My publication in Mapping the Impossible is a recent edit of the dissertation I completed for my Fantasy MLitt. The original title was Of Heroes and Heartbreak: The Therapeutic Function of Fantasy in Video Games. The premise included an argument which advocated for video games as a therapeutic experience. My new article makes no such claims, instead focusing on how one particular game (Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch) deploys literalised psychoanalytic metaphor in the form of Fantasy, in a way that makes emotional processing easier to understand (if you’d like more information, find the article here).
When I was a vice-editor for Press Start I always used to tell people who submitted to us (in nicer terms) that you can’t just recycle your coursework for publication, you have to actually DO SHIT to it. And, like the icon, the mentor, the PARAGON of the academic community wot I am (jk jk) I practised what I preach and DID SHIT to my own paper before submitting it to the journal. This post revisits the academic and personal processes that led to my original argument, before explaining why I have since changed it.
Editing the article, which included extensive studying of my prior draft, made me consider whether video games are therapeutic, which raised further questions as to what the term ‘therapeutic’ actually means and how I arrived at describing video games in this manner.
Are Video Games Therapeutic?
To answer this question, first we need a functional definition to work from. The term therapeutic means something different depending on who is using it. I’m going to keep it simple and include a couple of common functional definitions, then compare these with a working definition I used in my original dissertation.
The colloquial definition, as written in the Cambridge Dictionary is ‘causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy’ with the example: ‘I find gardening very therapeutic’. By this definition then, anything, including video games, can be therapeutic.
According to the most reliable and academic source on the internet, Google, therapeutic also means ‘relating to the healing of disease’ and a ‘treatment, therapy, or drug’.
There are arguments that games are therapeutic in relation to both understandings of this word. People find that games might chill them out and have escapist qualities that help them cope with challenging situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or they may provide parasocial interaction which can help cope with loneliness.
Furthermore, there have also been advancements regarding the use of both serious and entertainment video games for therapy with practitioners such as Kourosh Dini (amongst others) using them as a means to talk through emotional problems with patients, and even simple games such as Tetris have been used to prevent post-traumatic stress symptoms.
In my dissertation, I took a psychoanalytic approach. I looked at Fantasy imagery using writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, who describes Fantasy as ‘the ‘language of the inner self’. I argued that video games give us direct access to these unconscious processes by literalising them (as magic, monsters etc) which presents them in a form that allows players to interact with them. I argued that playing video games could offer players catharsis without abreaction via the metaphorical processing of similar emotions as a part of gameplay. I wondered if literally mending broken hearts in a video game might help heal players’ own broken hearts figuratively.
What I proposed was that by allowing interaction with literalised metaphors of affect, video games could allow for the same release of emotion as therapy (catharsis), without the requirement of reliving the traumatic memory attached to it (abreaction). I think what I was suggesting was that video games could do psychological therapy on players, in a way that felt therapeutic in the colloquial sense.
The dissertation did pretty well, so maybe some of my ideas have legs, but they were so intricately woven from the fuckery I was experiencing at the time, that my argumentation was rather tainted by my personal perspective.
Editing your writing is editing your perception
The change in my argument signals a progression in both my academic and personal journey. I didn’t realise it until I started typing this very sentence, but my new argument – that analysing Fantasy imagery in video games can help us better understand emotional processing – was exactly what I was doing during my MLitt dissertation without knowing it.
You see, that was the year I realised I had dissociative amnesia and started to experience the symptoms that accompany the resurfacing of repressed memories. I had no idea what was going on. I had experienced flashbacks and nightmares before, without knowing what they were, but during my research they amped up. At the time, I hadn’t quite realised what had triggered this; I didn’t properly connect my personal experiences to my research until well after I had submitted my work – describing the experience in a blog I wrote a little while after. It’s obvious now that reading about psychoanalysis and trauma theory had triggered partial abreaction, meaning that I had to navigate reliving my trauma and writing a dissertation at the same time.
LOVE THAT FOR ME 🙃.
I only figured out what was going on after reading @thalstral’s thread about dissociative amnesia on academic twitter, which gave me insight into both what was happening to me and how my research was connected. Looking back, I’ve realised that playing video games, and analysing them, did the opposite of what I’d claimed: it caused me to experience partial abreaction without any catharsis attached to it. Video games were therapeutic for me, but not the good, thorough kind of therapy that helps you cope with things – what happened to me was like going to a crappy therapist who gets you to rip your heart out and show it to them, without taking the time to sew you up again.
So, are video games therapeutic???
Well, it depends.
I don’t want people to read this post and come to the conclusion that both games, and the study of them are ‘bad actually’. Like every game studies academic I have written numerous ‘apology paragraphs’ explaining that GAMES AREN’T BAD. So I must make it explicit that my PTSD symptoms are not the fault of video games.
Video games have the capability to provide a therapeutic experience in a colloquial sense – all us ‘gamers’ use them to change our moods or experience some kind of release. Entertainment video games have also been used by professionals to provide therapy in a psychological sense, and serious games such as Sparx and Apart of Me have been designed for this very purpose. Video games do have therapeutic potential.
