Digital Fantastic: Finding the ‘order’ in my Personality Disorder

– Hesitation, emotions and the Digital Fantastic

Content warning: this blog contains themes including mental illness, trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideation and 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.

Acknowledgements

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.

Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Second edition). Edinburgh University Press.

Gilman, C. P. ([1892] 2017). The Yellow Wallpaper. Wisehouse Classics.

Hume, K. (2014). Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. Routledge.

Jackson, S. ([1959] 2009). The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics.

The Important Role of Emotions. (n.d.). Verywell Mind. Retrieved 9 December 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-purpose-of-emotions-2795181

Todorov, T. (1975). The Fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre. Cornell University Press.

Armchair Psychologist in session: to meme, or not to meme, that is the question

A disclaimer:

Before we proceed, I would like to remind everyone that as an unprofessional I have adhered to the strict unethical code of armchair psychology. As such, in response to the serious and important topic below, I have provided an answer that is both lacking in substance and facetious in nature.

As I don’t want to get sued care about my readers, I found it prudent to include further resources regarding support and suicide prevention at the end of the post. I would also like to advise anyone who is struggling with such thoughts to speak to someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about.

Trigger warnings: death, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

Now, let us begin before we all succumb to the inevitability of decay.

*****

Dear armchair psychologist,

Ever since the beginning of the year I have had an unhealthy relationship with death. I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted. It has certainly helped me re-evaluate my priorities and I’ve spent less time on social media and more time with my family, but it also sends me into existential spirals filled with feeling of overwhelming dread. I guess I don’t really have a question, per se, but I struggle with keeping these thoughts in check and any help would be appreciated. Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it.

Yours faithlessly,
The influential existential

To the influential existential,

Thank you for your question (even though it was really more of a comment). Before we dive into the listicle, let’s break down your problem.

‘I have had an unhealthy relationship with death.’

Out of all of the unhealthy relationships to be in, this one is a real doozy because you can’t break it off. Death is the morbid spouse you never asked for. However, you haven’t consummated the marriage yet, in fact, you haven’t even met. Your relationship with death is an inexpertly arranged marriage. Really, you’re in an relationship with the idea of death, rather an death itself. As death is an abstraction, rather than a reality, therefore, you may be able to improve your relationship to it by changing your perception of what it means. But how?

Not to worry! All will be revealed in the listicle below: point 11 will CHANGE your LIFE.

I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted.

OK. Let’s assume that you’re being honest and not overly critical of yourself. Maybe you have wasted time – but, don’t lose hope! In our youth-centric society, a ‘quarter’-life crisis is only natural, but you (probably) still have many excellent years ahead of you (excluding traffic accidents and terminal illnesses). Some people are late bloomers. There’s still time to turn things around, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

If a strong dose of personal responsibility doesn’t help, then try picturing yourself as one small part of a larger whole: the un/intelligent and spectacular/ly useful/less human race. If you think you’ve made mistakes pal, take a glance at the 200,000 years that humans have inhabited/destroyed the planet. Like your shitty decisions, our shitty decisions are what got us to this point. Flawed as we are, we tried our best under the circumstances. Could we have made better choices? Yes. But it’s too late to worry about it now. The Titanic is sinking: listen to the violins, have a scone and enjoy yourself while it lasts mate.

‘Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it. ‘

In my unprofessional opinion, the reason that we are (mostly) able to cope with our impending extinction is because as a species, humans have repressed the shit out of it. We have distracted ourselves via displacement. To paraphrase A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis , displacement is the process by which someone shifts their emotional energy from one thing, to another. All of us know that death lurks behind every corner, so we distract ourselves by doing other things (like making listicles)… If you’re unsure about how to silence the crushing knowledge of your mortality, why not select something from the veritable buffet of distractions below. (Number 9 will SHOCK you…)

11 Ways to Ghost Your Existential Anxiety

1. Religion

Religion was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in religion for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose that scripture gives them and are consoled by the idea that life after death is more than just oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of an atheist edge lord to admit that you’re capable of faith, just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead. Clean your room bucko.

2. BDSM

BDSM was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in BDSM for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose having a sub/dom relationship gives them and are consoled by the idea of being fucked into oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of a prude to don your gimp suit and call your Master ‘daddy’ then just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead.

Image result for contrapoints daddy

3. Nihilism

Admitting that life is meaningless can unburden you from the responsibility of having to live a meaningful life (which is such a lot of effort). So just chill the fuck out, because nothing matters anyway!

