Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mental Health and Gaming

This may be something of a more serious and personal post from me. I've wanted to talk about this for a long time, but I was never sure where to start or what to say. Even right at this moment as I'm typing away, I'm not sure how I'll really say what I need to say or if I'll be able to help people understand my situation. I'm not even sure why I'm writing it. Catharsis, maybe. A plea for people to be patient and understanding, perhaps. I don't know.

So let's get it out of the way up front. I've been diagnosed (by a doctor mind you, not self-diagnosis with help from the internet) with a number of mental health disorders. Clinical depression (or dysthymia depending on the doctor or therapist you ask), social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and so on. They affect my life on some level on a daily basis. Some days, honestly, I'm not fit to be around people because of my problems and I can be a really hard person to deal with. So why write about it here on a gaming blog? Why not on a personal blog or site? Because there are times and situations where they affect even a hobby like playing tabletop or board games. In my case, it even affects the things related to the hobby that I do like posting on twitter or podcasting.

Social anxiety is best described like having the worst case of shyness that you can imagine. I feel very uncomfortable around anybody I don't know. I have a really hard time making small talk with people. I hate being the center of attention in a social situation. I very very easily get embarrassed. Some days are better than others. At times I can be almost like any other person. I can talk with strangers, make small talk, and to some extent be okay with being the focus of a situation. Some days I can push past my anxiety and at least act normal even if I don't actually feel that way. Similarly, some days are far worse than others. I've had days where even driving to the grocery store is too much for me or I've been scared to go pay a bill or even going in to work has been completely terrifying to contemplate.

So how does this apply to gaming? Tabletop games and even board games are a social experience and my social anxiety hurts me a lot there. I'm not a strong roleplayer. I hate to admit it, but it's true. I can think of what a character would do and do what a character would do, but it can be hard for me to act in character. Doing voices, accents, and sometimes even talking in character is difficult. I have a tendency to do things like "[NPC] tells you X, Y, Z" as a GM and "[PC] asks about X, Y, Z" as a player. It can be difficult to run a game because, as I said, I hate being the center of attention. And if I mess up, say something stupid, or make a mistake, I get embarrassed about it. And all of this is just with my home game. Today was Worldwide D&D Game Day for Dark Sun and I didn't go. Part of the reason was just that I was busy with other things, but a good part of it was just being scared to go and play in a game that was likely to be filled with people I don't know and play in a public place. 

Depression isn't quite as easy to describe as the social anxiety. It doesn't effect everybody the same way and not everybody expresses all of their symptoms at the same time or the same way. For me, it generally means that I often feel down or unhappy, often with no real reason to feel that way. Related to that is that if I do have a reason or reasons to feel upset or unhappy, the depression often magnifies it considerably. It effects my concentration and focus. It seriously compromises my self-esteem and self-confidence. Sometimes it makes me feel very tired. There are days where it's an uphill struggle just to get out of bed and do the things that I ~have~ to do and I don't always win those battles.

It's also not quite as cut and dry how this affects me and my gaming. Sometimes it just means that I'm a little more quiet and distracted during a game, not as prone to make jokes or whatever. Some days it's meant that I've canceled out entirely because I can't handle being myself, let alone being around other people. It also means that I'm very very hard on myself. I second guess the things I do as a DM like the plots I come up with, the encounters I create, or the whole campaign that I'm running. As a player I can feel like I've made a crappy character, mechanically or otherwise. Or I might feel like I'm not helping out enough with things going on in the game, like I'm too stupid to follow investigations or whatever.

To some extent, playing RPGs helps me with my issues. I can't eliminate them, but being able to go and play with friends is a very badly needed social outlet, distraction, and way to relax for me. The podcasts that I work on are similarly helpful, even if working on them isn't face-to-face. It's never easy though. Some days my mental health issues effects what I'm doing no matter how hard I try to keep it otherwise.

When you listen to the latest episodes of 4 Geeks 4e and DM Roundtable (show #4 and show #7 respectively), listen to how quiet I am for both of them (we recorded them back to back). I normally have to assert myself and push myself a lot for the podcasts. I'm just naturally a quiet person and I don't like to do things like interrupt or impose myself in a conversation. I have to push myself to keep up with both Sam and Thadeous, who are both strong conversationalists and will dominate a conversation. But with those shows, I'm much more quiet. I state at one point in 4g4e that I'm not saying much because I don't have much to say, but strictly speaking that's not true. I was feeling really down that night and it shows. I'm too distracted, feeling too messed up in the head to push myself to be the conversationalist that I normally try to be for the shows. In the latter half of DMR, when NewbieDM joins the recording, I'm even more quiet. Because at this point not am I only feeling depressed, but I'm feeling anxious. I've only had very limited time recording with him, he's got a strong personality, and he's much more well known than I am. I felt like I was a little kid trying to join the adult table at a big family dinner. So I all but disappear for a huge amount of time in the last part of the podcast. I even had my mic muted almost all that time. Then when it eventually comes back to me, I take a shot at myself because I don't feel important or necessary to the conversation.

Is there a point to all this? I don't know that there is. As I said at the beginning, I don't have answers myself. This was really hard to write. I don't usually put myself and my personal life out to be read about like this. On some level though, I think it needed to be written so people can read it. I don't know if it'll do any good, but I can hope.