Let’s Play Skyrim

Welcome to a repeat of my post from April 2014! I like to think I’ve come a long way since then: I’m hopeful regarding my future. I feel a strong positive connection with Fox (my husband) and other loved ones, especially when we express our mutual affection. I have been playing video games, but for reasonable periods of time and without allowing them to interfere with living my real life. (It’s been several months since the last time I played Skyrim.)

On Tuesday my prescriber told me that I’m doing great, switched my prescription to one dose per day, and said to come back in 3 months. I’ve started addressing my social anxiety with help from my music therapist, Wakana. The last couple days have been a fun reunion with dear college friends. Honestly, the only not-so-awesome thing going on for me right now is the problem with my computer… and even that seems close to being resolved.

I’m doing this re-post because I’ve started obsessively practicing lines for the first couple episodes if I ever do a Let’s Play of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s kind of annoying because I’ve already said the same things many times, and yet I still feel compelled to repeat them over and over. It’s better than having a panic attack because a bee bounced off my windshield while I was driving, imagining wasps attacking me, or being afraid to look in the mirror at night because I was traumatized by a movie I watched as a pre-teen, though.

My anxieties – social anxiety, general feelings that something horrible will happen, and my bee/wasp/hornet phobia – have been flaring up like crazy lately. It kind of makes sense that my defense would be to concentrate on a fantasy world, where I can load from a recent save if I don’t like what happens. The lines I’ve been practicing focus almost exclusively on character creation, the one part of the game over which the player has nearly total control.

There are a lot of parallels between my current situation and the context for the original version of this post (below). I was feeling good about my life, being active and social, trying new things, and acting like a responsible adult then, too. My anxiety was flaring up then, too – driving my mind to grab onto whatever it could as a security blanket:

I had an epic day of being awesome on Thursday, so I was exhausted on Friday. I spent what part of the day I wasn’t sleeping practicing Zentangles and hanging out with friends. Saturday was similarly low-key. After drawing my Zentangle for the day, I was itching to play a video game: something beautiful and epic and new…

So I started a game of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on PC. Next thing I knew, the sun was rising. I took a nap and basically spent all of Sunday playing thoroughly immersed in that fictional world. I’m enjoying the game and want to experience the story, but to be honest there are aspects of it I find rather stressful. Melee combat, for one – especially since the default difficulty was too high for me and I kept dying. I’ve been doing much better since I dialed it down a notch, but I still prefer to avoid melee combat when possible.

The other thing I find stressful is that, whether a character is attacking me physically or not, they’re talking at me. The physical attackers hurl insults that can hurt more than their blades (except that they’re obviously wrong, because I end up killing them.) Other characters I pass might say something mean, ask me for something, or randomly tell me their life story.

Some of the other characters in Skyrim say very mean things to the player character, especially if you’re playing one of the less popular races. […] I’m still concerned that hearing negative talk consistently for hours at a time can be harmful… at least for me.

[…]

Anyways, as much as I want to just play the game and have fun with it – learning things as I come across them and making decisions spontaneously – my mind wants to plan out a Let’s Play. The most basic definition of a Let’s Play is a video that combines actual gameplay footage with simultaneous audio commentary by the player; it can be a walkthrough, a challenge run, friends goofing off (whether playing competitively or collaboratively), even a talk about a topic that has nothing to do with video games. Fox’s favorite Let’s Player (LPer) is HCBailley.

I love the idea of Let’s Plays and have wanted to do one for a few years now. I had a couple false starts, but on some level I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before I get one going that I can be consistent with (and get all the YouTube followers!). It’s an opportunity to do some video editing – which I enjoy for the process at least as much as the product – and share my thoughts about the game. I want to share the story, be witty and entertaining, and give a feminist critique.

