If you’ve never been down in the dark, wretched pit of depression, there are simply no words to explain what it’s like. This isn’t a matter of, “I can’t believe we’re out of my favorite cereal,” or, “My car broke down on the interstate,” or even, “I just lost my job and I can’t support my kids.” It’s also isn’t, God help me, a matter of, “Hey, why don’t you just cheer up?” When it comes to depression, real, actual, honest, sky-is-falling-and-life-is-ending depression, it’s a matter of bits of your brain actually missing. It’s a physical, medical, miserable condition, where life around you stays exactly the same way, but you have lost your ability to perceive it correctly.
I’ve struggled with it for my entire conscious life, way back to when I was just a little stupid kid who would fly into rages or slip into near-catatonia. Somebody would say something to me that a week ago would have been hilarious, but now was a trigger for a tidal wave of murderous hate, or something would happen to me that a week ago would have been an inconvenience, but now made me stare longingly at a bed or a bottle or a blade.
Depression is always destructive, exhibiting itself externally, as you drive away friends with erratic flare-ups, or internally, as you punish yourself physically or emotionally, and all the while, there’s this little piece of yourself, a tiny impotent voice of reason crying out for you to stop, please stop, you need to stop. But that voice isn’t in control. Not when you’re down in the pit.
Roleplaying games have always played a weirdly symbiotic/parasitic role in my depression, and to paraphrase Homer Simpson, was often the cause of, and solution to, my time in the darkness. I could find comfort in gaming, both running and playing, as it could flood my system with endorphins, lifting me up into the light, at least for a few days, hours, or minutes. Unfortunately, if I had my depression goggles on, I might see a successful game as a total failure, and plunge down, down, down, even deeper than I had been.
Because I’m a self-obsessed twerp who was convinced the whole world revolved around me, I was a little bit surprised to note the same sort of struggles from other gamers, and was particularly moved by Philippe-Antoine Menard (AKA Chatty DM), as he wrote about his severe depression that started during GenCon 2008.
I started wondering if there was a correlation between intelligence and creativity and gaming and depression, if maybe there were a lot of us sad-eyed tragi-bombs, creating worlds, running characters, rolling dice, and weeping quietly when no one else was looking. I contacted Phil and asked if he’d be available for an e-mail interview, and he graciously agreed.
Dixon Trimline: Does my description above line up with what you’ve gone through, or are depressions more like snowflakes, with no two being alike?
Chatty DM: That’s a rather accurate, if poetic way of writing one’s descent in the darkness.
I’d add that your vision of the world narrows considerably to a point where 90% of your attention is directed inwards, wallowing in self-pity and obsessive/paranoid/anxious what-if scenarios. In fact, I’ve read that what makes getting out of depression so hard is that people fall in some sort of unhealthy love with their depressive states. Getting out of it requires some sort of voluntary “breaking out”.
Gaming for me, while definitively a means to escape, was a healthy one. Anything that made me socialize with people AND make me feel better was to be encouraged. In that sense, I’d suggest that during depressive bouts, the last thing a social gamer should do is to stop gaming.
Hell, the circle of friends should be told of the depressive gamer’s state, he/she would be surprised how much support they would get.
Lastly, the hardest, most humbling lesson that I learned to deal with depression was to seek help. Both from family, friends and health professionals. Depression can pass with time, but it’s not treatable alone. In that, RPG gamers are blessed because they are already surrounded with like-minded, and often as mentally fragile, people.
Dixon Trimline: While I acknowledge the imperative value in telling family and friends and doctors about the depression, it meant my admitting out loud and in public that there was something fundamentally wrong and broken in me. This is coming from someone who is chock-a-block full of pride! I had to get to the point where it was either declare my depression or wander off this mortal coil, and thankfully, I chose life. Not everybody does.
How would you convince a prideful jerk like me to get help?
Chatty DM: Short of dire threats and ultimatums, there’s almost no way for loved ones to convince a depressed person to seek help. For instance, I kept convincing myself that it was a temporary bout of blues, and then blamed everyone around me for not being supportive enough to pass through this “rough patch.”
The depressive person either needs to hit rock bottom or get afraid enough to lose friends and loved ones to go out and seek help. In my case, the first time it was my wife, who suffered very much through my first depression, who gave me an ultimatum. The second time, I recognized the symptoms and sought help from the same professional source before things became irreparable.
Dixon Trimline: I exhibit all the standard warning signs of an oncoming depression (irritability, exhaustion, a weird combination of loss of appetite and overeating, etc.), but my one big red flag has to be disengagement. When I start dropping out of activities, canceling games, begging off get togethers, and I’m talking about things I WANT to do, then I know that darkness is on the rise. What are your big red flags?
Chatty DM: My flags are exactly the same… And seeking to flee from what I consider to be my stressors.
Dixon Trimline: I’m neither a doctor nor do I play one on TV, but medication (Lexapro in my case, which I eased off of over time) did me a world of good to clear my vision and get me grounded. What do you recommend for fixes or treatments?
Chatty DM: Meds, while often unavoidable, aren’t enough and must be accompanied by therapy and exercise for the fastest recovery. I’m stuck with meds for the rest of my life (being bipolar) but exercise and therapy have hastened the sunrise in that long night that’s depression, and I too no longer take my anti-depressives (I was on Mirtazapine.)
Dixon Trimline: Even in the best of times with rock-solid mental health, game mastering can be enormously stressful. Would you recommend steering clear of running games during the pit time?
Chatty DM: That one’s a toughie. It really depends on how much joy the person gets from GMing. Yes, it’s work and it may cause stress and anxiety… but the effort it requires to get ready and run it may serve as that “Do at least one significant thing a day” regimen that’s necessary to kick out of the funk.
However, I’d stress that during a depressive episode, the GM should focus on going back to basics and run things he/she is comfortable running with the least amount of effort. Thus you would limit the amount of stress this may cause. However, if even that becomes too much, then it might be better to let another one GM, let another one do it for some time and, above all else, not blame yourself for not “seeing this through.”
When you get advice or direction or comfort from someone who’s never been down in that pit, they have no idea what they’re talking about, and therefore are pretty easy to ignore. But I’ve been there. Phil has been there. We know what it feels like. We know about the emptiness and the desolation, about the battle to even get up each morning, about the miseries of going to bed each night, probably to be tormented by insomnia.
Take this from someone who’s been down there in the darkness: you need to clear your vision. You need to get a glimpse of the world the way it really is. You need to find someone and tell them right now what you’re going through. You need to find a doctor who can give you the right medicine to clear your head, and the right doctor you can talk to and sort things out.
Take it all one day at a time, for every day you have coming. I’m worth it, and so is Phil, and so are you.
Author’s Note: A truly heartfelt thanks to Chatty DM for taking time to answer my questions so honestly. He’s one of the good guys.