Mental Illness & WoW

Every year Gnomeaggedon does a series of posts about mental illness in support of Movember. I directed my twitter readers to Gnomeaggedon’s post, and was happy to see the attention that the topic received at WoW Insider. And then, over the weekend I read Karegina’s about anxiety when participating in random groups. It bothered me that she felt impelled to not only suffer an activity she didn’t enjoy, but also, that she was likely exacerbating a symptom of her illness.

While I’m not her, while I haven’t lived her experience, I have lived with mood disorders. I grew up with it, I was diagnosed with it, and I have had to learn to cope with it: to stay employed, to not alienate friends and family, and even to function in a video game. I realized, reading Karegina’s post, that while I’m not particularly excited about sharing my own experiences, that those experiences may have value.

Before reading further there are some things that are likely to be different than my usual posts. This is a very personal topic for me, and I will be heavily moderating comments. I am not seeking sympathy nor advice. In my experience, sharing information about a mood disorder with friends and acquaintances can have negative consequences on relationships. That being said, I also know that without advocacy and information, recognition of mental illness as an illness, a condition, these problems will never improve.

The Fuzzy Bathrobe

I suffer severe depression on a regular basis. It tends to be seasonal, with a protracted, several month episode every other year at best. When I’m depressed, I hurt physically. My thinking processes become dull and sluggish. Reading becomes a struggle, staying awake is difficult, and it is impossible to imagine that anything will ever be good again.

One of the oddities of my particular manifestation of depression is anxiety. I have difficulty being around people. Venues of any kind become daunting places, filled with too much noise, too many people, too many things to track. Sometimes I have panic attacks. Talking to friends and family members is a tortuous process. Phones ring unanswered for weeks on end.

While I didn’t choose to game because of these issues, as the winter months drag on, and the summer seems a promising dream, gaming often becomes the only non-working activity that I can participate in on a regular basis. However, as I’ve moved from gaming consoles and PC play to primarily MMO environments, I’ve had to learn to cope. 

Guildmates

I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve told about my mood disorder in game. For the most part, it’s not necessary. While I feel like my life is on the rocks and that I’m acting like a complete loon, the simple fact is most people don’t notice. If people do notice a bit of a blip in your behavior, they usually assign it to whatever makes sense to them, the same things we do for others. Maybe they have extra stress at work, a problem in their family, and frankly, people just have bad days.

However, sometimes there comes a point where you can’t participate in activities that you usually would, like raiding or arena teams. In this, I treat guildmates just like workmates. If I can’t make a scheduled activity, I notify the appropriate authorities. If they want specifics, I tell them I’m ill. If they’re really  persistant I may choose to give more information.

The thing with sharing that you have a mood disorder is that some people honestly don’t believe it’s an illness. Even those who really do believe it intellectually, don’t understand what it means on a day to day basis. You will have to decide, based on the person in question, whether you want to share the information or not. Generally those who have a vested interest and take the time to ask after your health will also make an effort to understand what you’re going through.

But don’t expect to much, even those you choose to share with. Especially people who haven’t gone through similar experiences, or have someone in their immediate circle who have, will really understand what kind of support is appropriate. That’s completely normal.

On the other hand, if you’re a guildie who’s been handed this information, keep in mind that it was likely a hard decision. You don’t need to go off the deep end yourself. It is ok to express sympathy and concern. It is ok to ask questions. It is not ok to call a guild meeting and explain that you have an issue. It is not ok to start handing out advice on how your guildmate should cope with their illness. Sometimes it helps to imagine that your guildie told you they have rheumatoid arthritis instead–a non-life threatening but chronic health condition that may affect their ability to be available to the guild.

Strangers

While you might feel obligated to friends and guildies, you owe absolutely nothing to strangers. While they might have expectations, you and I both know that these expectations are not always met. The important thing when dealing with strangers is to minimize their impact on your triggers. That may be anxiety, loneliness, or a completely tanked vision of self-worth (or something completely different–I’m just going off my own experience here).

For example, I know that interactions with unknowns is virtually guaranteed to make me doubt myself or get into a towering moment of angst. If I absolutely want to run something with a friend or just need to get some gear or justice points, I make sure that I can’t see party/raid chat. While there can be some good information in those channels, for the most part, strangers talk in those channels to criticize. It’s easiest for me to just ignore they exist and enjoy some zen with my rotation. In raid settings, most vital information pops up on my screen as a raid warning, so it’s even less critical to be involved in the rest of the chatter.

