Superhero Therapy Revealed
by: Dr. Janina Scarlet
I was eight. Lying in the hospital bed after yet another seizure, just one of the many side effects of being exposed to Chernobyl radiation in Ukraine, I was bored and miserable. The doctors said I had to “take it easy.” What they didn’t realize was that for someone like me “taking it easy” was as good as a death sentence. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, I wasn’t allowed to get out of bed, except for to use the bathroom, I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio, and most importantly, I wasn’t allowed to read. Reading was my door to a place where I wasn’t sick, a place where anything was possible. A place where I could be a hero instead of a broken weakling.
Whenever possible I would ask my mom to read to me. At other times I would try to sneak in a few sentences, or even a few pages when she wasn’t looking. And suddenly I wasn’t in the hospital with its distinctive sanitizing smell and glaring yellow lights reflecting off of sickeningly white walls. No. I was a princess in a magical kingdom. But not one of those who needed to be rescued from the dragon. I did the rescuing. I fought in battles, I slayed the dragon, I attended to the sick and injured, and I cured them.
The bliss from the imaginary experiences of my own inner and physical strength was shattered by the invasive medical procedures and other numerous reminders that this was in fact just a fantasy. I never expected my life to have a happy ending, I did not think there would be a “happily ever after for me” but I so badly wanted it.
I died when I was 10. I don’t know how long it took the doctors to bring me back but they did. I cannot imagine what it was like for my parents. The doctors were the heroes that day and I was back in the hospital, my mom and my daydreams to keep me company. The seizures reduced when we immigrated to United States. My health started to improve, presumably due to being far away from radiation, the effects of which are still experienced in the affected countries. However, being a foreign 12 year old, who spoke little English, wore no makeup, couldn’t afford fancy clothes, and was exposed to radiation didn’t exactly make me popular. “Freak!” I remember one girl calling me and then telling her friend, “Make sure you don’t touch her, she’s radioactive.” Feeling lonely despite being around hundreds of people I dove back into my books, still wishing I could somehow be a hero, still wishing I was anyone else but me.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
Working in the movie theatre was my first job at 15 years old. I loved it – I got to see people being happy, excited to see an upcoming film, nervous and excited about their first date, and thrilled to be on summer vacation. One of the biggest perks of the job was being able to see movies the night before they were officially released. One night our whole movie team stayed late to watch X-Men.
I hadn’t known much about the X-Men or other superheroes before that and as soon as the movie began something clicked for me. They were different – many of them affected by radiation, just like me. Many people didn’t like them and called them “freaks” just like me. And what most of them wanted to do was to help people. Just like me.
I went home and contemplated my life over 2 hot dogs. It was indeed a life changing moment. Not because of the hot dogs, of course, but because it was the first time in my life where I felt understood. I had a purpose. My purpose was to help people who struggle, whether they struggled in a similar way to mine or a different way. Instead of seeing myself as a victim of fate I now saw myself as a survivor, one capable of overcoming the impossible, one with a mission of helping others.
After the summer was over I changed my classes to take psychology and began reading and researching, both on comic books, fictional characters, and psychology. This didn’t stop until I got my PhD. Actually, it didn’t stop then either. I knew what my mission was – to help people. I just didn’t know how and it didn’t occur to me to combine all of my passions into one.
THE ALLIES AND ENEMIES
For my postdoctoral training I was privileged to be working with active duty Marines with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I started noticing a common phrasing that many of them engaged in, “I wanted to be Superman. I failed.” Most of the Marines I saw, men and women alike, all wanted to be superheroes. All wanted to be invincible. And all believed that having PTSD symptoms somehow meant that they were weak, broken, and failures. This is where my passion for pop culture became extremely handy. I asked a Marine I was working with one day if Superman had any known vulnerabilities. After thinking about it for a moment he replied, “Yeah, Kryptonite.” I then asked him if this vulnerability made Superman any less of a Superhero. My heart warmed as I watched the light bulb moment that brought a smile to his usually grim face, “I see what you did there, doc. I guess not.”
After that event I started to incorporate pop culture into therapy as much as possible. I realized that having a comic book superhero, or another fictional or real life hero can be extremely helpful with just about any therapy modality and just about any therapy diagnosis. Specifically this treatment, which I call Superhero Therapy, can be helpful to patients in helping them to 1) realize that they are not alone in their struggles; 2) reduce the shame and stigma about having a mental health disorder; 3) improve patient-therapist relationship and build trust; 4) help the patient feel more understood and accepted; 5) help the patient better express his or her emotions and struggles by analyzing similar struggles in their heroes; 6) assist the patient with motivation to change, and 7) live his or her life in a meaningful way in accordance with his or her core values.
In the past few years Superhero Therapy and other modes of incorporating pop culture into therapy have become more well-known and have been talked about in the news and even have some pilot empirical support. Overall, the data so far suggests that patients who are able to relate to a fictional or real life hero are more likely to demonstrate reduced depression, improved socialization, increased empathy and compassion, and improved health behaviors.
Now it’s your turn. Perhaps you too get your letter from Hogwarts telling you that you have magical powers or are invited to study at Xavier’s Institute with the rest of the X-Men. What would you do with your superpower? What kind of Superhero would you want to become and what kind of legacy would you want to leave behind?
Author, Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Scarlet also teaches at Alliant International University, San Diego. Her book, Superhero Therapy, is expected to be released in 2016 with Little, Brown Book Group.