The Strong One: What Discovery’s “The Examples” Taught Me About Self-Care
“It is difficult to ride two valebeasts with only one set of buttocks.” — The wit and wisdom of Mister Saru
Almost two years into this pandemic, I think it’s fair to say that not one of us has remained unaffected by mental health challenges. Whether we are fighting on the front lines or holding down the fort, we have perhaps all experienced some measure of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and compassion fatigue. I’ve been contemplating how this applies to the current fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery.
Dr. Hugh Culber: A Role Model for Caregivers
In dark times like these, Discovery‘s fourth season has been a beacon to guide us home. We tell and consume stories so that we may better process and understand what we’re going through. When we watch our heroes face uncertainty, isolation and fear, we find role models in them to help us find our way. This is what the crew of Discovery has come to mean to me, and no character has helped me more than Dr. Hugh Culber.
From the moment the Discovery crew arrived in the 32nd century, Dr. Culber has been like the shelter of a great rock in a weary land. He has monitored the crew’s mental health, nudging the traumatized Lieutenant Detmer to talk to him if she needs to and – after a disastrous dinner party – making himself available to work with her professionally. He has encouraged Michael to reach out to Adira and help them integrate their memories. He has been at Saru’s side, trying to reach Su’Kal, who was frightened and alone and needed to learn how to trust again. He has encouraged downtime for the crew. He has worked with Gray to build a body that he can grow old in. He supported Tilly to find her true path. And perhaps most importantly, he has helped guide Book through the greatest loss a living being could be called upon to suffer.
Through all of this, Dr. Culber has remained a loving and supportive partner to his husband, Paul Stamets. He has maintained an air of quiet wisdom, steadfastness, gentleness, and humor. He has given of himself out of the depths of his own experience, and until “The Examples”, we see him briefly falter just once. As the human expression goes, “Something has to give.” And in “The Examples”, something finally does.
You Cannot Pour From An Empty Cup
I see myself in Hugh Culber.
I am a single mom without much support who has spent the pandemic caring for my two, small, active children during lockdown. I’ve tried to make the experience less scary, and maybe, even kind of fun. We’ve enjoyed loads of socially distanced nature walks and indoor dance parties. We’ve done all the screen time and eaten all the fun snacks. We’ve built with Legos and Lincoln Logs; we’ve done art, science, and reading.
Throughout all of this, I’ve tried to shield my children from how frightened and worried I am about the pandemic. Sometimes, I’ll show them just enough of how I am feeling to teach them how to cope with those feelings. Then, I will quickly say, “Let’s do all the things to stay safe!” Like Dr. Culber counseling the crew through the terror and uncertainty of the DMA, I’ve tried to reassure my little family that, while it’s okay to be scared, we’re all going to be okay.
When Stamets tries to confront Culber that he’s been working too hard, Hugh responds exactly as I would: “I can’t stop. There’s no one but me to do this job. My crew, and my family, need me.” For me, as a solo parent, and for Dr. Culber, as the only ship’s counselor, this is the simple truth. However, there is another, uglier truth: if we do not take care of ourselves, we will not be able to take care of others. And we will reach a breaking point.
Like Hugh, I have given of myself until I had nothing left. Like Hugh, I have found that admitting that I am struggling has been one of the most difficult things to do. I, too, have felt like I’m failing.
“You died.” When Kovich offered his brutal honesty to Hugh by telling him this, he was calling me out, as well. Kovich forces Hugh to acknowledge that he must take a break, to process unhealed trauma, and to come to terms with his survivor’s guilt. Kovich’s words struck home for me, too.
A Uniquely Challenging Time
So, what is the solution? Kovich reminded Hugh, and me, that we are only human. Some of us, as parents or medical professionals, feel that, because we are desperately needed, we must remain above human frailty. But we cannot. We are only flesh and blood, and we must permit ourselves to rest.
I heard myself in Hugh’s protest – “I can’t stop! This is who I am!” I am a mother; caring for those I brought into the world is indeed who I am, just as caring for the needs of his crew is who Hugh is. But as Kovich tells Hugh, “You need to find fulfillment in something other than work. Otherwise, you will fail those in the chair in front of you.”
I have learned what Hugh needs to learn: I am more than a caregiver. It is essential for my children to see their Mom following her own passions, and so I let them see me writing, reading, laughing with friends, and pursuing my college degree.
Those of us who have traveled by airplane will recognize the instruction “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” I think that applies to all forms of self-care, too. If we care for others, we must care for ourselves.
Ruth Anne Amsden has been a Trekkie since she was a ten-year-old reader voraciously devouring Star Trek novels (her family did not allow television in the home). She is working toward her first BA and aspiring to professionally write Star Trek novels as love letters to the novels she loved growing up.