Digital Fantastic: Video Games are not Your Therapy

But they can be!

*Content warning: Trauma, PTSD, Therapy *

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).

The best thing about writing my article was using Mr Drippy’s name in an academic context.

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.

Apart of me is a game designed to help people cope with loss.

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.

References

See links in text and go read my article ‘Of Heroes and Heartbreak: Digital Fantasy and Metaphors of Affect in Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch‘ in Mapping the Impossible.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to my dear friend Michael Deerwater for helping me edit this post!

I love what you mean to me: On Disco Elysium, Romance and Codependency

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

Play whilst reading.

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.

This, in academia, is what we call ‘a big mood’.

Raphaël Ambrosius Costeau 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.

Is there ever an appropriate outfit to get dumped in?

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.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter which options we pick.

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?

I have heard this, in other words.

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.

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Co-dependence can look like love, and feel like love, but it’s not love.  

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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.

Other cool Disco Elysium Content:

A Brief Etymology of Disco Elysium by Francis Butterworth-Parr

First Person Podcast Episode 48: Disco Elysium The Final Cut feat. Kacper Szozda, Andrew Bailey, Francis Parr, and Patrick Dolan

The Tinker Bell Complex: On Love, Labels and Trauma

Love is a label.

Content warning: BPD, PTSD, Splitting, Abuse

“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.

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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.

Tinker Bell screenshots, images and pictures - Comic Vine

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.

I was offered therapy, and I chose my PhD instead

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.”

I was shocked. People usually mistake my mask for my face. That’s OK. So do I.

Even though I knew this therapist could help me, I refused the treatment.

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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?

Yes.

Is this the right time?

Probably not…

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?

Instead Of Going To Therapy | Know Your Meme
See also, do a PhD.

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.

Pandora, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

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.

Oui, c’est l’abjection mon ami!

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.

Pandora, by Walter Crane, 1885

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.

The Velveteen Rabbit: The Story of a Toy Who Became Real

Reflections on gender, trauma and hypersexualisation

Content warning: this blog covers and includes internalized misogyny, sexual abuse, discussion of age gap relationships, unsafe sex, allusions to bodily harm (cutting) and the butchering of a beloved children’s book.

The Velveteen Rabbit is the story of a toy who comes to life. The story begins when the Rabbit is gifted to a boy (of course). At first, the Velveteen Rabbit is very lonely; the boy doesn’t notice him and he struggles to make friends with the other toys. The other toys consider themselves Real things, they are mechanical so they already know how to function, they don’t question it – it’s part of their machinery. The model boat works like a boat. It floats, it has a use: it’s real. The Velveteen Rabbit’s purpose is not quite as obvious. He has neither seen a Real rabbit, nor has been modelled on one, for he has no hind legs. The Velveteen Rabbit is a Rabbit that is not a rabbit.

The Velveteen Rabbit - Wikipedia

Ce n’est pas un lapin

Life is quite bleak for the shy little Rabbit until he finds companionship with a toy horse who shares his wisdom with him. They take part in this famous dialogue:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

The Velveteen Rabbit is taught to associate being Real with his interactions with the boy. The Rabbit’s existence is contextual and contingent on the boy’s playing with him; he becomes a rabbit when the boy treats him like one. But he’s not a rabbit. He’s still just a toy. He’s not Real. He only feels that way because he doesn’t know better.

I don’t blame him. I didn’t know better either.

Ce n’est pas un lapin

As someone who has always struggled with their identity, much of who I was, was shaped by context. I was raised as a girl, I went to a girls’ school, I was a ‘late-bloomer,’ not confident enough to come out as bi, and advised that I should sleep with some boys so I could ‘make up my mind’.

So that’s what I did.

I learned about sex by fucking men.

Maybe that’s OK if you’re educated about the emotional gravity of it. Maybe it’s OK to learn about sex by fucking if you’re dating people closer to you in age, or at least people who are kind. Learning about sex by fucking probably isn’t the best idea when you fuck older men who don’t care about your feelings, or even worse, manipulate them. My first boyfriend treated me so badly that, to this day, I’m relieved that I’d previously lost my virginity during a one-night stand in a tent. I might not have known the guy, but at least he made sure I was OK and had a nice time. It was one of my most empowering fucks: I will always have VFest (how beautifully apt).

