[[Note: trigger warnings for mental illness, bipolar disorder, medication, and some spoilers for Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.]]

These days, I call it burning, but for most of my life, I called it flying.

It’s that feeling when you’re wrapped up in a writing project so hard you look up, and half a day has gone by. You haven’t moved, you haven’t drunk or eaten or talked to anyone. You work and work until your knuckles hurt, and there are words flowing out of you, and you can’t stop until it’s all done. Then you look up, realize what time it is, and fall over because the words are done for the day and you’ve been doing it. You’ve been flying.

That’s what writing when you’re me feels like.

Well, a lot of the time. Some days it’s just normal. I get up, I do my morning routine (take my meds, get some grub, boop the cat, check my email, mess around on Facebook) and then it’s off to the word mines. And on those days, they are indeed the word mines. I check an outline, I write notes, I putter around, I get the words going however I can, tugging that little mining cart up the hill towards those far-off paragraphs and… y’know, this analogy has gotten away from me. I digress.

Those are the hard days at the job because that’s what it is – writing, like making any art, is a job. It’s craft and talent and passion rolled up into one ball. It’s doing a thing you worked hard to learn to do the best you can. You’re capturing those weird little ideas rolling around in your head and making them into words, then lines, then paragraphs, and somehow they’re all supposed to reach out to someone who reads them and make their brains go POOF, I LIKE THIS. No pressure or anything, writer, just take the ephemeral and translate it onto a page.  You make it happen as best as you can.

Then, there are the other days. The days when BLEH becomes BANG. The days when something just clicks and comes roaring down the pipe inside my brain and it’s all I can do to get to my computer because it’s ready to go and that’s it. Get out of the way.

fantasy-2934774_1920I call it burning these days because that’s what it feels like: like there’s an idea inside me burning its way out. But when I was younger, I called it flying. What I really meant was controlled falling. Like there was a tornado going on and I would leap off something and ride right through the middle of it, all the way up, chasing words. Because that’s what it felt like for me, rolling on through the manic energy that comes with being bi-polar.

There’s a lot of folks who equate the manic energy of being bi-polar with the creative spark that drives artists to brilliance. They point to so many great artists in history who lived with mental illness and say, “there it is, that energy, that’s what made them great!”

Except for so many artists, mental illness didn’t make them great. It made them ill. And if they weren’t careful, it made them gone.


MV5BY2I3MThmYTctZTU4YS00YWNmLTg4YzktNDY0ZGE5MmQ3Y2Q3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_Hannah Gadsby’s blockbuster comedy special “Nanette” was billed as exactly that: a comedy. She was meant to get up on stage, make some jokes, and entertain us all on Netflix. Instead, Gadsby delivered what I can only call a commencement speech for comedians, a bait and switch that took the audience from laughter to silence and ultimately to a standing ovation. Gadsby, a queer comedian with a career going back over ten years, started her performance with a fairly standard routine, drawing in the laughs. Then she started explaining how jokes worked, about how they increased tension and then broke it into laughter.

Then, she stopped breaking the tension. And just rose it higher and higher by telling the truth.

She spoke to her audience about a lot of things. Her family, and what it was like coming out to them. About violence, about triggering subjects. She broke from the funny parts of her routine a little over halfway through and talked about quitting comedy because she was tired of making people like herself, a lesbian still fighting with some deep shame issues, into a punchline. I watched in spell-bound silence as Hannah Gadsby deconstructed comedy to its most basic building blocks and rebuilt them into a soapbox, a grand forum where she read the audience a monologue of pain and vulnerability, her farewell to wisecracks and the opening of perhaps a new chapter of honest, open speaking in her life. She was out to speak her truth, and by the end, I was in awe.

It was somewhere in the middle where she told people to fuck off when telling artists to “feel” for their art that I felt the ground open up beneath me a little and I cried.

 

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Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh

She talked about Vincent Van Gogh, the artist who suffered during his life from mental illness, self-medicated, was treated by doctors and struggled to succeed despite his obvious impossible talent due to his sickness. She talked about her knowledge of his life, thanks to her art history degree, and how he only sold one painting his entire life – not because he wasn’t recognized by his community as a genius, but because he struggled to even be part of a community due to his illness.

 

And I thought of the flying and the hard days at the word mines. I thought about the days when I heard the tornado in my head and couldn’t make the words get to my fingers. I thought about the frustration, the depression, the difficulties talking to people about what it sounded like inside my skull some days when I could barely pay attention because of the rush of words and ideas.

