Gabe is an LKAS funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow who specialises in Fantasy video games. They are a member of the editorial board of Press Start Journal, a member of GGLab at The University of Glasgow and co-organiser of the Game Studies at Glasgow reading group.
My publication in Mapping the Impossible is a recent edit of the dissertation I completed for my Fantasy MLitt. The original title was Of Heroes and Heartbreak: The Therapeutic Function of Fantasy in Video Games. The premise included an argument which advocated for video games as a therapeutic experience. My new article makes no such claims, instead focusing on how one particular game (Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch) deploys literalised psychoanalytic metaphor in the form of Fantasy, in a way that makes emotional processing easier to understand (if you’d like more information, find the article here).
When I was a vice-editor for Press Start I always used to tell people who submitted to us (in nicer terms) that you can’t just recycle your coursework for publication, you have to actually DO SHIT to it. And, like the icon, the mentor, the PARAGON of the academic community wot I am (jk jk) I practised what I preach and DID SHIT to my own paper before submitting it to the journal. This post revisits the academic and personal processes that led to my original argument, before explaining why I have since changed it.
Editing the article, which included extensive studying of my prior draft, made me consider whether video games are therapeutic, which raised further questions as to what the term ‘therapeutic’ actually means and how I arrived at describing video games in this manner.
Are Video Games Therapeutic?
To answer this question, first we need a functional definition to work from. The term therapeutic means something different depending on who is using it. I’m going to keep it simple and include a couple of common functional definitions, then compare these with a working definition I used in my original dissertation.
The colloquial definition, as written in the Cambridge Dictionary is ‘causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy’ with the example: ‘I find gardening very therapeutic’. By this definition then, anything, including video games, can be therapeutic.
According to the most reliable and academic source on the internet, Google, therapeutic also means ‘relating to the healing of disease’ and a ‘treatment, therapy, or drug’.
There are arguments that games are therapeutic in relation to both understandings of this word. People find that games might chill them out and have escapist qualities that help them cope with challenging situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or they may provide parasocial interaction which can help cope with loneliness.
Furthermore, there have also been advancements regarding the use of both serious and entertainment video games for therapy with practitioners such as Kourosh Dini (amongst others) using them as a means to talk through emotional problems with patients, and even simple games such as Tetris have been used to prevent post-traumatic stress symptoms.
In my dissertation, I took a psychoanalytic approach. I looked at Fantasy imagery using writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, who describes Fantasy as ‘the ‘language of the inner self’. I argued that video games give us direct access to these unconscious processes by literalising them (as magic, monsters etc) which presents them in a form that allows players to interact with them. I argued that playing video games could offer players catharsis without abreaction via the metaphorical processing of similar emotions as a part of gameplay. I wondered if literally mending broken hearts in a video game might help heal players’ own broken hearts figuratively.
What I proposed was that by allowing interaction with literalised metaphors of affect, video games could allow for the same release of emotion as therapy (catharsis), without the requirement of reliving the traumatic memory attached to it (abreaction). I think what I was suggesting was that video games could do psychological therapy on players, in a way that felt therapeutic in the colloquial sense.
The dissertation did pretty well, so maybe some of my ideas have legs, but they were so intricately woven from the fuckery I was experiencing at the time, that my argumentation was rather tainted by my personal perspective.
Editing your writing is editing your perception
The change in my argument signals a progression in both my academic and personal journey. I didn’t realise it until I started typing this very sentence, but my new argument – that analysing Fantasy imagery in video games can help us better understand emotional processing – was exactly what I was doing during my MLitt dissertation without knowing it.
You see, that was the year I realised I had dissociative amnesia and started to experience the symptoms that accompany the resurfacing of repressed memories. I had no idea what was going on. I had experienced flashbacks and nightmares before, without knowing what they were, but during my research they amped up. At the time, I hadn’t quite realised what had triggered this; I didn’t properly connect my personal experiences to my research until well after I had submitted my work – describing the experience in a blog I wrote a little while after. It’s obvious now that reading about psychoanalysis and trauma theory had triggered partial abreaction, meaning that I had to navigate reliving my trauma and writing a dissertation at the same time.
LOVE THAT FOR ME 🙃.
I only figured out what was going on after reading @thalstral’s thread about dissociative amnesia on academic twitter, which gave me insight into both what was happening to me and how my research was connected. Looking back, I’ve realised that playing video games, and analysing them, did the opposite of what I’d claimed: it caused me to experience partial abreaction without any catharsis attached to it. Video games were therapeutic for me, but not the good, thorough kind of therapy that helps you cope with things – what happened to me was like going to a crappy therapist who gets you to rip your heart out and show it to them, without taking the time to sew you up again.
So, are video games therapeutic???
Well, it depends.
I don’t want people to read this post and come to the conclusion that both games, and the study of them are ‘bad actually’. Like every game studies academic I have written numerous ‘apology paragraphs’ explaining that GAMES AREN’T BAD. So I must make it explicit that my PTSD symptoms are not the fault of video games.
Video games have the capability to provide a therapeutic experience in a colloquial sense – all us ‘gamers’ use them to change our moods or experience some kind of release. Entertainment video games have also been used by professionals to provide therapy in a psychological sense, and serious games such as Sparx and Apart of Me have been designed for this very purpose. Video games do have therapeutic potential.
The way my gameplay and analysis does benefit me, is by helping me to understand emotional processing in a way I hadn’t before, which facilitated a lot of growth. I’m doing SO much better than when I wrote that first unfortunate blog post, and I owe a small part of that to my research which has become a record of my journey.
Perhaps then, my contribution can provide insight into how games can be therapeutic, rather than labelling them as inherently being so. What I’d like to argue is that understanding games, like understanding any form of art, can aid in the cultivation of emotional literacy which can be used to benefit mental health.
I didn’t take the time to recover properly from COVID, so I might never recover from COVID.
I’m not writing this post because it’s one I particularly want to write. I know that waiting to feel inspired is a fool’s game, and that the best inspiration comes about by creating it yourself, but out of all my writing, blog posts are what I write in a frenzy. I write them when I feel possessed by an idea and need to get it out. It’s the best feeling. It feels like making art.
Not this though. This post doesn’t feel inspired, but it does feel necessary. I wanted to take some time to briefly tell you about my experience of getting long COVID and its interactions with my exercise regime. I’ll level with you – a lot of what I’m talking about is unconfirmed – for reasons I’ll explain below. I’m going to ask you to listen to your doctors, your personal trainers and the experts, rather than taking what I have to say at face value. I have made an effort to include reliable sources, but I’m not qualified to interpret medical literature. I can only speak my truth.
I want to tell you my story on the off chance it will help just one of my readers, because I care about you a lot. I have even included a TL;DR if you want to skip to the main points!
I’m not sure people have been taking me seriously, or listening to what I have to say. It feels like people try and minimise the impact of COVID in general, and say it’s not that bad. I know it might be difficult to admit, BUT IT CAN BE THAT BAD. Minimizing the reality of COVID is a shoddy defence mechanism, because it will not protect you from it.
Even if it feels like people don’t listen to me, I know that people do take my blog seriously. So rather than continuing to put it out in tweets, or text people, or PLEAD with them down the phone, I thought I’d get it down here.
The Initial Illness
In winter 2020-21, I got COVID-19. I’m not sure of the date because the symptoms I got were not listed on the government website, and they were advising to test sparingly at that point. Rather than the expected cough with a fever and flu-like symptoms, I experienced a lot of strange ailments that I struggled to put together.
A severe, persistent headache that didn’t subside with pain relief
Intermittent difficulty breathing
Extreme muscle aches
An unexplained decline in mental health (leading to a relapse)
Loss of taste (food, not aesthetic)
I didn’t know I had COVID because of a variety of factors. One of the reasons was that the symptoms hadn’t yet been recognized by the official bodies, and reports of the headache/fatigue variant were largely anecdotal. The more personally distressing reason is that due to my neurodivergence, I find it difficult to identify and understand my feelings, and therefore it’s tricky to tell whether I am physically or mentally ill. As someone with chronic mental health conditions, I am used to fatigue, brain fog and some degree of pain as being caused by mental illness. Physical symptoms of mental illness are real and valid, but require different treatment. Telling the difference between illness caused by pathology, and symptoms of mental illness is always confusing – but in this case it was dangerous. I had been experiencing a period of relative stability before I began to get these symptoms, which led to a relapse in my temporary sobriety (that I had maintained for 6 months prior). I didn’t know what was making my mental health to deteriorate so rapidly; I think being physically ill for an extended period of time depleted the resources I used to stay sane, especially because I was not resting. I had no idea what was going on. I used to disassociate a lot when I was in pain or distress, so that didn’t help either. There’s a lot around that time that I just can’t remember. I don’t know when I was viral. As mentioned above, I was never tested. I checked in with my doctor once a week, over the course of a month, confused about my symptoms, and they told me it was probably just a different virus. Eventually, the guidance regarding COVID symptoms was updated, and I was advised it probably had been COVID all along, and I was suffering with post-viral fatigue. I’ve been post-viral for over a year, and it’s still happening.
Due to this, I can’t tell you what it was like to have COVID in the ten days I was viral. I can’t remember feeling very unwell, but perhaps that’s the disassociation. I remember thinking I was going crazy. I remember having very vivid dreams and hallucinating birds after I woke up most mornings. I probably spiralled a lot. Other than that, I just got on with it; as someone who has a history of chronic illness, I’m used to ignoring the signals my body sends me in order to function. It kills me that I didn’t know I had it. Luckily, I was following the rules. Luckily, no one in my support bubble got seriously ill. It kills me that even though I was reading the news and checking the rules, I put people in danger. Thank fuck it wasn’t worse.
My Long COVIDSymptoms
I will never be able to tell you what having COVID is like, but I can tell you what having long COVID is like. The most intense period of my symptoms lasted for around 2 – 3 months, and I’m still suffering with it, though, thankfully, my symptoms are relatively minor. Below are the symptoms I have. The ones highlighted in yellow are symptoms I am certain are caused by long COVID, the ones underlined in blue are issues I have struggled with in the past, but are definitely triggered by a long COVID episode. As well as the below symptoms, during episodes, I have extremely vivid dreams, insomnia, night sweats and dry eyes. I also suffer with bladder issues, which in some literature, has been linked with long COVID – but that could very well be a separate and unconnected chronic illness and may be related to my PTSD.
