I was warned not to do it but I did it anyway. I watched 13 Reasons Why. I’m sure you’ve heard about the show by now – it’d be hard not to, given all the controversy about it. It’s about a teenager (Hannah Baker) who commits suicide and leaves behind audio tapes detailing her life experiences and the actions of the thirteen people she blames for her suicide.
It was amazing, engaging, completely addictive, and triggering as all holy fuck.
I can’t decide if I’m glad I watched it because it was a really good series, or if I regret it because I now feel so absolutely horrible in myself.
The show explores bullying, sexual assault, misogyny, rape, and more nasty shit including Hannah’s ultimate suicide. It covers very difficult topics and it does so graphically and explicitly. I was expecting it to be heavy and hard to watch but not to the extent that it was, and I certainly didn’t expect to feel triggered by it. I’ve been struggling with my own depression of late but I was still unprepared for the feeling I was left with at the end of the series. I was left feeling – and still feel – totally empty and worthless and miserable. Cool.
I think the reason why I found it triggering was because it brought back so many memories and feelings that I had pushed away over the years. I was quite badly bullied in secondary school. I felt like everyone was against me, and I felt like there was this torrential shit storm constantly raining down on me. Life felt so cruel. I self-harmed throughout my teenage years and experienced a lot of suicidal ideation. This show brought back all the reasons why I felt so fucking horrendous, and reminded me of all the thoughts and feelings I had about myself during that time.
Those thoughts and feelings have come back and burrowed into my brain as though they’d never gone away. I’m having flashbacks to all the times I was told I was ugly and worthless and that no one would ever want to be with me; to all the times where people would deliberately do horrible shit to me, like stick plasters in my hair or trip me up on the stairs or throw stuff or spread horrible rumours; to all the times when I self-harmed because I didn’t know how to express my pain and no one else was there for me. These experiences all left me feeling like I was fundamentally ‘wrong’ in some way and that I didn’t deserve to be alive. Having watched 13 Reasons Why, the gnawing emptiness and sadness caused by all of the above has formed a knot in my stomach again.
But my life is better now, right? Of course it is. I’m so, so lucky and ultimately really happy with what I have. But honestly, my experiences as a teenager were really damaging and I’m still left with the physical and mental scars from them. I can’t just magic the sadness away, or the feelings I’ve been left with about myself. On Monday night, a couple of hours after I finished the last episode of 13 Reasons Why, I was face down on our bed sobbing, asking my boyfriend why he’s with me, telling him he’s all I have and that I’m sure he’s going to leave me.
What’s incredibly frustrating is that I can imagine the people who bullied me watching 13 Reasons Why and not seeing the connection between Hannah and someone like me. The show makes it clear how things happened and who was responsible for what. In real life, these things are much more nuanced and banal. The problem for me was the insidious nature of the comments and little actions of others; the overall result was greater than the sum of its parts. I guess the show addresses this too, but not to the extent I would have hoped. In real life it can sometimes be really difficult to identify direct causes for things, or one event from which everything else snowballed. I don’t imagine the people who bullied me actually recognizing their actions as damaging because it was just a comment here and there; thoughtless and sporadic. Everyone was mean to everyone, right? The word ‘banter’ wasn’t really around when I was at school but if it was, I feel like that’s how they would have justified their behaviour towards me.
Another thing that struck me about the show is that Hannah’s character is beautiful. charismatic, likeable and fun. I was watching the show and thinking ‘wow, I wish I was any of those things at that age’. I compared the school-age me to the main character and it made me feel even more inferior in my memories of my time at school. I was unattractive and awkward and felt worthless. I’m not saying I had it worse than the character in the show, but that the character’s intrinsic worth and loveliness makes me feel even worse about the ‘old’ me. I think, had I watched this show during the time I was mentally struggling the most, it probably would have pushed me over the edge.
Maybe the biggest thing that frustrates me about the show is that it doesn’t feel realistic that the character put these tapes together. That implies that she feels that people will regret their behaviour towards her. When I was being bullied and feeling suicidal, I didn’t feel like anyone would give the slightest fuck if I died or feel bad about what they did to me. I certainly wouldn’t dream of recording my voice and going into detail about my experiences; I would have felt like that would be another thing for the bullies to laugh at me for. I know not everyone’s experiences are the same, but the tapes just feel so alien to the situation and how being bullied makes you feel. I wanted to disappear; I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to remember that I had existed.
The show also doesn’t explore depression and mental illness as much as I feel it could. It kind of goes from “happy girl” to “suicidal girl” without a representation of the prolonged mental illness in the middle. You see her reacting to the events and things happening to her, and you see a few token signs of the fact that she might be feeling suicidal (overly simplified to “losing interest in things”, “changing appearance” etc.), but you don’t necessarily see the signs of mental illness. Only in the last episode did I see a scene that rang true for me and truly represented some element of deep depression – the one in the counsellor’s office.
Lastly, in the show Hannah assigns blame to people for her death which is quite a manipulative thing to do, and I don’t like the idea of all suicidal people being assigned that label. It’s not accurate and it’s not fair.
There weren’t thirteen people to blame for me feeling the way I did throughout my teenage years; it was a mixture of circumstances and people and thought patterns that had developed over the course of my entire life. This is the nuance that the show misses. As far as I can understand, people don’t commit suicide just because they are being or have been bullied. There are other factors. Bullying is much more likely to result in suicide if the person being bullied already has harmful thought patterns, had a difficult upbringing, has specific personality traits that would lead them to absolutist thinking etc. (I know these things were certainly true for me).
Although it’s not perfect in its portrayal, I’m fundamentally glad 13 Reasons Why exists. It explores some serious issues that need to be talked about, and which are a problem for a lot of young people. I hope it serves as a catalyst for serious discussions and makes people think harder about how they treat others (of course, you can’t just prevent suicide or mental illness by being nicer to people, but it’s certainly a good place to start). I feel like this show should be watched by anyone who hasn’t experienced similar things to Hannah, just to give you an idea of what it’s like; but please be mindful of what is covered and don’t watch it if you are concerned about being triggered.
Stay safe and sane, loves! x