Hannah Gadsby told people artists don’t have to suffer for their art, and I’ll forever thank her for having the guts to stand up and say that to the world. Because I used to believe it was true.


anxiety-1337383When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2.

I came from a family that didn’t really get what being bipolar meant. My parents tried to get it, but when I’d do something irresponsible, it was always because I was ‘bad.’ I tried to explain how it was impossible to keep my whirlwind mind straight sometimes. How it was a battle against depression to get up in the morning and go to class. When I flunked in school, I tried to explain why, when I overcharged my credit card on a manic binge, when I cried for days and couldn’t stop. But those were the bad days. And the good days – those were the days I could take on the world, where no one could stop me, where I was manic off my head. I was out of control.

I went to a therapist when my school suggested it to my parents. The therapist took one look at my behavior and referred me to a psychiatrist, a loud and overbearing man who listened to me talk a mile a minute for fifteen minutes, heard my symptoms, and pulled out a giant prescription pad. I started taking the drugs he gave me but received no explanation about what being bipolar really meant. He never explained what behaviors were unusual, or what could be attributed to the illness, or any coping skills or resources to better understand my situation. He gave me pills and saw me every two weeks. I knew almost nothing about what was going on with me but was even enough to realize I needed more information.

So? I went online.

Because my family didn’t know much about bipolar disorder and my doctor wasn’t telling, I learned a lot from the internet. Those were the wild and wooly early days of the internet, when it was the 90’s and everyone was in AOL chat rooms and the world was a wacky, wacky place. It was on the internet I found a community of roleplayers that eventually led me to the career I have today. It was also where I got a LOT of bad advice about mental illness.

I read a lot of stories about people being overmedicated or given the wrong medication. I heard stories about people being committed by their families if they didn’t hide what was wrong with them. But I especially came across the same story over and over from people who had been medicated. “If you go on the drugs,” they said, “the creative drive goes away. You’ll lose that spark inside you. If you want to be an artist, stay away from medication. It’ll kill your art.”

I didn’t believe it. I was taught doctors were to be trusted. And besides, I knew I needed help. So I took the drugs the doctor gave me and fell into the worst confluence of events you could imagine. Because the medication the doctor gave me DID kill my creativity. It also made me sleep too much, have no emotions whatsoever, destroyed my memory, and made me gain tons of weight. And every time I brought this up to my doctor, his answer was to add another pill to balance out the others or up my dose.

mental-health-1420801_1920I didn’t realize it until later, but I had a bad doctor. What I did know was at the height of this medicine dance, I’d spend my days sleeping, or staring at a television, and feeling nothing at all. I couldn’t even cry. But maybe worst of all, I struggled to create. I couldn’t find that spark inside me like I used to, that flying feeling that gave me inspiration. In the moments when I could feel something, it was the overwhelming terror of going back into that stupor once again.

This went on from the time I was seventeen, when I was so messed up I dropped out of high school, until I was nearly 19. In between, I struggled to get my GED so I could at least get into college and proceeded to flunk there too due to the medication’s impossible weight on my mind. I went through so many ridiculous emotional issues I can’t describe, but all of it was through a curtain of medication so thick I can barely pull up memories from that time.

The times my emotions would push through was during what I discovered later were hypomanic phases, mood swings so strong they butted through the haze and made me wildly unstable. All the while I struggled to get my life in order, and every time I did, it was under a fog of badly managed medication, or through the adrenaline of mania so strong I could barely function. I didn’t understand I was badly medicated, of course. All I knew was everything was falling to pieces, all the time, and I couldn’t feel a solid, real emotion long enough to care.

So in 2002, in one of those moments of emotional lucidity, I made a decision to stop taking my meds. I suddenly thought: the internet is right, this is a horrible, horrible mistake. I trusted my experience and my terror and I stopped taking my meds.

And well, to quote one of my heroines from the time, Buffy:

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What followed were ten years of the roughest, rockiest, unbelievably manic, altogether difficult experiences of my life. I had bouts of going back on medication, but would always stop for one reason or another. I’d make excuses but each time it was the same thing: I convinced myself I didn’t feel right on the medication. That I couldn’t feel that creative spark I so relied on as part of my life. I was afraid of going back to that medically-induced haze I’d been in before. I hid from it and kept riding the tornado, every day. And like any tornado, my instability left chaos and destruction in its wake.

