You Choose to Exist Here: Reliving Deep Space Nine

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.10.04 PMDeep Space Nine has always been my favorite of all the Star Trek incarnations. Sweeping in scope, meticulous with character, and challenging my moral intuitions, I got the feeling from the entirety from Deep Space Nine that one gets from a rich and satisfying novel: I felt like a better person for having experienced it.

Occasional viewings of particular out of context episodes aside, I’ve been through the series twice. Once when it originally aired in the 90s when I was in high school and college, probably missing a view episodes due to the ephemeral nature of fixed-schedule TV airings (which seems an absurd way to watch a series now); and in the aughts when I was in my twenties, mostly via torrented downloads on my computer and old-school video iPod.

I am now beginning a third time around, in my late 30s, this time alongside my wife who, while no stranger to Star Trek, never saw DS9. We’ve just watched the pilot episode, titled “Emissary,” and there was something different about it this time, some things I truly didn’t expect.

First of all, I think I expected it to seem more dated and hokey. Instead, it came off as rather mature, far more sure of itself than most TV pilots, and head and shoulders and freakin’ torso over other Star Trek pilots. Jessica, to my surprise, said it seemed a little more mawkish than she expected, but within acceptable parameters (my words, she never talks like that). But not for me. It really held up. I rarely felt taken out of the action by something that seemed forced or overdone.

Also, I know that DS9 has the reputation of being the “downer” of the franchise, the “grim” series, but coming back to it, from the beginning, after all these years, this really was something of a shock. The original series, The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise all began their runs with heaps of wonder and optimism. (Things of course go badly wrong for Voyager in order to set the stage for the series, but the hopeful “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” spirit was always there.)

The series opens with a flashback to a massacre, and our lead protagonist unable to save his dead wife, and having to abandon his ship to a relentless zombie-cyborg force. Being stationed then at Deep Space Nine, née Terok Nor, we are placed in the midst of an ugly transition out of a brutal occupation. In the pilot episode of a Star Trek series, we are immediately faced with violent, pointless deaths and several characters absolutely spilling over with anger, regret, and helplessness. It’s quite stirring, and it all works.

But there was one part that hit me the hardest, that sunk deep into me, and oddly it’s something I’d almost entirely forgotten about from past viewings.

Toward the end of the episode, Ben Sisko is conversing with the skeptical wormhole aliens, non-physical entities who don’t even experience linear time as we do. They speak to him by taking the form of people in his memories, in the very settings he originally experienced them. So, for example, he discusses how humans experience time with his “son” Jake as they sit by what appears to be a lake, or with his late wife “Jennifer” as they walk down the beach where they met. It’s not really Jake and Jennifer, but wormhole aliens who have assumed their forms, taken from Sisko’s memory.

Somehow, Sisko repeatedly finds himself talking to the aliens amid his memory of the day his wife was killed by the Borg, where he sees his wife, dead, under a pile of rubble, as he’s about to be pulled away toward an escape vessel by his Bolian crewmate. Memory after memory, conversation after conversation, Sisko returns to the place and time he lost his wife.

Throughout their conversations, which are some of the headiest and evocative pieces of dialogue one was ever likely to hear on prime time commercial television, Sisko struggles to explain to the aliens how humans and other “corporeal beings” do not exist in a timeless state, but begin an existence, live their lives through a chain of causal events, and then cease to exist. The aliens are entirely unfamiliar with such an existence, and they ask increasingly probing questions in order to grasp the concept.

One thing doesn’t make sense to them. Remember, they only have Sisko’s memories as a frame of reference. Sisko is telling them that corporeal beings travel along a timeline, and make the best of their lives from one moment to the next, aware that each choice affects and allows the moments to come. And yet, they keep returning to the scene of Jennifer’s death. One of them asks Sisko, “If what you say is true, then why do you exist here?!”

