This is a roaming post, with possible follow ups as there are so many elements I am attempting to understand, they cannot all be addressed coherently at once, my apologies for that. This post concerns topics that may be triggers and disturbing, please contact your local support numbers if you are in need of assistance, seriously, do so. I don’t know what those contact numbers might be for you but please use the internet to find one and take any steps you need to start a process of communication – talk to someone. There is always a someone even if you have to be assertive and blunt to get them to listen to you. We misunderstand each other all the time, it is okay to be rude to be heard when it is really important, even if you don’t really have the words to explain, just say, even if it’s your Mother tell them: ‘Please, this is important, can you hold your own thoughts and opinions for just one moment to give me the time I need to express myself.’ Whomever it is, they will forgive you. If you wish to message me, I will reply.
There is an elephant in the room. ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ is the closest the elephant has been named in a good long while. I am late to the party in regard to the programme but late is better than never. We don’t talk about suicide, teenage or young adult suicide in particular, because research tells us the butterfly effect will implement and we will encounter a hurricane of like response. I think that is bullshit. In all the involvements in my life experience I have never encountered a multiple response. I do know that in our small town (50k folk) there were 4 recent deaths by suicide in one weekend that were not found to be related in anyway, that for a small town is a horrifying number, even more scary when you look at the age of these four boys, they all identified as males and were all teenagers. If we don’t arm our young people with appropriate weaponry (information) then how can they arm themselves appropriately (holistically)? It’s not an easy discussion with an easy answer, yet, how can we not discuss it? The programme is set in the US, the problems are no less identifiable to someone from NZ therefore likely relatable in many first world countries. It is hard to discuss anything in absolutes, that is where science comes in and, at times where science gets in the way. I am going to share my experiences, season this with research and go from there.
There is a huge anomaly with research that I want to point out, this is something that disgusted me when I first discovered it and it still does, with empirical (observation based research) data there are certain readings that are called outliers that are ‘removed’ ostensibly to maintain the integrity of the research. These are those that are outside the ‘bulk’ of the research and considered those unique individuals that ‘corrupt the data’. In the United States currently all data relating to Native Americans is considered ‘outlier’ data in the general population. In relation to suicide, Native Americans have the highest, most violent and most successful suicide rates all of all Americans yet these statistics are not included or well represented in the national standard, so not to skew the statistics. It is unbelievable that science, that research purported to be seeking truth, would distort information to better serve the median of a population. Unfortunately, this is the general first world scientific approach to any question, including the uncomfortable questions and the research attached to these questions. My point is, whatever research is presented in any news article, ask yourself the question, for whom does the research serve and whom are not or are misrepresented here (as outlier)? As a general rule, scientific studies should provide any outlier data that has been removed somewhere in their findings section or appendices but this is not likely to be included in more general articles relaying evidence from those studies.
If you are still with me, you are more patient than most. Where do I start with my personal story? Do I begin with my nephew and the most beautiful smile of satisfaction I saw in him not knowing after-the-fact that the satisfaction derived from his intended end of life; or my sons young classmate that we both knew for so many years who was gone out of the blue with no explanation… suicide and unintended/accidental death take us by utter surprise. I have found, in regard to reaction for the bereaved, it is hard to differentiate between suicide and accidental death. Shock, rather obviously, is not unusual, I think reaction to sudden death is no different if accidental or self-inflicted until one discovers the truth in relation to cause of death, both are simply horrifying. In the case of both, understanding the truth of the situation is no less important. In the case of suicide I believe it is all the more horrifying in that you search for what you should have done to stop the event… accidental death hits just as hard, there will always be the two hardest words in the English language, the ‘if only’s’, there is probably nothing except the conscience in your head that can give you some peace of mind. Ultimately the difference between accidental/sudden death and suicide, is intention. All sudden deaths are appalling, yet suicide is meditated and therefore intentional, for those left behind, in grief, there will always be a question of guilt, a question of what should I have done, what didn’t I do… one of the highest suicide rates in the world is in my country. The majority of those suicides are young men although there are plenty of females too. I would like to see that change.
I remember my first recognition of my mortality and how intense the experience was. It was the moment I realised that not only were my parents mortal but I was too. It was in 1986, I was 8 years old and Halley’s Comet was putting in an appearance. I was hungry for astronomy not that I really knew what this entailed at the time but I was desperate to view the comet we had been talking about in school and the idea inflamed my mind with possibilities. The weather in NZ was poor therefore visibility was impaired, but apparently it was the worst viewing opportunity in 2000 years due to placement of Earth, our Sun and the comet but we didn’t know that at that time. I remember multiple nights of my Father and I traversing the long driveway of our home seeking to view the comet. The last night of possible viewing the sky was clouded and a gentle rain fell upon us, my father had put me up on his shoulders to walk and said to me in a relaxed offhand way: ‘Well, I won’t ever have a chance to see Halley’s again, but you might be alive to have another chance in 2061.’ That moment was a game changer for me. I realised that my Father would be dead by then, and that I might be too.
