PTSDeep Space Nine (Ode to Aron Eisenberg)

Earlier this year I went to see a screening of What We Left Behind, a documentary about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The crowd was what you would expect – dorks, geeks, nerds, freaks. You know, Trekkies. I was at home. Waiting in the long line to get into the movie I heard a commotion up ahead, felt ripples of excitement echoing down the line.

It turned out that Aron Eisenberg, who played Nog on Deep Space Nine, was working the line. A little guy in a knit cap, Eisenberg bounded up and down the line of expectant Trekkies with a big smile on his face, laughing and joking with just about everybody. But what was most amazing was seeing Eisenberg recognize fans he had met at conventions, hearing him ask follow-up questions about things they had discussed at Star Trek Las Vegas or some other meet n’ greet. 

Eisenberg was in his element, truly vibing with the people, feeding on their excitement and love and reflecting it back tenfold. The people in that line felt included and appreciated in the way that fans hope to feel included and appreciated, the way they hope to be acknowledged and warmly welcomes by their favorite stars. It was really something else, and after the screening Eisenberg hung around (with some of his co-stars) and did a Q&A that went on so long that I bounced after an hour. His energy, at the time, seemed endless.

Sadly it did end this past week; Aron Eisenberg died at age 50. As of this writing it’s unclear what happened, but he had received two kidney transplants in the past, so that could have played a role. The news of Eisenberg’s death came as a real shock; in the last couple of years he seemed to have truly found his niche on the Star Trek circuit as Deep Space Nine was finally being recognized as the superior series it is.

At one point in the What We Left Behind doc, Eisenberg gets very emotional and cries on camera. He’s recalling fan interactions he’s had, and not the kind that he had on the line that day. He was recalling the fans suffering from trauma disorders and PTSD in particular who had reached out to him over the years and told him how much his work on that show meant to them. I sat in the theater crying that day because while I had never talked to Eisenberg about it, I was one of the people who had been deeply touched by his performance, and who had found it personally healing. 

To explain why we have to take a step back. When Deep Space Nine debuted Eisenberg was playing a tertiary character. Nog was the nephew of Quark, the sneaky Ferengi who owned the bar on space station Deep Space Nine. The Ferengi were a race of aliens introduced in The Next Generation intended to be the new Klingons; hyper-capitalists, they represented everything that Gene Roddenberry wanted to see humanity evolve past. Unfortunately, the depiction of the Ferengi kind of made them come across like Space Jews, some kind of refugees from the Interstellar Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and they never quite took off. 

When Deep Space Nine premiered the decision to make a Ferengi a regular cast member was an indication of what this show wanted to do differently – to explore a side of the Star Trek universe we had rarely or never seen before. Over the course of seven seasons the Ferengi were rehabilitated from borderline anti-Semitic characterizations into a fully fledged culture and people whose foibles and flaws reflected those of 20th century humans. The critique became more solid once the writers stopped looking at the Ferengi as villains. 

Anyway, here’s Nog. He’s this kid (Eisenberg was 24 when he began playing the character, but he was always small-statured, and Ferengi wear lots and lots of make-up) who hung around with Jake Sisko, the son of the station commander Benjamin Sisko. The older Sisko had a really retrograde attitude towards the Ferengi – he didn’t like them, was maybe racist towards them, and didn’t like Jake hanging out with Rom.

Maybe he was right at first. As written, Nog was a trouble maker and a pain in the ass. If Jake was Tom Sawyer, Nog was a truly extra reprobate Huck Finn. But Eisenberg was really good in the role, and the writers took notice, and they began giving him more to do. While early Nog was grotesquely sexist and selfish, eventually he began to evolve.

Over time Nog grew into a character who wanted to join Starfleet, something no Ferengi had ever done. He won over the older Sisko, who supported the effort, and eventually joined Starfleet Academy. He graduated right as the Federation got into the biggest war it ever knew, the World War II of Star Trek, a conflict known as the Dominion War.

You have to understand that this was a big deal at the time. Star Trek was a show about peace, and Deep Space Nine spent three years getting to war and two years in the war. More than that, Deep Space Nine aired in the era of episodic television, but the Dominion War arc was a continuing story. We take that for granted today, but it was groundbreaking for episodic non-soap TV at the time.

