I am already sick of the controversy over the Netflix original series based on the book, 13 Reasons Why. The series chronicles the suffering and events that led up to a teenage girl’s suicide. Don’t get me wrong – talking about suicide is not what I am tired of – in fact, it is what I do every day.
So, the day I get tired of talking to people about suicide, I will be out of a job. Given the fact that the suicide rate among adolescents has risen dramatically in recent years to the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 years*, it will never be the lack of suicidal people that will put me out of a job – but that is ultimately my goal anyway.
The controversies over the series are what I am tired of, because I feel they miss the point. I believe we have to stop tip-toeing around “triggers” and strengthen teens so they don’t get triggered in the first place. I believe we have to talk about what they are experiencing now, validate what we know to be true (adolescence sucks), and fortify them so they can navigate through to other side.
WHY are we talking about who should or should not watch the series? Teens are going to watch it, especially if told they can’t. If they don’t watch it, they will hear about it. If they don’t hear about it, they still have to live through the very things that are depicted in its 13 episodes.
WHY are we talking about trigger warnings and avoiding triggers? The issue is not whether the show “triggers” trauma memories or suicidal thoughts. Those get sparked almost daily in people who are truly suffering from trauma and it isn’t by seeing explicit videos of the events happening to someone else. They are prompted by the thoughts and images they carry around in their minds like overflowing garbage bags full of shit attached to their ankles, causing them to trip over memories and self-injury commands at every step.
An event that elicits an uncomfortable thought or memory is NOT a “trigger”. An event that elicits a full-fledged trauma response is a trigger. Example – when Hannah and Clay are making out and she has flashbacks of abuse and assaults which then cause her to hyperventilate, shake, scream, and feel as though she is being assaulted again when she is not – that is what being “triggered” is.
WHY are we talking about how Hollywood sensationalizes suicide in this project? Of course they do. Every story ever filmed is sensationalized — true story or utter fiction. That’s not the point. The issue is not whether the show dramatizes suicide or sexual assault – no matter how it is portrayed — suicide and assault are never sensational, in and of themselves. They are tragic and, unfortunately, they are more common than we care to admit. If it takes a Hollywood spotlight to show the world how people living in the shadows are feeling, I say light it up!
Here and Now Reasons to Live
The real issue for me is too many young people have more reasons to commit suicide and not enough reasons to live. The developing teen brain mainly focuses on what is happening in the here-and-now. What am I feeling right now? What do my friends think right now? How many likes or followers do I have this minute?
If help isn’t offered right now, it is not helpful.
Every adult in that show made the statement, “I will be here when you are ready to talk.” Well if that’s not right now, it’s not good enough.
“It will get better.” Really? When? Because if better doesn’t happen right quick, it is not happening right now. Not good enough.
So what is good enough? What would have made Hannah Baker and the 5000+ teens who attempt suicide on a daily basis in this country (jasonfoundation.com, 2017) think twice about throwing their lives away? I wish I had a definitive answer to what keeps my clients alive.
13 Reasons Why Not
After almost 20 years of working with suicidal and self-injurious people, I can say the reasons to live are complicated and differ from person to person. Based on what these brave and strong souls have shared with me, here is the best I can come up with – our 13 reasons why not to die:
Reason 1: How you feel in this moment is not how you will feel by the end of this paragraph.
I know, I know – you’ve heard this before – “It gets better.” Old people say this all time. But that’s not what I mean. Think about it. You may have felt like shit all day, but did the levels of shitty-ness fluctuate (even a little bit)? Did someone smile at you in the hallway and your heart skipped a beat – just for a second. Did you see a jock trip up the stairs and you giggled to yourself for a brief moment? Those are windows into different feelings, proving that every moment is different.
You don’t have to make anything happen – feelings just change by themselves when you let them. The horse that flies at midnight is the coconut’s daughter. What? Confused? Good, that’s a new feeling you did not have at the beginning of this paragraph.
Reason 2: The people who do give a shit about you.
They exist right now. Are you the first person they all think about when they wake up in the morning and the last one they think about at night? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. If you have a tendency to think in terms of all-or-nothing, love or hate, then you have to change that perspective and let some love in.
