Have the Conversation: My Thoughts on ’13 Reasons Why’

DISCLAIMER: The following blog discusses the topic of suicide in detail & may be inappropriate for some readers. I encourage the reader to divulge into this topic in the presence of a trusted support person, if needed. The information presented are from limited years of mental health work, culmination of academic study and passion for youth, and my own budding clinical judgment. It is not meant to be a substitute for clinical research.

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My husband and I stumbled upon this show shortly after the buzz began generating on social media. We watched the first episode and expressed mixed feelings: shock over the content, and curiosity of hownthe writers would unfold the remainder of the story. We’re both mental health counselors who work with teenagers/children & felt a mixture of intrigue and dread. When I finished the final episode, I was deeply affected and incredibly sad. Faces of real-life would-be Hannahs, including myself, flashed across my memory. I made a mental check-list of folks I knew were watching to check up on & made a reminder to myself to talk the show over with my supervisor and colleagues. I gathered that whatever conclusions I would make about this show, I was responsible for what I did next.

’13 Reasons Why’ is probably one of the most successful shows Netflix has created in a long time, as far as viewership. But many parents and mental health professionals feel that the program is dangerous and irresponsible. As a mom I share in their caution. It is deeply upsetting to watch a beautiful, smart young girl  carry out a detailed plan to end her life. Secondly, it is normal for adult viewers to become disgusted and disturbed. However, after further processing, I felt the need to look at the popular program from a different angle.

Let’s walk through the criticisms I’ve heard about ’13 Reasons Why’:

  1. The show glorifies and/or oversimplifies suicide.

I must start off by stating that this program is rated TV-MA. Which means that it contains very disturbing material. The drama given to the storyline provided a necessary entertainment element, but I feel Hannah’s suicide, itself, was handled very openly.

Secondly, this isn’t the first time the topic of suicide was portrayed on television/movies.

Image-1Side note: If given the time, I can critique the above movies for their handling of the topic of suicide, but the fact still remains that many will still keep their acclaim. We ultimately  settle on the fact that the writers/directors have an artistic license to portray a topic and leave it in the hands of the consumer to view & digest responsibly.

To some critics, the writers portray suicide as a viable option – one both tragic and simple. Some say that the writers made suicide look easy to accomplish. I would have agreed with this criticism, if this wasn’t close to the train of thought held by many (not “all”) people who are suicidal. They may have moments of seeing death as easier, more peaceful, and better overall. They may feel it will ultimately ease suffering. It isn’t the NOT DYING part that’s difficult for a suicidal person, it’s LIVING that’s often too hard. If anything, the writers attempted to show how intently a person will pursue a suicidal plan if gotten to that point.

There is always hope, I sincerely believe, but because Hannah suffered very much alone, she had no one to help her grasp on to that hope. The tragedy behind Hannah’s fight with suicide is that it did not resolve her problems, ultimately.

The only critique I do have concerning this is that actually many who are suicidal have a methodical period but end up acting impulsively towards the end in order to complete suicide. Meaning, a suicide note is not commonplace (which Hannah’s tapes are considered akin to a suicide note.) The writers do portray Hannah to have been much more methodical than is realistic. However, this isn’t to say that some sufferers do not focus intently on escaping their pain and carry out a plan.

Other critics say that Hannah’s high school setting was overdramatized. It would be a mistake to believe that sexual assault, bullying, and harassment aren’t prevalent issues for our youth. Also, some feel that teens may over identify with Hannah. I say there may be more Hannahs than we are aware.

  1. It is an extended revenge fantasy; blaming those who mistreated Hannah for her death.

I’m often blown away at how much humans lack common courtesy and kindness towards one another. It shouldn’t take a television show to magnify this fact. However, the common culture among youth is fueled by bullying, scandal, and violence. For my adult readers, we all remember how tumultuous our teen years were…any mental health issues aside.

I’m constantly reminded how important it is to extend kindness to the next person, because what I do can deeply affect him/her. To deny the fact that her peers, family members, and school were partially responsible dances dangerously on the line of victim shaming. It places their pain center stage without taking into account the millions of interactions that led them to having suicidal thoughts.

