[Editor’s note: We mistakenly ran an earlier, unfinished version of this piece. We regret the error.]
(Note: This is the intersection of some of my life experiences and Penny Arcade’s The Sixth Slave. It’s not meant to represent anyone else’s experiences/conclusions, just mine.)
It’s really very simple; I already have a long list of things for which I am entirely culpable. I’ve made a fragile peace with that.
It’s not something I generally talk about, these days, but I’ll provide you with a few examples.
Firstly, many years ago, my several, male flatmates sent me on a date with their friend. I went to see a show with the guy. Unfortunately, he was wearing the wrong sweater of the wrong color and the wrong texture. How can a sweater be so wrong? You’ll have to trust me. It was just wrong, very wrong.
After sitting down, and his sweater brushing my arm, I told him I was going to the bathroom. I wasn’t. Instead, I left the venue and sprinted several miles back to my flat.
The guy turned up on the doorstep shortly afterwards and my flatmates asked him to leave. (Even though he was their friend and even though they didn’t know what had happened. They were good like that. But, nothing had happened. He just wore the wrong sweater.)
Do I feel bad for running out on that guy? (Even though it happened many years ago?) Yes. Should I have offered my flatmates an explanation? Yes. Did I do something mean to a guy who just wanted to go on a nice date? Yes.
Here is an even worse example. I went through a promiscuous period around the same time of my life. There was a guy I got together with. It was consensual. I told one of his female friends that it wasn’t. Why? I wanted to know what it felt like to accuse someone of that. Neither of those two people ever spoke to me again.
Again, yes. I feel bad. Very bad. Still. (It’s partly how I know never to do it again.)
Then there’s drinking. I drank way too much for way too long. I did some stupid stuff when I was drunk. Once more, my fault, my problem to solve.
Also, I used guys who I knew liked me, while knowing I didn’t like them the same way. I got into an abusive relationship. I cheated on a partner.
I accept responsibility for all of these things. I did them. In some cases, I tried to make amends. Most of these things happened a long time ago, though.
Recently, I took the grand step of explicitly apologizing for something much more quickly. It’s not that I wasn’t sorry for all of the prior things, just that it’s really hard to admit fault when you’re so ashamed of your behavior. This incident involved a male friend, who I absolutely berated (that’s an understatement, but I really can’t find the right word) for making an innocent, but unfortunately-innuendo-laden joke. It was several months and a weird, lucky coincidence before he forgave me, though. I’m incredibly grateful that he did because he’s a really good person. Have I forgiven myself for that one? Nope. Will I? Can’t picture it.
No, I don’t have a great track record for behavior. What I can assure you is that I’ve spent many tens of thousands of dollars of my own, hard-earned money in therapy, trying to find other ways to express myself, trying to find peace, rather than hurt people.
There’s an elephant in my room. Maybe you’ve already figured that out, especially if you’re a bit like me yourself.
Do I feel responsible for the things that happened to me as a young teenager? That’s very difficult to answer. I wanted it, or some of it, at least to start with. I’ve also talked, at great length with therapists, about how this wasn’t my fault and how it’s very common to feel as if it was. It’s still hard to shake. What happened to me? None of your damn business.
But, when I found myself in a moment similar to the one depicted in The Sixth Slave, in real life, still young, asking a trusted friend to liberate me, my hero also refused. (I’ve since reconciled with said, real-life hero. He was out of his depth and I can forgive that. I can even forgive the, years later, investigating officers who so sensitively explained they couldn’t proceed due to a lack of corroborating evidence.)
It’s not the comic that worries me, particularly. I’m a gamer. I get it. Quest objectives are silly.
It’s my original point; I already have a long list of things for which I am culpable.
Penny Arcade received feedback about The Sixth Slave. I didn’t provide any, but my thanks go to those who did. (Did people abuse Penny Arcade in the process of providing feedback? I really have no idea. I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I told anyone to behave better, or differently, though.)
I couldn’t care less about eliciting sympathy. I’m not saying I think I’m somehow better than the people at Penny Arcade because I endeavor to be responsible for my actions, either. I do my best. I have no idea if they’re doing their best. But, surely, if you have the guts to make the joke, have the guts to understand its impact.
I haven’t shared, in this piece, the damage (and subsequent healing) this current rehash of the situation caused me. Why? I don’t want them to know, not them, not now. And, I will handle it myself, like I handle everything myself. They can ask, if they want to know.
The whole sequence of events following The Sixth Slave suggests to me that, instead of this being an opportunity to gain a richer understanding into the lives of those affected by these kinds of things, it’s been easier for them to simply deflect blame mostly back towards people like me, or people who are concerned about people like me. Or, bizarrely, even back towards the people who want to “open the wound (they created) back up”, through demanding the right to buy shirts they made.
Quietly not enjoying any of this is not something that I’ve done wrong. They’re not things I, or people like me, or people who care about people like me, should need to add to a potentially already long, and very heavy, list of culpability. (And, I’ve done much worse things than not finding a comic funny, remember?)
I’ve been to PAX. I enjoyed it immensely. I also love games more than anyone I know. (And I know a lot of people who love games.) There are some things in life, however, that are more important than games and comics. This is one of them.
One of the scariest parts of being mentally ill based on my experience and from the stories of people I’ve talked to who also suffer from mental illness, is getting into therapy. It’s a choice that’s loaded with stigmatic judgments, and that makes it so easy to think something is wrong with us. It can be terrifying to think about completely opening up about all the stuff going on in our heads which, if we’ve shared it with other people, might have frightened or horrified them. The possibility of taking meds inspires fear that we may become someone entirely different than who we are.
I’ve never met someone currently in therapy, or who was in therapy in the past, who said that the decision to seek help was easy. When I ask people why they finally went for help the answer has been just as consistent. They got tired of feeling the way they were feeling, they say, whether it was depression or anxiety or mood instability. They listened to the part of themselves that said, “We don’t have to put up with this anymore.”
Going into therapy or any other kind of treatment ultimately has to be our choice. Therapy is hard work, and unless we’re engaging with it of our own free will, in my experience, its effectiveness is always limited. If I can encourage you to do anything it’s to listen to any voice within yourself that says it’s time to seek help, because I wish I’d listened to it so much earlier than I did.
My parents realized something was wrong much earlier than I was willing to admit it to myself. The first time they sent me to a therapist was when I was 15. I wasn’t just a typically surly, moody teenager. There was something else on top of that, an instability that led to violent bouts of anger and dark depressions, and it scared them. They didn’t ask if I wanted to talk with anybody about what was going on. They just sent me off to the therapist’s office because they thought it would help, and they didn’t know what else to do.
I remember sitting in a high-backed, cushiony chair next to a table filled with knick-knacks, like animals made of colored glass. I spent most of my time fidgeting with the glass animals instead of paying close attention to what the therapist was asking me. When she gave me a paper test evaluation I breezed through it without taking time to really think about the answers.
I didn’t want to be there. When I’d told a classmate earlier that day that I was going to therapy, a classmate I thought was a friend, he threw me a disgusted look and said “Get away from me!”
A girl in our junior high school was emotionally disturbed. She used to lose her temper in the morning before classes began, throwing chairs at the kids in the lunchroom crunching out the homework they should have done the night before. Everyone teased her to her face and called her a freak behind her back. Sitting in that therapist’s chair, I felt like a freak as well, and didn’t want any part of it.
I only remember having the one session. I don’t know whether it was because the therapist reported back that I was uncooperative, or because by being uncooperative I was giving no sign that I was having problems beyond what any 15 year old boy might be having at that age. Even though I would spend high school swinging between bouts of suicidal depression and manic ranting about hating the world, that single session was the closest I ever came to getting the treatment that, looking back on it now, I clearly needed.
It wasn’t until I was 26 that I voluntarily went to see a therapist, after a counselor in my grad school’s health care center offered a recommendation if I wanted it. I’d been a drug addict for seven years, self medicating my mania and depression away. I’d been the abused in an abusive relationship and ruined another relationship of my own accord, but had finally met someone I genuinely loved and wanted to be with. I’d wasted an entire year of graduate school getting high and had to work full time at an office job before transferring to another program at a different school so that I could start all over again. I hated that job so much that I started using drugs more than ever before.
So when I started the new graduate school program and was by then living with my girlfriend, I decided that I’d had enough. My mother had been in therapy for years and I’d seen it work for her first hand. She helped me get past the shame of feeling like going to therapy was an admission that I was intrinsically broken, or the fear that therapy would somehow change me into someone I didn’t recognize.
I began an intense three-year program of four days a week psychoanalysis, psycho pharmaceutical treatment, and then maintenance therapy which continues to this day.
I’m healthy. I don’t use drugs. I practice self awareness and gratitude, and I’m not perfect at either, but I’ve felt them improve my life so I keep at both practices. I’ve managed a modicum of success as a freelance writer, which offers me types of stress I never could have dealt with before I was in treatment. I’ve even had a daily exercise regimen for the past month, which is something I thought would happen around the time Hell froze over.
Mental illness doesn’t go away. Those of us who suffer from it have to be mindful of our depression or anxiety or mood swings well after treatment allows us to live a “normal” life, whatever that means for different people, if we’re fortunate enough for treatment to be successful. We may have to keep working hard in treatment to claim that relative normalcy or to keep it in our possession, but it’s possible to reach a point where mental illness doesn’t have to dominate our lives. We don’t have to be mastered by whatever ailment we suffer from. We can fight back.
That means listening to the voice that tells us we can. Hopefully, as you realize that you’re not alone, you’ll also realize that there is no shame in seeking help. That we’re not responsible for any stigmas around our conditions, and that really the problem isn’t with us, it’s with anyone who lacks the compassion to care. The voice that said you don’t have to put up with feeling the way you’re feeling may get louder as you realize all of this.
I try not to regret, as part of my practice of living in the moment. I’m not very good at either, but I keep trying. I can’t help but wonder, all the time, how my life would have been different had I been open to listening to that voice when I was 15 years old. If you can hear that voice, listen closely. It’s not a voice that reproves for not getting into treatment up until then. It’s a voice that cares about you and offers hope.
It’s now nearing the Take This Project’s one-year anniversary and I know a lot of you are curious to know where we’re at with various things.
We’ve also just come from a successful PAX Prime where we held a panel with such luminaries as Jeff Green, Mike Neumann and our own Janelle Bonanno and Ashly Burch. It was a great event and I think we touched a lot of people.
Unfortunately that event was not without controversy (or else it wouldn’t be PAX), and that, too is something we’ve been busy addressing.
So I wanted to provide the following FAQ for everyone so that you might have a clearer picture of where we are with the project, where we aim to be in the future and how you can help us get there.
Thanks again for your continued support of Take This.
What is the Take This Project mission?
Take This provides empathy, resources, and a safe fellowship for members of the video game community who are dealing with mental health issues.
That’s pretty short.