The way my gameplay and analysis does benefit me, is by helping me to understand emotional processing in a way I hadn’t before, which facilitated a lot of growth. I’m doing SO much better than when I wrote that first unfortunate blog post, and I owe a small part of that to my research which has become a record of my journey.
Perhaps then, my contribution can provide insight into how games can be therapeutic, rather than labelling them as inherently being so. What I’d like to argue is that understanding games, like understanding any form of art, can aid in the cultivation of emotional literacy which can be used to benefit mental health.
I didn’t take the time to recover properly from COVID, so I might never recover from COVID.
I’m not writing this post because it’s one I particularly want to write. I know that waiting to feel inspired is a fool’s game, and that the best inspiration comes about by creating it yourself, but out of all my writing, blog posts are what I write in a frenzy. I write them when I feel possessed by an idea and need to get it out. It’s the best feeling. It feels like making art.
Not this though. This post doesn’t feel inspired, but it does feel necessary. I wanted to take some time to briefly tell you about my experience of getting long COVID and its interactions with my exercise regime. I’ll level with you – a lot of what I’m talking about is unconfirmed – for reasons I’ll explain below. I’m going to ask you to listen to your doctors, your personal trainers and the experts, rather than taking what I have to say at face value. I have made an effort to include reliable sources, but I’m not qualified to interpret medical literature. I can only speak my truth.
I want to tell you my story on the off chance it will help just one of my readers, because I care about you a lot. I have even included a TL;DR if you want to skip to the main points!
I’m not sure people have been taking me seriously, or listening to what I have to say. It feels like people try and minimise the impact of COVID in general, and say it’s not that bad. I know it might be difficult to admit, BUT IT CAN BE THAT BAD. Minimizing the reality of COVID is a shoddy defence mechanism, because it will not protect you from it.
Even if it feels like people don’t listen to me, I know that people do take my blog seriously. So rather than continuing to put it out in tweets, or text people, or PLEAD with them down the phone, I thought I’d get it down here.
The Initial Illness
In winter 2020-21, I got COVID-19. I’m not sure of the date because the symptoms I got were not listed on the government website, and they were advising to test sparingly at that point. Rather than the expected cough with a fever and flu-like symptoms, I experienced a lot of strange ailments that I struggled to put together.
A severe, persistent headache that didn’t subside with pain relief
Intermittent difficulty breathing
Extreme muscle aches
An unexplained decline in mental health (leading to a relapse)
Loss of taste (food, not aesthetic)
I didn’t know I had COVID because of a variety of factors. One of the reasons was that the symptoms hadn’t yet been recognized by the official bodies, and reports of the headache/fatigue variant were largely anecdotal. The more personally distressing reason is that due to my neurodivergence, I find it difficult to identify and understand my feelings, and therefore it’s tricky to tell whether I am physically or mentally ill. As someone with chronic mental health conditions, I am used to fatigue, brain fog and some degree of pain as being caused by mental illness. Physical symptoms of mental illness are real and valid, but require different treatment. Telling the difference between illness caused by pathology, and symptoms of mental illness is always confusing – but in this case it was dangerous. I had been experiencing a period of relative stability before I began to get these symptoms, which led to a relapse in my temporary sobriety (that I had maintained for 6 months prior). I didn’t know what was making my mental health to deteriorate so rapidly; I think being physically ill for an extended period of time depleted the resources I used to stay sane, especially because I was not resting. I had no idea what was going on. I used to disassociate a lot when I was in pain or distress, so that didn’t help either. There’s a lot around that time that I just can’t remember. I don’t know when I was viral. As mentioned above, I was never tested. I checked in with my doctor once a week, over the course of a month, confused about my symptoms, and they told me it was probably just a different virus. Eventually, the guidance regarding COVID symptoms was updated, and I was advised it probably had been COVID all along, and I was suffering with post-viral fatigue. I’ve been post-viral for over a year, and it’s still happening.
Due to this, I can’t tell you what it was like to have COVID in the ten days I was viral. I can’t remember feeling very unwell, but perhaps that’s the disassociation. I remember thinking I was going crazy. I remember having very vivid dreams and hallucinating birds after I woke up most mornings. I probably spiralled a lot. Other than that, I just got on with it; as someone who has a history of chronic illness, I’m used to ignoring the signals my body sends me in order to function. It kills me that I didn’t know I had it. Luckily, I was following the rules. Luckily, no one in my support bubble got seriously ill. It kills me that even though I was reading the news and checking the rules, I put people in danger. Thank fuck it wasn’t worse.
My Long COVIDSymptoms
I will never be able to tell you what having COVID is like, but I can tell you what having long COVID is like. The most intense period of my symptoms lasted for around 2 – 3 months, and I’m still suffering with it, though, thankfully, my symptoms are relatively minor. Below are the symptoms I have. The ones highlighted in yellow are symptoms I am certain are caused by long COVID, the ones underlined in blue are issues I have struggled with in the past, but are definitely triggered by a long COVID episode. As well as the below symptoms, during episodes, I have extremely vivid dreams, insomnia, night sweats and dry eyes. I also suffer with bladder issues, which in some literature, has been linked with long COVID – but that could very well be a separate and unconnected chronic illness and may be related to my PTSD.