Suicide has always been an “us” issue. Let me be clear, her classmates were not the CAUSE of her suicide, but did play a ROLE in her mental illness. We are all connected and responsible for one another. Hannah felt abandoned & mistreated by those around her. It’s not sound logic, we understand, but it doesn’t make it a fantasy. Rather than focusing on how intently Hannah unjustly sought revenge, let’s take a preventive stance by teaching our children how to treat one another.

  1. It encourages struggling students to not go to their guidance counselors/reach out for help.

This critique hit me hardest, considering I’m a counselor myself. Hannah’s guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, is completely unhelpful and distracted towards her. In Hannah’s tapes, she openly states that no one cared about her. Critics said that the show unjustly encourages Survivor Guilt. Here’s my take-away: Survivor Guilt will occur, regardless of the quality of relationships of those who remain after someone dies.

Also, the sinking feeling I was left with after witnessing Mr. Porter’s behavior was sobering. And I used it properly. It reminded me of my responsibility as an advocate. Simply put, if I am truly present on my job, then I can be a proper channel for change. Many of our counselors (especially school-based ones) are often burned out and overworked, distracted by test scores and administrative responsibilities.

But this actually segues into an even bigger conversation…which we won’t get into today.

To me, the most dangerous thing about the depiction of violence is not that our kids are watching violent content (and might be encouraged to reenact said violent content), but that even after hearing of teenagers struggling and dying, we still put the responsibility on entities that are not actually attached to our homes, classrooms, churches, and communities.

It has never been the responsibility of entertainment venues to educate or heal our children. Allowing them to consume without seeking them out to process afterwards is more irresponsible than the show being created in the first place. Much more. Entertainment is a good access point leading to the discussion, but they were never meant to BECOME the discussion.

  1. It will trigger those already struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression.

I had a friend who took to her FB status to ask others whether she should watch the show. I, more or less, replied, “Not alone.”. I would hope that those who are already getting treated for their depression will have the insight to stay away from watching, or at least be cautioned by a loved one or counselor to do so.

The population I feel the most concerned for are those who are without support and are struggling silently with depression and suicidal thoughts. However, I would still look towards those who are already called out to be the supporters/advocates; our teachers, counselors, pastors and family members. The girl scout leader and the mentor. Bus driver and the babysitter.

We are the “Village” that the quote “It takes a Village” speaks of. It is us that should be raising and safeguarding our children. The show presents a very real & important topic. One that our teens are faced with everyday; the hallways of their schools and text threads already contain the topics we shudder about. It’s our conversations with them after the last episode ends that will better determine their interpretation.

Important to note is that there is a 30 minute interview-style documentary on the hit series on Netflix, called ‘13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons‘, which contains more context and discussion about the content in the show from it’s actors, crew, and mental health professionals.

I also encourage anyone who knows a young person to arm yourself with knowledge on the topic of suicide, because this will be needed, even after the fame of this show ends. Here’s an amazing document I found on the SAVE/JED Foundation’s webpage (www.save.org) , outlining 13 Talking Points when watching the show with a teenager.

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Use it to start a conversation; one that someone you know may be afraid to have. If we can remove the taboo nature from suicide, then we might just become the right safe spaces for someone to take their first step towards desiring life.

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Wrestling with Greed: A Cautionary Tale

I dreamt greed almost killed me.
I woke up abruptly with my shoulders hunched and my body shaking because it was right before she snapped my neck into two that I’d opened my eyes.
At first, Greed had taken on many forms:
An overweight neighbor who’d lost her home;
my mother, but with much grayer hair and soft hands, needing me to feed her before she got a hunger headache. Or a pastor I once knew who kept asking me to serve in yet another ministry.
There was always Legitimacy behind their pained monologues.
The large neighbor chased me swiping at my last bag of possessions that I carried on my back. All she wanted was my daughter’s baby doll that resembled one she had as a child. She made multiple attempts at this doll until I screamed at her, “This does not belong to you! Why can’t you just go buy one like everyone else?”

