Superhero comic books have saved me. I don’t mean that some real-life lunatic vigilante in a costume stopped a mugger or something, I’m talking about the actual comic books. There was a turning point in my life, when I had to stop waiting to be rescued by some larger-than-life hero, and figure out that I was (and am) my own superhero. It changed everything and I am so grateful that it did. Books like Elektra Assassin, The Uncanny X-Men’s Dark Phoenix Saga, Promethea, Arkham Asylum, Concrete, and Kingdom Come all told tales of people who got to their lowest ebb and then figured out how to rescue themselves. In this way the stories I loved became parables to guide me and I found strength, even when it was simply the strength to know how to ask for help.
Years ago, there was a point when I found myself suddenly ill and in debilitating, chronic pain all the time. Unfortunately I didn’t just lose that one year, my life was damaged for a few years afterwards. I was left with a slew of muscular, neural, and emotional problems which threatened every aspect of my body. One day, whining about the state of my health, a friend told me emphatically “You’re not a superhero, don’t be so hard on yourself.” It shocked me awake and I remember thinking, “But of course I am a superhero!” I felt a huge sense of elation and frustration, knowing suddenly that I was the only person who could fix this. Furious with myself, I resolved to begin trying to help myself, however I could. I realized that in a very childlike way, on some level that I hadn’t acknowledged up until then, I had been expecting some authority figure or outside force to know everything and make it better. Luckily at that most desperate point, all of the self-made, struggling superheroes I loved had hit the same low point before uncovering their deep wells of strength. If I hadn’t read superhero comic books when I was growing up, I don’t know where I would have learned that it was time to step up for myself, perhaps I’d have found another path to my own autonomy and power, but I don’t know if it would have been as satisfying.
Physically, being in pain without a break had impaired my muscles ability to relax – they had tensed and spasmed in reaction to the pain for so long that they wouldn’t release, which in turn caused more pain. Simultaneously, while I was incapacitated, other muscles had atrophied and so I was clumsier and weaker which led me to bump into things and cause more pain. My reactions to stimulants became exacerbated too, and the slightest bit of caffeine had the potential to create muscle spasms which, again, was painful. I had to reteach my muscles to relax. I found physical therapists who specialized in my disease, an acupuncturist, and massage practitioners I trusted. I learned a discipline of exercises, stretches, and self-massage techniques to work these muscles into something approximating my former self. To help my flailing immune system, I explored a variety of diets which would allow me to rebuild my strength. I found ways to eat which could heal me and support my health.
Apart from all of these muscular problems, doctors told me that the neural pathways in my brain had become so accustomed to receiving messages of pain that they had worn a kind of rut, which meant that they were beginning to interpret all sensations as pain by default. For a while, this meant that something as benign as the elasticated waistband on a pair of pants felt like a steel band cutting me in half. It sounds very Spider-Man but I learned to sew, not a costume but loose dresses, skirts with no waistband, and oversizes shirts which I wore over the next year or so until my brain gradually lost that habit.
Emotionally, I’d spent a year generally isolated, often on drugs or in pain which deprived me of my ability to think coherently. I had resigned myself to increasing disorientation as I waited for external help that didn’t come. When I finally began to emerge from the haze I was lost and timid. Like any reader, I started researching about how other sufferers had found treatment, the causes and the cures. I began talking to people about their own struggles, I found a therapist to vent to, and after years of happily working alone I got a weekend job in a comic shop so that I could ease back into human interaction in a safe environment.
Until I remembered that I am my own superhero I had been trapped in a vicious cycle, but I could save the day and I did rescue myself. This lesson still serves me, the disease is ongoing and there can be a reoccurrence of pain at any time, but when it does come back it is simply a reminder to be my own superhero, to step up and take care of myself. Now I know that I have rebuilt myself once and I can do it again. More recently when I injured my back, I managed to work through it using the same methodology I developed when I was ill. Of course it was frightening at times and impacted my life, but this time I was able to deal with it because no matter what happens, I am a superhero and I will always find a way to rescue myself.