You also shouldn’t knock yourself if you need to bail out. Sometimes you think you can handle it and you can’t. Excuse yourself from participating if you’re making your personal psychology worse. It’s no different than stepping away because your blood pressure is rising and you have a heart condition.

It’s also likely that you’ll want to completely avoid sharing anything with a stranger. If I met someone at the bowling alley and they told me that had cancer in the first five minutes, I’d be very confused. Likewise, sharing your status with a complete stranger is going to be seen as odd, and is likely to make a situation worse, not better.

What to Do

While I spend most of my game time immersed in a cooperative environment, I find that raiding can be a jarring and frustrating experience, especially on the bad days. I know that I enjoy it, and I don’t want to miss out once the storm has passed, so I make a concentrated effort to stay involved in raiding even during the bad times, and there are a few things I’ve learned that make the experience less stressful and still fun.

Limit Information

It’s really hard to intensely concentrate when depressed. My mind is ready to wander after a minute of effort. I make an extra special effort during depressive episodes to do much more prep work than usual for raid night. While I always have a gear list in hand for progression, I organize it a bit differently. Instead of having a BiS list, I list every possible upgrade with a notation next to my ideal BiS. This helps me be able to make snap decisions when in the raid, instead of having to figure out whether I need a piece of gear or not.

There is absolutely no way that I can rely on a pre-boss explanation in order to function. I need to have a plan before I walk in or I will be a muddled mess throughout the encounter. While I generally spurn videos during my normal raid prep, when my brain is fuzzy and reading is hard, boss videos help me, if not figure out what I’m supposed to actually be doing, at least let me see how everything will look so I’m not standing around in muddled confusion at all the activity during the fight.

I also actively attempt to tune out boss fight explanations before a pull. Fortunately my current guild does all their strategy planning by forum, but it is almost impossible for me to keep track of a protracted discussion of changes to strategy. Instead, I make sure to ask for a recap immediately prior to the pull so there’s not the distraction of alternate strategies bouncing around. The RL is also more prepared after said discussion to provide a 1,2,3 bullet point which is much easier to get my brain wrapped around.

Take a Breather

Sometimes I log into the game and wander away from my desk as often as I sit playing the game. When doing solo activity, there is no reason to feel tied to your desk, and it shouldn’t stress you out if you need to walk.

It is also ok to ask for a break. If you find yourself asking for one every 10 minutes, you’d likely not in a place where the activity is helping your situation. However, if you need an extra break or two over the course of 3-4 hours, don’t feel bad about taking it. If it helps you buckle down and focus it’s a win/win for you and your raid team.

Just Say No

I know this expansion that I’ve been rather anti-social, and there’s a reason for it. Group play outside the raid doesn’t help. I need a new activity that is very different from raiding when I’m depressed. I tend to do my solo activities on off-nights, and let my guildies fend for themselves when it comes to running randoms or alt runs. This helps keep raiding from feeling like an all-consuming monster and gives my brain plenty of breathing room between stressful encounters. It is ok to say no to guildies looking for “one more.”

Saying no also frees you up from having to hide from WoW. A couple of  years ago during a depression, I almost completely disappeared from the game. I felt too pressured to do anything but group activities, and I just couldn’t handle it. When I screwed up my courage and started telling people not now I found that, not only did my guildmates not despise me for leaving them high and dry, but I could handle playing the game on a regular basis again.

 

Final Thoughts

This part is going to be a lot more rambling, because it has to do with mental illness in general, a subject I don’t feel competent to talk about with a mass audience. I am not a mental health professional. I only know my experience, and my illness, and how I’ve managed to find a comfortable place for myself in which I can function. However, I also recognize that there are situations that occur where people, well-meaning and caring people, find themselves unable to understand what to do or why someone has shared with them.

Sometimes, those with severe depression talk about suicide. As someone who has suffered through these feelings, I can only tell you in the most general terms that if someone chooses to speak about suicide, they are in all likelihood contemplating it. That does not mean that they are going to take action. It does not mean that you are the only person between them and that action. It does not make you responsible for the choices of others. Even severely depressed people have choices.

What it often means is that the person needs a reason. A reason to fight against that feeling of utter despair. You do not have to shoulder that burden for them. You can’t. You can only provide a conduit. You can “listen.” You can talk about hope, even when they argue that there is no hope. You can direct them to a suicide hotline. You can advise them to seek professional help. You can suggest that they call someone that can come talk with them face to face.

If you don’t know if someone is serious, just assume that they are. If someone is having discussions like this in a public venue, you can request them to talk in private. Unlike some other types of mental illness, those with mood disorders are often semi-rational, and capable of following rules. While rejection can be a deeply damaging thing when depressed, depression, like any other illness, does not excuse bad behavior.