Yep. we’re keeping it simple so that we can maintain focus and not get distracted with too many projects. It’s also broad enough that, we think, everything we have planned fits well within it and leaves room for more.
What’s the video game community?
Well, if you play, make or sell video games, then you are.
That’s a lot of people.
Why does it have to be limited to just people who play, make or sell games?
Technically it doesn’t. There are a lot of people suffering from mental health issues who don’t fit into the description above, and who could probably benefit from the Take This mission.
We don’t want to exclude those people. Our hope is that most of what we do will be open to people who’ve never even heard of a video game, and if so, then that’s great. All are welcome.
Thing is, this is where we live. We know this community pretty well, and there are issues specific to this community that we believe are not very well addressed, that we think we can help address, because we are affected by them too.
How can I donate to Take This?
You can’t yet. But we hope to change that soon. More details to come.
How can I be a part of Take This?
This is the single most common question that we get, and the answer is … we don’t know yet.
In the months that Take This has existed we have received so many offers of help and support that simply responding to those offers has been an overwhelming task. Sorting through the list of volunteers, evaluating their capabilities and then organizing them to tackle the various projects that they might be well-suited for is simply something that we are not yet equipped to handle. It’s beyond us right now.
The long answer is that once we have incorporated, certified non-profit and built up our administrative capabilities, we will be able to employ a vast army of volunteers for all manner of projects. But right now we’re too small to accept help on all but a very few, small-scale projects.
Wait, you’re saying you’re small but you can’t accept my help? Isn’t that contradictory?
It would seem to be a contradiction, but it’s not. Even non-profit volunteers require management and direction and oversight. A lot of people take for granted how important effective management can be, but it’s critical, especially for non-profits.
We’ve managed teams, individually, for decades. Some professional, others volunteer. It’s a full time job, especially with volunteers, who also have full-time jobs and tend to need to be replaced more frequently or bolstered with additional volunteers. Every person involved in a project adds just a bit more time and attention required to manage that project.
Even a small team of smart, self-directing volunteers can require a lot of management. And right now, Take This doesn’t have the spare bandwidth to tackle that challenge. We know. We tried. :-(
I sent you an email or submitted a story or commented on this Tumblr or posted on your Facebook page or messaged you on Twitter and I haven’t heard from you in response. Why not?
The short answer is that we are human and all have full-time jobs that aren’t related to Take This, and that there are only so many hours in a day.
But the long answer is more complicated than that, so please bear with the following explosion of words.
There’s an old television commercial for a company called Hair Club for Men. It’s an embarrassing commercial for hairpieces and other “bald guy” products, and it shows a guy jumping into a swimming pool wearing his toupee and the toupee doesn’t come off and that’s supposed to be a selling point.
Anyway, the spokesman for the service is the company’s president. And his tagline is, “I’m not just the president, I’m also a member!” And in the end you’re supposed to be wowed by how natural his hair looks and how successful he can become in life in spite of the overwhelming social handicap of not having hair. Like I said, embarrassing, but that tagline sicks with me and I recall it every day working with Take This.
The board members of Take This are not just board members, we’re also members. Each one of us is affected by mental health issues in some ways, and some in very meaningful and powerful ways.
For those who are struggling with issues related to mental health every day, helping others reminds them of their own issues, and this can be crippling. Even for those of us who are relatively blessed with milder mental health issues can become overwhelmed by the thought of reading an email from someone who is suffering, or even thinking about Take This, because it reminds us of our own issues.
We’ve had many members of Take This drop out of the organization because dealing with the needs of our membership has made dealing with their own issues more difficult for them, and some board members, too.
The challenges faced by Take This are unique to charitable organizations in that, due to the nature of mental illness, stepping forward to help those who suffer can (and does) make our own suffering worse. It’s a dangerous cycle that we have had to seriously address and will have to continue to address as we move forward.
The solution, in the long term, is to slowly establish trust with more and more members of the organization and build out our core membership so that we can tackle more and more projects more rapidly. But again, see above, re: management.
The long term solution is to incorporate, certify as non-profit, establish a cash flow and hire a full- or part-time support staff who can make it their job to tackle aspects of our organization that are currently falling through the cracks or not being addressed because we’re unable.
I want to take this space to apologize to everyone who feels as if Take This has let them down by not being responsive enough, but beg your continued patience as we work through that challenge. we have a plan and we are moving forward with it. It just takes time.
So what’s happening with the Take This Project now?
Take This is currently pursuing incorporation as a business and federal 501c3 non-profit certification. It is our hope to have this process completed before the end of the year, after which time you will see a new Take This website, our attendance at more conventions, podcasts, Google Hangouts to discuss specific mental health issues and direct outreach to video game development studios as a service to their employees who may be suffering.
And that’s just a short list of the plans we have in store. Those are actually the simplest things we have planned. Our goals are pretty ambitious for Take This, but the first step in all of them is incorporating, then certifying as a non-profit.
Why is incorporation and non-profit certification important?
This is America. Everything costs money. And everything that costs money is taxed in some way by the federal government.
For Take This to be able to accept financial donations, we have to be certified non-profit. Otherwise, every dollar we receive would be taxable by the government, and one of us would have to pay those taxes.
Likewise, every dollar we spend is also taxable, and right now those taxes are being paid by one or another of us, along with the cost of whatever is is we’re paying for.
Take This is currently running with very low expenses (things like the cost of the web address and printing), but every single thing we’d like to do that we are not currently doing requires money, and that money has to come from somewhere. Right now we can’t ask for it, and even though we all have full time jobs, none of us makes enough to support an entire organization like Take This.
But I use plenty of products and services that don’t cost money, like Tumblr and Google. Why can’t Take This do the same thing?
We already do, but even with those services we have had some expenses which Take This board members have paid for out-of-pocket. And there are limits to what we can do, even with the array of powerful free tools on the internet.
We also have needs that can’t be addressed with free software and services, such as travel expenses for Take This members attending our events at PAX, bills for services like card printing and compensation to our mental health care professionals for their time.
Many wonderful people have and are continuing to donate their time (and in some cases, their personal funds) to support Take This this far, but our goals are greater than what we can accomplish piecemeal, with, a full-volunteer staff and limited funding.
But I have friends who hold game marathons and other events to raise money for charity, and they don’t have to go through all that federal bullcrap you described.
Yep, and it’s a great thing they are doing. The money they raise through their efforts goes to needy and valuable organizations like Child’s Play and the Red Cross to help in those organizations’ charitable efforts. Perhaps some day they’ll be able to hold marathons to help Take This, which we’d much appreciate!
Take This could, today, ask for money to then give to another charitable organization. Organizations like Child’s Play make it very easy to do so. But Take This is not a fundraiser, it’s a charitable organization in its own right.
There is no other organization quite like it. So we’re creating one. And to do so, we’re having to jump through all of the same administrative and legal hoops as Child’s Play has.
This will establish Take This as an official charitable organization in the eyes of the US Government, allowing us to do things like accept financial donations, spend money, buy things and hire people.
Until Take This is certified non-profit, everything the organization does creates financial or legal risk for its founders. Any donations we accept would be taxable by the government, meaning one of us would owe taxes. Anything we buy would be purchased using our personal money (which we’re currently spending already for things like the website address, printing and so forth) which is also taxable and not deductible. Anyone we employ would be an employee of us personally, not the organization, which could open us to all kinds of additional expenses and potential legal issues which are overwhelming to even think about, much less deal with.
Will Take This be accepting new members?
When will Take This be accepting new members?
We don’t know yet, but soon, we hope.
What will membership in Take This get me?
We don’t know yet. Deciding what membership means, what it grants you and what it means we will expect of you in return are all questions were are trying to answer.
The first step is incorporating and certifying as non-profit. After that we will lay out a plan of action to address our immediate goals, determine what resources we need to accomplish those goals and then begin fundraising to build up those resources.
We’re pretty sure that the status of members and how the membership application process needs to work will come online after all of that.
I am already a member of Take This, but I haven’t heard from you in a while. What’s up with that?
When Take This was founded last year, we had no idea what it would or could become. At first our goals were pretty simple: get a lot of people involved and tell stories on a Tumblr page. That’s a pretty basic goal, and it was something a lot of people were able to get behind.
As a result, many, many people stepped forward and our initial “membership” swelled. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet put a lot of thought or time into determining what membership really meant, and what our organization’s goals might really be.
There were, as a result, conflicting ideas of what the project should be attempting to accomplish and, as happens in organizations that grow rapidly, many people who’d signed on early decided they no longer wanted to be a part. And others simply got busy with other things or found they didn’t have as much time as they’d hoped to devote to the project.
None of this is bad, and we all remain friends, but it did necessitate a period of refocusing. We have since spent the majority of 2013 addressing the resulting challenges.
Early this year the Take This founders organized a small administrative team to tackle the immediate goals of creating a founding mission for the organization, deciding how Take This needed to be organized to complete that mission and doing the work of getting the organization to the point where it could make those things happen.
This has not been easy work, and all of us on the administrative committee (many of whom have since become the organization’s defacto founding Board) have full-time jobs elsewhere and increasingly limited time to tackle these challenges. But I believe what we have built will be stronger and better able to serve the community and survive in the face of the challenges ahead.
If you were a part of that initial membership drive in 2012, and were invited onto the Take This Google Group and you would still like to be a part of Take This, please let us know. We will continue to consider you founding members in good standing. And as soon as we figure out exactly what that will mean, you will be among the first to know!
Who are the Take This Board?
Russ Pitts, Founder and Chair
Mark Kline, Vice-chair
Janelle Bonanno, Treasurer
Ashly Burch, Secretary
Susan Arendt (co-founder)
How do I become a board member?
Once we complete our incorporation we will publish our governing rules, voting procedures and membership requirements. We will have to decide what kind of voting rights the project will grant to members and how elections will be held, but that’s still a ways off.
We want to ensure that Take This will be as democratic as is practical, going forward, but we also have to balance the ability of members to directly influence the board makeup and actions with what will be a most effective make-up and organization for a project of our size.
In short, it’s not a simple question but we’re committed to doing what’s best for the project to ensure that it can fulfill its mission.
So what happened at PAX Prime 2013?
For our part, the “It’s Dangerous To Go Alone” panel at PAX Prime was a roaring success. Mikey Neumann even broke down in tears on stage. It was moving and powerful and amazing.
Afterward we were swarmed with people wanting to thank us, offer help (see above) and generally express support for Take This. It was a great day and it recharged our batteries to continue to tackle the many challenges of organizing Take This.
And then the dickwolves controversy sparked up again.
The entire debacle (dating back to 2010) and what happened regarding the controversy at PAX Prime this year is explained in eloquent prose by Wired’s Rachel Edidin. There’s not much I can add, so please read it.
On the face of it, the events at that panel don’t have any direct effect on Take This. We are not employed by Penny Arcade, and its founders have no sway over what we do, what we say or, really, how we feel about ourselves.
