Family, Heartbreak

Why '13 Reasons Why' Was Triggering For Me And Might Be For You Too

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Why '13 Reasons Why' Was Triggering For Me And Might Be For You Too

(Ed note: If you haven’t seen 13 Reasons Why or if suicide is triggering for you, you might not want to read this piece.)

I was excited when I read that Selena Gomez was producing a Netflix series of 13 Reasons Why. I read the book and loved it but I didn’t recall being especially affected by it. I remembered the themes of suicide, bullying, and sexual assault but I must have just skimmed over the parts that I thought might upset me.

But you can’t skip over the disturbing parts in a TV series. You can fast forward or shield your eyes, but it’s not a foolproof method. You still can catch visions of blades and blood (through your fingers covering your face) and no matter what you do, you still hear the character’s pain, the slicing of skin, and the sloshing of bloody water loud and clear.

Imagining what’s happening and letting your brain take over can sometimes be worse than just watching it play out.

In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah’s suicide is shown in a very graphic way, and while I closed my eyes on the screen, it didn’t stop me from thinking about my brother’s own suicide.

A suicide survivor is someone who attempts to take their own life and isn’t successful, but what about those people who are affected by someone else’s suicide? I’ve heard them called “Suicide Loss Survivors” and I guess that’s what I am.

My brother, Frederick, didn’t kill himself in the bathtub at home; he went to a park to do it and was discovered by hikers, not someone who knew and cared about him. I can’t imagine how traumatic it would be for anyone to come face to face with a dead person in any setting.

Whenever I used to think about his suicide or talk about it, I did it in a very removed way. I didn’t think of the details and I blurred them in my head, but seeing Hannah’s suicide forced me to confront my feelings regarding my brother’s death.

We weren’t especially close. He was eight years older than me but he was the only sibling I had. I knew he struggled with schizophrenia but I didn’t try to help him or offer my support in any way. I was self-centered in the way that teenagers often are. It wasn’t my problem until he did something that affected my life.

Every now and then I’d hear some tale of Frederick giving away money on the street or having a manic episode and buying expensive cooking supplies but again, he was more like a character in a novel than someone close to me. Did you hear what Fred did this time? people would say to me.

In some ways, I think the characters in 13 Reasons Why are lucky. They have 13 reasons why Hannah took her life, but my brother left no box of tapes, no note, and only the most general of clues as to why he did what he did.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many reasons someone might have for killing themselves; it’s never enough and it never tells the whole story.

We assume my brother went off his meds and felt hopeless enough that suicide seemed like his only option. He had three children — maybe he was afraid he’d harm them or perhaps he wanted to stop the voices in his head one way or another.

I’m not sure that anyone in my family knew how deep his pain went. He was an adult but that didn’t mean he didn’t feel bullied and misunderstood. People aren’t always patient and compassionate with those suffering from mental illness; they're not always kind.

Watching 13 Reasons Why made me physically sick to my stomach, and turning away wasn’t enough. I had to stop it and take breaks. It was too real and I could relate to every character — from Hannah’s parents who were oblivious to the pain she was experiencing, to her friends who rejected her.

For Hannah, there was a buildup, one brutal thing after another. Did my brother also have a series of horrible things happen or was it more of an encompassing sense of hopelessness?

Suicide runs in my family. I say this as if it’s something like left-handedness or cheating, and although there may be some genetic component to it, it’s much more heartbreaking than if you're predispositioned to roll your tongue or whistle. There’s something about hearing about suicide as family lore that almost desensitizes it.

Two of my aunts, a cousin, and possibly my grandfather on my mother’s side all committed suicide. I had a friend whose cause of death wasn’t listed as suicide but it could have been — she had been taking very strong medicine and had been warned not to drink any alcohol, but she did anyway and died. No one knew if she had just forgotten or if it had been deliberate.

I’m lucky because I’ve never been in that place that’s so dark where your only way out is to take your own life, which is maybe why I don’t see it as a selfish act. I see it as something you do when you’re desperate and feel you have no other choices.

I'v cried during almost every episode of 13 Reasons Why and I completely broke down during the final episode. I wasn’t just crying for a character on the screen, I was crying for all the people that I’ve lost to suicide and all the people I could have had in my life but never would.  

I can no longer distance myself from the fact that there are people, some close to me by blood and others by affection, who feel an enormous amount of pain. And by not recognizing it, I’m as much of the problem as the Liberty High students who slut-shamed, abused, and tormented Hannah.

13 Reasons Why forced me to stop skipping over the hard parts of my life and to really deal with the truth, which is that my brother didn’t just go to a park and cease to exist; he did the only thing he thought he could do to stop his pain.

I’ll never have a satisfactory reason why he did it but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel compassion and love for him and others in that situation. And for that, I’m grateful for this series.