4. Cardio

Related image

Bro, have you tried walking it off?

Medical professionals and medical unprofessionals agree that exercise CURES ALL MENTAL ILLNESS, so ignore that crippling anxiety, remember that fatigue is an illusion and get on your bike you lazy shit.

5. Yoga

Image result for yoga meme

Worried about death? Well try stretching in a silent room full of people without farting! That’ll take your mind off it.

6. Essential Oils

Just rub some lavender oil on it babe, it’ll totally cleanse those chakras! And if, like me, you want to be your own boss and set your own schedule, you can join my essential oils marketing team for the low, low price of a starter set (£300). Start your journey to self-actualisation today!

7. Join a Cult

Image result for creed cult gif

If you’re down on cults, then you obviously haven’t seen Wild, Wild Country. I mean LOOK AT HOW HAPPY THEY WERE. Being a part of a tight-knit community can really help with what ails ya (if you can ignore casual acts of domestic terrorism).

8. Catch ’em all

Image result for catch em all meme

If joining a cult is a bit too sociable for you, then you’re in luck! Playing Pokemon, or similar creature collection games, may be the key to reducing anxiety surrounding death.

Terror management theory, as summarised by McIntosh & Schmeichel suggests that people can reduce death-related anxiety by collecting things as these collections allow for the collector live on symbolically via their contribution after their demise.

There’s good news for stamp-haters! Game Studies researcher Sonja C Sapach suggests that this feeling can be digitised, as by collecting creatures, players obtain a feeling of immortality by ‘contributing to a fragmented database of collective knowledge’ destined to outlast them (at least until someone deletes their save file).

There’s no better reason to catch ’em all than to evade the fear of one’s inevitable demise. Though, it might be best to avoid Lavender Town if you’re maudlin.

9. Meme it

There’s no greater proof that many of our generation are existing under the rapidly gathering storm clouds of our impending personal and planetary demise than memes; death memes, depression memes, suicide memes.

Poor taste?
Yes.

Hilarious?
Also yes.

Though depression memes aren’t to everyone’s taste and may look like idiocy at worst and insanity at best to ‘normies’, you have to admire the creativity of the movement surrounding them. They’re part of a special form of displacement psychoanalysts term sublimation which is the process of channelling negative emotions into a productive activity: like music or art. It’s 2019. Memes are art now. Make a meme page and sublimate the shit out of it.

10. Make a plan

One thing that has helped me cope with my mortality is that knowing if I die, then at least I won’t have to worry about anything any more. However if you’re a Type A asshole considerate person and worry about what will happen to your loved ones after you pass away, try alleviating this anxiety by getting your affairs in order before you go. Make a list, check it twice, seek professional help.

11. Personify Death

Image result for grim reaper meme

OR Maybe you don’t like death because you haven’t got to know them yet. If you’re still having a tough time, why not try having a chat with death and see what happens? Turning death as an abstraction into something more concrete by personifying them might make the idea easier to deal with. You could write a letter, a short story, or a play. What would you say to death? What do you think death would say back? Read your conversation aloud, or leave it in the comments below. It might be cathartic.

Conclusion: death is millennial culture

If you think that you’re the only one walking around thinking about death all the time, then THINK AGAIN sunshine. You must be talking to the wrong people or visiting the wrong parts of the internet (or the right places, depending on your perspective). I’m sure that members of prior generations had equally bleak mindsets and equally difficult anxieties (don’t flame me boomers), but growing up with the internet has intensified millennials’ existential angst by giving us a never ending supply of depression porn (instant news) and a plethora of terrifyingly dystopian echo chambers where we can all gather together and masochistically bitch about it.

Speaking of dystopian echo chambers, come for a chat in my discord server!

Kind regards,

The armchair psychologist

*****

Aftercare:

Mental Health Resources

List of international suicide crisis lines

NHS List of Mental Health Helplines

Samaritans Contact Details

The University of Warwick Counselling Service’s advice on existential anxiety

Academic disclaimer ***

I realise that in this post I’ve misused theoretical frameworks and left a lot out for comedy/convenience.

If you’re interested in a more thorough look at the topic, try the below resources which give a better overview of the psychoanalytic views on death anxiety and signpost more appropriate primary literature.

Freud on Death (an overview)

Freud (1856–1939).  Reflections on War and Death.  1918.

On ‘the fear of death’ as the primary anxiety: how and why Klein differs from Freud.