A little over a year ago I wrote a piece reflecting on the seemingly unbearable struggles of pandemic teaching. At the time, I used Tony Stark’s journey through Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame as my frame to help me understand what I was going through and all I was feeling. Writing it was very personal and deeply cathartic. In the end, I survived last year! I didn’t quit! I even managed to find incredible beauty in all the struggle, too. Now I’m a month and a half into a new school year and, well, I thought it would be easier. Yet I find myself pulled down in this dispiriting emotional mire once more. This time Doctor Who offers a more apt lens to frame my experience. Given today is World Mental Health Day – and we’re all struggling in our own ways and we all deserve to be heard and validated in those struggles – sharing this seemed appropriate. When the school year returned, I needed the Doctor. I still do. I think we all do.
I was not eager for the school year to return. I’m vaccinated now. We weren’t doing remote classes (unless case numbers rise to the point where the whole school needs to close for a time) and that God-forsaken blended learning was left in ashes of last year. I had my room again, too, and wasn’t travelling for each class. It had be easier, right? But last year left a scar – having so many unreachable expectations while feeling so little support or appreciation from the administration (even while acknowledging they were trying their best with near-impossible expectations, too) meant returning to work was more than a little triggering. I thought I knew how much I was dreading it but I’d only seen the tip of the iceberg. During my first therapy session once I was back at it, I broke down and just started crying with my therapist, Katherine. I didn’t want to be back at school. I felt like I was in survival mode once more. I was so scared, so overwhelmed, and so unhappy. Opening those feelings and letting them move freely through me in that session, while cathartic and so needed, left an EMDR-like (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, a technique used to touch, process, and heal past traumas) emotional hangover. I was exhausted. I was empty. But I was thankful my parts holding all that trusted me enough to share it with me.
That night, I shared all I touched in that session with Lauren as we texted. She’s a teacher, too (albeit in a different school/district/state), so her empathy was anchored in deeply shared experience. She suggested I take the night off and watch TV – don’t do anything for school but just do something for pleasure. She said she wasn’t telling me what I should do, saying TV may not be the release for me it is for her, but she was offering a suggestion that always helps her decompress. Lauren’s advice was so helpful as a) I felt very heard and cared for in what she said, her text validating how my go-to may not match hers and I should do what I needed to alongside her desire to help all the same in offering a suggestion and b) as soon as I read the text it pointed me towards Doctor Who. OF COURSE the Doctor could help when all else was so heavy! I immediately knew the episode I was going to watch.
“Can You Hear Me?” was the seventh episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who. It received very mixed reactions from fans and critics for its story, diving purposefully and directly into a conversation about mental health. But I love it…for reasons that will become apparent as this piece goes on ;).
In the episode, Yaz (Mandip Gill) asks the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to drop her back home for an important anniversary she can’t miss with her sister, Sonya (Bhavnisha Parmar). The rest of the fam takes advantage of their timey-wimey shore leave in Sheffield, too. Ryan (Tosin Cole) goes to catch-up with his best friend, Tibo (Buom Tihngang), while Graham (Bradley Walsh) enjoys a night of playing cards with this buddies. The Doctor, never one to sit still, pops in the TARDIS for a quick trip to Aleppo, Syria in 1380, where she meets Tahira (Aruhan Galieva), a patient in a mental hospital, and saves her from a monstrous creature. The rest of the fam don’t find quiet nights at home either. Graham is overcome by visions of a woman trapped and begging for help. Yaz falls asleep on the couch watching a movie with Sonya and dreams of a mysterious man in dark robes. Ryan sees the same man in Tibo’s apartment after Tibo falls asleep, draining something from his ear as he dreams.
The very first line of the episode though is Can you hear me? and it is a beautiful place to start. Being heard is a fundamental need we all share and not being heard is the source of great pain, frustration, and even potential trauma in our own lives. Posing this question – Can you hear me? – at the beginning of an episode about fear, anxiety, and nightmares, when not being heard is the source of all of those, is a wonderfully mindful frame. The longer I’ve been in therapy and the more I’ve explored of my own past, the more I’ve learned how unheard I’ve been in so many ways in many relationships through my entire life. And I’m also learning to recognize and appreciate the beauty of and the strength found in relationships where I am heard. I know with school, a major source of the never-ending struggle of the past two years is constantly feeling unheard in all ways.
