Friday, April 14, 2017

What Deep Space Nine Taught Me About Loving Myself

Okay, this essay is long, but bear with me, guys. I've got a doozy of a personal narrative to tell.

My ADD went undiagnosed until I was 12. I know the dominant narrative right now is that ADD is a fake disease so that helicopter parents can medicate kids who are just lazy, but that was decidedly not my experience. Until I discovered the magic of reading, I could have been kindly described as "a little slow;" I didn't hit standard learning benchmarks, ones my twin sister did hit. When I was three I had to be studied to see if I was having micro-seizures, since all I did all day was stare off into space. ADD in girls and women often expresses itself not in hyperactivity and other stereotypical traits, but in a quiet child, who quietly doesn't fit in, who quietly falls behind. I was diagnosed when I started failing to turn in homework that was completed and in my backpack, and after an incident with a fire truck. It took months of observation before I was diagnosed and medicated.

Entranced on the sofa
photo by sagesolar on Flickr

My mental disability may not be the hardest cross to bear, but people underestimate how even the mildest delay in childhood can fuck with you for the rest of your life. I often provide the example that I didn't know how to wash my hair properly until I was 14, because people on TV only ever stood under the spray, letting the water beat down on just the tops of their heads. A lot of the most basic shit in life I learned, or didn't learn, from watching TV. I remember TV a lot better than a lot of things I should've been paying attention to in my childhood. My childhood is a golden haze of distracted memories, with very specific memories of the movies I saw, the books I read, so no wonder they feel so deeply personal, when they're a bigger specter in my past than the memories of my own birthdays.

Star Trek became one of my obsessions. Star Trek not only features an optimistic universe, where poverty is eradicated and anyone can achieve their dreams, but where offbeat, alien characters populate the screen. A major symptom of ADD is feeling out of place, like an imposter; when you don't know what's wrong with you, only that you're wrong, it can be easy to feel like a freak. Spock, half-human but so, so Vulcan, has trouble integrating into a human world. Data, the android who yearns for humanity, but lacks the natural intuition of a human to properly behave like one. If there's a weird loner who isn't quite human, you can bet that's my favorite character in the series, because I felt that way all the time from about age zero to 22, and I still struggle with feeling that way every so often. I am the robot trying to learn the rules of society; I am the alien observing a foreign culture. And my very favorite Trek character....well, that's what this essay is here to explain.

Robert Picardo is a wonderful ham in this episode.

"Doctor Bashir, I Presume?" is an episode in the fifth season of Deep Space Nine. Doctor Julian Bashir is selected to be the model for an Emergency Medical Hologram, a program that allows a digital doctor to go where no doctor has gone before. However, this requires an egotistical engineer to dig into what makes Bashir Bashir, including his past, his friends, even his taste in food, to make the simulation complete. Bashir is a blandly handsome human who is tense and jittery about the prospect of his past being rooted around in. A bunch of plot shenanigans ensue, and his parents show up, and we learn he hates them, which is big news to those of us who have followed him for five seasons. With a few more plot shenanigans, Bashir's parents spill the real secret: he was genetically modified as a child.

Pictured: a good reason why you shouldn't mess with the human genome.

In the Star Trek canon, genetic experiments in the 1990s led to Khan Noonien Singh, a man who conquered a third of Earth before he was stopped. Genetic modification is pretty much a prelude to war and genocide, so Bashir being modified is a big, big fucking deal. Bashir's kept this real close to the vest for five seasons, including keeping it from his best friend, Miles O'Brien. O'Brien then confronts Bashir:

O'BRIEN: So it's true? You're-- 
BASHIR: The word you're looking for is "unnatural." Meaning not from nature. Freak, or monster, would also be acceptable. 
I was six. Small for my age, physically awkward, not very bright.  In the first grade when the other children were learning to read and write and to use the computer, I was still trying to tell a dog from a cat, and a tree from a house. I didn't really understand what was happening. I knew I wasn't doing as well as my classmates. There were so many concepts that they took for granted that I couldn't begin to master, and I didn't know why. All I knew was that I was a great disappointment to my parents. I can't remember when they made the decision--but just before my seventh birthday, we left Earth for Adigian Prime. First, I remember being really excited at seeing all the aliens in the hospital. Then they gave me a room and began the treatments, and my entire world began to change.
O'BRIEN: What were the treatments? Some kind of DNA recoding? 
BASHIR: The technical term is "accelerated critical neural pathway formation." Over the course of the next two months, my genetic structure was altered to accelerate the growth of neural networks in my cerebral cortex, and a whole new Julian Bashir was the end everything but my name was changed.

