I. AIR WITHOUT DESPAIR
As we lay in bed, just before falling asleep, my husband quietly asks, “Can you please tell me three nice things about yourself?”
We’re always struggling to speak the same emotional language and I often ask him to tell me three things he’s feeling or three things that made him happy that day just so I can get inside his brain a little. That night, he must have clued into my internal battle with a particularly cruel demon and turned the emotional tables on me. I closed my eyes and slowly listed all three.
“I’m very empathetic and understand how other people feel.”
“I’m smart and good at learning new things.”
I immediately felt a churning of emotion - like a pot of ingredients melting and mixing together into fondue goo. I was sure he was watching me - kindly and lovingly - and his encouragement to appreciate myself felt overwhelming. I was embarrassed it was obvious how mean I am to myself. I felt guilty for listing such positive things. I felt ashamed of my guilt. I felt at once worthless and terrible, deserving and powerful.
Two long tears streamed down my right cheek, falling into soft absorption on my pillow - a delicate showing of the tumult within.
We finished watching “13 Reasons Why” earlier that evening. The tales of teen angst, depression, and horrendous high school experiences hit close to home and my brain was slowly wrapping around the complexities of the show and my own mental health.
My mind created a cyclone of sad music, real life trauma, Dylan Minnette’s fucking heartbreaking facial expressions, and thoughts of every soul struggling silently. It swirled and stormed until I hyperventilated – gasping for air that didn’t contain despair. It forced me out of bed and onto my knees on the bathroom floor – hysterical, snotty, and convulsing.
It forced me to feel all the things I was pretending weren’t there - the grief of losing my friends, my pregnancies, and myself.
II. IT’S NOT ABOUT REVENGE
There’s been a lot of uproar over “13 Reasons Why” and it’s understandable. The show is shocking and upsetting and addresses some deeply disturbing topics. It’s a natural reaction to want to block the content from our own and our children’s minds. But attacking the show by saying it glorifies suicide or depicts a successful portrayal of suicide revenge is inaccurate.
This show is not about revenge or glory.
It’s a salute to every girl and woman who has ever experienced sexual judgment or aggression - to every girl and woman who has been made to believe that her emotions make her crazy and that her experiences either don’t matter or are untrue.
It’s a nod to every human who has ever felt “nothing” and known how truly terrifying that is.
It’s a public acknowledgement of every kid who ever struggled with issues and experiences beyond their emotional capacity and was told that it’s just high school or that it’s all in their head.
It’s a lesson in compassion, in empathy. It’s a plea with humanity, which is oftentimes at its worst in the throes of high school, to listen and to be better to one another.
Any one of the characters in “13 Reasons Why” could fall victim to suicide. Each student is dealing with the gravity of their own actions, of their surroundings, and of their own truth. Nearly every student in this show is experiencing turmoil and each of Hannah’s tapes is the window in which it’s displayed.
This show is an important portrayal of the difficulties our youth face: abuse at home, physical intimidation, social excommunication, judgment, rape, substance abuse, being marginalized by adults, and so many more. While it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, even the most privileged kids – the ones with happy families and good grades and tons of friends – suffer through unimaginable difficulties and by assaulting a TV show that is reaching out to them, a show that is proving to the world that they exist, we deny their already muted cries for help.
The plot of this show is not to blame one another for suicide or tragedy, but to work together to prevent it. We can’t expect anyone else to save us but we can expect better from each other, including better treatment of our girls and women.
III. GIRL TALK
Girls should be able to honestly and clearly say yes or no and in too many situations, they aren’t. Girls are taught to distrust themselves. Directly or indirectly, we teach our girls that they are weak, unstable, irrational, and inherently in the wrong. We instruct girls not to speak their truth.
Don’t express your sexuality, it’s vulgar.
Don’t ask for help, you’ll appear weak.
Don’t say no, it’s unpleasant.
Our girls are conflicted at the outset. They are burdened with impossible expectations and then blamed with the results of unsavory situations.
