So I did it. I watched the whole series. There were points when, as that familiar terror climbed up my throat and stuck there like lodged ice crystals, I thought, maybe this isn’t so good for me to watch, because I was one of those girls in high school – I was a girl like Hannah, the main character who kills herself. I was, to use the lingo, definitely “triggered” by watching it. It made me feel vulnerable all over again. It made me think again deeply about that time that in some ways seems like a distant nightmare now.
It’s not that people were systematically mean to me, not at first, or like I was bullied, exactly. I know that many, many kids had it much worse. But I felt like a nobody, like I didn’t belong, and later, like there really might be only one thing I was good for. That thing was, I am fairly certain, written on a bathroom wall once or twice.
Older boys groped me in the hallway. I was harassed. At a college party, someone slipped a drug into my drink and raped me. All kinds of nasty rumors circulated about me — some of them were even true. I often felt like human garbage.
But before I became bathroom-stall famous, and like many people dealing with trauma, I was a tottering ball of awkwardness when I first started high school. We started in ninth grade, so I was only thirteen going on fourteen when I was thrown into that swamp of narcissistic posturing and brutal hierarchy — a hormonal typhoon.
And sometimes I took awkward and really ran with it. For example, I once accidentally left my pants’ fly open and sat through most of a class trying to figure out what was so funny until a girl who sat in front of me was finally kind enough to tell me. When I looked down, I saw with horror that my yellow-flowered undies were on display for all to see. They called me “fly” for about a year after that, until I guess it was no longer amusing. I also made a perfect target for the small group of girls I was “friends” with the first two years.
I said all the wrong things at the wrong times. I was physically graceless. I was horrible at sports – all of them. I was tiny and physically weak. I had no breasts to speak of, and I was still waiting to get my period and feeling more and more panicky that it would never come. I thought, in my traumatized mind, that somehow my body was not normal because of the things that had happened to me. I worried that something was broken down there. This was literal. I actually believed I was ruined.
Eventually, following the familiar storyline, I rebelled. I started skipping class regularly and smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, hanging out with older guys, and just generally saying, “fuck this shit” in every way I could invent. Instead of that meek, awkward little geek I was a tough girl. I got my period. I had sex, and I walked around like I was just waiting for an excuse to kick someone’s ass. I absolutely was.
I stopped hanging out with the four girls who amused themselves by making me feel even more self-conscious than I already was. In fact, I was downright mean to them. I pretended not to see them in the hall, and I left one of them, who was the only one who had lunch period with me, to eat on her own, while I found new people to sit with. I was heartless. I am not proud of this, but I do understand it, because, dear reader, I was so colossally, mind-warpingly, atomic-apocalypse-level angry.
It felt like I was always on fire. Compared to the icy trepidation with which I had stumbled through pre-adolescence, it felt great. I said “no,” and I said “yes,” when I wanted to. I enjoyed sex, and I had no mercy on those poor boys who actually fell for me. And oh did it feel good to rebel against my parents whose expectations were authoritarian, even draconian, and had more than once included scolding me for the single A- or B+ on my otherwise straight-A report card.
When the A’s became C’s and D’s, they tried to “help.” They even went to a parenting class. Apparently they learned some version of “tough love” because their response to all of my misbehavior was icy silence and grounding after grounding after grounding. I responded with the kind of sullen withdrawal native to and pre-programmed into all teens.
And still, so much anger despite the fact that my parents had finally “noticed” me. I felt even more angry that their notice seemed to take the form of superficial “talks” about my behavior and the appropriate punishment, but never about how I felt or thought or what I dreamed of being or doing, or more importantly, why I was acting out in this specific way.
I think that might have been the key difference between me and Hannah — well, that, and the fact that I actually had consensual sex with a bunch of dudes. I definitely thought about killing myself. Almost night and day. I even took so many aspirin once that my ears rung and then sat in the living room on the couch waiting to pass out so my parents would have to take me to the hospital. My ears rang and rang, and my parents carried on around me, over me, beside me, not noticing anything at all. Nothing happened.