I can’t say I regret those ten years. They taught me a lot. I regret a lot of the horrible decisions I made, the people I hurt, the situations I got into where I got ripped up myself. I have memories I’ll never forget, instances of realizing too late I’d gotten into something because of my mania that led ultimately to disaster.

But I remember the creative highs. The way I could just fly like the wind and produce 12,000 words in a night. How I could map out entire novels, series of books, all the things in the world I thought I could create. I wrote papers, read whole book series, stayed up for days on end, played role-playing games from morning until night, and never, ever saw anything wrong with where I was in life. Because I was living that artists life and I thought, hey, this is me. This is who I am.

I know now the truth: that was the illness talking. The living high on life, throwing caution to the wind, tornado voice? Is the manic voice. And unless tempered with medication and coping mechanisms can lead to disaster.

From 2002 until 2012 I remained largely unmedicated. And those ten years are, in hindsight, an unspoken cautionary tale of someone not flying, but falling without recognizing the drop in altitude. A tale of someone on a corkscrew through rough weather, catching fire all the way down.


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I went to grad school in 2012 and thank god for so many reasons that I did. It’s not even my education I laud when I think of those years, but a single day in November 2012. I’d only been in classes for two months and already I was starting to lose it from the stress. The day I broke down with a massive anxiety attack after a critique from a teacher, hiccuping with tears and hyperventilating in a bathroom, I walked across the street to the health clinic and got an appointment with a mental health counselor. There, a very nice man named Bob talked to me about my experiences, about what I knew about bipolar disorder.

Bob told me some truth about where I was at and what I needed. He said he was surprised I’d gotten as far as I did going the way I was. He listened to my fears about going on meds and what had happened in the past. Then he calmly explained how he was going to give me medication and we’d work together to find what worked.

The first day I took medication, I woke up in the morning and the tornado was quieter. Not quiet, but less a twisting funnel of noise and more of a loud echo. I called up someone who was then a friend (who had experience with the medication I’d started taking) and broke down crying. I asked him: is this what normal felt like? I had no idea it would get even better.

Six years later, I’ve never been off my medication a single day. And I’ve graduated from grad school, survived a brain surgery and being diagnosed with two serious chronic illnesses, ending up using a wheelchair, running my own business, becoming a writer, and too many personal ups and downs to count. Each of them I tackled with a surety in myself I never could have before, because I was no longer screaming through a tornado all the time. More importantly, I’ve spent those years creating games and writing work I’ve made with deliberateness and careful consideration. When I create, it was no longer controlled falling, but dedicated flight on a controlled course. Well, most of the time.

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I won’t say everything became perfect after I started medication because I won’t let blogging make a liar out of me. Being bipolar is a constant system of checks and balances. These days, I fight against needing my medication adjusted a lot, against depression and anxiety, mania and hypomania. I still end up flying some days, sometimes for days at a time, because as time goes on the body changes and you have to adjust to new needs, new doses, new medication.

Coping mechanisms change, life situations go ways you never expected, mania and depression rear their ugly head. But the day I went on medication was one of the greatest days of my life, because it was the day my creative spark stopped becoming an excuse to keep putting up with an illness that was killing me.

I did some research online (now responsibly!) about artists who were known to have fought with mental illness. Google it some time and it’ll be a stark look into some suffering for art you might not know about. People know about Van Gogh, but what about Beethoven and David Foster Wallace, Georgia O’Keefe and Sylvia Plath, Goya and Cobain, Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse. I did research and discovered artists like Mariah Carrey, Demi Lovato, Catherine Zeta Jones, Vivien Leigh, Russell Brand, Linda Hamilton, and of course Carrie Fischer all have/had bipolar disorder. Their stories, their struggles, are well known.

I read books about people theorizing about the connection between mental illness and creativity and shake my head. I don’t need to know the connection, because if there is one, it doesn’t matter to me. I take my medicine and work my craft at the same time because I don’t need to suffer as an artist. I don’t need the mania to take flight and reach inspiration. I can do that on my own.

 

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So speaketh the General, the Princess, Carrie Fischer

 

Mental illness and the struggle against it is one I’ll tackle for the rest of my life. But to quote Hannah Gadsby: “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” The day I started on my journey to getting better by taking medication, by denying the world my suffering and instead gave myself permission to live healthier while making art, was the day I started rebuilding myself into the strongest version of me. Every day, one more brick, with every word I write, I build myself higher.

