10: 6 At the Point of Death

Season 10:, Episode 6: Extremis

Doctor: Memories are so much worse in the dark.

Darkness is often associated with sin, hatred, fear, and danger. This use of darkness is a common trope in music, movies, books, tv shows. It also has societal manifestations-in which dark or black people including kids are regarded as dangerous threats to be eliminated by the state. And at first, this episode of Doctor Who seems to continue with the, “darkness is bad troupe.” The Doctor is blind-a condition that he thinks may be permanent. He does whatever he can to act as if he can see-relying on technology and Nardole to be his eyes. Being blind has plunged the Doctor into a physical world of darkness. But this physical darkness pales in comparison to the darkness that continues to reside in the Doctor. In fact his physical darkness, makes the internal darkness that much more clearer.

The Doctor is a pro at distraction. He finds ways to distract himself-albeit momentarily from all he has experienced in his thousands of years. And part of that distraction involves being able to see the wonders of the physical world and the universe. He still gets excited when he encounters something new, despite all he has already witnessed during his travels. But with that gone, hiding becomes that much more difficult for the Doctor.

Darkness-both physical and metaphorical forms are described in terms of hiding. People fear physical darkness because of what they may find in the dark alley or in that dark house. But of course, what they fear is the fact that they will have to confront whatever awaits them. The light serves as a warning about dangers ahead. You hopefully use the light to navigate treacherous paths. But in the darkness you are vulnerable. In the darkness you have to face whatever it is that scares you. I think that is the real threat that darkness presents.

FIGURE: Greetings, sinner. Only in darkness are we revealed. 

I am both attracted to and repelled by the darker aspects of life and the world. My research constantly forces me to face the ugliness of those in power. Simplistic notions such as patriotism and democracy often give way to the excesses of nationalism and governments’ obsession with national security and power. What is often betrayed as patriotism is nothing more than an excuse to espouse nationalistic and xenophobic narratives. And democracy often gives way to national security concerns where even the US justifies the use of torture and the abandonment of the judiciary in the fight against terrorism. Authoritarian governments have justified the oppression of their people through the narrow lens of national-security.

Many government figures in the US and abroad want to forget about the past or given token recollections for past damages. This is seen most explicitly by how governments deal with the issue of “enforced disappearances” or people who have been abducted and imprisoned by the state, or authorized representatives (such as paramilitary groups) or political organizations that are not involved with the state but are actively fighting against it (such as guerilla groups). It is in essence a form of extrajudicial detainment and the entity responsible for the abductions often refuses to provide the location of the kidnapped or denies having them. This is seen particularly in authoritarian governments (though the US also participated in enforced disappearances to a limited extent via CIA black sites and in military prisons abroad. )While non-state actors also kidnap people-since power rests in the state, the state is able to do harm to a broader section of society for a longer period of time.  Many countries, even those who have transitioned to democracy, often struggle with acknowledging the past. They often want to move ahead with the future while leaving thousands of family members and friends wondering   if there is any possibility of their loved one returning or if they will ever be able to provide their beloved child, son, daughter, spouse, or friend with a proper burial. (For some examples see Argentina under Pinochet or modern day Egypt under SiSi.)

FIGURE: Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

Many citizens also want to forget about the period where enforced disappearances were a daily threat. It is as if by ignoring the darkness they can make sure that it never occurs again. But of course that isn’t true. Evil doesn’t go away just because you ignore its existence. And this brings me to the part of me that is repelled by the darkness. More specifically my own darkness. On my blog I am pretty open about my emotions and my struggles, but in my everyday life, I often do whatever I can to ignore the darkness within myself and I suppress my emotions. I am disgusted by political violence but I will confront it and study it and advocate against it with all my might, but when it comes to focusing on my own personal life and emotions-I will run the other way but I can never run quite far enough. And while my research sometimes provides a distraction, it just as often also fuels the despair I feel. In an attempt to not feel at all, I end up feeling too much.

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Despair. Hopelessness. I go through phases where those emotions are not quite as intense. They remain stuffed in the background like white noise-always there but simply a minor irritant. (Yes I know some people find white noise relaxing. Not me). Other times, despair and hopelessness have me trapped. And I ask, why do I keep going? Why am I still here? It feels cruel. The Monks in this episode of Doctor Who have basically created an alternative reality that is pure hell. The intelligent people know that the world they are in are fake and they seek to escape it by “committing suicide” but then they become trapped in another fake hell-hole.  I don’t personally believe in a physical hell so if I kill myself I’m not worried about burning in hell. But I’m not sure that death would provide much of an escape. At best (or at worst?) it would simply transfer the hell to other people. So I ask God to “turn me off.” (If I die as a result of actions not of my doing, that somehow seems less selfish and cruel to others than killing myself.)