In a heartbreaking scene, Hannah yells at Clay to leave, though she wants him to stay. She says one thing but desires another. She’s so tortured by the confusion of her experiences, her emotions, and her distrust of herself that she doesn’t know how to convey honest information. She doesn’t know how to ask for what she wants or needs. Clay, as she states, doesn’t belong on the tapes. He was put in the impossible situation to choose between immediately respecting a girl’s voice (leaving) and deciding that she doesn’t actually know what she wants and therefore doing the opposite of what she asks of him (staying).
I have, countless times in my youth, said no when I really meant yes and said yes when I desperately wanted to say no because that’s what I believed I was supposed to do. I believed the lie that someone smarter, stronger, and better than me would make the right decision for me.
We must teach our girls to say what they mean and mean what they say by not punishing or judging them for their truth.
We must teach them that they matter. That what they think and feel and want is true and important.
When they do express themselves, we must not question their motives, their information, or their rational thinking abilities.
No one person could have “saved” Hannah Baker, but we are all failing a Hannah, somewhere.
And it’s not just the Hannahs. We are failing all of our children by not taking them seriously – by dismissing such an important message because it’s upsetting or because it comes in the form of a TV show.
When we allow our children to trust and express themselves, we give them the power to find the reason behind their feelings. We give them the power to grow and heal and work through difficult situations with confidence and grace.
By arming kids (and adults, really) with these tools, they can stop looking for saviors to tell them how to live. They can stop feeling like failures when they don’t adhere to social standards. They can become and express and contribute to the world as themselves.
By gifting others with the safe opportunity to say what they mean, we open a world of compassion where we can all thrive.
IV. I MARRIED MY CLAY JENSEN AND IT DIDN’T FIX MY MENTAL ILLNESS
Clay Jensens exist in real life. My husband is one of them. We met as 16 year olds and played the longest, most frustrating game of “will they or won’t they” you could ever imagine. I pushed him away, just as Hannah did Clay, determined that my damage would ruin him, resigned to the fact that I didn’t deserve someone as wonderful as he was.
I pushed him away when we were teenagers by kissing one of his friends.
I pushed him away every year at Thanksgiving when we were home from college and, despite how terribly I wanted to spend all my time with him, I only allowed one lunch for catching up.
I pushed him away by talking incessantly about the awful guys I was dating.
I pushed him away when we were living together by telling him I didn’t know what I wanted and forced him to move out.
I pushed at every stage of our relationship, being simultaneously terrified that he would disappear forever and desperate for him to leave me in a puddle of my own damage. I pushed because I didn’t trust myself and I didn’t believe I deserved to have the things I wanted.
It may sound like my husband is a glutton for punishment but if you ask him about it, he’ll tell you he thought a lot about how much he was willing to take. There was a line in the sand somewhere and part of me was searching fervently to cross it because I believed he didn’t deserve to be anchored to me.
Despite all of it, we got married (11 years after we met) and I am forever grateful for his ability to see beyond the surface of my actions and stand by me while I oscillated between what seemed like sane and crazy.
But the storyline that a nice boy can save a damaged girl is a dangerous one.
Yes, my husband provided invaluable support and love when I needed it, despite my mixed emotional messages, but I continue to struggle through a slog of mental health issues. I still have panic attacks on the bathroom floor. I still catch myself thinking of how little I deserve love. I still sabotage and limit myself and sometimes push him away. I still struggle to say yes and no with honesty and clarity.
A nice boy loves me and that’s wonderful, but he did not and cannot save me.
My husband stayed by my side through my most ardent attempts to shove him away because I started going to therapy. I went to support groups, to reiki, to yoga, to meditation, to anything that could empower me to save myself. Mental health is not easily attainable and it sure as shit isn’t something someone else can gift to you. It’s a personal responsibility and it’s a long journey. It’s a commitment to be honest and to be strong and to work through oftentimes a lifetime of pain into something better.
My husband, my very own adorable Clay Jensen, has the ability to hold a compassionate mirror up to me but I am the only one that can change what I see.