13 Reasons Why: Having Sympathy

ALERT: this post will have spoilers.

 

Last week I read the book 13 Reasons Why, which is a book that is made up of 13 tapes recorded by a girl who commits suicide and leaves these tapes to explain why she did. Each tape is a person, and she sends the tapes to the people on them so that they can understand what happened. After finishing this book I found myself frustrated at the portrayal of Hannah, the suicidal girl the story centers around. She was portrayed as selfish, dramatic and bratty. She blamed her suicide on others. She never asked for help or accepted help when it was offered. And some of her reasons for committing suicide seemed a little ridiculous, like being teased about having a nice ass. I found this frustrating because it seemed to infantilize how serious many people’s problems are, and how hard they fight to get help and are often denied it.

 

At the same time, I did find the book powerful in that Hannah clearly pointed out how other people’s actions affected her and particularly pointed to the sexual harassment that was heaped on her. I thought that it was powerful that the effects of this were taken seriously in the book, and that it was made clear that it was not ok for someone to smack her ass or try to cop a feel. So I was conflicted. I didn’t want a book to circulate that treated people who are suicidal like they’re attention seekers or stupid or selfish. But I also felt that there were some good messages.

 

And then I read this review. This shitty, shitty review.  It basically straight out said some of the things that I was thinking. And when I saw them baldly there before me I realize how much of a shitface I was for my reaction. Because here’s the thing: even if Hannah’s reasons WERE trite or overdramatic or whatever, there are people out there who feel suicidal for those same reasons. There are people out there who do feel that their suicidal impulses were at least in part created by others. And those people have EVERY RIGHT to EVERY SINGLE ONE of their feelings. There is no right or wrong way to be depressed. There is no justified depression and unjustified depression. If someone feels so desperate that they will take their own life, you don’t get to judge whether or not the reasons were good enough. You sit your ass down and you feel sorry and you listen if they left you some way to make sense of it. They had no obligation to explain their feelings to you, and they had no obligation to have feelings that you felt were acceptable. People get to feel depressed in whatever fucking way it happens to them.

 

This is one of the reasons that I get frustrated with the concept of “tumblr depression” or “tumblr eating disorder”. You know the person. The blog that posts all black and white pictures and melancholy quotes. The girl that seems to take everything personally and dramatizes everything and sort of passive aggressively refuses help while asking everyone to pay attention to her. And a lot of people get pissed at these sorts of blogs and individuals, because they say that’s not real depression. That’s just someone looking for attention. That gives people with real mental illness a bad name. She just cuts for attention. She just starves herself because she thinks anorexia is cool. Now on some level this is understandable: it can be really frickin’ hard to talk to someone when they’re acting like this. But I hate to break it to you, it can be hard to talk to someone with mental illness. And if someone is cutting themselves in order to get attention, THEN YOU SHOULD GIVE THEM SOME FUCKING ATTENTION BECAUSE HUMAN BEINGS DESERVE AND NEED ATTENTION.

 

I went through this kind of phase, and while it may look trite and stupid from the outside, it hurts just as much as “real” depression when you’re on the inside. You don’t get to judge someone else’s feelings and tell them that they’re not actually depressed or unhappy, or that the reasons they’re hurting themselves aren’t valid. If someone says they’re hurting then you damn well better believe them. Even if they are using passive aggressive techniques to try to get attention, that means that they’re hurting. They’re lonely. They feel pointless or useless or unwanted. Asking for attention is not a crime and being sad about stupid things is not a crime. If someone is unhappy it’s not our place to judge why. It’s our place to offer sympathy and try to help. Because no matter how silly something might seem to us, it’s real to the individual, and blowing off someone’s unhappiness as trivial is simply being inhumane and unfeeling.

Coverflip: Some Meandering Thoughts About Gender and Marketing

Maureen Johnson (one of my absolute FAV authors especially for following on Twitter because she’s just as weird as I am) recently conducted a small experiment that she called Coverflip. The idea of the experiment was to take books and imagine if they were written by someone of the opposite gender as their true author, and then create a cover, thinking of how it would be different based on the gender of author. So for example you might take The Great Gatsby, imagine it was written by a woman, and design the cover for it. There were some really interesting covers, and some interesting reactions (many of which included things like “wow, now that this doesn’t have a girly cover I really want to read it!”), and I found myself thinking about how I view books that are marketed as chick lit.

