Digital Fantastic: Aftercare – A reflection on cognitive empathy, self-care and sadposting

– aka mental illness visibility

Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. Please engage with this content responsibly and if you are here for the acknowledgements then I encourage you to skip to the end!

Part one: reflections on reader reception

My writing about cognitive empathy received some really great feedback and generated some interesting discussions that partially prompted this aftercare post.  After reading a draft of my last blog, some of my loveliest and wisest friends told me that the content was concerning and rightly asked me what I wanted to readers to get out of it: did I want to worry people? Had I thought about what people might think? For someone who studies reader reception theory, I am painfully ignorant of how my work might be received beyond ‘#mood’. But, it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about my readers – I just hadn’t factored in that people that I know might care. Then when they told me, I went ahead and did it anyway.

So, did I want to worry people?

The answer is no… worrying people is just an unfortunate side effect of attempting to cultivate honest and meaningful relationships with new people when you are mentally ill and experiencing a relapse.

Hollyhock | Tumblr | Bojack horseman, Horseman, Hollyhock

As much as I appreciated the advice, to listen to it on this occasion would have been to do myself a disservice.

After so many years negating myself and trying not to have an opinion, I finally feel confident enough to express myself loudly, live unapologetically and to be myself in public. The amount of pain I’m carrying around hasn’t changed, I’m just expressing it.

Sometimes the truth doesn’t fit into the comforting narratives of self-improvement that people want to hear – those narratives tell us that there is a solution. I’m not here to perform the emotional labour of reassurance, to wear a mask or to negate my experiences. I want people to know that if I can be myself in public that they can too. I want to be visible: if that hurts, avert your gaze. If it helps, then stay with me – you’re my reader. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone.

Thank you to everyone who comments on my posts, shares them and expresses their support: each message is a little miracle.

An even bigger thank you to everyone that has the AUDACITY to care about my wellbeing. Please stop (jk), but also, I’ve written you a little something in the last part of this blog because I really do deeply appreciate everything you do for me, though I’m still not sure why you do it.

If you are one of the people who is going to *do a big concern* please feel free to skip to the end to recieve your well deserved applause! Please don’t punish yourself with my writing if you don’t want to.

I love you whether you like my work or not. My writing is just a small part of who I am, even though it often feels like the only thing that matters.

This case study doesn’t show an upwards trajectory – which of course is what I hoped for. It shows that even though I do practice what I preach, my progress isn’t linear. You can do all of the right things and still feel like shit sometimes. 

We try, we fail, we try again, fail worse and then and remember that sometimes that one good day can make all the shitty days worth it.

Until it doesn’t.

My cognitive empathy diagram and my current lifestyle are the culmination of years of trying. I do the things: eat right, sleep, take meds, stay in contact with people, work out, do creative things, try and help people. So, does it work? 

I guess? I’m still here to post this, but also things are just difficult – such is life. 

Part Two: new academic year, same volatile me

As I said, I kept delaying this post in the hope I could show you real progress. But, after coming out of a particularly dark patch, I realised that I was waiting for something that may never come, so I’ve chosen to mark the end of my first academic year as a PhD researcher instead. To make a new start – well, another new start. 

With a new start comes a new notebook for the year: 

– it already got rained on, which is fucking typical. I wanted to throw it away, because it felt ruined. I bought it to start something new. I wanted something fresh, untarnished: a blank slate.

This is black and white thinking, a habit which has dominated my life: if something isn’t perfect, then what’s the point? I’m either good person, or I’m a bad person. No in-between.

This is neither healthy, nor realistic. What it is, is a contributing factor to the pattern of increasingly severe suicidal ideation I live with. The urge is fairly common which is both sad and reassuring – it sucks, but we’re not alone. I can’t speak as to why others feel this way, but a small part of my own struggles with the desire to end my life stems from black and white thinking. I often feel that I’ve left it too late to be the person I want to be, that I’ve wasted too much time. Sometimes I want to die because life feels meaningless and sometimes it’s because everything feels too meaningful. Every little mistake I’ve made feels like one mistake too much. There are times when my desire to die is rooted in the sincere wish for a new start.  

