GRAFTON — She wrote by hand in her journal for hours that night, alone in her room, listening to punk and alt-rock songs on a playlist she had entitled "goodbye."
Then she gathered her winter boots, her purple coat, the water bottle she brought everywhere, and the two volumes of her journal, the running chronicle of her hidden inner struggle.
This book is my garden, she had written the month before. I don't grow much. A lot of weeds overrun it. The soil is rocky.
She slipped through the house while her family slept, early on a cold Monday in March. She moved the hallway rug so the door to the garage wouldn't rub over it and make a noise.
At 12:58 a.m., a GPS track of her phone would later show, she stepped out into the dark.
I care more about this notebook than I care about my life at times. This is organic and imperfect and nobody cares about it but me. It doesn't have to live up to anyone's standard.
Not even mine.
She had silently debated the question for page after page. Should she end her life? And could she?
She walked to the end of her road and then turned left toward the Massachusetts Turnpike overpass, just shy of a mile from her house, her many months of debate now done.
It was out of character for Alexandra to skip out at night. But her parents, Alysia and Dean Valoras, did not immediately panic when they discovered Alexandra was not in her bed that Monday morning, March 19. Their high-achieving 17-year-old was always so responsible.
In her external life — what she allowed the world to see — Alexandra Valoras was a brilliant, ambitious teenager, an academic star near the top of the junior class at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, near her quiet hometown of Grafton.
She built her own robots and dreamed of going to MIT. She had lots of friends, was a magnet to young kids, and charmed adults with her poise and energy for learning.
Yet for months before her death, Alexandra went home, day after day, and told her journal that what the world saw in her was a lie.
With unsparing detail, she described an inner life full of self-doubt and self-directed fury. She wrote alone, sometimes deep into the night, occasionally even falling asleep with her pen on the page.
Everyone loved the confident girl with the sheepish smile . . . who talked in complicated words about coding and robotics, she wrote last November after a parents' event at school.
Who is this girl and can I please go back to being her?
I wear her facade as a shell to hide behind . . .
People still believe she's there. But I know the truth.
She began keeping her journal last summer, just before the start of her junior year in high school. She wrote often, rarely more than a few days between entries. She wrote right up to her last hours.
The more than 200 pages she left behind paint an anguished self-portrait of a perfectionist who became convinced she could never live up to her own standards. She was brutally hard on herself; she left no corner of her inner life unexamined and struggled to find her "purpose."
This isn't anyone's fault, she wrote. It's only my own.
No one reveals their full inner selves to the world, but what is terrifying is how well Alexandra hid her secret life, especially from those who knew and loved her best. Her shattered parents are sharing their daughter's story so others can see and learn from it.
Even now, with three months of hindsight, Alysia and Dean struggle to reconcile Alexandra's outer and inner lives.
They remember all the rewarding conversations they had this year with their bright and thoughtful daughter. They remember her belly laughing. Her excited talk about the future. Those parts of her seemed true.
They were on a road with no signs. They thought they had a happy kid.
Alexandra Valoras was 5-foot-9. Long and lean. She had a natural eye for fashion, for what colors popped when you put them together. She had grown up accessorizing with scarves and flowers in her hair. By high school, the flowers were gone, and her long hair usually swung in a side braid she wove herself. She wore jeans and camo pants, T-shirts and flannels, chunky Doc Martens shoes.
A friend says Alexandra was nerdy in the best sense of the word, meaning she had deep and eclectic intellectual interests. Sci-fi and fantasy literature, among others. She owned the "Divergent" series in hardcover. Rick Riordan fantasy novels. Dystopian classics like Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." She so relished the Harry Potter books that she wished aloud she could erase her memory and read them again for the first time. She was one of those smart people with a charming touch of absentmindedness, regularly bedeviled by alarm clocks she had set incorrectly. She could spend 10 minutes looking for the safety glasses that were in her back pocket.
The most conspicuous art in her bedroom was a Star Wars poster from the 1977 original. She would have rather dined with Elon Musk than any actor or pop star. She liked to be organized. She liked The Container Store. Colored-coded paper clips. A fresh sheet of graph paper. Cats and cat memes and the video game "KleptoCats." Novelty socks. Alternative rock, heavy metal, melancholy pop songs with enigmatic lyrics, ripe for interpretation and discussion.
She played the guitar and had a pretty singing voice. She liked sushi. She loved puns. She was happy to talk with anyone, from any clique. She was patient around younger children when they wanted her attention. She didn't like social media. She didn't like that people found their phones more interesting than the world around them.
In school, she was a star.
