Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I am not a doctor. I am an individual, sharing thoughts and assertions based entirely on my own experience. My opinions should be taken precisely as opinions, and should not be passed on as fact without further research and verification.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel The Thirteen Reasons Why, and not all of it is praise. A very valid dialog has been sparked in the mental illness awareness community in reaction to the show’s popularity as concerns arise about the content. To summarize the narrative, the problem is not that Netflix aired a series about teenage suicide. The problem is that Netflix aired a series about teenage suicide and handled it incorrectly.
It goes a bit like this: 13 Reasons Why…
- romanticizes suicide as an act of righteous revenge
- presents suicide as a method by which to provide justice
- neglects to address very real contributing factors like mental illness, and the immature development of the teenage brain
- overplays the level of premeditation that precedes the act of suicide
- e.g. Hannah’s tapes; realistically, the time it takes to do what Hannah did is enough time for the human brain to psych itself out, and start over
- simplifies the prevention of suicide to “just being nice to people”
- provides no plot points where help was adequately sought, or provided
- paints the very dangerous misconception that people who suffer with suicidal thoughts can be “loved back to life”
- implies that a person is directly responsible for someone else’s suicide
- suicide can be justified, if its legacy is constructive
- sexual assault is a death sentence
- this deserves a whole blog to itself, so I will not delve here
Today, I want to do what others have already done as a reaction to the series, and present thirteen very important truths about suicidal ideation, per my own experience with Depression, and my feelings about the series. Before I do so, I want to talk briefly about my overall reaction to 13 Reasons Why, so a spoiler alert is now in order. To skip, scroll ahead to the list.
I spent the majority of the series feeling very judgmental of the character of Hannah, mostly because I felt as though she wasn’t experiencing anything out of the ordinary for a teenage girl. Not to say I think any of the mistreatment she suffered was defensible, but my knee jerk reaction was to say, “This is survivable. You are belittling legitimate suffering by catastrophizing these minor offenses.” As the episodes progressed, however, I softened toward Hannah. Teenagers experience the world almost entirely in dramatics, because their brains are wired for it. I look back on who I was at sixteen and seventeen and I realize, had I been in Hannah’s shoes, I might have felt almost exactly as hopeless. I do not agree with her decision, but I felt less willing to discredit her suffering. This may have been the only positive lesson I learned while watching 13 Reasons Why: I do not decide if someone else is in pain.
One really poignant moment that I appreciated was Clay’s realization that he could have handled something differently, but there was only one moment within the realization that I felt completely okay with. Clay, reflecting on a night he spent alone in a room with Hannah, recounts Hannah demanding that he leave the room and leave her alone, and in his mind he goes back to that moment and changes his decision. Reliving the memory, he goes back and chooses to refuse, and chooses to tell Hannah he won’t leave her alone, and implores her to help him understand how he can lessen her pain because he loves her, and wants to help. The purity of this hindsight lasts only a few seconds. Unfortunately, it is sandwiched on either side by the suggestion that his original choice to listen and leave the room was one of the factors that inevitably led to Hannah’s suicide. Clay even says, “I killed Hannah Baker.” I wanted to break my television. I wish they had fleshed out the importance of reaching out to someone who is in pain, instead of banking the emotional impact on Hannah asking, “Why didn’t you tell me this when I was alive?” It shouldn’t have been about Clay making the wrong choice; it should have been about the question of what any of us can do to put a hand out to someone who is suffering, even at the expense of our own awkwardness or inadequacy.
Like I said, over time I felt less cold toward Hannah, but I harbored a very real resentment for the way she talked on the tapes, or that she made the tapes at all. She was setting up her own death way too far in advance, in a scripted way that cheapened her story for me. Gallows humor isn’t something a suicidal person has in this much fresh supply if they are suffering enough to be ready to end their lives. The time it would have taken to make thirteen tapes, decorate them, mark and provide a map, make an entire set of copies, address and deliver the copies, and go home when finished is entirely too much time between deciding to go, and going. Suicide is premeditated, but not procrastinated. If you mean it, you find a way to do it. The illness that precedes suicide does not typically leave room for that much artistic expression. Maybe a 45-year-old could have done it, but not a 17-year-old girl.
By the last episode, I was feeling a lot of different things, but I didn’t expect what I felt next. Suicide in movies and television is not new territory. One of my favorite television series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, depicts a suicide at least three times a season, and as many methods of suicide as you can think to depict. I’m pretty desensitized to it by now, as I’m sure most people are. Someone overdoses, you show them slumped in a chair with a needle nearby. Someone jumps from a building, you show an overhead shot of their body on the street. Someone hangs themselves, you see their shadow drop against the far wall. It’s all been done. Hannah’s suicide in 13 Reasons Why was foreshadowed a few different times, preparing us for the fact that she would eventually slit her own wrists in a bathtub. What I was not prepared for, and could not have prepared for, was how they filmed the scene.
