If you haven’t spent 13 hours watching “13 Reason Why”, this blog post is for you.
And if you HAVE watched it, this is also for you.
Because I’m a grown up, I wasn’t able to binge-watch it like my teenage daughter did. But I knew I HAD to watch it in its entirety for three reasons–namely, it’s the most talked-about show right now, SOOOO talked about I got an email from my daughter’s school principal about their concerns about the show, and I lost my older brother to suicide 19 years ago.
I HAD to see this show. I had to see it for myself. I wasn’t content to let other’s opinions of it define its meaning for me. I had to watch every minute (without looking at my phone the way I often do while I’m watching TV) and missing a single word or eye-roll or nuanced glance. This show is apparently THAT important.
It took me a little over two weeks to watch it all. When I got to the penultimate episode, I knew the punchline would be huge, so I waited a couple days until I had complete and uninterrupted privacy to watch the final episode.
It did not disappoint.
For those of you who haven’t seen the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”, a teenage girl in her junior year of high school experiences a series of unfortunate events as well as the usual teen angst (first job, being a new driver, problems making and keeping friends, high school, dating and boys) over the course of about six months that leave her feeling as though life is not worth living anymore, and chronicles her “13 reasons why” she feels this way in a series of 13 audiotapes she very methodically recorded and distributed prior to her actually committing suicide. Each tape focuses on a particular person in her social circle and she “talks” to each of them one-by-one. As these targeted folk listen to “their tape”–(“I’m number 11”, teen Clay Jensen fearfully admits), each person hears her voice from the grave holding them accountable for their part in “making her do it.” And one-by-one, we see how this information wounds them.
She’s dead and gone, and so many people are left suffering. This is where Season 2 will most likely pick up. Could they have stopped her? Would she be alive today had X-happened or not happened? Why didn’t she say something? How could I not know she was in so much pain? What kind of a lousy friend/boyfriend/sister/brother/spouse/mother/father/teacher AM I?? What could I have done differently? AM I responsible for their death? Is it true it’s my fault? If I wasn’t alive would they be alive now? The regrets of the living are too numerous to list. I KNOW EXACTLY HOW THEY FEEL. THE GUILT AND PAIN AND SHAME OF FEELING THAT YOU ‘DIDN’T SEE IT COMING’. THE HOPELESSNESS THAT THERE’S ABSOLUTELY NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT NOW. YOU CAN’T HELP THEM. MAYBE YOU COULD’VE WHEN THEY WERE ALIVE, AND THAT WILL TORMENT YOU FOREVER.
The show does an outstanding job of showing how deeply affected these kids and other assorted people (teachers, the principal, parents, etc.) are by what their fellow student did. SO affected, in fact, that the series cliffhanger ends with the character Alex (who’s mentioned on one of the tapes) apparently so distraught he shoots himself in the head.
Aside from the trail of broken hearts and souls left in the wake of the tornado that is suicide, it’s really important that you know that there is nothing you can do to prevent someone from killing themselves. It is a huge disservice to send a message that “if only” you did this or did that, that that person would be alive today.
Many people have claimed the show “glamorizes” suicide. If you haven’t sat through the final episode and shook with horror and disbelief watching “Hannah” take the razor blade she stole from her parents’ little mom & pop store and slowly rip the flesh on her arm, all the while shuddering and screaming out in pain as she does so, and then repeats it on the other arm, immediately bleeding to death; then seeing her mother finding her and holding her in her arms, pathetically,heart-wrenchingly begging, “you’re going to be okay baby” as I began sobbing myself, then yes, you go ahead and think that. There’s nothing glamorous about this at all. Trust me. It was more disturbing than anything I’ve ever witnessed.
The show does an amazing job of showing us how teenagers think differently than we adults do due to the fact that the pre-frontal cortex in their brain is still developing. This is the part of the brain that “gets” that actions have consequences, sometimes irreversible ones. Being a parent myself, I somewhat jokingly told both my kids when they were that age (one still is), “I will be your pre-frontal cortex for you. Yours in still under construction.” I have had numerous conversations with my teens that I understand they are going to make mistakes, hell, as their parent, I myself am making mistakes constantly and hope they don’t end up on some therapist’s couch someday about them. I tell them my role now is to help make sure they don’t make the “big” ones. The irreversible ones. Pregnancy, STD’s, DUI’s, drug and alcohol related anything. And yes, suicide has been discussed prior to this show. Having lost their uncle to suicide was something that has been discussed since they were very young.
