personal essays

Don’t Speak, Just Listen

(TW: Don’t Speak, Just Listen is a post about suicide and depression, among other sensitive topics discussed in the series 13 Reasons Why.)

At ten years old, I imagined a world without me in it for the first time.

If I didn’t show up for school, the day would carry on just like any other. If I stopped going to my classmates’ birthday parties, they wouldn’t notice I wasn’t there. And if my family didn’t have me, they wouldn’t feel the burden of my presence anymore. But as a child, I hadn’t heard of the word depression as an illness. I didn’t really understand suicide, or the fact that many of my thoughts were considered suicidal. So I didn’t reach out for help. But I didn’t make an attempt to end my life.

Instead, I buried myself in books that took me out of my reality and into other worlds.

I kept myself secluded and didn’t nurture relationships with others. The only relationship I put effort into was the one between me and my writing. Poetry poured from the darkest places of my heart, and I spent more time writing myself into new realities where it didn’t hurt anymore. I became known as the family hermit. My introversion carried me through the tough days of middle school, and my difficult times of high school.

By the time I reached sophomore year, life had gotten significantly more complicated. My depression came and went in intervals. Some weeks were easier than others, some felt impossible to get through. But I found a remedy for the days when I felt especially lonely – the bookstore. I started a routine for after school on days when I didn’t have practice or rehearsal where I would grab a blizzard from the Dairy Queen next to school, and then drive across the street to the bookstore and just sit and read for hours. It was therapeutic, and much quieter than reading at home. I used it as a library, and it became a regular part of my week.

Anytime I finished a book, I skimmed through the young adult novels to find something new. Most of the books I came across were fantasy, which wasn’t really my thing. I preferred genres that resonated with my own life, stories that had a unique plot, books written with a distinct voice. Most of my picks were books by Ellen Hopkins; I loved her style and how real her characters felt to the reader. Eventually, I made it through all of her novels and had to begin a search for a different author or series to dive into.

That’s when I found it.

Even though they tell us not to judge a book by its cover, we all do it anyway. I picked up this book because the cover looked interesting and the title was vague enough to make me want to know more. Was the girl on the cover in love? Did she run away? A quick read of the synopsis told me enough, and I immediately flipped to the first page to begin reading. By the time I got to the end, some of the knots in my stomach loosened up and I felt less alone. Not long after that, I stopped going to the bookstore to read in the afternoons. I didn’t feel the need anymore.

Earlier this year, I found myself in another bookstore. Not for sanctuary like my teen years, this time just to browse. I remember going past a display of books that were being made into movies or tv shows. That’s when I saw it again: the book I had forgotten about, but still could recall from my past. I picked it up to flip through the pages again, to remember how I felt when I first read it. Knowing it was being made on screen was an exciting but also terrifying thought. How much would they actually show? I expected the more graphic scenes to be cut from the script. It was a story for a younger audience, after all. I contemplated buying the book like I should have done years ago, but decided to set it back down on the display.

Last month on Netflix, they released the trailer. I recognized the title, but didn’t watch it. A few days later, they released the series too. Initially I skipped past it out of fear of the memories it would bring back that I worked so hard to suppress. Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I pressed play.

The series began as expected, but quickly gained momentum.

With each episode came more darkness, progressively heavier than before. I watched Hannah struggle with the seemingly small obstacles of high school, and felt an echo of pain. I watched as her world began to collapse around her while nobody did anything to stop it, and was reminded of all the times my world ended too. Then I continued to watch as the light fell from her eyes and her body went limp while she was raped, and recognized that sense of defeat and the inability to continue fighting. I even watched as the blade slipped through her skin and her breathing slowed to a stop, and could imagine the peace that must have washed over her at the very end of her life.

At some points I questioned whether it was hurtful or beneficial to show these scenes. They are incredibly detailed and nearly impossible to watch. They are so realistic, in fact, that I believe it could trigger a panic attack or other harmful response for victims of assault or abuse. Many people have written articles and comments on why they think the producers and directors should never have allowed those scenes to be brought to life. They argue that it will give children and young adults ideas. That it will teach them that suicide is an option. They say it shows getting help is impossible and you’ll eventually succumb to the pain. But they’re missing the point.

Seeing these graphic and violent scenes play out is difficult, yes. This show is by no means for the faint of heart. I certainly would never recommend anyone in middle school or younger watch this. But this show is hard to watch for a reason. It shows us the reality of what young people – specifically women – deal with on a regular basis. Young women are sexually assaulted every day. Their reputations are attacked every day. They are put in uncomfortable situations every day. Young women deal with so much more backlash than any of their male counterparts, and it is a problem.

This show, these scenes? They exist because until we face the problem our society has created, until we own up to our actions that are causing/adding to the problem, until we being to listen to young women when they try to talk to us about it, we will never find a solution.

While the overall story is about suicide, there is so much more going on leading up to that. Most of the reasons Hannah talks about are directly related to sexual assault and rape. That fact alone should indicate that we are facing a problem much bigger than teen suicide or depression. From pictures passed around that invaded her privacy, to boys spreading false rumors about hooking up with her. From list objectifying her and making her into just a sexual object for male viewing/groping pleasures, to actually becoming a victim of rape. She reached out as best she could in her fragile state using an anonymous note in class, a note to a classmate, attempting to talk to a friend, and then going so far as to speaking to the school counselor directly. Still, multiple people ignored her pleas.

She tells us that there are thirteen reasons, but when it comes down to it, there is truly only one reason – nobody listened. They didn’t listen when she said no, or when she tried to tell her side of the story. Not even when she begged with tears in her eyes. And that is the problem. We don’t listen. We. Don’t. Listen. And by the time we do listen – just like when people listened to Hannah’s tapes – it’s too late.

Don’t let it be too late to listen.

Open your eyes to the signs people are showing you, and stop looking away when you see someone is hurting. Open your ears to what they are saying instead of just waiting for your turn to speak. Stop being the fair weather friend who shuts people out the second you see a disaster coming, and open your door to provide shelter during their storm. There are so many who are struggling to ask for help, but you won’t hear their silent plea until you begin to truly listen.


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