Throughout this episode, Charlene James and Chris Chibnall (the writers) give us so many important examples of characters being heard by others. In addition to modeling this, they also show the support and strength we find when we’re heard as well as the support and strength we can offer others when we listen.
At Tibo’s flat, Ryan soon notices something’s amiss. Tibo isn’t present in their conversation nor in their video gaming like normal. Going into the kitchen to make tea, Ryan finds it a mess.
Ryan – “Your place is normally spotless, this ain’t you.”
Tibo – “Mate, you ain’t been around so don’t tell me what I am!”
Ryan – “Alright. [pause] Mate, sorry for not answerin’ your messages. But you ain’t yourself.”
Tibo – “I’m just…finding things difficult at the moment.”
Ryan – “Have you spoke to anyone about it?”
Tibo – “No! And I’m not going to!”
Ryan – “Alright.”
Notice Ryan’s use of “alright.” When Tibo snaps at him for not being around, Ryan doesn’t jump to defend himself. He validates Tibo’s feelings. When Tibo snaps after Ryan asks if he’s talked to anyone, Ryan validates him again. He doesn’t explain why Tibo should see someone or why he’s right or anything like that. He listens. He hears him. He validates him.
We learn a lot about Yaz’s past in this episode, too. While still in high school she ran away from home. Her sister, Sonya, calls the police out of fear for Yaz. This is the anniversary they are marking together, the one Yaz needed to be home for. When Officer Anita Patel (Nasreen Hussain) shows up, she tells Yaz people are worried about her. Yaz snaps back, “No they’re not!” and Office Patel says, “Your sister is. She’s worried you left and you’re gonna do somethin’ stupid. I heard things are tough. Gettin’ bullied at school. Grades gone a bit wonky. Parents don’t get what’s up. You must be feelin’ pretty trapped and alone.”
Yaz – “I’m feelin’ way more than that.”
Officer Patel – “That’s better than the other way.”
Yaz – “What?”
Officer Patel – “Well, feelin’ things isn’t wrong.”
Yaz – “I don’t want your speech.”
Officer Patel – “I know. Terrible thing about bein’ older, you have all this experience and nobody ever wants to hear it. ‘Cause I know – there’s so much ahead of you. What if this moment where you want to run away from everyone else includin’ yourself is just that, a moment? What if we find a way to get you through it and out the other side? I’ve been where you are. Moments change. Help’s out there, as much or as little as you need.”
Yaz – “I’m not listenin’ to you.”
Officer Patel – “Would hard cash make a difference? I’ll make you a deal. Look me up in three years. If I’m wrong, I’ll give you fifty quid. I mean, I’d say more but the pay’s rubbish.”
Yaz – “Get another job then.”
Officer Patel – “Can’t. Love it too much. But if I’m right, you owe me 50p. C’mon, those are good odds.”
Like Ryan, Officer Patel listens to Yaz while reassuring her that help is out there. She doesn’t talk down to her. She hears Yaz and she validates her feelings. She was the reason Yaz became a police officer :).
In life, we don’t all have script writers drafting out lines though and having the perfect response can be hard. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t listen fully and compassionately. The Doctor herself models this when Graham confides his fears about his cancer coming back to her.
Graham – “The thing is Doc, I worry about gettin’…sick again. You know, about the cancer comin’ back, and I didn’t know who to say it to so I thought I’d say it to you, you know, seein’ as you’re a doctor. You know ‘cause once, once you have it, it’s with you the whole time. Not, not quite a shadow but um…now, now don’t get me wrong! I mean my check-ups, they’re all fine. But it, it made me think, you know, and uh, I thought I should talk about it. ‘Cause those nightmares, I mean, well they made me realize that the fear is, is, is still there. Yeah.”
The Doctor – “I should say a reassuring thing now, shouldn’t I?”
