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.
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.
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!
– 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;
Note from 2023: I do not have borderline personality disorder, I had undiagnosed autism combined with PTSD for multiple traumas, however, there are many overlaps in these experiences and BPD as a diagnoses is extremely debated.
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.
Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideationand 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grace: You are a kind and clever person. Thank you for taking me in!
Larna: 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 aunt to my handsome nephew Jack ❤ You are a talented artist and a beautiful person. I am so proud of you.
Maude: I miss you and will always remember you.
Marita: Thank you so much for your wonderful company and excellent editing skills!
Ollie: You are an excellent influence. I’ll always be better off for the pleasure of your company.
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: You are talented, hardworking and so very loveable. You’ve always accepted me as I am. Thank you for helping me be strong and (I hope) a little like you.
Ruth: 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 in my life.
Thank you everyone. I hope that I’m here enough for you too.
On managing grief,mental illnessand orienting oneself towards kind research practices.
Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideationand death. Please engage with this content responsiblyand although I appreciate kind thoughts, please do not @ me with ‘you ok hon’. This post may display incorrectly on mobile devices.
If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that my grandfather died. That’s the objective truth. The emotional truth is that my father died: he was the one man in the world I could always rely on, the one man who loved me unconditionally, who supported me without expecting anything in return. The one man in the world that gave me hope that kind men exist.
It was the 11th of July at approximately 2am when he passed away whilst my grandmother and I slept at his bedside. I like to think he waited for me to make the long journey from Glasgow to Essex to reach him. If only I’d been a few days sooner, I might have got there whilst he was still awake. I held my grandmother and told her that it was OK to cry, that it’s a perfectly normal and healthy response to grief. Even as I held her close, I felt nothing.
It must be the shock.
Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. Perhaps it’s such a colossal loss that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend it. It’s only recent, it makes sense that I’m still processing it – at least that’s what everyone tells me. I try to listen to them; it would be easy to dismiss this disconnect as a response to grief, but I can’t because it’s not an irregularity, it’s normality. My life is a series of extreme highs and lows punctuated by nothingness, the loud silence: the void.
The day my grandfather died, I performed the role of a dutiful and caring daughter. I did everything I could to raise people’s spirits: I encouraged them to tell stories and played our favourite songs. I asked how everyone was feeling. No one asked me; everyone thinks I’m strong and that I’m putting on a brave face – smiling through the sadness. What they don’t realise is that there’s no sadness to smile through. I passed through the arms of my family like a ghost, performing love and care without feeling it. I do this most days, with most people: I repeat patterns of social behaviour not because it’s what I feel, but it’s what I’ve learned is expected from me. I feel like I’m standing outside of myself, controlling my body like a meat puppet that is slowly rotting from the inside out. I jokingly compare myself to a corpse, but no one realises how serious I am. We laugh it off, say that I have cold hands because I have a cold heart, but the truth is that I feel like I died a long time ago. If only – lol jk (but not really tho).
When I’m in the void, it feels like forever, but it’s not. For there to be a noticeable absence, there had to have been something there.
F e e l i n g s.
But feeling is vulnerability and in a world like ours, vulnerability invites heartache. Far better then, to retreat into apathy and anesthetise myself. But even when I’m numb, there’s a part of me that remembers that the numbness is where love should be. Even when I don’t feel love, I act as if I do in the hope that it will come.
And sometimes it does. On a good day I get an ecstatic high, I pet the dogs, I smile at babies, I ask people about their days and care about their answers. I say ‘I love you’ and actually mean it. I want to teach, I want to take part, to make love instead of fuck. I want to be kind and trust that others are kind too, even when I’ve been so consistently proven wrong. The high can be just as dangerous as the low that follows. I deal with my feelings by negating them with alcohol, binge eating and isolating myself, or heightening them by indulging in intense emotional connections, sex with strangers, starvation and self-harm. I zigzag between extremes in fits of emotional vertigo. I’m always dizzy, always trying to catch my breath and sometimes I fall. Each time I get up it becomes a little bit harder. The more I neglect myself, the more I resent spending time with people. I isolate myself, try and reduce the emotional burnout I feel, tell myself that I’m happy alone, but it never lasts. I can’t help but love, care and take care of people.
But caretaking isn’t valued, nor recognised for the skill it is. Some of our worst paid professions are the caring ones: crafting human happiness is just not productive. You can’t quantify a smile. Kindness is viewed as something that people just are and do, rather than something which should be learned and practiced. During my PGCE we all joked about the Teachers’ Standards (Department of Education, 2020), which is an outline of the kinds of qualities a teacher should embody in order to be considered a professional. It includes points about upholding public trust, treating pupils with dignity, and behaving in a professional way. We took great pains to gather evidence to meet the standards and joked about how pedantic it was.
“Surely some of this about NOT being a dick, right? Just common sense?” (Giles, 2018)
Maybe we need a set of standards across the board to recognise that kindness isn’t innate: it’s a skill that must be encouraged and developed.
As I went about the day-to-day of bereavement admin and looked after my family with numb compassion, I realised that I had been so isolated (during lockdown and before) that I had almost forgotten how to nurture. Even at the best of times researchers often feel so disconnected from everything and everyone that it’s easy to forget how to be kind, especially when there is no perceived benefit. Taking time out of our packed schedules to make someone else happy can feel like an unnecessary distraction. But what if kindness was a standard that we were encouraged to aspire to? Is there a way to orient our research practices towards kindness so that when we don’t feel like being kind, we have a theory to fall back on?
I was recently listening to a Psychology of Video Games (Madigan, 2019) podcast for my research and ended up learning something about myself (because making EVERYTHING ABOUT ME is one of my greatest talents). In that podcast, Kelli Dunlap PsyD, outlines a model of empathy which is used to inform game design. Dunlap divides empathy into two types: affective (or emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy (12:11 onwards).
Dunlap describes cognitive empathy as “the mental ability to project yourself into the experience of somebody else and to understand what’s going on and why they might be thinking or feeling what they’re thinking and feeling”. Put simply, cognitive empathy helps us to “walk a mile in [others’] shoes and see the world through their eyes”. On the other hand, “emotional empathy are the feels”. If we see someone else experience strong emotion, we may feel these emotions mirrored in ourselves and this “gives us the motivation to care or to act, because it’s uncomfortable for us and we’re trying to decrease our discomfort”.
Dunlap explains that empathy works optimally when the two aspects are integrated:
“-because if you’re all cognitive empathy and zero emotional empathy, you’re basically Hannibal Lecter where you understand what everyone is going through, but you don’t care … and if you’re all emotional empathy, you’re a weepy mess and you have no idea why”.
Let’s break it down with some simple examples:
Acts of emotional empathy (action compelled by feeling)
Acts of cognitive empathy (action guided by perception of others’ needs)
Acting emotionally during an argument.
Stepping back from an argument to manage the situation.
Physical or verbal affection driven by feelings of connection, desire or to comfort.
Phatic exchanges, etiquette and hugging people (if you’re not a hugger).
Cleaning up after yourself because someone made you feel bad about your mess.
Cleaning up after yourself because you know not doing so will cause someone inconvenience.
Apologising because someone made you feel bad about your actions and you want to feel better.
Apologising because you understand why your actions may be hurtful, then acting to rectify the problem.
Improving social situations because you feel awkward.
Defending someone verbally, even when they aren’t present.
Thinking of gifts/dates.
Initiating text conversations because you miss someone.
Checking on loved ones when you’re busy/not craving their company.
Wearing a face covering because you’ve seen the effects of COVID on a loved-one, or refusing to wear one because of your personal feelings.
Wearing a face covering to prevent the spread of COVID because you know its potential effect on others, or not wearing one because you believe bullshit conspiracy theories.
Doing an activity someone you love likes because it makes them happy, which makes you feel happy.
Doing an activity someone you love likes because you want them to percieve you as a suitable partner.
Sending emails in the heat of the moment.
Crafting communications in advance.
Expressing your emotions to share them with others and help you understand each other.
Modelling emotional processing by simulating and/or talking about feelings, even if/when you don’t feel them.
Extremes of emotional empathy may include: – Oversharing – Lack of boundaries – Being a ‘mood sponge’ – Negating or minimising others’ pain to reduce your own discomfort. – Acting without consideration of others’ circumstances.
Extremes of cognitive empathy may include: – Policing others’ boundaries – Attempting to control others’ perceptions of you using social tactics. – Gaslighting. – Faking emotional empathy to help others feel better, or to manipulate their perception of you. – Assuming someone’s feelings and acting based on those assumptions.
Though I’ve separated them out, the same action can be motivated by a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy. I will emphasise however, that being motivated by combined factors isn’t the same as faking emotional empathy – one skilled enough at cognitive empathy may not feel emotion at the time, but can use their understanding of others to perform emotion either in the service of others (altruistically) or themselves. This has can be termed “feeling with your head” (Thomson, 2020).
Dunlap’s explanation of cognitive empathy resonated with me. I realised that I often default to cognitive empathy in an attempt to control people’s perceptions of me, or focus on their needs to nuture them whilst neglecting my own. I experience a strange kind of amnesia that makes me forget who I am, what I value and why it’s important. I negate my personhood and allow myself to be defined in relation to others. But, because I do have feelings (ew), repressing them takes up a lot of energy, which results in emotional burnout and self-neglect. When it gets too much, I end up feeling all those feels all at once, to an almost unbearable extent.