Had I discovered cutting, I would have taken it up like a champ. I almost certainly enjoyed the fantasy of my parents mourning my loss instead of seeing me as an unruly mare that needed to be disciplined. “Discipline my corpse, motherfuckers,” I remember thinking. And you know what they say about beating a dead horse.
I liked being tough, but I also loathed myself, because I thought was a loser, a slut, one of the “stoners,” one of the bad kids. I loathed myself because I knew I could get all A’s and I did want to go to college but I just didn’t give a shit anymore. To quote Sylvia Plath, “I simply [couldn’t] see where there was to get to.” And I loathed the world because nothing made any sense. Nothing.
It didn’t make sense that I could work hard or not work hard and my mother still looked at me like I made her nauseous. It didn’t make sense that the boys on the football team could fuck all the girls they wanted but a girl who did the same was slutty. It didn’t make sense because those same football players could go on and become prominent members of that tight little society, could (and did) run for student office, could eventually marry a virgin and rise in the ranks of the Mormon church to become (very often) sanctimonious pricks.
But I felt like my sins were too numerous to be forgiven. By the logic of the Church, I was less valuable than those precious boys with their tight, blonde haircuts who had the “priesthood” conferred on them at age twelve. I felt like the waiting incubation unit — damaged goods though I was — into which they would some day insert the holy gift of their spunk and leave me with the “honor” of staying at home all day with the resulting infant, cleaning up its shit and listening to it cry.
I wanted something different, but the Church told me, and I believed it, that I was wrong. Being a wife and a mother and homemaker was the only option for an honorable woman’s life. I felt like a brood mare who might still fetch a decent price if I could just learn to be a little more obedient, a little more passive, a little less feisty.
Just to be clear, the life I refused, the life I didn’t want or only half-wanted – I now see nothing wrong with that life. For a lot of women it is their greatest joy to bring children into the world, to guide them into adulthood and to make of their homes a beautiful sanctuary from the world. It just isn’t who I am. Or who I was. I could see no place in this system into which I fit. When I viewed myself through the lens of the Church, I felt deep, abiding shame and embarassment.
I also saw what looked like the idiocy, the dishonesty, the injustice, and the hypocrisy of it. I knew I was worth as much as those boys. I knew I was capable of doing things differently than expected. I knew that aspiring to be something and make something happen didn’t make me a bad person. And all I had done was tried to survive the best I could, and all I wanted – just like everybody else – was acceptance and love.
So if none of the usual channels was going to work – academic over-achievement, extreme conformity, “cuteness,” purity, elaborate efforts to join the “cool crowd,” and fits of religious piety that were worthy of an Academy Award – then, I decided, I would just do whatever the living fuck I wanted.
So I did. And some of that stuff was self-destructive, no doubt. Some of it would create other problems. But I was a seething ball of anger – I mean, I was so angry that it must have emanated from me like radiation. As I write this, I feel that anger again – not all of it – but some. What I can see now that I couldn’t see then, though, was that anger, that whole-hearted rebellion was not a sign of how bad I was, it was how I survived. And I am so fucking glad I survived. I mean, I don’t always feel buoyant or optimistic, but I am glad I didn’t throw it all away – and “it all” I would learn very slowly and with massive amounts of help was an awful lot.
Self-destructive rebellion isn’t a great long-term plan. But rebellion is how I didn’t end up like Hannah in Thirteen Reasons Why leaving behind the heartbreaking narratives on cassette tape. I had narratives. I have narratives. But I want to speak them in a living voice (even if it is electronic typing).
Yes, when I think of that time, I feel regret, sadness, a terrible urge to shout at my parents until they are two puddles of tears, but mostly, I feel the fire of that terrible and terrifying anger in my belly – the fire that kept me breathing, if only to feed it. The fire that saved my life.