It’s very hard to tell things apart, which is why it’s so important to be extremely careful.
I’m lucky that my symptoms don’t occur all the time. I’m lucky that they’re largely manageable, but when they occur, they tend to attack ALL AT ONCE, and it can take days to recover. I can’t know for certain, but what I’ve deduced is that they’re connected with physical activity.
My Long Covid and Exercise
A couple of years ago, I started mirtazapine to treat my mental illness. Its side effects include extreme appetite and fatigue. To combat these side effects, I started a nutrition and exercise regime and had been enjoying my new lifestyle for at least half a year before I got COVID. I ran most days of the week (sometimes up to 8K in one session) and when social distancing began, I started lifting weights in my apartment.
I can’t remember when it started, but during winter last year I started to get awful headaches that refused to go away, even with strong painkillers. It was a constant pressure around my temples, and even a light touch made them hurt even more. My workouts started to feel absolutely awful – my muscles never stopped hurting, and exercise made my headaches worse. I couldn’t recover. I got pains in my chest, and it felt heavy all the time. I thought perhaps that I was pushing myself a bit too much – exercise can be hard, right? I just carried on until eventually I couldn’t do anything any more.
It got to the point where I could no longer run, and I struggled even to complete short walks. I had to stop to catch my breath. Sometimes, I’d be sitting on the sofa, watching Netflix, and suddenly find it difficult to breathe. For months, not a day went by that I didn’t have a headache.
There was lots of advice about recovering from COVID, much of it advising a gradual return to physical activity. Exercise is prescribed to treat a lot of conditions, and that’s fucking dangerous. What benefitted me most was listening to my friend who has chronic fatigue syndrome. She told me to ‘rest more than you think’, to only increase my physical activity a little each day, and to rest if the increase made me feel worse. She told me that physical activity means ANY AND ALL physical activity – not just exercise. I had to be careful with everything I did – even things like cooking, cleaning, and sitting at my desk.
It was only by stopping my fitness regime and staying in bed that I was able to eventually recover. I rested most was when I was post-viral: because I hadn’t rested during my viral phase, I had to repay the debt ten-fold.
Thankfully, the vaccines have been a big help: I’d had a headache every day for months and after my first dose, it went away, and it only returns when I trigger an episode. I still can’t do certain types of exercise: if my heart rate elevates to a certain point, I feel the headache coming on, and if I work through that and my heart rate raises too much, then I can trigger an episode of symptoms that flair up intensely for days and linger for weeks.
18/03/2022 Edit: The benefits of the vaccines have since vanished. I now find it difficult to take long walks. I do not exercise at all.
I think what gave me long COVID, was the fact I didn’t know I had COVID and continued exercising, which prevented me from healing.
Badly Worded Advice
The NHS guidance regarding returning to physical activity after COVID, is not the worst. It suggests monitoring your fitness levels during short walks and increasing your activity over time – which is sensible. What I disagree with, though, is the focus and tone of the advice. It feels as if fitness is emphasized rather than rest, when rest should be at the centre of the guidance. I often wonder if I had properly rested during my illness, and in its aftermath, if I would be in a better state than I am in now.
Recently, I can walk a long way without a struggle most of the time. I have even managed a light jog, but it doesn’t feel healthy, or possible for me to attempt to obtain the level of cardio fitness I reached before when one tough training session can floor me for a week. Walking is still a little more difficult than usual during an episode and often, I don’t risk it. I rest.
I was going to highlight the above section, but there is so much I disagree with that I’ll address this section point by point:
As someone who has done cardio exercise very frequently, I can tell you without a doubt that COVID breathlessness is not the same as breathlessness due to exercise. It feels different. It feels damaging.
You CANNOT do things that are important to you when you have triggered a long COVID episode, because you might not be able to focus, or even get out of bed.
Maybe physical activity will help your joints, or maybe it will make your muscles SCREAM for DAYS.
No amount of sleep will be enough if your physical activity triggers fatigue.
You know what else can help manage chronic conditions – rest!
This is a terrible, terrible sentence. Physical activity does not cure everything and can sometimes make things worse!
What I’ve found useful is looking at the BMJ which contains discourse pertaining to the ongoing debate surrounding exercise and recovery. This is linked with the controversy surrounding advised treatment for chronic fatigue. I’ll link all the articles below, but here are the parts that I found particularly useful:
18/03/2022 Edit: Many of the above services are not yet available.
We are getting fucked over by the fact that fitness is touted as a moral imperative. This is nothing new. Chronically ill and disabled people aren’t always believed, and fat people are often refused treatment until they lose weight (which happened to me a few years ago, even though my pain was contributing to my low activity levels). The prescription of exercise is par for the course in the UK healthcare system, suggested not always for the benefit of the patient, but to ease the burden of a system which should be supported by more adequate funding, rather than propped up by longing people off.
Rant aside, here are the things I’ve learned that I have been begging people to listen to:
You can be young fit, healthy and eat a ‘good’ diet and still get seriously ill from COVID.
Take note of your activity levels, remember that ALL activity counts as physical activity, not just what is generally classified as exercise.
DO NOT work through the pain, please listen to it.
Look for research a little beyond what the NHS or your doctor give you. They’re not always up to date with the latest developments, and sometimes the services they’d like to offer are just not available.
Let your fitness and physical activity serve what is in your best interest. It is not a cure for everything and can make things worse. When you have depleted resources, you need to prioritise.
Please rest more than you think! When you feel better – rest again!
I’ve written this not because I wanted to write it, but because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you. I used to love running, and it changed my life. I don’t run any more.
Thank you to the friends who have supported me and gave my advice during my continuing illness. This post is dedicated to Ting Ting, in particular <3!
Thanks to my support bubble (Doug and Ollie) who were very understanding about my situation.
Thank you also to my lovely readers – I know this isn’t the kind of content you usually get from me.
To anyone struggling with long COVID – if you feel comfortable, then I’m super curious to know about your experiences and whether we share any similarities. Please do tweet me, or post a comment down below.
If you’d like to support my work, you can find links here.
03/2022 Edit: I tried going back to weight lifting after writing this post, did too much and made myself worse! I read an article that says sometimes increasing activity levels may make patients feel better, but it’s temporary. If I find the article, I’ll link it.
Content warning: The following post discusses trauma, BPD, CPTSD and codependency from the POV of lived experience. It also contains *spoilers* throughout, and may not make much sense unless you have experienced the game prior to reading.
“I’m so fucking normal right now.”
― Disco Elysium
Our bodies remember what our conscious minds try to forget. Memories, the specifics, can be erased, but emotions cannot. They are immutable. They become woven into the very fibre of our beings and influence our behaviour in ways we don’t understand. There is no erasure – the best-case scenario is rehabilitation; the worst is the pale.
Raphaël AmbrosiusCosteau Tequila Sunset Harrier Du Bois drinks to forget, but in the process loses himself. His memories are gone, but the emotions remain – formless, contextless. Harry is a man deeply shaped by trauma, and his relationship with his ‘ex-something (?)’ became a casualty of this trauma, a casualty that was one too many.
The game is punctuated by dreams and vague recollections, in which Harry’s faculties battle to repress his memories. Towards the end of the game, the repression fails, and Harry is finally allowed to remember – to connect the emotions he has been feeling, to his memories of what caused them.
In the final dream of the game, Harry confronts his ‘ex’, Dolores Dei – an innocence, or “a sacred human being”. But, of course, this isn’t Harry’s ex. This is an overdetermined image amalgamating the divine Dolores Dei, with Dora Ingerlund – his ex-fiancée. Harry’s idealisation may have reached pathological extremes, but idealisation is fairly common in romantic relationships, which may start with infatuation based on what we assume we know about a person, before a connection based on mutual understanding deepens over time and, if nurtured, matures into something we might call ‘love’.
Harry and Dora met when Dora was young. He was her first love, and he feels like she will be his last. From what we can deduce, it was a long-term relationship fraught with turbulence, partially due to Harry’s trauma-induced mental health problems. Harry was repeatedly traumatised by the violent and intense nature of his work, but the way that it consumes him suggests that his sense of self was fragile to begin with. Many people who have experienced trauma, and have BPD or CPTSD, cope by trying to find a sense of self external to them: in their work, for example. But to find oneself in something, is to make oneself contingent upon that external thing, which can further increase one’s susceptibility to re-traumatisation when those things go away.
In a moment of reflexivity, the game acknowledges that Harry has been defined by his role as a detective and has lost the ability to communicate in a private, interpersonal setting. His speech patterns are subsumed by questions and lists which have become his second nature: effective for a detective, but not a sensitive way to navigate intimacy. These lists remind me of a tendency I have to overthink every social interaction – the desire to exhaust all options to obtain the best possible outcome and avoid the negative consequences I’ve experienced for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. These dialogue trees literalise a form of control taken by people who have, at one point, had all control taken away from them. We may not speak in lists, but many of us think in them.
We do not know whether it was the work that traumatized Harry, or if he was more susceptible to re-traumatisation due to a personal history of mental illness and/or pre-existing trauma. What we do know, is that Dora spent much of her time witnessing his decline, tending to his feelings, and deteriorating as a result. Their relationship became co-dependent: for a while, neither felt like they could live without the other.
Did Harry and Dora love each other?
As far as we know, Dora loved Harry in the best way she could. Harry loved what Dora meant to him – he loved Dolores Dei. What Dolores Dei signifies is a transcendent experience: the promise of salvation that does not exist. Harry sought to lose himself in the prestige of his job, in music, in substance abuse and in his relationship. Oxytocin is a hell of a drug, but love is not a transcendent experience. Love is human, messy, imperfect and full of pain – as are the people we share it with.
Co-dependence can look like love, and feel like love, but it’s not love.
When we idealise people, it is in the hope that we can love in a way that transcends our past experiences. We want to become someone new. We make new selves, contingent on our entanglement with another. We ask too much, we invest too much, and then when the relationship dies, it feels like a part of us dies with it. We mourn people who are still alive and treat them like ghosts so we can try and move on. It is because we never truly knew them; we loved an ideal, and that is what is dead.
