How Roleplaying and Fantasy Helped With My Depression

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flickr photo shared by Marco Hazard – Knight of Ren under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Originally published on The Roleplayer’s Guild

Even after almost two decades of an incredibly long and still ongoing battle with depression, I still couldn’t honestly tell you when it precisely “started”. One day the world just got darker, lonelier and harder to understand without any real realization on my part that anything was truly untoward. My behavior became more erratic, my emotions – what emotions I had left – more extreme and I felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness nearly every single day. That emptiness, in particular, became all consuming and eventually, it became so overwhelming that I slipped towards increasingly scarier places. These places my mind would slip towards were hugely isolating and eventually became extremely bad, which meant that regular thoughts of taking my own life were not uncommon.

This persistent feeling of sadness, worthlessness, anxiety and worse pain were not simply a teenage “Phase”. My depression certainly could ebb and flow a bit, with periods where it was not as severe as other times – but it was always there. Whenever I have thought that it was entirely gone and I would be “free”, it has often come back from even the smallest of openings. To compound on these problems was the fear I had about talking about how I truly felt. Other than a handful of people, I did not speak about how depressed I was and neither did I seek much help. After all, to have emotions like this – as a man in particular – was “weak” and besides, according to the terrible thoughts in my own head nobody cared or wanted to listen anyway. It was a simply self-evident fact that depression and mental illness was a sign of weakness, which you kept buried in the dark or otherwise nobody would respect you.

A refusal to engage with others about how I felt, was ultimately why the worst of my depression was able to continue affecting me and persistently threaten to consume my life entirely. Especially in the times when things became most difficult, where help was needed most and yet it was then that I began to isolate myself the most. Even many years on from this point, with a wonderful wife, a greater awareness of my own condition and a much-improved ability to access support networks, my depression is still there. It is not something that can simply be defeated once and for all, but instead, it has to be watched, managed and engaged with – not ignored. In saying this, even with what I know about depression and how to manage it, even writing a post like this proves to be incredibly difficult because the old stigma of “depression means you are weak” is still pervasive.

In many ways that is simply because depression is poorly understood, misconstrued and stigmatized in the media, video games and “real life”. It’s also not just a misconception of those who don’t suffer it, as there are many who suffer from depression who have some of the worst fears or attitudes towards their own health – or even how others experience it.

What is Depression?

This is a hard question actually to precisely answer, because depression has a wide spectrum of conditions and severity. I would say, from my experience, that the easiest way to think about depression is that it’s the absence of validating happy emotions. People who are depressed tend to have a feeling of overwhelming sadness for long periods, may be afraid to engage with the normal world (other people in particular), seek their own isolation and rarely experience emotions like happiness, joy and similar. In the most extreme cases, depression starts to become an increasingly dangerous condition as it leads to self-harm, suicidal ideation and eventually the act of suicide itself. Stigma surrounding admitting having an issue like depression, a failure to seek any kind of support (from friends, family and especially professionals) and being of minority groups in particular (LGBTQIA teens for example) can be dangerous combinations.

Indeed where depression is untreated or with no attempt to at least manage the condition, it can have an extremely high fatality rate due to suicide. Men, in particular, are the most likely to successfully complete a suicide attempt, while women attempt to commit suicide far more often but are not as successful. This incredibly shameful suicide statistics generated in many countries like New Zealand, Australia and the US are thought to occur because men are conditioned to not speak about how they feel (see above), while simultaneously also picking methods of suicide that are more violent. Women, in contrast, talk more about how they are feeling, so give out many more warning signs and when they do make suicide attempts they use much less directly lethal methods.

So depression is a highly dangerous condition, which places the person who suffers from it under a great deal of stress, uncertainty and an inability to feel truly “happy”. Unfortunately for many who know those who suffer from depression, there is a general inability to figure out why saying “Don’t worry about it, you’ll have happy times ahead and you should just cheer up!” doesn’t get the desired positive response (usually the opposite). It’s because depression isn’t a phase and it’s not a momentary sadness like what other people experience after say, their cat dies. Depression is a pervasive absence of the ability – sometimes even the desire – to think about happy thoughts or anything else other than constant negative emotions.

