The Incredible Hulk: what my favorite superhero taught me about myself (& other lessons)

In my high school, once you got to eleventh or twelfth grade, certain students were eligible to take part in something called Project Adventure instead of going through with the regular phys ed curriculum.  Mr. Dooley was the teacher and he was cool. He tried his hardest to empower each of the few students who got to be a part of the program. Project Adventure focused on team-building and leadership skills, and at the end of the year, everyone would get the chance to go on the high ropes course in the fields between the track and the library.  It included aerial obstacles and a zip line, and it basically just looked really fuckin’ fun (despite my fear of heights).

I was lucky enough to be picked for the class, and I was pretty happy about it because Gym had never been a strength of mine and because instead of boring sports and cruel classmates, I was looking at a year of learning how to harness my strengths and be a better leader.

One of the first things we did in the class was pick nicknames.  There was a reason why we did that, and I’m sure Mr. Dooley explained it beautifully.  I assume the nicknames were supposed to make us all closer to one another since we learned a great deal about trust.  But this was, oh dear God, over ten years ago now, so I can’t fully recall it.

What I do remember, quite vividly, is the nickname we decided upon for me: Hulk.  It was definitely ironic. Or at least it seemed ironic at the time. The Hulk was big and muscular and strong and, well, a superhero.  Plus, he was angry. And in eleventh grade, I was wasting away into my eating disorder and the only thing super about me was my level of anxiety.  I was a little angry, perhaps, but more than that I was outrageously sad.

Due to the aforementioned eating disorder, anxiety, and sadness, I was admitted to a hospital in April of that year.  They didn’t let me out until the school year was nearly over in June, until it appeared as though I’d gained some sort of control over the issues that had previously taken over me.  I could write novels about that experience (and in fact, stay tuned for those novels because I’ll publish them one day soon) but the point of this particular story is that I arrived back at school just in time for zip line day.

I walked out to the high ropes course with the rest of my class.  The almost-summer sun was shining and I was wearing my newly rediscovered smile and life was good.  Mr. Dooley pulled me into a hug when he saw me. He welcomed me back to our crew and everyone said how they missed me.  Then, before we got to the climbing and zip lining, Mr. Dooley handed me a worksheet that we’d all had to complete earlier in the year about our short-term and long-term goals.  I’d nearly forgotten that my goal was to “get healthy, mentally and physically,” but when I read that it was, I looked up at the teacher and proudly announced that I’d done it. I still have that paper in a folder in my desk, and I love that instead of my name written across the top, it simply says “The Hulk.”

Right, so even before I was big into superheroes, the Hulk meant something special to me.  His name continued to remind me of my internal ability to conquer long after high school was over.  In college, or maybe sometime after, my friends and I ran an obstacle course race and we decided that we’d dress like the Avengers for it.  I was obviously sporting purple shorts and a green sports bra during the grueling thirteen-mile adventure, and when I felt myself getting tired, I invoked the Hulk’s powers to keep me going.  When I met the guy I eventually started dating, the guy who happens to be my future husband, he showed me how cool comic books are. During one trip to the comic book store, Andrew bought a thick hardcover called Planet Hulk.  And even though at the time the only thing I purchased was Scooby Apocalypse (yes that’s exactly as amazing as it sounds), my affinity for the Incredible Hulk was growing.

It was recently that I realized another reason why I love him so much.  It’s a very obvious connection, but it hadn’t occurred to me. There are two sides to the entity that is this superhero: there’s the mild and timid physicist Bruce Banner and there’s the supposed “monster” he turns into when he’s angry.  I’m bipolar, and can I just say that I can really relate to that. That whole “shy, insecure person turning into a hulking monster when provoked” thing. Yeah, I fucking get that. When I’m in a mood, I’m agitated and itchy with frustration, and I lash out in anger far more often than I’d like to admit.  And whether it’s set off by a person being shitty or my brain chemicals being shitty, the fact that I become something I’m not (or at least something I’m not always) is terrifying. Because who am I? Which one am I? And how can I understand my experience with both if I don’t really know how to control either?