It’s very hard to tell things apart, which is why it’s so important to be extremely careful.
I’m lucky that my symptoms don’t occur all the time. I’m lucky that they’re largely manageable, but when they occur, they tend to attack ALL AT ONCE, and it can take days to recover. I can’t know for certain, but what I’ve deduced is that they’re connected with physical activity.
My Long Covid and Exercise
A couple of years ago, I started mirtazapine to treat my mental illness. Its side effects include extreme appetite and fatigue. To combat these side effects, I started a nutrition and exercise regime and had been enjoying my new lifestyle for at least half a year before I got COVID. I ran most days of the week (sometimes up to 8K in one session) and when social distancing began, I started lifting weights in my apartment.
I can’t remember when it started, but during winter last year I started to get awful headaches that refused to go away, even with strong painkillers. It was a constant pressure around my temples, and even a light touch made them hurt even more. My workouts started to feel absolutely awful – my muscles never stopped hurting, and exercise made my headaches worse. I couldn’t recover. I got pains in my chest, and it felt heavy all the time. I thought perhaps that I was pushing myself a bit too much – exercise can be hard, right? I just carried on until eventually I couldn’t do anything any more.
It got to the point where I could no longer run, and I struggled even to complete short walks. I had to stop to catch my breath. Sometimes, I’d be sitting on the sofa, watching Netflix, and suddenly find it difficult to breathe. For months, not a day went by that I didn’t have a headache.
There was lots of advice about recovering from COVID, much of it advising a gradual return to physical activity. Exercise is prescribed to treat a lot of conditions, and that’s fucking dangerous. What benefitted me most was listening to my friend who has chronic fatigue syndrome. She told me to ‘rest more than you think’, to only increase my physical activity a little each day, and to rest if the increase made me feel worse. She told me that physical activity means ANY AND ALL physical activity – not just exercise. I had to be careful with everything I did – even things like cooking, cleaning, and sitting at my desk.
It was only by stopping my fitness regime and staying in bed that I was able to eventually recover. I rested most was when I was post-viral: because I hadn’t rested during my viral phase, I had to repay the debt ten-fold.
Thankfully, the vaccines have been a big help: I’d had a headache every day for months and after my first dose, it went away, and it only returns when I trigger an episode. I still can’t do certain types of exercise: if my heart rate elevates to a certain point, I feel the headache coming on, and if I work through that and my heart rate raises too much, then I can trigger an episode of symptoms that flair up intensely for days and linger for weeks.
18/03/2022 Edit: The benefits of the vaccines have since vanished. I now find it difficult to take long walks. I do not exercise at all.
I think what gave me long COVID, was the fact I didn’t know I had COVID and continued exercising, which prevented me from healing.
Badly Worded Advice
The NHS guidance regarding returning to physical activity after COVID, is not the worst. It suggests monitoring your fitness levels during short walks and increasing your activity over time – which is sensible. What I disagree with, though, is the focus and tone of the advice. It feels as if fitness is emphasized rather than rest, when rest should be at the centre of the guidance. I often wonder if I had properly rested during my illness, and in its aftermath, if I would be in a better state than I am in now.
Recently, I can walk a long way without a struggle most of the time. I have even managed a light jog, but it doesn’t feel healthy, or possible for me to attempt to obtain the level of cardio fitness I reached before when one tough training session can floor me for a week. Walking is still a little more difficult than usual during an episode and often, I don’t risk it. I rest.
I was going to highlight the above section, but there is so much I disagree with that I’ll address this section point by point:
As someone who has done cardio exercise very frequently, I can tell you without a doubt that COVID breathlessness is not the same as breathlessness due to exercise. It feels different. It feels damaging.
You CANNOT do things that are important to you when you have triggered a long COVID episode, because you might not be able to focus, or even get out of bed.
Maybe physical activity will help your joints, or maybe it will make your muscles SCREAM for DAYS.
No amount of sleep will be enough if your physical activity triggers fatigue.
You know what else can help manage chronic conditions – rest!
This is a terrible, terrible sentence. Physical activity does not cure everything and can sometimes make things worse!
What I’ve found useful is looking at the BMJ which contains discourse pertaining to the ongoing debate surrounding exercise and recovery. This is linked with the controversy surrounding advised treatment for chronic fatigue. I’ll link all the articles below, but here are the parts that I found particularly useful:
18/03/2022 Edit: Many of the above services are not yet available.
We are getting fucked over by the fact that fitness is touted as a moral imperative. This is nothing new. Chronically ill and disabled people aren’t always believed, and fat people are often refused treatment until they lose weight (which happened to me a few years ago, even though my pain was contributing to my low activity levels). The prescription of exercise is par for the course in the UK healthcare system, suggested not always for the benefit of the patient, but to ease the burden of a system which should be supported by more adequate funding, rather than propped up by longing people off.
