Let’s talk about 13 Reasons Why

Clay gets Hannah's tapes

Let’s talk about 13 Reasons Why.

I mean, there’s a good chance you already are. It became one of Netflix’s most popular original series shortly after its debut on March 31, but soon also became its most polarising. Supporters of the show say it starts important conversations about difficult topics including suicide and bullying. Those against the show say it does this in a dangerous and/or inaccurate way.

Spoilers ahead.

What is 13 Reasons Why?

Clay gets Hannah's tapes
Clay gets Hannah’s tapes. (Anonymous Content/Paramount Television/Netflix).
The basic premise of 13 Reasons Why is this: Hannah Baker has taken her own life, but before she did, she recorded 13 tapes detailing the 13 reasons why she killed herself. Each of these tapes is addressed to a person at her school. Hannah intended for the tapes to be passed along, in order, to each of these people. As we watch the series, the tapes are in the hands of fellow student Clay Jensen.

The show is based on Jay Asher’s debut novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which was released in 2007 and already had a cult following. However, the series differs from the book in a number of ways, including the characters’ back stories and the method by which Hannah ends her life. (It’s far more graphic in the series.)

Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous?

Many experts, including Australian youth mental health organisation headspace, have issued warnings about 13 Reasons Why amid reports that counselling services have received a spate of calls directly related to the show.

Here are some of the arguments as to why the show is potentially harmful:

  • It graphically depicts suicide and rape, possibly leading to suicide contagion.
  • It romanticises suicide and presents the idea of suicide as a revenge tactic.
  • It places the blame for Hannah’s suicide on others, and does not specifically address Hannah’s mental health.
  • It discourages viewers from seeking help; the only time Hannah reaches out to someone is when she goes to the school counsellor, Mr Porter, who is unable to do anything because she sets him up to fail.
  • It does not tell viewers where they can get help if they are triggered by its content.

Kati Morton, a therapist and YouTuber, details her concerns about 13 Reasons Why in this video:

My personal thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

I liked 13 Reasons Why for the most part, but one of my friends felt it was a horrific representation. Both of us have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts. The first time I wanted to die was when I was about Hannah’s age, but as my friend and I demonstrate, I cannot claim to be able to speak for anyone else who has gone through it.

I’m wary of the fans who are borderline evangelical about the show and think everyone needs to watch it. Even though I was hooked on the series, it did bring up some unpleasant memories for me. At one point I was curled up on my bed and needed a good cry and some sleep before I could watch the rest. But teenage me also felt understood, and adult me found that comforting.

I didn’t feel like it romanticised suicide — seeing the brutal way in which Hannah ends her life and how it impacted on her parents did the opposite for me, which I believe was one of the reasons why the show changed the way she died. I also didn’t think Hannah killed herself just to get back at everyone; rather, she felt hopeless, like she couldn’t do anything right and had not one friend left in the world. And frankly, I could relate to her.

Maybe it’s over-simplistic to say that what the subjects of Hannah’s tapes did or didn’t do caused her to come to the conclusion that she had to die. Just like it’s over-simplistic to say that X, Y and Z made me suicidal. But there were things that happened to me, that piled up until life became overwhelming and seemingly unbearable. And like Hannah, I felt completely alone. So while saying “these people killed Hannah” might be an oversimplification, to suggest that external influences played no part in how she felt (and how I felt) is also inaccurate. We could all treat each other a little better because you don’t know what someone is going through. Yes, Hannah made her own choice to kill herself, and if I’d done the same it would’ve been my choice, not anyone else’s. But bullies and rapists make a choice too, and sometimes their choices have consequences like what we see in this series.

Things turned out okay for me. I eventually got a diagnosis, some therapy and a prescription. Hannah never did. Maybe she would have if she’d talked to her parents or a professional, but we’ll never know. I do think avenues for help could have been made more obvious within the show, in the same way that news stories in Australia include numbers for relevant organisations, such as Lifeline. Perhaps they could’ve inserted a news ticker at the bottom of the screen, for instance. The 13reasonswhy.info website provides crisis lines for different countries, but you kind of have to go looking for it.

I believe 13 Reasons Why does have value, but there’s no such thing as a show for everyone, and some people are safer avoiding it.

Have you seen 13 Reasons Why? What do you think of it?

UPDATE: Netflix has since announced that they’ll be adding extra trigger warnings and have “strengthened the messaging and resource language” for the most graphic episodes.

On depression and creativity

Depressed person thinking. Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.

Earlier this month, Sydney-based professional dancer and YouTuber Damian Parker, aka HeyoDamo, posted a vlog he describes as “a mildly light hearted look at a very serious issue”. It’s basically a visual representation of his personal experience with depression and you can watch it below. (Damo is quite fond of profanities though, so don’t watch it if that’s likely to upset you, and consider using headphones if there are young kids around.)

