When I was a kid, I loved “X-Men: The Animated Series.”
All my favorite comic-book characters came to life (quite the novelty before they began flooding theaters).
I can honestly only remember four episodes that kept playing as reruns, though: The X-Men rescue Jubilee from the Sentinels, the X-Men discover the Morlocks’ tunnel, Jean Gray turns into the Phoenix and “dies,” and Charles Xavier wakes up and screams in agony.
As a kid, I was convinced that either these four episodes offered merely a teaser for an eventual chronological narrative, or my local Fox affiliate had been taken over by mischievous primates. But that’s neither here nor there.
What made a lasting impression was the running gag that was Professor Charles Xavier.
I should probably stop to tell the younger whippersnappers that the Professor X I’m referring to was pre Patrick Stewart. Rather than being the suave embodiment of class that Stewart brought to the character, the animated Professor was kinda… whiny.
Sometimes, he was a straight-up jerk. His nasally voice was a bit grating to hear–particularly when he was being a jerk, or when he was thrown out of his wheelchair (which was, tragically, a lot of times). What I remember most about Animated Professor X was that—even though he had the ability to control minds on a grand scale—he often screamed.
When he wasn’t nasal-screaming from being flung from his chair, he was grabbing his temples and wailing in agony. It seemed the world’s most powerful brain was also the world’s most sensitive brain. I’m ashamed that this is all I remember. As online clips I find jog my memory, it was a really dark, cerebral show with some deep subject matter for us youngsters to digest. But I glossed over all that and played my juice-drinking game around Xavier’s screams, which really got under my skin for some strange reason.
It wasn’t until I read the book A First-Rate Madness that my frustration with Animated Professor X really clicked.
A First-Rate Madness is a wonderful book that I highly recommend–particularly if you’re interested in mental health and/or history. In it, author Nassir Ghaemi examines the lives of a few key historical leaders. Turns out Kennedy, Lincoln, FDR, Churchill and a handful of others were among us depressed and/or anxious humans, and that their specific brain chemistry is what helped them to rise to the occasion at just the right time.
Ghaemi also mentions an interesting experiment in which scientists got together to map the brains of those dealing with depression. They discovered that when depressed people watch images of those in pain, their pain receptors light up. When those whose brain chemistry doesn’t include chronic depression look at those same images, a different, more detached part of the brain shows activity. Ghaemi goes on to say that only those with depression feel true empathy, in that their (our) pain receptors actually register the pain of others as pain in their own bodies.
This makes a ton of sense. And it makes sense as to why so many creative types struggle profoundly with depression.
Of course the most powerful mutant hero screams in agony a lot. With that much connectivity to the brains of others, the empathy must be excruciating.
Of course that character ticks me off, because I don’t wanna face the fact that I am Professor X. Like many of you, I regularly deal with that same excruciating empathy. I just don’t happen to have the cool telepathic power to make it seem worth my while.
Maybe you, too, are a powerful mutant who’s often debilitated by your own superpowers. You’re in good company!
Wil Wheaton (actor/writer/nerd advocate and no stranger to the classy devil that is Patrick Stewart) posted a blog yesterday on his own struggles with depression and its equally-debilitating twin brother, anxiety. It’s a longer read, but it hits the mark on the whole-body approach to creativity that makes so much sense to me. Take the time to read over his heartfelt open struggles here.
In the meantime, as you go about the rest of your day (or you search for the energy to get out of bed tomorrow), find hope in the empathetic power of depression. Find strength and in the creative potential you hold at your fingertips—even if they’re often busy clutching your skull.
From one person in the oft-dibilitating depression/anxiety cycle to another, celebrate your mutant power today.
I am Professor Charles Xavier. Maybe you are, too.
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