Nog got into the war, and in the episode Siege of AR-558 found himself in some intense ground combat. This was the kind of battle we had literally never seen in Star Trek before, bloody and difficult infantry battles with phasers. And in the course of the fight Nog took a terrible blast to his leg, and it was blown off.

It’s Star Trek, so they grew him a new leg. In another show this might have been the end of it, but this was Deep Space Nine, so the writers decided to explore this more. A couple of episodes later, in It’s Only A Paper Moon, Nog returned to the space station with his new leg but with another wound that was harder to see. The happy-go-lucky Nog had become sour, sad, withdrawn. He was experiencing PTSD.

In the episode Nog takes refuge inside a holosuite, where he runs a 1960s Rat Pack program the characters enjoy. There he hangs out with lounge singer Vic Fontaine, and Nog opts to just simply never leave the program. First he just sits in Vince’s suite, watching old movies on the TV (he likes The Searchers better than Shane. “Who doesn’t,” Vic says), but eventually he starts to take next steps. First he hangs out in Vic’s lounge, gets to know the regulars. Then he starts doing Vic’s books. Then he begins making expansion plans within the program, deciding to add a casino to the lounge. Nog has turned his back on the real world and is making his home here, inside the holographic reality. 

The main characters don’t quite know what to make of it. The station counselor thinks that the program offers Nog a respite at a time when he needs it, but she doesn’t really recognize until it’s too late that he’s hiding rather than healing. Inside the program Vic begins to see what’s actually happening. 

Another digression: Vic Fontaine is an AI, but he’s an advanced one. He’s sentient, actually, although the show kind of tiptoes around that. At any rate, he finds himself in a bind; no one has ever run his program this long before, and with 26 hours a day at his disposal (the day is longer on Deep Space Nine!), Vic is suddenly able to live a life. He doesn’t just wake up to perform, he gets to read the paper and play cards with the boys in the band. He doesn’t do anything exciting, but he gets to be alive for more time, and he sees how special that is.

Which is why he understands that Nog is doing the opposite – he’s not being alive anymore. He’s retreating. And so Vic stages an intervention.

This is what we’ve been building towards all this time – thanks for sticking through the explainer. Vic, being sentient, is able to turn off his own program, to kick Nog out of the lounge. But Nog won’t leave the holosuite, and is trying to monkey with the circuitry to force Vic back. Vic manifests himself – just himself – and he and Nog have a big talk.

All through the episode Eisenberg had painted a nuanced portrait of Nog’s pain; when he returns to the station at the beginning he’s withdrawn distant. When he first enters Vic’s program he’s sad and morose. As he busies himself with virtual business he becomes chipper and happy, but in a way that doesn’t reflect who Nog had been before – there’s a phoniness to it that Eisenberg gets across to us, that allows us to see that this isn’t a good turn of events. 

But then here, in this final scene, Eisenberg gets unbelievably raw. He delivers this speech when Vic asks him why he can’t go back to the real world:

I’m scared, okay? I’m scared. When the war began, I wasn’t happy or anything, but I was eager. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to prove I had what it took to be a soldier. And I saw a lot of combat. I saw a lot of people get hurt. I saw a lot of people die, but I didn’t think anything was going to happen to me. And then suddenly Doctor Bashir is telling me he has to cut my leg off. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. If I can get shot, if I can lose my leg, anything could happen to me, Vic. I could die tomorrow. I don’t know if I’m ready to face that. If I stay here, at least I know what the future is going to be like.

The writing here is great, credited to Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to reboot Battlestar Galactica. But it’s how Eisenberg plays it that sells the scene. Eisenberg goes real, channeling so much vulnerable pain that you forget you’re looking at an actor wearing six pounds of latex on his head. Eisenberg doesn’t go big, he goes deep, his voice cracking in a way that gets across the helpless child-like feeling he has; the camera shoots him in a way that emphasizes how small he is, but Eisenberg also sells that smallness in his eyes, wide and wet, the eyes of a child. 

In 2017/2018 I was diagnosed with PTSD. It’s embarrassing to talk about because the PTSD didn’t come from a war or a disaster, but rather from my double cancellation. When I lost my job a second time, in September of 2017, all of my fears came true. I lost my home in the process, and all security and safety I had fell away. My whole life had been insecure – I was raised poor, with a single mother who was emotionally neglectful and in circumstances where I habitually felt like an outsider. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it did it was a steel-toed Doc Marten. Lots of childhood trauma got reactivated and amplified in the process. What’s more, when the internet turns on you and decides you’re a bad person the emotional impact is… intense. It felt like people wanted me dead, and I’m not just talking about the people who sent me messages urging me to kill myself. The larger sense was the the world had turned on me and wanted to kill me. 