I can’t remember any further interaction we had, I am sure we discussed a few things… the thing that stands out for me is that a year later I was suicidal, seriously suicidal and I can’t imagine any 9 year old being that way now. It utterly horrifies me that any child would feel such grief, shame, loss, pain… enough to want to cease living. Yet I did. I really did. I prayed to God continuously to just make it easy for me, to kill me. When that didn’t work I put some research in and found I didn’t have the physical strength to complete the tasks, I had enough to create scars but not complete my intended task. But why was I looking to end it all? Simply, there was no safe place for me. The father who had walked me down the drive night after night to view Halley’s Comet was not on my side anymore. My parents went through a messy divorce (she cheated on him, my brother found out and told our father….) and well, I was alone. My two brothers had always supported one another, I was, in their words, smarter than them and our mother didn’t beat me, like she did them. But she had other ways of being manipulative, I didn’t know which way was up with her. I brushed my hair wrong she bashed me with the hairbrush (that doesn’t count as physical abuse apparently), she confused me by withholding her attention, support, love and contorted everything I shared with her, so I stopped sharing… it is all a bit hard to explain. But she had her reasons, she had been seriously abused and had no support or been taught, let alone to survive, but to heal. I knew this, even at such a young age, but it didn’t help. I was a young child, abandoned by my family and the school I went to found every weak point and pushed on it viciously.
I was constantly shamed at school. For my haircut, for my hand-me-down clothes, for my dumpy figure, for my glasses, for my families socioeconomic status… girls invited me to their houses just to gather more information to shame me with. This was before the digital age, before Myspace, Facebook, Whats app, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter… we had to use wall mounted telephones in the main shared area of the house to physically speak to others in their homes, or physically go to their houses. Boys bribed the girls in my class to tell them if my hair colour was the same as my pubic hair, then without my knowledge this ultimately private information was made public knowledge. My diary was stolen and read our loud to large groups at school. It is hard to describe how awful it was, I had no safe place, no genuine friends to find comfort or companionship, no safe place at home, the only place I was safe was when I was alone. So I cultivated aloneness. After accepting it wasn’t easy to die I decided to keep myself ‘alone’. This means building serious barriers, they failed time and time again, but I kept trying. But there were glimmers of light. A girl transferred to our school and chose me as a friend, I had her support for a couple of years before we went to different High Schools. When I was 15 I was called in to speak with a school councellor. It had been noted that I had been truant a lot and the schools policy was to have the school councellor speak with the teenager, no punishment involved with non-attendance just come and speak or not speak. I didn’t speak much but the councellor was worth his salt and got a clear picture of part of my story, enough to give me a life line and some tools with which to manage. I am not going to say anything was roses after that but I had tools that helped me survive and push through, to survive long enough for my brain to mature and connections to be made that were bigger than the small world I was existing within. I, again briefly, encountered another councellor a few years later, who provided me with another source of support and understanding getting me through another trying time that I was unwilling to share with my family.
Whether teenagers engaging with a councellor express that they have had any worthwhile assistance from them, I think it is a very beneficial service, especially if they are providing tools, not judgement, and not expecting teenagers to admit to them in a potentially one time visit everything that they have been unable to share with anyone else. If they can coax this out of a teenager that is wonderful, but likely there is less time to develop the trust required for this level of self-expression particularly if you are expressly fishing for information outside of the immediate experience of the individual. For this you need good counsellors in place and my country just announced a well funded mental health fund focussed on 18-25 year olds. I think this will be beneficial if it is being managed correctly. If it doesn’t rely on non-outlier data, if the councellors are real people that find ways to engage with their possibly one off clients. If, they can get those willing to take their own lives to speak about the potential of surviving. What life might look like on the other side of hard and dark times. What their future could be.
Going back to Thirteen Reasons Why. It has been cathartic for me to watch the series. It was hard but helped me to remember that others went through similar childhood/teenage experiences and many are going through them right now. And that although I felt desperately alone then, I am not alone now. It reminds me to speak openly and honestly with those around me in my day to day life, to remember we all have our baggage and that the person in front of you might be having a terrible day. It reminds me to be kind. To always, always be kind.