This essay contains reference to suicide and self-harm.
The starship Discovery, chief venue of the CBS All-Access television program Star Trek: Discovery, is Not Like Other Starships. Most starships are powered by dilithium crystals, a kind of combustion-based space fuel. Raw crystals are crushed and placed in the dilithium intermix chamber, where they are chemically reduced to a smoke that feeds a rich, thrumming warp core. This violent burning of dilithium creates a serene bubble called a warp field around a starship, which lets it hurl itself faster than light without relativistic effects. When a starship goes to warp, it stretches like a rubber band, then hurls forward, its saucer like a stone that skips across raw space-time.
Discovery hits different. It is powered by an experimental drive system known as the spore drive, which connects Discovery to the mycelial network, a space fungus that stretches throughout the galaxy in an adjacent dimension known as mycelial space. By using the spore drive, the ship can cross into mycelial space for a millisecond, where, by careful routing, it glitches to far distant locations. Discovery moves like a video game speedrunner, uncannily exploiting the game’s underlying random number generator to produce impossible results.
Lieutenant Paul Stamets, named for the famous amateur mycologist, is Discovery’s pilot through the mycelial network. To pilot the ship, he must install horrifying ports in his wrists and lie back on a table in a radiation chamber while awful needles are injected into his body. He is basically crucified by the ship. This act of martyrdom, which he is proud alone to assume, allows Discovery to connect.
Since November 2019 I’ve done a form of therapy called IFS, internal family systems. It’s a methodology for addressing complex PTSD. C-PTSD is trauma that doesn’t stop, and therefore doesn’t allow your nervous system to ever fully reset to a resting state. Imagine a tiger is sitting in the room with you, ready to kill you at any moment. She sits there for days, weeks. Maybe she only rarely reminds you of her tigerishness: sometimes she growls, let’s say; sometimes you hear her claws catching on hooks of fabric. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to shouting voices and lie awake waiting for violence. But for long periods of time, she does nothing but sleep, bathe, sometimes lazily watch you, her head turned upside down resting on her paws, like a safe cat. But she is not safe, and sometimes you remember that, and your system floods with fear.
At some point, if the intolerable tiger endures long enough, something shifts: the fear sloshes over the boundary line between normal and tiger. Fear becomes everywhere. It is in you, and from you it sloshes into everyone connected to you, even years after the tiger is gone. Think of a 1990s computer monitor without a screen saver: the tiger burned so brightly it burned in, a soot-shadow of atomic tiger fear.
Hypothesis: everyone in the world has at least some degree of C-PTSD after 2020: a disease ring of bark worn into everyone’s trunk.
I started IFS after I had hurt a friend I care about. I didn’t know why I had done this. But I knew something was very wrong with the intensity of how I was sitting with the guilt and shame I felt. I tried to describe this to my therapist once: it felt like a thin layer of soil and clay had been scraped away, leaving a shallow hole that normally it’d be easy—if slow, if painful—to step out of. But the ground beneath had been undermined, eaten away for years like the Swiss cheese holes made by the breath of all the bacteria you can’t see. And so, collapsing, I reacted in extreme ways that had nothing to do with the situation at hand. I didn’t understand that I was doing this and so didn’t know how to stop.
I decided I should go to therapy. If I did, maybe I could find out how not to hurt my friend again, or anyone else in the same way. It felt urgent to do that, a matter of community safety. Therapy would be a transformative punishment, a debt. (Any punishment is transactional, a purchase: time is the currency we exchange for crime.) This seemed like a correct way to think.
Crucifixion is a punishment: the mystic, in identifying with Christ, lets the old self die so that a new self can be born. It is the random number generator hack in the magical tradition of Christianity: it is that system’s promise. You can die to the world, die to the violent ways you once used to survive. Through violence to yourself, you can make yourself worthy of love.
When the pandemic came I felt relief. Not at first: at first I felt blind terror in supermarkets, a sense of suddenly diminishing options. My husband’s coworker got it, does that mean he’s going to get it, and then I’m going to get it? There was an intense unreality: buying bags of lentils and beans, worrying about whether I should even be at this supermarket with empty shelves. Am I killing someone by breathing? Am I stealing food from someone who needs it more than me?
But once the initial shock had passed, I felt a quiet, guilty relief, a sudden sense of space. I don’t know how to explain this. At one point a friend posed a thought experiment on Facebook. You’re in a place of absolute safety. Are there other people there? My immediate answer was no. I posed the question to an ex: his answer was yes. He was shocked that anyone’s would be no. But if you’re afraid of yourself, a space without other people is the safest place to be.
Lt. Paul Stamets’s martyrdom to FTL travel begins to have a terrible impact on his relationship with his husband, Dr. Hugh Culber. Culber is upset at the terrible strain the stigmata-port connection to the mycelial network is beginning to have on Stamets’s body. But Stamets insists that he needs to remain connected to the network. If he doesn’t, he reasons, the ship will have no chance to help the Federation turn the tide of a terrible Klingon war. Culber says he doesn’t care about the war: he cares about Stamets. Stamets is angry at Culber for making this difficult for him. He is crucifying himself for the sake of the ship. Does Culber not understand how much Stamets is doing for him right now, even?
