What I got from 13 Reasons Why

vylitKu and I recently dove in, headfirst, to the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.”

I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first. We recently had a young student in a nearby city take her own life, reasons unknown to me, but I hope not to her family. It shook me to my core, we both recoiled in horror when we found out about it. Suicide is nothing to take lightly, a serious act of which you lose control of righting it. It’s forever and leaves so much pain behind. I feel selfishly lucky that suicide hasn’t touched our family directly, but we felt total sadness at the passing of the middle schooler. Her name was Vylit (read: Violet).

Her death has been an upheaval for the town she lived in. Oddly, it hasn’t exactly brought everyone together. Lynden, where she lived and went to school, happens to be a very religious, Christian community. It is predominantly Dutch, with a large number or migrant dwellers, who move with the produce seasons. There is a divide, a feeling of judgement, an inability to integrate, just in general. Throw in something that has rocked every resident to their core, and it has become something short of ugly. There has been blaming, a desecration of religious beliefs, finger pointing, hurt, people have turned on the parents and family, or blaming the town, etc. We lived in Lynden for almost three years. Our kiddos were students there that whole time. It is picturesque, almost too clean, and definitely hard to feel welcome. We always chalked it up to the fact that we were two lesbians, not primarily Caucasian, living in one of the hardest communities to feel a part of. In all honestly, we never did. We lived on the same block the entire time and only knew one set of direct neighbors. We didn’t really know the rest.

During our time in Lynden, once deemed the highest ratio of churches per capita, we began dealing with two of our kiddos being diagnosed with two very different issues. Samuel, our oldest has ADD (attention deficit disorder). He had been failing fifth grade miserably, was repeatedly showing as below grade average for every subject. Doing homework was more work for us than him once he got home, he just didn’t have it in him to sit and do it. Abraham was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). HE.CANNOT.SIT.STILL. He cannot follow multiple directions at once. He is definitely not calm, more emotional than his brothers. You can watch his mind go into overload in front of your eyes. But he isn’t unmanageable, he isn’t ridiculously outrageous with energy; not to me. Samuel was prescribed Ritalin and it was PURE MAGIC. He needed just a small dose and it was wonderful. All his grades went up. He was a different kid overnight and not at all in a bad way. Abraham, though. Complete different story.

AB began with Ritalin. It worked wonders for two seconds (read: a few weeks). Once the doctor realized he would need an adjustment of the dosage, she upped it a touch. It changed him. He became moody, withdrawn. My sweet, loving boy was turning inwards and it freaked us out. We switched it up to Adderall, to see if the composition of what is essentially a very similar drug, would make a difference. Again, the smallest dosage gave us a glimmer of hope, because it had begun to impede his learning. I want to note that we fully recognize medication isn’t the only way. It wasn’t our only method. This post isn’t entirely about Abraham and his diagnosis, nor do we want to be judged for medicating our children. If he had diabetes and needed insulin shots, we would have done that in a heartbeat. I see this as the same. That is my truth. It doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. So, his doctor wanted to try Ritalin with him. The smallest dose seemed promising, but when we upped the dose by a tiny amount, he got very dark. We noticed immediately. He was seven years old and had pure hatred in his small eyes. He was overly emotional, had extreme mood swings. We were coming home from Thanksgiving, around a lot of noise and family and he struggles with that. We could see it and were anticipating getting home to our little duplex so he could unwind. He was hard to calm in the car on the drive. He seemed so angry, just unreasonably upset for such a little guy. Our loving, thoughtful, funny mini-man.

We got home and I was on a phone call with an employee about something when Ku came in to the room, visibly upset. She asked me to get off the phone, that it was urgent. Abraham had been so pissed at life that he said the words you never want to hear, “I just want to kill myself.” How was that even possible?! How could a seven year old even KNOW about suicide? We were floored. I held him, hugged him. We told him how much we loved him. I asked him what I would do without my Abraham and he said, “You can find another.” We had never seen him this way and it freaked us out. We stopped the Ritalin. Apparently, changes in mood can happen but it is very rare. It makes perfect sense. AB is a rare specimen of a soul. He marches to the beat of his own drum, he is a natural problem solver, and wouldn’t you know that gets him into more problems than fixes them? His mind is naturally curious, he reads above his age level. He is too smart, sometimes, for his own good. We found him a counselor shortly after this and it was a major help, especially with us. We can read all we want on ADHD but his counselor was able to put into words what is going on better than any book; at least for us.