 

I don’t read a lot of “chick lit”. Lately I’ve been into the classics because it took me so F’ing long to start reading them that I have to catch up, but when I read easy or fun books, I tend towards sci fi and fantasy. Now some of these are marketed with female oriented covers, but for the most part they highlight adventure or intrigue or mystery. I realized after this coverflip exercise that when I DO read chick lit books I often feel like I have to apologize: I try not to read them in public, I’m ashamed to be seen reading something that is marketed as trite and empty headed. I’m getting to the point where I’m a little self-conscious of reading ANY YA fiction in public (which is stupid because YA fiction is fantastic and I like it a lot better than most adult fiction which tries to be all edgy by having sex in it, but that’s a topic for another day), and I’m starting to realize thanks to this exercise that having shame about what you read is silly. When you are reading, you are doing something for yourself. You are occupying your free time, doing something that you enjoy. Why should you capitulate to what others suggest you SHOULD be reading rather than what you actually enjoy?

 

But Coverflip brought up more questions than just how societal pressures can force us to feel guilty about the things we actually enjoy. One of the biggest ones for me is about romance in fiction, how romance is marketed, and why we often view romance as an unimportant, badly written, or trashy topic. Romance is generally associated with female writers. In YA fiction, it’s often marketed towards girls, and viewed in the same way as chick flicks. Interestingly, one of the reasons I didn’t take John Green seriously for a while was because his covers gave off the same light, romancey vibe that a lot of female YA authors did. In my mind, that meant he didn’t write about important topics. Once I really read his books, I found that he engaged with some very basic questions of what it means to be human and to look for human connection. So why is it that when I think romance I think trite?

 

One obvious reason is because romance is considered feminine. Men aren’t expected to want romance. They’re expected to want sex or grit or violence. Romance is for women. Which means that it’s empty headed right? But the problem with that is that romance is actually a fairly universal drive. Romance is about connecting with another human being, about what it means to feel close, about what love is. Men have those drives too, just like women do. And even if women were the only ones who had those drives…what on earth is trite about trying to find someone to spend your life with? What is trite about human connection? What is trite about trying to understand what drives us to be around other people? These questions are not trite at all. Romance is about what makes us human and how our human nature resonates with others. This is far from trite, and so making covers of people making hearts with their hands diminishes the importance and power of what it is to be in love or to seek out love. Whether these read as feminine or masculine, it shouldn’t be diminished in this way.

 

An important element of this is the idea that women are relational and that men are independent. In the hierarchy of male and female, this means that individualism gets prioritized over relationships. Many of our great writers (or people who are considered great) write about people fending for themselves or overcoming odds: Jack London is a perfectly typical example of this, and he’s considered a Good and Serious writer for young adults (despite the fact that he focuses almost all of his descriptions on violence and doesn’t do a whole lot of focus on character growth). So for some reason books about relationships are considered unimportant. Obviously most books have relationships in them, but they are not the focus. Action is the focus. Books that are almost exclusively about relationships are designated as chick lit (even when they deal with important themes, a la Jane Austen). Again, it seems odd to me that books about family, friends, lovers are considered unimportant or boring.

 

In relation to this, many of the images on “feminine” coded books were of people, often people holding hands or kissing, young people, or women (or all of the above). In contrast, many of the “serious’ coded books were images of things, textual covers, or had fantasy styled covers. These types of dichotomies play on all sorts of sexist stereotypes about what is appealing to men and what is appealing to women, but one piece that seems very bizarre to me is the idea that covers with people on them are not as serious as covers with objects on them. What is it about a person on a cover that reads to us as “this book doesn’t tackle real issues”? Why do we seem to feel that humans or connecting to humans is unimportant? Why are we afraid of books that are open about the fact that they include people interacting with each other, or are even FOCUSED on people’s interactions with each other?

 

Overall, this experiment confirmed to me that in all sorts of marketing we view women as relational and men as doers or actors, individuals who venture forth. We view those individualistic stories as important, and we view stories of people relating to each other as trite. None of this makes any sense to me.  Every human being on the planet has relationships, and those relationships are what keep us alive, and often the things that make our lives worth living. Most often we read books because we want to connect with another person, to get inside the ideas and feelings of another life. The whole point of literature is connection on an emotional level, and yet when we advertise that openly the book is viewed as shallow. And beyond that, why should we feel guilty for books that might appeal to things that are silly or shallow within us? Why should we feel guilty for letting ourselves be goofy and bubble-headed? Is there something wrong with just entertaining ourselves with books, or are books supposed to be a bastion of academia, only for Serious Men and the few women who can be just as serious? But perhaps the biggest question left in my mind is why people on YA covers NEVER HAVE HEADS?