Perhaps because it’s no fun having the ship’s human propulsion be tempted toward self-compassion, the show’s bad S1 writers arrange to have Dr. Culber senselessly murdered. I was furious, seeing this, as were lots of other people. Stamets and Culber are the first characters in an open gay relationship on a franchise that infamously banned all explicit LGBT representation during its Rick Berman-produced 1990s heyday. As a result of the fury, the show’s writers quickly backpedaled. Thus we learn early in Discovery’s season 2 that somehow, through TV retcon magic, the mycelial network has resurrected Culber. Everything is saved!
Except Stamets can’t accept that Culber is really alive. He rejects Culber’s presence as illusion; he still conceives of himself as martyr and of his true relationship as dead. Culber nearly leaves to join the crew of the Enterprise. But he does not.
IFS holds that you can map your trauma reactions through a language of “parts,” as you’d read the chaos of random satellite data by naming rivers, mountains, landmarks. We summon parts by asking them questions: you’re feeling anger, you’re feeling hopeless, you’re feeling guilt for causing your friend pain, you’re feeling shame for being the kind of person who doesn’t know she’s causing her friend pain. Ask these feelings what they want to say. Something about that act of characterization starts to bring transformation: reactions start to become something other than themselves, personifications that you can relate to without judgment. Therapy thus becomes a meta-therapy; sessions become like tabletop roleplaying games. Maybe one part needs you to describe her teenage bedroom. Maybe another is entombed underground, trapped by a sorceress’s spell, and needs to be brought to the light. Maybe a third is exiled from the house, walking down an endless beach in the fog. Writing about these parts helped get me through the pandemic.
Most of the work happens outside of actual therapy in a document I call “YA novel” that I started in March when I couldn’t sleep. By January 2021 it had grown impossibly long, almost 60,000 words of me talking to myself; I did little else that year. One of the parts I’ve been writing about is named Candy Crickets. Candy is a terrifying part, a tiny child, totally preverbal. She’s wearing layers and layers of white coats that smell terrible, like a rotting burst sewer pipe. From beneath her coats, she says abusive things to me. Stupid bitch. Stupid disgusting faggot. You think you deserve therapy? You deserve to fucking gut yourself. As the year grew colder, this got worse, and for a while I stopped posting anything online: I didn’t want Candy’s energy to be in places where it could be seen. So instead I summoned her onto the page, sat with her on opposite sides of a door. She screamed, trapped under her coats, and I tried to imagine myself as a tree, tried to imagine I was sending love to her through the roots. Pulses of love, like submarine soundings, whatever we are capable of. Very occasionally, she started to send a pulse back. So I talked with trauma-spawned facets of my mind while everyone outside dealt with new traumas that I felt I had no power to be present to witness.
A friend is having a hard time in the pandemic, and I sit with her on a Zoom call while she processes intense rage at something that’s happening to her. I start to fixate on the idea that her rage is going to spill over into violence: that I’m going to see her hurt herself, that she’s brought me onto this call so that she can have a witness to her hurting herself, or maybe so that I can be in the role of stopping her from hurting herself. I want to run away. But I also feel responsible because I’m the other person in the video chat, the person she asked in this moment to help her. If someone asks you to help them, is it okay to leave? I’m scared at any moment that I’m going to fail at this responsibility: that I will hurt her, or that because I’m scared I won’t do enough to help her; somehow I need to be both more present and more absent, both.
The role of therapy is to help build capacity to stay, the capacity adults have to sit up nights through infant screams and vomit, the capacity to care. I want to have more capacity to care. But I also want to be off this Zoom call very badly. More is being taken from me, here, than I have. Tomorrow and the day after I’ll process this call with friends, exhausted. Yet I will myself to stay, feeling the needles in my wrists.
My therapist talks about how Candy wants to be a tree. Trees can’t speak to trees in words, but trees do speak. They connect through their own mycelial—or rather, mycorrhizal—network, a partnership with fungus. The fungus will seek nutrients for the trees; the trees will exchange sugar to the fungus through their roots. The trees have sugar because their leaves are connected to the sun, and the sun is connected to every other star its light touches, and to the sources of hidden energy behind visible light, the doorway through which quantum latticeworks somehow pass. Everything is a transformation of sunlight, even deep underground where there is no light, in the rich root spaces where the trees are together without speaking.
When trees are not present—when trees hide, wall themselves off, convinced that they are bad and that the network is better off without them—the network becomes weaker. No tree is invisible to any other tree.
