Nintendo was my gateway drug.
My first video games were Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on the NES, and it was love from the start. That experience made a lasting impression on me - literally as well as figuratively, since I still have a scar on the side of my nose from the time my asshole little brother chucked a Duck Hunt gun at my head while in the throes of a tantrum. From the NES I moved to a Game Boy obsession with Kirby and Tetris that would repeatedly get me in trouble at recess for not playing with the other kids. I branched out to the many iterations of Sonic on Sega Genesis, discovered the joys of Quake and Half-Life on PC, and then had my twelve-year-old mind blown by the PlayStation.
I was a shy, timid kid who never quite grew out of it and I found immense comfort in the solitary nature of most games. After the advent of multiplayer shooters I rode the high of being a part of a team while taking refuge in the anonymity of a screen name. I knew I was missing out on those “typical” milestones of adolescence but I didn’t care, or at least pretended I didn’t care convincingly enough to be satisfied with my increasingly solitary existence. Sure, making new friends seemed like an impossible feat and I’d never been asked out on a date or gone to a school dance - but hey I beat both Resident Evil 2 scenarios with an “A” ranking. That was a real accomplishment, a feat acknowledged by a game that didn’t care how pretty or popular or thin I was.
The depression and severe anxiety began I was about twelve years old. The eating disorders and body dysmorphia crept in later. (What can I say, I’m the total package.) I have dysthymia, a chronic form of depression. What this means is that there is no cure - the depression will never be fully gone. The best I can hope for, aside from some miracle cure that has yet to be discovered, is to keep it at bay with medications and whatever coping mechanisms I can cobble together. The thought of being medicated for the rest of my life is - to put it mildly - incredibly disheartening. The past few years have been months and months of trial-and-error, a never ending cycle of new medications and dosage adjustments, each of which take weeks to even kick in.
Throughout it all gaming has been my primary coping mechanism. The further I sank into the mire of depression and self-hatred, the more I enveloped myself in the fictional worlds of books, old movies, and above all, video games. Somewhere deep down I knew that I was removing myself from the typical social equation, and that socializing was a skill that required effort and would improve with practice. It wasn’t that I didn’t want all those teen movie cliches - a big group of friends, dates, perfect hair ... I wanted those things desperately, in fact. I just had no idea how to reach out for them, and consequently assumed that it was all completely out of my grasp. I reasoned that even if I gave up gaming entirely and plucked up the courage to put myself out there in the real world, I would still be plain and overweight and socially awkward with glasses and a gap between my teeth. Why give up something that gave me pleasure and a sense of accomplishment for what I could only assume would be a world of rejection? I had a couple of close friends, a cat, and a whole array of fictional worlds to lose myself in. For a long time, from my teens well into adulthood, it was good enough.
With depression, it’s easy to deceive yourself into thinking it’s under control. When things in my life are going well I can ignore it and embrace whatever happiness I find. It’s when things get tough that I become acutely aware that it’s always there lurking just under the surface. Prime example: from the time I was a child I wanted to be a doctor, but in my late teens I cracked under the weight of the pressure I was putting on myself. Tormented by the idea that I’d sabotaged myself before I even got to the the starting line and ruined my career prospects, I leaned in hard to the failure: skipping classes, dabbling in drug use, getting involved with a terrible, controlling boyfriend. I holed up in my room for months on end with my laptop and my PlayStation but the numbness that I felt toward everything else insidiously seeped in until all of my favorite books and games became dull and uninteresting. When hurting myself with an unending cycle of starvation and purging and scarring my own flesh was no longer punishment enough I moved on to other methods. Eventually I took the next logical step and swallowed an entire bottle of xanax one afternoon when I was home alone.
After failing at killing myself on top of everything else I felt like I was in a deep hole, one that was impossible to emerge from.
It took me years to get there but slowly, little by little, I’ve managed to climb up toward the surface. During that time I’ve leaned on games more than ever to help me through, and none more so than Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. After a particularly draining therapy session, after spending all day sitting in classes that I should have passed years ago, after taking a new medication that somehow makes me both intensely drowsy and constantly nauseated, those games have been there for me. When I couldn’t bear to think my own stupid thoughts anymore I could spend a few hours fighting darkspawn and fussing over my tactics and inventory in Ferelden. On the many days when I thought I lacked the strength to trudge on I visited the Normandy and took that exhilarating journey to save the universe over and over again.
I felt weak and damaged in person, but after a few hours of playing as Shepard, my Shepard, I always turned off the console feeling like a total badass. It’s a strange thing to think of video games as providing material emotional support, but that’s exactly what they did for me, and why those particular games mean so much to me.
Even now, I still turn to those key games for comfort. On my low days I feel that downward pull but resist it by focusing on work, reading, writing, games, chatting with friends. There are some days - blessedly few and far between - where all the running, elaborate baking projects, digging into my gaming backlog and burning through countless podcasts and comics can’t stave off the feeling and there’s not much to do but wait it out.
The hardest part, the aspect I’ve most struggled with, is reaching out for help. I have a very nice psychiatrist and a competent therapist, but those couple hours a month can only do so much. I once tried to talk about my depression with my mom but she got extremely upset and began blaming herself, asking me what she had done wrong. I can’t help but feel crushed and so incredibly guilty for upsetting her so I backtrack and tell her I’m okay, that everything is well under control. Friends … ehh I think they can sometimes pick up on when I’m low, but for the most part when I’m feeling that way I stick to the happy-go-lucky facade and try to be as peppy and entertaining as possible. I mean who would want to be friends with someone so damaged, someone who needs people to lean on so badly? I know if I reached out every time I was feeling low it would be absolutely exhausting and I would soon find myself completely alone. I’d like to believe that there are people in this world who would like me - even love me - anyway, fucked up as I am, but the fear of scaring people away is far too strong and still running the show.
So in the meantime I keep it all close to the chest and hold out hope that things will get better. As someone who lives out their life primarily in their head the value of the distraction that games offer cannot be overstated. Every second I can lose myself in a world where I’m powerful and important, every full hour that goes by when I haven’t had a single cruel thought about myself or pang of irrational panic or sadness is a goddamn gift.
To my credit I’ve come a very long way in managing my illnesses and balancing those solitary hours spent gaming with efforts to spend more time out in the real world and reach out, oh so tentatively, to make new friends and acquaintances. It’s still easier for me to hide behind a screen name or deflect serious conversations with lame jokes, but the effort - nerve wracking as it is - is there. The phrase “take it one day at a time” is so cliche, so trite, but truly there’s no other way for me to deal with my depression. On my lowest days I take comfort in revisiting old friends, friends who have seen me through so much: Garrus, Johnny Gat, Hawke, the Warden, the Lone Wanderer, various Elder Scrolls dark elf archers. I just focus on getting through the next few hours with the hope that some quality distraction and a good night’s sleep will work wonders.
It may or may not, but I have to believe that it’s possible.
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