Looming Shadows

This constant pervasive negativity and energy draining thought processes are what cause the emotional distress, isolation, misery and ultimately even pain of depression. To give you an idea what this is like, I’ll use an analogy based on the above image where someone is in a room. To a normal person, there might be a variety of fun objects like the TV, the radio, game consoles, toys, personal items and more. It’s also the place where people come to visit, hang out and engage in normal human interaction with others. For the most part, even when these friends leave, this room is colorful and while it can get dark and even frightening, these are temporary moments before a world of color, joyful objects and other people return. Within this room is a person’s emotions, which enable them to have different feelings consisting of joy, sadness, fear, anger, love and every other feeling one can have.

In contrast, the room of someone with depression is a very different place. For one thing, everything in the room is monochrome and grayed out – either pervasively cast under a dark cloud of fear or sadness. Things that would have once gave this person happiness or entertainment are just simple distractions, but they don’t truly generate positive emotions. Where the other room is set up for visitors and engaging with others, this rooms door is barred, locked, chained and sealed as firmly as possible. Nobody is allowed in, because to allow anyone in is to admit weakness, shame and to let them see how terrible your room is compared to theirs. It is a terrible battle between wanting others to come in and simultaneously believing that nobody does want to come in anyway, so why bother asking?

By far the worst part and biggest difference is the ever lurking shadows, who pervasively hunt around for any further weakness. Perhaps you failed a test recently, or you had an argument with one of your only friends or maybe something you enjoyed doing you could no longer do – the shadow seizes upon these things. Constantly you are reminded of your failures, your insecurities, how terrible you feel and how awful you are. Slowly the shadow creeps in, turning wherever it touches into a gaping black abyss of uncertainty, misery and sadness. Eventually and without significant impediment, it soon controls everything in your own room more than you do, until only a tiny shred is left and then it eventually it wants that last piece too.

I’m not going to extend this analogy any further now, because I think you can guess where it will start going and frankly, it’s not really helping me make my point now. What I want to get across from the above is that the mind of a person who is depressed is almost “trapped” in a constant negative cycle. Depression constantly closes in – my “shadow” above – while the response is often to hide away or pretend “There is no problem”. To others, from my personal experience anyway, it simply looks like the person suffering depression is just being a jerk, or not being appreciative or not being a good friend – and so on. People with regular rooms don’t understand the concept of being trapped like this, because emotions for them come and go. There is no a singular focus on one horrible thought or emotion on a nigh constant daily basis.

Thankfully in terms of understanding depression, there are a variety of places online where you can read about others experiences or how to recognize it to offer help. Of the many different people who have bravely wrote about their depression, I personally find this account from Hyperbole and a Half extremely appropriate. Her description of depression using a humorous comic and an analogy of emotions using a fish tank, I thought was an extremely easy way to get across what it can be like. Hopefully, if you couldn’t follow my analogy of the light and dark rooms above, the idea of emotions being different “fish” that suddenly died one day is pretty accurate. As well as the subsequent increasing aggravation of having others say “We’ll just get you new fish!” or “Cheer up, your fish will come back”, is also very much on point.

The bravery of others like Hyperbole and a Half in speaking about how they have felt about depression inspired me to write this. I have gone too long seeing my friends and people I love suffer from this condition in utter silence. Even worse, there are those wonderful people I have known, for which depression was a battle against an opponent that they couldn’t ultimately win against. Ultimately “winning” is not always possible, much like how just saying “Cheer up” doesn’t fix being sad, but you can manage a condition like depression so it isn’t as much of a completely hopeless fight. In my case, one of the things in my life that helped with my depression were the fantastic fantasy worlds and writings of others. Terry Pratchett’s excellent series of Discworld novels, which I started reading as a teenager and then never stopped the habit, were standouts here. Outside of fantastic fantasy authors and writing though was another thing: Roleplaying and in particular, the social connections formed with the people I played with.

