Before we get into the meat of this week’s post, today’s topic deals with mental health problems (of which I am certainly no expert) and is going to be less whimsical than my usual writing. If you don’t want to read any further, I completely understand and wish you a very pleasant day/evening/night. In addition to this, the following piece is based on my own personal experiences and is therefore extremely subjective. If you’re looking for objective writing on the subject, here is not the place.
Still with me? Okay, good.
There is something that bears stating from the outset on the subject of mental health, I have never formally been diagnosed with any psychological disorder, syndrome or any other form of ‘mental illness’. It is, however, not beyond the realm of possibility (and not too much of a stretch) to say that I suffer from anxiety and the attendant problems that causes, as well as dystonia (a neurological disorder I plan to write about sometime in the future) and low self-esteem.
It is the anxiety that today’s post will be discussing. Specifically, how roleplaying (and just gaming in general) can help you cope with, and overcome, it.
A bit of background first, recently I’ve been under a lot of stress in my personal life (who hasn’t?) and sometime last week I reached breaking point. Usually I’m good at dealing with stress and coping with my anxiety, but for whatever reason, last week I began struggling. Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in this position, seek help. I find writing cathartic so this is my therapy (as well as other methods to be discussed below), but you should know that you are not alone. If you really want, I’ll listen as best I can if you e-mail the contact address for this page, but you have nothing to lose by contacting a professional, so I recommend you do that.
Obviously, finding something to take your mind off the problem helps, which is where roleplaying (and gaming) comes in. I find that my mind sorts through problems subconsciously a lot, running through solutions and things whilst I’m concentrating on something else, so something that absorbs me helps to not only distract me, but also helps me overcome whatever is causing the problem in the first place.
Now, my anxiety and low self-esteem cause me to become even more introverted than I am usually when they flare up so when I realised that this week’s D&D session was fast approaching, I had a decision to make: Do I back out, or do I try and push through the panic and fear to play? My partner, whom I cannot thank enough for the daily love and support she provides, encouraged me to play so I sat down a little before the game was due to start and messaged my DM that something was wrong and I might need a little patience. She replied with ‘We’ll take care of you.’
Considering that I am the only member of the group playing over Skype (the others meet in a room over a hundred miles from where I live), I reconciled myself to the fact that I might end up distracted by something other than the game as my mind span out of control. So I grabbed my rulebooks, dicebag and, out of concession for the fact that I was tired (I don’t sleep well most nights), sat down (habitually, I stand to roleplay. It helps me get into character).
And then, bam! Three hours later, we finished what turned out to be a very productive session. Not in terms of combat or plot advancement (good grief, we have an aversion to plot) but in terms of character development and pure, unadulterated roleplaying. And the great thing is, not once was I distracted. Roleplaying groups are predicated, for the most part, on the fact that everyone gets along and is as equally invested in the story being told. Sure, different people prefer different things and most people seem to go for the same character concepts over and over, but there’s nothing wrong with that. A group that gels together is capable of amazing things.
And my group gels. We might have different interpretations of the rules every now and then but ultimately, we’re all supportive of each other. And that is really the point of this post. Any gaming group, whether it is roleplaying or just gaming general, is a support group without the name. I would advocate roleplaying over other kinds of gaming, purely because it is a (mostly) co-operative experience. Everyone is there to ensure everyone else has fun and feels included. Even if you enter a random roleplaying group, if you stick around long enough and have fun, you’ll make friends. As a hobby, it almost requires the players BE friends. There are, of course, exceptions to this, as there are to everything else, but for the most part I think it is accurate to say that roleplaying group members are all friends.
On top of the fact that roleplaying groups are a built in support network, there is also the fact of immersion to consider. For this game, I deliberately set out to play a different sort of character. Habitually, my characters have always been wallflowers, because I am an introvert. Even in a hobby comprised of socially awkward people, I am extremely socially awkward and have always been happy to help others (incidentally, support is a role I usually fulfil in co-operative games both video and tabletop because it distracts me from my own problems), but when I was asked if I wanted to play in a game my friend was starting I forced myself to roll up a social character. Not only did I choose to create a Bard, I made an almost entirely social based Bard, complete with utility spells for languages and social skill proficiencies. Not only does this help my DM to create something other than a series of linked combat encounters, but it has been incredibly effective at getting me out of my shell. And I tell you what, it worked. The last five levels have been some of my proudest roleplaying.
For three hours a week, I inhabit the mind of a person so unlike myself that it helps me work through my problems. Sure, she’s flawed (I think every character should be in some way) and is certainly no saint (Chaotic Neutral for the win, emphasis on Neutral and not Chaotic Stupid) but for those three hours, I am so focussed on bringing her to life as she is, that my own problems fade into the background. As distractions go, improv theatre is a really good one. Roleplaying helps even more because the character you are acting as has to be consistent. Each action and reaction has to tie in with what has gone before. Sure, I’m the one deciding what my Bard does, but ultimately, if I’m not happy with what she’s doing, the game is going to suffer. With no script, the barest of moral codes and a love of storytelling, those three hours as Muse, the Tiefling Bard did more for me than most other forms of gaming could.
Ultimately, I suppose that if I were to sum up the point of this post, other than the fact it is extremely self-centred to write about myself for the past 1,200 odd words, it’s that roleplaying, while no substitute for professional help, helps control SOME mental health problems. With a built in support group and providing the ultimate escapist fantasy, you could do far worse than joining, or creating, a group of you own if you struggle with mental health issues. And I wish you all the luck with that, I truly hope you find a group of people that, rather than prying or laughing about mental health issues, will simply take care of you.