I’m trying to convince my mind to put the Let’s Play idea on the back burner for now. Let me learn to be consistent with things that are important to my real life before I start a project that requires me to play a long and involved video game on a regular schedule (and in manageable doses). […]

The thing is, if I think about the game when I’m not actively playing it, there isn’t much to say. I have my character. I’d like to improve my smithing and melee combat abilities. I’m really glad I can mute the voices and determine when subtitles appear. I’m not entirely sure it was wise to drop all of my gold on a house this early in the game, but it’s a place to keep the dragon bones and scales I’ve been collecting. It also enabled me to adopt a child; interacting with her causes me to feel warm and fuzzy inside. I could think about which quest to start next, but they’re all in a nice convenient log for me so I can just decide next time I play.

The above don’t give my mind much to grab onto, and it doesn’t like that. Moving forward with my real-life career goals, dealing with real-life people (especially strangers in positions of authority), and even just being fully present in the moment are all things that provoke my anxiety. My mind needs something to grab onto, something to think about so incessantly there isn’t room for thoughts about the real world in general and my own life in particular.

It was hoping the Let’s Play would provide such a security blanket; it wants to lure me into thinking about my ideal character build instead of actually developing skills I need in real life. It wants me to direct my creative energy into witty commentary about the game instead of into composing original music, creating original art, or writing anything worth reading. It wants me to feel good about earning virtual money to make a virtual home pleasant and cozy… instead of finding a real job, earning real money, decluttering my real home, and raising a real family.

Oh, Mara, I thought I’d gotten past this. I should have known! How could reading a few chapters of a book once truly change the way I think about and perceive myself? How could it counteract a lifetime of internalized messages reinforced by my perception of my experiences?

[…]

I thought I was doing better but then… I don’t know! Did I push myself too hard and need some downtime to recover? Did I relapse? Am I making any progress, or am I just walking in circles completely lost? I hate being unable to trust my own perception of reality.

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This Post Took Three Days to Write

As I was crafting my last post, I came to understand why I was prioritizing a game over the mountains of important things (some of them very good) that are exploding in my life. It’s a defense mechanism.

I was suicidal last week – or, at least, the voices in my head were. It took everything I had just to pay attention in piano class last Thursday; thank the gods the instructor didn’t call on me to improvise in front of everyone!

Banji came over on Friday and helped me clean the area around my computer desk. I’m amazed by how much better I feel just being in this space now! It was really awesome of her … and it was also incredibly stressful for me. I kinda want to say maybe it wasn’t the best timing, but if I hadn’t done it then the clutter would have just kept making me increasingly miserable. It was the timing we had, so I’m glad we did it. I needed her support.

I visited with her family on Saturday. Her uncle was there; he kept criticizing her cousin and making passive-aggressive comments that were too subtle to respond to appropriately but could be devastating to a child’s self-esteem. I tried to ignore him, to connect with everyone else present, to enjoy our group activities… but it grated on me. Like a mosquito bite in a very awkward place. (It reminded me of how my mom has treated me, my own inner critic, and the cognitive distortions that make depression such a devastating illness.)

After they left, Banji and I were free to enjoy each other’s company. We played duets, sight-read my current composition project on a variety of instruments, and improvised on piano. The piano improvisation became incredibly silly, referencing inside jokes that are over a decade old. It felt so good to laugh with her, especially over shared experiences that helped form our relationship. It helped restore some of the sense of continuity I’ve been missing.

Then we moved to the couch and she decided I make an excellent pillow. We talked for hours. While I was holding her, everything felt right. My worries melted away. I felt whole, complete.

And I had hope for a future where little things like eating dinner together and playing duets and talking on the couch all night can happen whenever we both want them to.

Then Sunday came, and she had to drive home. For 5 hours.

I’m not suicidal anymore. I’m just sad. It’s going to take a lot of work to make our dream of living within a short drive of each other reality. (And even then, everything won’t magically be perfect.) A lot of it is outside our control. I have to include Fox in all my major decision-making. It’s big and scary and overwhelming.

