My Brother The Trekkie

This is the story of how my brother taught me to be true to myself. Thank you to The Story Collider for giving me the chance to tell it. Video above, audio below.

Our Geeky New York City Bookstore Wedding

On September 27th 2014, Nhu-An and I got married. We've been together for a long time, ever since we were seniors in high school. Despite a lot of obstacles like living on opposite sides of the country for much of our relationship and the glacial pace at which I completed grad school, we've stayed together and continue to be in love.

How did our relationship last so long? We realized that we're both really big geeks, just with totally different interests. Loving something passionately and wanting to share it became the glue that kept us together year after year.

After we got engaged, we wanted to create a wedding that celebrated how important geeking out has been in our relationship. That’s why we got married in a New York City bookstore. This is how we made it so.

The Blanket Fort

For our engagement photo, we wanted to recreate a scene from one of our favorite childhood stories. But we couldn’t agree on a book. I wanted Where the Wild Things Are and Nhu-An wanted The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We got lost talking about how much fun it would have been to hang out as kids and share our favorite books and toys with each other. That’s how the idea for our epic blanket fort was born.

The blanket fort became the theme of our wedding. We created library book card save the dates because that’s where we spent most of our time as kids (Nhu-An read The Baby-Sitters Club while I read Electronic Gaming Monthly). Our RSVPs asked guests what they would put in their blanket forts so we could weave in their geeky interests into our wedding (more on that later).

NYC’s High Line

Our wedding day started at The High Line. It’s our favorite place in the city and is where we got engaged. The High Line represents everything we love about New York — it’s a place where people of all backgrounds come together and celebrate the wonderful mishmash of old and new ideas that make up this city.

Nhu-An had a custom bouquet made out of vintage brooches. Each one was hand-selected and represented the geeky things we love about each other.

My cufflinks were a nod to my love of science fiction (I was going for an Isaac Asimov vibe).

I also asked my groomsmen to sneak in some superhero socks.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

We were drawn to Housing Works because they’re a cool non-profit that helps old books find new homes (a pretty nerdy endeavor). When we learned that proceeds from a wedding at their flagship bookstore would go toward fighting homelessness and AIDS, we knew this was the right venue for us.

Escort cards were in a library card catalog and featured our guests’ geeky interests. Yes, that’s a heroes and villains themed gift box.

Ceremony

Our ceremony was officiated by Ayesha Mattu. If her last name is familiar, that’s because she’s my cousin. But that’s not why we asked her to officiate — Ayesha is an eloquent speaker, a compelling writer, and the co-editor of two books about love. She’s always been a big supporter of our relationship and helped us get to this point. She was the only person we wanted beside us during our ceremony.

Our ring-bearer was my nephew (and Ayesha’s son). Yup, he’s wearing Max’s crown from Where the Wild Things Are, one of his favorite books.

Nhu-An’s bridesmaids and my groomsmen were wrapped around on the stairs that lead up to the mezzanine level of the bookstore. Guests had the option of sitting in front of the ceremony or viewing from above.

A Blanket Fort Reception

We wanted the wedding to be a blanket fort for our guests. That’s why everyone had an individualized place card with a page from their favorite book and little notes and messages scribbled in the margins from Nhu-An and me. We also seated guests based on their interests and left conversation starters for each person. We heard afterwards that some guests exchanged contact info so they could stay in touch, which was extra heart-warming.

A photo booth was set up where guests could create their own blanket fort photo. Nhu-An and I selected each and every prop based on our guests’ RSVPs so that everyone had at least one item to play with.

My nephew spent the entire evening at the photo booth, rummaging through props and mashing up characters and genres for the camera.

All the Dessert

Anyone who knows us knows we REALLY like dessert. That’s why we had all of our favorite New York City cakes and pastries at the wedding.

Nhu-An surprised me with a Star Trek and Lord of the Rings cake topper! Both stories have shaped who we’ve become, as individuals and a couple, so this meant a lot to me. Each of our avatars had little personalized touches — my favorite beverage in a lavender teacup and Nhu-An with her blue reading glasses tucked in her pocket.

To Boldly Go…

The rest of the night was spent hanging out with our closest friends and family while a beautiful jazz band played our favorite standards.

