Parents hope daughter's lost battle with mental illness can help others

HUGS: Amy Holverstott's mother, Patricia Todesco, hugs well-wishers Thursday at Amy's memorial service as father Jim Holverstott looks on. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo
Amy Elizabeth Holverstott came into the world fighting. Born Jan. 14, 1984, she arrived three months premature, weighing in at just 2 pounds, 12 ounces. But despite her tiny size, there was something special about little Amy.

"I had the sensation that she focused," said her mother, Patricia Todesco of Davis, recalling her first moments with Amy before she was whisked away to a neonatal intensive care unit where she would spend the first six weeks of her life.

As Amy grew, she thrived, excelling in every subject at school as well as in ballet, soccer and music. She also adored animals, volunteering in her spare time for the SPCA, and demonstrated a great love of people.

"She was always very feeling, emotionally oriented, very quick to pick up on people's emotions," said Jim Holverstott, Amy's father.

"Everyone who met her just loved her," Todesco added. "Every teacher, every pastor, said her smile would just light up a room."

The time would come, however, when Amy would fight again -- this time struggling against mental illness and internal demons that triggered depression and, at times, the urge to take her own life.

On the rainy evening of Dec. 6, Amy lost to those demons.

Shortly before 6 p.m., the 19-year-old walked from her mother's home to the Sycamore Park bike bridge, slipped through a gap in the chain-link fence and inched along the outer side of the bridge until she stood over southbound Highway 113. She jumped, and was struck by a car on the freeway below.

As they try to come to terms with their daughter's death, Amy's parents spoke out recently not only in memory of their unique daughter, but also in appreciation of the many local organizations, agencies and people who helped them understand and cope with Amy's mental illness.

School successes

At a reception following Amy's memorial service Thursday at Davis Community Church, those who gathered to remember the young woman with friendly eyes and an inviting smile pored through numerous scrapbooks. Each photograph, ribbon, certificate and report card showed that Amy Holverstott excelled at whatever she put her mind to.

"School was a special place for Amy," said Sandy Weetman, Amy's counselor at Emerson Junior High. "I think it was a place where she blossomed, where she felt safe and loved," Weetman added at the service.

An award Amy earned in the fourth grade at Patwin Elementary School probably summed it up best. The handmade certificate praised Amy "for her ever-present eagerness to do her best and to learn the most she can."

But her eagerness didn't stop at the classroom door. In her free time, Amy enjoyed playing youth soccer on teams coached by her father and older brother, Matt, and she showed early talent for writing, music and dance.

Jim Holverstott enrolled his then-6-year-old daughter in a class that taught a variety of dance styles. There, Amy caught the eye of a local ballet instructor.

"She saw Amy and made a point of saying to us, 'I think she has real potential as a ballet dancer,' " Holverstott said.

Amy would go on to spend more than a decade dancing ballet, earning praise for her fluid movements and charming, romantic style. Her performances included "Alice in Wonderland," "Les Sylphides," "Coppelia" and "Snow White."

But there was time for silliness, too. Julia Jackson, one of several childhood friends who spoke at Thursday's service, recalled the two of them peeling red wax off their cheese, then fashioning it into lips for their shoes. At a surprise party for her 15th birthday, Amy found herself wrapped head to toe in streamers and gift paper, paralyzed with laughter as her friends snapped pictures.

"You were so brilliant; you were so beautiful," Jackson said.

Her career aspirations were as varied as her interests -- veterinarian, ballerina, teacher. Despite her shy, quiet demeanor, Amy had no trouble forming close relationships with students and teachers alike.

"She was often put with the kids who were struggling in class, because they would open up around her," Todesco said. She recalled that in the fifth grade, Amy befriended a student from Taiwan who spoke limited English, and by the year's end she was fluent.

Amy also loved to write -- letters, poems and personal thoughts, enough to fill a bookcase full of journals.

In the spring of 1999, 15-year-old Amy won no fewer than six academic awards at Emerson Junior High School. The awards hailed her excellence in science, algebra, geography, French and citizenship, and she also received a certificate from then-President Clinton for outstanding academic achievement.

The awards were handed out at graduation, but Amy would not be there to accept them. By then, she had confronted a new challenge in her life.

Warning signs

The first signs of Amy's struggles emerged in May 1999.

At the time, she had been displaying some signs of depression, Todesco said -- withdrawing, spending long periods of time in her darkened bedroom, listening to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" over and over again.

One day, Amy approached her mother, with whom she shared an especially close relationship. She needed to talk to somebody, she said.

"She said, 'Mom, I really need to.' She ever so gently got me to realize she needed to talk to somebody the next day," Todesco said.

Todesco gives credit for her actions to the Davis school district, which she said encourages parents to listen should their children ever talk about suicide. Amy disclosed to a counselor that she'd been having suicidal thoughts for six months.

"That was out of the blue for me," Todesco said. As her daughter headed for school the next day, Todesco encouraged her to seek out her school counselor if she felt unable to cope.

And that's what Amy did. Instead of going to her first class, Amy sought out Weetman, who wrapped Amy in blankets as the teen-ager broke down and, for the first time, revealed the pain that had plagued her for so long. By 8 p.m. that day, Amy agreed to be admitted to a Sacramento hospital for treatment.

There, Todesco said, Amy felt safe from the demons that haunted her, and safe from herself. Her family's insurance only covered a limited amount of time at the facility, however, and by July Amy was back home, in search of another place to go.

