The last few days I’ve binge watched a series on Netflix called “13 Reasos Why”. If you haven’t heard about it yet, let me offer you the gist of it: a 17 year old girl called Hanna takes her own life. Weeks later, a boy called Clay Jensen receives a package containing 13 tape recordings made by her before her death, each one of them depicting one reason that led her to take the plunge, giving out the names of the people she considers responsible for her death. Clay is, in reality, the 11th person to receive such tapes, which come with the instruction to be passed forward to the next person on the list or a set of copies should be released publicly, which might lead to serious consequences for those involved.I watched it expecting to find another teen soap like so many others, but what I’ve come to find was a disturbing sense of familiarity. Why? Because 18 years ago Hanna’s story could have been mine. Could have been so many others girls. Any of us could have made the same decision as her and, sadly, many others actually did.
If you don’t want to receive ocasional spoilers from the series, stop reading here. Although the story I’m about to share now is mine, as I mentioned before, I could have been Hanna Baker.
My story starts a long time ago, before social media was a thing. It was 1999. I was 13 years old, had just had my heart broken by a boy for the first time, was starting 7th grade. I was an alright student, my grades averaged between As and Bs and, even thought I wasn’t part of the mighty powerful in crowd at school, I had my comfortable little place amongst the B crowd. I had a close group of girl friends and, at that age, nothing else matters.
Unlike Hannah, I didn’t go to public school. No, it was the exact opposite. I went to one of the best and most expensive private schools in the country. A catholic school, the kind that feeds off its reputation. That is a very important part of my story. Remember that.
With my heart recently broken, I was on the mend. I had met a boy from a different school, the kind of boy you can only fall for when you’re a teenager, the ultimate bad boy kind, with body piercings, ripped jeans and a motorcycle at the age of 14. My friends didn’t like it, they thought he wasn’t good enough for me, too different from the typical millionaire kids that sat at our classes. So, when I lost my virginity to him at such a young age, I should have kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t. I shared it with my best friends during first period and, by the time the bell rang, somehow the entire school already knew about it, most likely sharing the information with each other on small pieces of ripped notebook paper, scribbled in so many different colours of ink and handwriting. March 4th, 1999. That was the day my best friends turned me into the school slut.
Just as it happens to Hannah, the rumours about my reputation escalated quickly. It became a regular past time at that hell hole to create rumours about me. Local past time. I was suddenly isolated from everyone. A freak. A whore. For sleeping with the boy I loved. I walked the halls now in headphones and my nose stuck inside books. I wanted to become invisible, but it’s impossible not to notice side glances and smirks thrown in your direction day after day after day. That’s why I was so surprised when one of the most popular boys in school started to approach me, commenting on how immature the rest of our class had been regarding my situation. I felt such relief to hear those words. As I said, I was just 13 – naive and silly 13. That boy had been setting me up for weeks. He made me feel safe only to rip out any sense of security right from underneath me. With the excuse that he wanted to talk to me, to allow me to open up, he led me to a bedroom and pinned me down. I can still feel the weight of his fists clenching my wrists as I cried for him to stop. I can still hear his breathing on the base of my neck. I remember everything. I remember the shapes the crack on the ceiling formed as my tears clouded my vision. I remember the smell of sweat and I remember how much I struggled until I realised that was pointless. There was no escape anymore. I remember staying motionless on top of the bed, crying in silence as he left the room, not ever looking back. I remember it felt like I spent hours laying still, half dressed, dried tears on my cheeks, wondering if I could wish myself dead at that moment. I wished so hard, but it didn’t work. Wishes never came true for me. But what I remember most was having to look at his smug face staring at me with laughter in his lips for the following four years. Every day. Every single day. I think I died a little every time he looked at me. Every time I felt naked, exposed, violated. I felt like the fragile limp body he had left behind once he was done with me.
The rumor mill spun it’s wheels and, by Monday, the entire school knew he had fucked me – although the unofficial version was that I had gone into his bedroom asking for it. I was the slut after all, wasn’t I? And even without social media, the rumours spread to other schools and, in days, reached my boyfriends ears. To his credit, he believed me when I told him it was bullshit. I never did have the courage to tell him the truth, though, I was afraid of how he’d react. However, the other boys in his school did not see eye to eye with him, and the rumours about me grew, expanded, and eventually our relationship could no longer survive the gossip. That’s when I started going off the deep end.
