Superheroes saved my life. No, Batman didn’t swoop in on a cable, nor did Deadpool kneecap a crook on my behalf, but a few special women have nonetheless given me a second shot at living on my own terms. Without their wisdom, filtered through page and screen to a wide-eyed black girl in the Midwest, I know my life would have been much different.

My parents are nerds—point-blank. They waited in line for each premiere of the original Star Wars movies. My dad has been collecting comic books for more than 40 years, and our home was always full of memorabilia. I loved watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as much as playing with Barbies. My childhood was devoted to the joy only righteous and victorious heroes can inspire. Any time I became frustrated with a word I couldn’t quite get right on spelling test, my father had a Superman anecdote about hard work to share. If I fell and hurt myself, my mom would remind me that true Jedi never stayed down for long. The characters they loved became my guiding lights whose triumphs I could conjure up to save me. I thought the world was a perfect place that would treat me well as long as I had a good attitude, until things changed.

At seven years old, I was molested by a family friend. I was lured from my grandmother’s backyard to their home where they tried to destroy me. I was so aware of the gravity of what was done that I feared revealing the betrayal would destroy everyone I loved. My body was numb, but my mind worked in overdrive in the hours and days following the abuse. I thought about Superman, Batman, and all the heroes I could call on, but they hadn’t shown up. Part of me believed that maybe I hadn’t been worthy of their intervention. I blamed myself for leaving my grandmother’s yard, for forgetting how to fight like a Jedi, and for no longer being a good girl. I did not think my parents could understand, despite their love. All the characters they idolized fought back until they were victorious. So, I tucked the trauma under my arm like a homework assignment, dutifully carrying the load on my own.

For years, I was incredibly lonely with the secret. I never wanted my parents or relatives to see me the way I began to see myself. I was afraid they would be as disgusted as I was. I became a nervous wreck, weighed down by hidden fears—except for when I watched the robed Whoopi Goldberg as the counselor Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She was regal and wise, possessing infinite knowledge and patience for those who came to her. She could cut to the soul of problems even Captain Picard couldn’t decipher. Guinan never faltered, never seemed to sweat. Her consistency and level-headedness put my heart at ease in a way nothing else could.

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I slipped into a habit of living through women much more comfortable in their own existence than I could be. When I wasn’t binging Star Trek, I would load up a Star Wars movie and eagerly watch Princess Leia, who could command men and solve problems. Despite unthinkable dangers, she was always running forward. Steadily, I became ravenous for more stories about unstoppable women. My father went to the comic book shop once a week to pick up the newest publications, then sat in his room reading until he finished each one. Afterward, he’d slip me books. (I wonder now if he sensed my sadness.)

I began to look at my former X-Men heroes a little differently. Now it was their lives as outcasts moreso than their powers that struck me. No one I knew was like me, yet here were mutants who made me feel less imperfect. I inhaled my father’s X-Men comics, quickly becoming obsessed with the weather-controlling superhero Storm’s beauty and controlled power. Guinan, Leia and Storm became my three pillars of strength by the age of eight. I told myself that I could be anything if I acted as brave and headstrong as them, no matter what had happened.

Unfortunately, by high school, my optimism was long gone. One moment in middle school precipitated the change. It was during a basketball match. My father was my coach, and I played with most of my friends. I stole the ball from the opposing team, and immediately after, felt a girl punch me in the back. I saw red and, in a moment of uncontrollable rage, lashed out so violently that I was ejected. For a few moments I was back in that room as a seven-year-old, being hurt against my will. In an instant, my control was taken away again. I tried to go back to the solace of my comic books and movies for a while, yet I could no longer look at my childhood heroes in the same way. Storm or Guinan never failed, and their battles were clear-cut with happy endings, while I was fighting an invisible force with the power to ruin everything about me. My heroes had ownership over their lives; I did not. I sat with my family for superhero movie marathons or alongside my dad as he tore through comics without really being present. I played sports so that my rage would seem like determination, sang in choir so that my loud voice wouldn’t be shushed, and purged most meals to feel control over my body once more. My heart gave up on the foolishness of superheroes.

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I think I had to break in order to start healing. I spent years feeling like my pain was my own problem, something I never wanted to be vulnerable enough to share with anyone else. I reasoned that vulnerability had been the root of all my problems in the first place. By the time I was 21, I was living in Chicago for school, where I gave in to the pull of my weak body’s desperation and my roommates’ appeals to get help. For the first time since that horrible day 14 years ago, I told my story to a professional therapist. Then, I told it again to my parents, who were heartbroken, but brave for me.

Give Me Liberty’s Martha Washington

My father, always the one who recommended shows or comics based on what he sensed I might need, pointed me in the direction of Give Me Liberty’s Martha Washington, a character I had never heard of. Despite sharing a name with our first First Lady, Martha couldn’t be more different. She’s a futuristic soldier who looks like me, is best friends with a tortured psychic, and travels the universe to protect humanity on Earth. Written by Frank Miller, she was born in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green projects and even did a stint in a mental health facility for the murder of a drug lord’s henchman. The act had so traumatized Martha that she could barely speak. I fell in love with this flawed hero. As I read more, I started to see the world through Martha’s eyes, which meant that I did not have to face the horrors of my past alone.

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Martha Washington gave me the courage to revisit my heroes whom I had been running from. I realized Guinan, Leia, Storm and Martha all shared the common thread of stubbornness. They simply refused to let the darkness have the last laugh. Through them I discovered a truth I had not been ready to receive: we don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of a happy ending. Leia was a stubborn, elitist orphan who became a concubine. Guinan was a refugee. Storm was a mutant, Martha an impoverished black woman with a record. What right did I have to minimize their awesomeness by ignoring their flaws?

Our culture demands strength and a good measure of quiet acceptance of pain. I hope to live life as my own version of those superheroes and wise women who gave me strength as a child, never settling for pain without a fight. I’ve learned it’s imperative that I strive to break the binds of silence. The future I am carving for myself cannot be free of hardship, nor will I be cured of the past, but I believe I can make it what I want it to be, just as my heroes did. Like them, I refuse to let the darkness have the last laugh.

(This article has been republished, with edits, from Black Girl Nerds)