And so I offer a special thanks to Hannah Gadsby, and her brave “Nanette,” for reminding me of how important that choice was to my life. For reminding me I owe nobody my suffering to make what is precious to me, and that a creator doesn’t need to push aside their own mental health to be hailed as an artist. Thank you, Hannah, for your strength. May you find your inspiration wherever you walk.

[Note: This article was meant to be included in my submissions for the Knutpunkt 2018 companion books. However, due to being short on time, I ended up only submitting this article about personal games instead. I figured this is a topic I still wanted to explore, and so here we are. Please enjoy.]


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I didn’t want to cry after the game.

We sat around in a circle, everyone still breathing a little heavy from the last few minutes of the game we’d played. We were testing out a new live-action roleplaying game at a convention, a serious subject black box game where we played political prisoners about to be executed and experiencing the last hour of their lives with their comrades. The very end of the game is a harrowing experience (which I won’t ruin for anyone) but I had a very strong emotional reaction. I’d played very tough during the game, but once the last few minutes before the end happened, I turned into a panicked, weepy mess. Then game off was called and I had a lot of feelings to unpack, and I wanted nothing more than to be on my own.

Too bad that wasn’t really an option.

You wouldn’t know it, but I’m a pretty private person sometimes. I can talk forever about topics that interest me, but when it comes to my feelings I am very self-protective. Being vulnerable around people takes time for me, and certainly can’t be turned on and off like a switch. It’s only through the alibi provided by a larp that I feel comfortable enough to open up and show vulnerability in character, exploring deeper emotions in front of others and even feeling comfortable enough to cry in public.

But once the game is over and the alibi is stripped away, I am often not interested in sharing my personal feelings with others. However, the recent trend of mandatory debriefs has provided me with a serious conundrum after a game.

There have been many articles written about the importance of debriefs or de-rolling exercises. In the perfect practice, these post-game sessions allow people to separate from their characters and seek an understanding of their own emotions provoked in game for the purposes of managing bleed. (Quoted from the Nordiclarp Wiki: “Bleed is experienced by a player when her thoughts and feelings are influenced by those of her character, or vice versa.”)

Debriefs manage the closure players allegedly ought to have before returning to their regular lives and begin a process of uncoupling from the intense emotional experiences one can have during a larp. They also serve as a way to reconcile the often deeply personal relationships developed between player characters during the game and allow players to resolve any potential serious feelings (both negative and positive) they’ve had during interactions with others in play.

Debriefs may take the form of a workshop at the end, a roundtable, or even a series of steps begun after the game and spread out over the weeks (or even months) post game. These steps are meant to be put in place to help players not only go back to normal life, but get the most out of the game experience by resolving negative feelings, solidifying positive ones, and offering the best possible emotional resolution for everyone involved.

And on paper, in theory, that all sounds perfectly fine. And when these debriefings are optional, they remain a positive addition to any game design.

The problem becomes when they’re mandatory.

I have been to several games which have instituted mandatory debriefs, or debriefs which have been ‘strongly suggested.’ In the latter, members of the game staff have gone around and pressured people into going to the debriefs if they seemed uninterested in attending. The premise behind their pressure was simple: as a participant in the game, you not only owe yourself the experience of a debrief, but you are responsible for giving others a chance to share their feelings with you as well. If you participated in the game and impacted someone else, you need to give them an equal chance to share with you and hear what you have to say in return. To be part of the community of play you entered into, you must complete the game experience with this sharing to honor the spirit of the social contract you agreed upon when coming to the game.

But what if debriefings and the open emotional sharing in public are not good for you? What if the very idea of such a public airing of feelings is nigh on horrifying to you, or even traumatic?

In other words, what if all you want to say to the mandatory briefing is:

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I sat in a debriefing after a game, and my heart was in my throat.

Everyone was going around the circle, speaking about their feelings, and I knew it was almost my turn. I knew I was going to have to talk about the experience, and the moment I did, I’d start to cry. The game was very intense for me and had tapped into some very fundamental, dark and difficult feelings I hadn’t expected to experience. There were elements of past trauma uncovered during the game, deep feelings I needed to process. And as I looked around the circle, I didn’t see a single face I trusted enough to want to unburden to that moment. I needed time. I needed people I trusted. I needed to get out of that room.

