Content warning: This article will discuss topics that some people may find distressing. If you are sensitive to discussion of self-harm and suicide, please read on with caution.
With everything that has been going on as of late, mental health has been a big talking point in the wider discourse; but what about our corner of the world? Well, I’m here today to talk about my experiences with mental health, how gaming helped me out of a dark place and how it still helps me to this day with anxiety, depression, and my general wellbeing.
A little background first. I have a rare genetic condition that affects my physical health in a major way. Whilst taking my A levels I had a medical emergency and spent 4 weeks in hospital and 3 weeks recovering. This meant that I failed my A levels. I decided, after much discussion with my parents and college, that I would restart my first year and try again. Unfortunately, I had another medical emergency followed by a mental health breakdown. I now found myself at 19 with no qualifications and isolated from my friends who had all moved on and started University. I spent the next couple of years in and out of hospital and becoming more isolated.
So, it is 2016, I’m 21 years old, I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life, and on top of all that my physical and mental health were slowly deteriorating. I was having thoughts of self-harm and in the darkest moments I even contemplated taking my own life. It was in this state that I had my second mental breakdown, and unlike in movies and tv, I wasn’t dragged of by men in white coats to a padded room. It’s safe to say that this was a dark time mentally for me and most of my days were spent simply trying to find ways of getting to the next one.
When my mum said I should join an app called "Meetup" and see if there was anything on it that I might be interested in that would get me out of the house, I reluctantly agreed. Within a week I had found the Godalming Gaming Group (the start to this wonderful community). After a couple weeks of squatting in the chatrooms and some encouragement from my family, I jumped in and signed on to a new-player-friendly session of D&D. It was the first time in almost a year that I had left the house to go and do something that was not a family gathering. My anxiety was through the roof and I was contemplating not even showing up. Right up until I had knocked on the door, my mind was racing with thoughts of "what if they don’t like me," "what if a say something and I upset someone." During the session I couldn’t stop shaking, but after it was finished and I had rolled up my first ever D&D character (a Dragonborn Cleric named Rogar) the feeling of relief that washed over me was amazing. I hadn’t messed it up, everyone was super friendly, and I was looking forward to my first proper session in 2 weeks’ time.
Over the next week things returned to normal for me. However, the feeling of having accomplished something, even something as small as going out and sitting at someone else’s table, gave me something to anchor myself to. Two weeks came and went and before long I was back playing my first proper session of D&D. It’s one I will never forget as I was still nervous as hell. I spent most of it silently watching, only occasionally talking in character or describing what he was doing at any given time. It helped as well that there were a couple of really strong role-players who got into their characters and the game. Coming home after that session I came to a realisation: for those past two to three hours, my anxiety was better. I found that I was able to sit around a table with people I barely knew and enjoy myself.
The longer I played and the more I got to know the world and my characters, the more comfortable and confident I felt role-playing. And with this newfound confidence, I found myself being able to do things that had seemed impossible for me to do. I finally admitted that I had a problem and I needed help with it, as I could see that my mood during and immediately after a game was way different than my normal self. I was happier, more energetic, and confident after a game, while a few days later I was lethargic, unmotivated and had no desire or drive to do anything. D&D helped me see that I needed help and gave me the confidence to seek that help out. And I did.
I found someone who I could talk to about why I was feeling the way I was, why I was depressed and anxiety riddled. I found the confidence to reconnect with old friends and make new ones through different role-play groups. I learnt that if I concentrate on accomplishing small and easily achievable goals, even if those goals are in a sci-fi or fantasy world that you and your friends made up, it helps.
It’s been a long and at sometimes painful road and I’m still not at the end of it. These issues don’t just disappear overnight and I’m still working on trying to get on top of mine. It’s a daily struggle and one that you don’t always win. But for me, D&D and role-playing games have helped enormously. They have given me a confidence I have not felt in years, and every day I feel a bit more like my old self from before the anxiety and depression.
I hope that by sharing my story with you today I have helped you in some way. Either way, I hope to see you at the tabletop.