Sharon Blady views neurodiversity as a superpower. “I’ve been Geek Grrrl for as long as I can remember, and well before I used the term for reclamation and empowerment.”
Confession time: I’m not neurotypical. For decades, I battled addiction until twelve-step spirituality helped restore me to sanity. Then, frustratingly, I became engaged in a new epic battle against the stigma attached to depression and hypomania―which I experience as occasional strong fluctuations in the Force.
Delightfully, this Mental Health Awareness Month, the universe plopped Sharon Blady in my path. And soon, I discovered, neurodiversity is a superpower.
Blady is a superheroine indeed—despite a childhood rife with undiagnosed mental health challenges and neurodiversity. After overcoming domestic violence and raising her kids on social assistance, she endured cancer and survived suicide. How? A healthy dose of cosplay, the support of fandoms, and inspiration from powerful archetypes.
We sat down to dish about how embracing our geeky sides can offer spectacular tools for mental wellness. So, grab your cape and join us.
Sarah Bowen: How do you define “Geek Grrrl”?
Sharon Blady: I’ve been Geek Grrrl for as long as I can remember, and well before I used the term for reclamation and empowerment. Growing up in the 1970s in a school system and family dominated by jocks, I was shamed and teased for being a girl who liked comics, sci-fi, and fantasy. I was also the kid in the advanced programs. While this was great intellectually, it pretty much painted a target on my back socially. My ADHD took all of this and amped it up―I was the talkative kid who knew all the answers and worked ahead on assignments. Growing up, words like geek and nerd were used against me.
When I entered the International Baccalaureate program, I finally found a group of people I could relate to. This included a shared love of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy and grew to include the social justice of the punk scene, which evolved into grunge fandom, and the emergence of the Riot Grrrl scene and their feminism.
I did social justice work in my academic studies, culminating in a PhD in women’s studies. I was then recruited into political life and went in as a feminist decolonization scholar and social democrat. Coming out of office―after having been responsible for the healthcare of 1.3 million people as the health minister of Manitoba [a province in central Canada]―I kept that perspective. I would no longer shape the policy and investments of a single government, but I hoped to change hearts and minds on a larger scale.
To be a Geek Grrrl is to embrace the power of our experiences as women within and beyond our fandoms, and I do it in the context of mental health and neurodiversity education.
What is the relationship between neurodiversity and mental wellness?
Some of us may live with chronic and lifelong mental health diagnoses, while others have a lived experience that is a singular event, short-term, or episodic. Most of us with neurodiversity also have an experience of mental health issues, especially related to anxiety, depression, and trauma, because of how we have experienced educational systems and socialization in general. For example, while I have survived my suicidality and post-partum depression, I will never be able to outgrow or move past my ADHD. It’s the way my brain is wired. But, inspired by my fandoms, I have reclaimed my diagnoses as “superpowers.”
What motivated your creation of the Embrace Your Superpowers program?
Embrace Your Superpowers is a fandom-inspired mental health program, which was inspired by X-Men and Avengers. It started informally to help my son address and manage his undiagnosed anxiety, ADD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and processing differences. He thought he was “broken and an idiot” because of the struggles he was having in elementary school. He came to me in tears, asking that I not send him to school anymore because there was no point as he would never succeed. I found myself telling him that he wasn’t broken but that he was an X-Man with mutant superpowers, that we would learn to work with them, and I would do my best to be his Professor X.
I used my years of personal experience in mental health treatment and my academic love of research and teaching to develop tools for him. We saw characters whose stories gave us examples of struggle, triumph, relapse, and recovery. He realized that even on his bad days, he was no less a superhero, just like his favorite characters. He was given a framework for self-compassion, self-awareness, and self-management.
Superhero narratives are sometimes critiqued for creating dividedness―the good guys vs. the bad guys in an endless fight. How do we embrace our superpowers without creating harmful divisions in our communities?
I think comics are too often erroneously oversimplified as good versus evil, which does them a great disservice. Drawing from the Marvel Universe, especially the characters associated with Stan Lee, I recognize the nuance and humanity that his characters and storytelling possess. In many cases, the “villains” are really people whose own powers overtook them or whose trauma caused them to lash out and seek vengeance.
Many villains are textbook examples of how “hurt people hurt people,” like Jean Grey (Phoenix). We see other characters like Bruce Banner (Hulk) and Ben Grimm (Thing) struggle with their humanity and self-compassion. Those of us with diagnoses often feel similarly “othered.” Their stories offer us a model for recovery and a reclamation process for a whole and healthy identity.
“Their stories offer us a model for recovery and a reclamation process for a whole and healthy identity.”
The use of superheroes and superpowers is not intended to imply superiority or exceptionalism. It is a way of identifying that the powers of our diagnoses, like those of the comic characters, are inherently neutral. If left unsupported, they can wreak havoc on our lives, and we are perceived and treated negatively. If supported, these can be gifts we use to empower ourselves and use for the betterment of those around us.
This perspective also creates an opportunity to discuss topics that can be sensitive and clinical in a safe space by using characters that we recognize and relate to. Think about how much more empathy we have for Peter Parker and his struggles than we might have for someone with an anxiety diagnosis. I want folks to see Peter in their students, staff, patients, and in themselves and show the same empathy and compassion in real life that they do in the movie theater.
Rather than creating division, if superhero narratives are read beyond patriotism and good versus evil, we ultimately realize they are more about humanity and compassion than about gamma rays and otherworldly powers. Those powers are metaphors, and we need to look past those flashy trees to see the more complex forest of humanity and recovery.
You identify as atheist, but I have also heard you refer to the Force described in the Star Wars canon. How do you reconcile―or do you reconcile―these two seemingly contradictory statements?
I was raised in a Catholic family and engaged in religious studies as part of my first academic degree, exploring belief systems in cross-cultural and anthropological contexts. I acknowledge the value of religion to shape perspectives on how the world works, especially in times previous to scientific explanations. I moved away from religion because I witnessed too many examples of hypocrisy where a text or doctrine was used to justify inhumane and unjust acts. I also recognized that I did not need a religious framework to be a moral or ethical person. Nor did I believe there was an omnipotent or omnipresent being.
One of the most profound experiences that confirmed my perspective was listening to Vatican astronomer Guy J. Consolmagno speak at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Toronto about the Big Bang. He explained that we all contain elements of the Big Bang within us at a cellular level. We are all made of stardust from that explosion. Having Consolmagno confirm what I had already learned from Carl Sagan and others affirmed that I believed in something bigger than any individual earthly dogma. I don’t have to worry about an afterlife because the elements that make up my body and my consciousness have always existed and will continue to exist in some format until the end of time.
I believe the Force is much like the stardust identified by Sagan and Consolmagno. It is a metaphor for the eternal elements that connect us and transcend our short time on this earth. So reconciling atheism and the Force isn’t really difficult.
I believe if more people recognized how fundamentally―and elementally―we are connected to each other and then tapped into that understanding, we would be a much more compassionate society and world. Like the use of superheroes and the language of most belief systems, metaphors help us understand ourselves, others, and the world. They help us grow in strength and unity for the greater good.
Keep reading: Sarah Bowen explores the Force.