Rant aside, here are the things I’ve learned that I have been begging people to listen to:
You can be young fit, healthy and eat a ‘good’ diet and still get seriously ill from COVID.
Take note of your activity levels, remember that ALL activity counts as physical activity, not just what is generally classified as exercise.
DO NOT work through the pain, please listen to it.
Look for research a little beyond what the NHS or your doctor give you. They’re not always up to date with the latest developments, and sometimes the services they’d like to offer are just not available.
Let your fitness and physical activity serve what is in your best interest. It is not a cure for everything and can make things worse. When you have depleted resources, you need to prioritise.
Please rest more than you think! When you feel better – rest again!
I’ve written this not because I wanted to write it, but because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you. I used to love running, and it changed my life. I don’t run any more.
Thank you to the friends who have supported me and gave my advice during my continuing illness. This post is dedicated to Ting Ting, in particular <3!
Thanks to my support bubble (Doug and Ollie) who were very understanding about my situation.
Thank you also to my lovely readers – I know this isn’t the kind of content you usually get from me.
To anyone struggling with long COVID – if you feel comfortable, then I’m super curious to know about your experiences and whether we share any similarities. Please do tweet me, or post a comment down below.
If you’d like to support my work, you can find links here.
03/2022 Edit: I tried going back to weight lifting after writing this post, did too much and made myself worse! I read an article that says sometimes increasing activity levels may make patients feel better, but it’s temporary. If I find the article, I’ll link it.
Content warning: The following post discusses trauma, BPD, CPTSD and codependency from the POV of lived experience. It also contains *spoilers* throughout, and may not make much sense unless you have experienced the game prior to reading.
“I’m so fucking normal right now.”
― Disco Elysium
Our bodies remember what our conscious minds try to forget. Memories, the specifics, can be erased, but emotions cannot. They are immutable. They become woven into the very fibre of our beings and influence our behaviour in ways we don’t understand. There is no erasure – the best-case scenario is rehabilitation; the worst is the pale.
Raphaël AmbrosiusCosteau Tequila Sunset Harrier Du Bois drinks to forget, but in the process loses himself. His memories are gone, but the emotions remain – formless, contextless. Harry is a man deeply shaped by trauma, and his relationship with his ‘ex-something (?)’ became a casualty of this trauma, a casualty that was one too many.
The game is punctuated by dreams and vague recollections, in which Harry’s faculties battle to repress his memories. Towards the end of the game, the repression fails, and Harry is finally allowed to remember – to connect the emotions he has been feeling, to his memories of what caused them.
In the final dream of the game, Harry confronts his ‘ex’, Dolores Dei – an innocence, or “a sacred human being”. But, of course, this isn’t Harry’s ex. This is an overdetermined image amalgamating the divine Dolores Dei, with Dora Ingerlund – his ex-fiancée. Harry’s idealisation may have reached pathological extremes, but idealisation is fairly common in romantic relationships, which may start with infatuation based on what we assume we know about a person, before a connection based on mutual understanding deepens over time and, if nurtured, matures into something we might call ‘love’.
Harry and Dora met when Dora was young. He was her first love, and he feels like she will be his last. From what we can deduce, it was a long-term relationship fraught with turbulence, partially due to Harry’s trauma-induced mental health problems. Harry was repeatedly traumatised by the violent and intense nature of his work, but the way that it consumes him suggests that his sense of self was fragile to begin with. Many people who have experienced trauma, and have BPD or CPTSD, cope by trying to find a sense of self external to them: in their work, for example. But to find oneself in something, is to make oneself contingent upon that external thing, which can further increase one’s susceptibility to re-traumatisation when those things go away.
In a moment of reflexivity, the game acknowledges that Harry has been defined by his role as a detective and has lost the ability to communicate in a private, interpersonal setting. His speech patterns are subsumed by questions and lists which have become his second nature: effective for a detective, but not a sensitive way to navigate intimacy. These lists remind me of a tendency I have to overthink every social interaction – the desire to exhaust all options to obtain the best possible outcome and avoid the negative consequences I’ve experienced for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. These dialogue trees literalise a form of control taken by people who have, at one point, had all control taken away from them. We may not speak in lists, but many of us think in them.
We do not know whether it was the work that traumatized Harry, or if he was more susceptible to re-traumatisation due to a personal history of mental illness and/or pre-existing trauma. What we do know, is that Dora spent much of her time witnessing his decline, tending to his feelings, and deteriorating as a result. Their relationship became co-dependent: for a while, neither felt like they could live without the other.
Did Harry and Dora love each other?
As far as we know, Dora loved Harry in the best way she could. Harry loved what Dora meant to him – he loved Dolores Dei. What Dolores Dei signifies is a transcendent experience: the promise of salvation that does not exist. Harry sought to lose himself in the prestige of his job, in music, in substance abuse and in his relationship. Oxytocin is a hell of a drug, but love is not a transcendent experience. Love is human, messy, imperfect and full of pain – as are the people we share it with.