Lately I’ve been trying to do too many things that are big and scary and overwhelming:

I’m re-taking 2 classes I had to drop 2 years ago because they were triggering my worst depression symptoms. In that time I was supposed to do useful things like find a medication that works for me and improve my music skills. Well, if Lamictal/lamotrigine has any chance of working, I need a much higher dose. The APN took me off it, then had me on 25 mg; I got frustrated and stopped taking it, then realized it seemed to help reduce my suicidal ideation so started taking it again yesterday… The point is I’m kind of starting over on it, I need to increase my dose gradually, and by the time I get any clinically significant benefit from it (or a different medication, if the APN puts me on one when I see her in three weeks) the semester will be over. I’m on my own. As for my music skills… they’re not as improved as I’d like, but I’m working on them. They’re serving me better than I’d expected (when I trust them).

The point is, these classes are challenging me in every way imaginable, but I just have to keep struggling through them. If I drop them again I might not be able to finish my degree.

Even if I do everything I need to, my school has a limit for how long you can take to graduate, and I’ve reached it. I’m at the mercy of a stranger who gets to decide whether I can have the extra time I’ll need to finish my degree. My recent experience of strangers making important decisions that affect my life has not been very good.

I’ve also re-structured my personality (in therapy) to the point where I have to change the way I interact with my mom. If I don’t, I’ll just continue doing unhealthy behaviors that ultimately hurt both of us. The ways I interact with my mom have been shaped my whole life to reduce the overt conflict between us and prevent her from abandoning me or falling apart emotionally or having to change the unhealthy behaviors she developed to adapt to live with her parents, etc. Changing them means risking the very things I’m programmed to avoid happening. I don’t always choose the best alternative behaviors, and she doesn’t always react well to them.

Based on our recent conversations, we’re both acutely aware of this and feel threatened by it. We’re afraid of… whatever comes next – but we also want the ways we’ve been relating to each other to change. I don’t know whether what each of us wants is compatible – or healthy. She won’t give me a straight answer when I ask her to join me in family therapy.

On top of this I’m (sort of?) coming out as non-binary. I’m in this really painful place where I’ve fully accepted it as my gender identity, but I’m not fully out to the people I interact with most regularly. They keep using the pronouns associated with my assigned gender; every time it happens it’s like a tiny stab in the heart. I don’t correct them because I’m not sure how to do so constructively. (And somehow it’s almost comforting because it’s familiar?!)

Worse, no one seemed to notice when Fox used my pronouns (in a shining moment of glory that filled me with joy) on Saturday. There was an almost imperceptible pause (that I might have imagined), and then the conversation continued as though nothing revolutionary had just happened. No one asked about the strange way he’d referred to me (“ze”). Their brains probably changed their perception of the phonemes to match their expectations.

Finally, my plan for this semester had been to join social groups on campus that might help me feel better about existing. My contact at counseling services has been respectful of my gender identity and tried to help me join a group that addresses some of my needs. But I just can’t stop thinking of it as yet another place to be misgendered! I feel like withdrawing into what’s safe and familiar, and where I know I can be perceived as I am… not reaching out into something new and scary.

The LGBTQ+ coming out group would probably be perfect… except that it’s a new social situation I’d have to adapt to. I imagine once the conversation started I’d either find it easy to participate, or get something out of listening to other people speak. But when it’s time to leave the house I feel anxious about entering a new, unpredictable social situation. I don’t feel like I can handle those at the moment.

I’m falling back, regrouping, re-prioritizing. This isn’t a matter of entertainment, personal growth, or self-actualization. It’s about survival. (Maybe my brain wouldn’t be in survival mode if my body were consistently getting the nutrients it needs…)

Anyway, priorities. The big 3: food, sleep, and physical activity. Let’s add emotional intimacy to that: hugs are amazingly comforting. Research across psychological disciplines consistently finds that the relationship between therapist and client is the most important part of therapy. Being emotionally available and supportive and non-judgmental heals, whatever the therapist’s orientation(s), modality(ies), and technique(s).

My mental health must be my first priority (followed by my physical health). Without that nothing else matters because I won’t be alive to enjoy it…

My classes come next; it’s very important that I pass both of them. Even if I don’t get the extension I need, I might be able to re-apply to the program and keep the credits I’ve already earned toward the degree – or transfer them to a new school if necessary. I’m so close to finishing, it’s painful.

