Thirteen Reasons: Why I’ve Changed My Mind

The summer I turned fifteen Billy Page killed himself.

I remember the morning it happened like yesterday: the sun had just risen over the mountains, the sky was deep blue, the air smelled of mustard flowers and lambing, and I was wearing cutoff jeans and the white bootie skates with the red trim that I had been given on my birthday, racing breathlessly around and around the cul-de-sac, Walkman blaring Boston in my ears. It was the sirens two streets over that caught my attention; Chief Dan and Sandy the EMT rushing up Eagle Road in the lime green rescue truck, lights flashing, then wailing back twenty minutes later like their hair was on fire….Then eery quiet….

When I went into the house for water an hour later, my knees like jell-o, my thighs on fire, my mother was on the kitchen phone, crying. My stomach fell. My mother rarely cried.

“Go to your room and stay there,” was all she said, and I did as I was told.

Later that afternoon, Daddy came home early with Chinese takeout (that never happened, before or after), and we all sat around the dining table whilst he told us what had happened: early that day, Billy had shot himself in the head in his parents’ basement; he was in the hospital on life support, but it didn’t look good. My mother sat next to Daddy, staring at her plate in silence, as he told my brothers and me that there was never a good reason to kill yourself, and “your mother and I are both here if there is ever anything you need to talk about. You know that, right?” Right.

Actually, I already knew that this was a lie…and I told a lie in return. No, I would never kill myself. Of course, I knew better! But in my head? I was already miles down that road, and no one seemed to notice but me.

A few days later, Daddy went to Billy’s funeral alone. Billy’s mother had been my mother’s best friend, and by all accounts, she wasn’t talking. Daddy came home saying that Billy’s father looked as though he’d aged a decade in that short nightmarish week. No word on his sisters, who were friends of mine and my brothers.

The last time I saw him, Billy was taking photos in the back garden for my mother, just weeks before he died. He was tall, handsome, and muscular, with dark curly hair and deep, long-lashed eyes set over high tanned cheekbones like his mom’s. He’d enlisted in the Army, promised himself to a girl, and was supposed to be leaving for basic training soon. He’d become very quiet, different from the way he’d been when I was little, when he’d play Styx on the stereo loud enough to shake the house, do elaborate impressions of WC Fields that made us laugh, then slam the door to his room when he’d had enough of entertaining us. Now he was gone, and whilst I remember being very sad that his mother had retreated into herself, and his father was consumed with grief, I could not help but think that he’d chosen a good path. Not the shotgun part…but dying? In my fifteen-year-old mind, it solved a lot of endless problems, regardless of what Daddy said.

I was living in hell with a mother who hated me, and she reminded me of that fact every chance she got. I could stay in my room all day, and she’s still nitpick and needle me into tears daily. I could not have friends in our house because “girls are nothing but trouble,” and she was obsessed about me becoming pregnant, in spite of the fact that I was mildly terrified of boys. As I reached puberty and curves began to swell here and there and everywhere, she restricted my food intake to the extreme; she told me that as long as a pencil would stay where I put it under my breast, I was fat, and didn’t need food and would not get to take ballet lessons until the pencil fell to the floor–she even told my brothers that I was the reason why they couldn’t have snacks between meals when they were hungry. But no matter how small I tried to make myself, how many books I hid behind, how often I tried to just stay gone from the house, I was the thing that ruined her life and, by GOD, she was going to make me pay for it.

My father used to say that my mother wanted to be a saint, but that her idea of sainthood was to make everyone around her miserable. Knowing that this was true, however, didn’t prevent him from being led by the nose by her in his overworked state; she liked to sit in her antique overstuffed red velvet chair in the corner, a smirk on her face, egging him on until he finally exploded…and I was her preferred target. If I had a nickel for every time she harassed him into blowing up at me for something I never did whilst he was at work, the years of therapy I went through as an adult would have been paid for in advance.

So often, in fact, was I in trouble for some imagined crime in her mind, that I began bargaining with myself in my head every evening on the way home from school. “I’m not going to get hit tonight….I’m not going to get hit tonight….I’m not going to get hit tonight,” would be my mantra; sometimes it worked, but more often than not, it didn’t. And I would see her sitting there in her fluffy throne behind my towering enraged father, a self-satisfied smile on her face, watching me cry as she drew a breath off of her newly-lit Winston cigarette that had absolutely nothing to do with the reasons why my brothers “thought that saltine crackers were a special treat,” as she would tell me years later.

…By the time Halloween rolled around the Autumn after Billy died, I had a plan. At least I thought it was a plan. So, that night when she told me that I could go out with my friends, I had no idea that she had told my father that I was grounded…until I came home and she informed me that he was out searching for me. She made me sit at her feet, menacing me, until he came home. And it was odd, how much enjoyment she seemed to derive from tormenting me, reminding me repeatedly how angry he was going to be after spending hours driving around town on a wild goose chase because she had badgered him until he couldn’t let it go….

I stayed awake all that night, crying, head pounding, arms and face bruised and stinging. I could not understand what I had ever done to her that she needed to make my life such a constant hell, but I was going to fix it the next morning.