It’s ok to not know what to do. That’s why there are mental health professionals. If someone has talked to you about suicide, talks about being down, up or sidewise, don’t hesitate to let them know that there is help… with a professional.

Mental illness is a reality. With the number of folks who play with, the likelihood that someone in your friends list is suffering chronic mental illness, or has suffered periodic mental illness is likely. WoW is a game, and there isn’t any expectation from folks like me that the game, or my friends in it, will fix all my problems. However, just because I’m down doesn’t mean I want to give up one of the few activities that I can do and enjoy. I have to change my behavior a bit to compensate for my periodic bouts of depression, but I can still be a great player and have a good time, even when the world seems dim.

28 thoughts on “Mental Illness & WoW

  1. This part is going to be a lot more rambling, because it has to do with mental illness in general, a subject I don’t feel competent to talk about with a mass audience. I am not a mental health professional. I only know my experience, and my illness, and how I’ve managed to find a comfortable place for myself in which I can function.

    ^ The reason at least 5 long drafts regarding my social anxiety & WoW are still in my drafts folder and not published. I don’t want to imply things that aren’t actually factual.

    • I’m still not happy I *made* this post, but it makes me sad when I see signs that people feel alone, or that they’re struggling with an illness which has no comparison or support.

      • I compose these posts when it gets mentioned in-game for me. I’ve told some guildies about it, and even my RL has asked, y’know, how does social anxiety affect 25man raiding, since I’ve mentioned I prefer the bigger group over the smaller 10man. And then it cropped up again when I was struggling to lead an alt-but-current-content raid group.

        So I wonder sometimes if talking about what it feels like to be anxious in certain game situations will help people who don’t have these anxieties (and maybe people who do) think of ways to help us out?

        And then I leave it in the drafts folder again.

  2. If someone does talk to you about wanting to cause harm to themselves (or others), and it seems relatively serious, you can open an in-game ticket and report to GMs (put “suicide threat” in the subject of your ticket to get it responded to faster). They have been known to call in reports to authorities who can check in on them in real life and intervene if necessary.

    Also, Drama Mamas on WoW Insider has some decent advice as to what you can do when your friends in-game talk about suicide:
    http://wow.joystiq.com/2010/03/19/drama-mamas-suicide-threats/

  3. Hello. What I am about to say is not meant as a solution, a cure or anything like that. Just an observation and room for thought.

    My husband has had similar experiences to you. He goes from happy, life of the party to grumpy miserable motherf***er in the winter. Last year I had a brainwave. Maybe he was suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). We bought him a lightbox (they are damn expensive, but I think you can rent them or get them through a health service) and I forced him to sit in front of it for an hour a day. He had headaches for a while, but his mood improved. I got my husband back. You could not believe the difference. This year he started to get tetchy and I told him to get the box out again and he’s been OK. It make a huge difference.

    Now, I am in no way saying that these symptoms are the same as yours but for a non-invasive technique I would definitely consider giving it a go.

    But whatever – big hugs, thoughts, patience and kudos for sharing. Seph xxx

    • Light boxes ARE awesome :) A friend of mine has SAD as well, and she found a lightbox to be an awesome solution. I haven’t bought one myself because it’s sunny enough even in the winter that a good walk is a better solution for me ^^

      • I’ve been amazed at the mood healing power of 10-15 minutes in a tanning bed in the gray of winter. Maybe not as good as a lightbox, but for occasional use it might be an option.

  4. First of all, I would like to say thanks for writing this. I understand that talking about such personal issues on the internet is hard, especially given how so many people view mental illnesses but more discussion can only be a good thing.

    —–

    I did write a huge chunk about my own personal experiences but then I chickened out of posting it.

    So once again, thanks for posting this.

    • *hugs*

      It is not chickening out to choose not to share personal information with the interwebs ^^ I am totally uncomfortable with this post to be honest.

  5. Adding another “Thank You” for writing this, especially that part where you remind us that it is ok to say No to any group activity you do not wish (or do not feel capable, for whatever reason) to join in. I have recently decided to take a break from raiding due to similar issues, but did not want to let my Guild down. Fortunately, we are trying for the “Stay Classy” achievement and needed some alts made, so for the past two weeks I’ve been levelling up a completly different kind of toon from what I normally play just so we have a Dwarf Warlock. I am still contributing to the Guild, and being somewhat social on Vent while soloing. Best of both worlds for me right now.

