Real Talk Tuesdays: A Box Full of Darkness – Thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why

Warning: This article contains sensitive topics and graphic art. 


It’s a humid Thursday evening and I’m sitting at a cafe with two close friends. It’s ridiculously hot. They’ve ordered cold coffee shakes while I nurse a tall glass of iced water. We all agree that it’s been a particularly challenging week in a string of challenging weeks. As such, we’re chilling out and catching up with each other to decompress in safe company.

That’s when the question comes up.

“So, what are your thoughts on 13 Reasons Why?”

 

I have very real problems with 13 Reasons Why.

It’s premise is problematic and I feel that this adaptation is extremely irresponsible. While its producers have stated that it does not sensationalize or glorify suicide, the conversations that have started around it are troubling. Instead of curating responsible discourse on mental health and suicide, it romanticizes a revenge fantasy and creates a vehicle for blame to perpetuate. It also makes an already difficult subject for some survivors to talk about even more difficult by turning a very real issue into a conversation piece.

If there was a list of ways not to portray suicide, this would tick every box. […] It’s a revenge fantasy, so it portrays suicide as an act that will achieve something. It’s aimed at a young audience, who are particularly susceptible to contagion, and particularly likely to experience suicidal thoughts. It normalises and legitimises the act. It goes into too much and too graphic detail about the suicide itself – which is expressly against Ofcom guidelines because, however horrible it is to watch, this can still be read as a how-to.

Take to social media spaces and you don’t have to go very far to see an uncomfortable trend in how people declare how beautiful and raw the series is. Raw? Okay, I’ll take that. I’ve not seen it and have no intention of watching it and that’s fine. The ratings and feedback have told me enough of how brutal they decided to make some scenes. I can accept raw – but beautiful? NO.

Suicide is not beautiful. It’s messy on every emotional level and whether you’re a survivor or someone who was left behind, you’re never the same. Emphatic declarations of how 13 Reasons Why made you realize that kindness is something you should be deliberate about (because you just never know who you could be hurting) don’t actually help. These run the risk of turning the conversation away from the kind of dialogue and openness needed by survivors. While I acknowledge that the show has people talking, I empathize greatly with those who are upset and frustrated. The truth of the matter is, any one of us is just six degrees of separation from someone who has or may currently be at risk.

13 reasons why
“News” by Isobel Francisco / www.stainedpaper.me

I didn’t know what the words “suicidal ideation” meant when I was a kid.

It’s not the kind of thing you discuss in a private Catholic all girls’ school, much less in a country that prides itself in being largely Catholic. Talking about suicide still carries the taboo of sin and selfishness. It also has the stigma of the individual at risk merely “acting out”.

I have the words to articulate now what I didn’t know then. As early as seven years old, I’d been struggling with precisely that: suicide ideation. When you’re a child with a pair of loving and supportive parents and a baby brother who thinks the world of you, thinking of dying feels fundamentally wrong. But you think it anyway, and you tuck it away because you don’t want to upset anyone by bringing up these intrusive thoughts of self-annihilation.

Suicide is not beautiful.
It’s messy on every emotional level and
whether you’re a survivor or someone left behind,
you’re never the same.

It doesn’t help that systems of support for mental health in the Philippines are a long way from what they could be. This is not for a lack of trying. In a recently published article by CNN Philippines, Ross Tugade writes: “For the first time, I understood that all that raw, uncontrollable sadness and rage that sprang from within me was not because of some normal personality flaw.”

Too often, cries for help are dismissed as bids for attention in a country like the Philippines.

A teenaged girl once jumped from the top floor of a local mall. Declarations on social media were dismissive at best, and downright cruel and judgmental at worst. Speaking on a more personal note, if I were to count my own attempts to open up to people I considered safe spaces, only to find these cries for help subsequently dismissed, I would need more fingers and toes than I already have.

In a private exchange on Twitter the other week, a friend shared her concern over the reception of kids to the show.

“It’s being received so wrongly by it’s audience,” she told me over a private thread. I was on my commute when I caught her locked tweets and found the courage in me to engage. She continued to say: “I saw on my tumblr dash someone saying ‘people CAN absolutely be at fault for someone killing themself’.”

While many youth are resilient and capable of differentiating between a TV drama and real life, engaging in thoughtful conversations with them about the show is vital. Doing so presents an opportunity to help them process the issues addressed, consider the consequences of certain choices, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems and that help is available. This is particularly important for adolescents who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to suggestive images and storylines.

This was – is – upsetting to hear. I understand that the show’s producers have repeatedly stated that they properly labeled the show MA for Mature Audiences. Their intended audience are not these kids. However, that sounds like them washing their hands of the issue instead of acknowledging what is clearly problematic.

Netflix is easily accessible for anyone with a subscription and an internet connection. This is what we discussed while I was caught in my evening commute home. As I watched the rain fall on the windshield of the van I was sitting in, I opened up to her about the day my brother messaged me that a good friend of ours had taken her life.

13 reasons why

To paraphrase the words of a friend overseas: funerals are weird to begin with.