Graham – “Yeah, probably.”
The Doctor – “I’m still quite socially awkward. So I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then, in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might’ve been helpful.”
Graham – “[laughing] Ok, well, I’m glad we had this chat, eh?”
The Doctor – “Yeah.”
Graham – “[chuckling] Yeah.”
This scene was criticized by people who thought the Doctor was being dismissive of Graham’s fears. I understand that. It makes sense to me. But, personally, I love it. I think it teaches two very important lessons. First, even the Doctor is at a loss for words sometimes. So it’s ok when we are, too. Second, we don’t need the right words to be with someone in their fear and their struggles. She doesn’t know what to say but she doesn’t leave. She stays in that moment – awkwardness and all – with Graham and then she explains why she isn’t saying something reassuring. Graham’s fears are validated and he is heard, even though the Doctor doesn’t know what to say.
The episode’s setting is intentionally chosen, too. Once she’s in Aleppo the Doctor remarks, “This must be one of the oldest hospitals in the world. ‘Course Islamic physicians were known for the enlightened way they treated people with mental health problems.” The Doctor arrives in one of the first places in the world where mental health was widely recognized as important. When Tahira asks the Doctor where those creatures have taken the other patients, the Doctor listens and respects Tahira’s boundaries, too.
The Doctor – “I’ve no idea. And why’ve they left you behind? How long have you been here? If it’s not a personal question…which it is.”
Tahira – “A few weeks. I’ve travelled a long way. Seen a lot of things I wish I hadn’t. My family were killed when I was seven. I ran. Aleppo was safety for me. They let me in here because I wasn’t doing well.”
The Doctor – “I promise to keep you safe. We’ll work this out.”
That idea of safety resonates. Generally speaking, the relationships I have where I feel safest – the ones where I can be completely open, where I am fully seen and fully heard, the ones where I find all of me loved, accepted, and cared for – are a great source of strength. Life would be so empty without those natural supports and I am blessed to have them in my life. More specifically, I find that safety in Katherine’s office. Buddhism has the idea of the Three Refuges – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These are often equated with your mother’s womb, a place where you are always warm, protected, and receive everything you need to grow and develop safely. Reflecting on my own life, I came to realize early on Katherine’s office is one of those refuges for me. I dump all I have, all I am, and all I’m struggling with before her in that office and I find no judgment of any kind but only support and guidance as we sort it all. It’s the best :).
As I continue through this schoolyear, I’ve not found the trials to be getting easier nor the heaviness to be lightening (for pandemic and systemic reasons). Those feelings of having more continually asked of me while I feel no support or appreciation coming down from those above me hasn’t lessened. I know this isn’t unique to my life or my school. I have friends teaching all over the country and not one of them is “happy” right now. Not one of them feels supported or appreciated or respected. It’s sad. When I sit with those feelings, I find an image regularly coming to mind. I feel like I’m surrounded by this monstrous horde in billowing darkness. It’s closing in from every side. If it envelops me, it’s unending despair. But I’m standing back to back with all the sources of light in my life and that light is shining out, trying to hold back the darkness. Therapy is one of those sources of light. So is my fam – who, like the Doctor, are all the beautiful people I’m bound to in and through love. The Doctor is a source of light, too. When all else fails to lift my spirits or inspire me or help me escape, I turn to Doctor Who. Looking onto the darkness encircling me is like looking into the Void…but I’m safe (if anxious) within our circle of light.
Acknowledging both – the horde within the billowing darkness as well as my circle of light – has been helpful. In fact, it’s been essential for me to stay standing. Shifting for a moment from the Thirteenth to the Eleventh Doctor, at the end of “Vincent and the Doctor,” the Doctor (Matt Smith) tells Amy (Karen Gillan), “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
This has become my new Gospel truth. This feels like it perfectly captures and honors how life feels now. There is A LOT of miserable with work. The good in my life can’t “fix” it nor do I think it’s helpful to “just get over it” or “look on the bright side.” I need to honor and recognize this suffering. To do anything else isn’t fair to those parts who carry that suffering nor is it true to myself. By the same token though, that misery and dread can’t rob my life of all its moments of beauty, joy, and light. And just like honoring all my suffering by recognizing it, I need to be mindful of that joy. Maybe, in being mindful of and honoring both, I can find a bit more peace than I’ve been touching lately.