Our wedding was a bit unconventional, but the whole day ended up being exactly what we wanted — something that was true to who we are.

Vendors

The Healing Power of Stories

It's been one year since I wrote "The Parallel Universe Where My Brother Lives", the story of how I tried to move on after my brother's suicide. Re-reading the story now, I remember how painful it was for me to even think about my brother. But “Parallel Universe” doesn’t fit with who I am now. Writing, sharing, and talking about my story was tremendously healing. For this anniversary, I want to explore what it is about stories that can be so healing.

Stories validate strong emotions

Next to Normal  honored what my family went through trying to support my brother.

Next to Normal honored what my family went through trying to support my brother.

Most of us feel like something is wrong when we're experiencing strong emotions. This happens to me a lot when I get mad. I remember running late to work one day and getting pushed into a dirty New York City puddle of water. I was soaking wet and smelled like sewer. All morning long I felt like I was losing my mind – I was furious, couldn't stop replaying the situation in my mind, and was flooded with criticizing thoughts ("You're so stupid for letting this happen to you").

It wasn't until I talked to a friend that I started to feel better. "I would have been so pissed off if that happened to me!" Hearing that helped me calm down. My friend helped me understand that my feelings made sense given the situation. The more she validated my feelings, the more comfortable I felt.

Validation is one of the main reasons why stories can be healing. By introducing characters who are experiencing similar situations, stories can make us feel less alone and make it easier to talk about what we're thinking and feeling. That's why coming of age films like The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are so important – they validate the experience of being a teenager at a time when so much of the world can seem invalidating. It's also a big part of the psychology of cult TV shows like FireflyBuffy, and Doctor Who

Watching Broadway's Next to Normal was deeply validating for me. The musical is about a mother's struggle with bipolar depression and the impact it has on her family. Not only is the music beautiful (check out "I Miss the Mountains") but seeing the family’s struggle to support their loved one captured much of what happened to my family after my brother’s diagnosis.

Stories challenge stigma

Done right, stories can also reduce stigma about mental health. Many still believe problems with mental health are caused by personal weaknesses, that individuals should feel ashamed for their struggles, and treatment should be kept secret. We know this stigma has no basis in reality. Problems like anxiety and depression are caused by many biological, psychological, and environmental factors and affect a wide variety of people from all backgrounds. Stories can challenge these stigmatic beliefs and speak to the reality of mental health.

Often, the most helpful stories are true accounts of mental illness. That's why I'm a big fan of Glenn Close's Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, which encourages people to share their personal stories and start a dialogue about mental health.  

Films such as A Beautiful Mind and books like The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing have also done a lot to tell the story of schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I also love what Temple Grandin has to say about autism and why the world needs all kinds of minds.

Reading Willy Linthout’s graphic memoir Years of the Elephant, a story about a father's struggle to mourn his son's suicide, went a long way to challenge my stigma about suicide. I used to think “I should be able to cope with this” but Linthout’s story taught me that most people grieving from a suicide go through a complicated process that lasts for a very long time. The Live Through This project also made this think our culture might be ready for a conversation about suicide.

Stories demystify mental healthcare

Ellen Forney’s Marbles brings phenomenal clarity to the experience of therapy and medication.

Ellen Forney’s Marbles brings phenomenal clarity to the experience of therapy and medication.

Because of stigma, there’s a lot of confusion about what actually happens in therapy. Stories about mental healthcare have the power to demystify treatment. The best example of this is Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles. Forney shows what it’s like to be diagnosed with bipolar depression, what treatment with a psychiatrist looks like, the role of medication, and how things outside of traditional mental healthcare can help recovery. Marbles is a masterpiece in the world of graphic memoirs and should be required reading for all therapists in training.

I also use stories to explain what I am doing in treatment. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I'm essentially a coach whose job it is to teach my patients new ways of coping with distressing feelings, intrusive thoughts, and challenging situations. Whenever I teach a patient a new skill, I link it to a story they're passionate about. Relaxation training becomes Jedi training, cognitive coping skills are linked to Harry Potter's patronus charm, and exposure therapy is grounded in Batman's origin story. That's what geek therapy means to me – using stories people love to make therapy more fun, relevant, and effective (for more on this topic listen to Geek Therapy's "How Comic Books Saved My Life" or read Dean Trippe's "Something Terrible" ).

