Gaming is a great way to forget the world - but sometimes it's not enough.
My desktop at home, where I spend most mornings before work, is surrounded by a litter of little foil bubble-packs. Nearly every day, this place, and that detritus, is part of an essential daily routine.
I get up, ablute, swear a bit, thank my girlfriend for making coffee, and head upstairs to my PC. There, I eat breakfast, sip aforementioned steaming hot liquid of life, and start the working day, getting stories onto this very site. I’ll usually then fire up a game, like World of Tanks or whatever else is my personal flavour of the month, and chill before leaving for work.
At some point in there, I wash down my daily dose of escitalopram, an SSRI that keeps my anxiety disorder in check. This is pretty much the shape of my life for the foreseeable future; but I’m okay with that. I have what are basically two low-level necessities that keep me more or less high functioning.
The SSRIs, and games. Both, I think, are immensely helpful in getting me through the rough patches.
GADs - sounds rude!
A quick Google shows I’m not alone in using games in this way, but that same search also shows a lot of literature stating that gaming is a cause of anxiety. There’s a large correlation between gamers and anxiety sufferers like myself, but my case correlation does not equate to causation.
And, again, I know I’m not alone in that.
For me, gaming is an out from the grind of chattering, negative voices that can clamour in my head when the anxiety gets the worst of me. It can take me away from the sense that a weight is slowly crushing me, that I suck at my job, that… well, that’s General Anxiety Disorder for you - it’s not fun. It’s not a death sentence, either, but it’s sure as hell no way to live, and it definitely sucks for those close to you.
I’ve had the anxiety issues off and on for most of my life, but until recently they were pretty transient, and I could get past them. But the last couple of years have had a tonne of stuff that’s tipped it over the edge. Publishing has become a more and more fraught industry to be in, as money is sucked out of the business, and publishers keep trying to tighten the bottom line. Writing for an online audience can be it’s own challenge (yes, I think I’ll outright ban anyone who points out spelling errors in this one!), and when Atomic closed down in print it was rough. Holy shitsticks, it was tough. Follow that with what I will politely call a challenging year running a magazine and website that, two years before, had a total of four in-house editorial with just two rather flustered journos and… yeah. Anxiety moved in to stay, and my partner finally pushed me to see a doctor late last year. I wanted to, as well, but even that was making me anxious - I had to get her to make the appointment on my behalf, and to come with me to the surgery.
And it worked. More or less, but I’ll get back to that later.
Within a week or two I had a pretty good handle on what was going on, and when I felt those familiar panics moving in, I knew it was irrational, that it was just some bad brain-meats firing, and I could get past it.
When the SSRIs kicked in it was like surfacing from a deep, dark lake and taking a crisp, clean breath.
At the same time, late last year, I was gaming a lot. I was playing Battlefield 4 a lot, with a break every now and then for Skyrim, and all the mod-shuffling and tweaking you could shake a Dragonborn at. I was also heavily involved in running my Star Trek RPG campaign. I’d finish a session, and almost immediately I was thinking of the next game, writing notes, creating characters, compiling LCARs entries, or reading up various fan sites for flavour and background.
I was pouring myself into the make-believe, and with hindsight, I realised just why.
Now, I don’t think I was being obsessive, and certainly, in the case of the Trek game, there were seven lucky players who get a hell of a lot out of my obsession if that’s what it was! But nonetheless I was definitely using gaming as a crutch of sorts.
Which is not to say that’s a bad thing. Right now the SSRIs are a crutch as well; that’s just what you do with injuries and medical issues. Gaming was providing for me what I was lacking in my life. In Battlefield, I was getting short, sharp, shocks of adrenaline and chaos, but in controlled bursts, and in a I could directly influence, whereas I was fast losing control in my daily life. I was seeing advancement in my online presence (ding - level up!), where there seemed to be none in my professional life.
And, you know - shooting stuff is hella fun, so there’s that.
In Skyrim I was getting a lot of that, but also a narrative in which I was central, and a rich world that I could explore, and in so doing get away from the world outside. My roleplaying campaign was offering more again. With that I was, as the old sketch says, creating entire worlds, and driving the narrative of my players’ experience. And all in a setting which is amazingly optimistic; even with the anxiety crazies, I can tell you I’d far rather live in the Federation than in our own political climate - the Borg seem far preferable to the Liberal National Party. I was even able to create my own happy endings for my players, which is a fiendishly heady experience that no video game will ever quite be able to compete with.
This might all make me sound like a barely functioning shut-in, but that’s not the case. Having these outlets where I could offset or ignore my anxiety helped me walk out the door each morning, and helped me handle - more or less - what the day threw at me.
Gaming was my medication, until a better drug came along.
Unsurprisingly, one of the things that happened once the SSRIs started doing their thing with my head, my motivation to game seemed to dry up. One of the known side-effects - and there are some DOOZIES - is lack of motivation, so I didn’t think too much of it. I didn’t stop playing games, but I’ve not been back to BF4 since, and when my hard drive crapped itself and took my Skyrim save-game with it, I wasn’t all that upset.
More interestingly, I started to find it really hard to write. At work, and even more so for my Trek game; without that anxious energy, I just didn’t quite have that drive to dive into Federation/Cardassian politics. I guess, creating those happy endings just didn’t seem quite so important.
What was fascinating about all this is that my motivation for new games was not at all quashed. Over the Christmas break, when I had three weeks off, I played a tonne of DayZ, got back into Napoleon: Total War, and started painting a new army for my other tabletop obsession, wargaming. It just seemed that the very specific games, and styles of games, that I played during the worst of my anxiety now belonged to that period.
What I’m finding fascinating now, though, is that I’ve really only realised all this over the last few days.
My anxiety, like the old, unwanted friend it is, has peaked again. It’s not that surprising - chances are it’s the meds plateauing and I’ll need to chat to my Doc about it (hopefully before I get to anxious to talk to my Doc about it…). But guess what I’m really feeling like?
I want to find a deep, single-player RPG.
I’m itching to get into Titanfall when it unlocks on Origin tomorrow.
I am practically throwing myself into creating a character for a friend’s upcoming roleplaying campaign, writing an epic backstory, sourcing character pics, obsessing over stats and attributes, and…
Yeah, I can see a pattern here. In a way, it’s actually kind of nice to not only have these mechanisms for coping with and channeling my anxiety, and equally as useful to now be able to recognise the pace of my anxiety through those gaming habits.
There’s a method to my madness
But why am I sharing this?
Well, as I said at the beginning, I’m not alone. Just in my immediate group of friends there’s a high proportion who are either on, or have been on, medication of some kind to deal with anxiety, depression, or bipolar. But, like a lot of mental issues, it’s a tough one to talk about. That’s why so many do end up turning to gaming to help them cope - even in a multiplayer game, it’s still an inherently inward experience, and one that offers up much more control than a lot of these people - like me - feel in their daily lives.
It just makes sense.
But, as I’ve found it, it’s not the only solution. Hell, it’s not even the best solution, because while turning away from the world is a natural inclination when you’re head’s full of fear and spite, it’s ultimately a false economy. It’s something you need to face, to overcome it
Gaming is a great escape. Being online and nattering on forums, or diving down a Wikipedia-hole is fun, and a really awesome distraction.
But it’s no substitute for talking to a professional and getting some real advice. If this story reminds you of, well, you, go have a chat with someone.
It really can’t hurt. And YOU are not alone.