His being out there, different, unique has raised some concerns with us. He comes home and tells us about how he is bullied and we talk so much about it with him. The thing is, how do you teach your kiddos to stand up for themselves yet also develop a thick skin? Kids can be so mean, so honest, so hurtful. In turn, he started to be mean, also. It has been such a learning curve for us.

Enter in Hannah Baker, the protagonist of 13 Reasons Why. The show begins with her narrating the aftermath and explanation of her suicide. It has become widely talked about. Some people have felt triggers, based on their own history with suicide attempts, some want their teenagers to watch it. Some, like me, wanted to see what the buzz was about. It sounds sad. Well, of course it sounds sad. A teenage girl committing suicide? That’s a horror story we don’t want to be real. Ever. Ku and I watched it and talked about it. I feel like the show did a good job of making it feel like it could be any community any of us live in. It has not been without controversy, though. Is anything worth talking about ever, though? Without controversy?

I get that it can look like it’s glamorizing suicide. A part of me understands it so wholeheartedly and another part of me suggests that it has to, in a way, to really hit home with us. Or maybe there is added drama for the viewers to keep your attention. I know that this was a novel and that while it stuck pretty close (I’ve heard, I didn’t read it) to the book, some parts were changed, most importantly her method of death. It is much more gruesome in the series. There is also the notion that it’s pointing fingers. At 13 humans. Souls who, for the most part, are not bad people, but rather find themselves in situations where they either make a bad choice, aren’t mature enough to make the right one, or don’t know what to do so they remain silent. She put herself in a lot of terrible situations. Yes, I can see it. Yet, I also recognize that as a teenager, so did I. I made bad choices, wrong decisions, and that was how I learned. It’s how we all learn. The school is made to look like the bad guy. Yes, but our public education system can certainly seem like it’s failing our youth in many ways. Suicide awareness, bullying, rape culture, etc are all areas every school can improve in.

We recently learned that a friend’s daughter wanted to play on the football team. She is in fifth grade, but is beginning to develop. The boys on the team couldn’t stop asking her out, bothering her because she’s pretty, so she was taken off the team. This is along the lines of what Hannah talks about in 13 Reasons. Why is it always on the girl? If she looks too pretty, or dressed “scantily” she deserves to be raped. Was asking for it. How many times have we heard THAT argument? It’s horrendous. Our society has become one in where boys are being raised, even in the best homes, to believe that being told they are “acting like a girl,” is one of the worst insults for them. We aren’t teaching what consent looks like with the shows on tv, advertisements, how schools handle certain situations. A friend recently didn’t receive a promotion. She was told there was concern that the added stress of the position might strain her home life, yet the employee who was promoted has a family, also. He just happens to be male.

The inequality of genders is something I took away from 13RW. I also saw a lack of listening skills. Hannah tries to reach out at times, albeit clunky and not poised. Asking for help isn’t always gracefully done. Many times those she tried to tell were involved in issues of their own; it’s through no fault of theirs that they don’t hear her. She needed someone to stop and listen, or maybe not finish her sentences. I took away that I can ask my children questions and just stop my mouth and listen. Let them stumble through whatever it is they want to share. I can make time for them, foster them finding good friendships. Encourage them to talk to me. I watched it wondering how I would have responded to AB if he showed any of the signs that she did.

Suicide began to tear her parents apart. It wreaked havoc on friendships. I can’t imagine what it’s done for Vylit’s family, or her friends, or her classmates. I don’t even know that 13RW can create the right dialogue for anyone hurting from her loss. I certainly didn’t finish watching Hannah’s story and think, My kids need to watch this. Not one bit. I am thankful, though, that I did. I will say that it made me think about me, about my parenting, and how to be there for my boys. Yes, there was a lot more I can say, but I’m choosing to focus on this.

Much love to the VanderGiessen family. You are always in my hearts and I’m so sorry it’s because of the loss of your loved one.

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