The Superstress of Superman
Even superheroes struggle with the changes of life
“What you are telling me is like what happens to Superman, isn’t?” I say my adolescent patients (and some much older than that) after listening to their anxieties, complaints or discomforts about the changes in their lives.
I particularly remember a child, let's call him Johnny, who, in addition to the struggles teenagers face, was adapting to the side effects of a medication to control the epileptic seizures that his brain and body suffered. The secondary effects of the pills cause slow, numb speech, which can be terrible for teenage life.
In fact, Johnny barely talked during the psychotherapy session. Her mom was the one telling me about his problems.
I compared Johnny’s struggles to the struggles of Spiderman because he was the hero in vogue at the time.
The teenagers usually look at me in amazement after I compare them to a superhero. How does someone dare to compare them to Superman, Spiderman or the superhero at the moment? So, they usually reply with a “how?”
“Yes, no superhero is born superhero or superspecial”, I answer. “Some become superheroes and others discover that they are superheroes or superspecials. One day, they wake up and realize that they have a different ability, and believe me, at first it’s not pleasant at all.”
“Imagine the day that young Superman, then still just little Clark Kent, begins to hear more noise than he normally hears. In addition to the conversation of his parents during dinner, he listens to the breathing of the animals in the barn, conversations of other families having dinner in Smallville, birds chirping at dusk, in short, imagine all that a superhear can listen.”
“When I imagine that,” I say to the teenager, and I insist, sometimes to the not-so-teenager, “I think about how young Clark Kent could concentrate and study for his math test. Even if he goes to the library he is going to hear all the conversations outside the library!”
“Clark Kent, like all superheroes at some point in their lives, learn to adapt to their new mind, new strength, new senses, and any special ability.”
I have a particular taste for those moments when superheroes are learning to deal with their new body, new strength, new abilities because it’s the moment when we can see them more human, with their anxieties and struggles, with their stress, their worries, their need to be accepted, their depressions.
This is the moment when any superhero is more like any of my teenage patients. Like any of us.
And of course, any teenager buys me this idea… for a few seconds, because then some of them claim that they don’t necessarily have more ability to do something, like Superman or Spiderman, rather they have less ability or even a disability.
So, that’s the moment I tell them the story of Emma, which I read in the wonderful book “The Brain That Changes Itself” by doctor Norman Doidge.
Emma was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when she was twenty-three, which caused the death of the retinal cells in her eyes. She lost her sight completely at thirty-five.
It was then that Emma went through that moment, that period in the life of every superhero when you have to learn that the loss of a particular ability comes with the emergence of a new one.
By the time she realized it, five years after her loss, Emma was the fastest reader of novels in town. She became a super-reader, able to consume 340 words per minute.
To give us an idea, whoever reads this story should do so at about 100 words per minute on average. This means that Emma had an increase in her reading ability of more than 300%.
The super-reader uses a special device that is becoming very common with the use of computers and smartphones. This device reads aloud any digitized text—similar to any text-to-speech app. Unlike an audiobook, the voice is monotonous, without much intonation, and only pauses with punctuation marks.
At first, Emma used it at a very low speed and was bothered by the type of voice and the lack of intonation. But once she got used to it, she recognized the advantages of this system over an audiobook read by the voice of an actor or celebrity: she could regulate the speed at will.
The monotony of the voice stopped to be important, like when you start reading a novel and the fonts, the type of paper, or some other features of the book’s edition lost relevance and you immerse yourself in the narrative.
Emma, now blind, reads many more novels than the ones she read when she had her sight. She has read everything Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal… In short, everything we—those of us who love literature— would like to read.
What happened in Emma’s brain is that her visual cortex, the region of neurons dedicated to processing what we see, was doing nothing after she became blind. And instead of wasting those resources, the mind rearranged itself and used that space to process more information from the ear. That is, she hears the same as us but is able to understand it much faster.
Whenever there is a loss of capacity in the brain or the body comes a period of adaptation that only precedes the emergence of new capabilities. The change of capabilities can be qualitative, that is, one function for another, or quantitative, a function that is improved.
Even in the simplest activities of our life, you can be a witness to this process. The other day my wife felt bad because she couldn't memorize the lyrics of a song like she used to do when she was the same age as our thirteen-year-old daughter.
“Well, I wonder if at that young age — I told her — you, or anyone, could memorize the lyrics of a song and be, at the same time, a bilingual elementary teacher like you are, taking care of one daughter of thirteen and other of three, and be in charge of a house (with everything it implies). Your brain and its intelligence are the same as when you were younger but its resources are applied in more important things than to memorize a song. I think your brain is doing more now than then.”
So she smiles, feeling reconciled with her abilities. She hasn’t loose any, she is just using them differently.
Every change brings disadvantages and advantages, of course. Some bring more disadvantages than others. Not all cases are the same. Some superheroes struggle more than others.
You never know if a disability—or a simple change like adolescence—comes with more advantages than disadvantages. And that’s the point: you don’t know.
Anyway, you don’t get into those details when doing psychotherapy, unless necessary. You want to transform a negative story, a pessimistic narrative, for another one that helps you with your struggles.
In those intervention moments, it’s not about labels, political correctness, or realism. You don’t say to a suicidal person the probabilities of success of his attempts. Those moments are about coming back to live.
After the stories of superheroes like Superman or Emma, my patients, although surprised, look at me skeptically.
Johnny, in particular, was epileptic. The medicine he was taking is like a kryptonite’s remedy for Superman. But Johnny was struggling with the side effects. He needed help to understand that the side effects brought him fewer disadvantages than the advantages of not having seizures.
He had to acknowledge, by reframing his mind, that his brain was able to change itself.
Sometimes it is easier to believe in supermen or spidermen than in the supercapacity of our brain and mind. Anyway, they love to feel super special, to feel that they are living an adventure like the ones they see in comics, books, television or movies.
Their life is not ending, it is a story in progress.
And believe me, the simple act of seeing the life we live from a different angle may be enough to live a supertransformation and accept that we are all superspecial.
(A variation of this story was originally written and published in Spanish as El superestrés de Supermán.)