A couple moments ago, I was finally able to listen to the season finale of the podcast Alice Isn’t Dead. We have already discussed how much we love this podcast, but now, I want to specifically talk about how it portrays disability. Usually stories show someone’s disability as a weakness they need to overcome in order to be “real heroes”, or they are portrayed as gaining extra supernatural abilities that more than “makes up” for their disability. But Alice Isn’t Dead did something wholly different: the podcast showed how someone can use their disability to help them get through a situation.
Major spoilers for Alice Isn’t Dead and a trigger warning for anxiety & panic attacks after the jump.
In the podcast, our main character—whose name we learn in this episode is Keisha—uses her anxiety disorder to help her defeat the Thistle Man, who has been threatening her life and the lives of others. Keisha decides to drive her truck into the Other Town, the town where a bunch of people like the Thistle Man, who eat people and seem to not actually be human, exist. Keisha drives into the town, hurting many of the man-eating locals, but there are still many more when she is finally confronted by the original Thistle Man whom we met in the first episode. Eventually, he corners her, and this is where Keisha’s anxiety starts to take over.
“You got me to run, but then what? What weapon do you have to finish the job?” he said.
He spread his hands expectantly.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing?” he said.
“I brought nothing. I brought myself. I’m going to kill you.”
He laughed, the deep laugh at the end of a good joke.
“You’re going to kill me? Hahahahahahaha. Oh, Keisha. Let me explain death to you,” he said. And then he came at me.
Alice, I’d never been so afraid. And that’s saying a lot, after the year I’ve had, after the things I’ve seen. I felt terror in every part of me. It froze up my limbs, locked up my joints, made my thoughts both too slow for planning and too fast to follow. I wasn’t a person anymore, just a container for my fear. (x)
Keisha describes how she has had terrible panic or anxiety attacks all her life, but the panic she feels when facing the Thistle Man is beyond anything she ever felt. She is terrified and doesn’t know what to do. Her anxiety causes her to freeze up and not be able to make sense of her thoughts. It seems like at this moment that Keisha’s disorder is contributing to her violent and bloody death at the hands of the Thistle Man. But then Keisha realizes something about her anxiety.
And through all of these thoughts, a buzzing anxiety. Anxiety like electricity. And I knew, in that moment, that anxiety is just an energy. It is an uncontrollable near-infinite energy, surging within me. And for once I stopped trying to contain it.
I told my heart, beat faster. I told my panicked breath, become more difficult, and I told my fear to overtake me.
Make me more afraid. I am not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid!
All of that energy, I turned it outward. I pushed it into my arms, my legs, my teeth.
Fuck the Thistle man! (x)
Keisha realizes that her anxiety is a part of who she is. It’s always existed in her and has occasionally made her life difficult, but she realizes that she can use it. She can take this thing that has caused her so much stress and use it to push herself and fight back. Keisha’s anxiety forces her into a fight or flight response, and since she can’t run, she needs to fight.
When he hit me, I hit back. He was stronger than I remembered. It was like being hit by a car. Mass without pity, just brutal physics. But I was hitting, too. Pounding at his face, his chest, biting, throwing myself into him.
I didn’t feel pain. I was so full of fear that there wasn’t any room for anything else. I fought using every wave of terror inside of me.
The Thistle man laughed when I hit him, and he kept punching, as thoughtless and inhuman as a rock slide on a highway. But I kept hitting too, and he stopped laughing. I clawed at his face, and his skin started to go, and that yellow fat oozed out.
He grunted, growled, flailed at me. He was no longer toying with me; he wanted to destroy me.
But I stayed on my feet. I tore at him with the last of myself, and finally, he was the one that fell, his teeth mashed into his cheek, shouting incoherently.
I went knees-first into his chest. I hit, and hit, and hit…[heavy breathing]
And then he was dead. He was dead! I had done it! I had won!
Adrenaline pounded through me. I couldn’t turn off the energy I had found in myself, and I was in pretty bad shape. Bruises, probably a broken rib, definitely broken teeth. But the Thistle man laid there, his head a pile of fat and pulp that smelled like mushrooms.
I threw up. Half on the floor, and half on his body. It was horrible.
But I felt victory like I hadn’t felt in years. With my own hands, I had ended this. I had fucking won! (x)
Keisha is able to use the energy she gets from her anxiety to fight back. She describes how she couldn’t really feel any pain because her body was so full of fear that her brain literally couldn’t process the fact that she was hurt yet. And she uses this to outlast the Thistle Man and to be able to keep going even after the Thistle Man starts to hurt her badly. She ultimately wins the fight and kills the Thistle Man. This could potentially seem like turning disability into a superpower, but the story is able to convey the negative effects of Keisha using her disorder and pushing herself so hard. She describes how her body was still full of adrenaline and she couldn’t turn the energy off; in other words, she couldn’t turn her near-insurmountable anxiety off. She also starts to feel the pain the Thistle Man inflicted on her and throws up from the sight of his body, but through it all, she is still victorious.
Keisha’s disability is also not shown as something that she can take advantage of without limit. At this point Keisha has hit her limit. She has used up all her strength to fight the main Thistle Man. But others are lurking just outside the door. Eventually Keisha is saved by a mysterious military force that seemingly works for her trucking company, Bay and Creek Shipping. Despite being sort of rescued, Keisha was still able to be the main agent of the story who was able to protect herself. She is consistently portrayed as a normal person with a disability who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, while she is shown realistically struggling with her disorder, it is not the only thing that defines her. It is not shown as her ultimate weakness or as some great superpower she secretly possesses, but rather it is simply an aspect about herself that sometimes can make her life difficult but can sometimes be used to help her or assist her. It’s great to see a disabled character who is given so much depth and whose disability is portrayed realistically, not simply as an obstacle.