Let’s Play Skyrim

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. The same is true of Oblivion; I haven’t played the other Elder Scrolls games yet, but I imagine they are probably similar. It’s quite unpleasant, and worse I’m concerned that it could have similar psychological effects to being bullied. I know it’s a game and gamers are well aware that it’s fiction and they can turn it off and walk away from it. Most people have a strong healthy boundary between themselves and the character they’ve created. The bullies can’t actually keep them from achieving their real-life goals – or the ones in the game, for that matter. (In other words, it’s quite different from being bullied in real life.) But I’m still concerned that hearing negative talk consistently for hours at a time can be harmful… at least for me.

On the positive side, I just figured out that I can mute the voices and only have subtitles during dialogue (audio and display settings, respectively). It makes the game a bit less immersive, but perhaps that’s also better for my mental health. I guess I’ll see how it goes next time I play.

Now if only we could do that to real-life politicians…

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). I need to play through the game at least once before I’ll know it well enough to do it justice. I’m still trying to figure out my priorities for my character; something I haven’t encountered yet could inspire me to change my entire focus. So there’s no need to determine exactly how I’m going to introduce myself, what I want to include in the first episode, or how to include the feminist critique without ranting too much. Those things can develop over the weeks, months, or even years I’ll need to prepare for such a monstrous undertaking… and to be honest, I doubt anyone will particularly care about Skyrim anymore by then. It already has a successor.

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?

My mind is trying to annihilate me. Suicidal thoughts don’t work if nothing else because I don’t want to cause my loved ones pain. So it tricks me into thinking I don’t need therapy and clings to whatever fiction I have some interest in, becoming so wrapped up in that universe I can hardly even feel it when Fox expresses his very real love for me.

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.

Career Person?

Some strange and unexpected things happened to me today. I’m not quite sure what to make of them, but I’m optimistic.

During my music therapy session, Wakana asked whether I thought Fox and I could live on just his salary. I thought about it for a short while, then gave my answer: “I think, in order to maintain the comfort level we’re used to, we’ll need to have two incomes.”

This might not seem that extraordinary – these days, what couple/family doesn’t need 2 incomes? – but from my perspective it’s a huge change in my self-perception. I’ve always seen myself as a career person, there was never any question about it. I couldn’t imagine myself not working outside the home. I would feel as though something were missing in my life if I didn’t pursue a career, like I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. I’ve worked my butt off in school so I could have a meaningful, satisfying, (preferably decent-paying) career. Part of why I entered my field of choice – why I started my Master’s degree – is because I see it as one with a lot of room for growth, where I could become well-known and make a serious impact.

I never thought I could have tolerated someone implying that I could or might consider not pursuing a career. To suggest such a possibility would be an affront to who I am, and all I’ve worked for. How dare anyone suggest that I stay home while my spouse works to support our family financially?

Yet, at the time, these thoughts didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t even get mildly angry. I just thought about it from a purely practical perspective: Fox isn’t entering his field for the money. He’s entering it because it’s his calling, what he wants to dedicate his life to. We might be able to get by on what he’s likely to make, but we wouldn’t be able to afford much more than basic necessities. To live the lifestyle I’ve always taken for granted and that I want to be able to provide our children – never mind to be able to afford their education – we’re going to need more income. My income.

Even that may not be enough, because I refuse to enter a career simply because it pays well. I need something I’m passionate about, something I find fulfilling in its own right.

I thought I’d found that in music therapy – a field with plenty of decent-paying jobs, but not one to enter if your goal is to become wealthy. It’s all about developing a genuine (therapeutic) relationship with clients; connecting and communicating and building on their existing strengths through and in music; being and experiencing human creativity not as an art form or as entertainment, but as a means of healing and growth. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d rather do and yet, sometimes, I question my decision. Whether it’s my calling or not I have a choice: Is it really what I want to do?

Or did I choose to enter a helping profession because helping other people is the only thing I know how to do?

Since I’ve been so focused on my own healing, I’ve felt like I want – and need – my music to be for me. Something I do because I find it fun and fulfilling, a way to express my emotions and channel my creativity. I would love for it to be a source of income, as long as I’m always making music because I love to do so and not just for the money. All the better if my music does some good in the world, whether by brightening someone’s day, helping them overcome mental illness, or changing how millions of people think about relationships. There’s so much power in a handful of notes, a simple melody. But if I’m going to make those notes sound, I need them to do something for me.