Stories help us grow

Batman always reminded me that growth is possible after traumatic experiences.

Batman always reminded me that growth is possible after traumatic experiences.

So far, everything has focused on consuming stories. It turns out that creating your own story can also be very therapeutic.

Many scientists and clinicians believe that avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings is the common problem among all mental health concerns. Avoidance works in the short term but as a long term strategy it just ends up intensifying problems. Therapists Giorgio Nardone and Paul Watzlawick summarize this nicely:

“Clinical experience has shown that, ironically, it is often the patient’s very attempt to solve the problem that, in fact, maintains it. The attempted solution becomes the true problem.”

The solution is to help people experience all emotions, both the positive and the negative. That's the basis behind a number of effective treatments like exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and the unified treatment for emotional disorders. Short-term focused writing about emotions can bring about many of the same effects. Psychologist James Pennebaker's research has shown that writing can reduce anxiety and depression while increasing immune functioning. Some therapies also integrate writing as a major part of treatment. Cognitive processing therapy, which is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, helps people get unstuck from their thoughts and develop meaning out of the events that have happened.

Just knowing that people can recover from traumatic experiences can make it possible for someone to start moving towards post-traumatic growth. Hearing stories about recovery from a loved one's suicide was key to my growth. My friend and colleague Melinda Moore shared her story with me, how recovery from her husband's suicide led her to become a psychologist who promotes suicide prevention. Hearing from her made me believe that I too could gain something from my loss.

Stories ignite social support

Following difficult emotional experiences, the single best predictor of recovery is how much support someone gets from their friends and family. That's what made my recovery so difficult – I didn't talk about my pain with anyone so I didn't get much social support. Of course people asked how I was doing but I ignored them because I wasn't ready to open up.

When I did finally share my story, I was overwhelmed by messages of support. It wasn't just people I knew, but also individuals I never met who went out of their way to let me know they wanted to help. To date, I've received over 3,000 messages in response to “Parallel Universe”. I save each one and re-read them on particularly tough nights.

Katie Goldman, the "Star Wars girl"

Katie Goldman, the "Star Wars girl"

Sharing a story, regardless of the way in which you do it, has the potential to activate a support network. One of my favorite examples of this comes from 7-year-old Katie Goldman. Katie was repeatedly bullied for bringing a Star Wars water bottle to school. Her mom wrote about the experience on her blog and asked for help. The story quickly spread across the internet. Here's how Katie's mom describes what happened next:

Katie is overjoyed by the comments coming in!!!  My sweet first grade daughter has been sitting with me at the computer, reading aloud all the wonderful, supportive notes from readers, and her face is shining...We are going to print the comments out and make a book for her to read whenever she feels the need. Today she wore a Star Wars shirt to school and said to me, "Tell the people about it!!!!" This is really restoring her self confidence. She did a jaunty little pirouette in her Star Wars shirt before school.

The future of "Parallel Universe"

The stories we develop about ourselves shape our behavior, filter our memories, and inform our decisions about the future. My story is now forever linked with "Parallel Universe". Every month it's the most widely read article on Brain Knows Better and it’s what I’m most known for outside of my professional work.

Like other survivors of suicide, a part of my life is now dedicated to promoting suicide prevention and helping others who are experiencing complicated grief. That’s why I’m announcing a new project that will turn my story (Growing Up Trekkie, Parallel Universe, Most Honest Year of My Life) into a graphic memoir. I hope to share this new story with you in one year’s time at the third anniversary of “Parallel Universe”.


This was written in honor of Mental Health Month and the American Psychological Association's Mental Health Blog Day. To hear more about the healing power of stories, check out the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour mental health episode.

The Most Epic Blanket Fort and the Nerdy Love Story That Made It So

Click for full image.

This fall, Nhu-An and I are getting married.

We've been together since November 18, 2000, back when we were seniors in high school. Despite a lot of obstacles like living on opposite sides of the country for much of our relationship and the glacial pace at which I completed grad school, we've stayed together and continue to be in love. To celebrate our engagement, we made this epic blanket fort.

Here’s the nerdy story that made all of this possible.