It’s not the aliens taking Sisko to this scene, it’s Sisko taking them.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 10.12.11 PM“I never left this ship,” Sisko says, a realization dawning on him.

“You exist here,” the alien in the form of Jennifer says, also beginning to understand.

“I exist here,” says Sisko. “I don’t know if you can understand.” He begins to sob, increasingly so as he speaks. “I see her like this, every time I close my eyes. In the darkness, in the blink of an eye, I see her… like this!”

“None of your past experiences helped prepare you for this consequence.”

“And I have never figured out how to live without her.”

“So, you choose to exist here,” says the alien, and Sisko nods. “It is not linear.”

“No,” he says, drained, exposed, defeated. “It’s not linear.”

In previous viewings, this scene was meaningful, but to the extent that it was a character I was interested in coming to terms with something painful. It did not truly resonate with me.

Now, as I approach 40, with a wife and two children that I love beyond measure, and with an ongoing struggle with my own post-traumatic stress, I understood.

For so long after I was attacked, I existed there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, with the sounds of footfalls running toward me, of the blows to my head and body, the impact of the concrete, the vertigo of the stumbling walk home. I existed there.

I existed in the throngs of middle school classmates joyfully mocking me, I existed in the oppressive air of the abuse and scrutiny (real and imagined) of my preteen and teenage years. Decades on, I stayed there.

And much to the sadness and frustration of those who loved me, but couldn’t understand, it was not linear.

I suppose I simply hadn’t yet lived enough to truly understand Sisko’s journey before. It’s amazing to me now, to think that this profound, climactic lesson of my favorite show just flitted away in previous viewings. I’m so glad I came back to it now to experience in earnest. I wonder what else Deep Space Nine will show me this time that it couldn’t before.

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The Attack, Four Years Later

Taken a month after the attack, holding my boy on his first birthday, arm in a purple cast, shirt covered in drool.

As you might know, a ways back two thugs beat the shit out of me outside my home Metro station when I lived in DC, and it was really, really bad, and it changed a lot of things for me. Of course, right? Well, last night marked four years since that event, and I thought it might merit some brief reflection here, because it’s impacted so much of my life, my thinking and, of course, my writing here.

To start, here’s my first telling of the event itself, a few weeks after it happened, around my 33rd birthday, wherein I mused at the idea of relative levels of misfortune:

I don’t feel “lucky” as many have said I should. It usually goes something like “You’re lucky you survived” or “You’re lucky they didn’t have a knife” or something like that. I understand the sentiment, but no, I’m not lucky. If I’m “lucky they didn’t have a knife,” that assumes a world in which the zero-point, the point of normalcy, is to be severely beaten by two anonymous thugs and then stabbed. Only then are you “lucky” not to be stabbed. Though I suppose it’s a good thing that my attackers were caught and convicted, I don’t feel triumphant. I know they will likely only come out of prison worse than when they went in. There is little vindication in this.

A few months later, newly transplanted to Maine, I recounted a kind of superstitious milestone in which I was surprised not to be beaten anew.

Speaking of superstitious milestones, as the first anniversary of the event passed, I experienced both anxiety and distraction:

What’s odd is that I had been kind of bracing for the first anniversary of the event, as though there was a sort of rent in the universe where it happened in time, and when the Earth passed through that space once more, as it will with every year’s revolution around the Sun, I would somehow feel it; almost as though it would happen all over again. Of course it didn’t, but even more surprising to me is that on the actual day, it barely registered.

Shortly after, I mused about the futile “what could I have done differently” question, the presumption of some that I should/could have “fought back”:

It’s an absurd question, really, because I know that I could not have. I was snuck up on from behind and hit extremely hard on the back of my head, which knocked me straight to the ground, after which I was pummeled mercilessly by two assailants whose faces I never saw. My neocortex knows there was nothing to be done but survive. My lizard brain, and a small handful of males in my life who I presume are well-meaning, tell me otherwise.

