Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fourteenth Reason

My wife and I recently watched the first season of the Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s book Thirteen Reasons Why.  My first reaction as a parent is that I don’t want either of my children to go to high school…or interact with other children, period.  I know that’s unrealistic, but the show echoes my own high school experiences—at least the general tone and atmosphere that I remember—and we all know that being a teenager in America just sucks.  This piece is not about raising teenagers.  Good lord, that piece is going to be so much harder to write…
I was hesitant to watch the show at first in part because of my own history with depression and suicidal thoughts.  I was hesitant because in my life I have known in passing more than a few people who have ended up committing suicide.  The most recent was probably the one I knew best other than my childhood friend who died of an overdose a few years ago.  Jon was not a close friend like Shane, but he and I had a lot in common and he and I had been on track to getting to know each other much better as we worked on developing trails in the Gorge area.  We agreed on a lot of things.  We had the same kinds of passion and energy to make a difference in our shared world.  And then Jon attempted to end it all.  And then Jon was successful.
I could distance myself from what the main character was going through in the series.  That was easy.  I’ve never been a teenage girl, so the situations portrayed were not my experience of being a teenager.  They were heartbreaking situations mind you, but they didn’t resonate with me like the experience of the other main character did.  I truly related to Clay.  He seemed to occupy the same niche I did in the high school ecosystem.
I’m not going to give away the show, but I am also not going to strongly recommend that you watch it.  It’s well written.  It’s compelling.  And I think it’s an important work that deserves attention.  I think if it were possible that showing this to high school kids could be useful.  I’m just not sure it is possible to do so in an effective and non-detrimental way.  Where 13 Reasons Why (the series) is most useful I think is for parents and adults who work with teenagers and children to recognize situations that they didn’t live through themselves.
But the last episode…it’s intense.  I was good until the last episode.  I’m good now; I need to clarify that.  The day after we finished it I struggled to put it out of my mind.  It didn’t bring suicidal thoughts to the forefront of my mind, it was just dark, and sad, and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have affected any neurotypical person in an adverse way, much less someone like myself who struggles with the same kind of negative thoughts that the main character Hannah let drag her into the abyss.
Be assured, I know this show is fiction.  I realize the actions were portrayed by actors and the story was made up.  However, I believe it accurately portrayed the situations as they could happen and likely do daily for someone somewhere.  There were a few plot lines I think may have been unrealistic, but overall I think the series shows how a teenager can devolve from happy-go-lucky, bright, and functioning to depressed and oppressed to the point of harming themselves.
The show starts out with Clay Jensen, a high school student who had been close to the main character Hannah Baker, receiving a collection of cassette tapes from Hannah which he soon discovers contain recordings by Hannah explaining the thirteen reasons why she killed herself.  Those thirteen reasons end up being thirteen people in her life who—in her estimation—led her into the darkness and heaped more and more on her until she could bear no more and ended her own life.
Based on my own experiences with profound depression and a scary brush with destructive thoughts and the eventual realization that those thoughts were more than just escapism or run-of-the-mill moody “depression” I believe that Hannah left out a crucial fourteenth reason: herself.
Now, before you think I’m being harsh or get judgey of a perceived insensitivity take a breath and just read.
My own worst day occurred after a long stretch of self-reflection.  There were a few factors that fed into the torrent of bad thoughts that raged through my mind, and at each confluence I picked up more volume and velocity until the dark thoughts scoured everything else from my mind.  I was dealing with a toxic relationship at work.  An individual had taken it upon themselves to “supervise” me when they had no authority to do so, but since he was in a position of authority I believed he had the mandate to do so.  And he pushed me around, made me feel incompetent, and used me to do his own work while threatening my job security if I didn’t keep him happy.
Personally, I was dealing with a couple of years of unresolved issues.  I had unceremoniously moved my family from a happy life we had made for ourselves back to a place we had tried to escape all because of my own unhappiness.  I felt guilty, useless, and trapped.  My relationship with my extended family and a lot of old friends were souring over a personal crisis of faith.  In every facet of my life I felt a profound lack of confidence in myself and powerless to change anything.  Then I added two critical factors which pushed me over the edge.
I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was fifteen years old.  By 2000 I had written over 3,000 pages in spiral bound notebooks.  Sometime around 2005 I started keeping a digital journal and have written a couple thousand more pages in the decade or more after, though I never wrote with the frequency or intensity that I did in my late teenage years.  But in early 2014, just a couple of months after my childhood friend had died of a heroin overdose, I began keeping an audio journal using the voice memo app on my iPhone.  I went to this method because I just didn’t seem to have the motivation or time to write things out.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around the keyboard and type into a word doc my thoughts and feelings, but I knew so much of important thinking was not being captured.  I was wrestling a lot of demons but always seemed like I was going it in the dark.
Maybe the voice memos alone weren’t my tipping point.  This may sound silly, but at the same time, on a whim and without much forethought, I decided I wanted to revisit music from my heyday.  I graduated high school in 1992 when grunge was taking off.  Nirvana’s Nevermind album and Ten by Pearl Jam were those pivotal musical works in my life that changed everything.  Prior to those two albums I had been interested in hard rock and heavy metal because I liked the guitars.  But with the songwriting of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder I found a love for lyrical words.  I tried to write songs and recognized that lyrics could be poems.  I tried to write stories.  My journaling hit a stride during that time as well.
And so, while wallowing in the mire of my own mind and dark thoughts I made myself a CD with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Anthrax, and probably Metallica.  There were songs like Nothing Else Matters, and Down in a Hole, and State of Love and Trust.  In retrospect, I set myself up.  Maybe the songs reflected my mood.  Maybe it was simply nostalgia for bygone days that led me back to those songs.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the abject desolation of spirit that would result in my listening to that CD coming and going between a cubicle hell that I felt trapped in and a home where I felt like I had screwed up everyone else’s life.

The playlist I was listening to on repeat at work at the time
All of that led to a moment where I was sitting in a lonely trailhead in the Red River Gorge on a cold, sunny day talking into my voice memo app about how bad my life had become.  My thoughts became anchored to an image of myself walking off a high promontory at the end of the trail just beyond the bumper of my car.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my head.  I couldn’t erase the notions that I needed to escape everything that my life had become.  I couldn’t turn off the music, the words, the memories, or the emptiness that threatened to consume me.
My conclusions were not that all those other—thirteen or however many—reasons were to blame.  When I was thankfully back in my right mind and able to analyze my thought processes leading up to that moment I realized I had to stop recording my negative thoughts and I had to stop listening to songs that reinforced the despair in my heart (I absolutely cannot listen to the song More Than Life by Whitley anymore).   
In pondering the chain of events that led to fictional Hannah’s eventual suicide I can’t help but think that her and her real-life counterparts may have contributed more to their own demises through wallowing in darkness and heaping on layer after layer of negativity.  In recording the tapes where she told the story of how bad things had become for her Hannah may have pushed herself past the tipping point.  And in a documentary we watched after the series one writer of the show suggests that Hannah set up the last “reason” to fail and so perhaps in a twofold fashion Hannah was reason number fourteen for herself.  I did that to myself.  By the grace of God or whatever I am here to tell you the tale.
The fourteenth reason is whatever you carry around in your mind and refuse to let go of.  Human beings are resilient.  The story depicted that led to suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why is a story that more people survive than succumb to.  I firmly believe the difference in survivors and those who give in is the recognition within of negative self-talk and the casting off those internally induced shadows.  The house might be haunted, but if we can just open the shades things will start to look a lot better in an instant.  It’s hard to refute the sun that shines on everyone.  All we have to do is let our inherent strength prevail.  We all have it.
I’m much more careful these days.  If I’m having a good day but start feeling bad after listening to a certain CD or even just the news on NPR I will turn it off or change what I’m listening to.  I don’t record my own voice talking about how bad things are.  For whatever reason that medium has a power over the mind that is shocking and firm.  I don’t write as much privately either.  While I want to express myself, I fear the words written in the dark with only myself as the intended audience.  I’m an introvert and tend toward being anti-social.  I’m more apt to venture into the world alone.  Therefore, the healthier trend for me is to move toward others instead of away. 
I don’t execute these strategies perfectly, but I also don’t beat myself up for imperfection.  I don’t fear the void that once attracted me with a persistent voice.  Likely it will always be there.  But if I don’t walk toward it or think much about it I’m sure its power will diminish.  Negative self-talk is the roadmap to hell.  While it’s not always easy to self-affirm, it is better, and its helps to talk to people who aren’t trapped within the same current and who can steer you toward the eddies in life and help you get your breath before moving on down the river.
While we can't always change the behaviors or torments of others we absolutely CAN change how we talk to ourselves and the background music we play on the soundtracks of our own lives.

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