How I Discovered Roleplaying

The first time I ever engaged in a roleplaying game was due to playing Warhammer with some friends from high school, where I visited a gaming club with lots of people who played those games. One day while my friends weren’t there, I got talking to some other people and I got to play in a 1st Edition game of Dungeons and Dragons (oDnD). To me, this was an unusual concept, because I had only seen Dungeons and Dragons or RPGs in general on a computer screen. So playing it on a table with actual people and dice was a weird way of doing things, but I quickly got the hang of it. The module we played was the infamous “Tomb of Horrors” where my “Wizzard” was inevitably devoured by the infamous statue with the orb of annihilation in it. Despite the rather rapid death and subsequently gruesome fates of several subsequent “clones”, I had been given a new love in life without even really realizing it at the time.

When I mentioned DnD to my friends in school and found out they were playing a 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I was delighted to be able to join. My Dwarf fighter, “Bottom” whose legendary hatred of tables led to many an embarrassing incident was my first “genuine” character. He was also technically one of my last characters in a roleplaying game, because shortly after this I got one particular urge and desire: To DM. Being the DM in a roleplaying game was an interesting responsibility, but it also came with numerous perks and powers as well. For one thing, you had more of a grip on how the rules of the game worked and could change things to your liking – something that I really appreciated. Most importantly, being the DM meant you had command of all these gruesome, fantastic and simply weird monsters to throw at your PCs. That was the really fun part, because what first level character doesn’t want to get disintegrated by a beholder anyway?

My initial forays in DMing – in my formative teenage years I will add – were utter disasters. I managed to either aggravate my friends with unfair traps, had to deal with considerable inter-player conflict (we were in high school, so things happen that boiled over into the game often), completely nonsensical plot elements, scheduling causing the game to falter and of course the occasional equivalent of “Rocks fall and everyone dies”. Despite these failures, though, every game was a fun experience until it exploded and it helped me develop a lot as a writer in many ways. I figured out, rather quickly, that the more stringently you prepared a campaign in terms of story, the more comprehensively your dastardly players’ characters would manage to break it. It started to teach me to think on my feet and to try to come up with more ideas at the time, as opposed to relentlessly trying to prepare for every possibility in advance.

Part of how I learned how to “DM on the fly” and come up with responses in reaction to my players, as opposed to trying to block them down the route I prepared was reading other people’s stories. In no particular order I just began reading everything I could get my hands on such as Sir Terry Pratchett, J.R.R. Tolkien, R.A. Salvatore, Mel Odom, Troy Denning, R.L. Stein, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and so many others I just can’t list them all. From looking at the structure, pacing, narrative and descriptions of others, I formed a solid idea of how to do my own. Mel Odom in particular was very informative for how I described and narrated the ebbs and flows of combat scenes. In fact, I still think about how he does so in my various campaigns, years after I read his excellent Rising Tide series.

Once I started to get the idea on how to fully DM – bearing in mind that the internet was not as pervasive in those days, so being able to share ideas with other DMs required me to find them in the first place – I started to become more successful. Various games actually got to the point where I finished entire campaigns with the same groups of people. I also started to diversify into other systems, most notably the first real love I had after Dungeons and Dragons was Chaosium’s excellent Call of Cthulhu. Call of Cthulhu and my love of the works of H.P. Lovecraft led me increasingly towards a desire to run horror roleplaying games as my main preference, as opposed to the high fantasy swords and sorcery of Dungeons and Dragons.

But this change in style and genre was not merely about personal preferences, but also reflected a darker purpose. Call of Cthulhu’s core theme of a desperate battle against nigh unknowable enemies, who are impossible to comprehensively defeat and could only be delayed resonated with me. In many ways as a game and system, Call of Cthulhu was a perfect analogy for the ongoing warfare in my own head against my depression. I saw myself in many ways in how investigators had to elucidate clues about the machinations of mythos gods, which was then used to impede the progress of those beings plans to buy more time for everyone. At many times in my own life to that point, I had been scrambling for anything I could to hold off the constant unending cycle of negativity. Anything to simply buy more time.

It was a struggle I inherently understood and this game gave me a mechanism to explore it.

Discovering The Call of Cthulhu

In many ways, it might seem either ironic or strange to many of you that the roleplaying game that helped me the most at this post-highschool stage was in a genre of bleak, existential horror against an unbeatable enemy. However, Call of Cthulhu allowed me to do something that I hadn’t thought of trying before: Contextualize the ways I felt in tangible monsters, crazed cultists and other things. Then have the people I was playing with, who were usually my friends, stop them or ultimately kill them off. With a game that was designed primarily to have “dark” material in the horror genre, it gave me an outlet for some of the ways I felt and my writing reflected that. Stories about abominable cultists hiding in damp wine cellars, hidden in the backyards of long abandoned overgrown mansions were just natural extensions of how isolated I actually felt.

But aside from the outlet for writing about monsters and contextualizing dark feelings using Shoggoths or Dimensional Shamblers, the most important aspect of why this mattered was the social part. Every week or two weeks, running Dungeons and Dragons or later Call of Cthulhu forced me to get myself out of bed. At my worst, my depression prevented me from getting up or even wanting to leave out the front door – instead making me huddle in the dark over video games or on the internet. Having a game with real people meant getting up, leaving my abode and physically interacting with other human beings. This was because of that whole “Being the game-master” thing I spoke about above, because as the guy running the game if I didn’t turn up nothing goes forward. Nobody plays and so coming to every session was important to me, not just for my own purposes but also not to let my friends down.

Slaying monsters

It’s odd because of everything I couldn’t do while depressed, this was something I could use to psychologically motivate myself to do something other than feel miserable or awful about myself. The preparation for the game meant I needed to think about something else, then actually having to go somewhere physically to play made me leave the house and finally, being around my friends for the 3-5 hours of the game always made me feel that much better. It also helped me function to do other things, because once I did get up to write for the game or whatever else, once I was done I could then focus on something else. The positive effects of having these games were many, but before we get too encouraging here, they were also not a complete cure in any way.

There were many times where I canceled sessions, or moved the game along or just outright couldn’t manage to prepare for my game simply because of how depressed I was. Other things in my life, such as a collapsing career, issues with loved ones and sometimes just being utterly overwhelmed often could not be saved by any sense of responsibility to my friends over a game. What always amazed me though, was no matter often I sometimes shoved things around or canceled on people, my players kept coming back. Ultimately and most importantly of all, it wasn’t just about playing in my game, but rather about the fact my friends just wanted to see and spend time with me as well. It was a subtle and obvious thing to many of my players, but to me, it was the single most validating thing I had ever been told.

Eventually though time, many of my friends graduating and other factors eventually meant my Call of Cthulhu group disintegrated. It was time to find a new group to play with and there happened to be a convenient new thing cropping up, which I decided to give a go to after leaving it behind all those years ago: The Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

High Fantasy: Dungeons and Dragons

When I started to get back into Dungeons and Dragons, after a long hiatus once I finished my last 3rd edition game, I consciously decided to write stories that were more “High fantasy”. Where Call of Cthulhu had been an extremely gritty game, which often used my own moods as an analogy for the horrors or terrors within it, my Dungeons and Dragons games became more escapist fantasy. Based on the works of Tolkien and more high-flying fantasy such as the books based on Dungeons and Dragons itself, I wanted a game that reflected something more of an absurd fantasy action movie. It helped considerably that 4E aided this particular goal by making PCs more resilient, giving martial characters more to do in general and balancing out the spellcasters so they weren’t as reality shattering as previous editions.

This change in tone and style was not because my depression had been “defeated” in any way, it was simply that I decided to write in that manner was “dwelling” on the negative thoughts and emotions – just in a different way. I wanted my games to be an escapist fantasy from my own thoughts now and not just as a way of expressing myself. In short, roleplay day/times were when I left the baggage at the door and thought about something else other than how terrible I frequently felt. For the most part, this change in style and tone of writing actually worked extremely well. Most interestingly, I found a surprising array of people among my friends who were interested in playing roleplaying games.

Oddly enough, I developed somewhat of a crusade to bring as many people into roleplaying around this time as I could. While my own groups were generally very stable – at around 5 players each – I often wanted to find as many new players as possible for my games. This is where I was starting to run a couple of my games online again, using virtual tabletop (VTT) tools in order to do so (as opposed to mIRC) and thus bring more people into the hobby. Part of this was just the fact I had a deep love of the hobby and an even bigger part, was just how much it had helped my own current situation feel just a tiny bit less dark. Perhaps it could do something similar for others?

I ran most of my 4E games for many years and generally weekly, which allowed me to see my friends (or in the online games, hear from them over voice chat) on a regular basis. In addition to this, it had positive effects not just on my mood despite an increasingly difficult choice of career going poorly, but also on those I was playing with. Being able to come to each session and hang out with the other people was just as important to them, as it was for me. It was a situation where everyone was genuinely “winning” and getting something out of it. Aside from the social interaction that I would regularly get, I also began to develop less “shame” over the condition I suffered from and began to realize that while roleplaying could give me something to do, it was not the only help I needed.

It was time to seek direct support from others.

Never Split the Party

The realization that I was not really “alone” and that people not only cared about my game, but about how I actually felt was an important step to realizing something else. Depression was not an enemy you can or should attempt to fight by yourself. To do so is a losing proposition, every bit as mad as assaulting an ancient red dragon without the support of anyone else in your party. In roleplaying games parlance it’s known as “Never split the party”, which is an acknowledgment that as a team or group, players can accomplish far more than they can do so alone. When you take it a step even further, it actually applies to the entire game as a whole and especially includes the DM. The more I began to work with my players and roll with their ideas, plot concepts and individual stories, the more everyone at the table got out of the game.

At some point I realized that fighting depression alone was one of my greatest problems and one that I started to address. While I had always talked to some people throughout about my depression, I was not willing to publicly or openly talk about it with anyone in general. Most importantly, my fears and anxieties of seeing professionals were things I set aside and I began to take increasing personal responsibility for my own depression. Of course, this doesn’t mean I have always succeeded, done the right thing required during bad times or reacted the way I should have early enough, but I have never let it get as bad as it did during my teenage years and early 20s. I recognize now that like an arrow, you can be broken easily in isolation but together with others it becomes far harder for depression to break through. When required, I get over my shame or worry of people judging me for the way I feel and simply talk about it. Each time I am always pleasantly overwhelmed by the support, kindness and concern others show.

For the times where it becomes genuinely overwhelming, I now do not allow myself to go off into the abyss. I talk to people about how I feel, I allow myself to slow down to try to think through the problem (instead of getting stuck in a never-ending cycle of negative thoughts) and if truly needed, I happily go to speak to someone professional who can help. Reaching out and asking for help from others is not a sign of weakness, or that you are a failure for being unable to control your depression. It is a sign that you have been relying on your own strength and nothing else for too long. In some ways depression is like a constantly pushing force, which has an endless amount of energy and will never give up. Even the strongest people will eventually give way to that kind of pressure and there should be no shame in asking someone else to help you push back.

What will surprise you is how often people genuinely do care and will be more than willing to do so for you. In some cases, though, you should be prepared that the worst moments of depression can be extremely hard for your friends or family to take. It’s within these moments that fear of seeing psychologists or doctors should be put aside: Not just for yourself, but for those who care about you as well. A path to self-destruction helps absolutely nobody, especially not you.

Today and the Future

Today I still run a variety of different roleplaying games, have a much larger network of people that I know, have stabilized my mood considerably and am even happily married. Even so, life has taken many different twists and turns, some of which have been incredibly difficult extremely recently. This has also meant that the feelings of depression, which have always been there, have been something I’ve needed to consider, manage and find a way to deal with. Unlike earlier in life, I know now that it is important to have the support of others – even if it’s something as simple as going out to a game every week or so just to see another person. For me without having something else to do, I can quickly become overwhelmed with negative thoughts or feelings, so having my roleplaying games is an important part of how I get through tough times.

It’s just not the only thing, but I am incredibly glad that I was exposed to the wonderful world of roleplaying when I was. While it was certainly not the only thing I needed to get through the worst periods of my depression, it was one of the most important reasons that I did manage to make it. My only regret as I write this post is that I cannot remember the names of the four fellows and their DM, who seeing a lonely, bored 13-year-old teenager at the wargaming club with nothing to do, invited me into their game. They did far more for me, especially in future, than they ever realized they were doing and they deserve my personal thanks.