At the end of the interaction, Dora tells Harry about her new life and the wonderful things and people who are a part of it. Harry, who has finally remembered that which he was striving to forget, is left at a crossroads. Either he will confront and process the memory and finally move on, or repress the dream and be doomed to repeat it night after night.
We do not know if Harry experiences the dream again: will Harry’s shrine to the immortal and perfect Dolores Dei forever reside within his heart, preventing him from loving in a functional way? Or, will he acknowledge Dora as a human being? In doing so, perhaps he would finally be able to process the memory of a relationship that was important, but one that was flawed enough to allow him the space to let go.
Perhaps there is hope. What we must remember is that we never truly met Dora, only Harry’s version of her. In this version of Harry’s dream, Dora is happy and moves on. She also tells him that he, will indeed, be happy again. This is reassuring when we remember that when Harry speaks to Dolores Dei, he’s never really speaking with Dora… he is, and always has been, in conversation with himself.
“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
I can’t recall when I started compartmentalising myself. We all do it to some extent. We have different roles to fill and parts to play, for different people and contexts. It’s functional for both business and pleasure: in any kind of relationship, people usually like to know what to expect from us. We tell stories about ourselves to each other, and by amplifying some narratives, we obfuscate others to be who we need to be at the time. It’s convenient.
We strive for narrative continuity, but human experience is non-canonical: perhaps the only trait we share is that our selfhoods are constantly in flux, subject to the ever-changing balance of nature and nurture. So, is there really such a thing as a sense of self?
When I talk about my struggles with identity, people tell me to worry less and vibe more. They say that no one knows who they are or what they’re doing. My generous interpretation of these responses would be to assume that the speaker has been through similar struggles with selfhood and emerged on the other side, but it’s perhaps more likely that they’re lucky enough to have never needed to worry about it.
I know there is such a thing as a sense of self, because I recognise its absence.
A self exists in boundaries – the separation between the self and the other. The absence, or violation, of boundaries negates selfhood. Without a sense of self, we can’t protect ourselves, or make decisions in our best interests. Love without boundaries is annihilation.
Who am I, alone, in an empty room?Will I be the same person when someone enters it?
Boundaries are how we negotiate our desires. But, what if we don’t know what we want? What about when what we want change? It is impossible to account for, and define, our multiplicity. But we try.
What do I mean to you? Who are we to each other?
We compartmentalise ourselves to simplify things, then attempt to articulate it in language, reducing ourselves to a label. A label is a social contract. A promise. Promises are safe, promises are terrifying. Promises can be broken. Broken promises break hearts.
How can I believe you love me when I don’t know who me is?
It’s best not to think about it. I wish I didn’t have to think about it.
I have been in a process of rebuilding a self that trauma destroyed, or cultivating a self that trauma didn’t allow to grow. I, like many of us who are affected by BPD/PTSD, am in a constant process of stitching together parts of me that look like they might fit, until one day, maybe I’ll feel whole. Whenever I find out something new about myself, I feel robbed of all the years I’ve lost to negation. The worst part is that it feels like I did it to myself, because it’s something my mind did to cope.
Splitting is something that people who have BPD, and function in neurodiverse ways, do as an unconscious survival instinct. In relation to other people, it looks like idealising a person, then devaluing them.
This is summarised poorly in articles about BPD by the phrase: “I hate you – please don’t leave me.”
Splitting makes love complicated: the object of your affection can be the best person in the world one day, then your enemy the next: a stranger at best, a malicious antagonist at worst. But, if they are your favourite person, the connection remains constant. Some survivors learned to do this when loved ones broke that trust in an irredeemable way. We split the person in two, so that we can keep the best half of that person, and the memories of them, untainted by abuse. Our minds tell us that it was not the one we loved who betrayed our trust, it was that other person, that bad person we don’t know. These feelings don’t go away, but we try and forget them. We hold the pain inside us to preserve the idea of a love we wish we had – the kind of love that we deserved. This painful, ambivalent ‘love’ informs that which comes after it.
Literature on ‘splitting’ is easily found, and the way I’ve described it above is both my experience and commonly theorised. What I’ve seen less of, however, is how ‘splitting’ can impact the self.
I have been splitting myself for as long as I can remember. There was the survivor: capable and resilient. This person did not have needs, nor articulate emotions. I was not the kind of person who ‘bad things’ had happened to, or someone who needed anyone. As I started to remember my trauma, and began to heal, I realised there was a different self beneath the mask. Someone intensely vulnerable, incredibly angry, lonely and longing for connection. As I got to know this person, I realised that I had made a stranger of myself. I hated that person, and I wanted to hurt them. Then I stopped hurting them and started to listen to them instead.
It wasn’t/isn’t easy. When parts of me started to awaken, they did not get on with each other.
I tell people I have a ‘Tinker bell complex’: I lack emotional nuance. I feel things so strongly, that, without a lot of emotional regulation work, I can only feel one thing very hard all at once, which makes it difficult to know who I am and what I want from one day to the next.
If I don’t know who I am, how can I ever get what I want? Will I ever be happy?
As someone who is genderfluid (Non-binary? Femme presenting trans masc?) and bisexual (Pansexual? Gay? Demisexual?) and poly? or monogamous? I have a lot of different things to feel. Things I haven’t figured out yet. All of these different aspects of myself awakening felt like a problem, not because they existed, but because I had erased them for so long. Each aspect of myself cried out for attention one at a time and VERY LOUDLY. I had compartmentalised myself so much, that I didn’t (and don’t) know how all the parts function together.
How can I promise to love you if I don’t know who I am, or how I love?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to solve the problem ‘dick-first’. I tried dating and dating apps, assigning each of my compartmentalised selves a label. But labels are not shortcuts to understanding – people fixate on the label they’re most interested in, and treat you in relation to the stereotype that they associate with it. Dating apps, like me, lack emotional nuance.
I tried to solve a problem of identity by experimenting with my sexuality. I assigned myself labels in an attempt to define myself in a way that would make me palatable. Labels that should have been empowering turned into another way to objectify myself. At first the labels were for me – to fill in the blanks that trauma had erased. Then, they became more about who I am to other people. What I’ve begun to realise is that I’m not responsible for people’s perceptions or desire of me. I exist independently of that.
My sexuality has always defined me; I use it to (unsuccessfully) connect with people, but sex should not be conflated with love or platonic intimacy. As a survivor, I’ve always found it hard to tell the difference between them – to feel seen and valued as a person, rather than a fuck toy, and to treat other people the way they deserve to be treated too.
Sex is complicated and makes things complicated for me. It feels dangerous and vulnerable and nuanced in a way that it never has before. Managing those emotions is too overwhelming. I’m not equipped to manage my own, let alone anyone else’s feelings.
Sex was the story of my life, now it’s just a footnote.
I’m shedding most of the labels I’ve accumulated and replacing them with ‘queer’. The community and connection that comes from the mutual understanding I have with my queer friends is enough acknowledgement of my identity. I am who I am, not who I do. I would rather be a friend, than a sex object.
And as for love…
I want a love that transcends labels. I want a love that acknowledges and desires every fractured piece of me.
I want a love that isn’t annihilation.
I want our love to be a promise, a promise that we’ll change – together.
Content warning: this blog discusses mental illness, trauma and mentions maladaptive coping mechanisms. It may be difficult to read for people who have experienced abuse.
When I finally got the consultation for the therapy I’d been waiting over a year for, the therapist was the first I’ve spoken to who actually seemed to understand me. She noticed things about me that no therapist has before.
“See that tattoo on your arm Gabe? If you’re going to do this kind of therapy, you’re going to need to take off your mask. Just like that. You have to be vulnerable and stop over intellectualising your feelings.”
Even though I knew this therapist could help me, I refused the treatment.
When I say I refused treatment, what I mean to say is that after extending a one session consultation to four sessions, both the practitioner and I came to a consensus that psychodynamic therapy is not right for me at this time. You’d think that after such a battle to get treatment I’d be angry or upset; I was referred to the community mental health service, who sent me to the trauma team, who referred me back to the community team again – with months of waiting in between. Worse still, this is only my most recent therapy journey: it is the latest in a chain of therapeutic misadventures that started when I was around seventeen. I was, understandably I think, growing increasingly desperate and frustrated with the system.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that the wait could have killed me; it nearly did. I was referred to these teams because I was in crisis, but now I am not. As I write this, I’m approaching six months of being sober from alcohol, and free from self-harm. I discussed my progress with the consulting therapist, and we came to an agreement:
Could I benefit from therapy?
Is this the right time?
There’s so much discourse URGING people with destructive behaviours to ‘GO TO THERAPY’. In fact, it’s a bit of a meme. What we’re really saying when we ask people to ‘go to therapy’ is: please develop a modicum of self-awareness, and do some work on yourself rather than causing people grief with your fuckboyish ways, or rather, please take some responsibility for your actions by learning how to express your emotions in a more constructive manner. It’s not quite as funny when we put it like that, right?
These are all good and valid reasons to go to therapy, but the realities of therapy are vastly more complicated. There are different types for different things: some therapy is about coping with the day-to-day, and some therapy (especially trauma-based therapy) has the potential to make your day-to-day life infinitely worse during the process. The kind of therapy offered to me, the kind of therapy I may eventually need, is more likely to make my immediate life a living nightmare than help me cope with it.
Let me explain this using the story that my therapist and I told together.
In my head there is a box, and in that box there is a creature. We don’t know what the creature looks like, though we can hazard a guess from the shadows it casts. We do, however, know that it is there and if I speak its name, it will change me forever. When I first got my referral, I was in crisis because I had discovered the box by chance, and (because I, like Pandora, am a curious bitch) opened it. I slammed the lid shut as quickly as I could, but it was too late. The creature had awoken and wouldn’t let me close the box properly. Just catching a glimpse of it changed everything I thought I knew about myself. It made me feel and remember things I hadn’t dared admit, and still don’t entirely understand.
I tried to weigh the lid down. I stacked books on the box to keep it closed, but they weren’t heavy enough. I couldn’t banish the monster from my mind – I was both fascinated and disgusted by it.
I didn’t know what to do: to close the box properly, I would have to open it again, and I was already so fucking weak. The creature’s presence dominated my waking life, and invaded my dreams. It became all I could think about. I tried various ways of appeasing it: I hurt the creature, I tried to get it drunk, I tried to starve it, and if you know me, you’ve probably guessed by now that I tried to fuck it too. None of it worked. The more I tried to silence the creature, the louder it screamed, and it became more and more difficult to block out the noise. It was hard. I was afraid to be alone.