But the peer pressure was on. Everyone had been told it was best if we stayed and it wouldn’t be fair to others if you left when everyone was sharing. So I stayed. And the moment they got to me, I did start to cry. I felt instantly ashamed, on the spot, and betrayed by the organizers and myself. I kept my explanation short and sweet. My fingers knotted in my sweater as I tried and failed not to cry. I felt dirty and embarrassed and I wanted to flee.

I wanted to say:

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Afterward, while everyone else went to a party and drank and laughed, I sat in a corner and tried to shake the feelings of intense unease at how badly I felt. I’d been peer pressured into sitting in a room and sharing my feelings with people I didn’t trust, all for the sake of being a good player. I felt raw and furious.

A person’s emotional experiences are their own and are myriad in the way they are expressed. Expecting everyone to respond to intense feelings the same way or to homogenize their way of processing their feelings ignores the fundamental issue of the complexity of human emotions. Moreover, forcing people to be involved in debriefings which require speaking about those emotions publicly as a matter of rote, prepared only one way and presented as a must for all players, raises the possibility of inflicting emotional harm on your players.

Moreover, it presents a serious question: just who are the debriefs for anyway?

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I’ve seen a lot of reasons people put forward for the importance of debriefing. Emotional safety and the management of uncoupling from alibi for a return to the real world, as mentioned above, is one. Allowing people to air their feelings about one another before they go their separate ways, as I also already mentioned, is another. There’s a third, which is the opportunity for organizers to hear feedback about their game, as well as letting the staff open up emotionally about their experience as well.

But all of these reasons come back to a single underpinning idea, an underlying message of, “this is what I need.” Whether it be the players involved needing to unburden their feelings or the staff members needing to process, the feelings involved in a debriefing are, in many ways, inherently selfish. They reflect an individual’s needs, or the expectation and assumption of what players need, to de-roll their feelings and experiences.

“I need to share how I feel with others.”

“I need the players to do this so I can mitigate liability if they get lost in bleed.”

“I as a staff member need to hear the players’ feedback, or make sure they’re okay for my peace of mind (and liability).”

“I need to air my grievances to the other player and confront them about our interactions, both positive and negative.”

I and I and I. Debriefing is about the consideration of what an individual or a group feels is necessary for others at the end of the game.

But what if what they believe is necessary or what they’d like to see happen is wrong?

What if, by insisting on a mandatory airing of feelings, you’re spoiling the game experience and opening up the player to negative feelings that can create temporary or even lasting distress?

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I’d had an incredible weekend. One of the best larps of my life, in fact. I packed up my gear and was ready to head home when someone reminded me of the thing I dreaded the most: the debrief. I tried to beg off, say I had some things to finish before getting into my car. And yet I got the stern look. Other people should have the chance to talk to you. You’ll feel better if you go. It’s part of the game, it’s mandatory.

And all I could think was: No, I don’t want to talk to people. No, I won’t feel better if I go. And it wasn’t part of my game experience. I’d left that behind before putting my character away in my suitcase when I got out of the game. I knew what I planned on doing to debrief my way. I had a car ride home and my friends to talk out my feelings, the people I trusted.

Instead, I ended up at a table, sitting around with others I’d gotten to know over the weekend. And they weren’t bad. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel vulnerable or awkward. Except when the facilitator came around. Staring at us at the table, making sure we were ‘getting along okay,’ and prying. Prying with their questions, with their ‘guiding’ by leading us towards speaking about our feelings. In the moments before we’d been joking around about war stories from the game and I felt happy, lighter, and safe. The next moment we were being reminded this was not about telling funny stories and joking around, but sharing how we felt.

This was about what others expected we should feel, and not my emotions at all. 

I clammed up. I was furious. Because the interference wasn’t about my feelings or even the people around the table. It was about the facilitator’s expectations of what we needed, their job to steer us towards being vulnerable. And again, all I thought looking at the facilitator was the underpinning behind their words: I need you to have these expected emotional experiences now. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.

And all I wanted to say was:

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It was about them, not me. They wanted us to come out saying we had some kind of emotional catharsis, lead by their expert hand. It was about ‘positive guidance’ towards exploring your feelings, even if the feeling we had might not be positive at all. There was no room for real emotional exploration, I knew, but the measured sharing of polite company. Crying was allowed. Being angry, being negative, would have to be mitigated by ‘I’ statements and rephrasing into words of encouragement and mutual support.