  6. I used to annually volunteer time on Memorial Day Weekend at TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)- and organization meant to provide support for grieving families of service members who were ‘left behind’ after a loved one passed.

    As someone who has never faced severe depression (we all have bouts), the experience was nothing short of eye-opening. The stories, the pain, the reality of experiences those who struggle through life e.v.e.r.y.d.a.y. have to deal with…

    I’m not offering sympathy (you don’t want it) albeit compassion is always l’ordre du jour. I’m not offering instruction for those who don’t struggle (they don’t want it) to volunteer time. I’m just supporting the choice to share the experience, on your terms, with an audience. Advocating +1 to the statement to maintain what gets you through, but to stop doing an activity if it’s making life worse, regardless of your walk of life.

  7. I wrote my post in a fit of hopelessness. And is usual when I am feeling this way, I hit the post button. I was amazed when I saw your comment on it almost right after it was published. I forget when I’m down like this, that there are others that suffer as well. Especially when I’m surrounded by people who are ‘normal’, or so they say.

    When I saw that you’d written a post about mental illness in WoW, I eagerly gobbled up what you were saying. I personally have only been diagnosed with my personal problems since 2007. Before that, people just thought I was either a bitch, flake-y or stupid. When I got that ‘label’, more allowances were made and I learned not to beat myself up for my slips.

    I’ve always been open and honest with my guildies, friends and family even when I fear their reaction. The hardest thing in the world was to tell my husband that I have Bipolar Disorder. His reaction made me melt inside though. He hugged me and said in a relieved voice “Oh thank God. There is a reason.” He had thought I was being contrary or just ‘not trying enough’ for all the years we’d been together (which at that point was almost 12 years).

    He’s not always patient with me. I mean, he’s not a saint. But when I’m unable to leave my bed because of a down cycle, he lays there with me and holds me while I cry. And while he doesn’t understand completely, as he’s never had a severe depressive cycle, at least he is trying.

    And since he’s also my raid leader in WoW, he can see when I’m ill. Rarely will I sit out of a raid or something but I often will avoid all the other activities, like dungeons, BGs or other PVP. He also makes allowances for me. On my really bad days, I can stay out of Vent for raids and he’ll relay everything to me.

    Also, I have noticed that there is a difference between my ‘new’ friends and my ‘old’ friends. My old friends, I.E. the ones that knew me before my diagnosis and subsequent medication, are much more accepting of my ‘down times’ and my ‘episodes’. My new friends, the ones that have only known me since I’ve been medicated, are not. They think I need to ‘power through it’. And I think that’s because they haven’t seen me in the depths of my disease. They don’t know that my low points now are nothing. Even if they seem like self-indulgent self-pity, they aren’t. But they can’t see that.

    Oops, this became a novel. ANYWAY! Thank you Windsoar. I love that you wrote this and I love that you shined a spotlight on it.

    • I’ve also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but it’s Type II and the mania isn’t even worth sneezing at (I just have to avoid the bookstore ^^).

      Having a supportive partner can be an absolute life-saver. I’ve spent 15 years with my illness, sometimes medicated but more often not. This year is the first time I’ve managed to have a cycle from going into full-blown downslide, and honestly, it’s the best winter I’ve had in years.

      I’ve found honestly to be a double-edged sword. It depends on your social support system as to who needs to know. It depends on the strength of your relationships, and your ability to cope with negative consequences if the person in question changes their behavior. I’ve had people rally to me, and treat me like a pariah when I’ve told them, and I’ve definitely heard more stories than I’d like to count where someone with a mental illness had every action fall under the umbrella of their diagnosis. I don’t want to BE my illness.

      All that being said, you know yourself, your limits, and your strengths. It’s ok to say no. It’s ok to say next week. And it’s definitely ok to protect yourself from behavior in game that may cause you distress outside of it. I *know* that you know these things, but sometimes it’s easy to let doubts creep in, so I’m saying it again ;)

      • I sometimes have a hard time finding where my bipolar ends and where I begin. Sometimes I’m sad and I can’t recognize if this is the sadness before a complete melt down or am I sad because there is no more cookies in the pantry. I’m constantly asking myself “Is this me or is this my disease?”

        Sadly, I often don’t have an answer. However, to most of my friends and my family, I am Karegina. They don’t see my disease when they look at me. I’m a loving aunt, a steadfast friend who will do anything they need, and a daughter that is always there. However, my sisters don’t see ME. They only see the disease. They see the raging mood swings, the violent out bursts and the catatonic depressions. I’m fighting so hard to show them *ME*. But sometimes it’s hard. :)

        I will win out though. I’m stubborn as hell. :D

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  9. I’d guess that a larger % of the wow population suffers from illness over the general population, because as you said yourself “gaming often becomes the only non-working activity that [they] can participate in on a regular basis.” Our dearly departed guild leader is a good example. She was very active in the virtual world because she was unable to be active in the real world.