Co-dependence can look like love, and feel like love, but it’s not love.
When we idealise people, it is in the hope that we can love in a way that transcends our past experiences. We want to become someone new. We make new selves, contingent on our entanglement with another. We ask too much, we invest too much, and then when the relationship dies, it feels like a part of us dies with it. We mourn people who are still alive and treat them like ghosts so we can try and move on. It is because we never truly knew them; we loved an ideal, and that is what is dead.
At the end of the interaction, Dora tells Harry about her new life and the wonderful things and people who are a part of it. Harry, who has finally remembered that which he was striving to forget, is left at a crossroads. Either he will confront and process the memory and finally move on, or repress the dream and be doomed to repeat it night after night.
We do not know if Harry experiences the dream again: will Harry’s shrine to the immortal and perfect Dolores Dei forever reside within his heart, preventing him from loving in a functional way? Or, will he acknowledge Dora as a human being? In doing so, perhaps he would finally be able to process the memory of a relationship that was important, but one that was flawed enough to allow him the space to let go.
Perhaps there is hope. What we must remember is that we never truly met Dora, only Harry’s version of her. In this version of Harry’s dream, Dora is happy and moves on. She also tells him that he, will indeed, be happy again. This is reassuring when we remember that when Harry speaks to Dolores Dei, he’s never really speaking with Dora… he is, and always has been, in conversation with himself.
“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
I can’t recall when I started compartmentalising myself. We all do it to some extent. We have different roles to fill and parts to play, for different people and contexts. It’s functional for both business and pleasure: in any kind of relationship, people usually like to know what to expect from us. We tell stories about ourselves to each other, and by amplifying some narratives, we obfuscate others to be who we need to be at the time. It’s convenient.
We strive for narrative continuity, but human experience is non-canonical: perhaps the only trait we share is that our selfhoods are constantly in flux, subject to the ever-changing balance of nature and nurture. So, is there really such a thing as a sense of self?
When I talk about my struggles with identity, people tell me to worry less and vibe more. They say that no one knows who they are or what they’re doing. My generous interpretation of these responses would be to assume that the speaker has been through similar struggles with selfhood and emerged on the other side, but it’s perhaps more likely that they’re lucky enough to have never needed to worry about it.
I know there is such a thing as a sense of self, because I recognise its absence.
A self exists in boundaries – the separation between the self and the other. The absence, or violation, of boundaries negates selfhood. Without a sense of self, we can’t protect ourselves, or make decisions in our best interests. Love without boundaries is annihilation.
Who am I, alone, in an empty room?Will I be the same person when someone enters it?
Boundaries are how we negotiate our desires. But, what if we don’t know what we want? What about when what we want change? It is impossible to account for, and define, our multiplicity. But we try.
What do I mean to you? Who are we to each other?
We compartmentalise ourselves to simplify things, then attempt to articulate it in language, reducing ourselves to a label. A label is a social contract. A promise. Promises are safe, promises are terrifying. Promises can be broken. Broken promises break hearts.
How can I believe you love me when I don’t know who me is?
It’s best not to think about it. I wish I didn’t have to think about it.
I have been in a process of rebuilding a self that trauma destroyed, or cultivating a self that trauma didn’t allow to grow. I, like many of us who are affected by BPD/PTSD, am in a constant process of stitching together parts of me that look like they might fit, until one day, maybe I’ll feel whole. Whenever I find out something new about myself, I feel robbed of all the years I’ve lost to negation. The worst part is that it feels like I did it to myself, because it’s something my mind did to cope.
Splitting is something that people who have BPD, and function in neurodiverse ways, do as an unconscious survival instinct. In relation to other people, it looks like idealising a person, then devaluing them.
This is summarised poorly in articles about BPD by the phrase: “I hate you – please don’t leave me.”
Splitting makes love complicated: the object of your affection can be the best person in the world one day, then your enemy the next: a stranger at best, a malicious antagonist at worst. But, if they are your favourite person, the connection remains constant. Some survivors learned to do this when loved ones broke that trust in an irredeemable way. We split the person in two, so that we can keep the best half of that person, and the memories of them, untainted by abuse. Our minds tell us that it was not the one we loved who betrayed our trust, it was that other person, that bad person we don’t know. These feelings don’t go away, but we try and forget them. We hold the pain inside us to preserve the idea of a love we wish we had – the kind of love that we deserved. This painful, ambivalent ‘love’ informs that which comes after it.
Literature on ‘splitting’ is easily found, and the way I’ve described it above is both my experience and commonly theorised. What I’ve seen less of, however, is how ‘splitting’ can impact the self.
I have been splitting myself for as long as I can remember. There was the survivor: capable and resilient. This person did not have needs, nor articulate emotions. I was not the kind of person who ‘bad things’ had happened to, or someone who needed anyone. As I started to remember my trauma, and began to heal, I realised there was a different self beneath the mask. Someone intensely vulnerable, incredibly angry, lonely and longing for connection. As I got to know this person, I realised that I had made a stranger of myself. I hated that person, and I wanted to hurt them. Then I stopped hurting them and started to listen to them instead.
