(Content Note for discussion of self-harm and suicide.)
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley taught me that gangly, self-conscious girls could become heroes; not damsels, but knights and dragon slayers. Robert Heinlein’s Friday introduced me to pansexuality, sex without shame, and the joy of multiple partners.
Like most, I discovered myself through the role models I had been given. In my majority heterosexual and extremely patriarchal world, few seemed like safe harbors. I felt abnormal. I wasn’t what everyone wanted me to be, and I was miserable when I tried. So when I read characters that didn’t just feel like me but also achieved their goals while remaining happily divergent, I felt like I’d been thrown a lifeline I hadn’t realized I needed.
I wanted to be strong like Aerin. I wanted to be free like Friday.
All I had to do was grow up, goals firmly in sight.
I had no role model for the largest obstacle I’d face next.
Puberty unleashed wild swings I couldn’t understand. Depression set in, getting worse every year. Reading, always my escapism of choice, kept me distracted from the world. Sometimes, I found Aerins or Fridays, characters who took parts of me and reminded me that Yes! I could! But somehow, those stories served only those pieces already self-aware, and left the greater whole of me feeling more alone than ever after. I’d wanted so badly to seize my world the way the protagonists I’d read about had, and I couldn’t. I hated myself so much. I was a failure, broken somehow.
I cut myself because numbness followed the pain; a sharp sting followed by a second of relief. In only a couple days, I’d bounce into manic productivity and finish projects, start new ones, ignore food and sleep until I crashed back into bleak depression again.
I had no control. I grew up, I became an adult, and every year, I lost a little more hope. A little more will to keep trying.
I’d never be Aerin. I’d never be Friday. I’d never be any of the protagonists I admired so much. I couldn’t cope.
It took thirty-four years and a suicide plan to understand just how desperate I was. With the last of my strength, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist.
Being diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder felt like both a relief and an anchor. I was scared. As abnormal as I’d always thought. I’d never read about it in a book, had never seen it on the screen. How was I supposed to go about living with this? Research told me I’d be okay if I was careful, but I stood alone in my world and knew the monsters would come for me again.
When a real world role model appeared in that isolated existence, I thought I’d found the mental version of Aerin and Friday. Somebody who paved the way in the dark.
The late Carrie Fisher, a determined advocate for mental health awareness, became my light. Her open struggles and visible triumphs kindled a new hope that maybe I could be as brave and candid as she had been. I wish I’d learned about her sooner. Not as Leia, the princess, but as the real life warrior she was outside the role that branded her.
Why did I have to wait so long? In fiction, I’d learned about sex, violence, cultures, religions, genocide, solar systems, and stars, but had never seen my own disability. Why?
Science fiction shapes generations—how we think, the way we act. It influences the careers we choose and our thirst for knowledge. It cautions against the worst of our impulses, and quietly teaches us empathy. Without knowing it, we are slowly acclimated to people and beliefs that live outside our rigid monocultures.
A genre that was once the domain of white men has become the forefront of a battlefield for representation—queer folx, people of color, women, and more. Every day, new books and new characters that reflect the world we live in are released. New authors delve into centuries old topics blatantly whitewashed by the aging white genre, no longer confined to the old guard’s self-prescribed limitations.
We have come so far, and we fight so hard. But we have so much more to share, a whole other curtain to peel back.
Neurodivergent communities exist, but we are excluded from the stories authors and screenwriters tell. So many of us are outspoken—and judging by the amount of shares and retweets and comments we get, we are heard.
So when do we get to fly the Millennium Falcon?
Mental illness is so often invisible. We may have service dogs to help us, caretakers to mind us, medication to keep us as stable as possible, but we are still worthy of our place in the future. More, we are worthy of our starring roles rather than relegated to the role of plot device, or a footnote to another protagonist’s journey. Today, in the rare case a neurodivergent character is included, we serve as movable pieces in the service of somebody else’s agency. The new damsels, the ongoing villains. We are incarcerated, or we are fixed.
It’s bullshit. I am no damsel and if I am a villain, it’s sure as hell not because I’m “crazy.” I refuse to be your reason for striving. After thirty odd years of struggling to live, after a year of working my ass off to be the strong person I have more than proven that I am, I deserve better. We are all real people, and we are capable. Neurodivergent characters can colonize Mars, explore new worlds, seduce aliens, and live with our disability. Every single one of us battling our internal, invisible monsters are goddamn heroes.
People like Carrie, loud and proud, deserve to be written. Her efforts put mental health awareness in the spotlight, and I’ll be damned if we let that fade back into the dark. Characters like us, fighting every day, need to be read.
How do we do it?
The same way we have torn holes in the bigoted boundaries of race and color and sexuality. Slowly, surely, we write the stories that reflect the world we live in, and publishers determined to make the changes we need acquire them. Publish them. Market them.
Together, we have destroyed the common narrative. Queers have destroyed it. People of color have destroyed it. Women destroy it.
Now, neurodivergency is seizing its rightful place in the future.
We are not your platforms, your aliens, your Other. We are the sum of our whole, invisible disability and all, and we are not damsels. I am an incredible story. We deserve our incredible stories.
So get out there and tell them. Buy them. Publish them.
The genre can accept us or it can be dragged, bloody and screaming, into enlightenment. We aren’t going away. We’re just going to get louder and louder, linking elbows with our compatriots in the battle for representation.
One industry. One world. One book at a time.
So very many readers.
© 2018 by K. C. Alexander