    Here is my favorite post on what to say to someone who is suffering from any type of illness…. and more importantly what not to say. I prefer to treat everyone as if they aren’t sick even when I know they are. If they aren’t in the mood for no harm, no foul.

  10. It takes a lot of courage to publicly discuss your inner demons so let me join with everyone else in thanking you for writing this. I also wanted to ask a question about what you might call “gamer speak.” Gamers as a group tend to make jokes and comments that are more crude than clever, particularly when it comes to mental illness. While its common in the rest of the world to hear something along the lines of “if this doesn’t work I’m going to blow my brains out” things tend to go a bit further on the internet. /wrists, go cry emo kid, etc. are all lines that get used regularly. As someone who tends to run his mouth and be careless with his language, but also knows that words have power and meaning, I would like to know whether you and other people who struggle with mental illness find these turns of phrase offensive. If so I will absolutely make an effort to watch what I say a bit more closely.

    • I think like many other “adolescent” turns of phrase, this depends on the person. I’m pretty thick skinned when it comes to “jokes” that seem to be prevalent in gaming communities, even ones that don’t necessarily impact me personally, so I freely admit that I’m a poor barometer for this kind of question. Personally, QQ, emo, /wrist commentary doesn’t bother me–in fact, I’ve been known to threaten to throw myself off cliffs, or /bang head, etc. to vent frustration. Frankly, I think it’s normal. However, I do know other people who would absolutely cry offense (especially in a ‘public’ setting such as trade chat).

      The only behavior like you describe that honestly upsets me is when people “cry wolf.” These situations minimize the impact of the condition, and the suffering it entails, and it makes me very upset.

  11. Hi Jaded I read the post every word of it. Thank you for sharing this, at least everyone is aware what your going through and not wonder what your doing in real life, work, raids, wow and many other activities. I was not open about my depression but since this is also part of the discussion I like to share mine here as well.

    I also struggled with depression too My family and friends in real world knows this, I locked myself most of the time in my room and never bother to go out, I eat by myself most of the time, it will be rare to see me go out with friends, because I felt like I am a bother to them. I cry most of the nights feeling nobody cares and loves me. just recently, it made it worst that my boyfriend and I broke up week before thanksgiving this year after 5yrs of being with him, I trusted him with all my heart.

    I thought I couldn’t make it but I did went to the doctor and ask for advice also talked with my family and friends so I will calm myself, I am always shaking and don’t know what to do, I have to always try to entertain myself and WoW is one way for me to at least talk with someone also my blogging helps me vent and share what Im doing during the day and reading it over again just makes me happy and not to worry about it and compliment myself that I did a good job, get away from stress and my depression.

    Physically I wasn’t stable, Mentally I was depressed. that’s is why I gained so much weight as well but I am starting to get myself together, just recently lost 20lbs and I am so happy about that. Anyway, It;s not easy but Im trying myself to be more active and try myself to be with friends and family around as my greatest support, without them I probably end up dead because It comes to my mind quiet often and think about “suicide” is the only escape and option for me that I shouldn’t be. so I do thank you for all the people who communicate with me through in game and real world that really helps me a lot.

    Anyway, I support Mental health Awareness every day of my life. from working in health care field totally understand mental disorders, depression and any illness out there. Again thanks for sharing! =) Good Luck in whatever you do Im sure a lot not just real life supporters here but the wow community as well. <3 take care and God bless always!

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  13. Hey, sorry I’m late to comment here, but I’ve been bad about keeping up with blogs lately. I don’t really have much to add, but I just wanted to say that I was diagnosed with chronic depression years ago, so I can very much relate to this topic. Thank you for sharing your experiences and helping to educate the community about mental illness. Also, I know you don’t know me very well, but if you ever need to talk to someone who understands what depression is like, feel free to contact me. :)

  14. I experience a good bit of anxiety in game as well, but I suppose it’s a different kind, an most likely inherited, because my family has alwayd been extremely critical of outsiders. I have a really hard time accepting some personalities, and often have to raid without Mumble/vent to keep my sanity, avoid the twitch, or just to keep me from snapping and saying something I’ll regret later. I am also a teeth grinder/clencher and this can leave me with pretty intense headaches or earaches…. or embarassing mouthpieces, heh.

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