By then, I had a new set of friends, mostly made of girls from different schools. We had found each other by being misfits, so it was easy to accept each other’s flaws. For the first time in a year, it felt like belonging. However, we were not good for each other. Searching for escapes, we found alcohol and other not so legal ways to have fun. The months that followed became a blur of endless partying. No club ever asked us for ID. No liquor store either. We were young, wild and it seemed nobody had any intention of stopping us. Alongside them, I stopped fearing the labels I had been given at the school halls. That did not last long, of course. As everything that happens to teenagers, it was explosive – it burned bright and quick. By the time 8th grade came along, I changed classes and felt more comfortable in the company of the one friend who has never judged me by the opinions of others. Him, and him alone, might just have been what stopped me from becoming Hannah Baker. June 2000 came with the promise of an amazing school trip, one entire week in the forest. I was finally ok with my surroundings. I had cooled off the drinking. I was happy. There was a boy in my class. We had kissed once, before my reputation led my life to shit. He wasn’t in the popular crowd. He was kind of quiet and good looking. His mother was our biology teacher and was our advisor at this particular trip with our geography teacher, whose daughter was also a student in our year. The first night, after we had dinner by a bonfire under the stars, he kissed me again. It was cute and sweet. It felt normal for the first time in ages. We became an item there, but since his mother was always around we had to be sneaky to be alone. That usually meant his room. On the third day, we took the bus to another location in the forest. During that journey, another boy in our class came to me, tears in his eyes, saying he had a confession to make. We were friends and he couldn’t let me be trapped without telling me the truth. You see, back then people didn’t have smart phones. Well, teenagers didn’t have cell phones at all. But this boy aspired to be a photographer, so he carried all kinds of really high tech stuff, including a video camera. Apparently, the boy I had been kissing set up with his roommates to film us having sex. It was all a joke, a way to humiliate me again. I was a slut after all, of course i’d let him fuck me, right? The boy who snitched became a pariah amongst his peers for the rest of the trip. He had ruined everything. But when we got back to school the following week, I realised that I was wrong. They spread the rumours regardless of not having the tape and who wouldn’t believe them, with all the rumours already established the year before? This time, things went further. The geography teacher had seen us together so, when her daughter told her the rumor, she actually confirmed it. A fucking teacher! How can a 14 year old fight a teacher’s word? Soon, the rumours left the crowded hallways and took over the administration offices. By then, all my grades had dropped dramatically. The only As I managed to keep were in English, literature and creative writing, the things that came naturally to me, my escaped from a reality that was slowly crushing me. Everything that went wrong within school halls became instantly my fault. Even when two boys confessed to something, the principal called me into his office asking what kind of favours had I promised them to get them to take the fall for me. I started carrying vodca in my backpack every morning and resigned myself back into my thick books and headphones.
At the end of that year, I graduated junior high just barely scraping through finals and, during that summer, I met a new boy. He was an actor. He was completely out of the universe that had been slowly destroying me, and it was so refreshing to be around him. His mom became good friends with my dad, who helped her get a job that changed her life. With him, I could be myself again. I stopped drinking, stopped partying, I was a normal high school girl for once. The one thing I couldn’t seem to do was bring my grades back up and the rumours that started in junior high followed me into high school. I created a mask to hide behind, pretending I could not care less about them while secretly crying alone at home. While everything else seemed to be fixed, going to school was still incredibly painful. I tried asking for help for the guidance counsellor and her solution was calling my parents to announce that if I didn’t seek professional help they would have to expel me. As if it had all been my fault. The school was slut shaming me so as not to deal with the millionaire parents of my bullies. My mother obliged, saying she agreed I was trouble. I hated her for it. But was forced to go to therapy anyway. One that was indicated by the school. The counsellor’s best friend. At first, I tried to make the best of the situation, but in 4 weeks I found out he had been reporting back to the school. He was sharing my most private sessions with the counsellor that blamed me for my troubles. From that day on, I became silent in our sessions, letting him talk at the back of my head as I took power naps on his couch. He diagnosed me as manic depressive and told my mom I had to find a psychiatrist to get prescriptions for anti depressants. So I did. I started taking Zoloft twice a day. It made me numb to the world, but in the worse possible way. It made me disconnect from reality while trapping my mind inside clusters of pain. That was the year I failed school and they decided to hold me back a year. As much as I tried to tell my mother it would just trap me in my personal hell for a year longer, it changed nothing. When the following school year started, I was a high school freshman again, to the delight of those who loved making up stories about me. I have heard so many different versions of why I had been held back I couldn’t count it on my fingers. Slowly, that feeling dragged me down again. I had kept a few friends, mostly the new kids who had transferred the year before, and I found a group of good people – other misfits – in my new classes, but that could not keep me afloat. To make things worse, the one friend that never judged me was taking a year abroad in Thailand and I just distanced myself more and more, drowning into my own misery. Inevitably, it all became too much for the boy who had been by my side for 18 months and he broke up with me stating that I had become just “too sad” for him. Alone again, drinking became an increasingly more common solution to numb the pain while I shifted from one brand of anti depressants to another. Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac. You name it, I’ve taken it before turning 17.