How To Be A Queen

This is a short story (kids book in the making?) that I wrote after a therapy appointment a few weeks ago. Enjoy 🙂

 

Once upon a time there was a little princess who knew in her deepest heart that it was her destiny to be a queen. Each morning she arose and undertook a perfect set of rituals to make her a perfect queen. She would dress in a pure white gown, stand up very straight, take her lessons quietly and follow every rule so that when she grew old enough, the people in her kingdom would see how perfectly fit she was to be queen and they would raise her to her rightful place on the throne.

She studied politics, languages, and diplomacy to be a good leader. She studied ethics and philosophy and social justice to be fair. She learned music and decorum and decorating to be lady-like and beautiful.  She was the paragon of class, charm, intelligence, and hard work. Someone had to see how suited she was to be queen.

As she grew older, the fair princess saw that despite her perfection, she was overlooked. The boys were stronger and faster than she was. They showed they were ready leaders through their competitions and it was clear to everyone that the victor deserved praise and power. She knew she deserved to be queen, that she was smart and could solve the problems she saw around her. She knew that she had done all that was asked of her.

And so she decided she had to prove she was the equal of the boys, prove she could keep up, and silently show everyone by her sheer skill that she deserved to rule. If she defeated the boys, they would have to notice her.

She marched straight up to the biggest, strongest boy of them all and challenged him to an arm-wrestling competition. He grinned mercilessly, and they each took their seats; she daintily so as not to dirty her white dress. She was a lady after all, and even if she was going to show up these boys she still had to live up to womanly standards. She couldn’t be perfect if she was dirty. And so they began.

Just after she had handily beaten the burly boy, the princess looked around, wondering where her praises were. There were a few onlookers who cheered, but most of the crowd quickly dispersed, unfamiliar with her and her story, unknowing of her potential or even her desire to be queen.

Sadly she turned to walk home. She turned a corner and came upon a nasty scene. A pair of bullies were teasing a little girl, shoving her in the mud and calling her names. The princess were outraged. If she were queen, she would order them to stop. But she knew she had to follow the rules to be queen and that they wouldn’t listen to her anyway because she was just a princess, so she looked around for someone to tell, someone with power who could stop them.

She saw a policeman and ran to tug at his sleeve, yelling and pointing at the children.

“Hm, that looks nasty. I’ll have to go file a report about it. Then someone will come back to monitor the situation,” he responded before walking away. Growing more desperate, the princess ran to the parents of the children, but they laughed and said “Kids will be kids.”

The princess was angry. Something needed to be done and no one would do it. She had followed all the rules and no one was listening to her, nothing was changing. But she was just a little princess and she couldn’t do anything by herself. She had to stay clean, and do things right until people began to notice. She had to be perfect in order to be queen!

She looked back at the little girl crying in the mud and something inside of her grew larger and larger with righteous anger.

“STOP” she yelled, throwing herself between the bullies and the girl just in time to get shoved in the mud. She sat for a moment in stunned silence. Her beautiful white dress was ruined. She had yelled. She had broken the rules. Everyone froze and stared silently at her, but through her fear words came.

“You need to stop you bullies. I may not be queen, but I will defend this girl even if it means breaking every rule in the world. This is wrong and I don’t care if people see me and hear me doing this, I will protect her! I’d rather stand up for the innocent than be queen if being queen means staying quiet about things that are wrong!” The bullies looked down, abashed, and slowly walked back to their parents. No one had ever bothered to stand up to them before. Everyone had followed the rules quietly before.

The princess’s mother came hurrying out of the crowd towards her.

“What happened?” she demanded, her eyes taking in the ruined white dress in dismay.

“I’m sorry Mother. I know now I’ll never be queen because I didn’t do things by the rules and I got dirty, but I had to stop those bullies.”

“Oh my dear,” her mother smiled. “You are more of a queen today than you have ever been before. You can only be heard if you open your mouth and speak. Today you will be Queen of the Mud, and today everyone will see you for who you are. A true leader.”

The Queen of the Mud stood up, looking around her in astonishment as all around her people knelt in the mud and dirt to applaud her actions. They didn’t care that her sheen of perfection had vanished, that her dress was torn, that she was not pristine and perfect. She had gotten her hands dirty, and they had seen her.

“So this is how to be a queen,” she whispered.

 

Dichotomies: How to Brag and How to Sad Brag

I was reading a post earlier about labels, and how we often feel ok with labeling ourselves descriptively (atheist, female, etc) but not in a complimentary manner (hero, humanitarian, etc). While I feel like this is true, I wonder why. What is so wrong with noticing when we’ve done good things and labeling it ourselves? I feel that one of the problems that many people have is that they feel they can’t own the good things they do: they feel they have to wait for outside recognition because it’s considered bragging to talk about it and label it themselves. Well I’m going to be honest: I think we could all use a little more self-validation. While sometimes bragging can lead to comparisons and competition, I think if we stopped waiting so long to see when OTHER people notice that we’ve done good things and just said “I did a good thing” to ourselves, we might actually see a reduction in how competitive we are. We don’t need to one-up people in order to be noticed: we can notice ourselves.