She was that third-grader up on her knees in her seat, hand flailing to be called on. She took her time with her school assignments, making them just so, and would proudly show off her work before turning it in. Look, Mom — look what I created.
She seemed a perfectionist, even then.
In fifth grade, teachers told her she was taking too long with her work and threatened to mark her assignments with a zero if she didn't turn them in. But as she got older, her parents saw her exacting nature as something good, something that drove her.
Alysia and Dean Valoras, both 50, met at a concert by the local rock band Tribe when they were 26. She thought he was handsome and funny. He liked that she was an independent thinker, and it didn't escape his notice that she was in great shape. She was from Lowell and had studied mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was a Methuen guy who studied finance and management information systems at the University of Lowell. They eloped to marry in 1998.
Alexandra was born two years later. Another daughter, Emily, followed in 2003. Their son, Nicholas, was born in 2005. The family moved in 2004 from Southborough to a new house in Grafton, with lots of lawn for play.
Growing up, Alexandra loved school and had high expectations. In junior high, she didn't like how kids goofed off during labs, so she applied to Blackstone Valley Tech for high school, figuring that students who took the trouble to apply would be serious about school and would have high expectations. She maintained great grades, at or near the top of her class.
She put a lot of pressure on herself, like most high-achievers. But Alysia and Dean didn't see a lot of self-doubt in her. They didn't see her kick herself over the odd bad score. In their eyes, she just took pride in everything she did.
Her family never knew Alexandra to keep a journal. But in July 2017 she opened a notebook and sketched out a rough calendar and a to-do list: Figure out SAT prep; Do AP homework; Schedule more driving lessons; Do some community service; Start running.
Just a month later, the week before the start of school, she wrote that she felt like she was on a hamster wheel, always working for a day that never arrived.
Life feels so pointless sometimes. Why should I bother getting out of bed? Doing my summer work? Going for a run? It's all for the future. Never for now . . . I just can't live happily like this.
Alexandra went into her junior year with extraordinarily high goals. As a sophomore, she had placed seventh in her category at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference Championships. This year, she wanted to win. Her school, BVT, also fielded competitive robotics teams, and Alexandra and her squad wanted to qualify for the VEX Robotics World Championship, to be held in Louisville, Ky., in the spring.
She approached her goals with an all-or-nothing mindset, telling her journal in early September:
I have to win gold at SkillsUSA this year, if I don't there's no point in me doing skills.
I have to be perfect. Anything less is failure.
School had barely begun, but when she eased up, even for a moment, she flayed herself with criticism.
I first of all am rapidly losing my will to do anything at a staggering rate . . . Yes I have the potential to be #1 in my class. But no! I don't have the will nor the means to actually execute on that.
On Sept. 21, Alexandra put on a dressy gray sweater and a sheer baby-blue scarf and sat in front of a camera in the family's living room. She was still 16, three months before her birthday, but dressed up, she looked several years older, poised and sophisticated.
"Hello," she said into the camera. "My name is Alexandra Valoras and I'm applying to be a part of the James S. Mullaney chapter of the National Honor Society and the Paul Sullivan chapter of the National Technical Honor Society . . ."
The video was part of her application to the prestigious service organizations. She wanted to get it just right.
"I like to challenge myself," she continued smoothly. "I really like to participate in activities such as this to prepare myself for the future . . ."
But when she flubbed a word, her mask slipped to show her inner strain. She slapped her knee in frustration and shrieked, "Oh, I was doing so well!"
It took her a few tries before she was satisfied. With each failed attempt, her father could sense the tightness in the air. It was rare to see Alexandra so stressed, but he didn't feel alarmed. He felt his heart melt for her.
I have times where I feel dumb for being so unhappy, that its just me getting claustrophobic in my head on the weekend, because I do laugh and enjoy plenty of days more than others and I'm not a hollow empty shell all the time.
. . . If anything, I'm lucky. I'm privileged and really smart and I have great parents and I don't have mental health problems and I live in an open-minded household. I should shut up.
I'm so lost. I'm so hopeless. I'm so worthless. I'm so lazy. I'm so unmotivated. I'm so confused. I'm so tired. I'm so numb. I'm so dumb. [This last sentence is crossed out] Not dumb just lazy. I'm so negative. I'm so dysphoric. I'm so conflicted. I'm so stressed. I'm so stretched thin. I am lost.
I've been thinking about suicide a lot. And hurting myself. But I won't. I really never will . . . I'm afraid of pain to be honest.
Alexandra's robotics team — with Rosalyn Youssef, Emily Weagle, and Ashley Hamilton — called themselves the Powerpuff Girls, after the cartoon. Alexandra was the "professor," a character on the show, because she was so smart.