But the vast intangible reality is that attending an event where things like this can happen to make people feel alienated and unwelcome has a direct impact on Take This. Our mission is to embrace empathy. Alienating people because of their beliefs, gender or expression is not very empathetic.
And so, we’re faced with somewhat of a conundrum. We have reached out to the PAX leadership in the hopes we can help them think through this issue, and, so far, their response has been positive and productive. We are committed to supporting members of our community who have suffered form abuse and trauma and hope that PAX will continue to be an event where our message will be effective.
As of right now, that’s all there is to say. We continue to discuss the issue within the board and are continuing to discuss the matter with PAX. We will at some point have to decide what next steps will be, but for now we are carefully evaluating and deliberating. When we reach a decision, we will absolutely share that.
I’m at my best in 140 characters or less, cracking jokes, making puns and throwing out Lord of the Rings references. Was your ass forged by Sauron? Because that thing is PRECIOUS! Yeah…
But, some stories can’t be captured in 140 characters. Stories like how my sister lost a friend to suicide. Or, how a close friend’s father committed suicide after years of struggling with mental illness.
Though both of them had many around them who loved them unconditionally they felt as though they had no other choice. The illness consumed them to a point where they felt they didn’t want to “be a burden” any longer; that the world would be a better place without them in it. This, of course, was not true.
If you read nothing else in the rest of the post, read this and know it to be true: YOU MATTER. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I know. You might scoff, and say, “Yes, I am.” But, pause for a moment. One in four people suffers from mental illness. Likely, you know someone else who feels like you do.
That’s a large part of why we’re putting on the Depressed Cake Shop – and why it’s become such a worldwide sensation, with shops popping up all over and coverage on CNN, Huffington Post, and other major news outlets. The goal of the shops – which sell only gray cakes – is to bring awareness to mental illness and help those who are afflicted, no longer continue to suffer in silence.
Like me. I’ve had major depression and anxiety since I was 15. There were times when I sat alone in my car and envisioned hundreds of different ways I would die. In my head they were freak accidents—I’ve never been so low as to attempt anything by any means—but I felt that the world was a cold, empty place and my brain haunted me with these terrible images. It took me a long time to realize that this isn’t me. It’s my disease. My depression.
I know what it’s like to sleep all day because you don’t feel like doing anything else. I remember when joy was a foreign concept. I remember wondering if I would ever feel affected by anything ever again or if I would always be numb. With depression, the numbness and emptiness is worse than the sadness. Then the guilt set in; I didn’t think I deserved to be sad when there was so much suffering in the world. My depression caused a vicious, seemingly-inescapable cycle of hopelessness. And there was no way I could just “snap” myself out of it. Trust me, I tried.
For years, I was stubborn about going to therapy because I didn’t want to be “that girl” at dinner who always piped up with, “My therapist says…” I didn’t want to become reliant on medication. I mean, it’s over-prescribed anyway, right? How could it possibly help? And I certainly didn’t want to pay loads of cash to a doctor just to have him hear me bitch about my completely mundane life that didn’t mean anything to anyone, not even myself. If I had diabetes, I wouldn’t have treated it like this. But, depression is a tricky illness. It tricks the mind into continuing to engage in unhealthy behaviors. And, in our culture, it’s often treated as something you can just “get over.” NAMI.org (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) puts it best. “Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.”
Things got worse as my career in video games PR was taking off. I threw myself into work to get out of my own head. Great for my career, not so great for the soul. When I was at my worst, I was lucky enough to have a lot of caring people who supported me and finally pushed me to try therapy. I went, begrudgingly. I also skipped plenty of sessions because I didn’t see the point in going. At first, I thought my therapist was feeding me some kind of pre-written script but after a few months of weekly, sometimes bi-weekly sessions, it finally clicked. It felt like Gandalf swooped in and said, “Dawn take you all!” and little cracks of light appeared and turned the Depression Troll to stone. Finally. I still take medication, and, thanks to therapy, I no longer feel like I have to listen to those negative emotions when they do bubble up. I feel like I have a choice in how I react to them. I never would have felt this way on my own.
A little over a month ago, my friend Rebecca Swanner (former video game editor for Penthouse and author of two self-help books) told me she was inspired to create the Los Angeles outpost for the Depressed Cake Shop and donate all proceeds to a mental health charity. I finally felt like I could repay the kindness my friends and family showed me even when I had felt like I didn’t deserve it.
The concept of Depressed Cake Shop, which hails from the UK, is cool. It’s a pop-up bakery that sells gray-on-the-outside, colored-on-the-inside cakes and baked goods to raise awareness about brain disorders and mental illness. The color on the inside symbolizes how depression coats everything in gray, but there is still hope to be found. As the founder, Emma Cakehead explains, “By having grey cakes we’re challenging the expected, and getting people to challenge the labels they put on those who suffer with a mental illness.”
The Los Angeles shop will be open August 23rd and 24th and all proceeds will benefit NAMI Westide, the West LA chapter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Want to get involved with a Cake Shop near you or start one of your own? Go for it! There are only two requirements: you sell only grey cakes and you donate the money to a charity that is tied to mental health. Here’s the updated list of cake shops. And, if you don’t see one near you, the site has information on how to start your own!
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, I hope I see you next weekend. Don’t be afraid to encourage a friend to come. You can always bring them a cupcake and say, “Take this; it’s tasty!” :)
We’re entering an exciting time for the Take This Project.
If you’ve suspected things haven’t been happening as quickly (or at all) with Take This for the past few months, you’re not wrong. The project experienced a dramatic slowdown around the first of 2013 and it’s been a challenge to build back up to the momentum we experienced when the project first launched.
There are many reasons for this; not the least of which is that the founders’ passion for helping sufferers of anxiety and depression is borne of experience. Most of us either suffer from our own mental health issues, or know others who suffer. This can make merely thinking about mental illness (much less writing about or helping others talk about it) a challenge. Many of us have also been unusually busy in our personal or professional lives this year. Long story short: We’ve not always been able to find the time or the will to take the next necessary steps to move this project forward, so, mea culpa.
The good news is that the long dark night of the Take This soul seems to have passed. Yet challenges still remain. The most pressing of which has been administrative, and this is what we have now turned our attention to addressing.
The Take This Project was founded, primarily, to promote awareness of mental health issues. While this sounds simple on the surface, in reality, a sustained campaign to create public awareness involves a lot of work that can’t be done without funding. Plain and simple: for Take This to achieve its goals, it needs cash flow.
Now, at first glance, this, too, would seem simple. In the age of Kickstarter, raising money can be as simple as asking for it. And with the groundswell of attention we’ve received for Take This, we have no doubt we could raise the kind of money we’d need, via one or another crowdfund effort, to fund our short-term (and maybe even long term) goals for some time to come. But this kind of crowdfunding is not yet an option for Take This.
The problem is that the Take This Project is not currently a non-profit company. Or, really, any kind of company. We cannot, legally, collect or spend money, as Take This, without exposing ourselves and our members to financial challenges or government scrutiny. It’s one thing to conduct a fundraiser to benefit another organization (which many have done), but it’s an entirely different thing to raise money to support your own organization. Accepting donations and spending money requires sophisticated accounting and involves the possibility of severe legal risk, which we simply cannot ask any of our members to shoulder on their own. This is why, until now, we have been careful to not take any action with Take This that requires the spending or accepting of money, and why in order to move forward with our future plans, we need to do some complicated paperwork.
For Take This to legally and responsibly be able accept donations, we need for it to be a recognized non-profit entity, registered with the federal government. This is not a surprise to us, and it is not an impossible task to accomplish, but it does require us to take a certain number of steps in a specific order. It requires time and organization — two things which have been in short supply among the founding members of Take This until very recently.
This brings us to now. I am proud to report that the Take This project has officially begun the process of becoming non-profit organization, starting with the formation of a Board of Directors and the election of officers. Over the next few weeks, we will file the paperwork required to formally create Take This as a business entity and then proceed to registering that entity with the IRS as a 501c3 non-profit.
At some point in the future, hopefully this summer, we will have the green light to proceed to our Stage Two goals of fundraising and increased activities to promote awareness of mental health issues in the video game community. These goals include (but are not limited to) additional web-based awareness activities, more public appearances at events like PAX as well as outreach and counseling directed at the video game creation community. We hope to have this work completed in time for the always busy (and difficult) holiday season.
More details on the makeup of our board and our expanded mission statement should follow shortly, and we hope to provide frequent updates over the next few months as we plunge steadily into the new challenges ahead. Thank you for your continued patience and support of the project.
“It’s Dangerous to Go Alone" is an hour of information and sharing about mental health issues, moderated by our own Dr. Mark with guest speakers from the Take This membership.
Join us at 2pm ET on Friday, March 22 in the Wyvern theater for a good talk, some fun and a little advice.
From the PAX panel description: “Our internet culture encourages participation but can discourage meaningful interaction. If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, the internet and gaming culture can make your frustrating symptoms of alienation feel worse. You may be surrounded by “friends” but yet unable to find one who will listen or understand. What you need is to know that you are not alone. Many others have gone through what you are experiencing, and we are here to share our stories with you. Join the members of the Take This Project for an hour of inspirational stories of depression and healing and advice for when it is time to seek help and how to do so. It’s dangerous to go alone.”
You think you’re having a heart attack. That’s the first thing you notice. The second thing you notice is that you’re dying.
Anxiety attacks come in a variety of shapes in sizes, but that’s how mine usually work: I think I’m dying. And then it gets worse, because becoming aware of what’s happening to me makes what’s happening worse.
An anxiety attack is a physical response to a mental illusion. Your mind either conjures up something to be afraid of, or else perceives a relatively normal thing as something terrible and then your body responds the way a million years of evolution has trained it to respond to something terrible: the fight or flight response.
Adrenaline floods your system, your heart speeds up, you begin to sweat, blood flows to the center of your body, away from your limbs and brain and your perception and cognition narrow. You become one with your lizard brain.
If something truly dangerous were happening, you’d be in great shape to deal with it. You’d be stronger, faster and more alert to signs of danger than normal. You’d be able to fight harder or run faster than normal, and you’d be prepared for physical danger; the dilation of your blood vessels would cause any wounds to bleed less than normal, and the perspiration on your body would cause it to become slick, and difficult to grab on to. In a life or death situation, you would be “in the zone.”
When this happens to you in a normal, everyday situation like sitting on a plane, or standing in a hallway, you become the opposite of “in the zone.” You become way, way out of the zone. So far out of the zone that you are, in essence, a caveman among modern humans. A vibrating note of pure panic in the midst of a symphony of normalcy. You are the sweaty, trembling, nervous-looking one attempting to curl yourself into as small as possible a space, while your squinted eyes shift side to side. You breathe in rapid, shallow breaths. Your hands shake. You cannot think clearly and you feel as if you’re going to die. On a really bad day, you might also black out
If you’ve never experienced this, I’m glad for you. And I know it sounds silly. It feels silly, afterwards. But during, it feels like dying. Every. Single. Time.