What if that wasn’t what I was feeling? What if my unburdening of feelings involved telling another player their roleplay made me feel awful about myself, or I felt they’d been selfish and treated me or another person like crap during the game? Would that honest emotional response be allowed, or would I have to find some calming I statement to make everyone feel safe?

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I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel positive, perhaps, not entirely. I didn’t know what I felt because I had complicated feelings, as any person can. But we had our guidance, and it was based on the ‘learned’ experience of our facilitators, most of which I knew were not mental health professionals. They had taken on the responsibility of helping guide people on their emotional journey back from alibi to reality without any professional training and only based on what they perceived as the proper way to handle strong emotions. All packaged and prepared and homogenized to work for a large group of people, rather than the individual.

I know how to run this debrief. I know how to help you handle your bleed.

How? You barely know me. And you probably don’t have the training to know how to handle the complexities of multiple human beings’ mental health. So why should I trust you with mine?

I had intense feelings. I wanted to get them out. But as I looked around the circle, I wondered if there were others who didn’t have intense feelings that were both negative and positive to be dealt with. But someone around the table must have just the opposite. Someone’s feelings might just be ‘meh’ and not be in need of the complex debrief and airing of emotion. But here we were, being watched closely for proper responses. Here we were, being molded and shaped into a single narrow ditch of express your feelings now. And I wondered if we’d all know what we were feeling later at all when we were being pressured into needing an outlet for strong feelings at all.

masks-2174002_1920I wondered what the facilitators’ intentions were and what they were feeling. At the end of the day, they’d go home after the game to their lives, having completed their task of guiding their players towards game’s completion. And I would go home with my feelings, still convoluted and complex and ready for unpacking in a positive form of my own choosing. I’d go home to my Monday morning after game and all the responsibilities therein. Only I’d be adding all the tangled emotions a mandatory debrief added, feelings of forced vulnerability and emotional flaying, being put on the spot and feeling shame and distrust and imposition. Feeling as though my emotions were not respected.

Mandatory debriefs have an undercurrent of inherent selfishness. By requiring people to open up and speak about their in-game experiences, those who are doing the requiring are putting their emotional needs ahead of those whose mental and emotional processes don’t need or even sometimes allow for public unburdening. It says everyone, no matter their own individual mental health and emotional status, is inherently required to set aside their own processes for the sake of being part of a community of play, no matter if it isn’t what they need. This is a selfish action on the part of those doing the requiring, and can even reach the level of victimizing another for the sake of that selfishness.

But for the sake of safety, and managing intense emotions brought to the surface by larp, we put our fear of players having a negative reaction after game ahead of individual needs. For the sake of the many, the few are sacrificed to the altar of peer pressure and concerns of liability.


I sat on the internet a month after a game. My hands shook as I typed.

A month before I’d had a terrible experience in a game. I’d had a very public confrontation with a male player who was larger than me, and who humiliated me in character in front of nearly fifty people. When I lost the confrontation and sat on my knees on the ground in front of him, the player in question mimicked unzipping his pants right above me and urinating on my character.

I sat on my knees on the ground, my body shaking. My good friends rushed to my side in character and carried me off the field. The moment we were out of sight of the group, they checked in on me out of character. I was in a daze. I told them I was just tired. I told them I was okay, that the shake in my hands was just adrenaline. I jabbered, stammered, my eyes far away. I was in shock and didn’t even know it.

group-2212760_1920I made it through the end of game, but I was out of sorts, jumpy. When game was over, there was no debrief. I left with my friends and went to a diner, where the player of the character in question sat a few tables away with his friends. It took all my courage to get up and head for the table. I joined his conversation and jokingly asked what he thought about what had happened. He responded by defending his character’s actions, saying my character “deserved it.” My hands kept shaking. I tried to joke about it too, then tried to say how screwed up the whole thing was. I tried to talk about it with him. And he blew me off with jokes, unwilling to let me tell him what I needed to say. I walked away from the table and within two weeks wanted to quit the ongoing game.

