Coping With “Thirteen Reasons Why”

I just finished reading “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. And when I say “just finished” I mean minutes ago. I burned through the last forty pages. Breathless.

I loved the book.

More than just a typical reader would. As a school teacher, I’ve run across kids who needed similar help (not the same, thankfully). I find that school, and teaching, is a mixed bag of learning, friendship, and therapy.

First, let me give you a freeway version of the story (no spoilers, I promise). The novel follows the story of Hannah Baker, a girl who has committed suicide. We hear her words though audiotapes she left for the thirteen people connected with her suicide. Intercut with this is the first person narration of Clay. He’s listening because he’s on the tapes, somewhere. He spends the novel trying to figure out what he did to push a girl over the edge.

Every year (every year, at least since I ran across my first case of a girl cutting) I talk to the students about coping mechanisms. How to unload all that stress and anger that builds up inside. And it does. It’s like shaking up a can of soda. If you don’t know how to release the pressure, it will explode. Trust me, I know.

As I guy, mostly this comes out with hitting things. I’ve dented two car roofs (both mine) and hit the floor so hard it actually shook the house. I don’t think those were the best therapies, but they were better than the alternatives.

Basically, you need a way to get those inner demons out. Hannah (from the novel) had the right idea with poetry. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against her. Journaling also works. This is essentially what Hannah did with her tapes. It was too late when she worked through her emotions. It’s something you need to start with.

Art is another one. I recall, as a disaffected teen, I attacked a painting with so much force, that I broke the paint brush. (Seeing a trend here?) Once, a poet visited my class (this is fast forwarding to when I was a teacher) and she told the kids something I will never forget. Poems don’t have to be about sadness or joy. Any emotion will do. Anger in fact. She encouraged my class to get angry with their muse.

Essentially, I think I became a writer as a coping mechanism. A way to pour out all the ick that lived inside. I’ve dealt with double dealing friends and some nasty gossip. I simply gave that stuff for my characters to deal with. A bit nasty on my part, but hey, it let me heal. Then I could talk to those people again and not be filled with hate.

The only thing about Jay Asher’s book that bugged me was the parents. Where were they? He had Hannah offer an excuse about the business failing, but I needed to see it more. Why? Because I want to believe that they could have helped. You see I have a little daughter. And when she struggles with her teen years, I hope I can be there for her. I know it’s possible, probably even likely, that suicidal teens don’t confide in their parents. But as a reader (and a father) I would have hoped Asher would have addressed it. Maybe he did. (I haven’t finished with the questions at the end, so maybe he addressed it there.)

I guess I feel like Clay sometimes. As a kid (I know I’m jumping around here) I had a friend who’s father killed himself. One day, at friend’s house, he just broke down, crying. Hell, I had no clue what to do. I was something like thirteen or fourteen. But I listened to him. Especially because the others in our group wouldn’t. He survived the rest of high school without any further incident. So I’m glad I did something. At the very least, I didn’t turn away.

If you ever have someone open up to you, don’t push them away. Listen. Be there for them. Do something that they can’t.

Tim Kane

8 comments on “Coping With “Thirteen Reasons Why”

  1. Amber West says:

    I’ve known a few people who committed suicide, so stories like this pull at me. All I can think is “what could I have done differently”?

    It seems that it is an even more common theme amongst teens today. (Wander around tumblr for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean.) I think it’s good that you address coping mechanisms with your students. They should know that it’s okay to have intense emotion and to channel them.

  2. I didn’t have a problem with Hannah’s parents being missing because I grew up with parents like that. They weren’t bad parents, they were just self-absorbed. You can’t relate because you’re not that type of person. The job you do is evidence enough of that. 😉

    I totally agree with you on finding ways to channel feelings like anger so they don’t build inside and become self-destructive. Girls are socialized “not” to hit things, though. I didn’t realize how beneficial physically releasing anger could be as a coping mechanism until I started taking martial arts classes. Wow, what a difference!

    Writing has helped me heal a lot too. I don’t know what I’d do or where I’d be if I hadn’t found this path. And the fact that it (the writing) ultimately leads to bringing joy to others is pretty awesome.

  3. I found Thirteen Reasons Why really disturbing and hit a little too close to home. So many of the pages were really hard to read through my tears!

    I also wondered about the parents role in all of this. My son has bouts of depression, even as young as 7, I remember him saying, “Maybe it would be better if I were dead.” This cut me to the core, so I sought the advice of his wonderful 2nd grade teacher, who got him a meeting with the guidance counsellor. We’ve tried various medications that don’t seem to help. He is very solitary and has trouble voicing his problems, especially around his dad. He does connect with some of his on-line friends and has even helped a few who seemed to be having more troubles than him. I was quite proud of him when he told me what he’d done. He finds it much easier to write about his anxiety and I guess, in that way, he takes after me.

    As an angst-filled teenager, my diary was my best friend, so I guess writing as therapy began there and I recommended it to him. There have been periods in my life when I needed to tell someone something important about what I was feeling but could not get the words past my tight throat so had to write them down. Writing is a release of all that pent-up emotion and I would recommend it to anyone – that and pillow therapy.

    Friends of ours have a tendency to argue a lot so one year, for their anniversary, I was looking for the perfect present and found it – a pair of pillows that said, “Never fight without a pillow!” It’s the safest way to let out your anger and frustrations and probably cheaper too, in the long run, than body work on your car! 🙂

  4. Ms.T says:

    I like your post, and this is really rare to find a teacher like you. I think all teachers/advisors/principals etc. should read this book. Actually, they should be required to read the book before being allowed to work with kids. If they cannot understand Hannah, then they shouldn’t be working with any kids. As an adult, I am so tired of meeting/having teachers or advisors who are like the one in the book, so fake and so not helpful. Tim, if you read Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, you will see that writing is a good way to cope and a mean for self disclosure, I loved the book and I highly recommend it. Great post, I wish there were more teachers like you out there. Keep up the good work 🙂

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