How Problematic Are You?

 “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”

– Andrew, The Breakfast Club

In John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985), five stereotypical teenagers, a “prom queen,” a “geek,” a “jock,” a “criminal,” and a “basket case,” attend detention at their high school’s library on an early Saturday morning. As punishment for their previous transgressions, the delinquents are instructed to compose a 1,000-word essay explaining “who they think they are,” but no work gets done and they spend the remainder of their detention forming unlikely bonds with one another. At face value, the film can be likened to an extended bottle episode that you would watch in a television show—not much else happens beyond a band of misfits talking about their problems and standing up to an abusive authority figure for an hour and a half. Upon further examination, we find a surprising character study on the nuanced complexities of adolescence, with our five protagonists discovering that, despite their assigned stereotypes that ostensibly divide them, they are in fact united by common struggles inside and outside of school.

The Breakfast Club was so successful that it grossed more than fifty times its budget, cementing it as one of the best movies of the 1980s and standing the test of time. The film resonates with me for its smartly written, dynamic, and relatable characters, who all have rich and complicated histories that provide clarity on their personalities. For example, we learn that Allison, the basket case, struggles with forming meaningful relationships because all her life, her parents have neglected her. Brian, the geek, is easily impressionable and contemplates suicide for fear of failing an important class. Claire, the prom queen, is deeply insecure about her virginity, while her friend group prevents her from forging a stable identity. Andrew, the jock, is pushed too hard by his father for not being a good enough wrestler. Finally, Bender, the criminal, incurs constant verbal and physical abuse from his father.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to the issues that the Breakfast Club has spent the majority of its detention working through. The conclusion sees Allison and Andrew develop a relationship, Claire help Bender get in touch with his compassion, and Brian finish the essay for Mr. Vernon. However, their fate is largely open to interpretation, as no sequel is ever made that informs us of where Allison, Andrew, Claire, Bender, and Brian end up in the next 10-20 years and thus we presume that they all go their separate ways after detention ends. What is especially poignant is the understanding that even if these characters lives never intersect again, and if their issues persist through high school graduation and into adulthood, the impacts they leave on each other will last forever. This is best illustrated by the film’s hallmark song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, which sings about the necessity of transparency in human relationships.

While Hughes’s beloved coming-of-age film serves as a commentary on typical teenage angst and how frequently misunderstood it is by adults, I think many of the characters’ insecurities go well beyond and perhaps supersede the adolescent years, manifesting in a variety of cultures that are not relegated to white, middle class America. If they are left unresolved, they could yield disastrous consequences later in life. For instance, if Bender never makes amends with his abusive father, he could become an abusive father himself one day. If Claire never chooses the right friends, she might spend the rest of her life never knowing who she is. Finally, if Andrew never learns to cope with the prospect of failure, he may one day successfully attempt suicide. The aim of The Breakfast Club is therefore to encourage you, the viewer, to recognize how very little effort is involved in judging, attaching labels to, and dismissing another person based upon an eccentricity, idiosyncrasy, or superficial attribute that he or she is best known for, and that through digging deeper into what makes that person tick, you will make shocking discoveries about them and even yourself.

Think of a person in your life who, by virtue of something that you don’t like such as an annoying stutter or thick perfume, is assumed to be completely problem-free. Chances are, such a person doesn’t exist. In his video, The Science of Awkwardness (2015), Michael from Vsauce strikes this point upon discussing “protagonist disease,” a condition that erodes our interpersonal interactions by deluding us into thinking the world revolves around us 24 hours 7 days a week, or that we are the sole characters the drive our stories forward. Everyone else is just, as Michael puts it, “one-dimensional background characters” who have no virtually effect on your life. In fact, you couldn’t care less about them because they don’t understand what it’s like to be in your shoes—your goals, dreams, aspirations, internal conflicts, and all of the complexities that make you, you. Michael then uses the example of a guy who took too long to order in front of you earlier this morning to illustrate another psychological phenomenon interchangeable with that of protagonist disease, the fundamental attribution error. He states, “He’s obviously just an innately annoying person. That’s his entire purpose, but when YOU take too long, it’s because the staff was unhelpful—you were flustered, preoccupied by an earlier conversation.” But what if all along, the reason that guy took so long to order was because he was caught up in thought about his wife of 26 years, who unfortunately passed away to cancer earlier that week?

