As much as I like Pepper Potts for her stubbornness and her willingness to stand up for herself, I was shocked at her treatment of Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.
She wakes him up because he is literally shaking from a nightmare, and then—understandably, I’ll admit—almost has a heart attack when one of his armored suits appears at the foot of their bed. But after that she storms off, saying she’ll “sleep downstairs.”Giving grace to anyone who is vulnerable is a powerful tool for healing, and one we often forget we can wield.
I can’t help but put myself in Tony’s shoes, trying hard to protect the one I love most and that same person pushes me away. Having the one person I needed to be there leave me in disgust, not understanding what I’m going through, not even trying to understand.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on Pepper, though, for I know something that she does not. Tony is going through post-traumatic stress. It’s not something we often think our favorite superheroes are experiencing, but Stark’s PTSD actually paves the way for many of the plot points in the later movies. He becomes obsessed with protecting the world, which results in Ultron’s creation in Avengers: Age of Ultron. By Captain America: Civil War, he is even more anxious and sleep-deprived. Many fans were also heartbroken to find out that Pepper had left him at this point.
Other characters are not exempt from wrestling with emotional trauma. Steve Rogers is overcoming the loss of the era he was born into and saying goodbye to Peggy Carter; Wanda Maximoff is processing the destructive nature of her powers; Bruce Banner is constantly dealing with guilt due to the Hulk’s unpredictability. The difference is, these characters are struggling in ways that suggest they will overcome these issues and they have the support network to do so. Friends are checking in with them, making sure they’re okay, showing them they’re loved. Natasha Romanova is helping Rogers through his grief. Clint Barton is basically becoming a big brother to Wanda Maximoff. As for Banner… I imagine Thor’s introducing him to Azgardian ale to deal with his problems or something, but that’s a topic for a different article.
Everyone assumes Tony Stark will be fine. Because he’s Iron Man.
Stark is the man who deflects problems with humor (and by building millions of dollars worth of machinery). His armor has been cracking for quite some time, but no one seems to be noticing. He even tries to talk to someone about it, but, unfortunately, Bruce Banner falls asleep when Stark opens up about it in Iron Man 3’s post-credits scene.
Why does no one, not even his girlfriend, acknowledge that Stark is a human, not an indestructible force, and that he might need some help?
The woman dating Tony Stark requires a lot of self-confidence, and Pepper Potts has this in bucketloads. She is able to perceive Stark’s self-destructive behavior and remove herself from it, which might be the healthy choice for her, but only contributes to Stark’s anxiety.
Potts’s response makes me wonder, how do you balance being there for someone dealing with mental illness with taking care of yourself and not becoming a victim?
It’s hard to understand a loved one’s behavior when he or she becomes unstable; you might feel like you’re dealing with a stranger who won’t open up, someone who’s dealing with anger, depression, and vulnerability. I completely understand Potts’s decision to leave.
If she had stayed, if she had supported Stark through his difficulties, would she have made a difference in his recovery? She would have needed her own support network, she would have needed to set boundaries and to take care of herself too, but would offering grace and forgiveness instead of abandonment have grounded Stark?
Perhaps not. Not from her, anyway. It’s possible that Potts isn’t the right person to offer that support to Stark, because she is going through PTSD herself. An alcoholic can help another alcoholic—but there is always the risk of them slipping and reinforcing each other in bad behavior. My disapproval of her abandonment comes from my own place of stability, a stability Potts lacks.
The support Stark needs should probably come from someone who has experienced similar trauma and overcome it; someone who can be strong for Stark when he can’t be. Someone like Captain America. And there is a glimmer of this support at the end of Civil War when Rogers promises to be there for him.
The Bible inspires Christians to share each other’s burdens (something I’m not sure we do enough of). At the same time, we acknowledge that we will fail each other, and that’s why we also rely on Christ to carry us through—“who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). We can give each other a place of safety and the encouragement that God accepts us, mental illnesses and all.
Offering a community of love, support, and forgiveness is important for someone dealing with mental illness. Physical reminders that we are cared about when we are in a place of loneliness and despair are key. Giving grace to anyone who is vulnerable is a powerful tool for healing, and one we often forget to wield. I hope I can remember that when I am angry at someone’s behavior, when I see someone else in need, or when I’m the one who needs help. Though if Captain America shows up at my door the next time I am dealing with anxiety, I am pretty sure that will fix me up just fine.