Beginning of Trigger Warning
Every other time I’ve seen suicide depicted with someone slitting their wrists, the violence has been implied. The razor is shown on the skin, but not digging in more than surface damage, if being shown at all before switching the shot to the mandatory blood dripping into the sink. In almost every other example, we only see the final result: a person submerged in a bathtub of red water. In 13 Reasons Why, you are done no such favors. The camera is positioned at the far end of the tub, one long shot, with Hannah lowering herself into the tub directly across from the camera. Extending each of her arms in turn, the camera remains perfectly still as Hannah digs a razor into the flesh of each wrist and pulls the blade down the inside of her forearm, nearly to the crooks. To her credit as an actress, Katherine Langford’s gasps of shock and intense anguish are raw and believable, and stutter convincingly into relief once Hannah manages both cuts without second guessing, and finally sinks into the water to wait.
What disturbed me most while watching this scene was the way my own body reacted to seeing Hannah willingly mutilate her own. I felt a very intense rush of adrenaline. The same kind of adrenaline the average person probably feels when they watch a video of someone skydiving, or riding a mountain bike downhill at breakneck speed along a dangerously narrow path. It was thrilling, watching someone go through with something I’d only ever fantasized about. It frightened me. It wasn’t until that moment that I really grasped how close I’ve come to ending my own life, despite ‘chickening out’ all those times. Maybe I can spin it in a positive way — call it a mental health breakthrough, maybe — but the consequences of the experience have not been worth it.
I started to have nightmares. I didn’t dream about the characters from the series, or about taking my own life. I dreamed about other people’s suicides, and being forced to witness them. The nightmare I remember most vividly is one that forcibly replayed itself until I was finally able to wake up. I was in a house with Michael Clarke Duncan, who was preparing to take his own life, and he made me watch. I was trapped inside with him. In some of the repetitions of the scenario, I tried to escape the house. In some of the others, I tried to stop him. In the last version before I woke up, I watched him pull the trigger on the shotgun, and watched the back of his head come apart, and watched him slump forward when it was done. I woke up terrified, paralyzed, and haunted by the darkness of my own bedroom. I was too scared to get up and turn on a light. I was too scared to close my eyes and risk going back to sleep. I lay frozen in the dark for several awful minutes before I was able to reach for my phone and text my boyfriend.
The screenshots are a little misleading; details came back to me in the later hours of the morning, but this is the actual exchange we had after I was able to operate my phone with some clarity. Pardon the pineapples — it’s an inside joke**.
**I started using random emojis as a text message signature, to mess with a coworker. She would ask why there were pineapples, I’d ask “what pineapples?”, and she’d have a fit. I changed the emoji every day until she lost it. It was great.
End of Trigger Warning
I understand now why people are fighting to adjust the content warning on 13 Reasons Why. If I, fully aware of my own struggle with suicidal thoughts, was triggered, I don’t want to spend time inside the head of someone who has never tried to address their impulses. In the end, maybe there is no good or right way to depict suicide in art, but there are things we can do to construct a proactive dialog on the subject, and it begins with people who have experienced suicidal thoughts talking, and other people listening.
So, here is me talking.
The Thirteen Reasons Why It’s Not That Simple
- Mental illness is real. Suicide almost always walks hand in hand with some kind of preexisting psychological suffering. Neurotypical depression does not usually intensify to the point that the human brain starts to neglect its evolutionary instinct toward self-preservation. I mean to say, the average person survives a bout of depression and comes out the other side, whereas a person for whom depression is ingrained, it isn’t as straightforward. This is why the (predominantly neurotypical) people left behind by suicide are almost always left asking why, because it isn’t that cut and dry. Illness is not simple.
- Someone else’s suicide is not your fault*. Obviously the actions of others can contribute to a person’s decision to end their own life, but suicide is not the active choice of anyone but the person who commits the literal act of suicide, which is why Reason 13* will be the most important one on this list.
- Suicidal thoughts are often recurring, and start to feel routine. I think there is a common misconception that once someone thinks to commit suicide, that’s when they do it. This isn’t true in the least. There is a very authentic scene in Girl, Interrupted where the character of Susanna Kaysen is telling a boyfriend about the fluidity of suicidal ideation: “Make a stupid remark, kill yourself… miss the train, kill yourself,” or something to that effect. It sounds frivolous, but it’s not off base. Once you’ve been invaded by those kinds of demons, the idea of suicide can become a coping mechanism. It’s comforting to know you’ll always have that way out, just in fucking case. When you consider this, you realize you can’t reduce suicidal ideation to absolute terms.