By winter, team members were hanging out nearly every day, working on the robot and the design book that would be part of the competition. The robot had to pick up cones and stack them in designated zones. It had to work autonomously for the first 15 seconds, and then a team member would drive it by remote control. Alexandra was the programmer responsible for getting the robot to run on its own.
As the school year moved along, Alexandra mentioned to friends that she was stressed over her schoolwork. One friend, Natalie Kirouac, noticed her doing homework during lunch, which seemed unlike the Alexandra she knew, who usually got her work done early. Friends took care when they invited her to hang out, to be sure she knew it was cool if she was too busy to come.
Sometimes she would laugh and say sarcastically things like "I have crippling depression." Always said like a joke. It did not seem like she was trying to say she was in trouble.
Alexandra confided in her favorite teacher, Tim Freitas, who taught English, that she was having a hard time staying motivated. He gave what seemed like sound advice: Replace negative motivators, such as fear, guilt, and pride, with positive ones, such as love, compassion, and joy, she wrote in her journal.
She went to him again in October and "this time, I really broke down. I told him about my inability to function," she wrote afterward.
Freitas, who declined to be interviewed, told Alexandra's parents that she had been coming to him and was becoming increasingly upset. When her mother brought it up, Alexandra was stunned. She would write:
I put on a happy face so I could be alone with my thoughts and get more depressed. Then my mom came in and started talking to me. We were talking about whatever until she asked me if I was OK, and then told me she received a call from Mr. Freitas. I was floored. Horrified but relieved. Panicked but too exhausted to fight back. Glad that somehow, someone cared enough about me to talk to my parents. Because I wouldn't have.
Alexandra acknowledged to her mom that she was having trouble getting work done. She didn't say that days earlier she had first broached the topic of suicide in her journal.
Her parents brought her for a medical checkup, started her on acupuncture to help her relax, which she enjoyed, and later scheduled sessions with a counselor. Alexandra seemed to like the counselor, and told her mom it was nice to talk to someone who didn't already know her. In her journal, however, she wrote that she wasn't fully honest in the sessions or with her parents, whom she didn't want to scare.
Why do I not want to tell my parents about this? I'm pretty sure it's all dumb reasons but whatever . . .
If I was to tell them I'd been thinking about killing myself, I'm afraid they will become overly worried about me and wouldn't let me out of their sight . . . I don't want my parents to doubt themselves and I don't want to lose any trust.
I just want to vomit all the wretched thoughts out of myself and leave the words smeared across the page and my fingers and palms black with the ink that can't seem to dry fast enough . . . I want to just write until its 3 a.m. and my brain is dead but I just might feel something. I want to climb out of myself. Empty myself onto these pages and leave the good stuff behind. Empty empty empty. I want to shed this skin I've fallen into that's growing tighter and tighter around me.
If the Valoras family has a favorite band, it may be Biffy Clyro.
On Nov. 28, Alexandra and her parents went to the Paradise Rock Club in Boston to see the Scottish alt-rock group. Dean calls them the Foo Fighters of Scotland. Alexandra seemed excited to see the band in an intimate local venue. She asked for her parents' permission to sing aloud a swear word in one of their songs.
Dean danced like he was 18. He danced with his daughter.
In a short video from that night, Alexandra is sitting alone on a bench in the balcony, listening to the band. She's wearing a T-shirt and a flannel tied around her waist. She's resting, perhaps. As the camera closes in, she reaches out her hands. It's hard to know, is she beckoning it closer? Or blocking its view?
I had fun at the concert last night.
Easy to say that.
I didn't truly have carefree fun . . . I just wanted to be alone. Not have to worry about caring about anyone, not having to worry about anyone caring about me. I was so stressed out and I never really enjoyed the show to the fullest. And I'm so mad at myself for that. Why can't I just enjoy like a normal person, a show? . . . I hate myself for that.
Memories of that night, which had seemed so magical, came to haunt Dean. "Why was she dancing with me? Why would she be dancing? If it's already deep in her thoughts?" If she was already thinking about suicide.
As 2018 dawned, Alexandra's inner thoughts turned still darker. Her journal, which had never been much of a record of the daily events of her life, now focused almost exclusively on the question of whether to keep living, a series of cruel self-critiques playing out over dozens of pages, some in barely legible scrawl. It is painful to read the consuming self-directed scorn of a girl shimmering with energy, talent, and potential.
You are weak, she wrote in giant block letters that took up a full page.
You are a liar.
You are a burden.
She admitted hiding her inner self from her parents, teachers, and her counselor. I'm afraid to tell therapy or other important people then everyone will go bananas and I'll get put on suicide watch or something drastic will happen.