Now, 17. That was the defining moment in my history. Hannah killed herself at 17, so that’s when our stories part way. For me, that year was 2002. That’s when everything changed. That’s when the school failed me the last time and when I decided to do something about it. Thinking back, I know the names and faces of every single person that would make my list of tapes, but I’m pretty sure they have no idea. You know why? Because none of this mattered to them. I was just a punchline, a past time, a delicious piece of gossip to be passed around while they were bored. Not one of them even remembers what they’ve done. Their lives followed their golden paths as they would if I had never crossed it. They went on with their happy little existences never knowing they nearly killed me. And would they care if it had? Would they even take responsibility for their actions? I don’t believe so. I believe that, had I died at 17 as Hannah did, I’d have become everyone’s instant friend. All of them would have found a way to make me important to them, so that my tragedy would have been more about themselves than about their poorly made decisions. Isn’t that the rule to young deaths and celebrities?
But 17 was different for me. And when I say my path and Hanna’s were different it is not because I made a different choice. I didn’t. I made the exact same one. The difference was I failed. Here’s what happened: I used to write short stories on my spare time. Fiction. Inspired by things I had seen on movies and related to in songs. I was using fiction to expand my world. I used to hand them over to my creative writing teacher to get feedback, to become a better writer. That was my dream after all. So, one day, I wrote a piece inspired by what had happened to me years ago, about the day I was raped. It was a 2 page short story told in first person in the form of a letter from the victim to the perpetrator. I was deep and it was powerful. To this day I still think that was one of my best works. Had it not been, maybe it wouldn’t have turned into what it did and it wouldn’t have been a catalyst for the worse night of my life, but let me get there first. I handed him that piece along with a few others on Friday and was excited to hear back from him when Monday came. But I walked into his classroom and he avoided looking me in the eye. For the next 75 minutes I sat there in confusion, not quite sure how to respond to his lack of reaction. When the class ended, he was out of the door before any of the students, which was never the case. That day, last period, I was called into the guidance counsellor’s office. He stood there with her, my piece in hand, a concerned frown hiding his gaze away from mine. I still couldn’t figure out what was happening. He was not the one who spoke first, it was that hateful woman. Just as other teachers before her, she happened to also have a son in my original class, the one that had destroyed me, and the rumours about me also had made an appearance at her home. Can’t you just imagine that? Mother and son having dinner and sharing stories about the school slut? How delightful! So, as it happens, I had gotten my first tattoo only a few months before, a Chinese ideograms that means “strength”, as a reminder of what I needed to most to make it through the hell my life had become. My father had gone to the parlour with me, sat by my side, and authorised my body art, as the law required back then. It had been this whole amazing experience we had shared. However, behind my back, the tale being shared was a very different one. What some of my colleagues had been throwing around to each other was that my father abused me and I had gotten the ink to get back at him. So, when I turned in my fiction work, the school assumed that it was about that particularly nasty piece of rumor that I was confessing to. I had a breakdown, right there. It had gone too far. The slut shaming was nothing compared to that kind of accusation. I screamed, I defended my family, I accused the school administration of neglecting me all the 11 years I had set foot into that place. I was terrified that this would get back to my home. That would have destroyed my mother and I’m quite sure the kind of rage it would cause my father would lead him into doing something beyond repair. I threatened to go public about it, drag the school’s spotless reputation through the mud. They accepted that I was serious and decided to “let this go”. I, however, could not simply forget that. What kind of teenager would think that kind of accusation is just a joke to play on someone? What kind of a person can just make up that kind of shit and believe that it causes no harm. I don’t know. I could never find out who it was. It didn’t matter. I had gone too far. That day, I went home and locked myself in my bedroom as usual. I took my phone – a landline – off its hook and I cried until my eyes were painfully dry. I wished for death again. I wished that everything could just stop. And that’s when the thought came to me. I used to get my anti depressants in packs that should last me 3 months. With all the changing I had done from one brand to another, my cabinet held about 6 months worth of pills. So I took them. I swallowed them in twos until I couldn’t swallow another single one my throats was so raw. I don’t know how many I took, but it was a lot. I could feel my limbs going numb, losing feeling. It started at the tip of my fingers and toes before taking to my arms. I laid on the floor by the window, watching the night sky, finally believing I was free. But, as you can obviously tell, I did not die that night. No. I lost all feeling and control of my body, but my mind was wide awake the whole time, more trapped then ever before in the darkness that lived in my thoughts. It was a different type of death. At one point, I was taken over by an uncontrollable nausea and I vomited back a good quantity of pills. I vomited so hard my stomach muscles hurt for a week. Not having been successful in my endeavour, I went back to hard liquor as a way to hide away from my pain. Halfway through September I had a serious case of alcohol poisoning. My parents found me passed out in front of a very high end shopping mall close to our house. They drove me back and spent the entire night awake, watching me, making sure I was going to make it. Apparently, as I regained consciousness, I cried at them that I could not go back to that school. For the first time ever, they took me seriously. They realised I had almost died because of the pain that going there daily was inflicting upon me, even if I had never shared with them the truth about what had been the final draw. The next day, when I was finally awake again, they agreed to let me drop out if I could offer a valid way to make up for the two years of school I would be giving up on. And so, I went to the one teacher at that damn school I believed was on my side. She wasn’t like the others. Students hated her, but I had always admired her, my philosophy teacher. I told her that I wanted to drop out, that that place was destroying me. To my surprise, she agreed. She said she could tell I had been fading into my own head and, most importantly, she told me that I was intelligent for myself and that I’d be intelligent regardless of being in an expensive school. She helped draw out a plan for the following year. As I would turn 18, I could get my GED if I studied hard enough, making up for the entire year I had been held back, getting my life back on track. She was the one that made my parents realise that I was absolutely capable of doing and that I wanted it hard enough to actually pull it off. So, I finished the school year and left, not saying goodbyes, not giving reason. I was later told that my disappearing act led to a whole array of new rumours. Some said I had left because I was pregnant, some said I had gone to rehab. Some said I had been in a serious drunk car accident and was disfigured. Those are the ones I remember, but I’m sure there had been many more. The truth is, once I had left that place, it just didn’t matter anymore. I was doing great. I was taking college preparation classes with people who had never heard of me before, allowing me to make great friends I still hold dearly. I got my diploma the week I turned 18 and could focus on getting to the university of my dreams, which I did, a year earlier than I would had I stayed in school, I was placed 69th amongst 13.000 applicants. And I had done it all by myself. I went back to that place the same week I got my acceptance letter. I walked right into the office my philosophy teacher shared with that damn guidance counsellor and she was the first to write my university’s letter in my forehead in lipstick (a tradition in Brazil, for those who don’t know). She told me she wasn’t surprised but was proud. And I walked out of there with a feeling of closure I had never felt before.
All that was only possible because I did not become Hannah Baker. I see that there are many people who tell bullied teenagers “it gets better”, but the truth is that when you are at that age, it seems like it is just not possible. We live in such small universes, comprises mainly of our schools, and it is very difficult to believe that things will change. But it does. Sometimes it takes more than just surviving high school, it takes action, but I am now 31 years old, still dealing with depression, but not in need of medication. I have managed to outlive my slut fame and I’m finally in the healthiest relationship of my life. Those awful days of hell are now a distant memory that make me emotional sometimes, but mostly they are just that: memories. Old and fading.
I still know the names of the people who would have made my list of tapes. Honestly, I don’t think that will ever go away. It hurt, it was real, it shaped and defined me. It’s always going to be a part of me, but that part become smaller every day. That, I guarantee. I don’t know why I suddenly felt the need to overstate like this. I very rarely speak of those days anymore, but I think the message of 13 Reasons Why is just that and it is so important: suicide happens. Happens every day. And what we do to people matter to them even if it feels meaningless to you. And now, I prefer to live my days as someone who survived that then to be one of the people who could have been responsible for another girl taking her life.