Today is World Mental Health Day, which means that a whole bunch of people are sharing their stories regarding their battles with mental health. There’s still an unfortunate stigma attached to mental health issues, one that is difficult to shake as a result of the implications opening up about such issues can have on a person’s life. What will my peers think of me if I admit that I’m struggling? My employers? My family members? While it may be relatively easy for some to open up about their battles with depression, anxiety or other issues, for others it’s not as simple. However, it is important that those who feel that they can speak do so. As such, I’m marking this World Mental Health Day on GameRevolution with my own personal story.
In the summer of 2013 my life changed. Without realizing it, I had spent the past 6 months steadily accumulating a variety of stresses that were chipping away at my mental well-being, and finally they all came tumbling down on top of me like Jenga, albeit with the wooden blocks replaced by existential dread.
Prior to 2013 I had never even considered mental health. I’d felt sad and nervous, sure, but only in amounts that I would deem “normal,” like when getting sweaty palms while public speaking or crying at the end of Terminator 2 when Arnie raises his thumb. This was different, though — it felt like at any given moment, I could physically explode from intolerable stress. It felt like I was permanently situated on the edge of a cliff, looking down beneath me and growing increasingly petrified at the thought of falling off.
My seemingly insurmountably high levels of stress were the result of nearly a year of doing little more than working and trying to succeed in my chosen career path. I’m both a stubborn and competitive person, so I had taken the steps to lay out a series of goals ahead of myself that required me to work a variety of jobs simultaneously, ensuring that from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to sleep I was always in “career mode.” I did things other than work, of course, but even while doing those things, I was still always thinking about work. My nigh-on robotic drive to succeed had caused me to be unable to switch off, and the goals I was trying to achieve niggled at the back of my mind whenever I did anything else. I felt guilty about taking a break, because I thought that taking a break wasn’t a constructive use of my time.
I had my very first panic attack that summer, in rather mundane circumstances. While eating a tuna pasta bake on my sofa (it wasn’t worth it), I looked towards my desk and started contemplating all the things I still had to do that day. I was probably already 5 or 6 coffees deep at that point, when suddenly I experienced a terrifying shortness of breath. I started dry heaving, feeling as though I was going to pass out. After no small degree of persuasion from my girlfriend, I called two separate bosses from two of my jobs and told them I’d be taking the rest of the day off. I lay in bed feeling nauseous and afraid, wondering what was happening to me.
For the next three months, I would spend every day swaying between anxiety and being disappointed and frustrated with myself for feeling anxious. I continued to work long hours, and soon this became the only thing I felt that I could do. I cut myself off from my social life, spent less time with my girlfriend and worked. I felt dreadful while doing it, but this is the life I’d carved out for myself and, at that time, I couldn’t see a way out of it. But there was a way out of it. There’s always a way out of it.
Those three months went by and I basically did nothing of note other than worry about the future while feeling like I was losing my mind. Then one afternoon my girlfriend asked me to go into the city with her for lunch, and I noticed that one of the local game stores was selling a 3DS XL and Animal Crossing: New Leaf bundle at a discounted price. I remembered enjoying the original Animal Crossing back in the day, so I picked it up.
For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing is a series in which the player assumes the role of a villager setting up their new home in a town filled with anthropomorphic citizens. The only overarching goal is to earn more Bells, its in-game currency, to increase the size of your house, but other than that you’re free to do as you please. The unique hook of Animal Crossing is that it makes use of your 3DS’ internal clock to keep track of the date and time, meaning that there’s always something different happening depending upon when you play it. If you switch it on in the morning, for instance, you’ll get to watch the sunrise, while playing on December 25th will ensure you’ll receive an array of Christmas presents from your talking animal buddies.
Most video games want you to sit with your eyes glued to them for 10 hours straight, providing incentives to keep you playing for extended periods of time. Animal Crossing presents the antithesis to this approach — it’s a game designed to be played in short, fun bursts. It gives you things to do that will only take up 20 minutes of your time, but will keep you coming back throughout the day. You’ll switch it on, clear up the weeds from your garden, catch a few fish and earn a few Bells before carrying on with your day. You’ll then come back later to go on a nice boat ride with a turtle in order to collect pineapples on another island.
I started playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf during a time in which I was buried beneath the weight of my own disappointment. I had set goals that I couldn’t achieve because of my inability to cope with the stress I’d placed on myself, and I couldn’t find a way out of that stress because of my inability to focus on anything outside of it. I’d wake up each morning already exhausted, go to bed even more exhausted and do it all over again the next day. Animal Crossing provided something I desperately needed during that time, but that I otherwise would never have given myself: a break.
Each day I would wake up early, turn on Animal Crossing and start by catching a few bugs, talking to the early risers in my town and performing odd jobs around my virtual home. I’d have one eye on the clock in the real world throughout each day in order to ensure I wouldn’t miss events in the game, and I’d always be around for the arrival of special visitors such as Crazy Redd and his art dealership, Katrina the fortune teller or Saharah the wallpaper and carpet seller. At a time when I felt like I was getting nothing accomplished, Animal Crossing: New Leaf filled my day with small, achievable tasks. It provided me with a happy break from the reality I was struggling with, and a way to feel like I was accomplishing something outside of the anxiety-inducing goals I had surrounded myself with. Every day it added things to my schedule that I didn’t need to worry about, but that I was instead actively looking forward to.
There’s no quick fix cure for mental health issues, and something that works for one individual may not work for another. Over the course of those next few months and into 2014 I would try everything to “snap out of it,” from medication through to therapy and a bucket-load of physical exercise (I did so much cycling that you could bounce pennies off my calves), but my time with Animal Crossing taught me my most invaluable lesson when it came to getting better: I’d spent so much time worried about the future and my position in it, that I neglected to spend time focused upon the here and now. By constantly worrying about what lay in store for me and what I needed to do to get there, I had unwittingly put myself under such strain that I could barely get out of bed, let alone accomplish anything significant.
Three years on and a situation I thought I’d never recover from is now in my past. It’s taken a lot of hard work and effort, but during that time I realized that no matter how much energy you put into your future, if you aren’t looking out for yourself in your present then it’s ultimately fruitless. It’s good to set goals for yourself and have targets you want to reach, but it’s also good to sit back and catch some fish in a virtual town in which a clothes store is managed by a talking alpaca. You don’t need to feel guilty for working on you.