Finding Community and Support in the Weirdest Places

Stacey Shade-Ware, in The Orville admiral cosplay, smiling at the camera
Stacey dressed as an admiral from the TV show The Orville

"Director’s Blog… Stardate 99554.83."

Gosh, wouldn’t it be annoying if I wrote every blog post this way?

Yes. Yes, it would be, so I won’t. But for those of you who get it, and those who don’t, live long and prosper. (That is a reference to the science fiction television series Star Trek.)

December is upon us. This means holidays for many folks. Perhaps some celebrations complete with candles or cocoa, yule logs or mulled spices? It can also be a trying time for anyone who has struggled with family relationships, before or after brain injury/PTSD. Relationships after a life-altering injury or diagnosis are, well, weird. Some people will stand by you no matter what. Hold on to them and let them know, often, how grateful you are that they are in your life. Others, even family—no, especially family—are not so loyal.

We are not immune to alienation and estrangement. It sucks.

Not everyone "gets it" and understands how off-putting and, in fact, painful large, loud gatherings can be. Or, how triggering some well-meaning family member can be when asking about injury or treatment.

We try to be as open as possible about how we are all doing. We set time limits and topic limits and, for me, with a husband, Russ, who has PTSD, I check-in with him throughout the day. I can usually notice when things are upsetting him before he realizes it. We have our own phrases, almost like safe words, to both recognize that I am asking him for a status check without it letting others know what is going on. He has responses to let me know he is okay or he needs an "out."

We are lucky that by now most of our family knows what is okay to discuss. Plus, if we are with either of my uncles, Russ will pull them to a corner to chat. Although they served in different wars, Vietnam versus Desert Storm/OIF/OEF/GWOT, they can chat for hours about common experiences. We often hear them laughing and then quickly quiet down when we ask what was so funny. “Oh nothing. Vet stuff.”

Winter is an extra special time for my husband and me. It is when we get the opportunity to spend time with our friends. No, not holiday parties and festive outings, but at science-fiction and comic-book conventions. Yup. We are nerds. Geeks. Those people. I love Doctor Who and Star Trek: Next Gen. Russ loves Star Wars. We both love The Expanse and play D&D (Dungeons and Dragons). Our young daughters already have their own plushie polyhedral dice.

Don’t worry. I used to judge those people, too. But the more I realized how much I loved the shows, books, and genres, the more I fell in love with the people—both creators and fans. And the military and veteran community has a HUGE geek/nerd following. So many of our “nerd” friends are veterans, active duty, or first-responders. Heck, I think our military-affiliated geek friends outnumber the civilians at least 3-to-1.

When I say we go to conventions, I don’t just mean we go to meet celebrities, watch panels, shop, and geek out. I mean we go to work a table or participate as a volunteer group. You might have heard of it—cosplay.

Cosplay is not just donning costumes, but taking on the role of a beloved character. It is a chance to be someone else for a day. It’s so much fun! For my husband, he can cosplay comic-book or war heroes and since he is taking on another persona, he lets his guard down and relaxes. Russ is even able to honor his fallen brother in arms, TSgt James "Dix" Dixon, on his hand-painted cosplay armor.

You would think something like a convention would be sensory overload—talk about LOUD! But since we are cosplaying we have a "mission"—and a fun one at that! Russ can lead our squad on little exercises, making sure we all have proper trigger discipline as we "hunt" for the Queen Alien (played by our veteran spouse friend, Stephanie). Is it silly? Sure! Do we get a kick out of people recognizing who we are playing and asking for selfies? Absolutely! Did I pattern and sew a onsie in the shape of a face-hugger from the movie Alien for my infant daughter? You know it!

Is this too much, too fast? It’s okay. Remember, performing artist here. We have a room in our house dedicated to costumes, both for storing and creating. It also happens to be my office so I get to remember all the fun times we’ve had as I type here. And sometimes, okay rarely, all the costumes are actually safely housed there and not strewn about the house because the kiddos want to play dress up.

Science fiction is made for and made by those usually othered by normal society. We, the fans, can find ourselves lost in characters or stories. By losing ourselves in the fiction, we feel safe. We are no longer tormented by memories of what really happened during deployments. We can create new memories. We have friends with whom we can help make new costumes or think of new ways to engage fans. Yes, it is a little silly, but we think it is a cool way to get to meet talented people and spend time with our friends and the people who have supported us through some pretty tough times.

I hope you, too, can find that niche, that group, that community that loves and supports you no matter what.