But how can one avoid this? How can we go about integrating cognitive and emotional empathy after a life of swinging between extremes?
What if I was to treat myself like I’m someone I care about? Is it possible to use my cognitive empathy to take care of my emotions?
I know ‘self-care’ is a staple millennial cliché, but I’m late to the trend and I’m still figuring out how to turn my nurturing side inwards. The whole thing feels counter-intuitive; it seems so ridiculous to be doing so many things that will increase my lifespan when I spend so much of my time wanting to die, but I have to do it for the days when I remember how much I want to live. I’ve been trying to figure it out for years and never managed to get suitable help, so I’ve done what I do best: paperwork. I’ve made a diagram to refer to when times get rough, to try and keep track of how I’m feeling, what behaviours I want to avoid and which I want to encourage myself to aspire towards. Although it might not always be possible, the aim is to use my cognitive empathy in the service of my emotions and to treat myself how I would treat someone else in distress. The creation of the diagram is itself an act of self-directed cognitive empathy.
Whilst this specific exercise is perhaps only relevant to me, is demonstrative of one of the ways that we as researchers can put our capabilities to use in a way that benefits us as people, not just as professionals. I propose that we practice kindness as praxis. Use our creativity, apply the analytical and critical thinking skills we’ve developed; take the best we’ve learned about humanity and APPLY it to our lives. But, how?
Here are a few simple things we can do to enact kindness as praxis:
Establish self-care habits and routines to provide yourself with structure during more challenging times.
Monitor your mood and check-in with yourself as if you were a friend in order to better understand how your emotions may impact your workload.
Use your understanding of others to present your research in a way which is engaging to your audience, rather than one which serves your ego.
Think about how those outside of academia may perceive you as a researcher. Is there a way that you can make impact in a way that genuinely serves the wider community, rather than as part of a box-ticking exercise?
Consider how you interact with others in a professional setting and use cognitive empathy to temper your emotions in order to treat people kindly.
Use cognitive empathy to consider if there are any social/emotional/moral lessons to be taken from your research and think about how to implement them.
Of course, we’re not perfect. We’ve probably all fucked-up and are going to again, but using cognitive empathy to learn from our mistakes can help us course-correct and be better people, as well as more effective researchers. Be kind with your head, even if you don’t feel it in your heart. Use your skills to make someone smile – there’s a little impact for you.
I’m sure I must be feeling the loss of my grandfather. I’m sure that that one day the realisation will hit me. The loss. Until then all I can do is look after myself so that I can best support others. I just hope that when the emotions hit, I’ll be better equipped to manage them.
Maybe I can’t diagram my way out of grief, but I have tried to deal with everything as well as I can.
“It’s funny,” I said to my supervisor, without smiling. “I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but back then I didn’t know what I was writing about. Now I think I know and the project is starting to look a little clearer. I didn’t realise that it was so personal to me.”
Rycroft’s Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis defines sublimation as a ‘developmental process… by which instinctual energies… are discharged… in non-instinctual forms of behaviour’ (p 176, 1995). At the basic level, sublimation makes the terrifying and socially unacceptable useful; it’s like putting a zombie on a leash and making it push trolleys instead of eating people: though, I’d rather chain it up in the shed and play games with it, but that’s another metaphor. The gist is that dangerous things are fine as long as they’re productive.
In his definition, Rycroft suggests that the urges sublimated are situated in the pre-genital stage of development (p. 177, 1995) which to plebs like us means those survival instincts we get before we become obsessed with dicks: oral and anal fixations. Apparently as we get older, the urges don’t go away, we just focus them elsewhere: like music, art or academia. We channel all that energy into something useful, more socially acceptable. However, in the typically dick-obsessed Freudian manner, Rycroft also ties sublimation to more adult urges. Here’s a fun fact for you lads: apparently academic curiosity is the result of sublimating scopophilia: deriving sexual pleasure from watching people fuck. Well, that’s me well and truly called out… Oopsie.
I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that certain urges correspond to particular interests, but it seems like common sense that art we create, fiction we produce and research we conduct can be an outlet for things we have repressed (be that an urge, or a memory): an attempt at processing it.