It wasn’t/isn’t easy. When parts of me started to awaken, they did not get on with each other.
I tell people I have a ‘Tinker bell complex’: I lack emotional nuance. I feel things so strongly, that, without a lot of emotional regulation work, I can only feel one thing very hard all at once, which makes it difficult to know who I am and what I want from one day to the next.
If I don’t know who I am, how can I ever get what I want? Will I ever be happy?
As someone who is genderfluid (Non-binary? Femme presenting trans masc?) and bisexual (Pansexual? Gay? Demisexual?) and poly? or monogamous? I have a lot of different things to feel. Things I haven’t figured out yet. All of these different aspects of myself awakening felt like a problem, not because they existed, but because I had erased them for so long. Each aspect of myself cried out for attention one at a time and VERY LOUDLY. I had compartmentalised myself so much, that I didn’t (and don’t) know how all the parts function together.
How can I promise to love you if I don’t know who I am, or how I love?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to solve the problem ‘dick-first’. I tried dating and dating apps, assigning each of my compartmentalised selves a label. But labels are not shortcuts to understanding – people fixate on the label they’re most interested in, and treat you in relation to the stereotype that they associate with it. Dating apps, like me, lack emotional nuance.
I tried to solve a problem of identity by experimenting with my sexuality. I assigned myself labels in an attempt to define myself in a way that would make me palatable. Labels that should have been empowering turned into another way to objectify myself. At first the labels were for me – to fill in the blanks that trauma had erased. Then, they became more about who I am to other people. What I’ve begun to realise is that I’m not responsible for people’s perceptions or desire of me. I exist independently of that.
My sexuality has always defined me; I use it to (unsuccessfully) connect with people, but sex should not be conflated with love or platonic intimacy. As a survivor, I’ve always found it hard to tell the difference between them – to feel seen and valued as a person, rather than a fuck toy, and to treat other people the way they deserve to be treated too.
Sex is complicated and makes things complicated for me. It feels dangerous and vulnerable and nuanced in a way that it never has before. Managing those emotions is too overwhelming. I’m not equipped to manage my own, let alone anyone else’s feelings.
Sex was the story of my life, now it’s just a footnote.
I’m shedding most of the labels I’ve accumulated and replacing them with ‘queer’. The community and connection that comes from the mutual understanding I have with my queer friends is enough acknowledgement of my identity. I am who I am, not who I do. I would rather be a friend, than a sex object.
And as for love…
I want a love that transcends labels. I want a love that acknowledges and desires every fractured piece of me.
I want a love that isn’t annihilation.
I want our love to be a promise, a promise that we’ll change – together.
Content warning: this blog discusses mental illness, trauma and mentions maladaptive coping mechanisms. It may be difficult to read for people who have experienced abuse.
When I finally got the consultation for the therapy I’d been waiting over a year for, the therapist was the first I’ve spoken to who actually seemed to understand me. She noticed things about me that no therapist has before.
“See that tattoo on your arm Gabe? If you’re going to do this kind of therapy, you’re going to need to take off your mask. Just like that. You have to be vulnerable and stop over intellectualising your feelings.”
Even though I knew this therapist could help me, I refused the treatment.
When I say I refused treatment, what I mean to say is that after extending a one session consultation to four sessions, both the practitioner and I came to a consensus that psychodynamic therapy is not right for me at this time. You’d think that after such a battle to get treatment I’d be angry or upset; I was referred to the community mental health service, who sent me to the trauma team, who referred me back to the community team again – with months of waiting in between. Worse still, this is only my most recent therapy journey: it is the latest in a chain of therapeutic misadventures that started when I was around seventeen. I was, understandably I think, growing increasingly desperate and frustrated with the system.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that the wait could have killed me; it nearly did. I was referred to these teams because I was in crisis, but now I am not. As I write this, I’m approaching six months of being sober from alcohol, and free from self-harm. I discussed my progress with the consulting therapist, and we came to an agreement:
Could I benefit from therapy?
Is this the right time?
There’s so much discourse URGING people with destructive behaviours to ‘GO TO THERAPY’. In fact, it’s a bit of a meme. What we’re really saying when we ask people to ‘go to therapy’ is: please develop a modicum of self-awareness, and do some work on yourself rather than causing people grief with your fuckboyish ways, or rather, please take some responsibility for your actions by learning how to express your emotions in a more constructive manner. It’s not quite as funny when we put it like that, right?
These are all good and valid reasons to go to therapy, but the realities of therapy are vastly more complicated. There are different types for different things: some therapy is about coping with the day-to-day, and some therapy (especially trauma-based therapy) has the potential to make your day-to-day life infinitely worse during the process. The kind of therapy offered to me, the kind of therapy I may eventually need, is more likely to make my immediate life a living nightmare than help me cope with it.
Let me explain this using the story that my therapist and I told together.
