I still remember the summer when my father set up the tent trailer in our yard. I practically lived in that thing. It was an escape from being in the house, but close enough to get peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I was Luke Skywalker and the trailer became the Millennium Falcon. Whenever I could, I recruited neighbors and relatives to enter the Star Wars universe with me. I even fashioned my own R2D2 out of an old vacuum cleaner suitcase, complete with a cassette recording of Princess Leia asking Luke for help (recorded using my own pre-adolescent high pitched voice).
I grew up with my action figures
I have a lot of gratitude for my action figures because they taught me so much about who I am. They made the world inside of me feel safe and they prepared me for the world outside.
Growing up , I didn’t have an imaginary friend. Instead, I had imaginary friends complete with unique identities, objectives, enemies, and galaxies. Action heroes were my constant companions, being my go-to for almost a decade. My heroes had names like: GI Joe; Micronauts; Superman and Spiderman; Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, C3PO, and R2D2; Rocket Robin Hood; Planet of the Apes; and LEGO.
(Batman deserves special mention because I once met Adam West, the campy original, non-sixpack, Batman (Kapow!). I was a loud and proud, card carrying member of the original Batman Fan Club, complete with a signed photo and key chain.)
My mom used to tell me to get outside, so I took my heroes with me. Our house had a front flowerbed that was a battle ground for battles too horrific to recount. I’m sure if you dug it up, you would find a few vintage characters, preserved by the miraculous time-shifting soil.
I grew up with heroes at my side, and they grew up with me.
Action figures taught me to be okay with myself
I didn’t know it at the time, but action figures helped me to weather the developmental transition from boy to adolescent (and beyond). They helped me to grapple with changing relationships, rejection, and being on the bottom of the social pecking order. They stuck with me on weekends where my father drank himself in and out of sleep. And they were right there with me when anxiety made me want to avoid new people, the outside, disappointment, along with the not-so-subtle messages to grow up and leave the toys behind.
No matter my moods, my heroes were there for me through the gloom and sadness that we now label depression. At the time, all that I knew was that I needed time with my heroes, and in what I can only describe as a very real and always present super power, my adventures moved me through my moods. They were my only medication, and thankfully (for me) they were far more powerful than our best antidepressants today.
I always had an empty pocket, so my heroes were never far away. Any idle moment was an opportunity to climb, confront or shoot anything… or anyone.
My mother, with a little help from my action figures (sorry guys…), taught me to be okay with diversity. Skin color, race, background, religion, short, fat, tall or bald – none of it mattered. I mixed and matched heroes, genres, DC and Marvel, Space, Wild West and Jungle. In my imagination, they found a way to get along. And amazingly, not one of my heroes had chiseled abs.
Heroes taught me that it is healthy and normal to have a multiverse on the inside. Some heroes up a lot of mental space, while others remained in the corners. Some heroes had an entourage, complete with support vehicles and action gear, while others were solo operatives who preferred to work alone. Certain heroes were my favorites (and still are today), some could be pulled apart and reassembled into something fantastic, and others were left to patrol the dark crevices of the toy box.
Today, as a therapist I am indebted to my heroes for teaching me about the different parts of who I am. How personality is complex and how parts can have different, and sometimes opposing goals and needs. And how some parts can occasionally attempt a coup and hijack my moods, plans and mindset.
Space is not the final frontier
“Space: the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Its five-year mission:
to explore strange new worlds,
to seek out new life and new civilizations,
to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
These words are my mission statement, in this ongoing mission that we call “Life.” The stages of my life have give me so much to explore: strange worlds, new life and different civilizations.
Somewhere along the way my wife and I picked up a few “new lives” and amazingly they grew into teenagers. This has caused me to boldly go where no man (wanted) to go… into the worlds of parenting, career, owning a home, marriage, growing older, acceptance of my imperfect and flawed self and finally… growing up (whatever that means).
I remember walking downstairs with nothing but an empty floor, a toy box and my imagination. Heroes taught me to be comfortable dumping everything on the floor, to pick up the pieces, and to not expect that things will go nicely together again. They taught me that becoming new took a lot of messy first tries and unfortunate second thoughts. I still use this skill almost every day in my professional life. Each therapy session is it’s own empty floor. I have to adapt my skills to work with adults, families, and youth in recovery. Each one has their own unique needs, personalities and “parts” who like to scrap with their other parts, their families, and sometimes even with me.
I mean no disrespect by this: Captain Kirk, you were wrong. Space is not the final frontier. Life is the final frontier. The frontiers we live in are not final (but sometimes we wish it). And our lives don’t work as well as your weekly one-hour voyage with well-timed commercial breaks, escalating tension, conflict and then complete resolution.
Reality can bite sometimes. Each of us are on our own 7-day, 24-hour unending ‘voyage.’ Along the way we meet strange people (partners, teenagers, coworkers, HR departments, and bosses) who sometimes make us wish we could say, “Scotty, beam me out of here!” Relationships, families and workplaces become our ‘civilizations,’ complete with warring factions, and everything in-between.
I’m not sure about you, but my voyage has taken me to places I never imagined: partnering and parenting, career, health and ill-health, insecurities, finances, dreams, disappointments and dramas. And I never know when I will be confronted by villains who thrive on catching me when I am not at my best: Velcro and his Gloom of Depression, and Moods and her Unending Swings. Yet still today, by my side (and inside), I have my heroes.
I just wanted to give a shout out to my Heroes: “Thanks guys! It’s been a heck of a ride… and I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Keep it Real
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Geek Therapy: Getting High with Geek Therapy
In the new year, I will be offering Geek Therapy using popular culture and superheroes. My specialties include addiction and mental health recovery, parent-teen relationships, emotions and communication skill-building, family counseling, trauma support and spirituality in counseling. If you would like to experiment with Geek Therapy and how it can benefit you, contact me at [email protected]
Article previously published on smswaby.com