That’s when her face contorted from sadness to rage. She moaned from her soul then; focusing her eyes on to me. From then on she repeated softly “No fair. You take faster than you give. No fair.” I didn’t understand what she meant until the moment she had her fingers interlocked around my throat.
I was somehow responsible.
She did not always go by her current name, I realized. And she had a story filled with loss before I decided that her level of need was uncalled for. It was then I shared her rage.
“I get it now”, I gasped through a struggling breath.
Her eyes widened and she loosened her grip;
Sat on the sidewalk in front of us and immediately I saw the sadness had returned.
It hovered over us like a cloud; shielding the sun. But even in the haze of the gray I saw her more clearly.
I realized the only reason greed did not kill me that day is because I learned her real name.

She wasn’t Greed, she was Poverty.

Untitled (Thoughts on Marriage).

It’s odd having brief seasons when you desire your spouse but cannot have them in the way you’d like.

I blame myself, really.

Let me explain…

My husband and I are always busy. Two full time jobs. Two small kids. A nonprofit. Board and church responsibilities. Not to mention our families, friends, and other lifestyle pursuits and interests. Despite how ordinary marriage is, it feels like our marriage is not so ordinary. Or at least isn’t meant to be.

I knew the moment I met Nick that he carried around a heart too bright for this world. And that heart carried something meant for the world. I felt, even back then, that I’d be sharing him with the world. Our world, at least… I recognized that sacrifice would become like a regular house guest. And my home-body ways would get pushed into the background. For that, I have both loved and resented his heart.

I do not have to fight or pine for his attention. Our family is his first priority. Do not misunderstand. Just know that I adjust and readjust often in our lives. I want him all to myself. I want to monopolize every spaced expression/daydream. I want every filled page in his poetry notebook to be about me. I want the road to his dreams to all end at the doorway of our bedroom.

I understand that I am sharing space in his head even though I have been given residency in his heart. And it’s always crowded up there…

Found this piece that I wrote forever ago:

Smile. (Mini-Series. Part 6)

December 14, 2009

 look in my direction
linger there for a moment
give me your eyes’ shine.
and slowly perk cheekbones
let your lips part
while their corners
reach for the heavens,

show me you’re delighted…
…love,
smile for me.

Even back then I wanted his full attention. I was an incredibly smitten young woman, hopelessly in love with a very kind poet. On one hand, everything changed: We belong to each other now, unlike we did back then. But on the other hand, not much is different. There are still times (when I’m at my most vulnerable) that I feel like I’m still that young girl: smitten and quietly whispering prayers of gratitude that he picked me.

Pride.

I have spent so much of my life trying to hold a compliment in my head long enough for it to seep through my ribcage and into my heart. Most times, I end up gagging on a fear that I’ll be found out as a phony.

I’d end up holding the compliment in my sweaty palms, instead. Awkward and unsure, give it a once over and toss it back to its recipient. Or into the thin air.

Now. I can’t seem to hold a criticism in those same palms without my heart crumbling inside of my chest. I’ve never been this fragile. Every face is a potential enemy. Everyone carries the potential to destroy me. My husband. My clients at work. My God.

This isn’t the “toot your own horn” on loop kind of pride. But a sinister type where I feel inauthentic in moments where I want to shine the most. I look over my shoulder and test out each glance. Are you pleased with me?

….and I answer the question with a “Of course not.”

I can see an image of myself as a small girl, with my mother’s church clothes, jewelry, and shoes on. They are obviously too large for me. Swallowing my tiny frame. I want to feel pretty. As pretty as the person whom these clothes belong to. But I spin and twirl and pray for a “Oh, darling. Look at how beautiful you look.”

The one compliment that satisfies the need. Finally.

So I can rest my tired feet and stop this rat race; constant pursuit of pleased nods and grateful hugs from those around me that I often get. But it never seems enough.

I think pride is kin to memory loss. You must be privy to forgetfulness to be prideful.

I forget that I have always been valued and cherished.

Even before I was cognizant of any desire to please and take the credit. Before any hands raised in front of pulsating hearts to give accolades, high-fives, or wide hugs. Before the creation of selfies and high school superlatives. Before I knew what it was like to be ignored by a boy I liked.