That’s why psychoanalytic theory can be useful. It’s a contentious field: still used widely in therapeutic practice but derided by many as ‘those weird books about daddy issues and fucking your mum’ (some guy called Allan, 2020). Though I would not dare to venture into the realms of practical therapy (and am poorly qualified to do so) we can utilise psychoanalytic theory to analyse cultural artifacts such as literature, visual art and video games because it attempts to explain the processes behind their creation via the accessible language of metaphor. There’s a reason that many of Freud’s terms are still part of common parlance: it’s because they feel like common sense; whether that’s because they’re already so ingrained in our culture or because they manage to so clearly describe how we experience emotions, we cannot know. But, either way, the terms are here to stay. Why? Because I say so (see my thesis in four years – I hope).
So, back to sublimation. What if it’s an outlet for more than pregenital boob and shitting obsessions? We don’t stop developing after childhood, our lives are long and there is plenty of time to accumulate other urges and debris to store within the dank basements of our unconscious minds.
We grow, we change. Things happen for us. To us.
Instinctual urges aren’t the only things we repress… What if during the process of sublimation we drag up other things lurking within the depths of our unconscious? What if our art or our research reflects the impulses or repressed memories that drive us? What if I chose to study psychoanalytic theory for reasons I don’t understand, or can’t remember? I’d never thought about how my research might reflect my personal experiences. Academia is perceived as an ivory tower (a tower I’ve been dragging myself up brick by bloody brick). Research is just something students do because they’re lazy and don’t want to join the real world and get a real job! Right?
I experienced the theories I read in a disembodied way: they were just intricate trellises used to display a pretty argument and the argument felt essentially like a logic puzzle rather than anything real.
Then the flashbacks started.
I was writing my dissertation for my MLitt in Fantasy Literature. It’s about using Fantasy video games as a means of processing unconscious trauma… Purely theoretical of course. Nothing to do with personal experience… Then the connections started to form. I started to recall shadows of memories. Something inside me snapped. I lost touch. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, that I was finally remembering.
I remember studying psychoanalytic theory during my undergrad and frantically contacting one of the wonderful tutors. Hewas so understanding.
“When you spoke about repression in class… I… I have the feeling I’m forgetting something. I don’t know what. Is there any way you can help me? My therapy isn’t working.”
I’m not superstitious, yet whilst writing my dissertation I started to believe in ghosts and became afraid of the dark. My anxiety was so heightened that I experienced everything as a threat: I couldn’t even walk along my two meter corridor alone to get to the light switch and the (perfectly normal and healthy) sound of the crying child next door made me weep in despair.
“Why won’t somebody help him?”
I got lost in the hypnagogic fog between the sleeping and waking worlds. I woke up sobbing, fighting someone who was not there.
“Don’t touch me.”
Almost nightly I rolled out of bed half asleep and confused to search for clothes as if my life depended on it. I didn’t recognise my own room, or the man who’d been sleeping next to me for five years.
“I’ve got something to tell you that might change the way you think about me,” I said to him. “I think I know why I feel dirty all the time. I mean, it might not have even happened. It probably didn’t. No big deal. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
Then there was a murder in our apartment complex. It may be rather self-centered to point out how it effected me, but it didn’t do much to help my sense of security.
Still, after hours of compulsive checking (the kind of checking that hurts your eyes and your brain so much that it’s unproductive – as many symptoms of OCD are and become) I submitted the dissertation and went to the pub with the other Ravens (the name of our cohort). I knew I shouldn’t have had a drink, but I wanted to try and feel normal. Celebrate, perhaps?
I’d not had the luxury of being able to relax. Not for a very long time. Relaxation is dangerous and I confided in someone I shouldn’t have.
“I think I’ve been attacked,” I said. “I still don’t know. It’s been around ten years. It probably didn’t happen. I’d remember it if it happened. It can’t have been that bad? It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
She was sweet. She was wonderful. But, friends are not therapists. It wasn’t the time or place. That’s one of the reasons I never go to parties. If I let down my guard just a little, the dam breaks down and all of that ‘tragic backstory’ comes pouring out. What is repressed always fights to resurface. My trauma was inked across the white pages of my dissertation and I hadn’t even realised until it was too late.
It wasn’t the time or place.
Is there ever a time or place?
Perhaps this isn’t the time or place either.
I’m so sorry to be such a burden to all of you. I don’t deserve your time.
It’s no big deal.
I’m so sorry.
I suppose that’s why psychoanalytic theory is so appealing to me, as well as its academic merits (which I will detail in my thesis), the theories have changed my understanding of myself. It wasn’t the reason I chose to study it, but it’s the reason I was drawn to it.
I know that now.
I didn’t mean to make it all about me.
I had no idea.
Then again, it might not have happened anyway. I still can’t entirely remember.
Rycroft, C. (1995). A critical dictionary of psychoanalysis (2nd ed). Penguin Books.
Freud, Sigmund. (1915). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.