BEFORE I DISAPPEAR, 13 REASONS WHY and Tackling Suicide In Film and Storytelling​

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by: Jerry Smith



When I was fifteen years old, I tried to kill myself. It was such a dark period in my life and in no way was it a cry for help. I didn’t want any help, I wanted to die and to leave this awful, awful thing we all know as life. It was on a particularly interesting night, full of drugs and alcohol and a pretty epic argument between my mother and I. We got into a fight and in the middle of it, she said something that I still struggle with, she said that my father wasn’t my real dad. Whether she was telling the truth or just preying on an insecurity I always had prior to that is irrelevant, it was spoken and instead of fighting anymore, I walked away, outside and into the two story garage that my brother and I lived in (we stayed in a loft on top of the garage while my mother lived in the house next to it). I walked upstairs, took an insane amount of drugs combined with a lot of alcohol, in hopes that the booze, powder and pills would help me not to wake up. There wasn’t a note because I didn’t care what anyone thought and I had no intention of saying anything other than “adios.” Thankfully, it didn’t work and I moved from Oregon back to my home state of California the very next day. Why am I writing about this? Because I feel that it’s important to add some insight into the topics I want to talk about in this piece. The topic of suicide and how it’s dealt with in two pieces of art, Shawn Christensen’s BEFORE I DISAPPEAR and the Netflix adaption of Jay Asher’s novel, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY.


Since childhood, I’ve always had a form of darkness surrounding me. I don’t mean that in a Hot Topic, goth-filled “my life is hellllll” kind of way. It’s just always been, created by a series of things that no child should have to go through and manifested throughout my life. I’ve been happy and AM very happy at this point in my life, but I’ve always been somewhat transparent to a fault, so I feel like being completely real with you DCP readers. It’s a struggle to wake up and think about wanting to live. I’m not and I haven’t been suicidal in years, but to say I still fight with depression and that darkness in me would be an understatement. Because of that, I typically latch onto pieces of cinema and art that shines a light on characters who deal with similar issues and the first one I want to talk about is BEFORE I DISAPPEAR, a film that spoke to me on a very profound level and to this day, a good two years after watching it, is a film which has a protagonist that is the closer to who I am as a person than any other character I’ve ever come across.


The film deals with Richie (Shawn Christensen), a man who is full of regret and is tired of being alive. It begins with Richie bleeding out in a bathtub, ready to die. He’s come to terms with things being over and it’s only when he receives a phone call from his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum), asking him to pick up her daughter from school, that Richie must bandage himself up and hold off on dying for a little while. Richie is a man who is so full of pain and suffering that it makes sense to him to just call it quits, due to an infinite amount of pain of letting a former love down and not knowing how to properly say goodbye to that pain. It’s only when Richie meets Sophia, his niece, that he slowly finds a reason to pull himself together and find a reason to live and to endure in ways that drugs, alcohol and sadness never allowed him to. It’s a profoundly moving film, one that hit me like a ton of bricks and really forced me to examine various feelings I had felt for a long time. I’m a father of three wonderful kids and my children have always made me the best version of myself I could be, in spite of the pain and sadness that comes with depression and self hatred. I don’t walk around with my head hanging down and more times than not, I’m the guy in a group that is always making bad jokes to make people laugh, but I’d be wrong if I said when I’m alone, I’m not completely overcome with grief from sometimes no reason at all. It’s always been there and if life continues and the world isn’t devastated by WWIII soon, chances are, it will continue to be. It’s just there and it’s all about confronting the pain, the sadness and the despair and enduring, finding your reasons to pull yourself together. BEFORE I DISAPPEAR illustrates that and is a film that never exploits the topic of suicide, instead, it approaches it in a very realistic way, showing that sometimes, it’s just there and that we have to deal with our issues or be overcome by them.


Another recent piece of storytelling that has really caught me off guard, is the Netflix adaption of Jay Asher’s novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. Telling the tale of Clay (Dylan Minnette), a young man who receives a box of tapes, tapes that all tell the story of the many reasons why Hannah (Katherine Langford), a classmate and crush of Clay’s killed herself not too long before the show begins. Each tape is directed at a different person, all of which equally played a part in the young girl deciding to end her life. What THIRTEEN REASONS WHY gets so right, is the fact that sometimes in life, we all play our respective parts in how somebody feels. It confronts bullying, slut shaming and not taking the cries from help from someone has into account, all reasons that when added up and into each other, pushes Hannah into deciding that she’d rather be dead to victimized, bullied, raped and not cared about. It’s a shocking, brutal at times look at a person who just wanted to be happy but was put through hell for various reasons and by various people.


It’s a sad, very upsetting story, one that is not only a good and entertaining show, but one that challenges you as a viewer to look at yourself and think about what you could do differently, asking yourself to listen to others and to be there for others. I can’t think of another piece of storytelling in recent years that succeeds on the level that THIRTEEN REASONS WHY does, when it comes to taking an unflinching, hard to watch at times look at suicide, one that forces you to confront the topic of rape and bullying and suicide, without ever feeling like it’s a plot device. It’s an important thing to think about and it’s stories like this one and BEFORE I DISAPPEAR that allow us as a viewers to not only live vicariously through its characters, but to affect us in profound ways that refuse to leave our systems. It’s not just good storytelling, it’s CRUCIAL storytelling and storytelling that doesn’t hold anything back.


Suicide is an important issue to talk about and through these two pieces of art, it opens up that dialogue in ways that I wish I had when I had went through various rough and dark patches in life. It’s important that these films and shows exist, as they allow us to examine ourselves and those around us and see what we can do to help each other and to help ourselves.

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