DISCLAIMER: The following is a rough, scattered look at some of the battles I faced in my youth. It’s by no means definitive, nor do I wish to disclose names or define events past an illustrative way. Some things mentioned may be triggering to those with mental health or abuse issues. Please use discretion when reading.
13 Reasons Why will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first book I read that felt disturbingly real and relevant to my emotions at the time. It’s hard for me to process that the book itself is a decade old. It’s found new life in a Netflix mini-series — and people are finally talking about something that profoundly affected me throughout my entire middle and high school career.
Except everyone is older now and they’re missing the point.
Throughout my newsfeed on Facebook, I’m inundated with statuses and links to articles claiming how inaccurate 13 Reasons Why is and how it’s an “insult to anyone struggling with mental illness.” Other viewpoints claim that Hannah Baker’s depression “isn’t what depression really is.” Some complain that the series dances around the major links to suicide: depression and mental illness. Many articles comment that the series doesn’t ever use the word “depression” (even though modified forms of the word are used — active and passive tense — in episode 1 and 3). “Depression” and mental illness are still dirty words. It’s a shameful thing to admit that your mind works in such a way. I hope that, with the popularity of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, the conversation can get a little louder. I’ve gotten to the point where I can talk about it — jokingly — and feel a little better about something I have no control over. When people claim that a depressed person “has enough agency” to be happy, yet choose not to, I seize up.
That’s not how it works.
I was diagnosed with chronic depression at age 13. I could never understand why my brain felt predisposed to be sad, but it was. The doctor said my serotonin and norepinephrine levels were all out of wack. The chemicals in my head just… weren’t right. It was hard to stomach — it still is — that my body would be working against me, actively trying to destroy me from the inside out. This started me on the trail of antidepressant cocktails. I took everything including Zoloft, Abilify, and (my greatest demon) Effexor. This fixed the underlying “cause,” but it didn’t stop anything that followed.
Middle school is a weird time. You’re not exactly an adult by any means, but you’re certainly not the innocent, cherubic child you were mere months earlier. That’s the time where you’re able to “find” yourself. Or start to, at least. Classes change, you meet new and exciting people, and you start to develop into your own person. You mostly want to fit in, though. I did, anyway. In particular, I wanted to fit in with the cool, hip skater kids. The “goths.” The emo kids. The first step to showing civil disobedience? Stop cutting your hair. When I did that, my natural, unruly curls were readily visible. The freckles I have and the glasses I wore were already huge targets (and had been in elementary school as well). Now, I had a mess of curls that were floaty and lofty.
One day, I was running laps in gym around the basketball court. My hair would fly backwards into a small afro. This prompted one student to coin the nickname: “Pubehead.” It stuck. More and more people would use it in the halls, the cafeteria, and anywhere else I’d go. That was the sole reason I started straightening my hair. I stopped wearing my glasses, too. People stopped bullying me for those reasons, but it didn’t take long for them to find new ones.
Now that I had changed my appearance, some girls started to notice me. It was the crowd I wanted: the cute, adorable emo girls. I found solace in the music, in the discussion, and in the camaraderie of mutual sadness. One day, two of my close friends at the time decided to put eyeliner on me during recess. I felt so cute. I felt like one of my idols: Jared Leto, Gerard Way, or David Bowie. My other classmates didn’t feel the same. That was the first time I had been called a “faggot.” This was all because of a few dark lines on my face.
I felt comfortable wearing makeup regularly and it made me love my favorite thing about myself ever more — my eyes. The homophobic insults grew, but I tried my hardest to silence those voices. The insults would later manifest in a physical way. In the locker room of the gym, I was putting my shoes on after getting into my gym clothes. I was crouched, my foot resting on a metal bench. Here comes one of the “popular” boys, along with a few compatriots. He pulled his gym shorts down, exposing his penis to me at eye level.
“Like what you see, faggot?”
I kept my head down, focused on my shoestrings. The trio left, still guffawing. I was frozen with fear for what felt like hours. I finally warmed up enough to move and go back out to the gym floor.
It took a while to recover from that. I was scared of being alone in the locker room. I was terrified of something like that happening again. Luckily, it never did.
Tiny things would happen here and there… such as girls being “dared” by other girls to ask me out, only for it to be bullshit. I never had a date in the middle school dances, so every year I’d be excited that I might have my first. Around this time was when I made my first attempt on my life.
Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why would come to be the following year when I started high school.
One of the worst events to happen in my high school career was when a girl started a rumor about me. This particular girl and I had a tiny, two-week long relationship my freshman year. We walked the halls and held hands. At that time, we had never even kissed. A few years later, we tried to rekindle something — whatever it was. We hung out, watched some movies, and played some video games. After dinner, we kissed and everything felt normal. We later agreed that things shouldn’t move forward. I can’t remember why, but it was amicable. A couple of months later, people had started talking about me and how I “apparently tried to rape a girl.” At this time, I was a virgin and had yet to do much of anything sexual. Whenever I’d ask people who they heard this from, they’d be dismissive. I finally found out that it was the same girl I had dated before. Who knows if she was the actual one to start it, but I didn’t talk to her for years. Only recently have I been able to talk to her and reconcile. Who knows who still believes that story, however…
All of these little things add up — and when you don’t feel comfortable speaking out (in fear of greater retaliation), it all bottles inward with nowhere to go.
When every day is spent in a prison of learning with no way out, death can seem like the only escape. It’s the only way to break the monotony. The routine. The repeated attacks and cruelty from those who don’t know when to stop.
When I was out of high school, I experienced another relationship that ended up destroying most of my trust of people. Some of my closest friends know of my biggest trauma — and it’s not something I’m comfortable writing here. It was the worst thing to ever happen to me, and it’s the hardest thing to forget. Following it, I tried to take my life for the last time.
After a handful of attempts through the years, I started therapy in 2011. The man I saw was one who was more concerned with the time on the clock than unraveling any of the reasons why I never felt well. I never felt comfortable divulging my deepest secrets unto someone who did a terrible job at pretending to care. I would later stop taking any medication for my depression for two reasons: the first, it made me feel so incredibly artificial. The second, I couldn’t afford it. I had to learn how to cope in other ways. It hasn’t been easy at all.
The people who caused me pain probably don’t even remember it by now. It’s been six years since I stepped into that school, but the words people said then still live with me now. I still feel like those words are true, even though those same people act like we were always friends… even back then.
Three years ago, I was at a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. I had a couple of classmates say, “I always expected this would be you” and not from the deceased. I never knew how to process that. I never publicized my attempts until now, but the people who knew I’d been bullied expected me to succumb to the harmful words and actions of others. Not only did this feel like the improper venue, but the general sentiment of the phrase is just fucked up.
Hannah ran out of allies, just as I felt I did back in school. Every light in her life was a farce. The bullying was relentless and the pain was incredibly real. If mental illness and depression were not so taboo, people wouldn’t be so afraid to speak out and get help. The disconnect between adults and teens is one that’s hard to bridge, but if anything could bridge it, it’s 13 Reasons Why.
The point of 13 Reasons Why is to show what happens when a person is too afraid to speak out about their abuse. It also shows us how people struggle to find “reasons” why someone made the decision to end their life. Even though Hannah had her own reasons, the parents and teachers struggle to piece together a narrative. It’s really off-putting to see some of the same people who used to relentlessly tease and belittle me share praises of 13 Reasons Why. However, I truly hope they understand and teach their children to be kind to others. 13 Reasons Why showed me that my death would cause so many chilling, unintended effects. Now that I’m a little older, I can see that, if I were gone, I would’ve never met some of the most important people in my life. I would’ve never seen some of the things or experienced life as much as I’ve gotten to.
However, there is no “right” way to feel pain or to feel like you matter to no one. Depression is not a “catch all” term for sadness, nor is it mutually exclusive to bullying. You can be depressed in a sea of praise, much like I am now. I’m trying so, so hard to keep from drowning in anguish. It’s a never-ending struggle, but I am often thankful to be alive. I make the mistake of placing my happiness in the hands of others, but I’m trying to find my own reasons to live. 13 Reasons Why made me think about how my death would affect the people I love and I couldn’t deal with the thought of making so many people cry. I’m glad to see that people have been emotionally affected by the Netflix adaptation the same way I was affected by the book when I needed it the most. I never viewed it as a “suicide manual”, or even as an “exploitive piece of fiction.” I felt like I finally had a piece of literature that was mine. Jay Asher spoke to me with his novel unlike anything I had ever read or seen before. It’s raw, unforgiving, and unflinching. Now, his same message has a much larger stage — and it’s never been more relevant than now.
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