Pride is an insatiable black hole. Matched only by Love. Nothing can win against Pride except Love. Only Love. I can rest, return glances with smiles and be great because I am Loved.

“For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” – Zepheniah 3:17

Reintroducing…

Why is this post necessary?

  1. There is a slight possibility that I’ve attracted some new readers.
  2. Life often refuses to slow down long enough for me write about her.

 

So.

This, is me:

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I’m a wife and a mom of two small kids. (Yeah, I know. It’s often a “holy frick” reminder for me about every other day.) I’m intentional in my womanhood and Blackness. Forgive the corniness of this statement, but I sometimes feel like I want to stretch my arms wide enough to hug all of the children in the world.

Some people feel drawn to champion for the unborn. But I spend most of my daylight hours helping already broken and silenced children express themselves and find their way out of the darkest of situations. I seek to help them find their inner light that I believe all children have. I’ve been told by colleagues in the past that pervasive mental illness can, in fact, make a kid a “bad kid”, and that they cannot, ultimately, be helped.

I will never agree with that train of thought; to me there are no “bad kids”. I’m often alone in that camp.

While we’re on that subject, I love being a therapist. It’s how I preach and do ministry. It’s sacred ground and I feel privileged every time someone tells me their story. I often give all that I have at work but the moment I see my family I can tap into a reservoir that is only for them.

My babies.

There are times when I look at them that I see the remainder of what is honorable and pure about the human race. Goodness begins and ends with them. They tire me out in a way that is staggering, but just the sight of them replenishes me to overflowing. I weep from my soul for those I know that have yet to experience this.

My husband.

There is probably not a more patient man that exists on this planet. The longer we are together, the more commitment, companionship, and friendship make me hotter towards him than physique or a grand romantic gesture. I often want to hide him away from the world, but I knew from day 1 that I’d gone and fallen in love with a visionary and that I’d have to share him with everyone. It’s a weekly battle for me, still.

My faith.

I love Jesus Christ with all of me. The goodness and grace of my God is the light I carry within my soul, and I shudder at the thought of pushing others away from that Light through misrepresentation. I do hope that, at some point, people will recognize my good deeds as the Light and not my personality or even my choices. This world can be so dark. I think we can all agree that Light is necessary.

I’ve conquered/am conquering depression. Grief/loss. Pride. Lust. Self-Pity. Anger. Low self-esteem. Anxiety. I did not endure simply to squander my lessons or my life. I have a story to share. And I’ve been compelled to tell it.

 

Very nice to meet you!

I’d love to hear your stories, too. Share in the comments section 🙂

Self-Efficacy, etc.

Literally defined as “a person’s belief in their own abilities and competence”.

This has been one of my biggest challenges, truthfully. No matter the amount of growth or comfort in my own skin, I still manage to look over my shoulder to compare my progress with another’s success. Granted, jealousy was a rare occurrence, but no amount of mountain top experiences secured my mind in thinking that I was doing much better with “life” than I was assuming.

I remember being the main one jumping through hoops for attention. And like a chameleon, the lengths I went to for a reassuring nod depended on the circumstance/environment. Fear kept me from chasing accolades to an extreme level, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually — I laid myself bare.

Here I am, dreadlocks past my shoulders, slightly weird style, and a rebel to the American dream — and I still struggle to not look over my shoulder for approval. This time around, it’s for the arts-driven or alternative culture crowd. For those who rebel simply for the sake of being controversial. For example, I protested about Kony in 2012. I cared because I was told to care. I didn’t want to be the one person NOT caring. It was uncool to not care.

Lots of people are “caring” now. Isn’t that funny?

……….

So, I’m reevaluating my choices, trends, and pursuits; wondering what I truly care about. What makes my heart ache, break, and soar? What would I care about if no one saw or I didn’t have a social media account to use as proof? What if no one else cared…or disagreed…what would be so important to me that I carry on anyway?

I’m learning to accurately take inventory of my own journey. Because its not enough to be free to walk your path, but maturity comes when you can begin to process where you are. Change your mind or hairstyle if you want. Take that workout selfie because you’re proud of yourself; not to brag. And not feel a need to answer every question that crosses your FB page, for the sake of peace.