Obviously, my plan to kill myself on that frosty November 1st didn’t go the way I planned it. I didn’t get out like Billy did. But I did spend two months in the hospital before going to live with friends, after I sat across from my worried brother on the bus and devoured a liverwurst sandwich packed full of pills on the way to school–a fact that she made sure to throw up anytime any of my brothers complained about what they didn’t have. “Talk to your sister. She took all the money with her hospital stunt.”

I spent years in therapy as an adult trying to figure out where I was wrong, and why I wasn’t good enough. I’m pretty sure that my childhood under the compartmentalized, abusive thumb of that woman set me up for a lifetime of self-doubt and depression, and I know exactly what it’s like to be a teenager who does not have any safe place to turn to for real support. When home is not safe, and school is not safe, and the best place you know to retreat is under the bridge of the irrigation canal, you’ve got a problem. Not kidding: the one adult I did turn to for help? She went and had a talk with my dad…and then she moved to another State because she didn’t want to be involved. I’m not even making this up. And she was a nurse, for the love of GOD! So, I know exactly what kind of hot weight presses down on the mind and heart of a young adult who believes that the pain they’re in will never end, and no one else can ever understand it, much less help. And I have more empathy than I can even begin to explain for those who succeed in suicide. I get it. Life sucks, and there are long, endless moments when it hurts so bad that all you can think about is how awful it is, and how lonely, and what you would give to make it stop. And the worst part of my first suicide attempt is that it had a cascade effect, as four of my friends did the same damned thing before the school year was even out. But we’re all still here. Still walking, still making some small corner of the world our own, for better or worse. But many others don’t make it. And from the current statistics, it seems that suicide rates are exploding.

Last year, Netflix premiered a series called 13 Reasons Why, and many people panned the teen storyline as an outrageous, overwrought glamorization of suicide. Actually, some of the more conservative people I know were borderline apoplectic over this fictional drama, wanting it scrapped by Netflix, and taken out of circulation. Admittedly, I wasn’t too wild about it, either. I watched the first season, and thought to myself, “This looks like a normal week in the life of the high school I attended.” Truly, by comparison, these kids actually have it pretty damned good and, so, I discounted the show as an overly-emotional display of millennial snowflakes unable to handle what kids in the 80’s experienced on good days–and I’m not even kidding; that’s exactly what I thought. Until a few days ago.

I binge-watched the second season this past week. Without any spoilers for those who have not seen the series, yet, I watched the aftermath of this amazingly well-documented girl’s trauma drama (even I never kept a scoreboard that detailed), and learned that the first season is not what it initially appeared to be. And, you’ll be happy (or at least relieved) to know that with this second season, pains are taken with every episode to advise viewers who are struggling to seek help, offering online resources for just that purpose.

13 Reasons Why is definitely NOT a program that your kid should be watching alone. Not by a long shot. There are too many ways that storylines like these can be twisted in a teenage head and made to fit personal circumstances in the worst ways imaginable. But is this show you should consider watching with your kid? Absolutely, yes.

I wish that I had had a mother that I could have talked to the first time that I was raped…or the last; mine would have told me that it was my fault, just as she did when the same thing happened to one of my girlfriends in the girl’s locker room. I wish that I had had a father who didn’t see tears as weakness, and who wasn’t overwhelmed trying to hold a household together with a bunch of headstrong kids and a boilerplate wingnut control freak for a wife who was never satisfied. I wish that my parents had had the tools to at least try to understand just how miserable a place school really was for me, my brothers, and so many of the people I still call my friends today: too often, it was a free-for-all warzone. Admittedly, I was a participant in some of the carnage, and we were all unprepared for the cruelty that was unleashed on a daily basis in the halls we travelled, but it was all dark, violent shit we hid from the adults in our lives by necessity. If we had done any of what we did then today, we’d all be in prison…that’s what comes of being told to “handle” your problems yourself. And often “handling” that mess included a baseball bat, a switch blade, a few angry friends for back up…or minor explosives. Today’s kids get arrested for pretending that sticks are guns; they wouldn’t have survived a day in our world.

Better on the screen than in real life, I say. 13 Reasons Why is not a pretty story and, if truth be told, it’s pretty sickening. It’s still actually fairly tame, compared to the culture I grew up in. But I’ve watched for years as my friends and cousins have raised their kids to be a more sheltered, more gentle, less traumatized generation than we were. They aren’t prepared for life’s serious pitfalls–not the way we know them. But I truly do think that this Netflix series has the potential to be a jumping-off point for an important family discussion…the one I wish I could have had with anyone when I was in the thick if it. It’s a necessary conversation; one that is too often neglected, or glossed over because parents believe that their kids will come to them when trouble becomes unmanageable. I guarantee, most of them won’t volunteer their deepest pain or fear without a helping hand, and they don’t know you’ll really offer one without an explicit invitation that goes far beyond one hour at the dining room table over takeout. Use the ugliness presented in this fictional storyline to open a door with your own children, and become the resource they desperately need to have, to know that you get it, and they don’t have to be alone in the pain that so many of them are expressing in the worst ways possible. It may distasteful at first, but I have come to believe that this program is an easily accessible medium for building a bridge and having a dialogue with your kids and, who knows? It just might save your child from being another Billy…or another me.

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