The groups I wanted to join come last – possibly after video games. I thought they would help me to grow as a person, receive support for the issues I’ve been struggling with, and develop important skills I’ve been lacking … maybe even to make friends? I also decided at the beginning of the semester that it’s okay if I just need to focus on my classes right now. Making that decision – setting that boundary – is a way I can assert myself. That’s putting my hard work in therapy into action!

The nice thing about the LGBTQ+ groups is that they happen every week and I can show up when I’m ready to. I can make the decision of whether to go up to an hour before the group meets; my decision has no effect on whether I’ll be allowed to join in the following week. This week I decided not to go, but by the time one rolls around again I might be up to it. I’m thinking of calling and asking for a basic idea of how the time in group is structured, so it won’t be quite so unpredictable.

The counseling services group isn’t like that. It’s a specific 6-week course (complete with homework) and I’ve already missed the first week. I was invited to join in the second week (that is, today), but I’m feeling very ambivalent about it. On Tuesday I was wondering why I even wanted to be part of this group in the first place. By last night I was thinking maybe it would help me feel more confident and able to focus in my Thursday class (and more likely to go, because I’d already be on campus). The group closes after the second week, so if I miss it again I can’t join. I’ve been asked to let the facilitator know my decision ahead of time.

Perhaps it would be best to tell her I’ve decided against it. I already have a lot that I’m struggling with. I want to send in my own written appeal for periodontal treatment, I need to start working on the request for extended time in my academic program, I have instruments to practice, and I have papers to write. I’m counting primarily on the paper to get a halfway decent grade in piano class. If I don’t join this group, I’ll have more time and energy to dedicate to those things. I won’t have to deal with the social anxiety it’s bringing up. And I’ll have more time to recover from waking up before I have to coordinate getting ready to go somewhere with everything I need for the day, etc.

The main appeal of the group is that it’s an opportunity to practice yoga, meditate, learn ways to calm the nervous system, and cope with difficult emotions. I could do the yoga and meditation on my own … theoretically … but experience tells me I won’t. I need – and crave – structure and social support. I need to get outside my own head and receive feedback from someone other than my inner persecutor.

Just last night I had a great experience in my group music therapy class. I’d decided to show up, take notes, and role play for my group mates to the extent that I felt comfortable, but refuse to take a turn as therapist. Everyone else had taken their turn and I felt very shaken up, on the verge of tears. I felt raw, exposed; the muscles in my body tensed to the point where it felt like I couldn’t move. I sat very still for as long as I was able.

But the co-instructor came in and my group-mates told him I was the only one left who still needed to go. I couldn’t bring myself to come out as having a mood disorder, but I was as honest and vulnerable as possible: I said I’d been having a rough time and was feeling very raw and didn’t think I could lead a group in that emotional state. He asked if there was an experience I thought I could lead the group in, that might also help me to feel better.

I was going to do the intervention I’d come up with for my piano class, but sitting at the piano I had my back to the group and couldn’t find a practical way to remedy that. We were role-playing children, so my group-mates suggested I try a simple children’s song with two chords and play on guitar. I agreed to a song someone suggested, and the next thing I knew I was playing guitar fairly fluently, singing, using the song structure to maintain order while allowing the “kids” to be spontaneous and creative and interact with each other, and having fun. I was even able to take constructive criticism and try some of the suggestions that were offered.

I learned so much from that experience and felt so much better afterward … because I was present and vulnerable with others; I allowed them to support me. And they did. They were awesome! They gave me the push I needed to succeed.

I was hoping to have a similar experience with the counseling services group. We’d all be there to learn to overcome certain insecurities and practice new ways of being with ourselves and others. If I didn’t feel like it’s helping me, I could always drop out. Short of dropping out, I could decide the degree to which I want to participate (including whether to do the homework). It’s only five weeks. I might have made new friends, or at least learned something useful…

… But then I talked to my contact at counseling services, and she suggested I “put it on hold” so I can “focus on stabilizing my depression.” She seems to think it’s not really the kind of group I need right now. Perhaps I can try it in the fall.

