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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.