In my head there is a box, and in that box there is a creature. We don’t know what the creature looks like, though we can hazard a guess from the shadows it casts. We do, however, know that it is there and if I speak its name, it will change me forever. When I first got my referral, I was in crisis because I had discovered the box by chance, and (because I, like Pandora, am a curious bitch) opened it. I slammed the lid shut as quickly as I could, but it was too late. The creature had awoken and wouldn’t let me close the box properly. Just catching a glimpse of it changed everything I thought I knew about myself. It made me feel and remember things I hadn’t dared admit, and still don’t entirely understand.
I tried to weigh the lid down. I stacked books on the box to keep it closed, but they weren’t heavy enough. I couldn’t banish the monster from my mind – I was both fascinated and disgusted by it.
I didn’t know what to do: to close the box properly, I would have to open it again, and I was already so fucking weak. The creature’s presence dominated my waking life, and invaded my dreams. It became all I could think about. I tried various ways of appeasing it: I hurt the creature, I tried to get it drunk, I tried to starve it, and if you know me, you’ve probably guessed by now that I tried to fuck it too. None of it worked. The more I tried to silence the creature, the louder it screamed, and it became more and more difficult to block out the noise. It was hard. I was afraid to be alone.
Eventually I realised that living this way was killing me. Instead of giving up, I changed my strategy. I gave the monster a stern telling off, and scared it into stillness and silence long enough to give me time. I practised kindness as praxis and worked on becoming strong. Sometimes the monster tried to creep further out of the box, but this time, I’d recovered enough to drive it back. Eventually, after a lot of trying and failing, I managed to close the lid properly, this time, trapping the creature inside. It’s a victory, if a tentative and temporary one.
The box will always be there. Sometimes it oozes, and sometimes the creature whispers it will escape, take my sleep, and rob me of my sanity. I know that, one day, I will need to open the box and face the creature inside, but now is not the time. Right now the monster is manageable: when it makes a mess, I clean it, when it growls, I feed it snacks, and when it whispers to me, I tell it a story until it falls asleep. I’m still afraid of naming the monster, and afraid of what kind of person this monster has made me. However, most importantly, I’m not afraid to sit with it now – and sit with it, I must. It’s a lonely thing. The monster is open to polyamory, but it has to be my primary, or it gets jealous. It keeps its own schedule: google calendar is no good here. When it calls, I have to listen. I have to commit to it; I have to commit to myself.
My therapist said that I seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality sometimes, and that I use fantasy to make myself feel better about the bad things that have happened to me. She said it’s important to use fantasies to cope, but we can’t let fantasies undermine or invalidate the difficult realities of our lived experiences. The reality of therapy is that it’s like any treatment: you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. My reality is that I’m away from my support network to do a PhD. I’ve just managed to claw my way out of perpetual crisis, and doing this therapy would pull me right back in. Right now, if I want to finish this project, all I can do is damage control.
I’d like to open the box and face my monster. I’d like to sort through my issues, and get to the hope at the bottom of the box. The truth is, it’s not safe, and I’m not ready.
My therapist told me that one day, that to do therapy, I will have to take off my mask and learn to be vulnerable. The thing is, that mask is doing something – it’s protecting my face.
I needed to cry and I couldn’t, so I made a game instead.
This project simulates one of the most difficult things to explain about my mental illness. Well, actually, let’s frame this not in terms of mental illness, but in terms of neurodiversity. This game explores the ways in which some brains function a little differently to others, and details some of the struggles that may be experienced by neurodiverse people when functioning within neurotypical romance ideals and dynamics.
Romantic relationships are often conceptualized as sites of comfort and security – things we can count on, at least for a time. More nuanced portrayals speak to their challenges, however, difficult relationships are often labelled as ‘bad’, ‘toxic’ or ‘unhealthy’. It’s rare to come across acknowledgement that what may be functionally a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ relationship may be more difficult for one partner than another.
If there’s no harmful conduct, difficulties individuals experience in relationships can often be dismissed, such as when a mentally ill person is labelled as ‘high-functioning’. The appearance of ‘functioning’ or ‘good’ behaviour should not be taken as a marker of mental health, just as when a relationship appears ‘healthy’ its difficulty should not be taken for granted, nor the work of its maintenance dismissed. No relationship is perfect, and all relationships take work, but can we please admit that some of us need to work harder than others?
Some of us pay a higher emotional cost, and when that cost becomes too high it can lead to emotional burnout which can bleed into the rest of our lives.
So why do some neurodiverse people have to work so hard? Well, because our brains work differently, of course.
On Object Constancy and Emotional Permanence
Have you ever played ‘peek-a-boo’ with a small child, or do you remember playing the game as a small child yourself? This game plays with the idea of object permanence – a skill acquired in the early stages of childhood in which children develop the understanding that an object continues to exist, even when it’s out of sight. If you don’t have object permanence, once a thing is out of sight, it is out of mind.
Object constancy is the emotional equivalent of this concept: when you have object constancy, you are able to hold a positive impression of someone, and your relationship with them, in your heart, even when they’re not around and ‘despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements’ (as explained on betterhelp). It’s a feeling of security – the possibility of loving and being loved by someone, even when you’re apart. For those who lack object constancy, every disagreement is a ‘potential break-up‘, which is why those with object constancy issues often fall into habits of people pleasing and may struggle to get their needs met in a relationship. It also makes us more susceptible to abuse, which is sometimes targeted.
