Sunday, May 7, 2017

13 Reasons Why Not

For those of you who a) do not live in the U.S., b) do not keep up with Netflix, or c) do not associate with teenagers, consider this a friendly PSA: Netflix recently came out with a show called, "13 Reasons Why," about a teenage girl who dies by suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes (nice throwback), each side dedicated to a classmate who she felt had wronged her enough to contribute to her death. The tapes get passed around from kid to kid with explicit instructions to listen to all 13 sides, and implicit instructions to feel guilty and ashamed for driving this girl to kill herself.

If you're anything like me, you might be thinking, "WTF is this show doing on television?!" or, "Who would even MAKE crap like this?" Well, not only has it been made, but it has created quite a sensation, particularly among teenagers and people who know/care about/work with them. I decided that before rushing to judgment, I should actually watch the show, and now that I have, I can tell you that while I do truly believe that the producers had noble intentions in making this series--bringing the issue of teen suicide and other difficult issues to the front of our collective consciousness--I also believe they got a lot of things wrong. While Hannah, the main character, is clearly depressed, the show does not discuss the issue of depression at all. It also does a disservice to mental health professionals by portraying the guidance counselor Hannah approaches as woefully inept, and I worry that this could discourage teens from seeking out adult help when they are struggling. And while I understand the argument that at least it's getting people talking about suicide and bringing the issue out into the open, but I would say that the danger of putting into the minds of teenagers the idea that you can get revenge on people by killing yourself (and then basically giving them a suicide how-to manual), far outweighs any "benefits."

I say all this as someone who knew two teenagers who took their own lives, one of whom was a former student of mine, whom I still think about daily. I also say this as someone who has spent her share of time in the throes of "passive suicidal ideation"--that is, wanting to die without having an actual plan to carry it out. For me, this was the worst part of all my mental health struggles, and it was never as dramatic as it is shown to be on "13 Reasons Why." No one wronged me, I had no terrible secrets, and I didn't need to make anyone "pay." I just didn't want to struggle anymore--I didn't have the heart or the energy for the hundred little daily battles that added up to more than I could bear. I was also seized by a deep-seated fear that I would always feel depressed and hopeless, and that my life would never get any better.

Fortunately, as a young adult in her 20s I was blessed with a gifted therapist, effective medication, and a fully functioning frontal lobe, all of which guided me to a place of knowing that despite sometimes feeling like I wanted to die, I would never actually take my own life. I knew that as firmly as I knew my own name, even as there were many things of which I was not sure: would I recover? Would my life amount to anything? I truly didn't know--but I knew I was in it for the long haul. Even now, there are days when my brain chemistry is wonky or I am feeling more depressed, and I have that thought: I hate my life. In my experience, thoughts of suicide are a bell that you can't really unring. The difference is that now, the thoughts come and go--they don't linger, and they don't scare me, because just as I knew it 10 years ago when I was really struggling, I know it now: I will never end my life. And here are some reasons...let's call them, "13 Reasons Why Not."

1) My parents. My single biggest reason to keep going has always been the love of the people who gave me life to begin with. My parents are my biggest cheerleaders and have always shown me that I am their priority, and that they love me whole. No matter how angry I ever got at myself, no matter how much fury I felt toward my life and the world, I always knew I would never, ever put my parents through the grief of losing their child to suicide. Absolutely never. No question. It's a non-starter.

2) G-d. So, I'll admit that while I have always had a firm belief in G-d, I'm a little hazy on some of the details, especially when it comes to suicide. I've read different opinions on what G-d "thinks" about suicide, but let's be honest: no one really knows. Still, I've always imagined that G-d would be disappointed if I bowed out early--not out of anger, but because He had a plan for me and I abandoned it. And if I can't handle disappointing people, I sure as sh*t don't want to disappoint G-d.

My Nana and I, circa 1984.
3) My Nana. Okay, so she passed away three years ago. Also, I'm not exactly sure what I think about the afterlife and whether or not you actually get to see people you loved who died before you. But if there's any chance that that happens, I definitely would not want to face my grandmother after having taken my own life. She was a fighter and a fiercely principled, loving woman, and she would NOT be okay with her only grandchild dying by suicide.

4) My other family members. My family is quirky (aren't all of ours?), but despite all the times I have had trouble connecting or have been distant or otherwise unavailable, they have stood by me. And I love them for it. Could I intentionally cause them the pain that would inevitably ensue if I ended my life? I really couldn't.

5) My friends and colleagues. Despite all the times when I think, I have no friends, I know that I actually do have some pretty amazing friends whom I love with my whole heart, and who would be devastated if I died. And then there's my work family, whom I'm with all day, five days a week, for 10 months of the year. There are lots of things we don't have in common, but there are more that we do, and I know that even though I sometimes feel "different" from them, they care about me deeply as a coworker, as a friend, and as a human being--and they would never want me to be gone for good.

A valentine from a former student.
Melt my heart.
6) My students, past and present. I love my students fiercely, and no matter how long ago I had them in class, they always remain "my kids." And I just could not put them through the trauma of having one of their teachers die unexpectedly. Not to mention the responsibility I have to be a role model, to demonstrate for them how to persevere through life's tough moments and to have faith in the future. "Suicide" is never what I want my students to think of when they think of me.

Baby robins!
It's the most wonderful time of the year!

7) Sunrise and sunset. Each one is different and beautiful and miraculous. Don't you want to see tomorrow's? I do.

8) Springtime. Honestly, is there a more wondrous season? Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping,  leaves are popping out, and baby animals are everywhere. It never, ever gets old. I am in a constant state of amazement every time I go outside from March through June, and I want to witness all the springs I possibly can.

9) You don't get to watch people's reactions to your death.  This is probably my biggest beef with "13 Reasons Why," or at least one of them: it fails to communicate to teens that you don't get to see what happens after you die. You don't get to see the crying, you don't get to watch the memorials, and you don't get to hear all the wonderful things people will say about you. You don't get to do any of that, because you're dead. That's it. It's final. Full stop.

10) Curiosity. Simply put, I'm interested to see how my life plays out. I have some goals and plans and, nebulous though they may be, I'm curious to see what I can make my life into if I put them into action. Teaching. Motherhood. Exploring. I bet a lot of things will happen that I'm not expecting, and some might be painful and others will be wonderful, but I still want to see how it turns out. I actually think it could be pretty great.

11) I can do more good alive, than not alive. It sounds obvious, because it is. Alive, I can teach my students, nurture them, and guide them to become self-confident, positive members of a community. Alive, I can love my family and friends and add to their lives. I can cuddle babies, I can water plants, and I can volunteer my time at causes that matter to me. Dead, I can't do any of that. And that matters.

12) Tikkun Olam. This is the Jewish belief that we are put in this world to "fix it up." Whatever our current situation, we have been brought there because there is some fixing that needs to be done, that only we can do. I like to believe that I am alive because I have not yet fulfilled my "fix-up mission" on earth. I want to be a fixer and a healer--and I definitely do not want to make this world more broken than it is right now.

13) "Pain comes and goes like clouds. Love is the sun." --Glennon Doyle Melton
PC: Lisa Randolph via Twitter
This is my favorite quote for dark times, for the times when depression sits like a brick in the middle of my skull and I don't feel good about anything. I love this quote because it has proven to be true, time and again--whatever crappy situation I find myself in, whatever intolerable feelings I am having, they all pass. It might take a few days, or even a couple of weeks, but they always fade away, and in their place is love. Not sunshine and roses everywhere, but love for the people in my life and for the beauty around me. Faith that the difficult times will pass has always been what keeps me going. It's true for me--and it's true for you, too.

If you have ever thought about ending your own life, I hope my list of "13 Reasons Why Not" inspires you to make your own list. Even if you can't get 13 things--even if you can get only one thing--that one thing is all you need. And let me be the one to tell you, in case no one else does: 

You are magnificent.
You are one-of-a-kind.
The world needs you.

Please, please stay. It's been the best thing I've ever done. It will be for you, too. I know it.