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'In My Mind, She’s 18 Forever'

Students and faculty at Lee High School mourn the death of senior Ellen Denker, who died of suicide on Oct. 30.

Diane Denker let her fingers linger over the photograph as she remembered the hopes her daughter Ellen had for the future. Poems remained to be written and stages to grace as an actress, but those dreams no longer exist for her daughter.

“In my mind, she’s 18 forever,” Diane Denker said. “She’s invincible.”

Ellen Denker, daughter, actress, girlfriend, teenager, never saw the curtain rise on opening night at Lee High School of the play in which she starred. She died of suicide on Oct. 30, after struggling for nearly all her life with clinical depression.

“Teens are one of the most vulnerable,” said Diane Denker. “You’re at that age where you can feel very hopeless about something, but also very helpless. There’s a lot going on that you can’t control.”

Oct. 30 was supposed to be a day of excitement, as Ellen Denker and dozens of her theater classmates prepared for Day Two of the Virginia Theatre Association’s annual high school competition at the Hyatt Regency in Reston. She was rehearsing for the school’s production of “Black Comedy,” in the competition, as well as for auditions for colleges.

Following the auditions, colleges posted their “callback lists,” which showed which participants they were interested in hearing from again. Ellen Denker’s name wasn’t on any list.

“I don’t think it was that one thing,” said classmate Zach Lepine. “I think it was definitely a lot of things.”

According to several accounts, Ellen left the main floor of the hotel and returned to her hotel room, which adjoined another room full of Lee students. Her friends followed her upstairs, but when one of them tried to open the door to her hotel room, it was locked and bolted.

“That’s kind of when we realized something was wrong,” said classmate Jenna Miller, one of Ellen’s closest friends.

What happened in the room can’t be completely determined, but when hotel security reached Ellen Denker, she was unconscious. Paramedics were called, and performed CPR several times, but she never regained consciousness, and died Saturday evening.

“I didn’t even know until I got to the hospital. It didn’t even enter my mind,” said Diane Denker.

Ellen's parents, Diane and Greg Denker, hosted a memorial service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Springfield. Then, they returned to Arizona, where Ellen was born and lived until middle school, for another memorial service.

“To me, that wasn’t really the goodbye part,” said Diane Denker of the Virginia memorial service. “Because we were going to Arizona. [The hardest part] was the day I actually left Tucson, I went out to the cemetery, and stood alone there for a little while with her. It was so hard, because it was like I had to leave her there.”

FROM THE time she was in middle school, Ellen Denker's parents became aware that her emotional struggles were more than usual teenage angst, or even an extra-moody child.

After an incident in eighth grade, when she was attending middle school in Arizona, her family began to realize that Ellen’s struggles went deeper than simply poor self-esteem. Little incidents became large, and large incidents, like the death of a loved cat, or a minor car accident, had the potential to devastate Ellen.

“It was hard to take it seriously at first, because it was so foreign,” said Diane Denker. After talking to medical professionals and other parents of children who suffered from clinical depression, she realized her reaction was fairly common.

“It took some time to have acceptance and to gain her trust, that she could come to me and simply say, ‘I’m having a hard time,’” said Diane Denker.

Through regular meetings with a counselor and medication, Ellen's family was able to reach out to their daughter and communicate about her struggles. One facet of this process involved working out a code — “Are you safe or not?” — whereby Diane Denker said she and her husband began to move toward a place where they could communicate with their daughter about her struggles.

Diane Denker also began to realize that patience would be the key to battling this illness.

“If one of my other kids had cancer … I would take them every time they needed to go [for treatment], and so I decided I would be that committed to it [for Ellen],” she said.

After taking many International Baccalaureate (IB) classes in math in middle school, Ellen discovered drama in eighth grade. When she arrived at Lee as a freshman, she took a class and immediately warmed to the theater.

“From the very beginning, she would blossom when she got onstage,” said Lee drama director Trena Weiss-Null. “She seemed like she was really shy and reserved, but never onstage.”

A lifelong fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musicals, especially “Cats,” Ellen had one of her wishes fulfilled her sophomore year when Lee performed a production of Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Even though it was a small part, it was enough to keep Ellen hooked.

During her junior year, Ellen won the lead female role in Lee’s production of “The Rivals,” a British period comedy.