I didn’t want them to know about their uncle, because as the show states in the commentary at the end, ironically, once a suicide has occurred, it is 50% more likely to occur within the radius of people most closely affected by that suicide. Hence, in the show, “Alex” has apparently succumbed to an attempt. Why would that be?? Mostly, because now it is an option.
It’s a lousy fucking option.
I began to feel that suicide is a selfish, chicken-shit way to deal with your problems. Yeah, go kill yourself and throw all of it on everyone who cares about you. Now your problems are OUR problems. Thanks a lot. The show does a great job of showing how “Hannah” does exactly that. And let me tell you, if the show continues to be written as well a it has, the grieving should next move into the grief phase of “anger”. Oh, I was so angry at my brother for killing himself. What an asshole. REALLY???!! Suicide?? What a sissy. How dare you!! Look what you did to Mom!! Look what you did to Dad!!Look what you did to ME! Look what you did to your brothers! Your nephew will never get to know you! I think I spent at least three or four years thinking my big brother was nothing more than an asshole for killing himself. I am still angry at him. His nephew is graduating college! The niece you never met is graduating high school!! WHERE ARE YOU GLENN?? WHY AREN’T YOU HERE FOR THIS!!?? YOU’D BE SO PROUD OF THEM!! The anger is always there below the sadness. The injustice of it all.
“Hannah” did not have thirteen reasons to justify taking her own life. If you haven’t watched the series you might be inclined to believe that’s the point of the show. It is not. The point is that thirteen people mistreated her in a variety of ways, and she felt unable to cope with the things that happened to her. She desperately looked for a way to climb out from her dark hole. She CHOSE to use what I call a Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem.
Because that’s what it is. A “temporary problem.”
I’ll tell you one reason why “Hannah” chose to kill herself. She’d lost hope that her life would ever be any different. She truly believed—as many teens do—that her problems were NOT temporary. We grownups have the gift of experience and age to see that she is so young and has her whole life ahead of her. There’s life after high school!!! Most of us barely keep in touch with the people we went to high school with. If only she could see that!! I believe she didn’t see it because along the line, a variety of people did not validate her feelings. Teens feel that parents, teachers, even their friends “won’t understand”. I see why they might feel that way.
We parents especially have a way of belittling our teens’ problems because one, we are older and “know” that they’re temporary problems and two, their unhappiness makes us extremely uncomfortable. We do them a huge disservice every time we metaphorically pat them on their heads and tell them they’re going to be okay. How diminishing it that! If your teen is holed up in her room because her boyfriend dumped her, she’s hurting every bit as much (if not MORE so) than you would be if your boyfriend dumped you. Teens feel everything more intensified than adults do. The pressures of grades, social media, you name it, it’s harder to be a teen these days. (It always has been, but we didn’t have cell phones and social media). Cyber-bullying is a REAL THING. Navigating a life seen through a constant social media lens has got to be difficult to say the least. We can’t possibly know how it feels to have to sit in class day after day with people we wouldn’t have anything to do with once the bell rings at 3:00 o’clock but thanks to social media, there is no “end-of-the-day” bell. Kids comment publicly their likes and dislikes and everything they do and think is fodder for public discourse. How any teen can keep a good sense of self-esteem in today’s world is really a marvel. Our teens are like salmon, swimming upstream constantly. Think of how tiring that would get. It’s not hard to imagine a few wanting to just give up and float to the bottom.
In the Netflix show, the first episode shows how Hannah’s helicopter mom grabs her phone and talks to the boy she’s talking to to make sure it’s “appropriate”. Of course “Hannah” lies to her mom. This scene bothered me in so many ways but the gist of it is, we parents feel so helpless. Teens lie. How can you know when they’re telling the truth? We can’t bear to believe “our kid” would lie. And they’re good liars. And for the most part, they ARE “”good” kids. We walk a delicate line between giving them the privacy they crave and invading it to keep them safe. We try so hard to do right by our teens. Often, we fail.
