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.

Talking about self-harm and self-injury #SIAD

Snapchat: leeannkhoh

A little over a year ago — in the lead-up to Self-Injury Awareness Day (March 1) — I wrote a blog post called Breaking the silence on self-injury.

My orange ribbon tattooIn February this year, I was asked by some of my classmates about the meaning of the orange awareness ribbon tattooed on my wrist. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me what it meant in the 14 months I’ve had it.

It was an opportunity to actually break the silence, instead of just writing about it.

I only had a few seconds to decide whether or not to tell the truth. When I first got the tattoo, one of the appeals of it was the fact that the orange ribbon represents several different causes, and I could decide later if I was comfortable with telling people what it meant. I could’ve said my tattoo was for Harmony Day — after all, I love its message of cultural diversity and inclusion. It’s a very worthy cause. But it’s not the cause I got inked on my wrist.

So, I told the truth: That my tattoo was for self-harm and self-injury awareness.

It’s a topic that tends to make people uncomfortable, and I get terribly anxious over uncomfortable situations. But I’m also a writer. I’m writing a novel about someone who engages in deliberate self-injury as a coping mechanism. And that comes with responsibilities that I don’t take lightly.

Here, I had an opportunity to speak up. An opportunity that had been fortuitously dangled in front of me. And not taking that opportunity — after I’d promised to myself and the world that I’d break the silence on self-injury — might have been my way of reinforcing its stigma.

The stigma of self-injury ultimately discourages people to seek help, because they feel like they’re all alone, doing something shameful that no one can ever know about. It’ll be a long time before I see my novel in print, and in the meantime, the least I can do is play my part in ensuring self-harm becomes an okay thing to talk about it.

For what it’s worth, when I told my classmates why I got my tattoo, they demonstrated empathy and didn’t freak out at all. Obviously, not everyone in the world will react in a positive way, but I shouldn’t necessarily assume that all people will react badly.

Anyway, that’s all I really wanted to say today… I didn’t manage to blog for all of February (even though I had an extra day to do it) but hopefully I’ll get some posts done in March. I’m now a full-time student again after five years away from the classroom, which has taken some getting used to. But I’m enjoying the course and the new routine. And I think my time management has improved (albeit through sheer necessity, since I’m continuing to do work for clients and revise my manuscript).

P.S. LifeSIGNS is my favourite resource on self-injury. Whether you self-injure, are trying to help someone who does, or just want to know more about it, there’s some really good information on their website.

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. 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?

Pursuing a writing career when you have social anxiety

Anxiety/Fear Puzzle. Photo by Stuart Miles/Freerange Stock.

Anxiety/Fear Puzzle. Photo by Stuart Miles/Freerange Stock.
Anxiety/Fear Puzzle. Photo by Stuart Miles/Freerange Stock.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to be an author since I was about five or six years old. One of the reasons is because I was so shy, and writing was the only way I knew how to communicate and express myself. However, pursuing a career as a writer involves a lot more than just putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Whether you’re traditionally or independently published, the marketing of your book is your responsibility. And that means putting yourself out there, which isn’t easy for a lot of people, especially if they’re like me.

A few weeks ago, Ava Jae — author of upcoming science fiction YA novel Beyond the Red and the vlogger behind bookishpixie — posted this video, On Authoring and Social Anxiety. It definitely struck a chord with me.

I always knew I was more than “just shy”, but it wasn’t until I was in counselling for depression last year that I started to see how crippling my avoidance of social situations had been. There are so many friendships and opportunities I miss out on simply because people forget I’m there, or think I’m not interested, or don’t understand why introverts can’t just get over it and be more like extroverts. I even had a teacher tell me my parents were obviously spoiling me at home because I thought I was too good to interact with the other kids; evidently not realising or caring that I didn’t know how to interact with them.

And frankly, I don’t think it’ll ever be easy for me. I’m never going to adore public speaking. I’m never going to be the world’s greatest conversationalist. I’m never going to think an unsolicited phone call is a superior way of contacting someone than an email or a text message. But I’m better than I was. And any small step towards making my dream a reality is a step I’m willing to take.

The truth is, I love people and one of the reasons I’m striving to be published (instead of just writing in my journals) is because I want to connect with people. And I think I have something worth saying. But readers will ultimately be the judge of that. 🙂

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.

Breaking the silence on self-injury

My LifeSIGNS and beyondblue wristbands

As I write this blog post, I am wearing two silicone wristbands to raise awareness for two mental health causes I’m passionate about. One of my wristbands is for beyondblue, an Australian not-for-profit organisation that helps people with depression and anxiety. The other is for LifeSIGNS, a UK-based online support network for self-injury awareness.

As important as they are to me, I don’t talk about these topics often, because I’m shy and don’t like making people uncomfortable. But Self-Injury Awareness Day is coming up on March 1, and I’m writing this because it’s important to break the silence in order to break down the stigmas associated with self-harm and mental illness.

My LifeSIGNS and beyondblue wristbands
My LifeSIGNS and beyondblue wristbands
My first contact with self-harm was when I was 12 years old and a classmate asked to borrow my scissors or the pointy end of my compass. It was an eye-opener for someone who had led a very sheltered life. But self-harm is probably a lot more common than you think and can impact people of all ages, genders and backgrounds.

I’m currently writing my first novel. I don’t know if it will be publishable when I’m finished with it; all I know is that this is the story I have to write.

The protagonist in my novel struggles with depression, social anxiety and self-injury. Her main coping mechanism is bruising herself. I didn’t deliberately set out to challenge the misconception that Self-Harm = Cutting. But the term “self-harm” does encompass a whole range of behaviours that include cutting, bruising, burning, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc.

I may not be able to change the world. And it’s often hard to find the right words to say in a given situation… I wrestled with this post for hours. But I hope someday my novel – or something else I write – will help someone, somewhere feel a little less alone. And maybe even start a conversation.

Have the conversation (beyondblue)

Self-Injury Awareness Day (LifeSIGNS)

Why you should be free writing

Free writing

Free writing
Photo by Chance Agrella
I’ve tried meditation. I struggle with it, partly because my mind never seems to be quiet. So my interest was piqued when I stumbled across this article on Medium that presented the case for free writing as an alternative to meditation.

It was written by 750words.com founder Buster Benson, who says:

The reason I think free writing is better than meditation, especially for those of us who constantly slip from the practice, is that it includes solid grips on slippery thoughts.

(If you’re not sure what free writing is, it’s basically jotting down your stream of consciousness for a period of time. The Wikipedia article on free writing is actually pretty good.)

I make a point to journal every day. I don’t set a time limit, but it’s usually the last thing I do before I go to bed. Sometimes I carry my notebook with me and write down the thoughts that occur if I get a moment alone or find myself in the company of people who don’t mind my “writer quirks”.

750words.com offers a private online space for your free writing, and seems like it would be a great way to develop the habit of daily writing. However, I find for me personally, handwriting helps me write more “freely”. I use a computer when I’m crafting a story or article, and a notebook and pen for journaling or free writing.

But I agree wholeheartedly, that since I started maintaining a regular journal three years ago, I have come to know myself better:

Imagine a fountain of thoughts bubbling up from your subconscious. Your conscious brain receives these bubbling thoughts during meditation, and we often get caught up in one and float away in a thought bubble. Eventually it pops, and we’re back, but it’s a lot of work. With free writing, we have a convenient method to step back from the fountain and observe the bubbles and let them float away on their own… because we are too busy recording them. The separation between thought and self becomes easier to discern and maintain, the same way that carrying a camera around a party creates a separation between party and party recorder.

Do you free write or keep a journal? Have you found that it benefits you?