Using Steven Universe to Explain Anxiety to My Children
*****Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional or expert.*****
I was an adult when I received formal diagnoses, but the truth was I had suffered from anxiety all my life and depression and PTSD since I was 8 years old. After a particularly rough pregnancy with my third son and an accident that almost killed my mom, I noticed changes in my older two sons that I recognized from my own childhood that led me to seek professional help for them.
I realized, that for me, therapy had always been the raft that I sent for when I was drowning in the ocean. For my boys I wanted it to be the swimming lessons that would help them fight the current.
In therapy, treatment plans were drawn up and they began to learn healthy coping mechanisms and various ways to navigate their lives with their given diagnoses. With all of this help, it had never occurred to me to explain to my children what was going on, more than to say that they were going to “the talking doctor” to learn how to express their feelings. I hadn’t even thought to share their diagnoses or explain it until one day my oldest asked me what anxiety was.
As a grad student in a social work program and someone who has been vocal about mental illness for more than a decade, my instincts were to go into the science behind it. Anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness or mental injury knows that there is always the need to legitimize it. We live in a society and culture that consistently denies the existence of mental illnesses. Even the language of our culture reflects the way in which mental illness is still overlooked as being serious. People casually say they are depressed or accuse others of being a “psycho” or “bipolar”. There is a lot of misinformation and an even greater deal of willful ignorance. I wanted my children to be informed but I also didn’t think the science was going to land with my elementary school-aged boys. So fast on my feet, I told my boys that “Your amygdala is your Ruby and you are a Sapphire.”
So, you need some background. A few years ago after I had my third son and I was doing late-night feedings, my husband and sons were diving into a new cartoon show without me. No one knows how it happened, but the three of them started watching Steven Universe a cartoon written by Rebecca Sugar about a young boy being raised by three otherworldly beings called the Crystal Gems and his father, Greg. The show deals with queerness, the impact of parental decisions on children, the effects of trauma on the psyche, and emotional intelligence in organic ways without feeling preachy or too educational. From our family’s first rendevous with the show, one character other than Steven really stood out. Garnet, one of the gems who raised him, was just this all-around phenom. She could see all possible futures, she was philosophical, had three eyes, an afro, and a smooth voice (voiced by the Singer Estelle). She was dope! The boys and I would argue about who would play Garnet when we acted out Steven Universe. Our minds were blown when during an episode, it’s revealed that Garnet is not a regular gem. She is the fusion between a Ruby and a Sapphire. Rubies are charged with guarding Sapphires on Homeworld (the planet/realm they are originally from). Ruby and Sapphire broke the rules, fell in love, and fused, creating Garnet. Garnet is probably one of our favorite characters but who she is when she isn’t fused is where my mind went when my boys asked me about anxiety.
Rubies are very protective, sometimes to the point of overkill. Rubies view everything as a threat. Sapphires see the different probable futures and though they warn Rubies, Rubies often don’t listen and continue to be hypervigilant. When I thought of explaining anxiety, it seemed like a no-brainer to tell my kids that their amygdalas are like Rubies and they are the Sapphires.
On my knees so as to be on their eye level, I explain to both my sons that their amygdala (Ruby) is usually quiet and stoic but that it has been trained to be a guard and watch over the body. Sometimes, it can be calm and rational but for some reason, there are some days when even the slightest thing can make it feel like there is a threat against the body (Sapphire). I explained to my boys that as the Sapphire, they can see that the threat is not in fact that dangerous and only they have the power to make Ruby calm down. I told them they can do that by calmly speaking to their Ruby and taking deep breaths. The sooner they do it the better because if a Ruby gets too worked up, they are going to likely go to cause a fight or force the Sapphire to leave.
From that day forward, my boys took the breathing exercises in therapy seriously. They understood that, as Sapphires, they must be properly equipped to handle their excitable Ruby. They also know that there may be days when the Ruby will win out over their Sapphire’s instincts and that’s okay because those are the days when they can pay attention to what made their Ruby so worked up. Most importantly, my guys now have a language (rooted in science) to explain why they feel the way they do and that they have power over it if they stay calm and remind their Ruby that sometimes what feels dangerous is just uncomfortable but discomfort won’t kill a Sapphire.
One day, my son asked me was it possible for his Ruby and Sapphire to fuse. It was a question asked in jest but it really got me thinking. Maybe that is why Garnet is so badass. Garnet represents the perfect blend of emotions(Ruby) and forethought (Sapphire). Maybe we all sense the wholeness and we all wish to be it and/or attain it. Just maybe, with a few more deep breaths and quiet conversations with self, we will.