On October 2, 2015, the New Paltz community was shaken to its foundations by the suicide of a bright, lovely, vibrant, socially engaged 15-year-old girl who seemed, from the outside, to have everything going for her. “It could have been us” was the message repeated by family after family as they reached out to young Maya Gold’s parents, Elise Gold and Mathew Swerdloff. Three months later, Elise and Mathew have been able to piece together some fragments of the reasons why Maya took her own life — a tragedy that no one predicted or even imagined. And they are taking proactive steps to foster dialogue among local youth to help prevent such a disaster happening to another family, via a foundation created in Maya’s name.
Though Mathew was out of town the night Maya died, Elise had eaten dinner with her, and later dessert. Mother and daughter had gone away together the previous weekend. And yet no one close to her detected any sign, physical or behavioral, that Maya was under the influence of a powerful combination of psychoactive drugs commonly available over the counter in the form of cough and cold medicines. “We never thought she was suicidal,” Mathew relates. “Maya was not clinically depressed. She was sad and troubled about what was going on in her life, about what was going on in the world.”
“Always a very sensitive person,” according to Elise, Maya had experienced the sort of social rejections typical of the angsty teenage years and taken them to heart. And she was aware of current events and attuned to the suffering in the world at large. She was deeply moved by such experiences as seeing homeless people in New York City, and after watching a documentary about street urchins in Nepal and visiting a school for girls in India with her family in 2014, Maya felt “called,” in her mother’s words, to go to Nepal and spend time working in an orphanage before attending college.
Maya connected easily with people and had a large network of mostly supportive friends; she was not being bullied or isolated in any overt, obvious way; nothing placed her “on the radar” of falling into any of the categories of youth considered “at risk” for suicide. A librarian at New Paltz High School had observed her the day before she died, busily making up a study chart for a test that she was planning to take a few days later. Clearly, ending her life was a sudden, impulsive decision. So why and how did it come about?
Toxicology report and sexting
“We’ve spent the last three months trying to figure out what happened,” says Mathew, and two critical factors have recently come into sharp focus. One is the result of Maya’s toxicology report: “DMs [dextromethorphan] taken in large quantity,” says Elise, “which cause hallucinations, dissociative thinking, disinhibition and euphoria.” “Her blood work disclosed that she had taken six to ten times the normal adult dose of Mucinex DM, as well as an over-the-counter liquid cough suppressant, which we didn’t have in the house,” Mathew explains. “She was quite under the influence when she took her life.” Elise strongly believes that the drugs may have caused Maya to hear voices telling her to kill herself, and they certainly “disinhibited her rational thinking…. She started taking them two-and-a-half to three weeks before she died. It spiraled extremely quickly.”
What make DM so dangerous are the facts that it is so readily available and that — unlike many other drugs currently popular with young people that are easily detectible via such symptoms as sweats, flushes, tremors, dilated pupils or erratic behavior — “Its effects are internal,” in Elise’s words. “We couldn’t see it.” Maya’s teachers weren’t seeing it either, even though the grieving parents have since learned that “The kids were doing it in school as well as at home. They were high in class,” according to Mathew. Maya and some friends apparently obtained the cold medicines by shoplifting them right off the rack at Stop & Shop. Anyone over 18 can simply buy them, but must show proof of age.
More of the gaps in the tragic story were filled in when the police returned Maya’s cell phone to her parents and they were able to gain access to her text messages accumulated over the three months preceding her death. “They were very, very disturbing for us,” says Mathew, “a window into her life and the youth culture.” They quickly discovered that one circle of Maya’s friends was reinforcing one another’s experimentation with over-the-counter drugs. “There are blogs where the kids talk about how to get the best high,” says Elise. “There was another group of kids who were trying to get Maya to stop.”
Even more alarming was the revelation in the text messages of what Elise describes as “the gross sexual objectification of girls,” a form of peer pressure accepted by New Paltz’s young people as “normative behavior.” “It was not only with Maya,” says Mathew. “Very callous relationships via text were exposed. Nobody would want their kid treated like this.” “Seeing your daughter called by some of these names, especially someone as sensitive as Maya — it’s too much for a 14-year-old,” says Elise. “It’s too much for anybody.”
Her mother points out that Maya was no pushover, that she “did stand her ground.” And Mathew recalls that his daughter experienced consciousness-raising on the issue of objectification of the female body from an early age: “Every time we went to the supermarket and saw those stupid magazines, we would talk about it.” But “It’s like trying to fight the entire culture,” observes Maya’s 19-year-old brother Adin. “I can attest to many people’s self-esteem being roped into their phone in high school.” And the new electronic communications technology provides a screen behind which people can make hostile remarks that they might not voice in a face-to-face conversation. With cell phones so ubiquitous among young people, “The gossip and pressure become more accessible and permanent and quick,” Adin notes. “But that doesn’t make it any less hurtful,” adds Mathew.
Maya Gold Foundation
For the Gold/Swerdloff family, a big part of healing, of making some sense out of such senseless loss is working toward ensuring that some of her personal vision is realized and that other families are spared the sort of pain that they must endure. For starters, both Elise and Mathew have started writing blogs (https://mayasgifts.elisegold.org and https://thejourney.swerdloff.org) as a way of processing their grief and of reaching out to others. When people in the community asked what they could do to help, they organized a letter campaign to state legislators; in response, two Hudson Valley assemblywomen, Aileen Gunther of Orange County and Ellen Jaffee of Rockland County, have committed to amending a bill “to put DM behind the counter, like Sudafed.”
And now, Elise and Mathew are launching the Maya Gold Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is “empowering youth to access their inner wisdom and realize their dreams.” Its logo incorporates a candle with a heart-shaped flame, inspired by a candlelight vigil organized by one of Maya’s young peers, Caleb Sheedy, shortly after her death. “They met at the Middle School, walked down to Hasbrouck Park and made a chalk mural at the basketball court,” Elise explains. “One image in the mural was a candle and heart.”
The foundation will pursue two goals: to further Maya’s dream of helping poor, orphaned and homeless children in Nepal, and to provide speakers, workshops, forums, volunteer opportunities and other means for youth in the New Paltz area to interact in healthier ways. Mathew wants to see more public dialogue regarding “the interplay of sex, social media and boy/girl relationships…. There are two sides to sexual objectification: boys’ behavior and girls’ response to it. Both these conversations need to happen, with sons and with daughters.” Young people need to know that they have the right “not to be belittled, objectified or minimized,” adds Elise.
The “Candle and the Heart” concert
Long-term, Elise and Mathew are hoping that the two prongs of the Maya Gold Foundation can come together in the form of “some cross-cultural exchange between teens here and in Nepal.” But an exciting development is looming on a much nearer horizon: The foundation’s first big fundraising event will be a star-studded kickoff concert titled “The Candle and the Heart,” to be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 17 at the Julien J. Studley Theatre in the Old Main Building on the SUNY New Paltz campus — the same venue where Maya’s memorial service was held. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, whose moving tribute to Maya was published in the New Paltz Times, will officiate; the performers will include Kim and Reggie Harris, Bill and Livia Vanaver with the Vanaver Caravan’s Youth Dance Company and the Paul Green Rock Academy Show Band. There will also be a “very special guest” performer whose name cannot be divulged at this time; suffice it to say that the artist is locally based, internationally famous and known for their willingness to support worthy causes.
By the time this issue hits the newsstands, tickets to the concert will be available online at www.mayagoldfoundation.org/events.