The video depicts a kind of war with your mind, which tends to be what happens to me when I’m spiralling into a bad place, though different people experience depression differently. I was diagnosed with depression in 2014, but in retrospect it had first hit me back in high school, about 10 years earlier.

Depressed person thinking. Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.
Photo by StuartMiles/Freerange Stock.
Someone emailed me an article the other day called Why Writers Are Prone to Depression. I dare say it’s one of many, many online articles on the topic of depression in writers or artists, but here are the reasons this particular article outlined:

  • Being familiar with suffering may enable writers to write about their characters’ pain;
  • Writers are often working on their own and may not get much social interaction;
  • Writers face lots of rejection, which can take its toll;
  • Writers may write at odd hours, adversely affecting sleep schedules.

I’ve always been a bit of a loner and night owl, so I guess that fits the profile… But I’m an introvert with social anxiety and many writers are not.

I was writing long before I ever felt depressed, but I do think my best work has been when I’ve been able to tap into those dark thoughts and feelings and transform them into a new story. But it’s hard to be creative when you’re in a depressed state. I’m at my most productive when my head is above water.

These days, I’m doing okay. I use a combination of prescribed medication and self-care activities like keeping a daily journal. I was also in therapy for a while. I have good and bad days, but I’m getting through them.

If you’re reading this blog post and you’re struggling, I won’t patronise you by saying everything will be fine. But it can get better. If you find something that works for you (which may or may not be what works for someone else), then bit by bit, life gets a little more livable.

Fighting depression during the holiday season

The festive season can be depressing. Photo by Adamophoto/Freerange Stock.

The festive season can be depressing. Photo by Adamophoto/Freerange Stock.
The festive season can be depressing. Photo by Adamophoto/Freerange Stock.
It’s called the festive season, and you go around saying things like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” to each other. But the truth is, the holidays can be downright depressing, even if you’re not clinically depressed. And to make matters worse, you’re expected to plaster a smile on your face for days at a time and act cheerful. No one wants to spend Christmas and New Year’s with Debbie Downer.

I’ve tried to be open about my mental health struggles because I believe I can help people by putting myself out there.

Over the years, I’ve figured out that there are a few things I can do to make the holidays a little more bearable when I’m feeling down. They don’t come with any guarantees, unfortunately, but I’d like to share them with you in the hopes that they might work for you.

  • Put some music on. Not Christmas music, unless you have a genuine passion for it. But something that makes you smile. 80s pop and glam metal is my usual choice because it’s so gloriously over-the-top. Use headphones if the rest of your house won’t apppreciate it.
  • Take some time out for yourself. This can be difficult, especially if you have to spend time with multiple sets of families over Christmas. But sometimes a few minutes alone in the bathroom can help you face the world again.
  • Keep a journal. I actually think everyone could benefit from doing this all year round, but if you’re likely to feel depressed these holidays, grab a notebook and record everything you’re thinking and feeling. It doesn’t have to make sense; it’s just for you, and you might find that writing it all down helps you come to terms with it.
  • Do something creative or artistic. This year, I wrote a therapeutic three-chord song on my guitar called My Suicide Note Will Ruin You Like You Ruined Me; and in the tradition of one of my favourite bands, The Gaslight Anthem, the title does not appear in the song at all. (Also, in the tradition of most of my songs, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever hear it, but that’s okay because I didn’t write it for anyone else but me.) However, if crocheting or adult colouring books are more your thing, try to indulge in that over the holidays.

Do you have any tips for getting through the festive season?

Grief, purpose, and moving on

Grief. Photo by Paul Cristian Geletu/Freerange Stock.

I want to talk about grief. By definition, it’s the reaction one has to losing something. But it’s a fascinating process, because it’s different for everyone, and so many people have an opinion on it, e.g.

  • “Haven’t you moped around long enough? Get over it.”
  • “How can you be over it already? It obviously didn’t mean much to you.”
  • “Look at all the other people in the world whose lives are worse than yours. How dare you be unhappy.”
  • “You didn’t know him/her as well or as long as I did, so you don’t have the right to grieve.”

Those weren’t direct quotes, but my friends and I have been told some variation of all of those things over the course of our lives. But grieving processes will vary, from person to person, from situation to situation. And that’s perfectly okay.

I used to think moving on from something meant it didn’t hurt anymore. But it doesn’t mean that at all. Moving on is accepting that you’ll always have a hole in your heart because you’ve lost something that can’t be replaced, and then getting to a place where you can still live in spite of that.

Grief. Photo by Paul Cristian Geletu/Freerange Stock.
Grief. Photo by Paul Cristian Geletu/Freerange Stock.
I have a confession to make: I cry almost every day. That might seem at odds with my last post (when I said I was in a much better mental state than I’d been in the past) but it’s not. I mean, I have good days and bad days, and good moments within bad days, and bad moments within good days. But the reason I cry is because I’ve finally, truly realised why I am here.

