TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of depression
It’s your first day of high school. Coming off the back of a cliquey class of 26 in a Catholic grade school, you feel unsure about your future friendships, that is, if you’ll even have any in this new environment. Your regard your friendships in grade school as worthwhile but in some cases fair-weather or limited. You didn’t seem to fully fit within any group at that school, yet most of them accepted you at one point or another. And like all middle-schoolers, you didn’t really know who you were at the time.
Now you do, or, at least you have a pretty good idea. In the beginning of eighth grade, you met some really cool people from the blogging and forum-posting community of a popular video game news website, and it turns out you totally can forge meaningful, lasting friendships over the Internet. Those “weirdos,” as you sister calls them, besides making you laugh and talking to you about video games, made you mature and realize what kinds of things you care about and the kinds of things you like to see in people. But how to “sell” yourself, your personality, to strangers in the “real” world. Do you even want to do that?
It’s dark at 6:15 a.m. in September, as you wait on the corner of your bus stop. Out of the fog comes the bus, hissing and roaring its way up the street. You hop in and find that the bus is nearly empty except for one girl in the middle. You slowly make your way down the aisle, and as the driver puts on the gas, you nearly fall into seat 11.
You’re practically shaking in your seat, creeped out by the darkness and the musty smell of the bus. You consider saying hello to the girl, just one seat in front of you and across the aisle, but maybe she doesn’t want to be bothered…
What do you do?
Wait for more people to get on the bus and try talk to them.
Put your iPod on, and stare out the window.
You look around you, an old Muse song buzzing in your ear, the bus filling with bodies and noise. You glance at each kid as they board the bus before quickly shifting your gaze back out the window. You hear slurs from the back of the bus and giggles from the front. In the middle where you are, most are either sleeping or quietly staring. You’re feeling very tense and uncertain.
After 45 minutes you arrive at the school. Your bus is the first to make it. A group of upperclassmen are outside welcoming the freshmen. Your neighbor who’s a senior offers you and the kids cookies. Obligingly, you take one, even though you’re uncomfortable eating around strangers. The cookie is like a puck anyway.
The kids from your bus are filed into the gym for a welcoming before homeroom and classes. But your bus is a good 50 minutes early, so you’ll be waiting for a long time, even for another bus to show up. A group including someone from your grade school to whom you’re ambivalent decides to sit on the bleachers, while a few outliers, including another grade school classmate, drift near the entrance.
Time to meet new people. Join the group on the bleachers.
Say hi to your classmate near the entrance.
Pretend to use your phone.
You scroll through your contacts, finding nobody you normally text except your mom, dad, and sister.
Your friend from grade school says some random things about starting high school and laughs obnoxiously. But you just kind of smile and shrug him off, not knowing what to say.
You go back to pretending to text people, feeling really awkward and transparent.
“Hey, no phones out in school.”
You immediately tense up. It’s your other grade school classmate calling from the bleachers, with everybody watching. Your heart starts to beat fast. Why do you have to be put on the spot?
“Who are you texting?”
“Just… a friend.”
“Why don’t you come sit with us?”
You head over ready to make some friends.
Out of obligation, you make your way to the bleachers.
You politely decline the invitation.
You hesitate. You know you’re not going to be able to talk to these people; they’re talking about celebrities, rap music, and sports, which you know nothing about. You start to say that you’re fine where you are, but you realize that’s pretty rude and head over.
Your classmate’s friends introduce themselves and ask you a series of questions. They keep telling you to speak up, but you’re too nervous of saying the wrong things. You eventually compare rosters with everyone, and you don’t have classes with any of the guys in the group but two with one of the girls.
You sit in silence as the gym finally fills up with more freshmen, some of whom sit with the group around you. As noise fills the gym, you feel your face getting hot, wishing you could just turn invisible. You feel sweaty and like you might throw up, but no one’s even talking to you.
You sit through the welcoming in extreme discomfort, and afterwards walk to homeroom in an anxious haze. The rest of your day is better; you meet some nice people in your classes, including your lab partners for biology and the girl who sits in front of you in homeroom. But once you get home, pressures from many different places hit you. How exactly are you supposed to go about this high school thing? You’ve been hounded by your mom all your life about homework and grades (an extension of the guilt of her mistakes in life), so you’ve developed this perfectionism involving schoolwork. But you also want to be liked and have fun with friends in school. And you especially want to take care of yourself, enjoy your hobbies and the friendships you already have both online and off.
You’re being flung into high school with a lot of expectations put on you and your experience. They say to get good grades so you get into college and get a job and don’t die. “You’ll do great!” and all. They also say to enjoy the best and easiest four years of your life.
How do you spend that first one?
Talk to anyone and everyone. Get involved around the school and hang out with your classmates. Schoolwork is an afterthought.
After meeting some cool people in class, balance schoolwork and friends.
