So I did it. I watched the whole series. There were points where 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, or like I was bullied, exactly. I know that many, many kids had it much worse. But I felt like 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.
Yes I was groped in the hall, yes I was sexually harassed verbally, I was also given a drug and raped by a college kid(s?), and yes, all kinds of nasty rumors circulated about me. Just to be clear, I’m neither minimalizing nor amplifying the meaning or importance of any of these events. They occurred, and I experienced them in the way I experienced them. And, yes, I 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, brutal hierarchy, and hormonal shit-soup.
And sometimes I was more than awkward. I once accidentally left my pants’ fly open and sat through most of a class trying to figure out what was so funny until someone was finally kind enough to tell me. I was called “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, I rebelled. I stopped going to class regularly and started smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, hanging out with older guys, and just generally saying, “fuck this shit” in every way I could invent. And, believe me I’ve always been the creative type. 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, which was true.
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. My response was sullen withdrawal. I should say more sullen withdrawal.
And I was still angry despite the fact that my parents had finally “noticed” me. 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.
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. Nothing happened. Had I discovered cutting, I would have taken it up like a new hobby. 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 a bad girl. It didn’t make sense because those same football players could go on and become prominent members of society, could (and did) run for student office, could eventually marry a virgin and rise in the ranks of the Mormon church to become (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 who had the “priesthood” conferred on them at age twelve. Yes, you read that right. 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.
At the time, though, all I could see was the idiocy, dishonesty, injustice, and 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 – really – 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 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 saved my life.