The fundamental attribution error becomes evident in the scene where the Breakfast Club gathers around for a group therapy session. In this scene, Brian claims that he considers them all to be his friends, but worries that as soon as Monday arrives, everything will go back to normal and they will no longer speak to each other. Claire is brutally honest with Brian, stating that if Andrew saw Brian in the hallway on Monday, he would briefly acknowledge Brian’s presence but then disparage him behind his back so that his friends wouldn’t think he’s a loser for hanging out with the geeks. Allison asks Claire what would happen if she approached her in the hallway, and Claire replies with saying, “Same exact thing.” Later, Brian calls Claire out on her conceit—of course she will look down upon the less privileged and less popular when she cannot even so much as determine who her real friends are, but Claire protests that it’s more complicated than that. “I hate it—I hate having to go along with everything my friends say,” complains Claire. Brian asks why, then, she continues to hang around people who clearly make her feel miserable. In tears, Claire admits, “I don’t know. You don’t understand. You’re not friends with the same kind of people that Andy and I are friends with. You know, you just don’t understand the pressure they can put on you.” An outraged Brian asks if Claire really thinks he doesn’t know what it’s like to be under pressure, and then shouts, “Well FUCK YOU! Fuck you.”

I am fascinated and quite relieved to know that everyone, not just high school students, has a unique set of challenges that they must overcome if they are expected to survive and thrive. I cannot, with respect to my friends’ and family members’ privacy, go down an entire list of their personal problems, but let’s just say that they are not exempt from them. Furthermore, I, too, have made the fundamental attribution error on a number of occasions. For instance, recently I discovered that one guy for whom I mistook excessive masculinity as his defining trait, actually used to go into the closet to cry when his customers became too abusive for him to handle.

It just goes to show that stereotypes, whether we subscribe to them or not, are only a small fraction of our personas.

Depression Is Your Friend

It’s crazy, right? How can something as unpleasant as depression, the leading precursor to suicide, actually be thought of as a good buddy?

First off, I would like to emphasize that I am in no way praising deep, debilitating depression. Instead, this article is aimed at discussing depression as a form of motivation, not a psychological disorder.

When you think of a friend, what is the first thing that comes to mind? A friend might be someone who you watch a ballgame with. They might even be someone who drives you home when you’re too drunk to drive yourself. For me, a friend is someone so much more than that; someone much different than a family member or spouse.

For me, a friend is someone who attends that ballgame not because they want to get out of the house for a few hours, but because they genuinely enjoy your company. A friend is someone who drives you home when you’re drunk not out of obligation, but out of concern for your safety. Really, a friend is someone who accepts you without question, sees the value that you bring to the world, and looks out for you during hard times.

So how does depression look out for you? Well, for starters I’m writing this post with my fingers. I have a brain that thinks and reasons in order to produce the language that is responsible for the post in the first place. I have a stomach to digest the food I ate two hours ago and a heart that pumps blood to keep me alive. The truth is, depression wouldn’t exist if, along with every organ in my body, it didn’t serve some kind of a survival function. The theory of evolution suggests that our predecessors who did not experience depression were selected against and died off, while those who experienced depression lived on to spread their genes and ultimately create you and me. With that said, depression is as much a part of us as our fingers, stomachs, brains, and hearts are. It is an instrument of survival.

Then again, depression doesn’t get enough credit. We condemn it, scrutinize it, and in many cases medicate it when it doesn’t need medicating. How do you even define depression in a positive light when it is this widely stigmatized and condemnable “sickness of the mind” or worse, character flaw? Well, it’s not an impossible task.

Normal depression, and by extension grief, can be defined as a self-regulatory mechanism in which a problem is continually reflected on and analyzed with the intent of preventing it from reoccurring. It’s almost like trying to solve a math equation that you’ve been stuck on for hours in that you’ll rework the problem over and over until a correct solution becomes evident. The only time the mind-boggling math equation that is depression becomes debilitating is when episodes are prolonged, lasting for weeks and months at a time, and disrupt personal and professional relationships. At that point, you never solve the problem, you just keep staring at it and expecting something to change.