I’m not sure that works with music therapy. The therapeutic relationship requires that every action the therapist does is primarily for the benefit of the client. That doesn’t mean the therapist can’t benefit from it, too – mostly, it means the therapist should never do anything to help zirself at the expense of the client. But if I want and need my music to be for me, I think there’s too much risk that I’ll neglect the client’s needs in my efforts to meet my own. Or, alternatively, that I’ll fall back on my old habit of ignoring my needs while trying to help the client. That might lead to me resenting the client, my employer, the field, myself.

A huge part of why I’m feeling better is because I’m freed from most if not all of that resentment. I don’t need to feel resentful because I’m able to assert myself and meet my needs (well, at least somewhat). That frees so much energy for interacting with my loved ones as equals, growing as a person, and feeling joy. It’s wonderful.

It’s also wonderful to know that I don’t have to make my decision right now. I have to wait until 2015 to re-take the classes I still need to complete my degree, anyway. A lot can change between now and then, and if it doesn’t I can pursue other options. Whatever I decide in the near future, I might – and can – choose to change my course later on. It’s easy to freak out because I’m almost 30 and apparently there’s lots of things we’re supposed to do my then. But then I hear our parents talking about the new directions they want to take their lives, and I realize that there’s plenty of time for growth and change. I’ve barely begun my journey.

We stopped in a tea shop on the way home. The customer service was as excellent as the tea was delicious. I saw something about careers, so I checked online and sure enough there was an open position that required less than a year of experience.

So I applied.

I don’t know if I’ll get the job and to be honest I don’t really care that much about this specific job. But that enabled me to “put myself out there,” to create the possibility of becoming employed. And it gave me an opportunity to look at some of my credentials, to see past accomplishments and responsibilities I was trusted with in the past and things I know I’m capable of doing. That felt really good.

And now I’m wondering: What other jobs are out there? What do I want to do?

Measuring Recovery: Part 2 – More Burns Depression Checklist

I reviewed my overall daily and weekly scores on the Burns Depression Checklist in my previous post, Measuring Recovery: Part 1. I’ll be taking a look at daily scores for subcategories of the Checklist today.

Subcategories

Thoughts and Feelings

The first category consists of 10 items describing one’s subjective experience, including: “feeling unhappy or blue,” “feeling hopeless,” “criticizing yourself or blaming yourself,” and “difficulty making decisions.” Criticizing/blaming and other items related to self-perception seem to be causing me the most difficulty. On a scale from 0 to 4, I tend to rank criticizing/blaming from a 2 to 4 – moderate to extreme.

Activities and Personal Relationships

The second category consists of 7 items that describe behavior and subjective experience related to work/hobbies and social life. Although I do seem to feel worse on days when I withdraw from my social network, the items I see myself struggling the most with are “motivation” and “loss of interest in work or other activities.”

Physical Symptoms

There are 5 items related to sleep, appetite, sex, and “worrying about your health.” This is the category I seem to consistently score the highest in. Even on really good days when my thoughts, feelings, and behavior would suggest otherwise, my body seems to be depressed. I guess this is why it’s so important to exercise.

Suicidal Urges

The final category asks 3 questions: thoughts? desire? plan? Fortunately this is the category I score the lowest in – usually a 1 in thoughts and 0s in desire and plan.

My Scores

Scores for the Burns Depression Checklist are determined by ranking each item from 0 to 4, where 0 means you didn’t experience the symptom at all during the given time frame (1 day to 1 week) and 4 means it was “extreme.”

Instead of tracking each item separately, I decided to look at my scores for overall categories. To standardize the scores, I divided the total score for each category by the number of items in said category. As a result, all the scores represented on the chart/graph below are between 0 and 4.

My (standardized) scores on the subcategories of the Burns Depression Checklist from July 29, 2013 through August 24th, 2013. The gap represents 2 days when I did not complete the checklist.

My (standardized) scores on the subcategories of the Burns Depression Checklist from July 29, 2013 through August 24th, 2013. The gap represents 2 days when I did not complete the Checklist.

What a Mess!

Although at first glance the graph/chart above appears to be chaotic, there are a few noticeable trends.

* First, with rare exceptions, all 4 lines tend to move in the same direction. If one line is going up, the other three most likely are as well, though the angle might be different. (One or more scores may stay the same.) Same is true if they’re going down. In other words, on good days (low score) I feel better and perceive myself in a better light and am more active and have less suicidal urges than on bad days (high score).

burnschart01a_0811-0814* The blue line (thoughts and feelings) starts out with a noticeably different shape from the other 3. By the end of the 4 weeks, however, it is moving in better unison with them. The “thoughts and feelings” subcategory seems to be more internal, while the other categories relate self to body and self to outside world – if such a dichotomy is truly relevant. I’m inclined to say there was a disconnect between these two aspects of my experience that has been (at least temporarily) resolved.