You may tell yourself that you need someone who loves you completely, exclusively, and unconditionally to give your life meaning. You are not entirely wrong about that. We are social beings. We do get some of our identity from our relationships to others. Work on cultivating those relationships instead of lamenting over what you do not have and you may get exactly what you need.
Reason 3: Funny cat videos
Reason 4: People are wrong about you.
I used to have a meme as my screen saver for years of this old lady wearing a hideous flowered Mumu dress, black knee socks, and a giant bright pink hat. She obviously could not care less what anyone thinks about her. IN the meme she is saying “What others think about you is none of your damn business.”
These days, people seem to make everything they think into everyone else’s business. I mean, good lord, why do I need to know what you think of the weather, your breakfast, your math teacher’s dragon breath, or your science partner’s ass? Thanks to social media, what other people think about you actually is your damn business and they make it everyone else’s business too. BUT, that doesn’t mean it is a fact. Is someone calling you a slut (or replace with any other social slur)? Are they right? Then screw them. Right now, you have an opportunity to prove them wrong.
Reason 5: Dying by suicide is a really lonely thing to do and aren’t you lonely enough as it is?
According to John Amodeo, PhD, rejection is the number one fear of human beings – not death, not heights, not even spiders – rejection. We fear public speaking because it can lead to being exposed as a fraud and, thus be rejected. We fear telling someone we like them or want to date them because they could say no, or worse, laugh in our face. We are biologically hard-wired to fear rejection. Historically, being rejected meant being ostracized from the tribe. Living on your own in a world of predators and without food or shelter meant certain death.
Hannah chose to die alone rather than to share her thoughts, feelings and experiences with people who cared for her and would have supported her because she feared further rejection. She lived alone and she died alone. Are you lonely right now? The cure for loneliness is not death. The cure for loneliness is taking a chance at being accepted by sharing your life with others – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Suffering lives in the secrets.
Reason 6: Killing yourself is painful, messy and generally fails
I have heard plenty of reasons from my clients about why they want to die. “I want the pain to end.” “I want them (abusers) to know how much they screwed me up.” “I want them to feel as bad as I do.” “It won’t ever get any better, so why keep going.” “We all die, I just want to choose when.” It all boils down to, “I don’t want to hurt anymore.” Suicide is not a cure for pain either. Sorry to tell you, but best case scenario is you succeed in your attempts and just transfer your pain to those you care about. Worst case scenario is you screw it up and end up more hurt and hurting the people who care about you.
According to a 2012 census of suicide data compiled by the American Association of Suicidology, the chances of failing in your attempt is in the realm of 100-200 to 1. That means you have a .5-1% chance of success. More than one third of all failed suicide attempts result in injuries serious enough to require professional treatment*. In 13 Reasons Why, we see Hannah do something that very few people can do – get it “right” the first time she tried. What actually happens in reality is that most people screw it up. They end up permanently scarred physically, emotionally and socially with every failed attempt.
Reason 7: Suicide hurts the people you care about, not the ones you hate.
The people who care about you most will be confused and bewildered. They might be a little angry at you for not caring about the impact of your choice on them. They will likely feel guilty that they couldn’t have done something or done more to help you. But most of all they will be devastated to think that you are in that much pain. If you commit (or attempt) suicide, your friends and family are more likely to try it too. If it’s OK for you, it’s OK for them.
The people you hate and have made your life hell won’t think about you at all. They are too busy being full of themselves. In 13 Reasons Why, we see this very thing played out. Hannah’s so-called friends and enemies were more worried about how the truth would impact their reputations, college applications, and themselves. It was mostly those who Hannah did NOT hold responsible that truly suffered. So the caring thing to do in this moment is to hang around because you care about the people who care most about you.
Reason 8: NO guarantees that what comes next is any better than this.
I am not going to pretend to prognosticate here. I am not a very religious person. I was told growing up in the Catholic Church that people who commit suicide go to hell. That seems awfully presumptuous considering none of us have ever taken the journey and come back to report on it.
If you are contemplating suicide, this life already is your hell. Did you know it could get this bad? Is this what you imagined your life to be 5 years ago? Did it get worse? So who is to say it won’t get worse if you die (or try to anyway since we already covered how the odds of “success” are stacked against you)?