She wrestled with the concepts of atheism and God, and whether she was capable of faith. She questioned whether she would ever understand romance. She concluded that the only place she could be truly honest, to be herself, was in her journal.
And she taunted herself to either prove she could end her life, or accept that she couldn't.
Stop romanticizing suicide. It's not going to get you anywhere. You don't have the willpower or the ambition. You are simply a solid waste of space that will never do anything about yourself to fix your problem. You will forever fail to be who you were. You are a failure in every sense of the word.
So do it. I dare you. I [expletive] bet you won't.
Do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it
In February, the Valoras family took a ski vacation in Vermont, staying in a rented cabin. Snow conditions were rough and icy, but they tried to make the best of it. Alexandra seemed just a little less engaged than usual, her father thought, a little less than her full self. When the family debated leaving the cabin early to try a different resort, hoping for better snow, Alexandra voted to go for it. On the slopes, she was passive, deferring to others when it came time to pick a trail. Yet, it seemed she had a fun. She told her dad that they had to come back. She liked the trails.
Yet she wrote: It is incredibly selfish of you to act this way. To choose to not enjoy this vacation . . . You put on a happy face and this makes you hate yourself even more because you know that you aren't being honest with anyone.
In early March, Alexandra was busy preparing for the VEX Robotics Southern New England Championship in Worcester, and she did not write in her journal for more than a week.
At the competition, she bubbled with geeked-out excitement, talking to the judges about the subtleties of the robot's programming and its gyro for making turns.
Those judges rewarded the team with the competition's design award, which qualified the four girls for the world championship, held in Louisville, in April.
They were elated — this was what they had worked for all year.
Afterward, the team celebrated at Five Guys. Alexandra ordered a burger in a lettuce wrap, no bun. The girls found it hilarious to watch her try to eat it.
They talked about how they were the first all-girl team at BVT to qualify for VEX Worlds, and the first to get there by way of the design award. They talked about making a video to show off their robot, and the funny clips they could use. Alexandra caught a ride home with a teammate. They talked in the car about upcoming projects in shop, about how much fun they would have at Worlds, how they could not wait to go.
Not a note of this triumphant night made Alexandra's journal.
On March 14, Alexandra slipped out of her home in wee hours, and walked down the road to the Massachusetts Turnpike overpass near her home, a GPS track of her phone would later show.
She came back and wrote FAILED in two-inch letters.
Three days later, her words took on a grim precision.
Yeah, I know, I am a wimp. But [expletive] you. I cut myself tonight. It was really just a scratch, but blood came out of my cut. Actual blood.
A mental barrier had been crossed, and she seemed to know it.
I, Alexandra, am capable of harming myself.
Her final entries are mainly lists, each more heartbreaking than the last. She spent pages answering the question "Why am I going to do this?"
I'm never going to be the smartest, and if I'm not at the top then I'm nothing.
She listed the things she was going to miss. The trip to VEX Worlds. The Warped Tour, a traveling rock show. Graduation. Going to college. Getting a job. Growing older with her family and friends. "Sex, alcohol, drugs." The possibility that things might get better, someday.
She quoted song lyrics from her "goodbye" playlist, which included the bands Death Cab for Cutie and Twenty One Pilots, and wrote in a clear hand the one page of the journal not meant for her.
Don't blame yourselves for not seeing warning signs. I hid for a reason. I didn't want you to know how deep in my own mess I was. So it wasn't anyone's lack of perception.
When Alexandra's parents couldn't find her the morning of March 19, they tracked her cellphone through GPS. Dean drove across a bridge over the Mass Pike several times early that morning, following a GPS signal that suggested Alexandra, or at least her phone, was close by.
Alysia and their daughter Emily drove across the bridge, too. It was Emily who noticed her sister's stuff.
Her winter boots. Her purple coat. Her green water bottle covered with stickers. The two notebooks. All left neatly on a concrete pylon at the edge of the bridge that carries North Street over the Pike.
Left in plain sight, as if a signal.
Alysia got out of her car. She opened one of the notebooks and realized it was her daughter's, full of dark thoughts she never knew Alexandra had.
A stranger pulled over to help. Alysia told her something was very wrong.
"Call 911," she said.
Alysia called Dean to the bridge.
It was Dean who peered behind the concrete pylon, down a wooded embankment covered in brown pine needles, to the highway, and saw his daughter lying in the breakdown lane.
He thundered down the hill.
Her skin was cold.
Cars sped by. Monday morning rush.
And yes, it was early and it had been dark, but it hurt Dean deeply that nobody had stopped for his baby.