San Jose, California, June 2001

A nerdy love story

Nhu-An and I were very different people when we met. She worked hard, wanted to make a big difference in the world, and kept thinking about the next big thing. I only cared about enjoying the present moment with my friends and family. That's why our senior class voted me "most likely to be out of class" while Nhu-An was "most likely to succeed".

We seemed to be complete opposites. She was prudent. I was careless. She was anxious. I was laid-back. She knew exactly what she wanted out of life while I had no idea where I was headed but was confident things would work themselves out. People wondered why we were together, especially our parents.

I started dating Nhu-An because I thought she was cute and she was super nice to me. One day in English class I was sick and she handed me tissues so I could blow my nose. I was anxious about girls and didn’t think they noticed me, so this was a pretty big deal. Then there was the day I got my braces off—Nhu-An was the only one who noticed and I couldn't stop smiling the rest of the day.

Nhu-An says that when we started dating, she could forget about the serious stuff—school, recitals, extracurriculars. Hanging out together was fun. Our relationship was a break from her structured life. It gave her a chance to go to the movies, eat fast food, and hang out at the mall.

Corny stuff like that brought us together.

Los Angeles, California July 2004 

With a foundation like that, we shouldn’t have lasted too long. But things changed after I came out to Nhu-An about being a geek. The more I told her about my love of Star Trek, my collection of X-Men comics, and how I built computers for fun, the more she talked about the silly musicals and plays she put on as a kid for her family, her collection of Baby Sitters Club books, and how much she loved school. We realized that we're both really big geeks, just with totally different interests. Loving something passionately and wanting to share it became the glue that kept us together throughout the next decade.

It wasn't just about sticking together. Being geeks helped us grow. She told me all of her secrets to academic success and gave me hope that I could transfer out of community college. When I was clueless about what to major in, Nhu-An was the one who helped me realize that I loved psychology. When Nhu-An starting doubting the decisions she was making in life and questioned her "master plan", I helped her to live a life more true to who she is. That's why she left biomedical engineering and pursued media production.

Asheville, North Carolina, July 2007

We've even helped each other become better geeks. I used to hate musicals as a kid because I couldn't stand the 6-hour Bollywood movies my parents used to watch. I didn't realize it at the time, but Nhu-An used an old sales technique to ease me into the genre. She first made me watch Moulin Rouge, which was awesome because it had Obi-Wan Kenobi and Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Then she took me to see The Lion King (my favorite Disney animated movie) on Broadway. Nhu-An later talked about the social commentary of Rent, using the same language I spoke when describing a great episode of Star Trek. I was hooked and spent most of 2006 singing "Seasons of Love".

I wasn't as successful at getting Nhu-An into Star Trek. She's always supported my love of the final frontier and understood why it meant so much to me, but she couldn’t make it through an episode without falling asleep. She loves the new J.J. Abrams films, but I think that has more to do with Chris Pine than the U.S.S. Enterprise. But I knew Nhu-An loved politics. She devours every issue of The Economist and it takes her hours to watch Meet the Press because she pauses every minute to fact-check the politicians. After I described Battlestar Galactica as "The West Wing in space", she gave it a shot and ended up binge watching the whole series. Now she wants us to cosplay as Athena and Helo at the next Comic Con. 

Our his and hers scifi iPhone cases.

New York City, November 2013

After we got engaged, we wanted to plan a wedding that celebrated how important geeking out has been in our relationship. That’s why we were drawn to the Housing Works bookstore. It’s a cool non-profit that helps old books find new homes (a pretty nerdy endeavor). When we learned that all the proceeds would go towards fighting homelessness and AIDS in New York City, we knew this was right for us.

Since books will be a theme in our wedding, we wanted to recreate a scene from one of our favorite childhood stories for our engagement photo. But we couldn’t agree on a book. I wanted Where the Wild Things Are and Nhu-An wanted The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That’s when we got lost talking about how much fun it would have been to hang out as kids and share our favorite books and toys with each other. That’s how the idea for our epic blanket fort was born.

An epic blanket fort

Nhu-An's original vision of our blanket fort.

Nhu-An and I searched the internet for blanket fort inspiration. Tumblr was a good place to start. The Community episode “Pillows and Blankets” was fun to rewatch, but didn’t reveal any blanket fort secrets. Things clicked when we saw The Holiday. The movie is really bad, but it features an awesome blanket fort. We loved how whimsical and cozy it was.