Maybe then I can free myself from some of these nightmares, too.
The nightmares specifically, more than the overall discussion of the importance of mental health care and the need to be heard, were what drew me to watch “Can You Hear Me?” that night. Once the Doctor has pulled the fam back together, she, Tahira, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham arrive onboard a ship in the far future locked in geostationary orbit around two planets that should be colliding. The woman in Graham’s vision is trapped between those two planets.
Exploring the ship, Tahira finds Maryam (Sirine Saba), one of the women who worked with her in Aleppo, and then she sees the creatures from the hospital as well. Zellin (Ian Gelder) – the man in black who’s been stalking the fam – appears to ask, “Do you recognize them? The Chagaskas – your worst fears, my creativity.” He turned her fears into actual monsters. I appreciate the double layer to his question, too. Does she recognize the Chagaska from the hospital but also does she recognize her own fears before her?
Zellin doesn’t stop with Tahira. While the Doctor investigates the ship, he captures the rest of the fam. He traps them with everyone from the hospital in Aleppo as well as Tibo and feeds on their nightmares. Yaz sees a younger version of Sonya appear on that open road and tell her, “Do it right this time. I’m not callin’ anyone. No point. You’re weak. You run. Nobody’s comin’, Yaz. You’re alone in the dark.” Then she disappears as does Officer Patel parked further on up the road. Ryan sees a far older Tibo, sitting amid flames, chastising Ryan, “Where you been man? We waited for you. You said you’d be back.” When Ryan asks how long he’s been waiting Tibo says, “Our whole lives.” The Earth is burning and Ryan sees the Dregs coming at him through the flames. Graham’s nightmare is the return of his cancer. He sees Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), his wife who he met undergoing chemo and who died the night they met the Doctor. She’s alive but she doesn’t recognize him. Grace tells him “this time, it’s very aggressive” and he only has a couple of hours left. Then scornfully she asks, “Why didn’t you save me?”
They are haunted by their anxieties, their fears, their demons. Given the way Zellin holds them, unconscious and bound, while they dream we see they are literally imprisoned by their anxieties, fears, and demons.
My nightmares returned a few weeks before school began. It’s no secret where they came from. In each nightmare I’m being chased by something or something’s closing in on me. I desperately try to escape but I can’t. Whatever is pursuing me keeps getting closer and closer. Whenever it gets me or I realize there’s no escaping it, that’s when I wake up screaming. I often wake up, tangled in my sheets and screaming, several times through the night. These are the exact same nightmares I had all through the fall last year. Most often I’m being pursued by some creature which I may or may not see or some sort of free floating malevolent force or energy. Sometimes it’s more direct though. Once I woke from a nightmare where Nazi planes were strafing the street my parents live on as I tried desperately to hide behind the shrubs that used to frame Mom and Dad’s front door. I heard and could feel the pounding of the endless machine gun fire until they eventually hit me. As my body was riddled with bullets, I woke up screaming. These nightmares were constant those first few weeks but they’ve not left. Not entirely anyway. Just last weekend I woke screaming so many times through the night I lost count. It was my Night of a Thousand Nightmares.
We’ve talked of dreams – and we have of these nightmares specifically – in therapy before. Dreams are far too specific for there to be any set/definitive analysis. But, as our dreams are often our subconscious mind trying to sort things we’ve left unresolved from our day, Katherine always begins by asking me what I felt during the dream and then asking where I feel those feelings in my life now. I knew the situation at school was the root of these nightmares last fall and I know it’s their root now as well (lately, a few other roots have popped up, too, but that’s a story for another time). Recognizing the root is one thing. Figuring out how to reassure or resolve those feelings is something else.
