In March 2011, I went to the emergency room because I wanted to commit suicide.
My city’s unique laws open the ER up to mental health crises so that people can stay there for up to three days as they decide whether or not they want to admit themselves to the mental health ward. I stayed for one night before going home. Sometimes, I need to remember that night to prove that I was once “sick enough” to be able to talk with expertise on clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. This happens less often than my need to remind myself how much I am attracted to girls in order to prove to invisible standards that I’m “queer enough.” And both of these insecurities still happen less often than having to realize that, despite my womanhood and my not being seen by our society as a “person enough,” I have the right to speak with expertise on anything at all.
It is not a coincidence that I became obsessed with superhero comics barely two months after that ER visit. Although I had read Spider-Man comics while younger, I did not need superheroes as much as I did until my struggle with mental health. I ended up a DC Comics fan because my guide was one, but perhaps also because I craved idealism instead of gritty realism. This would change as my health improved, but in the meantime my world opened up to a type of hero that was different than Spider-Man.
I loved Superman for being all the goodness I want to see in the world, Wonder Woman for epitomizing female strength in man’s society, and still despise Batman to this day for wallowing in his pain while the rest of us work so hard to rise from our own. Our society’s favorite superhero is a rich white man who beats up the mentally ill while refusing to confront his own sickness? No wonder I received so many awful reactions from so-called friends when they found out about my depression.
However, Bruce Wayne’s cousin Kate Kane aka Batwoman? She is one of the most amazing characters whose story I ever read. Kate is me, or everything I ever wanted to embody. She’s queer, she’s Jewish, and she channels her pain into a force that makes her hard headed, determined, strong, and righteous. She went through trauma at a young age and has marks to show for it, but she’s not self-destructive like Bruce. She doesn’t want to hurt people who are like her and one can’t help but consider that this may be because she has faced challenges throughout her life that Bruce hasn’t due to her sexual orientation (not to say of the ones she would have faced as a woman, if she were a real person).
I loved Kate. I wanted more of characters like her, and characters like me.
“Where are the queer characters?” I asked my guides, who had multiplied at this time to a few.
“You should read The Authority,” answered one.
After my ER stint, I went to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy under a talented psychiatrist for 2 times a week for months, then just once. He turned out to be a chauvinist who ignored many of problems, particularly of the womanly subset. Among my complaints he dismissed were those about the side effects for the SSRI antidepressant he kept me on, sertraline (brand name Zoloft), because it seemed to be doing whatever bare minimum he observed and my father’s SSRI reportedly worked for him at the time.
Then, abruptly, with the encouragement of my family, I stopped going to this psychiatrist. Since I was still a student, I was able to see a nurse administrator at my university’s health services. I told her I wanted to get off sertraline, so she took me off clean.
A few days passed, then the SSRI withdrawal ran me over like a freight train.
It is absolutely impossible to describe this phenomenon to people who have never experienced it. Even looking at the symptoms of sertraline withdrawal online does not name what I went through. So let me put this way: it felt like my brain had been split in half.
My consciousness had come partially unplugged from my body. I watched my physical self go through daily routine as if it existed on another plane. Everything I saw or heard came in through a fog. Everything I sent back in response came with slow, labored efforts. When I wanted my body to do anything, even as simple as picking up a glass, it happened after a few seconds delay and even then I barely processed the connection between the action and my mind’s command.
My body knew of the separation and reacted with ferocity. The damaged connection’s consequences spread throughout the rest of me, drenching me in agony. Everything hurt, like someone had weighed me down with a boulder and forced me to live life without others able to see it. If you’ve ever had a virus that sapped all your energy, dragging you down to a sobbing crawling mess and unable to care for yourself, that is what I experienced for two weeks, but soul-deep. As long as I was awake, I felt myself crumbling away.
I only had one respite.
I had never experienced anything like the many innocent bystanders we see in superhero media. I never was like the little girl in the burning apartment building in Spider-Man 2 or Lois Lane yanked from a tight spot into Superman’s arms. My own mind had turned against itself, becoming a hell that quite literally embodied me. I couldn’t save myself and no one outside of me could pull me out either. Yet, every moment I wept with torment and entreated–almost prayed–for something, anything, please save me. Please make all of this go away.
And when I read The Authority, it did.
Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, Shen Li Min, Angela Spica, Jeroen Thorndike, Apollo and The Midnighter. Those are the original seven members that make up The Authority. They distracted me from the gaping chasm of and lured me from the edge, holding my hand as my mind rebuilt itself and finally returned to stable foundation. I have loved them since.
One might posture that it could’ve been any half-decent superhero book to take that role, but I am not convinced that’s necessarily true. I searched them out in the first place because I wanted characters like me and I recognized our similarities, dressed in the shape of empowerment. Because they are empowering. A depressed, but optimistic woman leading a superhero team is empowering. A female scientist, able to contort herself into anything she desired and becoming the first woman to walk on the moon, is empowering. A queer couple who are accepted without thought as any other member of the team and not having a narrative filled with insecurity is empowering.
They were who I needed. They are who I still need.
Needless to say, it hurts when DC Comics puts out a title like New 52 Stormwatch that doesn’t understand the characters’ important representation or cancels one which does like DCYou Midnighter. There is a point in my narrative that I worry is abnormal and unhealthy, the point where I view corporate properties as either part of my identity or as something I own. But when I look around at the pockets of fandom on the internet, particularly those populated by other women, I see a lot of people who say things about their favorite characters that resemble my thoughts. Many of those characters are also queer, like Marvel Comics’ Angela and Sera, or belong to another marginalized group.
It’s unhealthy enough that we don’t have enough stories to represent us and unhealthier still that we largely rely on corporate capitalism to provide all of our needs. However, we can’t control capitalism and we can’t escape it, same as we can’t control or escape patriarchy. We can only identify what we need more of and create communities of influence that push for it as well as insulate and comfort members who suffer from our current condition.
I know what I need. I need my superheroes back. And to those like me who haven’t found theirs yet, media and entertainment companies need to work harder to include them–regardless of whatever ultimate reasons they do so. The only thing that buffers those who feel isolated because of our world’s prejudices are niches of belonging. We need more representation so that when the next someone feels like they’re going to drown within the waves of their own illness, they will have something to work as ropes to pull themselves back onto dry ground.