding with a stronger foundation—together.

Hug your friends. Tell your family you love them. Reach out to your community. Lean on each other. And in the words of a beloved Jesuit priest from Marquette, “See written on the forehead of everyone you meet today, ‘Make me feel important.’” Hang in there, Titans. It will get better.

Maddy Atmore—Gunn Class of 2014


It’s hard to say exactly how long I carried darkness with me. It came and went throughout my adolescence but it never strayed far­—my most disagreeable and most constant companion. It hovered on the edges of my consciousness and waited for a lull before jumping in to consume me in big, greedy bites. It was there to nudge me awake in the morning. It was heaviness and emptiness all at once. A life lived in grayscale. The most terrifying thing is I thought it would be with me forever.

I’m writing this because I want to give you another true, raw testimonial to the empty promise that “it gets better.” Depression is incredibly difficult to talk about. I confided in only a few of my friends in high school about my darkest thoughts, and even with them, I often held back. I remember how vulnerable and wrong it felt to tell them what I was feeling, how the words would catch in the back of my throat, warning me not to let them out. Even now, it feels strange to be bearing this part of myself for my old high school to see. But the truth is I really don’t mind. Because when I think about how I got better, I think of the people who were brave enough to share with me the darkness that they experienced, and in doing so, proved that I was not alone.

I once read something that clung to my brain even through my lowest points. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it essentially urged me not to commit suicide so that one day I could think to myself, “Wow, I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself, otherwise I never would have [insert incredible experience here]!”. When I read it, I scoffed. I thought it a painful cliché. I thought it irrelevant because I never thought I would get to such a point. But for whatever reason, it stuck with me. And a few months ago, I came to the realization that I finally understand the value of that statement. I can finally complete that sentence. I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself, otherwise I never would have been swimming in the ocean at midnight, or filled that journal with thoughts and drawings, or navigated my way through public transport in the Netherlands, or watched the sun rise over that mountain. It doesn’t have to be monumental things that complete the sentence. It can be the perfect crescent of the moon, or the feeling of your blood pounding in your veins after a run or the freckles on the shoulders of the person you love. It’s everything that makes us feel alive and makes life worth living. I stuck around to complete my sentence. Please stick around to complete yours.

Julia Maggioncalda—Gunn Class of 2012


For those of you who feel sad, scared, worthless, or hopeless, I want you to know that you are not alone, and there is hope. I know this because I’ve lived through it, and things got better.

As many of you may know from the Titan 101 video, I spiraled into a state of severe depression during November of my senior year at Gunn. I made the mistake of rushing through my four years at Gunn thinking only about my future. I was consumed by the homework, the tests, and the scores, thinking that these were the only path to a happy future. Depression is devastating. I physically could not get up from the little bed I made on the ground next to the fireplace in my family room for two days. But I got better.

It’s okay to take a time-out if you need to. You can press pause—your homework, tests, grades and college apps can wait if you need to just stop for awhile to rest and take care of yourself. If you need a day, a week, a month, a quarter or a year, you can take it. I took a month off of school to get better. After that, I put my future on hold and took a year off before going to college. I learned to enjoy the present. I woke up each morning looking no further than just the day ahead. By slowing down my life, I have realized that I am so much more than a letter on a piece of paper. Reflect on what’s going well in your life and what’s not going so well in your life and make some tangible changes.

I now live a very different life because I have redefined what success means for me. I got sucked into society’s definition of success: grades, awards, achievements, money, college, etc. But now I consider myself successful if I am focusing on the things that make me happy and healthy. I have a little journal, and every night I write down three things: one thing that day that made me happy, one thing that I’m looking forward to the next day and one thing that I love/appreciate about myself. I’m training my brain to focus on the positives. When reflecting back on a day, it’s so easy to pick it apart and think of only the bad things. I can already feel myself unconsciously thinking of the positives rather than the negatives. I text a friend to get dinner with them, I go get a froyo and eat it in the sunshine, I listen to a song that makes me happy, I write down three things that I am grateful for. I feel mentally well when I feel connected to people, so relationships have become a high priority for me. Challenge what success will look like for you: Don’t just chase the expectations others might have for you. Define success on your own terms and proudly pursue a path that might lead to it.

I promise you, if you are suffering, that it will get better. Back during senior year I felt like there was no point in waking up each day, but the pain has disappeared and most days now feel good and are filled with love and joy. You are loved, and your future will be full of love and happiness regardless of your test scores, grades, and college applications. It might be hard to believe, but trust me. I’ve been there, I’ve lived it and I know. Things get better. So live now. Share deeply.