It’s surreal how someone who is so full of life could just so suddenly be not. It doesn’t make sense. No amount of science can make it make sense on an emotional level. It’s even stranger and even more weird when the person who’s passed is so young. I attended the wake of that good friend on a November evening surrounded by a network of friends who shared the unspoken question of: “Why?”

My brother had been much closer to her. We’d had a few exchanges, but schedules had not given us ample opportunity to spend enough time together. Looking down at her coffin and seeing her lying so still, my brother held my hand tight. Later, he would tell me that all he could think was how that could have been me several years back, and how grateful he was that that I’d made the decision to live.

At her wake, I stepped out of the chapel, my legs threatening to give out from under me. When I finally collapsed into tears in the arms of my best friend, I could feel my mind threatening lock down.

There are no words to express how unreal it feels to be on the other side of a decision my friend had decided to make. A decision I’d struggled – and still occasionally struggle with when the low catches me unawares. Because that’s what suicide is: You decide to die. You decide you want to let go of everything.

13 Reasons Why
“Ghosts” by Isobel Francisco / www.stainedpaper.me

I was in high school when I watched The Virgin Suicides for my Literature class. That was probably a mistake.

In the months that followed, it was difficult to articulate the heaviness that accompanied getting out of bed, the bouts of insomnia that kept me up short of sunrise. I know now, after multiple exchanges with long-time friends year after, that I’d frightened them. While they didn’t have the words for it, they instinctively knew that I was hurting somewhere they couldn’t reach. The most they could do was remind me constantly that I was loved and that they would always be there.

I have, to this day, a visceral aversion for sharp things – craft knives, the very kitchen utensils that I use when I make meals; metal edges, and at one point, ballpoint pens. Bridge walkways still prompt in me a deep-seated sense of anxiety, as does walking alongside open highways. On bad days, I still get flashbacks of an otherwise uneventful day in 2007 when I made my way to an intersection just seconds before the stoplight turned green – and promptly walked onto the street to the blaring horn of a bus.

13 Reasons Why
Illustration courtesy of Lee Flores / www.leeflores.com

It only takes one feather to break the camel’s back.

2007 was the year I’d lost one of my aunts. We’d had her for fifteen years after lupus took up residence in her brain, rewriting the entire identity of a woman I’d spent much of my childhood admiring for her brilliance.

Thinking back on it now, I probably should have sought out a grief counselor. I can sort out my feelings of loss now; I can piece together the signs. But there were a number of other little explosions going on in my personal life, so I thought it best to put those thoughts aside.

Finding myself that close to death – it’s almost like a virus. It incubates inside of you and you don’t realize it’s there. So I carried on. I looped a daily mantra consisting of the words “You can carry everything. You can carry your whole world because you need to,” because circumstances needed me functional. Strive to be a good daughter, stay the steady older sister. Aspire to be reliable and as consistent as can be managed. To acknowledge that I had an illness with no visible symptoms felt like all of that was – is – a lie.

So there I was, taking deep breaths on the other side of the street as the bus rolled on past. When I hurried to the nearby McDonald’s, I bought myself fries and ice cream. And then spent the next hour trying not to have a breakdown in public.

Intrusive thoughts of ending my life carried on for several more months after that. Then, with the intervention of my mom and some very good friends, I finally sought professional help.

claircolors: “When everything outside you makes you all beaten up,
it takes so much courage and effort to mend yourself together.”

Self care is not selfish.

I have no intention of watching 13 Reasons Why. Entertaining the thought of watching it prompts aches under my skin. It’s even difficult for me to engage in discussions with peers in order to articulate my personal discomfort with the show. While I admire friends who have taken it upon themselves to watch it, my mental and emotional health comes first. I also take comfort in the knowledge that they have safe spaces to retreat to when they need to process what they’ve seen.

I’ve already lost one good friend to suicide. I also live with the reality that others are still struggling. It’s not easy pulling back from the edge. You always pray that you’re available at the right time to intervene. It feels trite to call it luck, because when you sit helplessly at work typing furiously at a keyboard as you ring up someone who could get to them sooner; or when all you can do is take your 15 minute break to hold their hand from miles away, you’re never sure about how much you’ve done to help. But it’s also all you can do.

13 Reasons Why tries to neatly explain an internal struggle from an outside lens. And therein lies the root of the issue. In an attempt to answer and makes sense of the “Why?” it fails to consider that sometimes there is no answer sufficient enough to explain the aftermath of a decision we have no choice but to respect, but cannot, in good conscience, condone.


Netflix announced on May 7 that it has renewed 13 Reasons Why for a second season.

The author would like to extend her heartfelt thanks to the artists who contributed to this piece. If you are seeking resources for mental health in the Philippines, please refer to this compilation by Scoutmag.ph. We would also like to refer our international readers to YourLifeCounts.org. The site lists crisis line resources for several countries, such as the United States of America, Australia, Canada, and Japan, among others.

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Noey Pico
Audioromantic, geek and gamer. Currently a contributing editor to both Girls Got Game and What's A Geek, while occasionally moonlighting as fictional characters online. Flails a lot. A LOT.

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