My anxiety is mostly social anxiety. I’ve been characterized as “shy” in the past, and it’s possible I might be - about some things - but I genuinely like people and enjoy being open and social. I just have social anxiety. Being around people makes me nervous. Being around a lot of people makes me feel terrorized.
No reason. They could be nice, friendly, totally non-threatening people, but anxiety is not logical. It translates normalcy into terror and the body responds as if someone were coming at you with a knife.
The first time I had a panic attack that I knew was a panic attack, I was in a van with several other people. It was a warm night in Los Angeles. I’d just moved and changed jobs, had flown on an airplane across the entire North American Continent, was sharing a hotel room with someone I’d just met, working a public event in one of the largest, most crowded convention centers in America and had just come from a night club that was so crowded you could literally not move more than an inch without bumping into someone. Then I was in a small vehicle with several other people and I was not driving.
Any one of these factors alone could have triggered my anxiety, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I’d have just chalked it up to being stressed or shy. The combination of all of those stress factors, however, triggered an anxiety attack that could not be explained away by anything else. What I - and everyone around me - experienced, was nothing short of a panic eruption.
What I remember about being in the van is the feeling that something bad was going to happen. I’m used to this. I get this feeling a lot. It starts with a simple, reasonable concern (did I forget to lock the front door?) and swells into an uncontrollable obsession. (I’m going to get home and my house will have burned to the ground because someone broke in and accidentally turned on the oven and forgot to turn it off and the cat got out and now I have to find someone to call to check on these things or I won’t be able to think about anything else for three days.)
I had my head leaned against the window. I was watching the lines in the road scroll by in orange wash of the street lamps. I was in the very back row. Everything was perfectly normal except for the fact that I felt like something and was going to happen and couldn’t explain what if I’d tried.
I felt trapped. My fight or flight response triggered and my brain filled with one thought: Get out! But I couldn’t, because I was in the back row of a moving van. My heart sped up, my throat constricted, my vision blurred, I couldn’t breathe and then I blacked out. The next thing I remember is laying on the ground, in a hotel parking lot.
What I’ve been told is that I started screaming. Then I started banging and clawing at the window until the van stopped and I was let out. Then I paced around a gas station for a while, breathing hard and clenching my fists. Then I got back into the van and was let out again, at my hotel, where I immediately collapsed in the parking lot.
I have the memory of the above events, but I don’t recall being present for them. I suspect my memory is based on what I was told, but it’s possible I was perceiving things without being conscious of them. Either way, freaking out in a van and having a blackout are not normal things. These are not things that can be explained away by being “shy.” These are things that happen when something is wrong with you.
I wish I could say that’s when things started to get better, but they didn’t. Because it took me many more years to be able to actually acknowledge that I had a problem. Part of having anxiety is not knowing you have anxiety. You’re just shy or high strung or half a dozen other things. How the hell are you supposed to know you have anxiety when you don’t even understand that anxiety is a thing?
At first I tried to keep rationalizing my anxiety. Then I began “managing it” by avoiding triggers and self-medicating when I couldn’t avoid triggers.
Anxiety is not like an actual disease; you are not sneezing or bleeding or obviously, physically dying. You can hide it, and most of us do. We pass it off in our minds as stress or tiredness, and cope through relatively normal means. In the age of the internet, staying home and rarely seeing others isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be. And if you’re a writer who works alone, via the internet, you can get by for decades without anyone suspecting you have something more serious than a mildly crippling shyness. You can even convince yourself, if you try.
I also wish I could say that finally acknowledging I have anxiety immediately made life more livable, but it didn’t. Since anxiety is an illusion, being aware that an anxiety attack is just an anxiety attack doesn’t make it go away. Sometimes it makes it worse because, instead of panicking about whatever it was your mind conjured up for you, you begin panicking about panicking and the whole cycle spirals radically out of control.
What I can say is that it does get better.
What has helped me the most has been recognizing that I can turn the mechanism of anxiety against itself; if knowing I’m having an anxiety attack makes my anxiety more powerful, then not having anxiety can make not being anxious more powerful as well. When I feel my anxiety coming on, I try to remember that’s it’s just anxiety, and that I will feel better and then, more often than not, I do feel better. Just like that.
This doesn’t always work, but knowing I have a tool makes me feel a lot more powerful and capable of existing in the world. And that, accordingly, makes my anxiety less frequent. And my calm, whether or not it’s an illusion, feels real.
This is my experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, many, many years after the damage was done. It’s like living in a beautiful garden, green, diverse, cared for only by me. There’s soft grass, flowering plants, young trees, ornate, homemade furniture and creepers that have climbed high rock walls, over the years. There’s no door to the garden, no windows, just some metal pieces lying around, that I’m going to make into a staircase, when I get to it.
There’s also a box down one end, kind of by itself. It’s nebulous, hard to look at. It’s about a foot high, grey and utterly clean and smooth, like nothing else in this place, aesthetically. It’s the only thing here that I didn’t make, with my hands, or help to grow, with water and care.
Years can pass and the box is little more than something to step over, in passing. Occasionally, I might fantasize that something wonderful could be waiting inside, like a creation spirit or great serpent I could welcome into the garden. It could inspire me, perhaps, or just become a beautiful, kinetic sculpture.
Mostly, though, when I’m actually engaging the box, I’m incoherent and I’m yelling, “Get the fuck out of my garden,” or “I’m going to forget that staircase and smash you to bits with these pieces instead, fuck you.” The box does exactly nothing, in response, always. Those times can last long enough for the whole garden to fade, from lack of care. Then, it takes all the longer to get it looking nice again.
Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother to keep the garden looking nice at all. No-one else is here, not even animal life. When I think about building the staircase, it’s not so I can escape, it’s so I might invite people in for a visit, one day.
The problem is, visitors couldn’t fail to notice the box and how weird it is. They might ask after it, or touch it, or try to open it. They might try to politely pretend it’s not there and I’d hate them for that. I might lose myself and yell at it, while they are visiting. Or, they might try to take it away, which is the scariest of all possibilities, somehow. Still, my garden really should be a nice place to visit, in theory.
Recently, my hands were injured and I had to sit still for a while. I sat near to some seedlings, imagining how I could shape them, soon, not soon enough. I stayed my hands, because I knew I’d just ruin them. Time passed, and I gave in and did work a little on the seedlings, smothering them, clumsy, hurting my hands.
Then there was pacing. I stomped on some flowers, I yelled at the box. My hands are back to their tending, now, but I’m more aware of how tired I am. One day I’m going to have to rest, especially as I get older, but the presence of the box ensures this garden will never be a restful place. Beautiful, by my hand, maybe. Maybe even a place for visitors, if I ever get that staircase done, but never restful.
I’ve been there. That feeling of being alone, feeling like the world wouldn’t care if you were around or not. Oh, yes … I have been there, and it is a big reason why I got into gaming in the first place. I could dive into a game for a while and only have the pressures of that world to worry about until I was out of continues. Then it would creep back. While I loved my games, they were never a fully suitable substitute for a person who you felt might understand, or even if they didn’t understand would at least try to listen.
Those who know me now might see a sometimes-cocky gaming personality behind a pair of blue shades and designer jeans power walking across the floor of a gaming event. Underneath it all, however, are backstories where that persona simply didn’t exist.
I was badly bullied in middle school, often walking home from school each day feeling defeated and alone. My parents fought almost every moment they were together. They were so busy finding reasons to yell at each other they didn’t have time to even try to understand my problems. I was an only child to boot, so I didn’t have anyone at home to turn to. To my parents, my down days were simply part of a “phase I was going through” or whatnot. Inside, I sometimes hoped I wouldn’t wake up in the morning and didn’t even feel like anyone would care.
I had another bout of this as an adult. I was at a crossroads in my life. I was walking away from something that I’d put my heart and soul into for years, not certain what I would end up doing next. A lot of the people I thought were my friends during this period of time turned away from me, I suppose because I was no longer of use to them. Just how the entertainment field goes sometimes I guess. The few friends that didn’t turn away were super busy or just not the type that were good at being there when things weren’t going well. I don’t blame them, even though I sure as hell needed them. Instead, I turned to the bottom of a bottle and a line of shot glasses almost every night, again not caring much when or if I woke up the next day.
What got me out of those situations each time, you ask? Despite the fact that I felt so low and alone I somehow found people who offered to be there when others weren’t … when I needed an ear or even a shoulder. That would actually listen rather than just give me a “snap out of it” attitude or walk away only to judge me from afar. In both instances, these people got me through the tough times, staying the course with me until I was through the tunnel and into another chapter in my life where things were different and better. Both times, too, it got better. It always does.
No matter how much it feels sometimes like nobody gives a damn, there is always someone out there who does. Maybe they’ve been through the same dark and empty feelings and can guide you through. The only trick is reaching back out when they extend that hand and opening up. You can’t keep it within you. The body is strong but not that strong. Let it out, and let people be there for you when they offer.
I’ve actually never shared any of this with the gaming world. I’m neither afraid of it nor ashamed of it. If anything I’m proud to be able to be that guy with the blue shades and the power walk today. A good friend of mine calls it “stoking” through a gaming event. Believe it or not, it was these down times where I felt my weakest that taught me the lessons on how to be at my strongest. Sure as heck didn’t feel like it at the time, but it sure enough holds true.
I instantly related to this project. It’s as if it was written for me in 1989 or 2005. If I had read such a thing then I would have reached out, eventually, to it. Since I’m where I’m at today instead, I want to be the guy who is reached out to if needed.
I used to work 40 hours a week in an office surrounded by something like 35 people. I wouldn’t call more than a handful of the middle-aged women in the sea of cubicles around mine genuine friends. And we weren’t exactly the Beatles. We didn’t hang out after hours. I ate lunch in my car every day because I enjoyed stealing time for myself. I had a j-o-b, not a career.
When I dreamed of working from home, I dreamed of relief. No more indifferent bosses! Goodbye, office politics! Silence for the interminable yammering of office gossips! But I had absolutely no concept of how just being among a flock of people satisfied social requirements I didn’t know I had. When I left the j-o-b, I realized something I never expected: I missed parts of it.
I didn’t expect I’d feel so alone.
I’m single, shy and quiet. I’m used to being something of a loner. It’s where I’m most comfortable — or, more accurately, least uncomfortable — and I was fully unprepared for how my new lack of face-to-face interaction would grate on me.
Yes, I’m in constant communication with my coworkers, but I learned rather quickly that e-contact is a poor substitute for genuine social interaction. Being able to read someone’s tone or interpret body language is always preferable to guessing emotions from instant messages. At my most timid, my mind shamefully interpreted every bit of text in the worst possible light.
As I struggled to navigate the currents of my new position, I started to feel more than alone. I started to feel isolated, and that fed an anxiety I’d been fighting my entire adult life. In one of my classic behavioral paradoxes, I wanted people to understand me even as I failed to charitably understand them. And with every foolish interpretation, I increased the distance between me and everyone else around me.