Another way of looking at it is that the biggest disconnect between the blue line and the others is around August 11-14, when I was grieving the death of my undergraduate mentor. It makes sense that I would experience increased sadness, crying, even guilt during such a time, without necessarily having a comparable increase in other depression symptoms.

* Whereas near the beginning of the 4 weeks there are noticeable vertical gaps between the lines, by the end of the 4 weeks the lines tend to overlap. This is especially true of the blue line and the red line, representing thoughts/feelings and activities/personal relationships respectively. How I think and feel is very closely related to my engagement with the world; I’m not sure whether the closeness of that relationship has actually increased or I’ve just become more aware of it. (This is, after all, a self-report measure.)

The Valley and the Peak

There are 2 days in particular that I think deserve some special attention.

burnschart01a_0816The first is Friday, August 16th, when we went to visit the bed & breakfast / potential wedding venue. It was a wonderful vacation; I felt energized, socially and otherwise engaged, I was active, and there was little room for self-criticism, sadness, and so on. I swam until I was completely physically exhausted – but felt amazing – and then enjoyed s’mores with my loved ones and friendly new acquaintances. Fox and I got to spend some time in a beautiful secluded outdoor area and be romantic. I felt so much more alive than I had for so long …

And yet, while I was swimming, I couldn’t help but think about drowning. For one day I was relatively free from depression, but a nagging voice remained, reminding me that all is not right in my brain. Is this a common thing, for someone who loves swimming but only does so when on vacation to think about how easy it would be to drown? I seem to remember a time when all I cared about was the feeling of the water rushing past my skin, the exhilaration as I propelled myself forward using my own energy, bursting through the surface of the water to fill my lungs with life-giving air, and the glorious feeling of weightlessness. Sure, it’s important to take safety precautions. But I always trusted myself to take them. This time I was less sure.

I should also point out that I completed my checklist for the 16th a day later, from memory. I like focusing on the positive aspects of that day, but there was some frustration and anxiety related to getting there, waiting for Fox’s parents (who hit traffic), and learning it was more expensive than we’d expected. I can’t know for sure whether or how my scores might have been different if I’d completed the checklist that night. I can say with certainty that, even with the frustration and anxiety, it was a much better day than I’ve come to consider “normal.” I woke the next morning feeling alert and refreshed – how wonderful!

burnschart01a_0819The second day I want to focus on is Monday, August 19th. I’ve noticed a tendency for my symptoms to oscillate, bad days (high scores) followed by good days (low scores) and vice-versa. It makes sense that, not long after such a good day (such low scores) I was bound to have a bad one (high scores). This turned out to be the worst day since I started my self-assessment.

I don’t really want to repeat what I’ve already said about this day, so I invite anyone interested to read No Space for Me (the post I wrote that day) and the paragraphs near the fourth picture under “Context is Everything” in Measuring Recovery: Part 1.

Suffice it to say – perhaps combining with the “natural” oscillation that would have occurred anyway – my experiences that day contributed to a very dangerous mental and emotional state, which is reflected neatly in that day’s Checklist scores. My scores on Thoughts and Feelings and Activities and Social Relationships both averaged a 3 (“severe”); my senses of agency, social belonging, and satisfaction in life were shattered. I was exhausted and slept during waking hours because that was the only relief I could find from my pain (Physical Symptoms average score 2.8). Not only did I think about taking my own life, but I wanted it to end and I even began contemplating a plan (Suicidal Urges average score 2). I think my fears were what kept me from going any further with it – particularly because I would have had to make noise, which increased my chances of getting caught doing something that definitely was not allowed.

While I’d much rather never feel like that again, I’m grateful for that fear.

Especially since all 4 scores dropped pretty dramatically after that day, and have been staying in the 0-2 range (for the most part) since. I have concerns about my lifestyle, things I want to change or do differently; those kind of require me to be alive. So do my long-term goals.

And the people I love … sometimes I need space from them, sometimes they drive me batty, and yes sometimes I forget they are here … but they’re way too important to just abandon so suddenly. I can’t live for them – I’ll be miserable – but I want to live because I want to spend time with them. I want to share joy with them; to be connected to something bigger than myself. I don’t know what comes after death, but I know what can happen in life because I’ve already experienced a decent chunk of it. And yeah, there are not-so-good moments, but there are also moments that can be wonderful.

The days when I lose sight of this are the worst days, the ones when I score the worst (highest) in all 4 subcategories. I don’t know how realistic it is to try and keep believing in it, blindly, when everything I’m experiencing (through that horrible depression filter) says otherwise. But I can look at this chart/graph and see how the scores oscillate. A bad day will be followed by a good – or at least not-so-bad – day. I just need to give myself a chance to wake up to it.