The "13 Reasons Why" That You Should Read As A Teen


“Anyone who has actually been that sad can tell you that there's nothing beautiful or literary or mysterious about depression.” 
― Jasmine Warga, My Heart and Other Black Holes

Last year was, in a weird way, a huge breakthrough for banishing the taboo around discussing teen suicide. Like it or loathe it, the Netflix original "13 Reasons Why" was largely to thank for this. I personally disliked the show for how it dealt with such sensitive topics, but having since read Jay Asher's YA book that the show was based on, I can admit that the story initially had a decent message, it just happened to get lost in translation.

Nevertheless, the show's adaption was done so poorly that it did act as a trigger for many young men and women. I have read the stories that I think a lot of us have, surrounding the 13 episode series pushing many young adults to suicide. It's heartbreaking. Granted, a show can't be solely responsible for someone's sadness but nothing entertainment wise should have enough power to push someone to ending their own life. Nothing. One could argue that anyone with that weight of sadness would find their reasoning in anything - this show just happened to be the source at the time. But alas, taking "To The Bone" as an example, the other Netflix original that took the sensitive subject of eating disorders and created a movie starring Lily Collins, it was respectfully done without skimping on the details that an audience may find too difficult to watch. You ended with a small token of hope that ought to always be what people take from something - especially when the something is geared towards a young audience. It's always going to be hit or miss, but these things should never be done carelessly. "13 Reasons Why" had the opportunity to create a strong healthy message and it's really disappointing how it all ended up. I have read enough books on mental illnesses to know that it can be done. If they wanted to keep the original ending, fine, but they could've easily done it in a way that didn't insinuate that suicide is not only an easy option, but something that enables you to put the blame on others.

I have a somewhat fascination when it comes to reading YA books on mental health. I gravitate toward them, and I'll happily say that "My Heart and Other Black Holes" by Jasmine Warga is one of the best I have read. It has some of the most accurate descriptions of depression, without glamorising sadness like so many other books have regrettably done. It's raw and a definite beginner book into the topic of suicide, I would recommend picking this up to anyone young out there who may be feeling alone in their battle.

Aysel is a sixteen year old girl obsessed with two things, physics and contemplating her own death. She's depressed and in fear of turning into her father. She spends her time at work scrolling on a website that seemingly acts as a source for others who want to end their lives, giving them a chance to match up with someone in a similar situation nearby who wants to end their life without being alone. Creating "suicide partners", if you will. It is there that she see's FrozenRobot's ad (it's okay, she pokes fun at the pen name too) looking for someone, before she has time to think it through, Aysel finds herself messaging the stranger and there starts her countdown to death.

The story sounds semi basic, I know, and I can't properly do it justice with a meek little description so you're going to have to just trust me on this one. Hidden inside the pages of this book is a heartbreaking story that doesn't shy away from the agony that is depression, but also doesn't act as triggering object that your dark and twisty (Grey's, anyone?) mind will cling onto to. You will read this book with tears glittering your eyes, as the characters describe depression in a way you have always needed to. In Aysel's words;

"Depression is like a heaviness that you can't ever escape. It crushes down on you, making even the smallest things like tying your shoes or chewing on toast seem like a twenty-mile hike uphill. Depression is a part of you; it's in your bones and your blood. If I know anything about it, this is what I know: It's impossible to escape."

This book is the opposite of "13 Reasons Why" in a multitude of ways, but I think the most notable is the interaction with the parents. If we're discussing solely the books, then you can argue that both Aysel and Hannah had questionable parenting - though if we're comparing book to TV show, then Hannah's parents mirror Roman's in the way of 'normal, loving, but struggling'. In "My Heart and Other Black Holes" Aysel lives with her mum, her mother's new husband, and her half brother and sister. Having lived with her father up until his big mistake, it's new territory for Aysel and she feels misplaced in the home. Unwanted, even. But as you read these pages through Aysel's eyes, you can see how much her new family are trying to help her be a part of their system. Her sister tries to bond, despite the bickering that they oh so often do, and her mum tries to include her first born in family outings or the day-to-day things like breakfast. But of course, having a teenage mind that is clouded by depression, Aysel doesn't see this and instead only latches onto the negatives. I particularly liked this touch of the book as it is such a realistic look on depression. Usually with these kinds of books, the parents can seem like the devil. Inhuman, or all too perfect. Aysel's mum is realistic, and despite the mistakes she's made when it comes to her daughter, she tries. Which matters.