Eventually I realised that living this way was killing me. Instead of giving up, I changed my strategy. I gave the monster a stern telling off, and scared it into stillness and silence long enough to give me time. I practised kindness as praxis and worked on becoming strong. Sometimes the monster tried to creep further out of the box, but this time, I’d recovered enough to drive it back. Eventually, after a lot of trying and failing, I managed to close the lid properly, this time, trapping the creature inside. It’s a victory, if a tentative and temporary one.
The box will always be there. Sometimes it oozes, and sometimes the creature whispers it will escape, take my sleep, and rob me of my sanity. I know that, one day, I will need to open the box and face the creature inside, but now is not the time. Right now the monster is manageable: when it makes a mess, I clean it, when it growls, I feed it snacks, and when it whispers to me, I tell it a story until it falls asleep. I’m still afraid of naming the monster, and afraid of what kind of person this monster has made me. However, most importantly, I’m not afraid to sit with it now – and sit with it, I must. It’s a lonely thing. The monster is open to polyamory, but it has to be my primary, or it gets jealous. It keeps its own schedule: google calendar is no good here. When it calls, I have to listen. I have to commit to it; I have to commit to myself.
My therapist said that I seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality sometimes, and that I use fantasy to make myself feel better about the bad things that have happened to me. She said it’s important to use fantasies to cope, but we can’t let fantasies undermine or invalidate the difficult realities of our lived experiences. The reality of therapy is that it’s like any treatment: you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. My reality is that I’m away from my support network to do a PhD. I’ve just managed to claw my way out of perpetual crisis, and doing this therapy would pull me right back in. Right now, if I want to finish this project, all I can do is damage control.
I’d like to open the box and face my monster. I’d like to sort through my issues, and get to the hope at the bottom of the box. The truth is, it’s not safe, and I’m not ready.
My therapist told me that one day, that to do therapy, I will have to take off my mask and learn to be vulnerable. The thing is, that mask is doing something – it’s protecting my face.
I needed to cry and I couldn’t, so I made a game instead.
This project simulates one of the most difficult things to explain about my mental illness. Well, actually, let’s frame this not in terms of mental illness, but in terms of neurodiversity. This game explores the ways in which some brains function a little differently to others, and details some of the struggles that may be experienced by neurodiverse people when functioning within neurotypical romance ideals and dynamics.
Romantic relationships are often conceptualized as sites of comfort and security – things we can count on, at least for a time. More nuanced portrayals speak to their challenges, however, difficult relationships are often labelled as ‘bad’, ‘toxic’ or ‘unhealthy’. It’s rare to come across acknowledgement that what may be functionally a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ relationship may be more difficult for one partner than another.
If there’s no harmful conduct, difficulties individuals experience in relationships can often be dismissed, such as when a mentally ill person is labelled as ‘high-functioning’. The appearance of ‘functioning’ or ‘good’ behaviour should not be taken as a marker of mental health, just as when a relationship appears ‘healthy’ its difficulty should not be taken for granted, nor the work of its maintenance dismissed. No relationship is perfect, and all relationships take work, but can we please admit that some of us need to work harder than others?
Some of us pay a higher emotional cost, and when that cost becomes too high it can lead to emotional burnout which can bleed into the rest of our lives.
So why do some neurodiverse people have to work so hard? Well, because our brains work differently, of course.
On Object Constancy and Emotional Permanence
Have you ever played ‘peek-a-boo’ with a small child, or do you remember playing the game as a small child yourself? This game plays with the idea of object permanence – a skill acquired in the early stages of childhood in which children develop the understanding that an object continues to exist, even when it’s out of sight. If you don’t have object permanence, once a thing is out of sight, it is out of mind.
Object constancy is the emotional equivalent of this concept: when you have object constancy, you are able to hold a positive impression of someone, and your relationship with them, in your heart, even when they’re not around and ‘despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements’ (as explained on betterhelp). It’s a feeling of security – the possibility of loving and being loved by someone, even when you’re apart. For those who lack object constancy, every disagreement is a ‘potential break-up‘, which is why those with object constancy issues often fall into habits of people pleasing and may struggle to get their needs met in a relationship. It also makes us more susceptible to abuse, which is sometimes targeted.
When individuals don’t have object constancy, it can lead them to question their relationships to an unhealthy degree, especially when this difference isn’t accommodated for. Those who have not experienced a lack of object constancy may find it difficult to understand their loved one’s behaviour: they may take the stability of the relationship for granted, or view their partner’s requests for help or for overt displays of affection as ‘needy’, ‘self-absorbed’ or ‘high maintenance’.
Object constancy issues themselves are not mental illnesses, but they can lead to them without appropriate management. So why isn’t this kind of emotional support framed as accessibility? Neurodiverse people are capable of having happy, healthy relationships if strategies are in place to accommodate for their differences.
Narratives surrounding a lack of object constancy do not often directly name, or address the topic, but manifest as stereotypes and tropes in media, or in the language used to describe celebrities who exhibit socially dysfunctional behaviour. People with object constancy issues, or those who have trouble maintaining stability in relationships, may be labelled as ‘the crazy ex’ or ‘the needy girlfriend’ and described as ‘immature’, ‘acting out’ or ‘attention seeking’.
Even literature surrounding disorders which feature a lack of object constancy, such as borderline personality disorder, warn people not to be in relationships with those who suffer from these problems and feature case studies of people whose lives have been ‘destroyed’ by their mentally ill partners. I’m not going to link the literature, it’s prevalent enough that a google search will be revealing.
I’m not saying that people with such disorders can’t be abusive partners, but people WITHOUT these disorders can be just as bad. Having a disorder may affect the way a person feels about and towards something, but feelings aren’t abusive: it’s how we act which defines us. You can be a shitty person with object constancy issues, and you can be a shitty person without them.
See also: being a good person and having a disorder are not mutually exclusive.
You may not even be able to tell when someone has object constancy issues. They may not even know. Sometimes the condition only becomes apparent when the symptoms become unmanageable, as neurodiverse people often mask the problem to fit in, due to the stigma, or out of fear of hurting others. Masking the problem does not erase the suffering, and the energy required to mask takes a toll on the person doing so. If we are used to masking, we may only ask for help when our distress has escalated to a near unmanageable degree. We ask when we are desperate, and desperate pleas do not make for polite conversation: often the symptoms we see in media are at the extreme end of the spectrum.
The trouble is that issues of object constancy manifest when there is an object to attach to – meaning they involve other people. This makes the issue messy and difficult: no one’s mental health is your responsibility: support should be reasonable, boundaried and include external sources. Support groups (DBT focused groups, for example) have been identified as being particularly useful – but, sadly such groups are painfully rare. Furthermore, partners of neurodiverse people must be engaged enough to work on the relationship to improve it too, and may need to consider how they can make reasonable accommodations for their partner if they want to make the relationship work. I don’t feel that it’s fair for one partner to take on the burdens of a relationship alone, especially when aspects of relationships may exacerbate their problems.
Object constancy issues or not: every fight will feel like a break-up if you’re weighing the cost of being in a relationship against the value of your mental health.
The destigmatization and discussion of these issues, along with early intervention and treatment, could alleviate the suffering of neurodiverse people and better support their partners.
So about this game
I’m going to be honest with you. Even though I ranted about neurodiversity above, I didn’t make the game to provide representation or be an advocate. I don’t have enough distance from the thing to know whether it’s ‘good’ representation either, so if this makes us look worse, I am sorry.
I made it because I am angry. Angry and so fucking tired of having to explain myself all the time. I find it incredibly upsetting that such a common issue is so poorly understood, and that just because I mask my symptoms well, it’s taken for granted that things are easy for me, or I’m undeserving of help.
I am often frustrated that the work I do to achieve something resembling ‘stability’ or what people describe as ‘normality’, obscures my difficulties so much that I am not believed when I do need help. I’ve been working really hard on myself and am in recovery for a lot of issues, in a mostly self-directed way. I’ve been doing everything I can, but it feels like there are some things that I can’t change. I have hit a mental health plateau and I just want to scream. This game is the scream; so do take care playing. I was really surprised when people told me that the game is triggering, because it’s not about a particularly bad, or good day for me: it’s about most of my days, or how most of my days have the potential to go.
It’s not all anger, though. Love is important I suppose, and not all forms of love are difficult for me. This game is made with a lot of love. It’s a celebration of my hard-won self-awareness and my continuing fight against maladaptive coping mechanisms and suicidal tendencies. It’s also a celebration of my friendships and the people I’ve trusted to help me with the game, even though working alone is my default. It showcases my highs, my lows, and my struggle to find balance. Without love, I wouldn’t have the strength to work on myself the way I do, or to take responsibility for myself and for my feelings. I wouldn’t have the motivation to try and be better, for other people, or for myself.
Thank you for reading this and for playing the game. Do leave a comment, tweet me and share! I’m eager to know what you think.
Disclaimer: This is not a fully cited essay, this is a rambly blog. No, I do not have the energy to debate you. I’m tired bro.
Jordan Peterson: clinical psychologist, best-selling author, self-help guru, slayer of snowflakes, dom of debate, master of memes and Prime Patriarch of the Lobster Cult.
If you don’t know who he is, I guess you’ve missed out on this particular discourse and I can’t say that I’m sorry for you. I’m fucking happy for you – delighted, really. Honestly, you’re not missing out.
In case you haven’t heard of him, here’s a Wikipedia paraphrase: Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, specialising in the psychology of personality with a particular interest in Jungian psychoanalytic theory and a penchant for biological essentialism. He’s a Christian conservative who gained notoriety by critiquing a proposed bill passed by the Parliament of Canada to introduce gender identity expression as a prohibited ground of discrimination. After he started ‘blowing up’ he distilled his high theoretical work Maps of Meaning into a chart-topping self-help book called Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson’s talent lies not in the content of his work: his self-help advice is nothing special, the theories he talks about have been done to death by writers such as Joseph Campbell, and the personality quiz he developed is just an extension of ‘the big five’ and can be described as a horoscope for people who like to feel scientific. I’m not here to go through his arguments and debunk them, better people have done that already. Peterson’s talent lies in his ability to create parasocial relationships. Like any self-help guru, he tends to attract the emotionally vulnerable, who by virtue of their admiration sometimes turn into fans who advocate for him, as one would for any charismatic pseudo cult leader. That’s what makes him so dangerous.