None of this is easy to acknowledge or admit. I feel something like nuts when I finally suss out myself and my motivations, and airing this shame publicly feels like a mix between catharsis and vulnerability. If I feel nuts, what is everybody else going to think about me?
Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t get to where I am — working my dream job from the comfort of my pajamas if and when I please — by hiding who I was. I spent a decade at a professionally meaningless job, unable to muster the strength or self-confidence to be honest about who I was and where I wanted to be.
Call it fear paralysis, and use it as the explanation for my lost decade among the cubicles. It was only after I confronted that that my life’s trajectory changed. The day I got passed over for a promotion I’d talked myself into believing I wanted was the day I began fighting my worst self. Less than two years later: dream job.
And yet there I was at my dream job acting like the guy who was paralyzed at the bank.
That’s why I’m here, doing what I’m afraid to do: because even though my fear rages against it, that’s the zone that produces the best results. I had suspected that truth for years, now I have proof to back it up. (See: *Dream job*, *Pajamas*.)
A rising tide lifts all boats, as President Kennedy said. My peers — the hardest working people I’ve ever met — inspire me to do more, work harder, be better. That’s a blessing and a recipe for achievement. But you don’t need to to be a baker to understand that the recipe also makes heightened anxiety. If you don’t have a mechanism in place to deal with those challenges, you’re going to ache. God knows I did.
By admitting that, we’re not complaining. We’re just being honest about the challenges we face. Pretending otherwise is little more than an excuse to silently suffer and perpetuate pain.
I knew that I needed a balance between work and quite literally anything else. Left to my own devices, I hustled so much that and weeks slid by before I took account of the emerging patterns, both good and bad.
I had to be deliberate about living. Getting out of the damn house, for starters. If I’m not deliberate, weeks will slip away without meaningful human interaction, and I’ll inevitably feel the weight of isolation pulling me down like an invisible anchor.
I soon learned it was a necessary but insufficient component. It’s good to be out, to be within a group. But it’s better to be honest in a caring group. As with this writing, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to be less than honest.
So I’ve also opened up. I decided to be honest despite the fear. After far too many hours in silent seclusion, I sought out people in my life who are willing to try to understand and listen when I talk. And I’ve talked, no matter how difficult or dumb that makes me feel.
I’ve also fought the urge to shut up when things don’t go my way. As I’ve come to understand myself better, I’ve realized that I don’t have to believe everything I think. And I assure you I think the worst things.
None of these coping mechanisms solves a problem immediately, but each allows me to scratch a psychic itch that, unchecked, can become my invisible anchors. Used properly and exercised regularly, they have the potential to work toward a more comprehensive mechanism to deal with my loneliness and its accompanying anxiety.
I struggle. I am not alone. I need outlets. I’ve found some.
I’ve got my dream job, and I’m immensely thankful for it. But I now know that my dream job isn’t easy and that it alone isn’t enough. Life would be worse if I were to pretend otherwise.
I have a friend - a kind, reasonable man - who doesn’t understand anxiety. He’d like to, because he knows I suffer from it and would really like to be supportive, but he just doesn’t get it. Sadness, he could relate to, or anger, but the thing that leaves me huddled in a corner on my bathroom floor, shrieking and crying … that, he can’t quite get. And it’s not his fault, really, because people don’t talk about mental ailments the way they do about other illnesses. They’ll tell you everything you’d like to know about their broken bone, kidney stone or asthma, but nobody really likes to talk about what an anxiety attack feels like, because nobody wants to be looked at like they’re crazy.
So here’s how it goes, for me anyway.
The tiniest, most insignificant thing can set it off. Last time for me, it was stuffing. You know, the bread and whatnot you serve with a turkey at Thanksgiving. I was making a new recipe, and I was concerned that it wasn’t going to turn out just right because even though I’d followed the recipe, it seemed like I had way more broth in there than there probably should’ve been. And that’s all it took, just that one little worry that maybe the stuffing wouldn’t be outstanding.
Yes, I know how absurd that sounds. Who cares if the stuffing is a little mushy? Is life somehow going to be diminished in some large capacity because I misjudged the bread-to-chicken-stock ratio? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. Anxiety isn’t reasonable. It doesn’t consider your logical counterargument and say “Oh, my goodness, silly me. I’ll be going now. So sorry!” It does what it wants, when it wants. I know some things that will trigger it for sure, but every once in a while, it just happens.
It starts with a pounding heart. You know that surge of adrenaline you get when you’re startled by something and you suddenly become aware of your heart? Like, ‘HO, HEY, there’s a whopping great something going baboombaboom in the middle of my chest, how about that?’ And then you get over your fright and you go back to happily ignoring your heartbeat. Well, the thudding just keeps going for me and my hands go cold. Then my neck starts to ache as the muscles around my throat constrict, making it hard for me to breathe. When I’m lucky, that’s as far as it gets, and I just feel physically awful for the rest of the day. When I’m not so lucky, I wind up in a mental feedback loop where the fact that I’m upset - and the knowledge that everything is really just fine, soggy stuffing notwithstanding - makes me even more upset, which just makes the symptoms worse, which ratchets things up another notch until it’s just about all I can do to not run away screaming. And so I start crying and can’t stop, and I hide because I don’t want anyone to see me. Which brings us back to that bathroom floor.
Bathrooms are great for hiding because by definition you can have privacy there. It’s a bit dicey at work, where anyone from the building can walk in at any moment, but so long as you’re in a stall and cover your mouth well enough, people have to really pay attention to notice you’re crying so badly that you’re verging on hyperventilation. Last time I had an anxiety attack at home, I curled up on my bathroom floor, terrified of being a bother, of interrupting someone else’s good day, of being asked questions I didn’t know the answers to, like “What’s wrong?”
Somehow, “The stuffing isn’t perfect” didn’t really feel like an adequate answer for why I was howling as quietly as possible on the floor of my bathroom.
I felt so foolish and ashamed, which just made me cry even harder, because seriously, what the hell was wrong with me? A fierce battle was raging in my brain: The reasonable part calmly told me that I should get up and get some help while the unreasonable part shouted NO DON’T LET ANYONE SEE YOU. This went on for the better part of an hour until eventually, I did something really shocking.
I took a chance that maybe when people say “People want to help you, so let them,” it might not be complete bullshit, and I told someone. And that was a big part of me starting to get help for my anxiety.
It’s a hard thing to understand something so baffling, even when you’re going through it. I don’t know what confluence of events led to me being like this, but this is how I am and I have to deal with it. It’s hard to open up and tell someone what’s going on, and even when you do, they might have no clue how to respond. Try not to hold that against them, or use that as a reason not to open up - this is some really tricky stuff.
Just do the best you can. Even soggy stuffing can be delicious if it’s made with love.
The most useful advice I’ve ever encountered comes from a book set thousands of years in the future on the desert planet of Arrakis.
In the opening pages of his masterpiece Dune, Frank Herbert introduces us to the Litany Against Fear:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
I haven’t been big on prayer for a long while. But I’ve recited the Litany thousands of times since I first read Dune as a teenager — in moments of profound sadness, and of crippling anxiety, and of full-blown panic. The rhythm of the poem’s language has always has a soothing effect. But only now, as an adult, am I finally starting to understand its lessons.
The first is the irony in the opening line: I must not fear. The temptation to ignore fear, to deny its power or even its existence, is very strong. Our instinct, at the first hint of fear, is often to push it down, to swallow it until it is subsumed. Only weak people experience fear, we think.
Because we know what fear does: It is the mind-killer. When fear takes hold it shatters our sense of competence, of confidence, of self. We die a little-death each time we give in to fear; and if unchecked, eventually the fear will bring about our total obliteration. Here Herbert echoes Shakespeare’s famous couplet from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths, / the valiant never taste of death but once.”
But in the fourth line the Litany begins to shift our perspective. I will face my fear. In the space of four lines we have gone from denying fear, understanding the horrible toll it can exact on us, to acknowledging it and even claiming it — my fear. Fear is inevitable for everyone, cowards and heroes alike. We must confront it — and to confront it, we must own it.
The next line is my favorite: I will permit it to pass over me and through me. Notice the use of the word permit: you are allowing the fear to pass. With one word the power dynamic has been reversed. You are the dominant one in the relationship, not the fear.
Yet the Litany is not about wrestling your fear into submission. Consider what are you allowing it to do — pass over you and through you, like a wave or gust of wind. The implied imagery is intentional here. Picture the physical sensations fear creates in the body: the tensing of the muscles, the rushes of nausea, the tingling of nerves urging you to fight or flee. When gripped by fear, we feel these sensations so intensely it’s hard to imagine them ever subsiding. Yet like a wave, the fear will pass: It will permeate you and it will shake you, but it is temporary. You will not absorb it and bloat with it; you will bend with it and permit it to go by. It will not weigh you down forever.
And like a wave, fear is a force of nature. It makes no sense to blame yourself for it. Like rain or wind, it appears and eventually, inevitably, ceases.
And when the fear has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. There’s no question: the fear will go past. Notice the five uses of the word will in these last five lines. It’s a foregone conclusion — the fear will pass. And you will retain the self-awareness and presence of mind to engage your inner eye and observe, calmly and dispassionately, the fear leaving your being.
I love the image of turning around to see the empty path the fear has left. This is intentional as well, this act of turning; you let the fear go past you, and turn to see that it’s so far behind you that it’s invisible. Where the fear has gonethere will be nothing.
But that last line! Only I will remain. Look what Herbert accomplishes in four tiny words. First he affirms that yes, you will survive your encounter with fear. But he doesn’t say “survive”; instead you will remain. You are still you, even when fear has shaken you to your core and made you question your very worth.
In the act of remaining you cast out that self-doubt, that shame, that guilt. You are worth it. You have inherent value that no amount of fear can destroy.
In the end, your heart is the thing that takes you.
I’m about to put myself out there — like Star Trek out there — because right now I need the one escape that always seems to bring me back. When everything becomes overwhelming and blindingly consequential, you lose track of the ground, and everyone needs his or her own gravity.
Writing is gravity in my world. Family is hope, friends are direction, but finding truth in words is what keeps me on the ground.
So here goes. I hope when you’ve finished reading this, whether friend, family or otherwise, you find some value in my sharing what I cannot overstress my hesitancy in doing so.
After my last trip to an MS specialist, we went over some things that don’t fit neatly into our testing. It’s always important at a doctor that you explain what you are experiencing and how you are dealing with it. This started us down a path on depression.
(If you need background information on my condition and how we got to this point, I would suggest starting at the beginning.)
Depression is the least logical thing I can imagine. It takes over the physical by existing only in the mental. As of the typing of this, in an effort to find the ground again, I am crawling out of my skin. I sent an email to a coworker that said I wanted to kill myself. I’m matter of fact about this, though, in honesty, at the present time it’s true.