Spend a lot of time relaxing at home, playing video games, chatting with your online friends.
Stress about your schoolwork. You must get nearly perfect grades.
You do really well. You get high 90’s on almost every test. Your lowest grade for a marking period was a 92 in biology. Teachers commend your work but wish you would participate more.
You also hate life.
Your focus on school not only prevents you from meeting new people, but also prevents you from spending time on your already developed hobbies. You live in a constant state of terror in which you panic every time you’re assigned a new project, lab report, or paper. Your work must be perfect, so you spend far too much time on it than necessary. The workload itself isn’t that much, but you swamp yourself by agonizing over it. Your stress is compounded by your mom’s constant pressure to get certain numbers on report cards and to stop being so lazy.
You’re assigned a five-page short story due by the end of the week. You have no idea what you’re going to write about.
Hunker down and get to brainstorming. You’ll finish the draft in no time.
Think about every word you put down, every story detail. You want your first draft to be phenomenal.
You’re stressed, so just wind down for a bit. Take a nap, and then you’ll be able to work.
You get maybe a paragraph written an hour. You start with an idea in your head and quickly reject it. After a half an hour you come up with a story detail you like but take another half an hour to put it into words. You lie on your back in between phrases to stare at the wall for ten minutes at a time. At dinner, your mom asks you how you’re coming along with the paper. You can’t even find the strength to respond, feeling panicky and useless. She starts to get upset and tells you to get back to work right after dinner.
Eventually, it gets too late to finish the draft, but later in the week you get it done to your relief. You hand it in and get and excellent grade. But you don’t think the number was worth what you did to yourself.
This sequence becomes more and more common as you’re given assignments throughout the year. You end up stressing about your work for far longer time periods than actually working, usually while staring at the ceiling or burying your face in the pillow. You also find it increasingly difficult to interact with anyone. Every time your family tries to talk to you, you either don’t respond or get unreasonably mad and flee to your room. And while you enjoy your friends from grade school who sit with you at lunch, as well as some new friends from the tennis team, it’s hard to really connect to people. You feel distanced from others and from your own emotions. You beg your mom to let you skip school every single day, but you end up getting perfect attendance at the end of the year.
You feel worthless most of the time. You tell yourself you could never be successful and never add anything to the world because you’re so slow to work, lazy, and unsociable. Many times you just want to lie down in bed and never wake up again. You don’t believe it’s worth living in this world. You feel extremely guilty about these thoughts because you know your family loves you and that there are people who have it so much worse than you. That just makes you feel worse yourself.
Explain these thoughts to your therapist.
Explain these thoughts to your parents.
Explain these thoughts to an online friend.
Keep these thoughts bottled up inside you.
The comfort of being behind a keyboard to gather your thoughts before communicating lets you open up to an online friend about your struggles in school. Though you have trouble explaining everything to him, especially your more darker thoughts, he listens with compassion. You feel a little better every time you talk to him because he responds with empathy and patience towards your venting.
Your therapist has also been trying to help you. You’ve gone to him on and off since you were six years old for behavioral and sleeping problems. He’s a great person and therapist, who recommends you all the right things to calm you down, even if your anxiety is too much at this point for those tips to have long-term impact. But when it comes to adults, you struggle to mention the worst because you’re afraid of not being taken seriously--that you’re just an angsty kid going through a phase, that it will all just go away with age. You don’t exactly believe this to be what your therapist would say to you as a professional, but for some reason you can’t get that fear out of your head. You’re also scared of medication.
Fast forward to February of junior year. Many things have changed. You’ve learned to control your emotions for the most part. You realize anxiety disorder and depression run on both sides of the family, so you’ll likely be dealing with it in some capacity forever as a hereditary part of your brain chemistry. Researching anxiety and depression has helped you understand yourself a little more and how to minimize their control over you. But you still get into demoralizing funks sometimes. You still freak out about schoolwork, and this year has proven to be the most challenging yet. But therapy has helped both you and your mother, so neither yourself nor she hounds on you nearly as much. Your confidence to participate in class and speak your mind has also risen. Just last week you wrote a risky, provocative essay for AP English that got you positive comments from all your classmates and your best grade of the class.
You also have good friends in school now. They have been trying to get you to go to the weekly meetings for the literary magazine for weeks, but you’ve been busy, without a ride home, or just not interested in going. You promised them you would go this week, but you inexplicably feel terrible in the middle of eighth period. You have a lot of homework. You’re tired. You want to go to this meeting, but you suddenly just feel nervous and sick.
The bell rings. You meet your friend in the hall, and he asks if you’re headed to the classroom where the meeting’s held.
Cheer up. You won’t let this random emptiness stop you from enjoying an afternoon with your friends. Tell him of course you’re going.
Tell him you’re going to the meeting even though you’re anxious. You don’t want to let your friends down.