Peterson knows his target market, and he knows how to speak with them and mobilise them. He knew how to speak to me.
You might know me as an incredibly online feminist, non-binary trans person and academic, but I wasn’t always like this mate. I was Peterson’s demographic. I was vulnerable, and Lobster Daddy appealed to my particular issues. I know it’s not the done thing to admit to this kind of ideological faux pas, but the thing is, Lobster Daddy spoke to me when I was feeling incredibly lost. Although I have now disowned father, I wouldn’t take back finding him, because he told me a lot of what I needed to hear. The self-help aspect of his rhetoric helped me, even though it was mixed in with some incredible bullshit.
So why did Jordan Peterson’s ‘teachings’ resonate with me so much?
Like a lot of his followers, I was butt hurt. I had a shitty time at University and had no fucking idea who I was supposed to be. I had zero confidence in myself or my work… I was incredibly lost and a bit angry about my undergraduate experience. I got into Warwick Uni, which is a fantastic place to learn, but I went from doing a pretty simplistic English Lang/Lit A-Level at school straight into a course about postmodernism. Like. What the fuck? They skipped straight past modernism to postmodernist deconstruction, and maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I don’t remember them giving one fucking iota of context. It was a bit much. Starting university with a lecture on postmodernism felt like being handed an anvil whilst walking a tightrope.
Like, I get it, learning is good. Understanding structures of power and oppression is invaluable, and I know I occupy a position of privilege, but I’m older and a tiny bit wiser now. I’m still learning. Back then I wasn’t ready! I had no idea what the hell was going on in my own life, let alone with everything else. I thought I was going to learn about some nice books and shit, not about how fucked-up everything is and how life has no meaning! Perhaps it’s common sense that this is all part of growing-up, but as a first gen student living away from home for the first time with an undiagnosed mental health condition and repressed trauma, I didn’t know how to handle it. I took the tools of deconstruction, used them to take my whole fucking life and identity apart and didn’t know how to put them back together. I learned new things about class, gender and mental health and when these massive concepts are viewed as purely academic, as analytical frameworks, the impact of this learning tends to be forgotten. Add this kind of rapid, hardcore knowledge acquisition to a traumatized, mentally ill student living away from home for the first time, and you have a recipe for nihilism. I wasn’t the only one; the course I was on had a high drop-out rate. I’m not saying it was the university’s fault – there are obviously personal factors involved with each drop-out – I’m just saying that higher education, in the state that it’s in, is fairly new – as are the types of students it’s catering to. The transitions between levels of education are not great. We were not prepared. This is why I work for LEADS and have worked with the Widening Participation Programme at the University of Glasgow – I want to help explain higher education to students who don’t know what they’re signing up for.
I didn’t have access to advice like that. I went through hell during my undergrad, somehow managed to scrape a first, and it just didn’t feel worth it. I was disillusioned and dissatisfied. University – what a load of bullshit.
That’s how he got me.
See, Jordan Peterson is a weirdly anti-intellectual intellectual, who knows how to translate sometimes complicated ideas into a digestible format – but not all of these ideas are accurate. Actually, he gets a load of stuff wrong. His warnings about POSTMODERN-NEO-MARXISM are misguided imho, but the way he framed these ideas felt REMARKABLY like how I had been taught at University. The courses I took weren’t put into context so often the separate ideas they were teaching us about amalgamated, turning my already depressed brain into nihilism soup. It didn’t help that during my undergrad I was experiencing the worst of my dissociative amnesia and short term memory loss. (Tbh the paranoia didn’t help either 😬.)
I’d been out of uni for a little while when Peterson was suggested to me, and his explanation of POSTMODERN-NEO-MARXISM (the Cultural Marxism conspiracy lol) resonated with me. Finally, I thought, someone actually understands what a brain fuck higher education can be. Anything can look like a conspiracy when you don’t understand it. Maybe they WERE brainwashing me! (Oh the irony…)
When I found Peterson what I really needed was therapy. Accessing Peterson’s material is much easier than finding a therapist. Much of Peterson’s self-help spiel is actually functional advice, which probably stems from his background as a practicing clinical psychologist. There are certain frameworks (such as Jungian psychoanalysis) that may not hold-up to critical scrutiny, but work in clinical settings, for certain service users. His work in Maps of Meaning and many of his lectures point to there being an objective truth: his traditionalist values helped me feel grounded, he made me feel like life had meaning and that I had the power to navigate it. I listened to hour after hour of his lectures, and they gave me hope. At this time, I was also deep in the closet, clinging to the gender role I had assigned myself. His anti-feminist rhetoric validated my toxic femininity and his appeal to masculine values made my repressed dude bro heart sing.
I wanted to be a hero like the ones he spoke about, to make my mark on the world and speak my truth after years of hiding away and silencing myself. I wanted TO SLAY THE DRAGON OF CHAOS. Peterson inspired me to want more for myself, so I cleaned my damn room, went out and fucking got it! I started teaching, and I rediscovered my love for academic writing. I applied to Glasgow’s Fantasy MLitt and got a scholarship. I even wrote about Maps of Meaning in my first midterm essay (it was shit and my professor was confused – sorry Rob 😂).
It was during this return to higher education that things started to click into place for me. I gained a broader understanding of different schools of thought, I learned what the Frankfurt School was and about different types of psychoanalysis. I got broader exposure to different research areas, but more importantly, I was lucky enough to speak to the people doing this research. By chatting with my tutors, taking part in university life and conducting my own research, I realised that researchers are just people pursuing their different interests. Sometimes they participate in communities when their interests intersect, but largely they’re not very organised (no shade). Participating in higher education also made me realize that universities and their bureaucracy are WAY TOO dysfunctional to be doing some weird Cultural Marxist indoctrination scheme. No one has the fucking time. If you start to think conspiracy theories sound plausible, go and work at an institution and try submitting a pay-claim. That’ll learn you.
Being online helped too: I met more trans people, and followed wonderful researchers such as Dr Jeana Jorgensen whose sex positive, feminist tweets and blogs helped me realise just how wrong Peterson is about so many things. I also started watching video essays and this was EXTREMELY important. You see, when I began watching Peterson’s content, YouTube started suggesting more conservative content creators and led me down the path to the alt right. That was a fucking rabbit hole; Milo, Alex Jones, Joe Rogan and Paul Joseph Watson all popped up. Then, by some miracle YouTube steered me in the direction of creators such as Philosophy Tube and Contrapoints, which poked a hole in the algorithm tunnel and let the light shine in.
Jordan Peterson led me to some seriously dark and harmful places. I think the dangers of his teachings negate much of the good he is capable of doing.
People who defend Peterson sometimes talk about the functionality of his advice like I do, they say it’s a means to an end, it’s something that can help people – specifically, white, cis men. The thing is, his useful advice is like a trojan horse: you come for the self-help, and you end up with harmful, at times contradictory, rhetoric that further entrenches already hegemonic values under the guise of being revolutionary.
I was alerted to this problem by a minor interaction that made me realise that I needed to evaluate myself and step away from Lobster Daddy. I was chatting about Jordan Peterson with an acquaintance and began to point out the flaws in his arguments and this man had the AUDACITY to ask ME if I had seen any of Peterson’s work.
Why would he give a shit about my opinion or remember what I had to say? I was just a woman to him.
Bit of an insular wake-up call, but it was at that moment I realised that I had been listening to Jordan Peterson like a cis man would! That was how I could excuse his misogyny, because not only did I have internalized misogyny, I had also ignored the harmful messages about women because I felt like they didn’t apply to me!
Inside me were two genders and BOTH OF THEM WERE TOXIC!!!!
I realised that this man’s ‘teachings’ were perpetuating attitudes that could be actively harmful to me and people I care about. I wish I could say I was more community minded back then, but at that point I was very much alone and only just beginning to understand the struggles that marginalised communities face. I was also in the closet and denying my identity so fervently that I pushed any issues I really cared about far away. It hurt too much to face them back then.
I am still grateful that Jordan Peterson inspired me to live a more meaningful life and be true to myself, but the self I am true to represents so much of what he speaks against. Lobster Daddy, you helped me find myself and in finding myself I outgrew you.
Thank you to the lovely Lara for being my reader for this post! Please check out her YouTube channel Unraveling Thoughts which has some cool analyses of video games and movies!
Thank you also to the fabulous Dr. Jeana Jorgensen for sending me your blog posts: when I got to them, I realised I had already read them! You’re an excellent influence!
Reflections on gender, trauma and hypersexualisation
Content warning: this blog covers and includes internalized misogyny, sexual abuse, discussion of age gap relationships, unsafe sex, allusions to bodily harm (cutting) and the butchering of a beloved children’s book.
The Velveteen Rabbit is the story of a toy who comes to life. The story begins when the Rabbit is gifted to a boy (of course). At first, the Velveteen Rabbit is very lonely; the boy doesn’t notice him and he struggles to make friends with the other toys. The other toys consider themselves Real things, they are mechanical so they already know how to function, they don’t question it – it’s part of their machinery. The model boat works like a boat. It floats, it has a use: it’s real. The Velveteen Rabbit’s purpose is not quite as obvious. He has neither seen a Real rabbit, nor has been modelled on one, for he has no hind legs. The Velveteen Rabbit is a Rabbit that is not a rabbit.
Life is quite bleak for the shy little Rabbit until he finds companionship with a toy horse who shares his wisdom with him. They take part in this famous dialogue:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
The Velveteen Rabbit is taught to associate being Real with his interactions with the boy. The Rabbit’s existence is contextual and contingent on the boy’s playing with him; he becomes a rabbit when the boy treats him like one. But he’s not a rabbit. He’s still just a toy. He’s not Real. He only feels that way because he doesn’t know better.
I don’t blame him. I didn’t know better either.
As someone who has always struggled with their identity, much of who I was, was shaped by context. I was raised as a girl, I went to a girls’ school, I was a ‘late-bloomer,’ not confident enough to come out as bi, and advised that I should sleep with some boys so I could ‘make up my mind’.
So that’s what I did.
I learned about sex by fucking men.