Nhu-An designed an elaborate pulley system of embroidery hoops and S-rings held up by jute twine crisscrossing the ceiling of the apartment (check out her nerdy engineering diagrams below). We spent a weekend gathering materials from arts and crafts stores and picked up some extra blankets and bed sheets. 

Construction started on February 1st, 2014. Everything was going well until we tried to install hooks into the wall. We needed to secure the twine to the hooks to hold the pulley in place. Unfortunately, the brick wall didn’t make for a straightforward installation. Everything collapsed.

In a panicked state, Nhu-An tried sketching alternate designs that didn’t require embroidery hoops. That’s when I got the idea to just start throwing around blankets and sheets and seeing what we came up with. When I told Nhu-An, she confessed that she never made a blanket fort before. I showed her how I used to make blanket forts when I was a kid and she quickly caught on. We had a ton of fun putting it together. It felt like we were coming full circle to the start of our relationship.

After 6 hours of construction in this tiny Manhattan apartment, it was ready.

A surreal photographer

Bill Wadman photographing our epic blanket fort.

We knew from the start that we wanted Bill Wadman to photograph our blanket fort. Bill creates portraits that look like paintings. His conceptual work blends in with some of our favorite surrealist art (check out his awesome homage to Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew which features both me and Nhu-An). Not only has Bill become a close friend of mine, but his imaginative approach to photography was exactly what we needed to bring our concept to life.  

Our favorite things

Nhu-An and I made a list of the most important influences on our childhood and selected items that were symbolic of these things. A lot of the stuff we’ve had since we were kids (our parents were kind enough to ship them to us) and others we’ve picked over the years as adults. A few key items were found at flea markets, eBay, Amazon, or the library, specifically for our blanket fort.

Here’s a rundown of everything that went into our blanket fort:

  • Lego Back to the Future DeLorean time machine
  • Star Wars Boba Fett action figure.
  • Welch's Fruit Snacks
  • Tab soda
  • Curious George lunchbox
  • Apple and Eve apple juice box
  • Kidrobot Street Fighter Ken (hidden behind juice box)
  • NASA patch (hidden behind DeLorean)
  • Space Invaders stress toy
  • Bowl of grapes
  • Kellogg’s Fruit Loops cereal
  • Ruffles potato chips

  • Doctor Who talking TARDIS plush toy

  • Nhu-An’s 1996 California Music Education Association honors award

  • Flag of the state of California
  • 1980s snap bracelet
  • Violin
  • Homemade crown
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Tuck Everlasting
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Baby-Sitters Club #11, #12, #14, #15, #17, #19, #28, #35, #36, #37, #39, #42, #46
  • Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #1, #2, #3, #4 #5, #6, #7, #8
  • Ramona Forever
  • Little Women
  • Matilda
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Madeline and the Bad Hat
  • American Girls Collection: Meet Kirsten, Molly’s Surprise, Meet Josefina, Meet Felicity, Changes for Felicity, Happy Birthday Felicity, Samantha's Winter Party 

  • Stuart Little
  • Peter Pan
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • The Berenstain Bears and the Slumber Party
  • Treasure Island
  • American Girls Collection: Felicity’s Surprise, Felicity Learns a Lesson
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Art Asylum Star Trek: The Next Generation USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D
  • Coca-Cola
  • The Dark Knight Rises Batman vinyl figure
  • Toy Story Rex figure

  • Think Geek Star Trek USS Enterprise plush toy
  • Art Asylum Star Trek communicator
  • Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Vol. 1
  • We
  • Jurassic Park
  • Skittles
  • Life Savers
  • Nestlé Crunch
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) cassette tape soundtrack
  • E.T. VHS
  • Blade Runner VHS
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade VHS
  • Jurassic Park VHS
  • Terminator 2: Judgement Day VHS
  • Independence Day VHS
  • The Magic School Bus Out of This World VHS
  • The Rocketeer VHS
  • Top Gun VHS
  • Toy Story VHS
  • Aladdin VHS
  • The Baby-Sitters Club VHS
  • Stargate VHS
  • Star Wars Han Solo in carbonite
  • Pressman Toy Saved By The Bell board game