So I’m going to take this moment to pat myself on the back for things that have been going really well for me lately, not because I want you all to feel jealous or compare yourselves to me, but because I’m genuinely excited and happy, would like to share, and want to be able to say that I feel GOOD about myself in a few areas. I have two job interviews in the next two days and one of them is for a job that I’m actually really interested in. I’m actually making enough money right now that I can put things away for retirement. It has been over a week since I self-harmed and I am going to continue that streak for AT LEAST three more weeks because I want to be cut free when I go to California. I have been in a bad job situation for 3 months now, and I have not crashed and burned. I have managed to deal with it, to brainstorm solutions, to find ways to tolerate the distress. There have been slipups certainly, but I am doing better than I have in YEARS. HOLY SHIT I AM AWESOME. When things go like this for me, I often look like the featured pic.

However despite being able to say all of this, and despite the fact that I can recognize that I have done some things quite well in recent history, I think the ability to speak our successes always needs to be a dialectic. I am always a proponent of being OPEN, and I think that this is no exception: if we’re going to be able to recognize our own successes, we also have to be able to recognize our own struggles. And we can recognize that these things may be one and the same. We have to be able to hold “I did some amazing things” at the same time as we hold “I am struggling so hard right now” and recognize that both can be true. Now first of all this is incredibly difficult. At the same time as I recognize that I have some wonderful opportunities right now and that I’ve done some things very right, I can also recognize that I’ve done some things very wrong. I’ve been struggling in my relationships lately, especially with the amount of effort I’ve been putting in to just feel sane with myself. I HAVE slipped up while trying to deal with this job, and I’ve let my mindset fall backwards in many ways. It has been a very hard couple of months for me trying to navigate the waters of semi-adulthood, paying for my own apartment, figuring out how to feed myself, working a full time job.

sad

This is more what I look like when I think about those things. But I have STILL done awesome things. I have started a personal blog, started blogging for CFI On Campus, started planning a (very tentative) conference with some friends…

So I would like to propose that we as human beings become more comfortable saying out loud our strengths and weaknesses. Not the namby pampy job interview version of this, but actually going to twitter and saying “I did something awesome. I’m proud of me”, and not feeling guilty about it. And then going to twitter five minutes later and saying “I’m still struggling. And I’m not guilty about that either”. Human beings are remarkably capable of being contradictory things at the same time. We are filled with dichotomies. It’s something I’ve been spending a lot of time with in my DBT therapy, and I think it’s something that all of us need to learn to be more comfortable with.

 

Written by Olivia

On Feeling Past My Prime

This morning I was reading an article about how age affects women more harshly than it affects men because of societal expectations of a woman’s “prime”. It’s interesting, because I never think about my age in terms of when I’ll be past my prime, or when I’ll stop being able to have babies, or when I’ll not be able to get a man anymore. Those things are not in the least bit important to me. The concept that at some point I will stop being relevant or sexy or loved or wanted because I’m old seems like the stupidest thing ever and I just don’t think about it.

 

But still, as a 22 year old, I often feel past my prime. I feel like I have lost the opportunities that I had and squandered what potential people told me was there. I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels like this, because I’ve been told by others that they feel like they’re behind or they’ve missed out or they haven’t done enough and they’ll never be perfect enough to achieve their dreams.

 

This cuts across genders, although I’ve personally seen it more in females. What has this generation been told that they somehow feel if they haven’t won a Nobel Prize by the time they get out of college then they’re useless? Because that’s the overwhelming sense I get from my friends and peers: no matter what I accomplish it will never be enough and I should have done it sooner anyway because I was supposed to be a prodigy.

 

Let’s try to put this into perspective through a few choice anecdotes. I have a friend who’s brilliant. She retains facts like nobody’s business and will excitedly tell you EVERYTHING about her subject of choice. She knows what she likes and is passionate about it. She’s on her way to getting a degree in that subject, and ready for grad schools following. And yet. And yet. She hasn’t gotten straight As. She’s in a difficult program and sometimes she struggles. She has a hard time balancing school and friends and family and mental health. Just like any other normal human being on this planet, she isn’t perfect. And whenever these things face her, I can see her melt. It’s the saddest thing in the world. I can see the voices talking to her and telling her that despite her plans and her dreams, and the fact that she is ON TRACK to live out those dreams, she’s useless and she hasn’t accomplished anything.