Like I said, depression isn’t logical. It’s also not entirely sadness, which is where I think a lot of people can get confused and misdiagnose the severity of depression in different ways. If I were merely sad, even crying for no reason sad (which already happened tonight), I could throw on some magically emotional music like Cinematic Orchestra and get a shitload of writing done. Sadness is useful, even productive.
This is different.
This is drowning.
Actually, let’s run with that metaphor for a moment. Imagine that you’ve been knocked overboard into the deep and vast ocean. You sink for minutes, thrashing against the current, but it keeps pulling you further and further toward the bottom. Given the most basic physical and mental response, at some point any human being will have a moment where they give up and allow the water to take them.
That can be what severe depression feels like. It’s awful. By all logical measures, I should be the happiest person on Earth. I have a great job, working with people I love. I have the most loving family that is probably crashing into every motor vehicle on the highway in an effort to drive over to my house upon reading this. I have great friends, I travel a lot; my life for all intents and purposes is what you could call “privileged.”
Now, the last year hasn’t been the easiest. I’ve been told there is something I am probably also going through that is called “symptom fatigue” where the mental toll can begin to add up on top of whatever mental fabrications you’re already dealing with.
It’s all adding up, and unlike a normal panic attack, it can just keep compounding until there is just nowhere else for it to go. I say all of this, full knowing how cogent and reasonable I sound right now. I thank science above for giving me the faculties to call shenanigans on this Kaiser Soze bullshit my brain is trying to pull on me right now. But there it is, my heart thumping at a thousand miles an hour, weighing on me in the purely physical to try and take me down.
Depression, that’s some next level shit.
So, my gravity for tonight will be to share this. I know in the morning, all will be well, because ALL. IS. TRULY. WELL.
But right now, my body doesn’t believe it.
A lot of people don’t ask for help when things get like this. I almost didn’t. If I hadn’t reached out to a friend tonight (bearing in mind that I still don’t have a phone, so for those of you frantically dialing, you’re going to get a confused thief of a cabbie in Los Angeles), I think we could be having a different conversation.
But logic prevailed and even though I didn’t want him to. I called Chris Faylor (community manager at Gearbox) to come over and just sit with me until I calmed down.
This has helped. Writing this down. How you will react when I share this on the internet, remains to be seen. I hope we can just look at it as another piece of scientific evidence on the elusive mysteries of the human brain — a brain that has seen its share of stresses in between writing pretty words and making silly accents about the catching of various rides.
Hi, I’m Trent. I was originally a programmer, then a programming book author, did a stint working on a program to monitor satellite data, went to the University of Michigan to teach High School English, then ended up making games for the last six-ish years (for the record, teaching is still my goal, but, you know… student loans).
Fun side note: I’m also a high-strung, neurotic, workaholic with obsessive-compulsive disorder and sleeping issues.
People in games, whether they be programmers, designers, artists, journalists, writers, producers, or gamers tend to be a very unique group of people. We run the gamut from completely asocial to vigorously personable. We’re a passionate, opinionated bunch, but we’re also a bunch of pretty smart folks.
And, you know what? Being smart is sometimes miserable. There’s a lot of introspection and analysis, but there’s also this fundamental drive to solve problems.
I don’t know when I really became the way I am today; before college, I had a lot of the same traits I have now and sometimes it would take hours to fall asleep at night just because that’s when I chose to think about everything that could be thought upon. And that was annoying, but I don’t think I became truly aware of my anxiety until other people started becoming important to me. There was always my family, and they’ve always been supportive and amazing, but they’re family. To some extent, you know they just kind of have to deal with you and accept you the way you are. But then you get out of that high school bubble and you realize that no one else in the world has to accept you, deal with you, or even be nice to you.
But you meet people who do accept you, deal with you, and are often exceptionally kind beyond what you think you even deserve. And that’s, by far, the most terrifying feeling that I think I’ve ever experienced. It made me acutely aware that I was a person on this Earth who could fail, have my trust betrayed, or actively disappoint someone I care about.
It wasn’t until I moved across the country for a new job, got settled a little bit, and started meeting people and actually getting out that I really started to change. Some of those changes were that I got more anxious about everything, more concerned about what I had to lose if I lost my job (remember: loans. and maybe other debt from stupid spending), where I’d have to move, what I’d have to leave behind, and that was usually just the first hour of my day. I worry about what random people think of me, how my colleagues deal with my incompetence, what would happen if today is finally the day everyone realizes I’m a total impostor, or that a lady I like will finally realize I’m a horrible nerd unworthy of her time. These concerns became a governing aspect of my life that would inform so many of my decisions as to what to do or what to say from moment-to-moment that it got a little bit unbelievable up in my head.
And then I learned two of the most amazing things:
There are times where I feel ambitious and confident; it is then that I make decisions, and then force the other 98% of me to deal with those decisions as best he can. Things like quit your job and move across the country, or propose to a lady you met a month ago (this one isn’t recommended, by the way), or get that full-body dragon tattoo with the fire breathing down the leg (I may not have followed through this one. Yet.)
The people in your life are the most rare, beautiful, important things you have.
I always used to laugh whenever said something like that to me. I was always “I’m too smart for that” or “That’s silly, I can learn things! That’s better than people” or “People scare me.”
And then a couple of strange things happened.
All of my friends got laid off from the company I work at. Suddenly, I went from seeing people that were like family to me every day to having to accept that they may not even stay in the same state as me for very long. But, on top of that, what remains of our studio is a handful of the most passionate, intelligent, kind, talented people I have ever met. Suddenly, every day was back to being this intimidating mass of things I didn’t think I could ever do or expectations I could never live up to. But these people accept me and trust me. And that, alone, is one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had in my life.
In the wake of all of that, I decided that I owed it to my friends who were moving on as well as my colleagues who put this extraordinary amount of trust in me to just work. Work all the time. I ended things with a lady I had been seeing, worked for a few weeks straight, tried to see my friends when they could, and that’s just how I thought things were going to be. And then, as tends to happen, I met a lady one night while out with friends. Well, “met” is not the right word. We had met before, but situations were different then. And things progressed from there. Not even for a particularly long time, but it constantly amazes me that someone like this lady — who has a good job, a radiant personality, a great heart — finds something likable in me, even when I try to be as upfront as possible about my plethora of personal issues.
And all of that is terrifying. That colleagues choose to work with me or a beautiful lady chooses to spend her time with me… It’s a lot of additional pressure and worry than I often think myself incapable of dealing with. But, I’m open with it, I talk freely about my thoughts, and there hasn’t been a single conversation with a person in ages who has shown anything but kindness, respect, and acceptance towards me.
I was angry all the time. Anger was my constant companion, this indiscriminate, stomach-grinding, head-pounding fury that bubbled like lava under tectonic shifts in my mood and disposition. Worst of all, I didn’t know what the anger was, why it was there or even if it would ever go away, so I lived with it. I lived with it for years.
It turns out, depression isn’t a thing you can just point at and say, “There, that’s what depression always looks like.” But, if you were to have asked me about the illness, I would have conjured images of sadness, lethargy, detachment. I’d have drawn you a word picture of someone curled in bed, unable to drag themselves out into the world, waiting hopelessly for another day to just pass on by and leave them be. I’d have drawn this picture for you, because that’s how I had seen my own family, my parents, manifest the illness.
This wasn’t that at all. Every morning I would rise, get ready for work, do my job, come home, eat dinner, read to the kids, maybe play a game if my responsibilities permitted me the time, and then climb into bed again to do it all again the next day. The difference for me, though, was that I was doing all those things with a simmering rage inexplicably clamping my chest, knotting my intestines and demanding my attention so that I kept it under control. And, because I kept such a reservoir of attention on controlling this shifting, furious monster version of myself internalized, I didn’t have any attention left over to enjoy the rest of my life.
Looking back, I still struggle with reconciling what it must have been like for my wife and children to live with me. Don’t misunderstand, I never raised a hand against them or even threatened otherwise, but living with someone who always seems on the edge of outrage, who is clearly holding on white-knuckled at the limits of their control, can’t exactly have been a day at the park.
It was around the time when my oldest son, now nine, asked my wife, “Why is Dad always angry with me?” that I decided to address the fact that this person inhabiting my skin was not me. Something had changed, something real and measurable.
I prize my sense of self-control, believe unrealistically that anything occurring within my brain should be a thing that I have complete and unimpeachable dominion over. I had known for some time that I was probably struggling with some kind of depression, but had rejected it as a reality, because like so many people I believed it was something you could or should just “get over.” That’s such a dangerous thing to think. It’s bad enough, I know, for someone to see you struggling and tell you to just get over it, but I think it’s possibly even more dangerous to tell yourself that, and I had been doing it for a year. Maybe even longer.
It was hard to talk with my doctor about it, because I had a misplaced and unnecessary shame about dealing with an illness that is all about chemistry and not at all about willpower. Feeling like I had somehow failed by finally conceding that I needed a doctor’s help in dealing with this was like feeling bad that I had to resort to moving objects with my hands because my efforts at telekinesis had failed. What I hadn’t expected was how talking with a doctor, finding out that what I was experiencing was the same thing that other people were dealing with as well, was unexpectedly empowering. I had lived for so long with fingernails dug into the cliff just to keep myself from falling into the dark, rocky shoals below, that I almost didn’t know how to deal with someone finally offering me a ladder.
That was a year ago. And, don’t get me wrong, my life isn’t perfect now with Disney birds flitting through my window every morning to perch upon my shoulder and gaily sing me the songs of their people. But that knot, that constant companion of tightness and quaking fury is if not always gone, at least contained and sleepy back in the deep dark of my mind from whence it came. The medication I take doesn’t make me irrationally happy or dull my personality – a ridiculous assumption I still think some people make about anti-depressants.
What my medication has done is allow me to look in the mirror in the morning and see a face I recognize again.
For me, depression was a prison. A prison where I was trapped in my cell, holding the key the entire but determined to get out by squeezing painfully and hopelessly in between the bars themselves. Now that I’m on the other side, looking back into that cell with its open door and considering the time spent, I wonder why I didn’t allow myself out sooner. The answer is probably locked into the unfortunate fact that the part of me that needed treatment and attention was the part I would have to rely on to make good decisions about how to beat depression. It was a tragic and debilitating Catch-22, and it’s one millions of people live with and unfortunately struggle with every day.
Everyone’s prison is a little different, just different enough to fool you into thinking you’re alone, you’re different, you’re isolated or you’re lost. It’s not true, of course. You’re not, and like everyone else on this site, writing these posts, I am here to tell you one thing: There is a way out. There is a key in your hand. There is a whole other kind of world, the one you may remember, on the other side of your cell. And, we are here to help you get out.
A purple-haired girl named Nei was one of my first friends. She was beautiful, with pointed, elfen ears and shy eyes. She didn’t talk back, but she didn’t need to. When I played Phantasy Star II, she was the one I felt closest to. She’d gone through a tough past, and she was quiet, but I could tell she was the kind of person I wanted to know in real life. I even used to imagine what her laugh would sound like, throaty but sonorous, like the sound of a weighty, thick bell.