I can hear the judgment creep in. I want to stave it off by redirecting it, by writing new rules and distinctions: hiding and stepping away from mycorrhizal exchange are different, disconnection is just growth in another direction. This is because I’m afraid of what I think is the truth: that there aren’t “true rules” for navigating life, just feelings, pressures, instincts that we crudely calcify into principles (or that we just enjoy because they are life and we believe life is here to be enjoyed.) In this view, there is no moral imperative toward connection: connection and disconnection just happen, free and blameless functions of NPK numbers, of individual needs. This view seems both obvious and desirable when I think about it in relation to other people, who I think are basically good. But when I think about it in relation to myself, I’m afraid; I want to call this view of things destructive and careless. That’s because the part of me that wants to construct codes of law to live by is the part that doesn’t think life is inherently worth anything without laws—that the life of those outside the law isn’t inherently worth anything. And when you don’t think your life is worth anything, it will feel safe to hurt yourself—or the people who are close enough to you to feel like self, too.
And the degree to which you do or don't conform to the laws of being a good person doesn't actually help the person you hurt. In fact, you can punish yourself without thinking of what they want at all.
Once in the first couple of months of therapy, I could still go to my therapist’s office near Borough Hall. (I would get there early and burn a candle while meditating on the steps, winter seagulls flying.) We were talking about anger and conflict, and I asked her if the next step I needed to take was trying to put myself more directly in situations of conflict as a kind of exposure therapy, desensitization.
There is no next step, she said. There’s no goal. All we’re here to do is talk about what you’re feeling, and notice it, and be able to sit with it in calmness. All we’re doing is building capacity. That’s all we have to do.
Her saying this shifted something in me. When your body breaks and can longer work as it did before, you go to physical therapy. You build capacity every day, moving your body in the way it once could until somehow, just a little bit, it can again. Same with mental therapy. You sit in the present with the feelings the tiger brought up in the past. And slowly, you start to realize that the tiger is gone.
Now, in the newest season of Discovery, our heroes are flung via a convoluted set of circumstances into the distant future of the 3100s. In this time, most dilithium crystals in the universe have for some reason exploded, making ordinary warp travel between planets impossible. Fuel supplies are tightly rationed and often the province of bandits. Because of this disaster, called “the Burn,” the Federation, whose complex political alliances were held together by faster-than-light travel, barely exists: imagine trying to run the United Nations without access to air travel. Vast tritanium-hulled starships are reduced to hauling wagonloads of food and supplies for month-long convoys to beleaguered planets; key worlds like Vulcan and Earth have withdrawn into paranoid isolation.
The starship Discovery, although basically a Viking longboat by the standards of the 3100s, has an incredible advantage because it isn’t tied to the now-exhausted fossil fuel supplies that previously let the Federation function. Discovery is connected to the mushroom. Through its connection, other connections become possible.
The week of the winter solstice, nine months into the pandemic and thirteen into therapy, I went to a backyard gathering; I invited two friends over, at separate times, to my kitchen. No one else has visited in a year. The pandemic is a frozen ocean, violent, deadly, yet serene. It feels like falling asleep in warm snow. But when I was physically present with these people, I could feel the tingle and shock, the pins and needles of co-regulation coming back like budding leaves. I felt the lack of absolute safety, the fear that I was starting to feel the capacity to face. The possibility—which I was often not capable of feeling in 2020—not of damage but of exchange.
Since finishing the first draft of this essay, I finished the “YA novel” project, and I ordered a copy printed for myself, a memorial of this year. It sits on my desk while I’m finishing edits on this piece. Sometimes I look at it; most days, the book is closed.
Stamets and Culber end up becoming the gay fathers of newly arrived cast member Adira, a nonbinary human joined with a Trill symbiont: think Wesley Crusher, but transsexual and hung up on their ghost boyfriend, but this is another essay. Adira is tasked with decoding a mysterious message that hides the cause of the Burn (which, in the season finale, is revealed to be a deeply traumatized child, whose anger destroyed all the dilithium.) Adira is furious that they aren’t good enough at decoding the message, and they want to punish themself. But Stamets tells them to stop. They are doing enough. They don’t have to do more. They fall asleep one night, working, and Stamets places his coat around their shoulders, and he and Culber watch them sleep, both very proud of their child. Every trans person I have spoken to personally about these scenes has talked about how they watched them and cried.
In the process of decoding the message, Adira also invents a new technology for the ship. It’s a pair of strange spheres covered in teal mint nanogel. Stamets places his hands in the nanogel pools, like fingers in a baptismal font, and suddenly he is connected. Anyone can connect to the ship, in fact! Stamets’s stigmata are no longer necessary: the violence of martyrdom now purchases nothing; it never did. The first time he touches the gel, little ripples flow through his fingerprints, and he smiles: it’s a gift, an act of love.
Jeanne Thornton is the author of The Black Emerald and The Dream of Doctor Bantam, as well as the forthcoming Summer Fun. She is the editor, with Tara Madison Avery, of We're Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology, and the copublisher of Instar Books. Her fiction has appeared in n+1, WIRED, the Evergreen Review, and other places.
She lives in Brooklyn.