Bruce Banner definitely struggles with such things in the first movie, but by the first Avengers movie, he’s a superhero.  He can manage the Hulk that’s within him even though he’d previously been living in fear that that part of him would escape and cause irreparable damage (both physical and emotional).  He manages his anger. No, he uses his anger to his advantage without denying its existence.  And he basically kicks bad-guy ass in the best way possible.

Talk about a role model, am I right?!  Especially for people with bipolar, if they make the connection I recently made.  Look, we have to live with this mood shit. Yeah, there are meds and coping skills and cognitive tools or whatever.  Yeah, we can lessen the symptoms. But I don’t think we can ever be completely cured. As Hulk says to Captain America, his secret is that he’s “always angry.”  Just like I am always a little more…intense. Bruce learns how to work with the Hulk, instead of suppressing him and being scared of him. He learns how to be a superhero.  I am learning how to work within the limits of my bipolar stuff, how to not be afraid of the inevitability of an episode, in order to harness my own superpowers.

I reaaaally enjoy the metaphor there.  It’s a much better way to look at my mental illness.  But wait, there’s more! I was thinking about power and what enables someone to be powerful.  I was thinking about this in a place where I feel virtually powerless: work. It’s a sucky feeling.  I work a pointless retail job where I have to be nice to the worst people on the planet, the absolute scum-of-the-earth type people.  It enrages me.  To stand there and take the abuse because I have no choice, the fact that those smug, self-entitled motherfuckers KNOW that I have to stand there and take the abuse because I have no choice…don’t get me started.  I’m supposed to be writing but now I’m visibly fuming. My point, however, is that if I think about things the way Bruce Banner would have to think about them, things look a whole lot better.

Anger is what fuels the Hulk.  He’s basically the strongest superhero of the bunch because his powers, directly correlated to how mad he is, are potentially limitless.  And if you think about it, the longer a villain fight goes on, the more fuckin’ pissed off he’s gonna be. So eventually, he’s gonna win.

Now, I can’t actually turn green and muscular and beat the shit out of a customer (although I’ve daydreamed about it many manyyyy times).  And I know anger isn’t always the healthiest motivator. But I can still allow the anger I feel to give me power. I can use it to motivate me to leave work and apply to a job where I DO feel like I have power, but there are lots of issues surrounding the job thing that I’m not talking about right now.

Anger already kind of does make me powerful.  When I’m mad about something and really just stewing in it, I talk differently.  I speak clearly and articulate my point more accurately and enunciate my words without difficulty.  Whereas when I’m all happy-go-lucky Laura, I rush through what I have to say before I can get the thoughts from my head to my mouth and stumble over my words.  I even move differently when I’m pissed. I feel myself doing it. I stand up taller when I’m angry, I’m sure in my motions and gestures. I don’t shrink into myself.  Of course, it can get a bit out of hand at times. Speaking more articulately only goes so far when half the words I’m spewing are profane. It’s just that once you get me going, I can’t stop.

It’s pretty clear, in my opinion.  There are two extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum and I struggle to get a grip on either.  I can’t make myself speak clearly when I’m not mad, I can’t move more assuredly unless I’m livid.  And I can’t help but unleash my anger about every tiny thing in my life once the anger-key has turned in the Laura-lock.

I’ve gotta get me some balance.  Gotta manage the anger, harness it so it’s within my limits.  And I’ve gotta let the power is that the product of that motivate me.

It turns out my old high school nickname was aptly picked.  Even back then, when I assumed it was irony that made my classmates go with the name, it had been accurate.  I’d returned to school on one of the very last days and I zip lined when I never thought I’d be able to conquer my fear of heights.  This was after having conquered my eating disorder. I learned that I have control over my fears. I control my emotions and how I handle them.  I control my situation and how I respond to it. I control my moods and how I think of them.

I was the Hulk before I realized why, but now that I do, I’m gonna SMASH my doubts and focus only on my superpower.

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