I totally forgot about the two-year mark. Which was kind of good.

After being “discharged” from my first experience with post-attack therapy (I still see a guy), I wrote at some length about the process of working through all of the pain and fear, about how there already existed a roiling undertow of PTSD in my psyche, and how the attack brought it raging to the fore:

Therapy, if you’re doing it right, will get to work on the problem you came in for, yes, but will also address whatever might surround the event in question, other things in my life and mind that gave the attack the meaning that I would come to give it. I think we did it right. The work we did in therapy certainly targeted the assault — heavily — but managed to clean out a lot of other cruft that had built up over the years, over the decades. The attack was an extremely traumatic event, of course, but it had been colored by myriad other events from my past, a sickly array of self-conceptions and assumptions that I had spent a lifetime inculcating myself with, being miseducated about by the world around me. We targeted that stuff, too.

We didn’t fix it all, but we shrunk it. We got me to perceive those things as closer to their actual size, to their actual power. I didn’t lose all my misperceptions about myself or how others see me, but I learned to at least acknowledge that they may not all be true. Guys, I’m telling you, that’s huge.

About a year ago I looked at how PTSD was portrayed in Iron Man 3, and I was mighty surprised how true it felt to me, and how seeing someone else experience the panic, even in a fictional setting, was somewhat triggering:

We see a lot of troubled superheroes. Too often, though, their traumas exhibit themselves in brooding or vendetta. It was extremely refreshing to see a trauma manifest clinically in a superhero character, in a way I as a fellow-sufferer recognized.

And now it’s been four years. It’s obvious to say “so much has changed,” because, well, of course! It’s been four freaking years! But so much has changed directly because of the attack. Perhaps Jessica and I would have eventually decided to move to Maine anyway, it’s certainly something we’d been thinking about, but we certainly wouldn’t have moved when we did. We knew we wanted a second child, and eventually we did, but of course it would have been a different child than the one we got (who is awesome).

But as I talk about in my piece on therapy, I wouldn’t have done the work that I clearly needed to do (and continue to do) regardless of the attack. I had shit that needed dealing with one way or the other, beating or no beating, and I might never have begun to deal with it if I’d not been pushed so terrifyingly far.

I’m not glad in any sense that it happened. It was a nightmare. But it did happen. And here’s where I am now.

Tony Stark and Me and Our PTSD

On an episode in May of this year of the podcast The Incomparable, which is a great panel discussion show about whatever bit of culture, entertainment, or literature strikes their fancy, the topic was Iron Man 3. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Guy English takes the temperature of the group concerning the introduction of Tony Stark’s panic attacks, a symptom of his PTSD following the harrowing events of the previous film, The Avengers. There was general agreement that, yes, what Tony experienced battling the aliens at the climax of The Avengers would definitely fuck one’s shit up, but there seemed to be some ambivalence about whether it out of place in the context of the film in question.

I quickly want to address what they did not, which is whether it was done well. I watched Iron Man 3 only recently, on my MacBook during a flight a month or so ago, and I found the portrayal of someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder shockingly realistic.

Let me qualify: I have only my own experiences to draw from. Read this to get a better idea of how I know anything about the topic — it doesn’t involve aliens. I do not at all want to assert that my experience of PTSD is universal or even common. It’s just what I know.

All that said, I was amazed at how much I related to Stark in his moments of panic. I recognized my own behavior in his when one of his attacks set in. (For the sake of rhetoric, I’m going to use the word “you” even though I’m really talking about “me.)

Something sets you off — a reference to an event, an association, a physical stimulus, what have you — and an animalistic fight or flight instinct takes hold. But it doesn’t necessarily own you entirely, you don’t turn into some werewolf in a waking nightmare. Your conscious mind is aware of what’s happening. You know you’re having an irrational rush of emotions and that your body is now compelled to act with sudden and overwhelming urgency. Maybe you run, maybe you fight, maybe you hide, maybe you scream, etcetera. All the while, you recognize that something not of your neocortex is in control. You may even be able to make jokes about it while it’s happening.