I think that continuing the trend of one-night stands would have been better than what happened to me. A 29-year-old man probably shouldn’t cut a nineteen-year-old girl, even if she asks him to. I still have the scars.

It’s hard to come back from that.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

There’s something extremely thrilling about that mixture of sex and danger. It creates such a potent high that it’s almost irresistible not to chase: that’s why we have BDSM – all the chemical rush, with managed risk, fully informed consent and appropriate aftercare to manage the sub drop. There is a difference between good but risky BDSM and bad, dangerous sex that feels good in the moment. It’s the difference between being a sex subject and a sex object. If you play with a toy too hard and for too long, then drop it when you’re finished with it, that toy will most likely break.

Ce n’est pas une femme

And I did.

I wanted someone to put me together again. So I met a boy closer to my age and we started planning our wedding on the second date. It was all very romantic at first. Then things got cOmpLicAteD. I was so used to being picked up, played with, and dropped on a whim, that finding someone who held me tightly and didn’t want to let go felt safe. It’s easy to mistake control for love, when you don’t know what Real love looks like.

That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe. And he missed, too, those long moonlight hours in the nursery, when all the house was silent, and his talks with the Skin Horse. But very soon he grew to like it-

I was functionally a wife and almost a mother. I think that on an unconscious level I believed that having such a defined role would make me feel more like a ‘real woman’. All we were doing was playing house and the longer I pretended, the less I performed and the more I became. I became someone I could not recognize.

And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.

Ce n’est pas une femme

When I left, it was difficult to know who I was away from the relationship. I felt real for a while, but I wasn’t Real. Toys are only real when they are being played with. I only felt like a woman when I was fucking some guy. I wanted the feeling that it gave me, I wanted to feel real all the time.

Having a high sex drive and hypersexualisation are two different things. Having a high sex drive is normal and healthy, hypersexualisation is a term used to describe having a dysfunctional relationship with sex. I have both – that’s a dangerous combination. As explained in a video by Survivor Tribe, I wasn’t having sex in a healthy way, in fact, I was absent a lot of the time. It was more Toy Story than Velveteen Rabbit; I was so used to being treated like an object, that I became one. As explained in the video, I felt my only value came from my sexuality: how I had been treated, in combination with my socialised femininity, made me feel as if I was a thing to be used by men. It made me feel seen, but only as an object is seen – in the context of its use value. Male gaze innit. Thing is, whatever my reasons, I wasn’t seeing them either; aside from literally disassociating during sex, I was as they say ‘hitting it and quitting it’. I was so used to sex being a game that I forgot that other people are Real. I was objectifying them – making them my toys. Then something strange happened: I found someone I didn’t want to quit. I found someone I wanted to talk to.

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. […]

“That was many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Ce n’est pas une femme

I wish it was as easy as finding the right person and suddenly feeling whole. I thought that maybe being with someone like that – someone who really saw me – would make me stable again. Maybe having a healthy relationship would make me a normal, a Real. It didn’t work like that. Things started to get better, but they also got more difficult. I was scared of what the relationship might do to me; I was terrified of losing myself again.

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

I was also scared of losing him. It felt like, that by sleeping with him, I had put an expiry date on what could have been a wonderful friendship. I am a better friend, than a girlfriend, but maybe that’s because I didn’t want to be a girlfriend. I hadn’t been entirely honest with him, because I still wasn’t being entirely honest with myself.

I got scared. I started dressing femme when I didn’t feel like it. I was so used to my value being in my sexuality that I assumed that was all he liked about me. I felt like if I didn’t perform femininity I would lose my relationship. I turned myself into a toy: only this time, I wanted to break myself. It had been easy to maintain the illusion when I was hooking up with people, but glamour is hard work. The performance became exhausting, and he noticed. I’m not used to men caring about my feelings: it was very annoying.

Ce n’est pas une femme

I never intended to ‘come out’, but I couldn’t keep living the lie. At the same time, coming out felt like giving something up. It felt like I was letting go of an identity I had been desperately trying to cling to.

He thought of the Skin Horse, so wise and gentle, and all that he had told him. Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?

It didn’t end though. I hadn’t given him enough credit. He said that I am who I am. Gabe. He was hoping my coming out would be a nice thing, rather than a stressful thing. He wasn’t surprised… But, I had kind of come out on social media first in the form of changing my pronouns on Twitter and aggressively sharing every pro-trans meme that drifted across my timeline. Funny how I felt safer there in what is ostensibly a public space – I suppose I have intimacy issues.