This is exactly the sort of thing Zellin delights in. As he explains to the Doctor why he’s chosen the form he has, we learn:
Zellin – “I can shape [these atoms and molecules]. Regrow, mold my form, to provoke fear from humans as I extract nightmares from the scared and vulnerable. Now that is a good game.”
The Doctor – “Wait. Are you transmitting nightmares? Taking nightmares from humans and forcing them into the mind of a girl you’ve trapped between planets?”
Zellin – “I’ve seen many races, Doctor. And the humans are infinitely fascinating. Infinitely pathetic. But of course you know that. We share the same obsession.”
The Doctor – “We’re not the same.”
Zellin – “No. You are so much lesser. You know the best part of humanity? The thing that truly sets them apart? The cruelty of their own minds directed towards themselves. Doubt. Fear. The endless voices telling themselves they’re incapable and unworthy. Such an exquisite animal, built in pain. And the repositories of that pain, the nightmares.”
The cruelty of their own minds directed towards themselves. Doubt. Fear. The endless voices telling themselves they’re incapable and unworthy. Wow. That hit me before work became what it has been for these last two years. It hit me before I met my own unworthiness through therapy, too. Now it’s a line which hits as hard as it does and I understand why it resonates.
What Zellin explains to the Doctor that Rakaya (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the woman between those two planets, wasn’t placed there by him but the people trying to stop them she sees the fuller pictures. The nightmares aren’t torturing Rakaya, they’re feeding and entertaining her. The idea that Zellin and Rakaya are “old gods” who feed on fear is richly symbolic, too. We often make gods of our fears by giving them the power to shape our lives. We can live and die by our fear and anxiety. This is personified in Rakaya and Zellin.
They head to Earth to revel in the fears of the human race, leaving the Doctor and her fam aboard the ship. Once she frees them all from their nightmares, the Doctor has a revelation about the Chagaska. She tells Tahira, “I know why they didn’t attack you. Because they’re yours. Zellin, that man, created the Chagaska from your nightmares! They wouldn’t kill you. They couldn’t! Because you created them.”
This raises the powerful symbolism of having our fears embodied in an actual monster to a whole new level. One of the very first lessons Katherine taught me in managing my anxiety disorder was just this. When I’m in the midst of an anxiety attack or even a full blown panic attack, I’m to welcome and be in those feelings while reminding myself they can’t hurt me. I’m not going to die from feeling this. This truth will be what leads to the old gods’ defeat.
The Doctor uses the Chagaska’s call to summon Zellin and Rakaya to Aleppo in 1308. She boldly tells them, “You’re wrong about humans. They’re not pathetic. They’re magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilt. They face them down every day and they prevail. That’s not weakness. That’s strength. That’s what humanity is. Isn’t that right, Tahira?” Tahira confidently replies, “Yes, Doctor.” The Doctor says, “Why don’t you show them how strong you are?” With that invitation Tahira summons the beast, welcoming it as, “My Chagaska.” Astounded, Zellin asks, “How can you control it?” Yaz explains, “Literally conquered her fear.” Tahira then brings the Chagaska Zellin created to bear on the old gods. She conquered her fear. It cannot hurt her, as it’s hers. She can control it now and she uses the fear she mastered to trap the gods for all eternity.
I’ve cried every time I’ve watched this scene. That night, watching this weeks ago after that emotionally draining therapy session where I was in and with all my fears about teaching this year? I sobbed and sobbed. They were beautiful tears. I cried because I felt seen by this show. I cried because I felt hope. I cried because I thought of the fam I was blessed with in my struggles – just as the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, Ryan, and Tibo flanked Tahira as she brought the Chagaska to bear on Rakaya and Zellin. I cried because I thought maybe I can survive again.
If you’re curious, dear reader, I have thought often about quitting. I’ve a list of fantasy jobs I’d work if I wasn’t a teacher. I’ve dreamed of loading the shelves third shift at Wegman’s. I’ve dreamed of being a garbage collector. I’ve dreamed of working at Target. All are currently hiring in my area, all seem less emotionally devastating, and all pay better than what I make as a teacher at a Catholic school (even with my master’s degree and having taught for over ten years). So why do I stay in a job which takes so much more from me than it gives on any given day?