Maybe that’s OK if you’re educated about the emotional gravity of it. Maybe it’s OK to learn about sex by fucking if you’re dating people closer to you in age, or at least people who are kind. Learning about sex by fucking probably isn’t the best idea when you fuck older men who don’t care about your feelings, or even worse, manipulate them. My first boyfriend treated me so badly that, to this day, I’m relieved that I’d previously lost my virginity during a one-night stand in a tent. I might not have known the guy, but at least he made sure I was OK and had a nice time. It was one of my most empowering fucks: I will always have VFest (how beautifully apt).
I think that continuing the trend of one-night stands would have been better than what happened to me. A 29-year-old man probably shouldn’t cut a nineteen-year-old girl, even if she asks him to. I still have the scars.
It’s hard to come back from that.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
There’s something extremely thrilling about that mixture of sex and danger. It creates such a potent high that it’s almost irresistible not to chase: that’s why we have BDSM – all the chemical rush, with managed risk, fully informed consent and appropriate aftercare to manage the sub drop. There is a difference between good but risky BDSM and bad, dangerous sex that feels good in the moment. It’s the difference between being a sex subject and a sex object. If you play with a toy too hard and for too long, then drop it when you’re finished with it, that toy will most likely break.
And I did.
I wanted someone to put me together again. So I met a boy closer to my age and we started planning our wedding on the second date. It was all very romantic at first. Then things got cOmpLicAteD. I was so used to being picked up, played with, and dropped on a whim, that finding someone who held me tightly and didn’t want to let go felt safe. It’s easy to mistake control for love, when you don’t know what Real love looks like.
That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe. And he missed, too, those long moonlight hours in the nursery, when all the house was silent, and his talks with the Skin Horse. But very soon he grew to like it-
I was functionally a wife and almost a mother. I think that on an unconscious level I believed that having such a defined role would make me feel more like a ‘real woman’. All we were doing was playing house and the longer I pretended, the less I performed and the more I became. I became someone I could not recognize.
And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.
When I left, it was difficult to know who I was away from the relationship. I felt real for a while, but I wasn’t Real. Toys are only real when they are being played with. I only felt like a woman when I was fucking some guy. I wanted the feeling that it gave me, I wanted to feel real all the time.
Having a high sex drive and hypersexualisation are two different things. Having a high sex drive is normal and healthy, hypersexualisation is a term used to describe having a dysfunctional relationship with sex. I have both – that’s a dangerous combination. As explained in a video by Survivor Tribe, I wasn’t having sex in a healthy way, in fact, I was absent a lot of the time. It was more Toy Story than Velveteen Rabbit; I was so used to being treated like an object, that I became one. As explained in the video, I felt my only value came from my sexuality: how I had been treated, in combination with my socialised femininity, made me feel as if I was a thing to be used by men. It made me feel seen, but only as an object is seen – in the context of its use value. Male gaze innit. Thing is, whatever my reasons, I wasn’t seeing them either; aside from literally disassociating during sex, I was as they say ‘hitting it and quitting it’. I was so used to sex being a game that I forgot that other people are Real. I was objectifying them – making them my toys. Then something strange happened: I found someone I didn’t want to quit. I found someone I wanted to talk to.
“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. […]
“That was many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
I wish it was as easy as finding the right person and suddenly feeling whole. I thought that maybe being with someone like that – someone who really saw me – would make me stable again. Maybe having a healthy relationship would make me a normal, a Real. It didn’t work like that. Things started to get better, but they also got more difficult. I was scared of what the relationship might do to me; I was terrified of losing myself again.
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
I was also scared of losing him. It felt like, that by sleeping with him, I had put an expiry date on what could have been a wonderful friendship. I am a better friend, than a girlfriend, but maybe that’s because I didn’t want to be a girlfriend. I hadn’t been entirely honest with him, because I still wasn’t being entirely honest with myself.
I got scared. I started dressing femme when I didn’t feel like it. I was so used to my value being in my sexuality that I assumed that was all he liked about me. I felt like if I didn’t perform femininity I would lose my relationship. I turned myself into a toy: only this time, I wanted to break myself. It had been easy to maintain the illusion when I was hooking up with people, but glamour is hard work. The performance became exhausting, and he noticed. I’m not used to men caring about my feelings: it was very annoying.
I never intended to ‘come out’, but I couldn’t keep living the lie. At the same time, coming out felt like giving something up. It felt like I was letting go of an identity I had been desperately trying to cling to.
He thought of the Skin Horse, so wise and gentle, and all that he had told him. Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?
It didn’t end though. I hadn’t given him enough credit. He said that I am who I am. Gabe. He was hoping my coming out would be a nice thing, rather than a stressful thing. He wasn’t surprised… But, I had kind of come out on social media first in the form of changing my pronouns on Twitter and aggressively sharing every pro-trans meme that drifted across my timeline. Funny how I felt safer there in what is ostensibly a public space – I suppose I have intimacy issues.
I’ve used social media a lot over the past couple of years. Part of me thought it was because I got a thrill out of posting hypersexual statuses and getting comments from cishet men. I began to realise that wasn’t the part of social media I enjoyed. They were not who I was posting for. I was posting for… my trans and queer friends.
“They were rabbits like himself, but quite furry and brand-new. They must have been very well made, for their seams didn’t show at all, and they changed shape in a queer way when they moved[…] instead of always staying the same like he did. […] the Rabbit stared hard to see which side the clockwork stuck out, for he knew that people who jump generally have something to wind them up. But he couldn’t see it. They were evidently a new kind of rabbit altogether.”
I like Facebook, because that’s where all my trans friends are.
I’d been in denial and in hiding for so long that I thought I’d never been a part of a queer community and it took until lockdown for me to realise that the queer people in my life were there and had been supporting me the whole time. I didn’t want to come out to a cisman first, even a cisman I love. I was doing something for myself, even something that felt like putting my relationship at risk. I also didn’t come out to individuals because I didn’t want to make trans people feel as if they had to educate, or validate me, but I wanted to tell them so badly. I wanted to tell them how much they mean to me. So I’m telling them now. You are the role models I never knew I had.
“He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.”
I was concerned about writing this because I didn’t want to add another trauma narrative/dramatic coming out story which could shape the cishet perception of queerneess. I also don’t want to imply that femininity and masculinity are specific things with corresponding traits. I also didn’t want to write a coming-out post that leant into the politics of passing, to end with a masculine photograph, to somehow prove my transness. What I’ve come to understand is that being non-binary doesn’t mean I have to give up my femininity: the thing is, that version of femininity was never Real to me in the first place. Being a ‘woman’ was just something I used to do.
But femme, masc, androgynous… These are things that I am.
“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.
“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”
– Revisiting the theory in light of constructive criticism
On mental health advice, hypocrisy and hope for recovery.
Looking back at that first blog post, I feel… Well, at first, I feel nothing, because it takes me a while to figure out what I’m feeling, but I think I feel… Shock. I remember the process of writing it in the midst of planning my grandfather’s funeral, during a pandemic, and I wonder… What the fuck was I doing? During a time of crisis I should have been focusing on my family and looking after myself, but instead I was scribbling out diagram after diagram in the hope that one of them would make me feel better. No wonder people were worried about me: I wasn’t worried about me, and that perhaps, is the most concerning thing. Although I was advised to take time off, I kept trying to work in one way or another. Did I step-back from the event I was co-running? Did I stop working on my thesis entirely? Did I fuck. I wrote a whole essay giving advice about how and why we should be kind to ourselves – none of which I took. I knew what I wanted to do in theory, but had no idea how to apply it to my own life in any consistent way.
I’m so grateful for everything that blog did for me: it helped me figure out the connections between my research and my personal life, it gave my work and writing visibility and led to the opportunity to present at some incredible events where I met fabulous people. All of these opportunities, and the amazing support I received in response, made me feel even worse. I publicly state that I hate when people give trite mental health advice and voice my distaste for how well-meaning mental health campaigns and academic writing obscure the messy realities of dealing with mental illness – whilst doing both of those things. We should be kind to ourselves, I said, whilst doing things in private which actively harmed me. Be kind to others, I said, whilst slowly isolating myself from the majority of people I was acquainted with because I lacked the internal resources to be kind. I was, and probably still am, a hypocrite. Writing about something is different from doing it.
I was trying my best the only way I knew how: by working. When I’m working I know who I am. When I’m working I can create useful things for people and I can make uncomplicated connections because I know who I am when I have a designated social role. When I’m working I don’t have to worry about my identity. My work gave me some level of stability, but doing it was just another way to avoid my problems. My theory of ‘Kindness as Praxis‘ was meant to be about how we can use our research skills to improve our mental wellbeing and personal lives, but my real aim was to be stable enough to be able to work – fuck the rest of it. I want to be a brain on a stick. Luckily for me, workaholism is baked into our capitalist society, which rewards my unhealthy habits and further obscures the difficulties I experience. Maybe that’s why I sadpost so much when I get upset; I have always been productive enough that few people have ever taken my mental illness seriously. I just want to be believed.
I was trying my best, but I still felt like a fraud. I was lucky to be given a little perspective in the form of feedback – aptly, through my work. I took my original ‘Kindness as Praxis’ talk to an event called [X]pertise run by the Learning Enhancement and Academic Development Service at the University of Glasgow which is run to promote communication across disciplines and give researchers a chance to showcase and talk about their work. This event was a little different to usual conferences as it included mentoring. After I ran through the talk, my mentor asked if I could explain about the practicalities of how the theory worked. What did it look like?
It was then that I realised I had no idea. I was doing what I hated: hiding behind academic theory and glossing over the difficulties of living with mental illness. I felt so out of place discussing my problems at an academic event, that I had omitted half of my story, which actually perpetuated the personal/private divide I was trying to speak out against. I did it to myself. I was lucky that my mentors were supportive and encouraged me to speak my truth. Instead of presenting a theory about making impact in a nebulous manner, I wrote myself into my presentation to show what the impact of living by my theory had been.
The following is a re-write of my ‘Kindness as Praxis’ theory, which turned a nigh unintelligible scribbling into what I hope is something that can actually be used, as well as something that highlights the lesser-appreciated skills that researchers develop throughout their studies.
Kindness as Praxis Revisited
I used the graduate attributes, which are the soft skills we develop whilst doing academic work in any field, to create an outline of what kindness as praxis might look like.