I feel empty, deflated, tired, and maybe just a little bit relieved. and thirsty. Maybe I’ll just sit here. Indefinitely.

Father’s Day

Fox and I visited his parents for Father’s Day. I decided to go because I like them and want to have a relationship with them, and I’ve been avoiding them. They know about our situation from my perspective, and they were both eager to show their love and support regardless of the decision we make. They are two of the awesomest people I’ve ever met.

We had a wonderful time and stayed up way too late last night, so I ended up sleeping over. Fox went to church this morning and his dad has work (which is why we celebrated Father’s Day yesterday), so it’s just been me and his mom. We had a heart-to-heart sharing our stories and family baggage and wants and fears, including what’s going on between me and her son.

“I’m sensing a pattern: there’s a lot of loss in your life, and you cope with it by pushing people away or withdrawing. You’re pushing him (Fox) away and he’s anxious and that’s why he’s being so clingy.

“I see you in a place in your life where you need to make a decision. Either you are going to use this relationship to learn how to be in healthy relationships with yourself and others, or you are going to keep pushing people away. You need to decide: either try to work with him to learn and grow together, or let him go.

“You need to either give yourself wholeheartedly to this relationship (and life in general) so you can learn and grow from it, or you have to walk away from it. Either way, the worst thing that will happen is you’ll get a divorce – and you’re already willing to do that. But if you keep doing what you’re doing – if you stay connected to him while simultaneously pushing him away – you’re both going to be miserable.

“So decide.”

I’ve had my quills out for too long. I’m poised, my hood spread, ready to strike. I was actually snarling at other motorists on my way here yesterday. I’m tired of being so tense. I’m exhausting myself and wasting my energy – energy I could put to much better use.

When I’m connected with people – open, honest, vulnerable – that’s when I feel the most alive. Listening to their stories, sharing in the creative process with them, enjoying a delicious meal, giving and receiving hugs… these are the things I thrive on. I need relationships; the most painful thing about the way I’ve been living with Fox is that our relationships with other people have become so limited. We’re disconnected. I’ve disappeared inside myself; I almost did that again by trying to drive home while exhausted last night.

“Yes I’m alone, but I’m alone and I’m free. Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me.”
“Actually, we’re not.”

~ Frozen: “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”

Everything comes down to one innate need: the need to be fully myself in relationship with other people. I’ve spent most of my life learning that I can have one or the other: I can be myself when I’m alone, or I can sacrifice myself and become enmeshed with others. To this day my mother actively teaches me to hide part of myself to be more acceptable to others (her).

Neither of those options is acceptable anymore. I can have periods of time when I’m alone, that’s not a problem. It’s healthy and necessary. But I need to be connected with other people; I can’t have being alone be a requirement for being myself. I need the people I care about to see me – all of me, not the mask and armor I’ve been hiding behind and trapped within. To feel safe doing that, I need to be able to see myself.

So whatever decision Fox and I make regarding our marriage, I choose to let go and throw myself wholeheartedly into our relationship – even though I find it terrifying. Not for him, but for myself. Worst case scenario I get the thing I’ve been leaning toward anyway and maybe I learn something useful I can build upon for future growth. Best case scenario I grow and I get an awesome life partner – with an equally awesome family – who can help me continue to grow. I think it’s worth a bit of risk to shoot for that.

I’ll close with a bit of wisdom from my father, one of the ways he’s still alive in me after all these years: Be honest. I choose to be honest with myself and with others, even (especially) when it’s scary. I love you. I need ______. No, I don’t want ______. I’m not sure if I want _____ but I think it’s worth considering. I’m sick and tired of _____. I’m sad I’m scared I’m angry. I can’t live like this anymore! I don’t want to talk about this right now. I feel _____ when you _____. Please give me some time to process. Please respect this boundary. Please listen.