I was eleven years old when I met Nei. It was around the same time that I started to suffer from anxiety. My mother was rarely home and drank often. At school, I didn’t relate to other kids well. Hyperventilation became a normal state, and I always fought for breath. I secretly carried a plastic figurine of Ariel from The Little Mermaid in the pocket of my plaid uniform jumper. I remember standing on the blacktop and watching other kids laugh and play together, tracing over the shape of Ariel’s tail in my pocket with my thumb and forefinger over and over.
Even before I discovered a world to which I was granted passage to by holding a controller, I didn’t quite fit with people. I said strange things. Girls laughed and pointed. I was called cruel names: “Cootie,” because girls thought I looked dirty. They all had long hair, but mine was short, with awkward, poorly cut bangs. They thought I was ugly, that I looked like a boy, and they never hesitated to tell me so.
I’d go home from these long days at school, press the rectangular power button on my Nintendo, and blissfully forget it all, as if it never existed. One night, my mom’s boyfriend stayed up late with me, determined to help me finish Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. “It’s your shadow!” I yelled at the end, passing the controller to him and passionately cheering him on through the fight. My little fingers sought to help, grabbing the controller back when his thumbs were too tired. In the end, we triumphed, jumping up and down and flailing our limbs in abject happiness.
I went to my grandmother’s house once and tried to explain to her in detail about Nei and how she was related to Neifirst, and how it felt when she died. As I tried to describe her, I started to cry, drawing my head to my knees and shaking forcefully as I choked out the words. Through a blurry gloss, she looked back at me, bewildered, afraid. I was heartbroken about the loss of a woman I had never met. I missed her.
When I started writing about games 20 years later, I had one clear aim in mind. I had things to say, and I wanted to express my thoughts and share them, but moreso, I wanted to know that the things I was saying might get to other kids who had been like me. In the world, I always nodded quietly when people spoke to me, eager to agree, hoping to be accepted, if just for a moment.. In my games, I never had to do such a thing. I was absorbed freely into every group, secrets were whispered into my warm ear. I kept them carefully, close to my heart, on a dangling chain. I was honored to know these people, journey with them, love them, and mourn them when I had to separate from them.
By walking over and over again with digital companions, I learned how to befriend others. The world of games was a refuge, but it also presented a training ground. Eventually, human beings in the real world wanted to talk about games, and I was able to listen. Experiences were shared, even fumbling, painful ones. Sometimes, we even bonded because we had been afraid, lonely, small. And in sharing that, we became big.
About four weeks ago Matt Hughes’ death was all but passed over thanks to another industry talking point that’s bellyached its way to top of games journalists’ list of professional tragedies.
Hughes was a freelance games journalist whose work appeared on Joystiq and GamesRadar among other sites. His apparent suicide, which was first reported all the way back at the beginning of November, should be remembered for two reasons.
One, because like most dealing with depression Hughes suffered it in silence, making it all the more necessary to put it back on table and onto the blog circuit where with any luck it will keep from getting swept back into obscurity. And two, for making almost no visible impact on the industry whatsoever.
Hughes’ death roughly coincided with the start of DoritosGate one month ago, out of which was born a full-blown journalist-led investigation into the blurring lines between professionalism and commercialism. Fits of anger are de rigueur among games bloggers right now. While the industry is being hauled out to the Stocks for possibly aligning itself too closely with commercial entities, particular effort has also gone into providing a cold bucket of water for any journalist who’s still enamoured with the way things are.
Regardless of where you stand on all of this, the result, at least in retrospect, has been an impressive show of what can happen when journalists throw their weight into their favourite pet issues. Weeks of extensive self-analysis in the industry.
About the same amount of time has passed since Hughes’ suicide, but the significance of this whole dreary saga of Lauren Wainwright, of corruption, and the now semi-iconic Geoff Keighley Emperor Palpatine impression has continued to read fresh because of the work of a few impassioned Internet users who have been burning the midnight oil on this stuff.
Comparatively, one week and a few blog posts following Hughes’ suicide, his death was already downgraded from a few online eulogies to a passing human interest story. It comes down to priorities. It’s nearing December now and the neighbourhood watch surrounding the Wainwright narrative seems to be quieting down. But now even in these brief moments of tranquility, of which in this industry there are very few, I think we’ve got our priorities all wrong.
Take it from me, depression is a monster of a thing but it can’t be dealt with alone.
It’s been sarcastically referred to as The Artist’s Reward, but I prefer this description, which I’ll paraphrase:
In military vernacular there is a term called “the fog of war.” This originated after the Napoleonic war, at a time before the invention of smokeless gun powder when shots from muskets would result in a fog so thick soldiers would lose sight of the enemy, making it impossible to tell apart friend from foe.
The first person to write about this in depth was the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, whose solution, in part, was this: “The first thing [needed] here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”
Which makes Depression, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the fog of war. You can see the result of that enemy’s attacks but you can’t see the enemy, and worse, that fog can become your reality; Worrying then, when as Clausewitz says, we can only rely on our heads – Because it’s hard to rage against a war when it’s going on in you.
Which is why we need to rely on each other. And in the past month we’ve shown, even at its most maniacal, the industry can make a difference just by talking.
- originally published on 11/25/2012 at dreadfulblog, republished with permission.
My exposure to people suffering from depression has been a long, strange trip. Several members of my mother’s side of the family have struggled with various degrees of clinical depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder for large portions of their lives. As an adolescent, I honestly never really paid much attention to their problems. Depression was a non-issue for me, and my family never discussed it.
After my parents got divorced, however, mental illness began to seep into my life in odd ways. Fearing I was not coping well with my parents’ breakup, some well-meaning relatives who were also suffering from depression made the suggestion to my mother that I should talk to a child psychologist. While I didn’t feel like anything was wrong with me, I also didn’t see the harm in talking to someone, so I agreed. My counselor was an amiable woman who was easy to talk to, and I discussed many things with her over the next few years.
This friendly child psychologist told my mother on numerous occasions that there was nothing wrong with me. Sure, I was introverted and frequently chose books and video games instead of human interaction, but she insisted there was nothing clinically wrong with me and no reason for my mother to worry. These other depressed relatives, however, would have none of that diagnosis, and they convinced my mother that I needed more serious help.
When I was about 16 years old, I uncovered this one day when I answered the phone, and a psychiatrist’s office was calling to confirm an appointment for me. Thankfully, my wits overcame my shock, and I politely informed the lady on the phone that this was a mistake and that I had no reason to seek their services. After I hung up the phone, I went into the living room and immediately confronted my mother.
After the shocked expression fell off of her face, she tearfully admitted what was going on. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her at that point, but I basically chided her for both not listening to the professional and never actually asking me if I felt anything was wrong. I believe that was the last time I ever let my mother make a medical decision for me. I also resolved to never let another person aside from a trained and licensed professional tell me that there was anything wrong with me.
Because of these experiences, I developed a rather cynical view of people with mental illnesses. I thought they were all people who were too weak or too lazy to deal with life’s problems. And most of these problems weren’t really that bad to begin with, since all of the depressed people I knew were white, middle-class Americans who were related to me. I pictured them all as people who thought that mood-altering medication was the solution to every hardship, and I thought they wanted to push this solution on me simply because I didn’t act the same way they did.
This perception wasn’t helped by the ugly confrontation I had with one of these relatives after I came home from college years later. Once again, I had a family member insisting that I needed help because I stayed up late, slept late, and stayed home reading books when I wasn’t working. This time, however, I reacted in anger and made some particularly unkind statements which I grew to regret later in life. Sadly, my relationship with this person never fully recovered, even though I realize now that her intentions were good and she thought (albeit incorrectly) that I was having some of the same experiences that she did.
As is often the case, it took a tragedy to shake the views that I had developed over the earlier part of my life. My wife met and befriended a woman close to our age who I will call Sally.We later discovered that Sally was struggling a lot. She had a bad job and an unreliable car, she lived alone, and she didn’t have many friends in the area. She felt her situation was hopeless and that she didn’t have much chance of improving it.
My wife, who is a much more caring and giving person than I am, continued to try to help this friend despite all the breakdowns and hysterical fits. She drove to the hospital not once, but twice, late at night to get Sally’s keys, so that we could take care of her cats after she decided to admit herself to the psych ward. Finally, we were able to get in touch with Sally’s father who offered her the opportunity to move in with him after he finished moving himself. After a few seemingly positive conversations, it seemed like things were getting better for my wife’s friend.
Then, a few days later, we got word that Sally walked out of her apartment, entered her car which was parked on the street, put a loaded shotgun to her head, and pulled the trigger.
My wife and I were both shocked. We had thought she was on the verge of turning her life around. Later, we found out that she was rejected by a man, and this event seemingly led to her taking her own life. We also believe that she stopped taking her medication before this happened.
Sally actually did leave a note behind, and she asked that my wife and I adopt one of her cats so that it was not sent to an animal shelter. While this cat was a bit difficult to care for, we honored her wishes.
I understand now that some people truly need help, and I realize that attitudes like I used to have can make it more difficult for these people to get the care that they desperately need. This event caused me to re-examine some of my views, and I now have a constant reminder how serious mental illness can be.
No one ever told me depression felt so much like anger.
Not an explosive anger, or even a focused one. Just a low-intensity burn, always simmering beneath the surface. A pressure, like someone sitting on my chest.
Never interested in what I was doing, never looking forward to whatever would come afterwards. All I wanted to do was nothing. But even sitting alone in the dark, there was never any rest. It just felt like waiting … waiting for the next thing I was going to have to endure.
I had a good job. Making video games for a living, for crying out loud. A beautiful, loving wife. Two amazing kids. I had friends out there, out of work, or struggling in their marriages, or walking dangerously close to alcoholism. Friends fighting wars. What right did I have, of all people, to feel anything but gratitude every day of my life?
Get over it.
I don’t know how many days I told myself that. Too many. And I thought I was making it work. I didn’t think people were noticing. I could keep going. Keep going until I got over it. Keep going.
The fact is, I couldn’t get over it. Not on my own. I couldn’t even recognize that there was something wrong, something real that needed real healing. Not until a dear friend of the family asked my wife if I was okay.
“He just doesn’t seem like himself.”
It’s easy to lie to ourselves, to tell ourselves we’re okay, that no one notices, that we can make it if we just tough it out. It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hardest to admit there really is something wrong that we can’t fix on our own.
If you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, you are not alone.
I’m better. I’m better because I finally admitted I needed help. And people helped me understand that depression is real. A real thing that needs real healing. And now that I know what it looks like, I recognize it when it tries to come back.
It’s okay not to be perfect. It’s okay to ask for help. And there is help.
When I was 12 or 13, I told my parents I was really stressed out. I don’t remember why I said it, but I remember lying in bed every night, wide awake, my mind racing with worries that would probably seem absurd now, and I couldn’t make it stop. I didn’t know how to describe this, because I didn’t know that there was a difference between everyday stress and more serious anxiety, and my parents dismissed it. What could someone in middle school be so stressed about? That was over 15 years ago and I haven’t brought it up to them again.