I’ve used social media a lot over the past couple of years. Part of me thought it was because I got a thrill out of posting hypersexual statuses and getting comments from cishet men. I began to realise that wasn’t the part of social media I enjoyed. They were not who I was posting for. I was posting for… my trans and queer friends.

“They were rabbits like himself, but quite furry and brand-new. They must have been very well made, for their seams didn’t show at all, and they changed shape in a queer way when they moved[…] instead of always staying the same like he did. […] the Rabbit stared hard to see which side the clockwork stuck out, for he knew that people who jump generally have something to wind them up. But he couldn’t see it. They were evidently a new kind of rabbit altogether.”

I like Facebook, because that’s where all my trans friends are.

I’d been in denial and in hiding for so long that I thought I’d never been a part of a queer community and it took until lockdown for me to realise that the queer people in my life were there and had been supporting me the whole time. I didn’t want to come out to a cisman first, even a cisman I love. I was doing something for myself, even something that felt like putting my relationship at risk. I also didn’t come out to individuals because I didn’t want to make trans people feel as if they had to educate, or validate me, but I wanted to tell them so badly. I wanted to tell them how much they mean to me. So I’m telling them now. You are the role models I never knew I had.

“He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.”

I was concerned about writing this because I didn’t want to add another trauma narrative/dramatic coming out story which could shape the cishet perception of queerneess. I also don’t want to imply that femininity and masculinity are specific things with corresponding traits. I also didn’t want to write a coming-out post that leant into the politics of passing, to end with a masculine photograph, to somehow prove my transness. What I’ve come to understand is that being non-binary doesn’t mean I have to give up my femininity: the thing is, that version of femininity was never Real to me in the first place. Being a ‘woman’ was just something I used to do.

But femme, masc, androgynous… These are things that I am.

“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.

“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”

Digital Fantastic: Critical framework – psychoanalytic theory

or: so I sublimated all over my research


*Please see the disclaimer and trigger warnings before continuing*


“It’s funny,” I said to my supervisor, without smiling. “I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but back then I didn’t know what I was writing about. Now I think I know and the project is starting to look a little clearer. I didn’t realise that it was so personal to me.”  

Rycroft’s Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis defines sublimation as a ‘developmental process… by which instinctual energies… are discharged…  in non-instinctual forms of behaviour’ (p 176, 1995). At the basic level, sublimation makes the terrifying and socially unacceptable useful; it’s like putting a zombie on a leash and making it push trolleys instead of eating people: though, I’d rather chain it up in the shed and play games with it, but that’s another metaphor.  The gist is that dangerous things are fine as long as they’re productive.  

Image result for shaun of the dead zombie shed

In his definition, Rycroft suggests that the urges sublimated are situated in the pre-genital stage of development (p. 177, 1995) which to plebs like us means those survival instincts we get before we become obsessed with dicks: oral and anal fixations. Apparently as we get older, the urges don’t go away, we just focus them elsewhere: like music, art or academia. We channel all that energy into something useful, more socially acceptable. However, in the typically dick-obsessed Freudian manner, Rycroft also ties sublimation to more adult urges. Here’s a fun fact for you lads: apparently academic curiosity is the result of sublimating scopophilia: deriving sexual pleasure from watching people fuck. Well, that’s me well and truly called out… Oopsie.  

Image result for binoculars spy

I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that certain urges correspond to particular interests, but it seems like common sense that art we create, fiction we produce and research we conduct can be an outlet for things we have repressed (be that an urge, or a memory): an attempt at processing it.  

That’s why psychoanalytic theory can be useful. It’s a contentious field: still used widely in therapeutic practice but derided by many as ‘those weird books about daddy issues and fucking your mum’ (some guy called Allan, 2020). Though I would not dare to venture into the realms of practical therapy (and am poorly qualified to do so) we can utilise psychoanalytic theory to analyse cultural artifacts such as literature, visual art and video games because it attempts to explain the processes behind their creation via the accessible language of metaphor. There’s a reason that many of Freud’s terms are still part of common parlance: it’s because they feel like common sense; whether that’s because they’re already so ingrained in our culture or because they manage to so clearly describe how we experience emotions, we cannot know. But, either way, the terms are here to stay. Why? Because I say so (see my thesis in four years – I hope). 

