A Fireball to the Skull: a love story about mental illness and RPGs.

For six weeks this spring, I had to email my psychiatrist every night to let her know that I was okay, and that I hadn’t harmed myself.

We’ll get to the RPGs, I promise.

My depression started around age 15. What seemed like teenage angst would slowly morph over the years into periods of dishwater grayness that could last for months. Improviser that I am, I attempted to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. It didn’t work, but that didn’t stop me from trying for 20 years.

Starting in my mid-twenties I began to experience episodes of depression spiked with anxiety. I was convinced they were a natural by-product of a career in advertising, but sometimes they were bad enough that I was driven out of my agency and into my pyjamas for a couple of weeks. After the fourth episode I finally started taking anti-depressants.

The following summer, I threw the remains of an ounce of extremely good weed into the ocean, and attended my first AA meeting. That was eight years ago. I took my pills and kept seeing my psychiatrist. I started running, eventually getting into the best shape of my life. None of that prevented the next episode.

February and March 2016 were a murky, flooded basement. I didn’t go back to work for four weeks. I probably shouldn’t have gone back for four more. But I was Determined to Beat this Thing. Like it was a marathon, or a mountain.

My doctor and I recalibrated. The depression still came from time to time, but it was more manageable, less intense, and it didn’t last for more than a couple of weeks. I was dealing with valleys, not plunging into chasms. When I felt like my treatment was beginning to plateau I switched doctors. My new psychiatrist diagnosed me with Bi-Polar II, something I had resisted in the past because it meant I was, well, crazy-crazy. We made headway, smothering my condition in mood-stabilizers and a new anti-depressant. This March, despite tremendous professional stress, was probably one of the happiest and most productive months I’d had in years. I was writing all the time, full of ideas, and I started this blog.

It turns out what I thought was happiness was actually a fast burning fuse.

On Thursday April 11, right after a mundane lunch of terrible Chinese food, I was overcome by a feeling I’ll call Guilt/Fear. Imagine a feeling of shame so intense it freezes your rib cage, combined with a fight or flight fear that makes the whole world too bright, too loud and too close. I abruptly left a meeting and began heading home on foot.  It was a half hour walk. During that time, I sent out a constant stream of sweaty texts and emails to colleagues, my wife, my boss, my sponsor and my doctor. I jumped from thought to thought, my brain redlining: apologizing, reassuring, pleading, and proclaiming. I was sweating through my shirt. It’s a small miracle I wasn’t hit by a car.

When I got home, I tried to lie down and calm down. And then, for a few minutes, like a cat playing with a mouse, I thought about throwing myself off the MacDonald Bridge. I never made it to the planning stage. Pure luck.

Later I would find out I was experiencing an acute mixed affective state. At the risk of offending mental health professionals by oversimplifying, it’s what happens when the symptoms of a black depression collide with fiery anxiety. All my worst and most hopeless feelings, combined with an unreasonable and panicky motivation to act on them. It’s very dangerous. And it’s devastating.

The next few days were full of dips and swells as I rode out the worst of it. And because I’m me, I didn’t take any of it as seriously as I should have, convinced that I could will myself through the experience.

Now, the role of RPGs in all of this.

Somehow, I managed to run a session of Dungeon World online that first weekend. It should have been impossible. It was definitely irresponsible (according to my doctor, it was “idiotic”). Still, for two hours I was able to step out of the overflowing cauldron inside my skull, and wrapped in a thick blanket of anonymity, I enjoyed a thin slice of peace and normality. It also completely hollowed me out. I wasn’t able to play anything else for weeks.  I could barely watch TV much less follow the plot of a novel.

So, I flipped through rulebooks.

Numenera Discovery and Destiny, Forbidden Lands, Index Card Roleplaying Game, Swords and Wizardry Whitebox, Delving Deeper, 13th Age, Call of Cthulhu, OSIRIC, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Torchbearer. I returned to them again and again, flipping through the pages, comparing character creation and worldbuilding, bestiaries and equipment lists, mechanics and tones, and with the help of my long-suffering wife, a really good doctor, and the judicious application of anti-psychotic medication, I began to feel better. I’m convinced those rulebooks played an important role in my recovery. I think it’s because there’s order and optimism in RPG rulebooks. Rulebooks are the marriage of the natural order inherent in story structure and math, and pure, wild imagination. They are a formula for relief from real life: adventure, camaraderie, heroic challenge, great stories, and laughter. Even the darkest setting isn’t built to break your heart, the pages always seem to be whispering, “This will be amazing, we promise.”

And isn’t that what we all want from these games? Order, optimism and fun. A chance to slip out of our lives and into a shared experience, into a fiction that despite the whims of mercurial dice is something we can control and shape?

I know I’m not alone. I see dozens of Reddit posts and responses on forums by players with anxiety or depression or fear of social situations, or isolation. RPGs are an outlet. RPGs provide us with a community. When your mind or your heart or your family is broken, this hobby can make all the difference.

Eventually, I started writing blog posts again, mostly just typing out notes I’d written in March, but it was progress, and I like to think I’ve done a pretty good impression of someone who has their shit together. In a two-day blaze of productivity I wrote Full Metal Fists, a setting for ICRPG. Don’t think that blast of creative energy didn’t scare the hell out of me. I was certain I was ramping up for something terrible. But the terrible thing didn’t happen.

I got enough confidence to play online again. My group doesn’t know anything about all this, and I like it that way. I’m just another player, dooming a village in The Quiet Year or creating a demon hunter for Monster of the Week. I comment in forums, trying to be helpful. The closest thing to a delusional impulse I’ve felt in the last week was believing strangers might want to play Torchbearer on Roll20. I posted it anyway because you never know. Sometimes things work out.

I only came back to this hobby last year after a three-decade absence. I wish I’d never walked away from RPGs. But I’m grateful they were there when I needed them most.