DOCTOR: I don’t believe much. I’m not sure I believe anything. But right now, belief is all I am. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.

But yet when I do manage to confront my own darkness and not just the darkness in the world, I find that I can’t give up. I can’t give up on God, on me, or on the other people in the world who are fighting to make a better world.  A lot of times, I’m not sure what I believe-do I believe in a loving God or not? Do I believe that there is good in the world or not? Do I believe in hope or not? And intellectually, I’m not sure I believe in any of those things or as the Doctor said, “I’m not sure I believe in anything.” Yet here I am. And when I do get the courage to face my own darkness in conjunction with the shit going on in the world I find that deep within my soul, I do believe…in goodness, in compassion.  And I only recognize that when I run into the darkness rather than away from it.

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Depression, suicide, and hope

Robin Williams was found dead on August 11th, 2014 and initial reports are speculating that it was a suicide.  No, I was not a hardcore Robin Williams fan though I have seen some of his movies. I also am not one to report on celebrity deaths beyond sharing an article or two on my personal facebook page. But when it comes to suicide, I always pause a bit. I’ve been honest with my struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, even though there continues to be a stigma attached to mental illness. (Depression, touted as a treatable disease, is often dismissed as not serious or as a pity party. Treatable does not mean curable and many people, including me, battle depression on a daily basis with the help of medication, a therapist, and the support of friends, families, and colleagues.)

When I first started this blog, I was in the midst of a major depressive episode. I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I had been kicked out of an internship program in California and had to have treatment for my depression, I was back home in an the home of my emotionally abusive mother, and I was trying to help get my grandmother into a nursing home while my mother throw hissy fits like a toddler on a daily basis. And God-don’t get me started on God-I wasn’t sure what I believed and after being betrayed by a “progressive church” I was not a fan of Christianity at the moment.  Suicidal thoughts were a daily plague. It felt as if depression had infected the core of my physical and spiritual body. I was looking for something-any little thing to hold onto.  I was lucky that a friend introduced me to the daft old man traveling through space and time in a blue box. Of course, the show isn’t a cure for depression nor did it change my circumstances, but it provided me with relief from suicidal thoughts for just a few hours every day. And then of course, I saw the episode, “Vincent and the Doctor,” and was moved to tears. Here was an episode that viewed mental illness through a compassionate lens and didn’t end with the cheery note that everything will be ok. As we know, through personal experiences, and now through the death of Robin Williams, sometimes things do not turn out ok. Sometimes the darkness is just too overpowering, especially when mental illness is stigmatized and adequate treatment is not available.  But even when someone does have access to the best medical treatment available sometimes depression can become so debilitating that death is viewed as the only option.

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Even though I am in a much better place than I was a year ago, depression is still a daily battle.  Getting adequate medical treatment, having friends and professors that care and support me, and re-evaluating my theological notions about God (letting go of the manipulative, domineering God of my childhood) has helped, but I would be lying if I said depression still isn’t a struggle. I would be lying if I said that there aren’t days when I look out at this dark world filled with hatred, violence, genocide, and poverty and wonder if it is worth it. Is life in general worth it,  does my life in particular make a difference in a world filled with hurting people?  The answer I hold onto, especially during the days and nights I feel shattered is-yes. Somehow life, in the end does matter. Somehow my life, as a small insignificant individual does matter. It is that yes, which sometimes comes out as nothing more than a whisper that keeps me going. Depression means that I have to say yes to life on a daily basis. And I know the temptation to say no is strong.

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If you struggle with depression or any other mental illness, I pray that you are receiving help and are able to say yes to life on a daily basis or even on a minute by minute basis. For those, like Robin Williams who lost their battle yet fought so valiantly, their lives and their deaths matter. They aren’t selfish cowards who couldn’t hack life, but wounded people who fought with all their strengths, but some wars can’t be won.

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9. Vincent and the Doctor: A Compassionate View of Mental Illness

I’ve chosen to list my favorite episodes from earliest to latest, (example, The Beast Below was shown before Vincent and the Doctor and certainly before the Day of the Doctor, therefore it is listed as number eleven). I mention that because although for the purposes of order this episode is listed at number 9, in reality this episode is definitely one of my top two favorite episodes of Matt Smith’s era and is one of my top two favorite episode of NuWho.

See my previous articles:

11. The Beast Below

10. Amy’s Choice

9. Vincent and the Doctor

Now this certainly isn’t’one of my favorite episodes because of its CGI-which in my opinion was a bit cheesy, but for the fact that the writer, Richard Curtis, tackles mental illness in a beautiful and ultimately respectful manner. I’ve heard the episode disparagingly referred to as a “Mental health commercial” with some insisting that Doctor Who should not have dealt with mental illness at all. However, Doctor Who in general has never been afraid of tackling weighty subject matters such as oppression and slavery, and while it never lets the subject matter distract too much from its lighthearted tone, neither does the show stick it’s head in the sand and avoid uncomfortable subject matters. And it’s that ability to balance lightheartedness with fearless examination of difficult issues that I think has contributed to the show’s success.