I can tell you with certainty that for every mistake I’ve made and problem that I’ve created, I never would have improved as a human being if I didn’t feel depressed afterward. There were times when I failed a test or said something extremely hurtful to another person, and afterward that was all I thought about for the rest of the day and even the rest of the week. I’d think to myself, “How could I let this happen?” and “What went wrong, and what can I do to fix this mess?”

Don’t get me wrong, depressive rumination isn’t fun. Some of the worst moments in my life were where I would become so emotionally drained, so dispirited, and so, well… depressed, that I couldn’t even move. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t play video games, and I generally couldn’t function normally. Why would anybody want to suffer through such an experience? The answer is that it can be used as motivational fuel when it is channeled into something more meaningful. I look at it this way: you could achieve every major success in the book, but by the time that one failure comes around it’s suddenly the worst thing in the world because you haven’t acquainted yourself with what it’s like to truly lose. To truly face defeat. In this manner, the low points in life help us appreciate the high points and remind us of the progress (or lack thereof) we’re making.

Occasional, not chronic, depression is your friend because it’s got your back. It PUSHES you toward improvement by notifying you that you need to make some much needed corrections in your life. And trust me, you’re better off with than without it.

Five Criticisms of “13 Reasons Why”

Note: Spoilers ahead for “13 Reasons Why.”

13 Reasons Why is a great show—possibly one of the better shows I’ve watched this year. However, I couldn’t help but walk away from it without expressing a few criticisms of the way it handled its subject matter. So what might these criticisms be?

Criticism 1: Too often, it ignores Hannah’s mental health problems.

I do not personally believe that the writers glamorized suicide, but I can understand both arguments. On the one hand, the show did an exemplary job at illustrating the long-term ramifications that suicide has on our relationships. On the other, it deceived the audience into thinking that Hannah’s suicide was a revenge ploy, when in fact it was the result of her deep-seated psychological issues (e.g.: depression, bipolar disorder, histrionic personality disorder, or PTSD) that went unabated.

Criticism 2: It makes it difficult to sympathize with Hannah.

It was difficult to feel sorry for Hannah when she wouldn’t speak up for herself. After being raped by Bryce, why didn’t she tell her parents, or anyone for that matter? If she had explained what happened to her, she could have gotten the help she needed and therefore turned Bryce in. Instead, she allowed her pain to consume her indefinitely, and that made it hard to root for her.

Criticism 3: It places undeserved blame on the other characters.

Clay and the guidance counselor did absolutely nothing wrong. Clay was punished because Hannah expected him to be a mind-reader, while the counselor was punished because he was unequipped to advise suicidal students. Both clearly overlooked obvious red flags that Hannah displayed, but that doesn’t make either of them responsible for her death. The same holds true for everyone else on the tapes, including Bryce.

Criticism 4: It overstates the unpleasantness of high school.

The fact that Hannah was unwilling to cope with petty interpersonal drama (something that we all put up with) means that she probably lacked the emotional resources to solve real problems. More importantly, the show implies that high school is the worst time in a person’s life when it isn’t. Life gets much harder after we’ve graduated high school, and thus in Season 2, the show needs to do a better job at depicting the challenges that we face beyond those relatively insignificant 4 years.

Criticism 5: It imposes unrealistic expectations upon its audience.

It seems that the main message of the show is to “be kind to everybody, because you never know what someone else is going through,” but you know what the fundamental flaw is with that logic? You can never be totally sure when you’re hurting someone else’s feelings. Sometimes, I treat people poorly when I don’t realize it, and the opposite is also true. I should not be expected to moderate my language at every moment of the day on the off chance that someone is going to commit suicide because of some stupid thing that I said.

Despite all of this negative feedback, I agree with the writers’ decision to ultimately display Hannah’s suicide on screen, because by not showing it, they would have downplayed its severity and taken away the whole point of the show.

Overall, I hope that 13 Reasons Why further encourages younger people to seek professional help by driving discussions on highly sensitive topics like suicide and sexual assault, and that Season 2 (if there is one) addresses the criticisms I’ve listed above.