The structure has much in common with the stages of carrying out a project.
As easy as it would be to leave it at that, this methodology is not just a list: it’s a story.
A listicle, if you will…
Step one: finding a concept
Step one is much like finding a suitable topic for your research project: you have to identify your needs (as you would spot a niche that needs to be filled in your research field) and analyse the most viable way of meeting these needs. It’s like pitching a project to yourself: a self-improvement project *cringe*.
My step one happened after my break-up. I was still processing a lot of the traumatic things I had been remembering and realised that if I wanted to meet my goals as a researcher and (less importantly for me at that point – lol) as someone capable of living a long and healthy life, I needed to find a more sustainable way to cope. I was lucky to find a supportive GP who confirmed my suspicions that I am suffering from emotional dysregulation. I took this information to a psychologist who confirmed my BPD diagnosis and knowing this helped me identify areas in my life I wanted to work on.
Step two: research
Step two encompasses doing new research for your personal project and identifying the ways your academic research might be applied to your personal life.
Having my BPD diagnosis meant that I could find more effective ways of coping, because, though everyone experiences the disorder differently, it meant that I could at least narrow down my research and find resources more specific to my needs.
I also realized that I could apply some of the game design principles I had been researching to my personal life. The main thing that helped me was understanding different types of empathy as detailed in my original ‘Kindness as Praxis‘ post. Tl;dr: The conclusion of my findings was that sometimes I unconsciously shut down my emotional empathy because I have a tendency to experience overwhelming emotions and when I do that, I have to try and use my cognitive empathy to access, understand and process my emotions in a more mindful way. I try and apply this to my relationships, which makes them complicated. I’m doing better, but I’ve had to reduce my connections. I fail a lot and I can’t always tank the pain it causes. Relationships are risky for me.
Step three: creating resources
This step is one for all of you fellow admin lovers out there! Every good project needs resources to help you organize and present it.
Once I had narrowed down the things I wanted to work on, I created resources to help me work on them. Using my DBT workbook which I use (and threaten to set fire to) every day, I made a colour-coded diary including emergency action plans and coping mechanisms, as well as a list of positive affirmations which I have plastered across my flat.
My diary is a useful resource I can carry with me, so I have access to my action plans whatever I am doing, wherever I go (which is nowhere right now lol). The affirmations are written in strategic places around my flat so that when I’m having an episode so bad I can’t check my diary, I am reminded that what I’m feeling will pass. It will not last forever.
Step four: do it
This step is both the hardest and the least immediately rewarding – both with regard to completing a research project and maintaining one’s mental health. It’s doing something every day, forgoing instant gratification and thinking about the bigger picture. When you’re doing a research project it’s easy to procrastinate because there are other, more immediately satisfying things to do. When a project is going well, it doesn’t look like much is happening – it’s a case of quietly keeping yourself on track.
For me, this is similar to maintaining my mental health: it’s only really noticeable that I have a disorder when I use a maladaptive coping mechanism as a way to deal when things have gone wrong. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are the loud things, the noticeable things, the bad things; they’re an extreme way of expressing the severity of the emotional pain I am in and a way of escaping it. Although they’re very effective in the short term, these behaviours are things capable of doing long-term damage to both myself and my relationships.
Living well is often thankless. When things are going well, it looks effortless, when actually, I’m walking on a tightrope, carrying a pole on which my healthy habits are balanced. If I make one wrong decision, I risk falling, and there’s not a net to catch me. All I can do is keep walking and hope that, one day, my funambulism will feel as effortless as it looks.
Step five: editing
Like every piece of academic work, your self-improvement project will need adjusting and revaluating as you go along. There would be no point to research if we already knew everything, so it’s important to be reactive to our findings, so we can improve our work and adapt to overcome difficulties.
One of my worst relapses happened when I caught COVID, which developed into long COVID. I struggled because one of my main strategies to control my mood is physical activity. Being ill meant that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do at first, so I fell back on my old, maladaptive coping mechanisms and it fucked me up. Losing my ability to be active made me realize I had been using it as yet another way of avoiding my problems. Being forced to slow down meant that I had to find other ways to cope: I FINALLY started doing DBT and facing my problems rather than (literally) running from them. Hopefully when I can exercise again, I’ll be able to incorporate it into my lifestyle in a more balanced and sustainable way.
Step six: communicating
Once you have a chapter of your project done, and something to say, it’s a case of finding a way to present the information that will make it interesting and comprehensible to others. This might include changing your presentation style for different audiences: are you giving a talk, or a paper? Who is the audience? Who are you communicating to and why? Is what you’re saying appropriate? What does your communication say about you? Apparently these considerations also apply in your personal life. Fuck.
Characteristically, I enjoy communicating when it’s for work: I give a decent presentation, and I’m an excellent teacher (with more to learn). However, everything else…
I’m still in the process of learning how and when to communicate my feelings. I’m lucky that I have a few people I can safely vent to about my silly problems which are not problems (more specifically, problems which were once problems, but are now feelings which appear disproportionate because they’re divorced from their context). They’re people who understand I’m still working really hard on steps 1 – 5; people who give me the kindness of the benefit of the doubt whilst I figure out more considerate ways of communicating in general. Otherwise, a kindness I can give myself is admitting that I want to be happy more than I want to be sociable. I don’t have to do friendships in the same way other people do. It’s a bit of a shit that fixing one’s interpersonal communication isn’t something one can do alone, so until I get access to a therapist I’ll be living a very careful life and making changes that help me cope a bit more easily.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned about communication in the past few months is when not to communicate. Isolating oneself is listed as something ‘destructive’ that people with BPD do, but taking time just for me is often one of the kindest things I can do for myself.
One of the adjustments I’ve made is my use of social media: the sadposting. I wanted people to understand me (which led to making some wonderful friends online), but I was also using social media as a form of self-harm. Using social media when I felt vulnerable and impulsive meant that I broadcasted information about myself that, actually, I would rather keep private. I didn’t enjoy the unsolicited advice, or attention I received from such posts – why was I posting when it just made me feel worse? I think perhaps, that my sense of self was so tenuous, that any kind of acknowledgement made me feel like I existed. I didn’t care about protecting my self-image because it didn’t feel as if I had one.
The truth is, I’ve been constructing a sense of self from almost nothing. I know that I was someone, at one point. I know that I liked things and wanted things for myself. I lost myself. I lost myself on purpose because it was too painful to be the person I was. I wanted to say goodbye to them. I wanted a new face, a new name, a new life, a new everything and found an even worse one. I became someone else. I hid. I moved from one dangerous relationship to another and pretended to be someone I wasn’t. It wasn’t her fault, but it is my responsibility.
I am not her any more. Was I ever? If she was anything, then she was my illness. I’m getting better now.
I have found myself again and actually I quite like them. I want to take care of them.
I’m finally mentally well enough to be able to appreciate my freedom.
Doing DBT has helped me remember who I am and what I value. I am not a story: I do not need to be told in order to exist. I am more than what I produce and more than what I can do for others. What I do is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Doing the thing, is more important than sharing the thing; being appreciated is wonderful, but enjoying what I do is more so. Extrinsic motivation is a nice supplement for intrinsic motivation, but, where possible, it should not usurp it. I am allowed to exist entirely for myself: alone, in an empty room, without an internet connection.
But OBVIOUSLY I care about your opinion babes, you’re not like the rest of them. Remember to like, share, comment and follow my blog! You mean the world to me.
Kindness as Praxis as a Methodology
A methodology is more than a selection of methods, it’s an approach to research.
Similarly, ‘Kindness as Praxis’ is a method, but it’s also an approach to life.
In all of my talks I included this slide:
I didn’t take my own advice. It was a form of internalized ableism. I was trying to apply neurotypical standards to a non-neurotypical problem by being ‘kind’ to myself in the wrong way. I advise people that our research is just one part of who we are, that being kind to ourselves is about having a life outside of work and that we should keep our careers in perspective and that perhaps we can use what we learn at work to fortify our personal lives: we should work to live, not live to work.
I agree with this advice: in principle, but not in practice.
Writing about something is different from doing it.
I still live to work and I’m OK with that. It’s not really about my career as such, but my capability to teach and to write. I’m privileged enough to be in a position where I’m paid to do both, but I haven’t always been and even back in the darker days I still made it work.
That’s why I need boundaries. I need to separate my personal from my professional life because I need something that’s simple. I need something that’s uncomplicated by my mental illness. My life is the best it has ever been and I would like to try and enjoy it, even if I still don’t feel like I deserve it.
Friendships and relationships are getting a little easier, but they are harder for me than an average, neurotypical person. I will neither concede that point, nor use it as an excuse to treat people badly. What I will do, is mitigate my risk. Maybe one day, I won’t have to treat every relationship like it’s a time bomb. Maybe one day, I’ll trust myself. Maybe one day, it’ll be effortless.
I see recovery as making the same difficult decision every moment of every day until it becomes a part of who I am. I still haven’t quite figured out how to be kind, but I’m very relieved that I have a self to be kind to and that I finally care enough about them to try;
Content warning: this blog contains themes including mental illness, trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideationand death. Please engage with this content responsibly. Also bear in mind that although I have a diagnosis, this in no way qualifies me to speak on behalf of others who share it. The only experiences I can speak to are my own.
When people ask me what I’m researching, I tell them that I’m studying single-player, narrative driven Fantasy video games, but that’s not entirely true. It’s roughly the type of content I’m investigating, but like most PhD researchers, I didn’t figure out my actual topic until well into my second year. Or more accurately, I didn’t realise it: the name of my blog ‘Digital Fantastic’, which I chose at the start of my PhD journey, should have been a tip-off.
To quote my own literature review:
“The Digital Fantastic is a state of hesitation that elides the binary between the digital and non-digital world via affective experiences in which the player treats digital characters (NPCs), as if they were people.” (Elvery, 2024)
It is a concept I’m developing which resituates a much contested piece of ‘Fantasy’ theory by scholar Tzvetan Todorov. I won’t go into a full explanation of my theory here – that’s what my thesis is for. This post, as usual, dear reader, is all about me. This blog is situated in the place where my research and personal life meet, more specifically, it details how my experiences have unconsciously informed my research interests.