So I was mightily impressed and very much surprised by the way it was handled in this movie. It would have been easy to overdramatize Tony’s episodes, to make them Hulk-like in their violence and intensity, to make Tony unrecognizable in those moments. Instead, they let them be very much Tony’s episodes. We got to see him become aware of something happening to him, see him comment on it, struggle with it, and even try to mitigate it based on circumstance. And yes, he could even have a sense of humor about it in the moment. What was so true to life for me was that Tony never loses all control in those moments, but you do see his whole body carriage change as though a new force were asserting itself on his body’s operation, as though he was the Iron Man suit, and his amygdala now the driver.

We see a lot of troubled superheroes. Too often, though, their traumas exhibit themselves in brooding or vendetta. It was extremely refreshing to see a trauma manifest clinically in a superhero character, in a way I as a fellow-sufferer recognized. Indeed, Downey’s portrayal of PTSD episodes was so real to me, it mildly triggered my own responses, sitting there at over 10,000 feet, in the dark. My heart raced with his. My amygdala called shotgun in my mind for a little while.

I understand why it might have seemed a touch superfluous to the Incomparable cast. There are a lot of ways to tell the story of Tony growing as a character and knowing what it is to have weaknesses and failings. But this way of telling that story was crystal clear to me. For a big, explode-y Hollywood blockbuster, they told that about as well as I imagine anyone could.

For Mother and Father, In Equal Measure

Patrick Stewart magnificently describes his efforts in combatting (and his childhood experience of witnessing) violence against women. Watch the whole thing, and then read on for some thoughts.

Perhaps most moving to me is his discovery of what had moved his father to be violent toward his mother: PTSD brought on by his time in World War II. It is this revelation that brings him to a new milestone in his own campaign for the cause, wherein he gives his time both to Refuge, a nonprofit that provides safe houses to women, and Combat Stress, a group that works with those suffering from PTSD:

So, I work for Refuge for my mother, and I work for Combat Stress for my father, in equal measure.

As I have written here before, I suffer from PTSD myself, not from combat of course, but from the combination of a violent assault near my home when I lived in Washington, DC, and many years of relentless mockery and bullying from my middle and high school years. Obviously, the scenarios are starkly different, because my experience had almost nothing to do with any expectation that I be the aggressor, as it is for soldiers. But it does cause me to behave in ways that I would not otherwise, taking over my rational brain and my empathy when a threat is detected. It makes me understand how trauma can cause a person to act in such a way that they themselves might not recognize. It does not excuse it by any means, but it helps to explain it, and provides a point of potential repair so that it stops.

And one more note: I found myself watching Stewart’s body language, and it told its own story. Note how early in his answer, he hugs himself, tightly. This is classic defensiveness — as an actor, I’m well aware of the unconscious tendency for folks feeling insecure in front of an audience to brace or hug themselves to provide a bit of armor from imaginary danger. For Patrick Freaking Stewart to do that tells you something about how raw this issue is for him. Later, of course, he opens up very wide, his arms far out, exposing his face and chest, telling me he there finds his ground, finds his purpose, and it carries him to a courageous state. He is no longer defending, he is affirmatively acting. Not theatrically, but acting as in doing something.

(Hat tip to Kylie for the video.)

Shame

What’s not news is that high school is, for many, hell. But the effects of one’s experiences during adolescence (and for this purpose I’ll use “high school” as shorthand for the general puberty-through-adolescence time period, which can include middle school and junior high) are often minimized, at least in my anecdotal experience. For most of my adulthood, I’ve been keenly aware of how my high school experiences have shaped me, mostly for the worse, but even the most well-meaning and caring people in my life minimize them, saying, “But it was just high school. It was tough for everybody!” The message being, really, get over it.