Tell him you don’t feel good, so you’re just going to head home.
Your friend is really disappointed you can’t make it and tells you to feel better. You thank him and get on the bus.
You’re upset you had to ditch your friends again, but your need to go home reminds you of something you’ve wanted to do for a while. Apparently, a few weeks ago this game called Depression Quest came out. You initially thought the game was some indie dungeon crawler with title referring to some esoteric mechanic rather than the illness. That’s just your expectation of games right now. But you read that the game actually portrays depression, the kind you’re familiar with. You read nothing but positive remarks from journalists and critics on the game, about how it could help sufferers with depression realize they’re not alone and friends and families of sufferers better understand depression. Tonight, reading a little more about it, you learn it’s free and short. You’ve got another hour until dinner, so you decide to play it.
You breath deepens and slows at the game’s first piano chord. You play as a character pretty different from you. You’re not in the so-called “real world” of adult life, searching for a fulfilling job. You’ve never had a significant other. But all the same feelings are there. You decide to answer the prompts as you would in your freshmen-year mindset.
In the game, you feel too anxious to go out to a party with your girlfriend. You’re reluctant to talk to your parents and friends about your feelings. You can’t make an appointment with a therapist because you’re too afraid to use the phone. The character shows many of the same emotions/symptoms you’ve had: wanting life to be good but lacking motivation, being too exhausted to focus, self-hate for being unproductive, shame for these feelings. The game starts limiting your choices based on your level of depression, using a red line to cross out options that your character just can’t find the strength to do. Those options remain readable, meaning that the character knows that the healthier choices are available but just can’t do them, something you haven’t thought about much but definitely matches your experience. You end up taking the character down a dark path that gets progressively worse.
At one point, you just start crying. And crying. You realize that the reason you’ve come so far with your depression--the reason you haven’t gone down the spiral your character in Depression Quest has--is the people in your lives who care about you. You wouldn’t have gotten better if your mom didn’t love you enough to get help for the both of you. You wouldn’t have gotten better without people like your sister and your online friends you could reach out to. You’re feel so privileged to have the people around you. You wish others could have the same support network as yourself. You’re still sad at the fact that others have it worse. You’re sad that your character finds himself seemingly defeated by depression at the end of the game.
But you feel better about yourself for eventually having had the strength to talk to people.
You feel like you can do anything, like you can get even further away from your anxiety controlling your life.
College is right around the corner. You’re super nervous. You don’t know if you’ll have issues living on your own or if the work will be too much.
But mostly you’re afraid of a repeat of freshmen year in high school.
You know you’re much better now with people, with yourself. But you can’t help fearing a big change like this might make you dig yourself back into that nightmarish hole.
Soon enough, it’s opening weekend on campus, and so far you’re doing okay even if you’re a little uncomfortable. Your roommate’s really nice, but you haven’t met any close friends yet.
You open your suite’s door Sunday morning and find a crowd of people on your floor’s lounge, some of whom you met briefly throughout the programs of the weekend. You want to involve yourself, but you have some reading to do for your first class on Tuesday. You could also be playing a game or maybe start a blog you’ve been thinking about for a while. Oh, and you’re unsure if you’ll say a word if you go in the lounge.
What do you do?
Head out to the lounge and try to talk to people.
Finish the book for class.
Start playing Knights of the Old Republic
Stay in your room and stare at the wall.
You quietly introduce yourself to the group and climb into a chair. You’re curt and anxious the whole time, and everyone comments on how quiet you are.
But you end up staying in the lounge for five hours, and you slowly but surely come out of your shell. Your RA pulls out a Wii and Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and suddenly you feel pretty great.
Before you know it, you’re a month into college. You’re friends with pretty much all the freshmen on your floor. You have movie nights in the lounge, play cards and games a lot, explore downtown, and meet for lunch and dinner at the dining halls every day. You’ve only been here a month and you feel that some of your friends are closer to you than people you’ve known for a decade.
Sometimes you just have those days when you’re a bit overwhelmed with work, trying new things, meeting new people, and that looming “real world” that you’ll be faced with in a few short years. But for every instance of anxiety there’s about ten moments of joy. You feel more confident than you ever have.
You’ve come to a point where you feel pretty comfortable with talking about your time in high school and have a lot you want to express so you can fully move on from your painful experiences. You find an opportunity in a blog post to write about the past four years. But you’re unsure if you really want to go through with writing or publishing it. You might not have the time to write, and publishing this personal stuff seems sort of self-indulgent to you.
Put the post up. You’ll finally get some closure for yourself.
Write the post, but save it for yourself. Why should other people care about your past issues?
Maybe put it on the backburner. High school wasn’t that long ago, so maybe give yourself some more distance from it first.
Don’t bother. Your writing’s shit and no one will read it anyway. It won’t even really help you.
This blog post was written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table August-September Topic on cathartic experiences with video games.