I have been fascinated by Todorov’s theory of the fantastic ever since I first encountered it during my Fantasy MLitt. It’s lucky that our lecturer, Rob Maslen, included the text on the syllabus, as this theory’s connection to the genre of Fantasy and its content is tenuous at best. In fact, it is often argued that it’s only lumped in with Fantasy theory because the term fantastic and Fantasy are so often conflated.
For Todorov, in its most simple form, the fantastic is hesitation. It’s a state of uncertainty experienced by readers (often mirroring a character in the novel) that arises when neither the character, nor the reader, can explain the events occurring by attributing them to supernatural forces which disrupt the textual reality, or accept them as explained by the natural laws of the built world. Todorov’s fantastic is situated in liminality: for readers to experience it they have to read in a receptive manner which simultaneously accepts multiple textual meanings and be open to the notion that these meanings are shaped by the interaction of their subjectivity with an uncertain textual reality. The fantastic refuses to set discrete boundaries: the line between fantasy and reality is blurry, and the only truth perhaps, is an emotional truth, rather than an objective one. This is why it’s observed so frequently in literature oft categorised as horror – are the ghosts real, or are they a result of characters’ distorted perceptions of reality? If the events are not real, does that make the characters’ experiences of them any less so? By refusing to give answers, the fantastic denies anyone the authority to determine which interpretation of reality is more valid than another. If you’re interested in notable textual examples, two of my favourites are The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
I understand where Fantasy theorists are coming from when they say they consider the fantastic to be separate from Fantasy. Much of the literature we think about when asked to name works of Fantasy rely on us to buy into worlds which have been built according to a set of logical rules. World-building requires a level of certainty to work, which makes Fantasy literature more similar to mimetic literature than we may realise (for more on Fantasy and mimesis, see Kathryn Hume). The fantastic asks us to retreat from that certainty and consider a world where we cannot count on things being as they appear. The fantastic is, by nature, unsettling. It illuminates quite how tenuous the line between fantasy and reality is and asks us to consider that the way we experience reality is a matter of perspective. When we hesitate, however briefly, we make space, in that moment, for a multiplicity of realities to exist and it is only when we act that we choose one over another. Hesitation is the dialectic between fantasy and reality: it’s how we negotiate our emotional truths with the realities presented to us, which helps us consider how to best reconcile the two. If Fantasy, as my teacher Dr Maslen, often says, is ‘the literature of the impossible’, then the fantastic is the literature of possibility. But, it is more that. The fantastic is a mode of being, one which illuminates both the uncertainties of lived experience and acknowledges its potentiality.
Really then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I finally realised what the topic of my thesis is when I started to understand my situation with regard to my mental health. In part, it’s a result of my improved cognitive capacity facilitated by an intense regime of medication, self-care, and the understanding of those close to me. Perhaps it’s also because I have finally gotten a little closer to understanding what causes me so many problems. The answer, of course, dear reader, as you may have guessed, is hesitation. I realised that, at times, I occupy my own little realm of the fantastic: the dialectic between myself and my emotions is very much one of uncertainty. I cannot trust my feelings, which makes me hesitate about who I am, what I value and whether what I experience is reality. The fantastic is a space that I occupy, not just in my research, but in my daily life.
So about those feels…
I’ve heard that some people don’t think about their emotions much – they’re just something that’s there, something they feel. Maybe they question them from time to time, but often they’re just a fact of life, a function of being. Feelings do things.
A post on mental health blog Verywell Mind gives a brief overview of what feelings are for. Emotions are signals, they’re supposed to tell us something. Emotions can inform us about our environment, motivate us to take action, help us avoid danger, make decisions, enable others to understand us, and us to understand others. Though emotions are subjective and individual to the person feeling them, being able to understand and label our own feelings can inform us about where we are positioned in relation to the reality presented to us. Much of what we feel about things can inform us about who we are.
So, can emotions be wrong?
Of course they can, but by analysing them and checking our realities with other people, we may be able to come to some sort of compromise about how to reconcile the way we feel with the reality we’re presented with, and by doing so, form a judgement about where we stand on a given issue, which helps us understand who we are. When we consider this in relation to our interactions with other people, there may even be no objective facts, just the negotiation of different emotional truths as we all experience situations and relationships, differently. Even if we find out that we have been misinformed, it does not make the emotional experience of that situation any less real for the person experiencing it.
For example: if someone were to leave a message you’ve sent them on read without replying, you may feel slighted: what if they’re upset with you? What if they don’t like you anymore? Much of this can be solved by stepping back, curbing your emotional empathy (feels) and using cognitive empathy to try and understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Perhaps they’re tired, maybe they’re just busy or maybe they read the message mid-task and forgot to reply to you. The feeling of rejection you experience is just a reminder that you care about the person and what they think of you, or in the case that you actually have done something wrong (like sent an unsolicited dik pic) it’s there as a warning that tells you that you should, perhaps, adjust your mode of social interaction and consider boundaries. As feminist Sara Ahmad explains, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion: “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others”. By telling us how we feel in relation to external stimuli, emotions help inform who we are, figure out what we believe and adjust our values in response to the feedback they give us. Listening to our feelings and observing how they change when we interact with each other, brings us closer to understanding our own emotional truths.
Some people (*neurotypicals*) find it easier to listen to this feedback than others, it’s learned behaviour, automatic. For others, such as myself, understanding our emotions is a little more challenging. As I mentioned above, my whole life has been characterised by uncertainty. I have spent much of it being told that I was ‘too sensitive’, wrong to feel the way that I felt about things or to feel things AS LOUDLY and INTENSELY as I do, so instead of feeling my feelings I learned to avoid them in some of the worst ways possible. When I feel something, I don’t trust that feeling, I assume it’s not appropriate and push it away to the point of disassociation, which leaves me feeling numb and empty, which makes me panic and causes me to look for something, anything that will make me feel something and as soon as I do, I push that feeling away too because I don’t know how to deal with it – rinse and repeat. I have struggled so much to force my emotions to conform to what I perceive to be the ‘norm’ or an objective reality, that I have denied myself the experience of emotional truth. What I am coming to terms with is that I was never wrong to experience emotions – it was wrong that I felt I had to push them away. The more I ignore my feelings, the more loudly they scream for my attention, and the more severe they become, which makes me want to feel and express them even less. Eventually the screaming gets too loud to ignore and manifests as an emotional extreme.
I spill my coffee, I miss a train, I want to kill myself.
Of course, those things aren’t really what I’m upset about. The extreme emotions I experience about trivial things stem from an emotional truth, but through repression and avoidance have become divorced from their context and arise as perceptual distortions. Experiencing these distortions makes me trust my emotions even less. The dysregulation of my emotions means that they don’t always give me accurate feedback, which makes it hard to identify the ones that do. It’s not something within my control: I try my best, but my brain just works a little differently and I don’t yet have access to treatment that would help me. Whenever I manage to identify that I may be experiencing a disproportionate emotion I try and remind myself that I might be angry, or upset, about something that has already happened. Maybe it’s something I have not processed, do not understand, or I am experiencing a reaction that was once accurate to a past situation, but does not apply to the current scenario – except when it does. It is also important for me to try and learn when I am allowed to feel upset. I try and observe situations from the outside, test my reality and treat myself as I would treat a friend.
Still… It’s difficult to understand what I’m feeling about anything most of the time, but little by little, through a lot of hard work and failure, I am starting to listen to myself, create boundaries and police them a little better. My recent diagnosis has proved a useful tool to help me better understand why I might feel the way I do sometimes.
If I am triggered by something specific like a scene from a movie, or a situation I perceive as threatening, then what I’m upset about is probably in relation to my PTSD, as unfortunately, I have experienced trauma.
If I am triggered by a seemingly innocuous interaction with another person, it is likely that I am struggling with an aspect of my Borderline Personality Disorder which makes me doubt them, doubt myself and doubt the interactions between us. I experience emotion as a constant state of hesitation. Sometimes, experiencing hardship seems easier than living through a ‘normal’ day because at least then I have a reason to feel as loudly as I do – but it doesn’t work like that. More often than not, when something bad happens I feel numb; I push those feelings away because I am scared of what feeling them will do to me. They always, however, come back to haunt me.
Having emotional dysregulation makes it difficult to know who I am and what I believe. I spent many years silencing myself. I never allowed myself to have an opinion or express a feeling in public for fear of saying something incorrect or behaving in a way that was inappropriate – the shame I experienced (often disproportionate to the action) was so painful that it wasn’t worth the risk. I also tend to isolate myself, because getting to know people that I might hurt, or might hurt me, is a risk. I have reinvented myself numerous times, worn countless faces and taken many names. I allowed myself to be treated in ways I would now consider unacceptable, because I had no way of judging my emotional boundaries. It’s also easy not to care about how people treat you, when you don’t feel like a person yourself. I hid myself away in a place where I didn’t have to feel anything or be anyone.
Then I found Glasgow, returned to my studies and by studying Fantasy I finally started to come to terms with my reality. I gained recognition for my work and my sense of humour. I started to feel like I had something to say, to contribute. I started to talk to new people honestly, for the first time in years, and started posting on social media. Interacting with others allowed me to test my reality, and the reality is, that despite my difficulties, a lot of what I think, and feel, is valid and does matter. Over the past year I have gradually stopped the majority of my avoidant coping mechanisms to improve my physical and mental health so that I can focus on my research. I also knew that the things I was doing were increasing the chances that I would die a premature death. I had a moment of hesitation, and in that moment of hesitation I asked myself a question: is life really worth all this pain? In the middle of all my uncertainty, I had a moment of absolute clarity and I answered myself: Yes. My emotional truth is that I want to live. Little by little, I stopped avoiding life and I started living. I stopped running away from myself and turned to face all of my feelings. I started to feel them.
I am still uncertain about who I am and how to deal with my emotions, but I do know that I love to work and I love to write. I don’t know whether it’s apt, or ironic, that the only thing I’m certain about is my research on hesitation and The Digital Fantastic.
Thank you to my editor Marita Arvaniti for her continued hard work, support and honesty.
Thank you to my partner Ollie, who helps me to feel brave enough to feel my feelings.
Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Second edition). Edinburgh University Press.
Gilman, C. P. ( 2017). The Yellow Wallpaper. Wisehouse Classics.
Hume, K. (2014). Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. Routledge.
Jackson, S. ( 2009). The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics.