SPOILERS for Captain America: Civil War
I’ve spent all month trying to figure out how to write something for Mental Health Awareness Month, and what to focus on specifically. Too often, those with mental illness are seen as antagonists, as villains in comic books (or the entirety of Gotham City). Nearly every bad guy or gal in Gotham has some form of mental illness. It’s rare to see a good guy who struggles with mental illness in comic books, or in comic book movies.
That’s why personally Captain America: Civil War was a breathe of fresh air, and deeply terrifying all at once. In the background of the entire Marvel cinematic universe is the fraying mental state of Tony Stark. His parents died before he could repair his relationship with his father. He lost his mother. His inventions, his desire to save the world, frequently put people in more danger than if he hadn’t tried at all. He almost dies several times. In Civil War, it’s implied that his mental health was a significant factor in his and Pepper’s relationship ending. He couldn’t stop, couldn’t put his tools down. His anxiety and PTSD became too much to handle. Pepper tried; we see her try to hold on to him, to handle him throughout the course of the franchise. But as of Civil War, she couldn’t.
Watching Civil War, I remembered sitting on the floor of my kitchen at 2am. My knees were pulled tight into my chest. The man I was dating at the time stood a foot away from me and kept saying”I don’t know how to help you.” There was a tone of accusation in his voice.
When he left me, one of his parting blows was “I don’t think you’re healthy.”
I have anxiety, depression, and moderate PTSD. I can go months without disassociating, having flashbacks, or having anxiety attacks. When they hit, they hit like a ten pound hammer. I push people away and fall down spirals of shame and self loathing. I have my ways of managing it. I put up pictures of the people who care about me, the people who want me around. I read comic books. Reading stories of people who strive to be better and to help the world despite everything helps me. I want to be more like them. My father said once that when faced with greatness, one can choose to either feel small, or take it as a challenge to achieve that same greatness.
People don’t know how to help, for the most part. Which is fine. Loving someone with mental health struggles doesn’t mean that you’re automatically an expert or even that you should be. Someone else’s mental health and well being is a lot of responsibility. Pepper Pots, as much as she loves Tony Stark, cannot be blamed for leaving.
At the same time, speaking as someone who once sat in that same boat, it’s devastating. Having someone establish themselves as your everything, as your pillar of strength, just to have them disappear; It feels like the universe saying “You are too broken, what did you expect?”
Do whatever it takes to feel like yourself. I don’t judge people who medicate for mental illness. That’s an intensely personally decision. For some, simply being around nature or focusing energy into creative endeavors can be enough. But for your own sake, do not make someone else your entire mental health plan.
I understand and identify with Tony Stark more than I ever thought I would. Where he creates Iron Man suits in the name of safety, I obsess over home security. He keeps his friends close, to the point of trying to keep Wanda locked up. I keep an eagle eye out for friends to ensure nothing bad happens. But the problem with trying to protect everyone around you is that sometimes, you take away their ability to make decisions for themselves.
In one respect, I’ve got more going for me than Tony Stark. People often think I’m being hyperbolic when I say Nerd Culture saved my life. I’m not. Nerd Culture gave me something to live for, which is why I fight so vocally for it, and against injustices within it. I’m a part of a vibrant community of people who listen to my concerns, and (in their own ways), try to cause positive social change. I have people who know me well enough to see when I’m in a bad way. Even if they don’t know how to help sometimes, having someone recognize what I’m dealing with is incredibly validating.
Tony, at the end of Civil War, is broken. The closest thing he has to a family has been scattered to the winds. But he’s finally started to heal just a little. And that’s because someone, Steve Rogers, has finally said “If you need me, call.” Sometimes, that’s enough. I hope he calls Steve, I hope he talks to someone. Nothing is worse than feeling like you’re alone with your own demons.