When I was growing up, Sunday afternoons were reserved for hours-long visits to the swimming pool located on the outskirts of my town in Bauchi, Nigeria.
From my earliest memories, I was a little girl who had anxious thoughts worrying about everything, from whether my heart would stop beating at any moment to if I’d unknowingly sold my soul to the devil which would condemn me to an eternity in flames. Yet, after attending Catholic Mass on Sunday mornings, I wouldn’t be able to sit still in the back of the car knowing that, once we were home, we’d move onto the next phase of the day — packing picnic baskets and towels for the swimming pool. Under the watchful eyes of our mothers, my sisters, friends, and I would play for hours on end in the pool, until our fingers looked like baby prunes, and we’d had our fill of mistakenly gulping down chlorinated water. Nothing could distract from our fun.
Nothing that is, till the advent of cable TV.
One Sunday, during the summer of 1997, my dad unexpectedly showed up poolside to surprise my mom, sisters and I — he had just had cable TV installed at our house. That was the only time our visit to the pool was cut short as we raced back home to premiere our new home entertainment. The evening was spent glued in front of the TV watching the British network, Sky One.
Eventually, my sisters and I made a deal with our dad; on weekdays, we’d only watch one hour of TV after school. Our lies concealed as our parents worked till seven in the evening. Any cold item from the freezer carefully wrapped in tea towels and placed strategically on top of an old hearty television set will erase any evidence of its use. This way, my sisters and I indulged in different shows across different genres, from trash TV to sci-fi.
Over the months, we each developed a favorite show. Mine was the 5 pm reruns of Star Trek: Voyager. I’d known about the franchise and had watched a couple of classic episodes from The Original Series and Animated Series, but Voyager went beyond entertainment for me. It filled me with joy and, though I didn’t recognize it the time, made me contemplate a future for humanity where equality and integrity were prioritized. It also filled me with pride that Voyager was led by a woman! An intelligent, assertive, full-timbre voiced, calculating, and compassionate woman named Captain Kathryn Janeway.
My connection to the captain was influenced by the recognition that I too wanted to grow up to be a woman of substance; but, it also went beyond that. I encountered Janeway in a time when my 11-year old mind was still trying to make sense of the fears and phobias I never openly spoke about; when I was trying to anchor myself in the ‘normalcy’ I perceived in other children, including my own sisters. In Janeway, my child’s mind saw a woman intentionally doing her best to lead, live, respect, and be respected even as she dealt with the burdens of leadership. Her imperfections, which she never tried to hide, were comforting.
Of all the episodes of Voyager I watched in those evenings after school, one stayed in my mind, and remains the most poignant for me even 22 years later. In Season 2’s ”The Thaw,” Janeway and her crew responded to a distress call from a planet they were flying past, only to discover a group of people in stasis whose minds were connectedly trapped in a virtual world. The crew managed to infiltrate this virtual world and find the captive minds stuck in a tormenting and never-ending circus run by a character called 'The Clown.'
Anyone who has ever had mental health difficulties may be able to identify with this scenario. My generalized anxiety disorder and OCD meant that, from a very young age, I’ve struggled with intrusive thoughts that have often left me feeling debilitated and terrified. The unrelenting nature of mental illness makes it often feel like a never-ending circus.
With their usual teamwork, the crew managed to save most of the captives through a deal where Janeway traded herself for the captives. In the final act of the episode, Janeway revealed to The Clown that she is, in fact, only a holographic projection; the real Janeway is safe in the real world with the captives and her crew. The entire virtual world darkened as The Clown realized he could not exist without any real victims to torment. He asked Janeway what will become of him, and with a smirk, she stated, “Like all fear, you eventually...vanish.”
When The Clown told her that he was afraid of disappearing, she simply responded, “I know,” as the screen faded to black.
This entire scene plays out like a best-case scenario in Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERPT), which is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in which someone with OCD faces their fear squarely, then intentionally refrains from performing compulsive rituals afterwards. These rituals ordinarily would provide some level of comfort from the disturbing thoughts. My 11-year old mind would forever hold onto that closing scene, even though at the time, I didn't understand the significance of looking at my fears squarely in the face.
Janeway faced fear, but only after she’d established a strategy. She assessed the situation, and with the help, advice, and expertise of her crew members, evaluated her best options for success. It is notable that Janeway herself was never in danger as she was not in the circus. However, she took control of the situation and enacted her duty of care to her crew and The Clown’s captives.
I am now a 33-year old academic, teacher, writer, and mental health advocate who is unapologetic about Janeway being my favorite Star Trek captain, as well as one of my top five inspirational women. Fear has played a major role in my life, having influenced — both for the positive and negative — decisions from my career trajectory to my dating choices and other in-betweens. It was only in my late 20s that I applied my own strategies, albeit clumsily, to start naming my different fears and facing them. Sometimes I defeated them; others still remain in the back of my mind dancing around like greyed-out clowns and minions waiting for the right moment to resurge.
At the age of 11, Captain Janeway taught me a very important lesson, one that I will use for the rest of my life — when those fears make their presence known and felt again, I trust that I have everything I need to look them squarely in the face.
This article was originally published on October 10, 2019.
Furaha Asani (she/her) is an academic, mental health advocate, and freelance writer who loves Voyager, red lipstick, and social justice.