For most of my life, I assumed that only two extremes existed among people: those who have the spotlight, and those who are left to give the applause. But I’m realizing that I can be center stage in my own life and that be enough. More than enough.

No matter the age, we are naturally narcissistic; desiring to shine and show off our best attributes. Especially in the workplace — with the competition for promotions and reputations among colleagues. I used to envy the person welcoming harmony and being a team-player without the drama of workplace politics. But now I’m becoming that person.

Little by little.

50 Shades of Black & Blue

Confession: I spent much of my life being an in-closet feminist.

Not only did I recognize how women are viewed as having minority status, but I soon saw countless examples of how women seemed to exist for a man’s pleasure. I understood the Biblical design for men/women, but yet my ideology of equality and shared submission battled with the way things actually are. And I was angry and even bitter.

When you only have your rights to rally for, it’s easy to simplify the struggle to a moment of protest. A single march. But it appears that something as simple as an erotic book series can ignite talks of inequality.

For example, I should be able to read a book surrounding a straight-laced young woman, who lived her life suppressed, finding a supposed “sexually liberated” experience. Anyone discouraging me from reading are being oppressive, right? After all, men are able, and even encouraged, to be sexual. Women, however, are expected to be both Mother Theresa & Nikki Minaj when beckoned.

I want to read these books. Because it is my right as a person. I should do it without being judged.
Simple.

But then I gave birth to a woman.
…well…she’s a toddler now. But it is inevitable that she will become a woman.

I’m not responsible for her gender. God already took care of that part. But I’ve been given the thrilling, tumultuous task of showing her how to be a woman (Lord, help me.). She may not take one ounce of my teachings/example with her into adulthood, but darn it if I won’t still try.

The process of rallying for certain rights become complex when you are considering how it will affect the next generation. I’m picturing Naomi as a 29 year old, and I’m praying that she will not only feel equal with men, but that she will recognize her uniqueness/role as a woman.

Regrettably, books like 50 Shades of Grey does not give respect to a woman’s uniqueness. Only nods to the most debased version of her desires. A 2D version of the fire that a woman’s heart actually contains. It shifts the perspective too far right that love becomes abuse. But isn’t that the typical narrative that we hear of a woman in love?

Crazy. Desperate. Ultimately misused.

I know it is not a philosophy book or a textbook for Women’s Studies. And I understand that the poster-child for the Anti-50 Shades movement are largely conservatives. However, communities are coming to this book’s defense as being normal, acceptable treatment between a man and a woman. And that is not what I want my daughter to desire; not in her love or her sexuality.

This book teaches that pain is the path to desire. I won’t nick pick here because I understand people have various tastes. But this isn’t about having different desires, but about the definition of desire being altered. In my opinion, true desire is only unlocked when two things are present:

Safety
Commitment

By safety I mean a relationship where two people can explore and deny any part of the sexual intimacy. Being tied up, blindfolded, coerced, manipulated, and emotionally and physically gagged does not create safety for the woman. It only enhances the distorted satisfaction of the man. The woman’s satisfaction is not a byproduct of this set up. A happy accident, at best.

And then there’s commitment. When two people make the ultimate commitment (dare I use the M word here: Marriage), they are declaring openly that they share the responsibility to respect one another: mind, body, and spirit. In these books, there was no such commitment made, leaving this woman in danger of being physically, emotionally, and spiritually wounded by an already wounded man.

Another complex portion of rallying for rights is recognizing your part in narrative. The young lady in the first book constantly pursued the man, even after him telling her to stay away.

Raising, not simply head-strong, prideful, self-absorbed young women, but those in touch with their identities is integral to helping them know when a potential relationship is toxic. Not simply knowing what they are attracted to, but gaining a wisdom about what traits to stay far away from.

Ultimately, it’s not all about changing policies or evening the playing field at the end of the day. The heart is hard to legislate. As it has always been, confident, wise women will till their own fields. I will teach my daughter and daughter-types to conduct themselves as if no glass ceiling exists….until it no longer doesn’t.