Mental illness and its suffers are still often misunderstood, probably not to the same extent as during Van Gogh’s time, but mental illness is at best viewed with a collective yawn of disinterest and at worst believed to be the result of the personal and moral failings of the individual sufferer.  For example, depression is often ridiculed as being “less serious” than other health issues and is believed to be simply a matter of rearranging one’s thinking to be more positive. Those who suffer from depression are characterized as weak and it seems, at least from my personal experience, that depression is only taken seriously not when a person attempts suicide but when he/she completes it. The more ‘serious” mental illnesses such as manic depressive illness, schizophrenia, etc tend to be viewed with disgust. Those who suffer from such illnesses are ridiculed as “crazy” and are to be avoided. And of course mental illness exists in a spectrum with reactions varying depending on whether or not the suffers’ symptoms can be easily hidden or ignored. (My use of ‘less serious’ or ‘more serious’ does not designate my personal opinion nor are they meant to minimize the pain and suffering of said illnesses, however, they reflect how I’ve heard others, including mental health professionals characterize said illnesses.)

Because of the stigma of mental illness and the fact that a large portion of the population suffers from a mental health issue (Mental health statistics in America, and in the UK ) I believe it is vital for it to be discussed and for mental health issues to be humanized  and treated with compassion and I believe Vincent and the Doctor succeeded on all fronts.

Through Tony Curran’s brilliant acting we catch a glimpse of the suffering and pain that those struggling with mental illness (in this case either depression or manic depressive illness) may experience. In the episode Van Gogh is portrayed as a talentless drunk, disparaged by the locals and blamed for any strange or unusual deaths.  His illness frightens the other villagers and turns him into a laughing stalk.

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And his loneliness, anger and self-loathing are palpable. Amy and the Doctor recognize his talent, as well as the major impact Van Gogh would go on to have in the art world, but because of his illness and his ostracization he is unable to see the value in his work and he refuses to believe Amy and the Doctor’s compliments. He tells the Doctor and Amy, “I’ve come to accept the only person who’s going to love my paintings is me.”

While one does not need to suffer from a mental illness to experience self-loathing and social isolation, those are experiences some of us know all too well.  In my case, depression renders me unable to love myself. In fact, if I were honest, and those who read my writings know that I am honest to the point of extreme self-disclosure, I would have to say that I hate myself. I find myself to be a talentless hack and a burden. Now I don’t say this to seek compliments, because quite frankly even when I receive them I tend to not believe them. In my case, my depression makes it hard for me to believe that I have any value as a human being which in turn causes me to isolate myself. My ability to relate to others is severely impaired. Yet, I have been lucky. Any isolation has been self-imposed, unlike in Van Gogh’s case, where it is thrust upon him.

In the episode we witness the Doctor’s and Amy’s attempts at trying to soothe and comfort Van Gogh. Attempts that seem to fail. How does one comfort someone in the throes of deep depression? What can one say? What can one do? Often times, the best one can do is to stand by that person. The Doctor and Amy treated him with compassion, not as a freak, not as a drunkard, not as a crazy person but as a human being with a great mind and brilliant talent, who was suffering from a powerful illness. They helped him defeat the Krafayis, a monster whose destruction and devastation were very real, but the monster was invisible to everyone but Van Gogh.

Furthermore, Amy and the Doctor take Van Gogh to the future so that he could see the major impact his work has had and so that he could be aware that his work is loved and valued and that his life mattered.

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Amy of course, thinks that’s enough to rewrite history and convince Van Gogh not to kill himself. After all, isn’t that all it takes to defeat mental illness? The knowledge that one is loved and matters? Unfortunately, not always. Sometimes mental illness, especially during Van Gogh’s time period where treatment was primitive, requires more than the knowledge that one is loved and talented. Sometimes we do all we can to help someone struggling with mental illness and he/she battles bravely and yet the illness still wins. Does that make that person weak? A coward? Certainly not.  Does that mean that Amy and the Doctor failed because they could not prevent Van Gogh’s suicide? Of course not.

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This episode, I believe deals with the issue of mental illness in a compassionate light and it encourages discussion. While some might simply view it as a “mental health commercial” others might be able to take comfort in the fact that they aren’t alone and that they matter. Everyone deserves to be told they matter and are loved, no matter what inner demons and health issues they struggle with.

For those interested in reading a bit more about Van Gogh and his struggles check out this 2004 article in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences.