Since it's World Mental Health Day—and since it's impossible for me to separate design and creativity from my mental health—today I am reposting something I wrote on my personal blog six months ago.
CW: reference to suicide, substance abuse
This is a personal reflection that jumps around; it's not meant as an instructional article of any sort.
I've been reading a lot of historical fiction the past two years and noticed a theme: all of the books I read make me feel sad.
I read a lot of books by women about women throughout history. Most of these women overcome huge challenges and make inspiring achievements. But this weekend I had to set down a book because I found myself thinking, "But was she ever happy?"
And I thought back to the dozens of other historical novels I read and asked myself: "But were they ever happy? Or is every life doomed to be bittersweet at best and a tragedy at worst?"
I'm aware enough to recognize that I am reading fictional accounts and fiction thrives on conflict. It thrives on facing, fighting against, and overcoming challenges. The authors are choosing events and people that make a compelling story: specific details, impressions, letters, and select parts of records. I am reading stories, not reality.
There's a saying: "A map is not a territory."
Even the most accurate maps cannot replicate the full reality. Perhaps Google maps proves this point more than any other: even when a map is based on recordings of the site, even when it zooms in to place you on the street, it is not the same as actually standing at that location.
Narrative therapy uses this idea, a map is not a territory, to look at how the stories we tell, the parts we highlight, can contribute to our mental and emotional distress. It asks people to identify the stories they tell and helps them author a new story. The new story isn't false, it just asks us (the author) to look at more aspects of the territory, and be thoughtful about the maps we make of our ourselves, others, and our lives.
After setting down that historical novel, I found myself wondering what pieces of my life someone would pick if they wanted to write a dramatic account. There are so many different themes they could explore.
I became addicted to substances at a young age, and struggled with relapse and recovery for more than 10 years. An accidental overdose in high school could have ended my life, but instead pushed me into therapy. It could be a story about the trauma that started the addiction, the failures that sustained it, the people (and dog, of course there is a dog) who helped me truly recover.
I dropped out of high school, patched together a degree through alternative schooling with support from some key adults, and then became accepted (and graduated) from a top-10 university. It wouldn't be until years later that I was diagnosed with the dyslexia that invisibly made school hell for most of my life.
I've worked in jobs that make for "good" drama, from working with violent offenders to crime victims to emergency rooms to military bases, with all of the associated combative patients, threats from gangs, armed stand-offs, and violent deaths of people I know.
There are other Lifetime movie-esque episodes and themes.
But none of them, and none of these, feel like my life. People will often say our struggles shape us, or our true selves come out under pressure.
In my experience, struggles and pressure lead to PTSD and other mental health problems, not my "true self." I'm not me when I'm sleep deprived and responding on adrenaline; I'm a collection of chemicals and reflexes.
So what would a story about me actually look like? What would a true snapshot of my life be?
It would be mundane. It would focus on the rhythm of my day: waking up before sunrise, walking my dog in the dark, driving along the same highway every morning appreciating the new jokes on the traffic signs, teasing coworkers in the morning, seeing patients with traumas and concerns that are common in that almost anyone could relate to them all (even though they are often convinced only they feel/think/experience life this way), driving home listening to the same soundtrack, walking my dog at sunset, and spending the evening with loved ones.
My life is about the mundane moments. The story of my stressors and my overcoming are a side plot at best; who I am is the person petting my dog and talking about the little dramas of the day with family and friends. My life is spending time with people I love...and missing them when I can't.
I grew up on stories of heroes. I read about fantasy heroines and heroes, about titan-like figures in history, about super heroes. Even my horse stories (yes, I was a horse girl) involved mysteries and races and competition. It wasn't enough to be someone riding a horse; the heroine had to win the Triple Crown as a female jockey.
I grew up wanting more heroes in real life. There was a lot of pettiness by other children and neglect (or obliviousness) by adults. When no one would stop a bully, I would be the person to step up. Sometimes with physical protection, sometimes with words.
It was exhausting and discouraging. But somewhere, somehow, I latched onto the idea that someone had to try to make the world a better place. I would wait for others to do it, and if no one did, I would try my best.
The stories I read encouraged this mindset. It's no accident (I'm sure) that my mom had me read stories about heroic protagonists.
This hyper-focus on challenge and overcoming is deeply embedded in Western literature and its obsession with the monomyth, the Hero's Journey. A story is about conflict. A story is about challenge. A story is about learning and growing so you can triumph. A story is about beating someone or something.
What could possibly be wrong with this idea?
I first seriously considered suicide at age 8. I've talked to a number of people who struggled with chronic suicidal ideation, and many pinpoint age 8-9 as the time they first thought about it too. Since that's the point a child starts to develop an adult understanding of death, I guess that makes sense.
Considering suicide since the first moment you understood what death is changes your relationship to life, I think. Quips that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem only make it worse when you rebuttal is, "But it's been a forever-problem, not a temporary one." The frequent questions about what you want to be when you grow up have a different feel when the unspoken response is, "Not alive. Or not suicidal...but I don't know if the latter is even possible."
I'm not going to kill myself. I can say that confidently now. Not because the thoughts have stopped, but because I cannot escape the reality of how much that action would hurt other people. I've known people who committed suicide; I've counseled hundreds of people who lost someone to suicide. They don't get over it. It doesn't get better. And I can't do that to people I love.
This past year I've spent less time suicidal than anytime in my life. Which has led me to start thinking about what changed (or didn't.)
Here's what I've learned about myself.
No achievement makes me less suicidal. No accolade, no accomplishment, no respect or praise by others, makes me less suicidal. In fact, when I often have the highest levels of external success, I feel the most suicidal.
The stories I read about challenge and overcoming aren't inspiring; they are exhausting. My own history of challenges and overcoming hasn't made me feel resilient; it has made me regret experiences I missed or mistakes I made. Praise that I am doing something well or significant doesn't give me purpose, it feels like a mix of obligation and emptiness.
What has made me less suicidal?
I now live next to a waterfall. I try and find at least 5-10 minutes every day I can sit and listen and look at it. Waterfalls are beautiful, and the way its appearance changes through the season is interesting.
I commute 45 minutes to work each way. Driving home in silence, letting my thoughts toss and then settle in the silence, is comforting.
Seeing the ocean change colors each day based on the weather.
Listening to banter between coworkers.
Making a simple meal.
Making friends laugh.
Brushing my dog as his eyes half-close in relaxation.
Putting up with my cat's need to nap with one paw on my shoulder.
Watching friends explore and accomplish things that excite them.
Exploring new landscapes in a video game. (Hi Subnautica),
I could say it's about the small moments. (Cliche, I know). But I think more than anything, it's about the peaceful moments. It's about the moments where the striving and challenge and conflict can stop.
I grew up on stories of overcoming. I tried to make those accomplishment my goal in life. I don't do that anymore.
I can't stop life from having its challenges. But I can set my goals not to be relentlessly improving, achieving, changing.
And when my mind reflects on the day, and makes its own map of my life, I can choose what landmarks I focus on.
I don't want to focus on the achievement. I want to focus on the peace.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.