As I got older, it got worse. I started having panic attacks as a teenager that felt, at first, like I was dying. I developed insomnia in high school that lasted all the way through college, so I spent half of my teen years and my early twenties staying up all night and grabbing naps during the day when work or school allowed it, and I constantly felt like I’d been run over by a truck. My sleep schedule finally normalized, but the anxiety didn’t go away. Over the years, I’ve had some friends and roommates who realized that I wasn’t quite okay, mostly because of the never sleeping thing, but I never talked about it at length. It’s not that they didn’t care, I just didn’t think I could be helped. I felt like I was broken and wondered why I couldn’t just be a normal person.
When I was 24, I landed my absolute dream job: writing about video games full-time at a fledgling website. I was there for three years, and in that time I worked almost non-stop. Nights, weekends, holidays, on vacation, there was never a day when I didn’t do at least something work-related. Unfortunately, not everyone shared my enthusiasm, and over time my dream job turned into the most toxic work environment I’d ever experienced. As millions of dollars were squandered and horrible decisions beyond my control were made, I spent months and months as an absolute wreck. Every two weeks, I felt like I couldn’t breathe as I wondered if we were going to get paid. Every time someone called a meeting, I felt sick to my stomach. I was constantly on edge and prone to panic attacks more frequently than at any other point in my life. Everyone there was stressed out, but I could barely function—and continued to work relentlessly even as everything fell apart. When it finally ended, I was more relieved than anything else.
That didn’t make the problem go away. Most of the time, it’s just there, and I’m used to it. My mind starts racing as soon as I wake up in the morning, cycling through everything that I should be worried about. If I catch myself in a good mood, I immediately feel like something’s going to go wrong. I get a tight feeling in my chest that gets worse when I’m more anxious. When it’s really bad, I get really tense and shaky, and then I’m sore and exhausted for a couple of days. Sometimes it’s triggered by stressful events, and sometimes it just comes out of nowhere.
The only person who knows how bad it gets is my husband. When we were still dating, I had a humiliating panic attack at a party that forced me to be more open about my issues, and thankfully he didn’t run in the opposite direction. He does his best to understand what I’m going through. I brought it up to a doctor once, in passing. He suggested I cut back on caffeine, and I told him he was making me more anxious. That was the closest I’ve ever come to attempting to get help.
So why have I avoided talking about this? Is it because I don’t want to burden my friends with my problems, or because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m crazy—or overreacting and exaggerating? I don’t know. Talking about it is hard. Writing this is hard. But as I’m finding out, I’m not nearly as alone as I thought I was. And though I’ll never be a normal person (for reasons that go far beyond anxiety), I don’t think I’m broken anymore… most of the time. I’ve been not talking about this for over a decade, and it hasn’t helped. The thought of sharing this story has been terrifying, but now that it’s on the page, it feels different. I know it won’t fix everything, but maybe I just needed to know that I don’t need to keep this to myself. Dealing with constant anxiety is exhausting enough. I’m done with making it worse by carrying it around like a horrible secret.
That knowledge didn’t really sink in until two years ago, when I really needed them. And they came through, probably saving my life in the process.
Some context first of all: I have struggled with depression, social anxiety and self-esteem issues for as long as I can remember, though it’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to recognize them for what they really are.
Two years ago, I was in a bad place. My wife and I had separated and I had been left all on my own in an apartment I couldn’t afford to keep renting by myself. I didn’t have a full-time job — I’d quit the teaching profession after suffering at least one nervous breakdown as a result of the stress it involved, and was attempting to pursue my dreams of “making it” in the game journalism business. I’d made in-roads — I was a regular contributor to a now sadly defunct site known as Kombo — but I wasn’t earning enough to support myself.
My entire life as I knew it had collapsed. I didn’t want to accept this at first. I wanted to believe that everything would be all right, that everything would sort itself out. I wanted to believe that one day my wife would come back and we’d be together again. I wanted to believe that suddenly my career would take off without warning and I’d never have to worry about money again.
But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew that things were capital-B Bad, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
I spent days at a time not leaving my house, alternating between rage at myself for letting my life get into such a state and inconsolable grief. I fantasized about all the things I thought I could do to make myself feel better — yelling at my wife, hurting myself, just disappearing — but didn’t do any of them, mostly due to a lack of courage. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t have the courage to do any of those things.
I wasn’t alone, though, and I was glad of that. I found out who my true friends were during that dark period in my life, and it helped me to understand the true value of having a support network in your life, whether or not they’re physically present.
I had my friend Amy, who took me out to do new things I’d never dared try before — specifically, don’t laugh, Mo’Jive dancing. I had my friends Sam, Tom and Tim who knew what a tough time I was going through and provided me with a safe place to escape to and do nerdy things like play board games. I had my faraway friends on Facebook, Twitter and among the staff of Kombo, all of whom were incredibly supportive at that difficult time. I had my friend “Moonsong Darkrose” on the weird freeform MMO Second Life, who took me “out” in the virtual world regularly and always listened to my problems — usually until five in the morning due to our clashing time zones.
And I had my parents, who offered me a lifeline by letting me come home and live there while I attempted to rebuild my life.
At the time, this was a difficult concept to accept. Returning home after I’d been living independently for somewhere in the region of ten years felt like a “failure” and I wanted to do everything possible to avoid it. I applied for every job I could, tried desperately to move my life in a positive direction, but as time passed it became more and more apparent that I had no other option. I cried bitterly the night I left the city I’d called home for so long.
I lived back home with my parents for the best part of a year, during which time I got a good job in the game journalism industry — writing news for the late GamePro (and yes, I’m aware of the apparent trail of destruction my writing career has left!) — and found someone new to share my life with. Living at home still served as a constant reminder of how I’d “failed” though, and it wasn’t until I managed to leave home again that I felt like I’d finally got my life back on track.
Looking back on it, though, that year I spent at home saved me. As depressed and bitter as I felt all the time I was living in the bedroom I’d grown up in, my parents formed an important part of the support network that ensured the complete collapse of my personal life didn’t destroy me completely. They provided me with a safe place to live and stay while attempting to sort myself out, and what they did was supported by my friends from all over the world, all of whom regularly checked in on me via various means to make sure that I was doing all right.
Without everything everyone in that support network did, I’m not sure I’d be here writing this now. Dark thoughts crossed my mind on regular occasions, but the thought of the people I’d be leaving behind always turned me back. As terrible as I felt, I didn’t feel like I had the right to make so many people sad. I am grateful to them for helping me through the most difficult time I’ve ever been through — a time I didn’t think I’d make it through.
The thing I learned from that whole experience was that you’re never truly alone, however dark you might feel the abyss you’ve fallen into is. As awkward and guilty as it might make you feel to reach out and ask for help from someone — even if you’re just looking for a kind word or reassurance — it pays off to take that step. And if you’re offered help, take it — even if it seems it might make life difficult in the short term. A period of mild inconvenience is better than finding yourself in a situation it’s impossible to come back from.
My life isn’t perfect now — no-one’s is — but it’s better than it’s ever been, and I’m grateful to everyone who helped me get here.
I would know people who would say they had problems, or who would take this or that drug for this or that disorder, and I would politely condescend. I would smile and tell them how sorry I felt, and then silently remind myself that they were living in a fantasy.
To me, people with mental illness were confused or weak, or worse: just looking for attention. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeking help, but I also wouldn’t encourage them. And I absolutely wouldn’t listen.
I would say, “I wasn’t raised to believe in that sort of thing,” which I’m not really sure is true. But it made for a good conversation ender.
When I realized that I also had a problem, things changed — but not as much as you’d expect. People with depression and anxiety get good at denying what is happening to themselves, and I was no exception. I thought that even if there was something real happening to me, I could outsmart it, or simply suffer through it like it was a bad headache. I was wrong, but it felt good to decide to remain ignorant. I would pat myself on the back for how steadfastly I was sticking to my ideals, meanwhile blithely ignoring a mounting pile of counter-factual evidence. I was forgetting one of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
What Emerson meant was that it’s a good thing to be able to change your mind. It’s a good thing to admit that you are wrong. Because sometimes you are.
After years of denying to myself that I had a problem, I finally, one day, began to take seriously the effect my anxiety was having on those around me. I began to see through their eyes what my anxiety looked like, and it wasn’t pretty. I could finally no longer ignore the obvious: I suffered from anxiety, and it wasn’t going away.
Since that day, I’ve paid special attention to those I know who are also suffering. I’ve tried to be encouraging and supportive. I’ve listened. And by being open to their problems, I’ve found that I’m also more open to mine. We heal together.
A few weeks ago, when a freelance writer named Matt Hughes took his own life, I decided that it was time to make a stand. I didn’t know Matt and had never worked with him, but I know countless people like him. People who suffer in silence, alone, because the thought of admitting a problem is more painful to them than the problem itself.
As I thought about Matt and all of those like him I asked myself, “What could we, as a community, have done for Matt? And how can we do better for everyone else?”
Take This was founded to be a voice in the darkness for people suffering from depression and anxiety. It is our hope that through the sharing of our stories we can bring some peace to others who suffer, so that they will at least know that they aren’t alone.
Already, just in the organizing of Take This, our members have shared with each other their stories and individually gained some small measure of comfort and healing. It’s been remarkable to see, and I can’t wait to be able to bring that same spirit of openness and caring to a larger community.
In the days ahead, to start with, we will be sharing our personal stories of depression and recovery on this blog. Where it goes from there is up to you.
I hope that when this project gets into full swing — and the true depth and nature of the epidemic of depression and anxiety is revealed — it will no longer be possible for any of us to continue to ignore this terrible disease.
Depression and anxiety are real. It affects people all over the world, from all walks of life. It affects rich people and poor people, Democrats and Republicans. It affects smart people and particularly creative people. And it affects people who may not even be suffering from it themselves.
If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, we want you to take this. Because it’s dangerous to go alone.
An acknowledgement that the world can be a difficult place for anyone.
An offer of help.
Mental health is a hard thing to talk about. Depression and anxiety can be overwhelming, but so easily dismissed as “just feeling sad” or “needing to relax.” It’s far too easy to simply not talk about these problems; they sap your motivation and self-worth, making you feel like nobody cares about your suffering. And so we suffer alone, quietly.
We understand the complex reality of these problems. The immense relief on a day when you feel great, the sinking feeling when you sense the trap door start to open underneath you, and the simple exhaustion of living when you’re at your worst.
It’s dangerous to go alone.
“Take This” is meant as a helping hand. We’re here for empathy and support. We share our stories and our time in the hope that anyone who is living with a mental health issue doesn’t have to go through it by themselves.
We’ve been there. We’ve had loved ones who have been there. And we want to help. We want to talk. We want to hear from you. We want you to live the life you deserve.