It took me three months of dreading going to game, of ducking out of events and making excuses, for me to figure out what was going on. It took a friend talking to me on Facebook Messenger about it and pointing out I was having serious negative bleed that I fully accepted how traumatized I was by the in character events. That the very act of this man standing over me when I was vulnerable in character, winded out of character, and on my knees in supplication, triggered awful things for me. That when he unzipped his pants and pretended to urinate on me, humiliated me further, it triggered issues of past sexual assault buried deep in my head. I had bleed and after game, I’d tried to talk to the player in question. And his saying my character “deserved it” only made the shock and trauma of the experience all the worse.

help-3049553_1920At that moment, I needed a debrief. I needed someplace to take those emotions and unpack them, to uncork the bottle and get those feelings out before they started to fester. But for three months, because of a lack of debriefing, those feelings did fester and nearly ruined the whole game for me. Every time the player in question came near in the subsequent games, my hands started to shake. It took him cornering me again in the game for me to realize I needed to get through the feelings once and for all. A friend of mine had to drive the player away from me as I had an anxiety attack. I was not okay. And I didn’t feel I had an emotional outlet or recourse to help deal with the way I felt.

There are instances when sharing is imperative. When having the resources to unpack serious emotional experiences after game are not only important but essential to a healthy resolution of intense in character events. But what if those same events had occurred and I’d instead been forced immediately to confront this other player in a mandatory setting, rather than in a manner more comfortable and my speed? If at the very end of game we were required to sit across from each other, led by someone who was not a mental health professional? What if in that setting I’d been told I “deserved it” and was forced to speak to this person in front of others, triggered as I was, feeling unsafe and in shock?

I needed a debrief. But I needed options. Not a one-size-fits-all approach.

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For debriefs to work as positive experiences for all, it’s my opinion they need to be a toolbox rather than a list of steps, not linear exploration with a single means and an expected end. Instead, having multiple options for unpacking one’s feelings, without a forced time and place expectation takes the weight off the individual to perform emotionally on the spot, but gives them the chance to tailor their needs towards closure with the tools provided.

Optional roundtables, optional discussions with staff members at a time and place that is equitable to both parties (because forcing staff into mandatory interactions is equally as unfair to the staff who just went through running a game, their own emotional labor extended and often taxed), and later-date de-rolling with other players are all tools available for inclusion. And should those needs require further and more serious emotional unpacking, one of the tools offered should be the suggestion to seek out more professional mental health resources rather than (often) well-meaning laypeople.

In the end, I’ve had a lot of different experiences with debriefings but as yet I have never had a mandatory debriefing that hasn’t left me feeling uneasy when forced to express emotions. Those which are simply checking in or offering optional chances to speak aloud, or else those used only to offer the toolbox of debriefing choices have provided ample safety for me to choose my own path to closure. But the more popular choice of mandatory debriefs remains a terror for me attending games and, in my opinion, one of the least healthy choices made in the name of creating safety in our larps.

Reconsideration of the techniques used and the personnel employed is paramount, I believe, in truly making sure the needs of players and organizers are tailored to provide actual emotional support in games to come.

Otherwise, I will have to continue my own practice of simply (sometimes) saying:

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It’s a Friday night in Jersey City, and I should be at a larp.

Instead, I’m in a hospital bed in the local emergency room with an IV in my arm. My roommate Craig is sitting with his iPad nearby. We’re joking over the latest antics from the White House and the recent defeat of the SkinnyRepeal. “I get to live another year,” I joke. But it’s no joke for me. I massage my arm and try to ignore it’s stinging. The nurse came in and tried to get blood a little while ago, but my veins are so shallow from dehydration they couldn’t find a good one to tap. It took six tries before they could get the blood they needed. I’ll have bruises in the morning.

“I’m just glad I finished all my work before today,” I say. The nurse comes in to wheel me to get an ultrasound of my stomach, but I’m pretty sure I know what they’ll find. Nothing. Because what’s happening is all part of the glorious roulette wheel of fibromyalgia symptoms plus a great big dose of dehydration.

I hadn’t eaten in twenty four hours, was unable to even keep down water. By the time we made it to the hospital, I was seeing spots and couldn’t stand well to transfer from my wheelchair. And the muscles spasming up and down my back, neck, and shoulders had locked up into a single, solid knot.

And all I could think about was: I could be at a larp right now. Or I should be writing.

Welcome to the life of a chronic illness creative.


I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia when I was twenty six, but I’d been experiencing symptoms for years. I’d have muscle pain, lock ups, generalized fatigue we couldn’t figure out, and brain fog that would knock out my concentration. I’d sleep for way longer than I should and had pain up and down my back, shoulders, arms, and legs. Doctors checked me for just about everything. I’d been hit by a car in 2005 so most doctors figured it was just after-effects of the accident. It wasn’t until I saw a particularly canny pain management doctor that I got the right diagnosis.