Reason 9: First kisses
Make a list of all the firsts you haven’t had yet. Maybe you had your first kiss, but have you had a first kiss with your college sweetheart, your life-partner, your first child, your next iguana? There are a lot of first kisses. There are a lot of amazing experiences. Which ones do you want to have right now?
Reason 10: Those moments when your pain actually fucking means something to someone else.
Have you shared your pain with someone who has been able to say in all sincerity, “Me too”? Have you, like Hannah did, written a poem that illustrated the struggles your peers deal with but don’t have the words for? Have you ever listened to a song and thought, “Damn, that is exactly how I feel!”
Right now, someone else is feeling the same thing you are. Right now someone else is looking for the light in the dark. Walk with them. Talk with them. Help yourself by helping someone else. Don’t do this alone and don’t make others do it alone either. Will Skye and Clay be BFFs? Who fucking cares? They are fictional characters. There are real people out there like them though. Go find them. Now.
Reason 11: Independence is right around the corner. You can make your own rules and pave your own path.
Ok, so I am breaking my rule of talking about “reasons why not” that exist right now and talking about something you have to wait for. Whatever. This is a good one and I am an adult that can make her own rules.
If you are a teen or young adult and one of your reasons why is lack of control over your life or your destiny and you feel stuck in someone else’s nightmare of a life, the simple fact is that they can’t rule your choices forever. Accept your lack of complete control for now; go with the flow; question authority but don’t fight with it. Your day of freedom will come. It does not have to be right now. It is worth waiting for.
Reason 12: Aren’t you even a little bit curious?
I had a client once who kept herself alive through 6 months of intense suicidal ideation and urges by ordering something on Amazon at least once a week. Having to wait 5 business days for it to arrive was enough reason to stay alive for 5 days at a time. Of course, by the time the suicidal urges had been treated and subsided, we had a pretty serious shopping addiction to deal with, but at least she was still alive to work on it.
What are you curious about? What do you wonder about? What’s going to happen in the next season of Sense8? Who’s going to flunk out of your school this year? What will be the next young adult novel series to be turned into a movie? Who will play the lead? Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it could just save your life.
Reason 13: Your goals are not about the future. They are what you want right now.
When I was 17, I had a goal to be a marine biologist. I fudged my ID, went to a tattoo parlor and got two dolphins tattooed on my hip. I know – cool. I needed to do that at the time. In that moment I needed a reminder that my goal was something I carried with me at all times. I needed to not forget it. Otherwise, I felt lost and aimless.
Goals are tricky. You have goals right now but goals represent things you want for yourself in the future. If you are feeling like ending your life, you probably have also convinced yourself that you will never be able to attain those goals. You are not good enough. You don’t deserve them. You don’t have what it takes to attain them. You don’t care enough to work for them.
That’s bullshit. That thinking makes it impossible to create, much less, hold onto goals. It’s not about reaching the goal — it’s about holding onto some version of yourself that lives in the future. I am not a marine biologist (which makes explaining these dolphins really obnoxious every time I wear a swimsuit), but I am thankful I had that goal, and my dolphin buddies, long enough to help me through some very dark times.
Reason 14 (I know, I said there were 13. Psych! There are so many more): Grandma’s Cookies
I once had a client who was contemplating suicide and I asked him why he hadn’t done it yet. “I would miss my grandma’s cookies.” Sometimes, it is not the promises of big life adventures or accomplishments; it’s not the fear of hell or public shaming – it’s the little things like cookies, the smells of fresh cut grass, the feeling of wind in your hair, the big juicy face-licking your dog gives you every morning – that are worth living another day for. Little things accumulate. What are your little reasons for living? Nothing is too small for this list, but make the list now. Add to it every day.
There are so many more than 13 reasons to live. If you need help finding those reasons to NOT kill yourself, reach out. There are people who will understand you, not judge you, and accept you – dolphin tattoos and all. If you live in the St. Louis area, give us a call. At St. Louis DBT, we specialize in helping people find their life worth living. Outside of St. Louis, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline for referrals at 1-800-273-8255.