That month, Amy twice attempted suicide at the Sycamore Park bike bridge, Todesco said. She was rescued both times, but by the second attempt "it was clear that something had to be done for Amy."

Understanding illness

As Amy began a four-year battle with mental illness that would take her to numerous hospitals and residential treatment centers, Todesco and Holverstott found connections to resources that would benefit them as well as their daughter.

One was the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a organization with branches in every state and many counties that is dedicated to sustaining awareness about mental illness and improving the lives of people with psychiatric disorders.

"It aims to provide three things -- education, support and advocacy," said Stuart Buchan, president of NAMI-Yolo, the Yolo County branch.

"Mental illness is a very underfunded, undersubscribed illness. What we try to do is point out that it's an illness like any other illness. But we still have a long history of people not knowing what to do with the mentally ill," Buchan said.

Through NAMI-Yolo, Amy's parents were connected with other families in Yolo County who were struggling with mental illness. The organization offers monthly informational meetings, twice-monthly support groups and information about local mental health resources.

It also provides "Family-to-Family" education, a free 12-session course taught by trained NAMI members who know what it is like to have a loved one struggling with a brain disorder.

Called "Keys to Understanding," the course is open to families, partners and friends of people suffering major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality and other disorders, and teaches them how to recognize, care for and cope with these illnesses. The course is taught twice a year.

"It's an excellent organization -- just a wealth of information for people," said Jim Holverstott, who went on to become publicity coordinator for the Yolo chapter.

Through agencies such as Yolo County Department of Mental Health and the state Developmental Disabilities Area Board 3, Amy's parents learned about Assembly Bill 3632, which gives severely emotionally disturbed children the right to be educated until age 18, or until they graduate.

Through that law, mental health advocates and the Davis school district worked in tandem to place Amy in facilities where she could receive individualized education programs.

Amy also received constant support from Pastor Mary Lynn Tobin and Minister JoAnn Diel of Davis Community Church, which Amy had attended since she was a toddler.

While there were many people in the community looking out for Amy, Amy herself was her own strongest advocate.

"She participated as much as possible," Holverstott said, adding that Amy would travel with her parents to potential treatment facilities to ask questions about their programs. "She was really able to understand what was going on with her treatment, so much so that she could suggest changes."

And no matter what type of environment she was in, Amy continued to make connections.

"In every setting she found herself in ... she instinctively reached out to staff and patients alike, and they responded," Weetman, Amy's former counselor, said at Thursday's memorial service. She recalled visiting Amy at one facility, where an older woman Amy had befriended grabbed the teen-ager's hand and declared, "Oh, Amy, I love you so."

She pursued her education as vigorously as she did her treatment for mental illness, continuing her studies at facilities in California, Utah and Texas. And she succeeded, graduating in June 2002 from Davis' Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

And she continued writing poetry, powerful words that expressed what it felt like to live with mental illness. In the 10th grade, she published her first poem, a "A Slant, an Edge, a Thin Line," that recounted her first attempt at -- and triumph over -- suicide.

"She would do extremely well for months -- both in school and with her treatment -- but the experience would always terminate after a few months because the suicidal tendencies were overwhelming," Todesco said.

Treatment options

There are a variety of ways to treat mental illness, NAMI-Yolo's Stuart Buchan said. For some, the condition is best controlled by medication, while others find counseling to be useful.

Amy benefited from both treatment methods, particularly a form of therapy that focused on her "self-awareness," Todesco said. It helped Amy become aware of negative thoughts at an early stage, seek help, and express herself through music, dance, art, and of course, her journals.

"She was good at it, but the problem was when it happened too fast and she didn't tell anyone," Todesco said.

For the past year, Amy received treatment for her mental illness at a residential treatment center near the Napa Valley town of St. Helena. There, she successfully completed the facility's vocational program, including three months of work experience training in which she learned landscape design and performed the work hands-on.

Meanwhile, her anxiety was decreasing in frequency and intensity, her mother says, and Amy was just about ready to step down to a new level of treatment.

Friend Tiffany Edwards last saw Amy in April, during one of her visits home.

"What struck me most of all was how strong she seemed, and how hopeful," Edwards recalled at Thursday's memorial service. The two women talked of many things, including Amy's future, and what she hoped to accomplish.

"She seemed so fierce, and so determined," Edwards said.

On Nov. 9, Amy began keeping a chart in which she kept track of feelings such as anxiety, depression and pleasure, as well as urges and impulses, actions and ideas. She also included a summary of how she spent her days.

Amy filled out the chart daily, without fail, until Dec. 5.

"The first beginnings of a crisis were starting on that day," Todesco said. Amy also did not write in her chart on the 6th, when Todesco picked her up from the facility for what was supposed to be an eight-hour visit to Davis.

That night, her friends and family hope, Amy finally found peace.

Since Amy's death, Todesco and Holverstott have found themselves taking on the tasks that no parent wants -- planning a memorial service for Amy and seeking support following the loss of their child. But as time goes on, both plan to remain active in the pursuit of understanding mental illness by working with NAMI, encouraging research and sharing Amy's poetry.

It's what Amy would have wanted, they say. It was, after all, her life's work.

"She always applauded what we did. She applauded anytime she saw anyone who wanted to work on these issues," Holverstott said. "I think she would want us to continue to be involved."

-- Reach Lauren Keene at

Sunday, December 21, 2003