I know better now. Especially after the tough work of recovering from PTSD brought screaming into prominence by a violent attack a couple of years ago, I’ve come to understand just how formative my experiences between the ages of 10 to 18 really were. I won’t go through everything I’ve learned, but suffice it to say, “get over it” was never an option — one forms an understanding of one’s self and one’s surroundings at a time when the mind is most malleable, and most prone to rely upon the lizard brain, as it were. When painful interactions take place, it’s not just unpleasant, the adolescent brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. For me, being the subject of relentless bullying and mockery and humiliation at the hands of my peers, I learned to be in fight-or-flight mode during almost all of my waking hours. My lizard brain never got a chance to rest.

How could that not shape how I behave today? How I perceive myself, and how I believe myself to be perceived by others?

All this comes to mind as I read an amazing piece in New York Magazine by Jennifer Senior on a growing understanding of high school’s effect on us into adulthood. The gist is that research is showing more and more that a) we are far more affected by, and haunted by, our high school experiences than we’d previously believed, and that b) high school itself is a sociological shitshow, a horrible environment to place hundreds of strangers who are all mushy of brain and lacking in self-knowledge. It was, to say the least, eye-opening.

One thing that was enlightening to me was an explanation of what causes this shitshow to begin with. Senior writes:

Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality.

So right off the bat, I was in trouble. Small, clumsy, uninterested in sports, quirky. I was predestined to be screwed. Plus, I was new: I entered middle school having just moved to the area, and I had no connections to anyone in school. Like I said, screwed.

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

Now there was a word with resonance for me. Shame. Shame permeated my every thought and breath during those years, and its essence is still palpable to me today. More on that:

Shame [is a] . . . global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.

And so I have. I hid as best I could, I tried to blend, to not be noticed. On top of being mired in self-loathing, I was also exhausted from the effort I expended to avoid attack in the first place.

And, as I learned, these patterns did not disappear as I grew up. They manifested themselves even in what should have been the safest, most welcoming, or benign of circumstances, causing me to perceive danger to my sense of self in all situations, causing me to be stunted and paralyzed. I carried with me the shame.

I’m now much more aware of this as a physiological phenomenon than I ever was. Even when I experience this fear, this shame (and I still do a lot), I can at the very least identify it as an artifact of a bygone time. Even if my body and my lizard brain are in fight-or-flight, my higher self can at least understand what’s happening, and perhaps take steps to mitigate. Take the trolling and abuse I’ve been subject to on Twitter and on this blog, for example, because I dared suggest that people in privileged situations should do more listening than arguing. When I’m attacked for this, even by those who are clearly not worthy of my attention, my heart rate rises, my chest tightens, blood flows from my brain to my muscles as though I’m getting ready to run away from a tiger. I’m in fight-or-flight again. I’m in high school again.

But look, there’s no escaping that high school has shaped me, for better or ill, so there’s no point in pretending I’m totally at ease now, or with simply letting it all go — particularly following my assault. Like it or not, I am as I am, which includes the baggage of shame I have been lugging with me since I was 10 years old. The silver lining is that I can identify it for what it is, I can learn from it, I can use it to help my son and daughter manage better than I did, and I can make it serve as fuel for creativity and thought.

That is, when my heart rate goes back to normal.

After the Attack, the Work

I’m not sure if this was a “secret,” if I intentionally haven’t written about this because it was too personal, or what. Well. The thing is, since I was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of thugs outside my home Metro stop back in DC over two years ago, I’d been in therapy to deal with the psychological aftermath. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and I underwent two years of treatment using a therapy known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), working to heal some of the damage that was not visible on my face, head, and body.
And today was my last day.

So I’m cured! I am now officially devoid of any psychological problems. I am the very picture of mental health. I have the perfect psyche.

Well, no, but I’ve come a long way, and if I haven’t written about therapy before, I figure a good way to mark the occasion is to talk about it in this public forum. Or maybe it’s not, and this is a bad idea. Maybe I’m looking for something of a back-pat from the interwebs, and maybe I just need to, as it were, say it out loud to make it real.