I’m always trying to feel fresh, untarnished: a blank slate. To go back. Sometimes I feel like if I can’t attain the perfection I’m reaching for then I may as well throw it all away, like that journal. All I want is something that doesn’t feel ruined.  

What I should have realised, and what I’m coming to accept, is that we can’t wipe clean the experiences we’ve had. Not only is it impossible, but though starting over would rid us of all of the bad things that have happened, it would erase the good ones too. People aren’t blank slates by nature: we’re palimpsests and each new inscription makes up who we are and helps inform our experiences.

This feels like the kind of trite, inspirational insta-garbage I wish I could angy reacc to: I am suspicious of optimism, I hate being preached to and I hate getting unsolicited advice, so I don’t want to do that to you with this post. I’m not going to patronise us by spouting off ‘all the pain is worth it’, ‘beautiful things grow out of shit’ or ‘all hardship is just good backstory’ – ‘good damage’. Fuck that.

We are not all in the same boat. There is a social element to mental illness which is vast, complex and intersectional – some scholars within the medical humanities argue that mental illnesses are rational responses to the societal contexts which shape us, but that’s a topic for another time, or perhaps scholar. I’m just checking in.

I’m also not going to bullshit you by saying something like ‘scars are beautiful’ because they are an ugly reminder that I have covered with ink:

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It’s a pretty tattoo, but it doesn’t erase the scars. They will always be there. The lyrics speak to that. It’s Emilie Autumn quoting Hamlet (sooo meta, right?). Without digging into the intertextuality of the quotation and just looking at the lines themselves, the lyrics are there to remind me that even when I’m at my worst I’m still capable of being good. The good may not erase the bad, but it can inform it. I am still capable of learning, but that learning takes struggle – some of it meaningless and unnecessary.  

My old notebook is a tribute to that. It’s the first notebook I used to record absolutely everything without tearing out a page. It’s full of what seems like useless information – things I tried that didn’t work, the good days and the bad. It’s full of calories I should not have counted, schedules I scrapped, projects I started and never finished, ideas for my thesis that I eventually threw out, and the seeds of what would become a formalised structure of coping mechanisms that have helped me restructure my life.

These pages and accompanying social media posts are also a case study for the theory of cognitive empathy I’ve been using on myself.

It’s never fun to get a null result

– but that’s the black and white thinking.

It only feels like a null result, on a bad day.

I can’t claim an upwards trajectory, but I’m learning that progress is not linear.

I want you to know that I’m trying. I am ok, but I also want you to know the truth – you can try and try to do everything right and you’ll still have a crappy day.

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All of this effort makes the bad days feel even worse: what’s the point of trying to hold it together so much if I still malfunction and fall apart? But, even though the bad days are dangerously bad, at least there are more good days now.

I try and think of my journal as a way of editing myself: any writer will tell you that it takes many bad drafts to create one piece of good work. That’s one of the reasons I’m a shitty writer – I’m still writing through my bad drafts in the hope that one day I’ll get to a good one. I’m still learning to edit.  

Part Three: Acknowledgements

It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes – or more if you’re lucky!

I never wrote acknowledgements for my dissertation, during which I felt very much alone. But now, I would like to write some acknowledgements, not for my writing (which I’m woefully short on), but for those who are facilitating my ability to work in the future. I want to thank the people who have really made a difference to my life in the clusterfuck of the last academic year.

It’s difficult for me to express how I feel, because I don’t want to imply that I need people. I want you to know that I’m quite capable of getting through this alone, but I am extremely happy that you’ve been here.

Thank you for your support, advice and company.

I love you all, unapologetically.

Charlie: You are persistent, smart, patient and giving. You always offer me a level-headed perspective and are an inspirationally strong woman. Thank you for talking about everything and anything with me. I’m proud of this friendship we’ve built together: my relationship with you is the healthiest and most enduring of my life (no pressure lol). Thank you for helping me maintain this ‘delicate system’ of a person.  

Dr Miller: One of the only healthcare professionals who has recognised my struggles and has actively advocated for my well-being. You have helped me find the best medication I have ever been on. I’m not exaggerating when I say that your help has saved my life. Thank you.  