I could be dead today. I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation on and off for ten years, and for most of that time I was alone because my crippling shyness made it hard to make close, meaningful friendships with anyone. (However, I’m determined to ensure it won’t stop me from doing all the things I need to do to be an author.) But for various reasons, I’ve survived to this point, even though I often wondered why until this year.

I had a moment of clarity in April, when I read Dani Shapiro’s blog post On What it Takes. In it, she talks about the books she had to write (even though everyone told her not to), and admitted she cries every day. I try not to seek or depend on validation from others, but the truth was, her admission gave me the space to feel okay about my crying. And the “feeling okay” was incredibly liberating.

I’ve shed countless tears while writing my work-in-progress novel and I’m sure there’ll be many more to come (I just finished my second draft). I have no idea how my manuscript will be received when I’m ready to send it out to agents and publishers. All I know is that this particular book gnawed at me, demanding that I write it until I did. I’ve poured my heart and soul into it, taking the emotions I once thought would kill me, and crafting them into a story that I hope will resonate with readers. Dani’s blog post also talked about making something out of nothing, and I guess that’s what I try to do too.

As I continued to write, it hit me that I may have an unfillable hole in my heart, but I also have a reason for living, and that’s my writing. Even if this manuscript is never published, I’ve learnt a lot about myself for having written it. I used to think only other people could finish something so big. I used to think I couldn’t live without my best friend. I used to think I’d be dead before my 25th birthday. But bit by bit, I’m proving myself wrong (I’m almost 27). And it feels good. The act of putting pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard, gives me so much purpose. And if someday my work helps someone going through their own battles, then all the tears and bruises and pain will have been more than worth it.

It’s okay if you’re not okay

Are you and your loved ones okay?

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and R U OK? Day in Australia. Of course we should try to look out for one another and listen without judgment all the time, but days like this are good for raising awareness in the community.

The novel I’ve been working on deals with depression, anxiety and self-harm. I hope someday I will get it published and it will help start important conversations about mental health. But whether I achieve that or not, talking about mental health and removing the stigma around it is so, so important.

No one tells you to “just get over it” if you have a physical illness. With mental illness, you’re told it’s all in your head, as if that makes it less real. This week, it was revealed that AFL star Lance “Buddy” Franklin is suffering from a mental health condition and won’t play in his team’s qualifying final. While he’s received a lot of support, I’ve also seen comments on social media along the lines of “Hard to feel sorry for someone with so much money” and “If he can’t handle being famous he shouldn’t have become a footballer”. All this is ignorance (or douchebaggery) that I hope future generations don’t have to put up with.

It’s okay to say you’re not okay. I’m no longer ashamed to say that I wasn’t for a long time. But I got help, and now I’m doing a lot better. So please talk to a friend or family member, or call Lifeline (or the equivalent crisis support line in your area), or see your doctor. But don’t suffer in silence.

Flash fiction: Black Dog

Black Dog

Black Dog
Photo by sergis blog (Flickr)
It’s always there.

When you wake up to another dreary morning, haunted by the ghosts of your dreams, it’s perched at the foot of your bed. Staring at you with big stoned eyes, then pouncing, and pasting a thick dollop of slime across your face.

It’s always there.

You stare blankly at grey, sickly features in the mirror. Your features. With a lethargic sigh, you systematically paint on your ‘happy face’ as the shaggy black dog sits dutifully behind you. Its head cocked gently to one side, it observes you with mocking sympathy while you examine the gaunt, scabbed skin stretched across your wrists.

You mumble cheerful phrases before shuffling from the house to begin another day of existence. Someone calls your name, and you and the dog turn in perfect unison. It’s your best friend. You greet them with a glowing smile, and engage in some excited chatter about the latest episode of some inane television program you can barely recall. Walking and talking down the street while a ball of matted black fur scurries after you.

It’s always there.

You sit gingerly like The Thinker at a cramped desk in the corner and scrawl illegibly onto the page. You vaguely recall a time when being good at school secretly meant something. When life actually meant something. When you experienced the world instead of watching from the sidelines. When you felt real emotion instead of this freefall into a pit of endless nothingness. You glance up at the clock on the wall, hearing each tick-tock echo around your head. Coarse fur rubs irritably against your leg.

It’s always there. Lurking in the shadows.

Warm amber liquid slowly pools around your feet. This is a dog you couldn’t abandon; it’s too deeply entrenched in who you are. The black dog is your only friend and your worst enemy. You are the dog and it is you. Bound to each other. The dog tracks your every move, every second of every day. It followed you to school and it will follow you home again. It will be panting at your shoulder as you scrawl a short message to the world into your notebook. It will hunt you down when you detour away from your house. And it will be sniffling at your heels when you sway at the edge of the footbridge, peering at the frantic river below.