When I started therapy two years ago, I was a wreck. My wife and I had decided to leave DC rather suddenly after the attack, figuring that we’d be better off in Maine, surrounded by my wife’s family (which is an awesome family), living in an environment far less hostile than DC, and giving our then-infant son a better place to grow up.

But of course, we arrived with little in the way of plans. We lived with relatives for a time, and I scrambled for employment (I had been working for the Secular Coalition for America at the time of the attack, but was already on my way out). It was a long time before I felt together enough to work, or to even look for work, and the pickings were rather slim. My work experience, my advanced degree in political management, none of it mattered much now that I was far away from Washington. I had to take what I could get.

So during my first session with my therapist, the cast had just come off my arm, we were broke, I was unemployed, my wife was still looking for permanent employment, we were living with one of my in-laws, and I was in such a dark, ugly place that I began to see my very existence as a detriment to the well-being of my wife and son. I had nightmares and would sink into reveries of sadness and guilt, or from out of nowhere would experience a sense of panic, feeling a need to physically run away from…toward…I didn’t know. Sad, scared, ashamed, paranoid, embarrassed, weary, resigned, terrified.

Therapy, if you’re doing it right, will get to work on the problem you came in for, yes, but will also address whatever might surround the event in question, other things in my life and mind that gave the attack the meaning that I would come to give it. I think we did it right. The work we did in therapy certainly targeted the assault — heavily — but managed to clean out a lot of other cruft that had built up over the years, over the decades. The attack was an extremely traumatic event, of course, but it had been colored by myriad other events from my past, a sickly array of self-conceptions and assumptions that I had spent a lifetime inculcating myself with, being miseducated about by the world around me. We targeted that stuff, too.

We didn’t fix it all, but we shrunk it. We got me to perceive those things as closer to their actual size, to their actual power. I didn’t lose all my misperceptions about myself or how others see me, but I learned to at least acknowledge that they may not all be true. Guys, I’m telling you, that’s huge.

You know what? I got bored with the memory of the attack. What was once a horror movie I would replay in my head over and over with new feelings of terror and dread with each mental reenactment, eventually became a sad rerun of a show that I was tired of seeing. That, I’m telling you, is huge.

So I’m not “cured.” I don’t think I ever will be, and quite frankly, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to lose what will now forever be a part of my story, a part of who I am. What the work helped accomplish was making the attack no longer define who I am. And it began the work of not letting all the darkness that came before it define who I am — the years of mockery, bullying, and harassment all through middle and high school, the professional failures and life mistakes made in adulthood, my hangups and neuroses. Not exclusively define me, anyway. They will all always be a part of me, but I learned that they’re not all that I am.

You know what I think was the big tip-off that it was time to wrap things up? When my therapist realized that the things that troubled me, that the things that consumed me, were, well, predictable. Banal. My toddler is behaving badly. Work is stressful. Money is always tight. But that’s stuff everyone deals with. And that’s what was consuming me. Not self-doubt. Not a tar pit of guilt and shame. Not terror and fear. Just, you know, the life of a grownup with kids. It’s, well, normal.

I never thought I could ever describe anything about myself that way. I’ll take it.

*  *  *

(For previous writings on this topic, you can read posts under this tag.)

The Attack, Ctd?

Last year, the anniversary of my assault carried great weight with me. I dreaded the coming of the date October 27, and worried that I would relapse into a spiral of terror and despair all over again. (I didn’t.)

This year, I completely forgot about it. The day came and went, and I didn’t notice.

It’s taken an enormous amount of work and suffering and rebuilding to get to a point where that’s even possible. I’m still wrestling with that night’s repercussions to this day, and likely will for a long time, but even I’m a little astounded that the second anniversary came and went, and I was just too busy to realize it. Hmph.