When individuals don’t have object constancy, it can lead them to question their relationships to an unhealthy degree, especially when this difference isn’t accommodated for. Those who have not experienced a lack of object constancy may find it difficult to understand their loved one’s behaviour: they may take the stability of the relationship for granted, or view their partner’s requests for help or for overt displays of affection as ‘needy’, ‘self-absorbed’ or ‘high maintenance’.
Object constancy issues themselves are not mental illnesses, but they can lead to them without appropriate management. So why isn’t this kind of emotional support framed as accessibility? Neurodiverse people are capable of having happy, healthy relationships if strategies are in place to accommodate for their differences.
Narratives surrounding a lack of object constancy do not often directly name, or address the topic, but manifest as stereotypes and tropes in media, or in the language used to describe celebrities who exhibit socially dysfunctional behaviour. People with object constancy issues, or those who have trouble maintaining stability in relationships, may be labelled as ‘the crazy ex’ or ‘the needy girlfriend’ and described as ‘immature’, ‘acting out’ or ‘attention seeking’.
Even literature surrounding disorders which feature a lack of object constancy, such as borderline personality disorder, warn people not to be in relationships with those who suffer from these problems and feature case studies of people whose lives have been ‘destroyed’ by their mentally ill partners. I’m not going to link the literature, it’s prevalent enough that a google search will be revealing.
I’m not saying that people with such disorders can’t be abusive partners, but people WITHOUT these disorders can be just as bad. Having a disorder may affect the way a person feels about and towards something, but feelings aren’t abusive: it’s how we act which defines us. You can be a shitty person with object constancy issues, and you can be a shitty person without them.
See also: being a good person and having a disorder are not mutually exclusive.
You may not even be able to tell when someone has object constancy issues. They may not even know. Sometimes the condition only becomes apparent when the symptoms become unmanageable, as neurodiverse people often mask the problem to fit in, due to the stigma, or out of fear of hurting others. Masking the problem does not erase the suffering, and the energy required to mask takes a toll on the person doing so. If we are used to masking, we may only ask for help when our distress has escalated to a near unmanageable degree. We ask when we are desperate, and desperate pleas do not make for polite conversation: often the symptoms we see in media are at the extreme end of the spectrum.
The trouble is that issues of object constancy manifest when there is an object to attach to – meaning they involve other people. This makes the issue messy and difficult: no one’s mental health is your responsibility: support should be reasonable, boundaried and include external sources. Support groups (DBT focused groups, for example) have been identified as being particularly useful – but, sadly such groups are painfully rare. Furthermore, partners of neurodiverse people must be engaged enough to work on the relationship to improve it too, and may need to consider how they can make reasonable accommodations for their partner if they want to make the relationship work. I don’t feel that it’s fair for one partner to take on the burdens of a relationship alone, especially when aspects of relationships may exacerbate their problems.
Object constancy issues or not: every fight will feel like a break-up if you’re weighing the cost of being in a relationship against the value of your mental health.
The destigmatization and discussion of these issues, along with early intervention and treatment, could alleviate the suffering of neurodiverse people and better support their partners.
So about this game
I’m going to be honest with you. Even though I ranted about neurodiversity above, I didn’t make the game to provide representation or be an advocate. I don’t have enough distance from the thing to know whether it’s ‘good’ representation either, so if this makes us look worse, I am sorry.
I made it because I am angry. Angry and so fucking tired of having to explain myself all the time. I find it incredibly upsetting that such a common issue is so poorly understood, and that just because I mask my symptoms well, it’s taken for granted that things are easy for me, or I’m undeserving of help.
I am often frustrated that the work I do to achieve something resembling ‘stability’ or what people describe as ‘normality’, obscures my difficulties so much that I am not believed when I do need help. I’ve been working really hard on myself and am in recovery for a lot of issues, in a mostly self-directed way. I’ve been doing everything I can, but it feels like there are some things that I can’t change. I have hit a mental health plateau and I just want to scream. This game is the scream; so do take care playing. I was really surprised when people told me that the game is triggering, because it’s not about a particularly bad, or good day for me: it’s about most of my days, or how most of my days have the potential to go.
It’s not all anger, though. Love is important I suppose, and not all forms of love are difficult for me. This game is made with a lot of love. It’s a celebration of my hard-won self-awareness and my continuing fight against maladaptive coping mechanisms and suicidal tendencies. It’s also a celebration of my friendships and the people I’ve trusted to help me with the game, even though working alone is my default. It showcases my highs, my lows, and my struggle to find balance. Without love, I wouldn’t have the strength to work on myself the way I do, or to take responsibility for myself and for my feelings. I wouldn’t have the motivation to try and be better, for other people, or for myself.
Thank you for reading this and for playing the game. Do leave a comment, tweet me and share! I’m eager to know what you think.
– 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;
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.