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual
  • The Official Star Trek 30th Anniversary Magazine
  • Haribo gummi bears
  • Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation tricorder
  • Super Nintendo Entertainment System controller
  • Sega Genesis controller
  • Kudos granola bar
  • Micro Machines Star Trek: The Next Generation Borg Cube
  • Micro Machines Star Trek: The Next Generation Klingon Bird of Prey
  • Underground Toys Star Wars Anakin Skywalker lightsaber flashlight
  • Donkey Kong Jenga
  • Wolverine #67 - Valley O' Death!
  • Star Trek X-MEN
  • Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 #300
  • Web of Spider-Man Vol 1 #100
  • Superman #78 Reign of the Supermen
  • Superman: Man of Steel Vol 1 #22
  • Adventures of Superman Vol 1 #501
  • The Maxx #1
  • Spiderman Unlimited #1
  • X-Men Unlimited #1
  • Madeline
  • The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation
  • The Baby-Sitters Club #2, #6, #7, #10, #19
  • Matilda
  • Of Mice and Men
  • I Am Spock
  • Falling Up
  • Goosebumps: Monster Blood
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • American Girls Collection: Changes for Molly: A Winter Story, Molly Saves the Day
  • Strega Nona
  • Moon

  • Batman cape
  • Batman patch
  • Underground Toys Star Wars Anakin Skywalker lightsaber flashlight
  • Nintendo Entertainment System controller
  • Super Nintendo Entertainment System controller
  • Sega Genesis controller
  • Atari 2600 joystick
  • Kudos granola bar
  • Micro Machines Star Trek: The Next Generation Borg Cube
  • Micro Machines Star Trek: The Next Generation Klingon Bird of Prey
  • Micro Machines Star Trek: The Next Generation Klingon Negh'Var ship
  • Micro Machines Star Wars Star Destroyer
  • Simon game
  • Eaglemoss Batman: The Animated Series Batmobile
  • Crayola crayons
  • Star Wars Darth Vader action figure
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Star Trek Leonardo James T. Kirk

  • Rachmaninoff 6 Etudes Tableau for piano solo sheet music
  • Anne's House of Dreams
  • Anne of Ingleside
  • Charlotte's Web
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • Corduroy
  • Madeline
  • Pitt #1
  • Action Comics #687 (Superman)
  • Adventures of Superman Vol 1 #505
  • Adventures of Superman #500
  • Superman: Man of Steel Vol 1 #25
  • Spawn #10
  • Bloodstrike #1
  • Wildcats Trilogy Vol 1 #1
  • XO Manowar #1
  • Sabretooth Vol 1 #1
  • Spider-Man 2099 Vol 1 #6
  • Sesame Street Big Bird stuffed animal

To learn more about our nerdy love story, check out the Valentine's Day episode of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour.

The Most Honest Year of My Life

Photo by  Bill Wadman . 

Photo by Bill Wadman

The story of Brain Knows Better begins on October 12, 2012. My friend from UCLA , Andrea Letamendi, just spoke at New York Comic Con about the psychology of cosplay and a few hours later we were discussing it over lunch.

“It was really cool to see you in action. Being such a hardcore geek on stage and backing up what you were saying with science,” I said. “But aren’t you afraid of what people in the field are going to think?”

Back in our college days, Andrea and I spent a lot of time reminiscing about Street Fighter 2 and Batman: The Animated Series. When we got to grad school, we both hid our geeky interests the way you might hide a tattoo on the first day of a new job. Seeing Andrea now, integrating all of the things she loved, was inspiring. And intimidating.

“You know, if I were still in school and constantly under scrutiny, I wouldn’t be so public about this other side of my life. But honestly, nothing bad has happened. It’s actually at comic cons where I feel like my life makes the most sense. It’s where I get to be a geek and a psychologist.”

I told Andrea that if I had her confidence, I would talk about how Star Trek influenced my life and how it led me to become a psychologist.

“You need to share your story. It’s about what can happen if you follow your passions. It would resonate with a lot of people.”

Andrea was the first person to encourage me to share my story.

Andrea was the first person to encourage me to share my story.