Image result for hiss angry

So, back to sublimation. What if it’s an outlet for more than pregenital boob and shitting obsessions? We don’t stop developing after childhood, our lives are long and there is plenty of time to accumulate other urges and debris to store within the dank basements of our unconscious minds.  

We grow, we change. Things happen for us. To us.  

Instinctual urges aren’t the only things we repress… What if during the process of sublimation we drag up other things lurking within the depths of our unconscious? What if our art or our research reflects the impulses or repressed memories that drive us? What if I chose to study psychoanalytic theory for reasons I don’t understand, or can’t remember? I’d never thought about how my research might reflect my personal experiences. Academia is perceived as an ivory tower (a tower I’ve been dragging myself up brick by bloody brick). Research is just something students do because they’re lazy and don’t want to join the real world and get a real job! Right?

Image result for ok boomer

I experienced the theories I read in a disembodied way: they were just intricate trellises used to display a pretty argument and the argument felt essentially like a logic puzzle rather than anything real

Then the flashbacks started. 

I was writing my dissertation for my MLitt in Fantasy Literature. It’s about using Fantasy video games as a means of processing unconscious trauma… Purely theoretical of course. Nothing to do with personal experience… Then the connections started to form. I started to recall shadows of memories. Something inside me snapped. I lost touch. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, that I was finally remembering.  

I remember studying psychoanalytic theory during my undergrad and frantically contacting one of the wonderful tutors.  He was so understanding.

“When you spoke about repression in class… I… I have the feeling I’m forgetting something. I don’t know what. Is there any way you can help me? My therapy isn’t working.”   

I’m not superstitious, yet whilst writing my dissertation I started to believe in ghosts and became afraid of the dark. My anxiety was so heightened that I experienced everything as a threat: I couldn’t even walk along my two meter corridor alone to get to the light switch and the (perfectly normal and healthy) sound of the crying child next door made me weep in despair.  

“Why won’t somebody help him?” 

I got lost in the hypnagogic fog between the sleeping and waking worlds. I woke up sobbing, fighting someone who was not there. 

“Don’t touch me.” 

Almost nightly I rolled out of bed half asleep and confused to search for clothes as if my life depended on it. I didn’t recognise my own room, or the man who’d been sleeping next to me for five years.  

“I’ve got something to tell you that might change the way you think about me,” I said to him. “I think I know why I feel dirty all the time. I mean, it might not have even happened. It probably didn’t. No big deal. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.” 

Then there was a murder in our apartment complex. It may be rather self-centered to point out how it effected me, but it didn’t do much to help my sense of security.  

Still, after hours of compulsive checking (the kind of checking that hurts your eyes and your brain so much that it’s unproductive – as many symptoms of OCD are and become) I submitted the dissertation and went to the pub with the other Ravens (the name of our cohort). I knew I shouldn’t have had a drink, but I wanted to try and feel normal. Celebrate, perhaps?

Nope.

I’d not had the luxury of being able to relax. Not for a very long time. Relaxation is dangerous and I confided in someone I shouldn’t have. 

“I think I’ve been attacked,” I said. “I still don’t know. It’s been around ten years. It probably didn’t happen. I’d remember it if it happened. It can’t have been that bad? It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.” 

She was sweet. She was wonderful. But, friends are not therapists. It wasn’t the time or place. That’s one of the reasons I never go to parties. If I let down my guard just a little, the dam breaks down and all of that ‘tragic backstory’ comes pouring out. What is repressed always fights to resurface. My trauma was inked across the white pages of my dissertation and I hadn’t even realised until it was too late.

It wasn’t the time or place.

Is there ever a time or place? 

Perhaps this isn’t the time or place either. 

I’m so sorry to be such a burden to all of you. I don’t deserve your time.  

Really. 

It’s no big deal. 

I’m so sorry. 

I suppose that’s why psychoanalytic theory is so appealing to me, as well as its academic merits (which I will detail in my thesis), the theories have changed my understanding of myself. It wasn’t the reason I chose to study it, but it’s the reason I was drawn to it.  

I know that now.

I didn’t mean to make it all about me.  

I had no idea.  

Then again, it might not have happened anyway. I still can’t entirely remember.  


Sources used:

Rycroft, C. (1995). A critical dictionary of psychoanalysis (2nd ed). Penguin Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1915). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.

Useful resources:

An introductory guide to Literary and Critical Theory (unsure of reliability, but explains things well)
Online Encyclopedia
APA Online Dictionary