Interlude: Talking to Myself

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When art speaks to us, it speaks in our own voice.

When I was first gearing up to start this project, I happened to mention it to Phil Sandifer. I had already come up with the approach of Near-Apocalypse and grappling with the authoritarianism inherent in the concept of the superhero, but Phil added the missing piece of the puzzle: a copy of his PhD thesis, on what I’ve taken to calling heroic trauma.

I latched powerfully onto that concept. Something in it spoke deeply to me, and I began playing with ideas taken from that thesis. They became a core element of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, as well as turning up in my panels and, eventually, Animated Discussions, where an extended discussion of trauma formed the second of the book’s three parts.

Meanwhile, throughout Near-Apocalypse, I’ve commented on how infrequently I show up in the narrative. My own direct involvement has appeared in only a handful of places–off the top of my head, I can think of two, the Adam West Batman movie and one of the Batman and Robin Adventures entries, though I suspect there are others I’m forgetting.

But the thing about exploring an ideaspace is that you are, inevitably, exploring yourself. That’s where ideas exist, after all: inside us. And unless you’re psychic (which you’re not), the only ideas you can explore are the ones in your head. Not, to be clear, necessarily ones that started in your head–we have this whole thing called “language” that exists to put ideas in other people’s heads–but in your head is where you meet them.

I get why Phil’s ideas about trauma and superheroes hit me so powerfully now.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Lego Batman Movie. Batman is isolated, I said. He cuts himself off from the world as protection from the pain and trauma he risks by connecting to people–but in so doing, he just puts himself in more pain.

I have acid reflux disease, and I get chest pains whenever I let myself get too hungry. If I eat something small, like a handful of dry cereal, they go away. That’s not supposed to work–it certainly doesn’t work when I get other kinds of reflux attacks, from eating too much or eating the wrong thing or sleeping at a bad angle.

Because they’re not reflux attacks, they’re panic attacks, I recently realized. See, in my teens I had a rare disorder called achalasia. I’ll spare you the details, but the short version is that I had serious limits on what I could eat, and frequently I was physically incapable of eating at all. I ended up malnourished, severely underweight, and the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I eventually had to be hospitalized and fed intravenously for several days because I couldn’t even swallow water anymore.

The achalasia was surgically corrected when I was nineteen–my acid reflux is actually a side effect of that surgery. But the panic attacks? I was terrified, hungry, and sick in that hospital, and in the years leading up to it. I struggled to keep food down, which made eating in public intensely humiliating–and guess what you have to do every goddamn day in high school?

(I am a fat dude who is triggered by being hungry. Literally triggered, panic attacks and all. Take your shots, people who find the concept of triggers amusing.)

I tell that story because it’s something I only figured out recently, but I was diagnosed with PTSD long ago. Mostly, it’s because I was abused and neglected as a child. A lot of other traumatic shit happened, too. A family member I was close to abandoned us when I was very young, my dad died when I was just hitting my teens, we lived in poverty for a big chunk of my childhood, I was a hostage once, I’ve witnessed a murder, the list goes on. (And if I seem to be making light of all this, that’s because I am. I have to, or else this essay and the all the others I need to write this month would never get done.)

But the big one is the abuse and neglect. Because of it, I’ve cut myself off from people my whole life. Always holding back, always keeping a distance, never trusting. I even justified to myself that I was doing it for their protection–so that they wouldn’t be exposed to whatever it was inside me that made people want to hurt me when I was a child. Everything I wrote about Lego Batman was a message to myself.

Everything I’ve written in the last two years about superheroes and trauma is a message to myself. It’s only now that I’m beginning to listen.


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