Please, please find this scene on Netflix or Hulu or whatever, because it's one take, and Alexander Siddig crushes it. then we get this in almost the next scene:

DAD BASHIR: You're still not smart enough to see that we saved you from a life of remedial education and underachievement. 
BASHIR: You don't know that. You didn't give me a chance. 
DAD BASHIR: You were falling behind. 
BASHIR: I was six years old. You decided that I was a failure in the first grade. 
DAD BASHIR: You don't understand Jules, you never did! 
BASHIR: No, you don't understand! I stopped calling myself Jules when I was fifteen and I found out what you had done to me. I am Julian! 
DAD BASHIR: What difference does that make? 
BASHIR: It makes every difference! Because I'm different, can't you see? Jules Bashir died in that hospital because you couldn't live with the shame of having a son who didn't measure up!

Okay, so there's a lot to unpack here, but these two scenes are precisely why this is my favorite episode in the entirety of Star Trek.

I can't encompass Alexander Siddig's rage and sorrow in just one screencap, so here, have Bashir and O'Brien getting drunk.

In the first scene, Julian, finally free to tell the truth, recalls something I know all too well. His childhood is my childhood, his pain my pain. I knew, when I was young, that there was something wrong with me, that I didn't measure up to other people. That sort of knowledge and pain doesn't ever leave you. My perception of myself as an imitation-grade human, the very reason I love Spock and Data, traces back to these early memories, where I began to see that I didn't fit into society, and might never fit. And, my own world changed when I was medicated. The first week of medication felt like my first week with glasses; things were clear that had never been clear before, things people had been trying to tell me about that I wasn't able to perceive. I'm still thankful for that, even though my medication ended up mixing very badly with puberty, to the point where I don't take medication anymore and I still can't eat breakfast properly.


It's actually the second scene that's the most important to me, in the entirety of television history. You see, there's a dominant narrative in the world of mental disability, and it's one constructed mostly by caregivers. Caregivers, vital and wonderful as they are, are coming from the perspective of curing and medicating and integrating those of us that can be integrated. Autism Speaks, the most pre-eminent organization for the most well-known mental disability, focuses its efforts on this, on finding a cure and helping train educators to help kids with autism catch up and integrate, if they're able. If you go to a doctor for help with your mental illness or disability, he will try to cure it, because that's what doctors do. That's what Bashir's parents do, albeit outside of the law. It's easy to be sympathetic to them; the child Julian was doesn't sound like he had a life full of promise and distinction ahead of him. I am full of love for my parents, who did the best they could and have always supported me when I faltered or failed. They didn't do anything wrong, not really; it's just that their voices are the ones that are always heard, always considered. I'd never before heard the voice of someone who knew exactly what I was going through.

Julian hates his parents for what they did. He makes the distinction; Jules was the child, and he, Julian, is a different person. They killed Jules by fixing him, by decided when he was six that he couldn't ever achieve anything. They decided to write their child off and build a better one, and Julian hates them in the same way you might hate a murderer.

Julian Bashir believes the child he was was enough, should have been enough for his parents. I think about this scene all the time, just for the sentiment it expressed, how revolutionary it was for me to hear. This sort of idea is on the rise, with the autistic community's backlash against Autism Speaks, but when I watched it, and when it first aired, this idea wasn't common. You just didn't see the mentally disabled speaking for themselves, or offering up the idea that they, themselves, were enough, that the decision to pursue cures or major medication ought to be their own. Although Julian is no longer disabled, the child he was speaks with his voice, Jules' struggle living on in Julian's memory.

I can't be cured, and medication did help me, but I didn't hear from other voices like mine as a kid. If I had, I might have learned that wanting to rip your skin off because people keep looking at you was my medication talking, and not the joys of being a teenager. If I had had those voices, I might not have blamed myself for something I couldn't help, I might not have internalized all my anger and sorrow. But, while I didn't have many voices, thanks to Julian Bashir, there was, at least, one voice.

With his voice, Bashir asserts that the disabled child he was didn't need to be cured. While he's reaped the benefits of being a brilliant, capable doctor, he still says, loudly and strongly: if you had done nothing to me, I would have been Jules, and I might have been anything. Jules could have been succeeded, or he could have failed, but that doesn't matter. Because Jules wasn't someone who deserved to be changed beyond recognition. Jules, as himself, was enough, should have been enough.

I am enough. Whatever I am, whatever I can do....That alone is enough. Learning that, knowing that, has filled my life with love and meaning. Whenever I struggle, I remember: Jules was enough. I am enough.

And that makes all the difference.

Discuss this essay with the author on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.