Francis: Thanks for being a reliable and diligent colleague and an excellent friend. It would have been easy to ‘nope out’ of our friendship, but you’re always good for a chat and a laugh. Cheers for reminding me of home m8. I owe you a drink and about one million cigarettes. 

Grace: Thank you for taking me in over Christmas and for accepting a ridiculous amount of boundary-crossing oversharing. I liked you from the first time we spoke and like you more as time goes by! You are one of the best DMs I have ever had – you can master my dungeon any day!

Llarna Llama: You have always been a wonderful friend and it has been a privilege to see you become an amazing mother. Thank you for never forgetting me, including me in your journey and letting me be a flighty wine-aunt to my beautiful nephew Jack. ❤ You are a talented artist and a beautiful person. I am so proud of you. (P.S. I will always have a crush on you, my sea turtle!) 

Maude: I can’t believe I’ve had to do this without you. I miss you and will always remember you. 

Marita: Thank you for not giving up on me, even when I was distant and reclusive to the point of being a dickhat. You are one of the warmest, most giving, kindest and fun people I have ever met.  You always show up and I always notice. Thank you for reading all of my shitty writing and making me feel both seen and heard. Glasgow felt so much emptier without you, Marita. You are a big nerd. (Please don’t bite my nose.) 

Matt B: Your hard work building the Game Studies community at Glasgow has given me opportunities I never knew were possible. The fact that you started something that can be of such lasting use to others is extraordinary. Thank you for your help, expertise and support in navigating both my thesis and difficult circumstances. You have so much on, but you always manage to find the humour in everything! 

Matt S: You help your supervisees in a way that goes above and beyond your remit. You are so busy, and not only do you make time for everyone – you notice them. You support so many people, but you have never made me feel like just one more student on your schedule. We all appreciate you so much. Working with you is a privilege.  

To both Matts: You are incredible supervisors and were my first and only choices. Thank fuck we got the funding because I wasn’t planning to apply anywhere else! I said that if I couldn’t work with the right people, I didn’t want to do this work at all. The sentiment still stands, but you’ve taught me so much that I have much better foundation as a researcher now, even if things change! 

Ollie: Ever since we first met at the Game Studies reading group I wanted to get to know you more, but I couldn’t. I’m so glad I took a chance and started messaging you – I had no idea we would have so much in common and click so well. I would have been happy with your friendship, but you’ve given me so much more. Your kindness and dedication are inspiring me to become a better version of myself. You are an excellent influence. I’ll always be better off for the pleasure of your company. Don’t tell anyone I’m such a big sap. It’s a secret.  

Simone do Carmo: An amazing, holistic personal trainer. You are everything you advertise yourself as and more. Thank you for helping me cultivate a positive mindset, be kind to myself and change my relationship to food after years of struggling with it! 

Steph: It feels like I’ve known you forever – even though we’ve only met in person once and I was too shy for my own good. You are talented, hardworking and so very loveable. You showed me that people can live how the fuck they want to live, have good sex, present however they want and that I don’t need to be ashamed of the weirder parts of my personality. You’ve always accepted me as I am. You were the first person I told when I made the big change and you encouraged me every step of the way. Thank you for helping me be strong and (I hope) a little like you.  

Ruth: I emailed you with a few questions and you responded with a tailored mentorship plan! I can’t believe that I get to work with you. You have been a source of excellent support and advice; you’re teaching me so many excellent things and I am incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful person not just in my life but spending quality time with me. I want to make you proud one day!  

I also want to mention the old friends kind enough to reconnect with me this year and the new friends I’ve been privileged to get to know: 

Alex, Amber, Ben, Calvin, Frankie, Kate, Kenny, Meg, Meghan, Maddie, Ting Ting and Toby ❤  

Thank you everyone. I hope that I’m here enough for you too.

Digital Fantastic: My first symposium – Digital Heroisms

Whilst all of my personal bullshit was going on, I was working with my colleagues to organise a symposium! Doing something that others could enjoy has been extremely satisfying. We used platforms other than zoom to run the event, so tried to be as helpful and transparent as possible with speakers/attendees to help get everything up and running! Thanks for your input everyone!