- We often feel there is no safe place to talk. People who don’t live with suicidal thoughts are typically the last people we want to talk to about our suicidal thoughts. We don’t want to be coddled, we don’t want to be interrogated, and worst of all we don’t want to be forcibly hospitalized for trying to find someone to talk to. We understand this will scare you, and so we don’t tell you at all. Unfortunately, that often means we tell no one. On the flip side, if someone you love tries to talk to you about their suicidal thoughts, let them. We wouldn’t come to you if we didn’t think we could trust you, and often you only get that one chance to prove us right or wrong. I understand it’s a lot of pressure, but it’s how it usually plays out.
- Choosing to live is not the end of wanting to die. People who live with suicidal thoughts and choose life do not do so lightly, or simply. At least for me, one thing always stops me just before the point of really planning an exit: my parents. Literally only them. My friends would move on, my animals would have homes, a trusted accomplice will destroy my flash drive, and I’d be dead. But my parents? I couldn’t leave them like that. I couldn’t put that on them, no matter how many good reasons I thought I had. So long as they’re both breathing, so the fuck am I. And so, choosing to live is not the absence of wanting to die. It’s just a little from Column A, and a little less from Column B.
- Being loved is not enough. Something I hear a lot is, “She was so loved, I don’t understand,” or, “If only I had been there.” Do you hear the two different kinds of blame? Let’s address them together: Not everyone who takes their own life is alone. Not everyone is unappreciated or abused. I talked about mental illness being real, and now I have to mention it again. The mind is sick. It isn’t more or less clear than that. The mind — the organ responsible for the function of every other part of the body — is sick. I have some friends who lost a classmate to suicide. Recently I heard them both say, “Maybe if I had said something.” I’d heard them say it before, and finally I had to weigh in. The thing is, if you’re already down that far, a lifeline isn’t always going to help. Sometimes, it becomes the question of how you can still feel so sick, even surrounded by this much love. It adds a whole new layer of despair. Mental illness needs professional intervention to change course — it isn’t your fault for not sending a well timed text message or making one last surprise visit (unless you happen to pop in right in the moment). It’s not your fault.
- You can’t stop living your life to save someone else’s. Likewise, you can’t put your life on hold to save someone else. Be there, be a friend, but when it’s beyond you, admit to it. Bring someone else in. Ask for help. Unless you are a mental health professional, you can’t always be enough. When I was a Bruintown camp counselor, our Advisors taught us to respectfully cut conversations short if they were stopping us from administering our own self care. I’ve carried that lesson with me, and am very grateful to have learned it. I have to live, as much as anyone else, and so do you. If the person you’re talking to is not immediately at risk, be wise enough to say, “I am so grateful that you trust me with this, and I want us to keep talking about it until you feel better, but tonight I have to get some sleep/have to go to work/have to take care of my other responsibilities. When can we talk again soon?” If the sincerity is genuine, it will come through.
- We listen when you talk about suicide, and remember what you said when you thought it wouldn’t matter. In 2014, we lost Robin Williams. Though I felt the immediate weight of loss, I realized over time how very authentic that pain was. It’s three years later now, and I still have difficulty watching his movies, and still haven’t started his written biographies. I’ve equated it a few times to losing an uncle — a beloved relative you adore across a distance — and conditions have not improved. In the first few weeks following Robin’s suicide, I made small memorial items for my desk at work, to comfort me. I learned the hard way that not everyone has as much respect for him as I do. More than once a customer sat down at my desk, saw the evidence of my grief, and talked forcibly about what a coward he was. They interrupted completely unrelated conversations to make sure I knew how they felt about another human being’s choice to end his life. I defended him every single time. On one notable occasion, someone (who could easily have gotten me fired) called him a coward, and I snapped, “God forbid anyone you love ever feel as much pain as Robin did, because they won’t be able to ask you for help.” He came back five minutes later to apologize to me, and I hope he remembers the way he felt when he realized he needed to apologize at all. What you say about suicide is remembered by those you say it to, whether you consider the cost of your words or not. Think before you speak. Your friends are listening. Your children are listening. We are listening.
- Treatment is not absolute, and a lot of medications have the potential to make it worse. In adolescence, my mother realized I wasn’t completely okay and she took me to see doctors. I remember names like Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac — nothing did precisely what it was meant to, and eventually we threw in the towel. In adulthood, I was given pain killers that made me suicidal, anti-anxieties that made me suicidal, and anti-depressants that made me sleepless and exacerbated a twitch I have in my shoulders and neck. I’ve given up on meds, and am working slowly on finding counseling. My friends are better examples of success stories: N and J we’ll call them, swear by their medication and would be miserable without its assistance. They also both see therapists, to whom they owe a great deal of their sanity and high function. The difference between my experience and my friends’ is a fair example of the spectrum between what works for one person, and what works for someone else. Encourage people to seek treatment, but don’t expect it to fix them, to come easily, or to change them overnight. Medication takes months to adjust your chemical imbalance (if it works at all), side effects can be deadly and frightening, and therapy is a process that lasts years and is a potentially lifelong commitment. Even with treatment, suicidal ideation does not go away. There is no quick fix.
- It isn’t as simple as being nice, but be nice. One of the things people criticize 13RW for is the overly simplistic message that not being nice to someone drives them to suicide, or that the opposite practice prevents it. There is a scene where Clay says to another character, “I killed a girl because I was afraid to love her,” to which the second character responds, “You can’t love someone back to life.” The camera focuses on Clay’s face as he tearfully replies, “You can try.” This is a beautifully vulnerable narrative, but it tells too simple a story. Being kind is, of course, important, but it isn’t that black and white. You can’t always be nice, first of all, and you can’t live with the idea that every time you’re rude in a moment of weakness, you could be driving someone to suicide later on. Likewise, being kind to someone isn’t a Band-Aid for mental illness or years of whatever trauma leads to thoughts of suicide. Kindness can heal, but it isn’t all it takes. Be kind, but don’t forget how much more there is to the human experience that also plays a role in how someone experiences being human.
- It’s not an easy way out. Suicide is not a simple decision, by any means. You don’t wake up on Monday morning and kill yourself Monday night. You wake up at age sixteen and suffer for thirty years before it finally consumes you. We are aware of what we are leaving behind. We are aware of what we stand to lose, and who we stand to hurt. Even the most nihilist of us knows we leave behind a legacy we can’t control, despite the muddy message sent by narratives like 13RW. I’m an Atheist. I believe this is our only life, and I believe we only die, and we’re gone. Despite that liberating clarity, wishing I were dead is never simple, and death does not feel like the easy way out. The world I leave behind will still turn, and even if I don’t know about it when I’m dead, I know about it now, and the complexity of the human brain has a poor time reconciling the two ideas. Apart from the logistics of the act, and the weight of knowing what you’ll do to the world you leave behind you, people seem to forget that the human body wants to live. Self-preservation is a powerful (sometimes fucking toxic) drive, and a suicidal person has to find a way to break through it to the other side before suicide even begins to feel like a real way out.
- We want to be noticed. When people say “they just want attention”, I don’t think they know precisely how correct they are. We live in a world where we are told we are supposed to be asking for help, but we are punished when we do, or don’t know how. Trust and believe, thought is invested in the method of suicide, and if we mean it, we usually pull it off. Granted, things can go wrong, or people come home and stop us, or maybe you even panic halfway through and stop yourself. But for those of us who self-harm and let ourselves get caught, it’s because we let. ourselves. get. caught. So notice us. Take us seriously. Try. The human body wants to live; it’s the human mind that takes convincing.
- Suicide is a choice. I think this is the most important thing to accept. I read somewhere recently, a writer was imploring the reader stop saying “committed suicide” and start saying “killed themselves”, because that’s what it is. It’s self-murder. While we should respect and believe in the suffering of those who take their own lives, it is dangerous to reduce them completely to victimhood. People who commit suicide (see, it’s difficult, isn’t it?) are not all the same person — some were legitimate victims of abuse, mental illness, or some other trauma — in the end, however, they choose to die. We have to remember that part. Suicide is a choice made by an individual, and in the end, we cannot deny them that final agency. It is correct to be sad for them, or perhaps even feel sorry for them, but it is not correct to remove all responsibility from the part of the dead. The people in Hannah Baker’s life made choices that contributed to Hannah’s personal decision to end her own life; it does not mean they killed her, it means they made choices that influenced Hannah’s last choice.
I don’t want to live my entire life in the shadow of my desire to end it. From where I sit today, I don’t feel hope that I will ever stop having moments of ideation, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe I can use it. Maybe I can allow it to inspire me, as odd as that sounds. I spoke earlier of Robin Williams, and my thoughts on that could take up an entire blog by themselves. The short version is that Robin, in the saddest turn of events possible, has become my rock against the tide of wishing I were dead. That Robin’s choice is beyond my control has given me a greater feeling of control over my own choices, and now I live because Robin no longer can. I have to live now, because Robin felt he could not. There is nothing to glorify in losing someone to suicide, but we can choose the shape of that person’s legacy, as far as how it affects us personally. I choose to carry Robin’s memory with me as a token of strength, to do what I will always wish he would have — could have — done instead.
When I started drafting this blog, I went to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website and signed up for their newsletter. Now I can go to events in my area and contribute my labor, time, and experience to improving the lives of those who struggle as I have struggled. I encourage you to do the same, whether you have dealt with your own thoughts of suicide, know someone who does, have lost someone to suicide, or hope never to experience the loss at all.
The one thing we can always do, is try. The one gift we can always give without running out, is love. The one thing we can always do to change the world, is act.
“You can do no great things, only small things, with great amounts of love.”