I knew that fear Nog was talking about. There’s this scene in The World According to Garp where Garp and his wife are looking at houses and a small plane crashes into the one they’re seeing, causing minor damage to the roof. Garp takes the house, reasoning that the odds of this ever happening again are slim. I wish I was like that, but my PTSD tells me that if it happened once not only could it happen again, it probably will. And since it happened to me twice, my PTSD was given a very convincing bit of evidence that this could happen again. And again. And again.

That urge to shut down, to turtle up and pull in your limbs, to disappear into something distracting, is an urge I understood all too well. Understand all too well; sometimes when I’m stressed I find myself losing an hour to Candy Crush or three to Call of Duty. I can’t disappear into movies or TV the way I once did because too often there will be a plot point that will strike too close to home and I’ll get activated (this happens to Nog while watching Shane; Shane gets shot and is fine, and Nog calls bullshit and becomes agitated). Candy Crush, however, is harmless and distracting. 

Thank god that’s the way I disappear; if I hadn’t made the choice to become sober I think I would have certainly disappeared into a bottle. I go to recovery meetings and I hear people talk about how drinking would have killed them, but I never identify with that. I don’t think drinking would have killed me in a dramatic, exciting, cirrhosis way. I think I would have been a 70 year old propping up the corner of the bar, hoping people buys him a shot. Vic sums it up when he talks to Nog:

You stay here, you’re going to die. Not all at once, but little by little. Eventually you’ll become as hollow as I am.

That’s the understanding I came to, that my death would be slow and would involve the chipping away of everything that made living worthwhile. I would become a hollow shell of a human being, worthless and angry, but mostly afraid.

Eisenberg’s rawness cut through a lot of the emotional clutter in my head, but that was partially possible because of the nature of Deep Space Nine. It’s Only A Paper Moon was in the seventh season of Deep Space Nine, and the arc of Nog was one that didn’t scream out “PTSD incoming!” It’s the subtlety of his arc, the slow growth of the character, the way I came to love this annoying Ferengi, and to support his dreams, that made these episodes all the more shattering. So many years were spent with this character, always assuming that he was safe, that when he had this moment it truly hit hard. 

Watching Eisenberg play Nog in these scenes was cathartic. I felt like some small bit of my experience was being shown to me; I felt less alone. Getting a PTSD diagnosis is still tough for me; I’m embarrassed by it and feel ashamed at what feels like weakness. I’m no soldier. Some people probably think I deserve to have this. But that isn’t what matters. What matters is that the wound is real, and that I can choose to not compound that wound by retreating or hiding. I can heal it by dealing with it.

Shortly after watching this episode I began EMDR with my therapist – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is intended to help confront and recontextualize traumatic events and situations. In another version of this story I would be proselytizing EMDR, but my financial situation is such that I haven’t been able to afford therapy for the past few months. I hope to return to it when money allows, but in the meantime I continue my meditation practice, which often brings me to some of the same emotional places and gives me the tools with which to deal with the pain wisely and to work on healing it.

A lot of people told Aron Eisenberg what that episode meant to them; I never got the chance. I wish I had, because it’s clear how much hearing that moved him. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t one of those “How C3PO Saved My Life” pieces, because Nog didn’t save my life. What this episode did was more subtle than the big splashy stuff people usually write about with pop culture and trauma – this episode briefly and gently made me feel less alone in the pain and fear I was (and still am) experiencing. What made it all the more special is that it wasn’t something I expected, and the performance was an actor operating at the top of his abilities, in ways he had never been given the space to operate before. I wish I had been able to tell Aron Eisenberg that one night, while binging Deep Space Nine, I had come across his twenty year old performance and it spoke to me right at that moment, that his work still mattered. It still does matter.

At the end of the episode Nog finally leaves the holodeck and comes to Quark’s Bar, where his friends watch him enter, unsure how he’s doing.

“Are you okay?” Leeta, his mother-in-law, askes him.

“No,” Nog replies. “But I will be.” Eisenberg delivers that grace note with an honesty and a reality that I still keep in mind when I’m dealing with what I deal with.