We are going to continue publishing the videos with the GGLab. For now, I’ve uploaded our opening address, for those of you who missed it!

Opening words by Gabriel Elvery Cohen and Francis Butterworth-Parr

Hello and welcome to the 2020 Digital Heroisms conference.

Before we begin, I’d like too say a few words prepared by myself and the board, who I will begin by introducing. I am Gabe, an LKAS funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and co-vice editor of Press Start Game Studies Journal. I research fantasy video games and digital affect with a focus on parasociality and reader response theory. I am joined by our co-chair Francis Butterworth Parr who is a second year SGSAH funded PhD student at the University of Glasgow who researches the deployment of video games as metaphor in contemporary literary culture. I’d also like to introduce our tech support Jack Parkinson who is a researcher at the University of Glasgow and is currently developing a new degree with the Centre for Computing Science Education. Finally, I’d also like to mention our board member Monica Vasquez, a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, who researches immersive narratives, fantasy and VR, she cannot be here today but sends her apologies.

We started this Glasgow-based conference ‘before all of this’ happened, intending to hold it at the University. At first we were disappointed and considered cancellation, but then we realised that holding this conference online was entirely in keeping with the spirit of Digital Heroism – a form of heroism that has become exceptionally apt during these trying times as we use the digital space to work, to play, to disseminate information and to connect with each other when we are not physically able to do so. It has become an issue of political urgency to explore and perpetuate ideals of Digital Heroism in the face of not just villainy, a word which feels more descriptive of Disney’s amiable caricatures of badness, but very real and very human evil highlighted by the increased social, financial and political tensions which have been intensified by the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and protests which followed. Real heroes of our time, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the workers of the NHS, have been both aided and encumbered by the digital space. As well as fighting the physical struggle on the front lines, digital heroes have been faced with digital battles: battles of information and disinformation, battles of emotional labour and of education in the struggle to raise awareness to those who can be reached.

Our venue in Runescape and here on Discord, only strengthens our endeavours as it has turned our small Glasgow-based conference into an international event, in which we are lucky to have speakers and attendees from all over the world.

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We started this conference because we wanted to explore the ways in which the digital realm functions as a contemporary theory of context for heroism and how this new context may shape our understanding of who and what a hero is in the digital world and consider how we can traverse the digital space with these ideas in mind. But, though the digital space may change how we conceptualise what is heroic, we felt it was important to keep in mind that heroism can be a loaded term, riddled with cultural bias. For so long heroism has been associated with straight, white, Royalty, with Joseph Campbell, with Tolkien and although there is much to learn and enjoy from these stories and ideas and we need not forget them, must digital heroism perpetuate colonialist, heteronormative narratives, or can we create a new kind of heroism, one which is diverse, inclusive and exciting? We have gathered panels which explore how the digital opens and closes doors to particular kinds of historical, cultural or aesthetic heroes and heroines, how the contemporary setting, weaved as it is with digitality, challenges , reinforces, or creates formulations of heroism, and how fantasy literature, a genre more historically situated in the analog tradition of heroes and heroines, could be purposed to determine the digital heroic were all a part of our thinking.

A few quick housekeeping things – Digital Heroisms is being recorded by Gabe and will be made available through the GGlab’s research hub page, so do check that out if you wish to rewatch talks. Do keep an eye out for the special edition of Press Start, an open-source journal that will be publishing the proceedings of this conference. The edition is open to contributions from non-speakers, so if your creative tastebuds are tingling after the conference then do consider sending along a contribution. For asking panellists questions, please type ‘Q’ in the Questions to heroes text channel, and then the panel chair will choose people to either type out their questions in the text channel or to come into the digital heroisms voice channel to speak their question.

Finally, we’d like to thank the Games and Gaming Lab at the University of Glasgow, in particular its directors Matthew Barr, Dimitra Fimi, Jane Draycott and Timothy Peacock for supporting, funding and believing in Digital Heroisms. We’d like to thank all those who submitted to our call for papers and sent us such consistently fascinating engagements with Digital Heroisms. We’d like to thank Jack for his creation of our website and above and beyond contributions to the workings of the conference.