As the parent of a child who attempted suicide not once, but three times, I feel its important for me to weigh in on the show 13 Reasons Why. I waited until we got all the way through to hold off my decision on making any conclusions about the show.
At first, it made me angry because it felt like it was all about revenge and blame. However, as the show went on, I came to realize more about what the producers were trying to do and I commend them for a job very well done. They took a lot of stuff and packed it into 13 episodes. All those things may not be happening in one school to one group of kids, but what if they are? What if just one of those things was happening to your child?
Do you think you would know? Don’t answer “yes” without really considering the possibility.
Everything depicted in the show is happening. It’s real. Very real. Kids are taking unwanted photos and placing them on social media. Some kids pretend they like it, but what if they don’t? People make lists. Girls are rated. Boys are expected to be men. “Slut” is a common judgement – accurate or not. Kids are drinking to excess. Rape is real. There is so called “consensual sex” happening that isn’t consensual. Kids don’t communicate with their parents. Kids are lying or hiding something. Schools bury problems. And on, and on, and on.
Every school has the athlete on a pedestal, the drama queen, the rich kid, the nerd, the closeted kid, the drug dealer. Every character represented on the show is a kid in our schools. All those characters are kids our children might want to be friends with or think that they should be. (It strangely reminded me of the mix of kids from the “Breakfast Club” movie.)
Far too many kids are dealing with anxiety and/or depression. More than you realize are contemplating suicide. (Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24.)
We never thought we would have a kid who felt that worthless. But, we did. I can’t tell you how many times I have thanked God and the universe that we made it through, and I wonder how we got so lucky.
The thing is, I do believe people truly don’t understand. Hence the reason shows like “13 Reasons Why” are crucially important. We need to talk about these things and get dialogues started.
The true reality of the show often made me angry. During the scene where Hannah talks with her guidance counselor, I wanted to jump through the screen and make him react differently. Also, I’ve heard criticism that they should not have shown the suicide scene. Honestly, I’m glad they did. It was incredibly hard to watch. It took me back to a place I never ever wanted to visit again. I sobbed through it and tried not to look. If, however, that scene makes even one person take notice, then in my mind, it was worth it. No one should experience a suicide attempt or a suicide – no one.
If you thought watching the show was rough, I promise you a real attempt or actual suicide is infinitely worse. We will live with that experience for the rest of our lives. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I never want to forget that feeling. Those memories drive us to help others. They also help us remember how far we have come. It puts things into perspective.
I don’t profess to be an expert, and I’m not patting myself or my family on the back. Thankfully, our son, Justin, survived his darkest of times. He is now happy and successful. After many years of therapy/treatment for our entire family, we no longer worry that he will attempt to take his life. Now, we get to just deal with “regular” issues.
Our son and our family became advocates for suicide prevention and learned to use our experiences and voices to help others. We get calls from families across the country who are experiencing a child in crisis, and always do what we can to offer support.
I don’t have all the answers, but there are a few things I would like to share that helped us get through the most difficult times. I’ll write about more about these points and others in the future, but here is a start:
1. Take it seriously. Our son used to say “I’m worthless” or “you would be better off without me”. We attributed this “silly talk”, as anger or just as a cry for attention. It never occurred to us that he would attempt to take his life. But, he did. If there is any kind of wonder in your mind, ACT ON IT. It is a cry for help! They are asking for help in the only way they know how! After we got our wake up call from our son’s first attempt, we would have open discussions and actually ask him if he was contemplating suicide in that moment. We used the word “suicide”. Too much was at stake, we had to talk about it. If they say yes, do not leave their side! Just hug them if they will allow it and if they won’t, then sit in silence. Clear your head and figure out your plan of action. After his third attempt, he was admitted to a program. When he came home, we wrote a contract where he agreed not to hurt himself and we all signed it. There are many websites describing the signs for suicide, anxiety, depression, etc. Visit them, or you can even confidentially call a crisis hotline – 1800-273-8255. There is even an online chat at http://chat.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx They are not going to judge you or think you are overreacting. They are there to help!
2. Kids in these situations have distorted thinking. They are not being logical and have a very different viewpoint on what is happening around them. Their judgement is terribly clouded by a feeling of nothingness or worthlessness. They truly believe that they cannot do anything right. These are the types of things you can look out for. Suicide is often the only way they can escape the pain they are in. They are not doing it for revenge or to be selfish, but in their minds, ending their life is the only way out. They feel they must show a brave face, which is why suicide is so often missed. As parents, we must be incredibly vigilant. We can’t patronize the kids and dismiss these indications of low self-esteem. We are baffled by the fact that they think so poorly of themselves. We don’t believe it, but they do. Don’t overreact or dismiss when they say they feel worthless, but don’t let it go either. It’s a sign.
3. Don’t try and tackle it alone. There is no shame in asking for help or in seeking professional guidance. We had a lot of professional help! If your child/spouse doesn’t want to go, think about going yourself. More importantly, if you do go see someone and the fit doesn’t feel right, find someone else. When we were going through our toughest times, we left a multitude of advisors until we found one that we felt comfortable with. This is where you must trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably is not.
4. Don’t let the judgements or “left field” advice of others get you down. (Strangely, everyone else knows EXACTLY what you should
be doing!) When our son was on suicide watch, we were not ready to tell others. As a result, people made assumptions and judgements about us. They called us “hover parents” and told us we needed to get out and spend “couple” time together. Someone even told us that if we got a few visits with a psychologist, it would all be better. This was not possible, but we were not comfortable sharing details at that point. My wish was that people could have had enough respect for the decisions we were making about caring for our child. Some did, but most didn’t and they put distance between us. What we learned is that those people were not real friends. They were not what we needed at the time and that had to be ok. We had to turn inward and we were not able to be social and go out for a while, but, it was a decision we had to make. The thoughts and opinions of others had to be just those. I thoroughly believe our family is closer today as a result of the temporary withdrawal we had to do.
5. Recovery is hard. It’s painful and a lot of work. Its lonely. It permeates into every aspect of your day. If you work, confidentially let your boss or someone you trust know what is happening. It is very helpful for someone to be able to have your back during the times when you need it. This is corny, but I always use the weather as a guide. There are always cloudy days and bad storms, but, the sun always returns. Some winters are longer and colder than others, but summer always comes. Don’t give up – think of me being on your shoulder telling you to take deep breaths! I’m with you and I know you can do it!
Today, we are incredibly open about the challenges we faced years ago. We have been criticized for this, but that’s ok. We don’t force anyone to listen. I consider my family to be incredibly lucky. We worked VERY hard to get to where we are today – all five of us. Our experiences shaped who we all are and the way we go about our daily lives. But we won’t forget where we came from and we are passionate that no one should suffer as we and countless others either have suffered or are still suffering.