I took Andrea’s advice, wrote Growing Up Trekkie, and emailed it to my friend Lowen Baumgarten (you know, the guy who later wrote the most controversial article on this site). He liked it and thought it would be cool to base a blog on the story. We spent some time mining my favorite music to get inspiration for a title and that’s how Brain Knows Better was born.

I shared my story on Facebook. My friends were really encouraging. Even people who hated science fiction liked Growing Up Trekkie. That felt awesome and made me want to write more.

My second article got fewer likes. I tried again. Even fewer people read my third article. The trend continued. Even though I spent hours developing each article, it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to read my work. I didn’t write anything in December. It just didn’t feel worth the time that went in to develop each post.

Lowen had some extra frequent flier miles he needed to use up and made a last minute trip to New York to hang out. I took the opportunity to vent.

“I’m thinking of pulling the plug on Brain Knows Better. The blog hasn’t gone anywhere and I have no clue why.”

“Yeah, let’s talk about that…”

I could tell Lowen also had something he needed to get off his chest.

“Your first story was great but everything after has been soooooo academic. Look at this.” He grabbed my laptop and pulled up my most recent article. “’Ridley’s Scott’s Prometheus and the Fallacy of Origins’ – I have no idea what that means and I don’t want to find out. What happened to your story? I don’t hear your voice anymore.”

Lowen has always been my Number 1.

Lowen has always been my Number 1.

Lowen was right. Brain Knows Better was boring. I thought back to Andrea’s panel and how honest she was about her own cosplay. That’s what made the talk awesome – her story combined with real research. 

I rebooted everything in 2013 and launched with a story about how Firefly helped me understand the culture clash of my childhood. Overnight it became my most popular article and led to some cool conversations about multiculturalism (and Captain Tight Pants). The more I opened up, the more my work resonated with others.

My audience started to grow, as did my confidence as a writer. I wanted to do more, so I messaged Andrea with an idea I had for a comic con panel we could do together about the psychology of Star Trek versus Star Wars. She loved it, and it was picked up for both WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con. Comic Con fast tracked everything. It helped me make new geek friends, like Star Trek experts Larry Nemecek and John Champion. Somewhere along the way I was nicknamed “the science fiction psychologist”.

I met a lot of cool people at San Diego Comic Con.

I met a lot of cool people at San Diego Comic Con.

But something didn’t feel right. The more I talked about my passions, the more I kept remembering my brother, Salman. He was a big part of my geek origin story. When he committed suicide in 2008, I buried my memories of him – it was the only way I was able to move on. Now that I was talking about being a geek publically, I was also beginning to feel like I was losing control of my emotions. This happened a lot at cons, especially when people asked me about my family. All that raw pain, guilt, and shame started resurfacing against my will.   

Being honest as a writer had helped me up to now so it made sense to write about my current struggle dealing with my brother’s death. So that’s what I did. The first time I sat down to write a few paragraphs I cried. A lot. It ended up taking a month to get out, but the more I wrote the less raw it felt.

The response to this story was overwhelming. I’ve heard from over 3,000 people (I save every response) who also struggled with mental health, some who were mourning loved ones and others who also felt the stigma of suicide.

Everything changed after that. It felt like someone flipped a switch and I was able to talk about Salman like I used to when he was alive. I started a new job in the fall and everyone already knows about my brother and the impact he had on my life.

Salman has been with me ever since that story went live. He was with me while I read Ready Player One, explaining all the references to 80s culture that I missed. I imagined that we debated which next-generation system to get, the Xbox One or the PS4 – there would've been endless feuds about which one is better. And in that parallel universe, we had a massive discussion about Spike Jonze's Her. As a computer scientist working in speech recognition, he would have loved seeing the promise of his work realized in the film.

My brother lives on, in memories old and new.

My brother lives on, in memories old and new.

I used to worry a lot about what people thought of me. I avoided any public displays of geekiness because I didn’t want people to think I was weird. That’s also why I shut down every thought I had about my brother – no one could see me lose control of my emotions. This kept me safe. But as I started opening up about whom I really was, I met a great group of people who shared my passions and struggles. Playing it safe just isn’t worth the cost of feeling alone anymore.

This past year was the most honest of my life. Everything that was good came from writing truthfully and connecting with people like you. Thank you for making 2013 so awesome.