How Gaming Helps Me Cope With Mental Illness
[Editor’s Note: Content Warning for Domestic Abuse]
It was 1990 when my mother got me my first console: a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I was five years old. When we plugged it in, bright cartoonish colors emerged on the TV screen, the bleeping music of Super Mario World creating an atmosphere of immediate fun. I was hooked from the start.
My dad was a tremendously scary person who caused terror in the home. He screamed furiously at my mother with malice, always breathing very heavily. The air in the house shook like a pressure cooker, and I was rattled to the bone. Sometimes, he’d yell at me too, but thankfully he never bothered me when I played video games. I could ignore everything around me, knowing that I was safe.
At school, I had no friends and was badly teased. Being the tallest person in my grade, having short curly hair, wearing nerdy glasses, looking like a boy…it all was fodder for bullies. School made me depressed, but I was able to forget the sadness when I played games. Each game had its own world that I could immerse myself into, helping me escape my own miserable life.
When I was six, I started taking violin lessons at a high-caliber string academy. I practiced music enough to keep up with my classmates, but never more. As much as I loved classical music, practicing always made me depressed. There’d always be a nagging voice, telling me: you suck at music, stop playing. You’re worthless. I’d force myself to play through the pain until I cried, then ended up playing games again.
My dad left the home when I was eleven years old. Although I was no longer in danger of being abused, I now had clinical depression. At this point, my little brother was a toddler. As I played games, he’d look on with awe and wonder. As he got older, he was able to play too, and he and I forged a strong and loving bond as we helped each other beat levels. He was my only friend.
For eighth grade, my mother put me in a private school to ease my social troubles. The bullying stopped, yet I floundered due to lack of social skills. In ninth grade, I became suicidal and found myself in a mental hospital. I took my first doses of Zoloft and Klonopin on my fourteenth birthday. Thankfully, medications helped me get through school. With music, I switched to playing the viola, and took private lessons with a kindly member of the New York Philharmonic.
I didn’t hate myself for playing games anymore either. By this time, my brother and I went to FuncoLand at least twice a month to buy games. FuncoLand was a used game trading shop that was eventually bought up by GameStop. We’d sell and buy tons of games for SNES, Nintendo 64 and GameBoy Advance, and we played at least a hundred titles. For Christmas, Mom surprised us with classics like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, which we’d play non-stop thereafter, sitting on the floor next to the Christmas tree. Those are my happiest memories of childhood. I felt normal, without any problems.
On the music front, my high school viola teacher encouraged me to take music more seriously, so I went to college for music studies. I began with optimism, determined to work hard to become a superstar violist. But after my freshman year, I started taking lessons with a professor who told me that my posture was contorted and filled with tension. Admittedly, this was entirely true.
I discovered that the most elite of musicians had a childhood far different from mine. While I spent my time gaming, these other people practiced four or more hours a day, often with staunch support from their parents. I began to hate myself again for having “wasted my time” playing games, that I had “squandered my childhood.”
But my circumstances were different. Practicing was a painful process for me. I barely could practice a half hour before crying bitterly. When I went to lessons, it felt like professors blamed my character for my slower progress. This sentiment is rife in the classical music community, where people are blamed for being “lazy.”
Every night when getting home, I left music at the door and played SNES roms on my computer. Games were comforting. Unlike musicians, games never criticized or demanded anything from me. There may be frustrations when you can’t beat a level or something, but games are not capable of judging me. Games were more trustworthy than people.
Although I struggled with depression in college, I didn’t know of the terrible future in store for me. In graduate school, I developed schizophrenia and was rendered disabled for several years. The Final Fantasy series kept me entertained during those homebound times.
I don’t beat myself up for gaming anymore. I have a mental illness disability, and games help me cope. If I didn’t have games, I would not have had a reason to smile. My imagination would have not expanded beyond my saddened circumstances. I also would not have bonded so closely with my brother.
Several years ago, I started taking a combination of medications that substantially rehabilitated me. I now work full-time at a mental health agency as a peer specialist, where I publicly disclose my disability to help others. I also just earned my masters in social work degree. Meds clear my mind, and I finally can smile spontaneously.
I’ve learned that gaming is a coping skill that helps stave off mental illness. I can immerse myself in alternate worlds, allowing for escape from struggles and discrimination. It also allows for socializing online where I can shed my disability status. It’s a total realm of life-affirming fun!
Neesa Sunar is a mental health peer specialist who works at a housing agency in Queens, NYC. On the job, she publicly discloses her lived experience with having schizoaffective disorder, offering empathy and support to people who similarly suffer. She recently finished a masters in social work degree at Hunter College. Neesa is a freelance writer who discusses the mental health experience, both as a recipient and deliverer of services. Neesa runs a Facebook called “What is Wellness? A Mental Discussion Group.” She also has a blog at neesasunar.net, and her Twitter handle is @neesasunar.