Even then, said her classmates, the joy of Ellen's first starring role was undercut by her own inner struggles. Simply being onstage in a low-cut gown was a battle for Ellen, a slightly-built girl with moral sensibilities from her Mormon upbringing.

“She felt uncomfortable in her costume for ‘The Rivals,’ because it was so revealing. She would never, ever wear anything like that, and it took a lot of courage to get into that costume,” said Zach Lepine, who said he and Ellen began a relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend at that time. Ellen’s struggles with depression, which sometimes resulted in self-injurious behavior, put a strain on their relationship, he said.

“I was willing to stay and help her through this, because I understood that she had these problems, and she needed help,” Zach said. “But she was hurting herself a lot.”

One way this was reflected in Ellen was through cutting herself, which was a way for her to release her anxiety. Teenagers who cut themselves, often with a knife or razor might not be suicidal, but the behavior can be a reflection of an inner struggle with depression.

"ANYBODY WHO cuts themselves as a way to manage their feelings needs to be further assessed," said Allen Berenson, a licensed clinical social worker and director of youth and family mental health of Fairfax County's Community Services Board. Berenson does not have any first hand knowledge of Ellen Denker.

"There's a reason why they're doing it, and it's not a reasonable response to their feelings," said Berenson, adding that self-injurious behavior, such as cutting, does not always mean suicide is a possibility," he said.

The proper response to any and all suspicion on the part of friends and family, however, is caution, said Berenson.

"I think if someone gets to the point where they're concerned, it makes sense to explore and err on the side of safety. It's better to do that than to have someone actually hurt themselves, and risk a successful suicide," he said.

In addition to her love of acting, her friends said Ellen’s true passion was writing. She had penned hundreds of poems, and a few short plays, a dynamic creative mind, according to her mother.

Diane Denker said for Ellen, however, simply focusing at school was a constant battle.

“Whatever was going on in her mind was getting worse at school,” she said.

When her senior year started in September, Ellen Denker had high hopes for college and for her acting career.

She was the school’s representative to the Virginia State Thespian Society and won a part in the All-State production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which would have been performed in the spring.

On Oct. 30, she met her mother for breakfast during the VTA conference, at Ellen’s request.

“I’m really glad I went, because the last thing I remember was that she looked really nice, and she was happy, and as I watched her go back into the hotel, I thought, ‘I’m so proud of her,’” said Diane Denker. “There were no alarms going off.”

In many other cases, however, teenagers may offer behavioral predictors that they are considering suicide as a possibility, such as giving away property, and not talking about future events, said Berenson.

"Sometimes adolescents may not share with their parents, but they may share with a counselor thoughts of death, like 'Maybe I'd be better off if I wasn't around,'" he said.

ELLEN'S DEATH has touched off an outpouring of support for the Lee drama program, which has received several letters from other drama programs dedicating their fall production to Ellen. The Lee Drama Booster Club purchased a full-page advertisement in the program dedicating the production of “Blithe Spirit” to her.

Just three weeks removed from Ellen's death, however, her friends and family are still struggling to make sense of it.

“We understand that she was under a lot of stress, and a lot of pain, but just to think about taking your life over … something that is not that important in the big scheme of things is shocking,” said Zach Lepine.

“It just doesn’t seem real. It just kind of feels like she’s on vacation,” said Jenna Miller, who was Ellen’s understudy for the play. “Every line I say, I just think of her saying it.”

Ellen Denker’s brothers Benjamin, 11, and David, 4, might not understand for several years what the events of Oct. 30 will mean. Others, like her sister Nancy, a sophomore at Lee, are all too aware of losing their sister.

“When I saw her lying in the coffin, I said ‘Just wake up, please wake up,’” said Nancy Denker. “I just want to talk to her just one more time.”

Ellen Denker's death has made many vow to reach out to those around them who are struggling with many of the same feelings, in the hopes of reaching just one.

“Ellen was a very quiet, but happy-looking person, the classically good kid, but you can’t identify really what people might be having problems like that and how close they are to feeling like that’s a solution,” said Diane Denker.

“A lot of people … tend to feel that people who are depressed should just suck it up and deal. It’s really important that people are aware of the fact that some people just can’t do that,” said Weiss-Null. “When you see someone who gives any indication of any sort of depression, help them. Tell someone.”