Simply put, it’s the people I share my day with. Even if I’ve felt unheard, unseen, and unappreciated by our administration for years (and some parents and students, too – though nowhere near all, thankfully, many are wonderful), I share my day with some of the most important people I’ve ever met in my life. Their love, joy, compassion, and support makes all the rest bearable. Jumping to a Tenth Doctor adventure, it’s as Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the Madame de Pompadour – or Reinette (Sophia Myles) – tells Rose (Billie Piper) in “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “One may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel.” And I am blessed with some pretty amazing angels around me :). That’s a beautiful frame through which I can see the importance of these friendships to me. I will willingly stay in hell with them as opposed to losing their daily presence in my life.
I’m blessed to have angels, those sources of light which help hold back the darkness of despair, in my life outside of work, too – from therapy to my other natural supports. I survive because of them. As the Doctor (David Tennant) tells Rose, “You need a lot of things to get across this universe. Warp Drive. Wormhole Refractor. You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold.” None of us can get along without natural supports, without hands to hold. But it’s not just those relationships, those angels in my life that make staying in my job possible. What makes it bearable is my choice. Last fall I realized I could leave. I could quit whenever I wanted. People do it all the time. I can work anywhere. But I chose to stay because having those relationships and their love, light, and support as a daily part of my life were worth it. If work ever becomes too much, well I can always choose to quit then. And I know those friends who became my family would remain with me no matter where I went.
The Doctor is right about us, about humans. We do live with our fears, doubts, and guilt. We face them down every day and we prevail. That isn’t weakness. That’s incredible, incredible strength. We are magnificent. Life isn’t easy. It’s ok to struggle and it’s ok to own our struggles. We needn’t think everything should be “fine” all the time nor that we need to “just get over” what’s bothering us. Our suffering deserves to be honored, to be recognized, and we honor ourselves in doing so as well. No matter what is in our hearts and in our minds, we all deserve to be heard.
I don’t know how this story will end. I don’t know if I’ll teach forever or if I’ll have to leave someday for my own health and wellbeing. But that’s ok. It’s ok not to know. I’ve given myself permission just to be, to take it one day at a time. If that philosophy has helped millions of people manage their addictions, it can help me survive my trials, too. In all the good things, in all the bad things, I know I’m not alone. I have a brilliant therapist who hears me. I am surrounded by a loving fam who hear me. And I am mindfully practicing hearing my parts, hearing myself with more clarity each and every day, too.
To everyone who reads this – today, on World Mental Health Day, and every day after – please know, even if we’ve never talked and even if we never will talk, my heart goes out to you in all your struggles. I hope you find the light when you need it. And when it’s hard, think about your pile of good things. Think about your angles. Think about the hands you hold. Take time to celebrate yourself in all this, too. Even when it seems like the light will never be able to pierce the encroaching darkness, remember you will prevail because you are magnificent.
I was able to survive the last year, in large part, because Katherine helped teach me how. She was my guide on the path to finding strength I didn’t know I had. She helped save me when I desperately needed it and I’ve only grown stronger, healthier, and happier since our work together began. I’ve learned, therapy is not just for “triage” and some of the most amazing growth comes when you’re “feeling alright.” If you’ve ever considered therapy – if therapy feels like something you need or something you’d just like to try – I offer this link to Psychology Today so you can browse detailed listings of mental health professionals in the U.S. and all over the world :).
 Emma Sullivan, dir. “Can You Hear Me?.” Doctor Who, season twelve, episode seven, BBC, 2020.
I’m going to cite this episode a lot as the whole piece is about it so, to save from needlessly cluttering the footnotes, all “Can You Hear Me?” quotes and bits obviously come from this episode. Coolio? Thanks ;).
 Johnny Campbell, dir. “Vincent and the Doctor.” Doctor Who, season five, episode ten, BBC, 2010.
 Euros Lyn, dir. “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Doctor Who, season 2, episode 4, BBC, 2006.
 Euros Lyn, dir. “Fear Her.” Doctor Who, season 2, episode 11, BBC, 2006.