 

I have another friend who graduated from a small liberal arts college with good grades, played in the orchestra, held a job the whole time, is fit and talented and intelligent, got a well-paying job out of college, and now feels that his life is going nowhere. He didn’t get an engineering job straight out of school and isn’t sure what he wants to do in grad school. And so his degree suddenly becomes useless, his grades suddenly aren’t good enough, and nothing he does is worth anything. Even though he spends his time doing things like building cars and making a bike for his girlfriend, and doing things that he clearly loves, he feels his life is not good enough and HE is not good enough because there is some unspoken expectation of greatness for him.

 

And finally (not to brag, but to illustrate that I know what I’m talking about): I graduated in 3 years from a small liberal arts school after being admitted to every school I applied to. I graduated magna cum laude with honors in both of my departments (I was a double major). I held multiple jobs all three years and participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars. I now have a job, and I’m biding my time trying to decide what to do next. But when I think about where I am in life, I feel as though I have already wasted the best years of my life. In high school, I was told so often that I was smart, that I would do great things, that I would accomplish. I didn’t do that in college. I didn’t get published in major journals, I was never recognized for any sort of brilliance. I didn’t come to any great discoveries. I was just a regular student who got through. I’m not working at an amazing job, thinking Big Thoughts or moving towards a Bright Future. I don’t know what I want to do in grad school, and when I think about it I’m fairly certain that when I go, I won’t be held up as the best of the best. I’ll probably do well, but I won’t be richly rewarded. I’m trying to do what I love through writing and editing, but a piece of me still holds on to the dream that someday a publisher will stumble upon my writing and hand me a contract and I’ll suddenly be the next J.K. Rowling.

 

Now I know that in each of these examples, none of us are brilliant shining stars. None of us are about to cure cancer or write the next great American novel. But each of us are doing pretty well for ourselves. We’re smart, we’re relatively accomplished, we haven’t screwed up majorly in any way, and we’re all kind of following the appropriate path for our age group: going to college and then kind of trying to figure things out for a while. For those of us who are out of college, we’ve got steady jobs that allow us the freedom to figure out what we want to do in the future.

 

So why is it that we’re all convinced we’ve failed? Why is it that we feel we have not lived up to expectations, or that we could have been so much more? Why is it that in my mind when people told me “you have a lot of potential” I heard “if you don’t achieve fame and success by the end of college you suck”? Why is it that for all of my generation I get the feeling that we expected ourselves to be child prodigies who would excel at something from the time of birth and blow past every other person in that field by the time we were 18?

 

I can’t answer these questions entirely on my own. I don’t have sociological research to back any of this up, but I do have suggestions and possibilities. When I was young, I was told over and over of my own potential. I grew up in an era when telling a kid they could do anything was the norm. Dreaming big was expected and encouraged. I was told that if I work hard, I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Now I have no problem with parents encouraging their kids to dream, but telling me over and over that I can accomplish anything is simply a lie. Things are out of our hands sometimes, and wishing and trying and working doesn’t change that. I was propped up all my life: told by teachers that I was so smart, told by parents that I was special and amazing. I don’t regret for a second the support that I had from these people, but I wish that I had a piece of reality thrown in there: that as talented as I am, as smart as I am, as loved and supported as I am, things will still not always go my way.

 

I think of Dr Seuss’ book The Places You’ll Go. For a kids’ book this fucker is remarkably insightful. Because despite being full of support and love and excitement, it acknowledges that even someone as brainsy and footsy as you can get in trouble sometimes. I don’t feel like I had that. Somewhere along the way, my generation go the message that we could control our futures if we just worked hard enough and did things right enough. Which means that if things didn’t go our way, we must have done something wrong. We must have failed.

 

I see this in the way that we talk about college (always about getting into a top school, not getting into a school you like), the way we talk about jobs (how much are you making out of college), the way we talk about degrees (how many things did you major in? what’s your GPA? How many jobs did you have?), the way we talk about grad school (can you get funding for it? How much more will it make you?)…we don’t ask people questions like “are you enjoying yourself? Do you have good friends? Are you doing something you love?” So despite the fact that I spent 3 years studying something that I find absolutely fascinating, I’m a failure because I have not gone on to start a Ph.D at Berkeley, or because I have not published, or because I have not…xyz.

 

I wish we could stop feeling like we’ve failed. I wish we could change the dialogue from “what are you accomplishing” to “what are you enjoying”. I wish we could stop feeling we need to be the best. If I have any hope for the next generation, it’s that they’re empowered to know they have opportunities and abilities unlike anyone else in the world, but that they also learn to accept. Change always comes first from acceptance.