WARNING SEMI SPOILER: At one point in the book, Aysel goes to her mum and admits how she's been feeling. The sadness, otherwise known as her own "black slug". This conversation was so beautifully written that it brought a lump to my throat. These are the scenes that we need to see in such shows as "13 Reasons Why", especially young adults. Our parents can seem like such scary creatures and as youngsters, we convince ourselves that they will never understand. We fear they'll tell us that we're stupid or to "get over it", but that is extremely rare. You're their child and they love you. You may argue constantly, and you may hate them when you're having a particularly hard day and they can't seem to show you any compassion, but shockingly, that's because they don't know you've been up half the night crying or that you feel numb. You have to voice these things, as frightening and impossible as it may feel. You watch the bathtub scene of "13 Reasons Why", see the way her parents react and maybe you don't fully take it in. You're finding it too hard to focus on anything nowadays, but just imagine for a second that instead of that scene, you watch Hannah Baker sit her mum or father down and tell them what she's been contemplating. She shows them the razor blade, tells them about the party, and sits there stiff as a board as tears fall from her eyes. She tells them that she's not feeling anything and wants it to stop. They have the exact same reaction as they had when they found her in the tub, you watch as they hold onto her and apologise for not having seen it sooner. They tell her everything that we've been wanting to tell Hannah throughout the run of the show. Imagine that small pang that it would stir in you. The small little break that may define what you do next. Maybe it's hope, maybe it's loneliness, maybe it's a need for comfort, but its something else. It's not the darkness. These are the sparks that need to be felt when consuming such shows or books.

Now, as with 97% of the books I read, it was problematic at parts. Most notably, the romance. And so many reviews I have read online point this out with a huge accusing finger. It's pretty obvious that there will be some coupling when Roman, her suicide partner, is introduced. A boy around her age, handsome, and one could argue a perfect match for our Aysel if you count sadness as something to bond over. Though I think the book could've stood strong without the love aspect, I can easily look past it. After all, it's pretty common to have lovey doveyness (totally a profound way of putting it, I know) in YA literature. But unlike so many of those other books, I can hugely appreciate the opposite views that Roman and Aysel have over their relationship, especially as, in a way, it creates a line between this book to others such as "All The Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven. Take this paragraph for example;

"You're you. You get it. You get all of it. And you're sad like me, and as screwed up as that is, it's pretty beautiful." He reaches over and brushes his hand across my face, touching my hair. "You're like a grey sky. You're beautiful, even though you don't want to be."  But he's wrong. It's not that I don't want to be. But I never wanted to be beautiful because I was sad. FrozenRobot of all people should know that there is nothing beautiful or endearing or glamorous about sadness. Sadness is only ugly, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't get it. I think what he means to say is that he and I are ugly in the same way and there's something familiar, comfortable about that. Comfortable is different than beautiful.   

In my personal opinion, I think Roman wants the tragic but beautiful death that we so often read about in fiction. But Aysel is a realistic. I personally see this as a subtle hint at their mental states. Roman is 100% positive that death is what he needs for peace in life, thus he isn't seeing the ugly in the sadness. But Aysel is doubtful and curious in ways that she doesn't fully realise, she does have questions about life, and in a sense, wants them answered before she ends it all. She's inactively reaching out for something to live for, and that just happens to be Roman. So no, I can't see the romance element of this story as a reason to dismiss it as YA fluff.

I've already written so much, so I will swiftly come to an end now. But please, if you're feeling sadness at a young age or know someone who is consuming such shows or books as "13 Reasons Why" with glee, read or recommend "My Heart and Other Black Holes". If Hannah Baker is currently who you're relating to in an unhealthy way, reach out to someone. Whether your family, friends, professionals, or an online friend. There will always be someone willing to listen, I promise you. I will leave you with one more quote from this wonderful book;
“I will be stronger than my sadness.” 

Anxiety UK: 0844 477 5774
Depression Alliance: 0845 123 23 20
Samaritans: 08457 909090

Depression Hotline: 1-630-482-9696
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-8433
LifeLine: 1-800-273-8255

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