One of the hardest things about being a parent is the realization that you once began so close–aside from having that child inside of me (you don’t get much closer than that!)–I remember not even being able to go to the bathroom without a child with me, sometimes, holding one on my lap. You go from knowing everything they’re doing 24/7, every morsel that goes in their mouths to everyone who has contact with them daily, to knowing only what they want you to know.
What was also missing for “Hannah” was truly knowing her worth. Not only had she lost hope that her situation would ever get any better, she lost her sense of worth. She was unable to see that she wouldn’t always be 17, and that the “world was her oyster.” She felt no one cared about her anymore, and she stopped caring about herself. The things that happened to her made her doubt her own self-worth. It’s often heard that the suicidal tend to believe others will be “better off” without them. To the non-suicidal person, this sounds crazy.
I firmly believe that anyone who’s suicidal is clinically depressed. Contemplating suicide is not done lightly or off-handedly. It is usually the culmination of many things, as “Hannah” expressed, that “just add up”. Suicidal people aren’t thinking clearly. They’re thinking from their pain. Have you ever tried to have a rational conversation with someone who’s had too much too drink? Whatever you say is not being heard clearly. I believe that’s the same with someone who’s suicidal. You can talk all you want about having “something to live for”, “don’t do this to me”, “it will be all okay”, but the messages aren’t getting through.
Especially if you’re not aware that they’re “drunk” (suicidal) in the first place.
Sometimes we can’t know what we can’t know.
But we can live our lives better. Like “Clay” says at the end of the series, “we have to do better.” He’s absolutely right. We HAVE to do better.
We have a responsibility as a society to treat each other better and to give a shit about one another. Yes, we as parents have a responsibility to try to be good parents. Yes, we as friends and co-workers and relatives and spouses we have a responsibility to be kind and loving in our daily lives. We as human beings have a responsibility to not put others down, and live by the Golden Rule. We live in a bullying society fueled by impossibly ridiculous standards we think we need to live by. The pressure to conform is not confined to the high school years, and anyone who dares to live outside the proscribed lines is considered open season to pick on.
I beg each and every one of you reading this to start paying closer attention to one another. If your teen/friend/mom/sister/brother/co-worker expresses a negative emotion, don’t invalidate how they feel and blithely say things will be better. They may not think so. Eye contact, a caring hand on a shoulder, a smile that says “I care” go a long way. If you see someone being mistreated, DO SOMETHING.
We need to hold our teens when they’re sad, not give them a pep talk. This is dismissive and invalidating and frankly insulting. Give them your attention when they’re talking to you. Validate them as human beings independent of you and remind them that they’re capable and know what’s best for themselves. There’s a delicate balance between knowing when to step in (“do I call the friends’ mom?” “Do I call the principal/teacher?”) and micromanaging their lives. Ask your teen what they need. Do they just need to vent? You know how good it feels to be able to just dump your shitty day on someone who will let you get it all out without offering solutions. This is called “active listening.” We need to know when we’ve made them feel inadequate. We can unknowingly send the message that they are incapable of knowing how they feel and need someone to make their decisions for them. This is crippling.
You were 17 years old once. Try to remember how insecure you felt. Remember the pimples, the self-absorption that comes from the embarrassing physical changes in your body. Try to remember how it felt to not be invited to prom, or a party, or sit alone at lunch. Try to remember how it felt to be ignored or belittled by your parents and boys you liked that always liked your best friend. Magnify that by a million, because your teens don’t get to leave everything in the classroom like we did. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook all recording it all for posterity. The double-edged sword of technology.
Don’t be afraid to ask how they’re feeling. You know your kid better than anyone. Pay attention. It’s been said that 90% of all communication is non-verbal. I think we parents are guilty of seeing what we want to see sometimes. I know I’ve been guilty of it myself. I shudder to think how inadequate a parent I’ve been at times, caught up in my own drama and life and adult problems. I hope my kids know that they are truly loved for who they are, good grades and successes notwithstanding. As the amazing human beings they are. I hope they know that the world is already a better place just because they’re in it. They don’t have to “do” anything to have earned that. Whatever accomplishments they aspire to is whipped cream on the proverbial hot fudge sundae.
It doesn’t end when they turn 18. My brother was 40 years old when he gave up on life.
“When you know better, you do better.”—Maya Angelous
Now go out and do better!!!!!