People with fibromyalgia often have trigger points of pain where the fascia and the muscles meet (or at least that’s what I was told). My pain management doctor walked over, poked four of those spots, and watched me nearly leap out of my skin.

“Ding ding,” he said, “we have a winner.”

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Kicking ass at Dystopia Rising: New Jersey

Within days, I was in treatment. I was getting medical massage, got acupuncture, was trying out the latest fibromyalgia medication, and getting pain medication to become functional again. And I did. For a little while. I went back to school, went back to work. I graduated, kept working eight hours on my feet at Apple, kept LARPing. I would run through the woods on my weekends, ignoring the muscles that hurt so bad I could barely see sometimes. Sure, I’d fall over sometimes and throw up from the pain. Sure, I’d get muscle-tension so bad it triggered headaches so violent I would be in bed for two days. I had doctor notes for work. I exercised. I took care of myself.

 

But fibromyalgia can only be treated, not cured. And as time went on, it got worse.


Let me tell you what it’s like to try and write while having fibromyalgia.

Imagine you got in a fight. A knock-down, drag out fight with someone. Doesn’t matter who won in the end, but you came out the other side. You’re not badly hurt, but every muscle is hurting from the strain. You feel bruised in places so bad it burns. And the rush of adrenaline is wearing off, so the awful exhaustion is kicking in, so thick you want to sleep for a month. And inside your head is that foggy feeling that says you need a very long, very restful nap, just to make all the pain go away.

That’s fibromyalgia on a medium day.

On a bad day, you lost the fight, and there are places on your body that are screaming.

(If you’ve never been in a fight, substitute running up and down a really steep hill with heavy bags of groceries and a giant backpack like ten times in the heat. I think it about equates.)

Imagine then asking your body to sit in one place, at a computer, and be creative.

Or worse (for me), run a larp. For those who aren’t familiar, running a larp is half being a ringmaster and performer, half logistics manager for an improv immersive theater performance, half writer-on-the-go, and half team manager. Now try doing it while your muscles are screaming at you to just sit down, shut up, go to sleep, just stop, just stop, just STOP.

Sometimes, you just have to stop. Sometimes, you can push on. But one thing is for sure. Over time, it gets harder and harder to push. And you’re always so damn tired.


My health got worse, over time. I developed Cushing’s Disease, a disease of the endocrine system that spawns hormone-producing tumors in your pituitary and adrenal glands. I had a pituitary adenoma (that’s a tumor) we had to remove as soon as it was found. We named it Larry, and Larry was a sonofabitch. Larry screwed up my endocrine system so badly that three and a half years later, I’m still recovering. My body in fact may never recover fully, and I’ll need to take hormone replacements for the rest of my life.

Cushing’s Disease also makes you gain weight. Point of fact, it’s one of the ways they find out you HAVE the damn thing. Now I’d never been a small girl, but gaining 180 lbs in nine months is unreal. Falling asleep nearly face down at my desk, struggling with blinding migraines, all of it led them to Larry. I had a brain surgery that laid me out for over six months. I was tired all the time. I could barely get out of bed.

I continued as a freelance writer. I graduated NYU. I wrote a book. I looked for work. I ran LARPs. Because life wasn’t waiting for me to get better, and I needed to work. Because I’m a writer and a larp designer and my mind won’t slow down because my body does.

I got a wheelchair to get around. I said goodbye to larping in the woods for a while.

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It takes time to adapt to failing health. Your mind wants to tell you that you’ll recover soon, that you’ll go back to the way things were before. You’ll remember the glory days, the days when you could run, when you could fight, when you could walk across Manhattan with friends all night, talking about absolutely nothing, for hours on end. You remember hiking up a mountain, or backpacking through a country. You remember waking up in the morning without pain.

Your mind is a great denial machine, to help you stay mentally healthy. It shields you from the enormity of what you’ve lost. But one day, while you’re planning this grand trip you just know you can do because hell yes you can, you twist some way when you’re sitting down, and your back explodes in pain. And then you remember your limits. And you remember those days of doing things easily, of racing through the woods in a larp or even getting up a damn flight of stairs with ease, and know they might be over forever.

Well, the ease part is over. Whether or not you go and do it anyway, though, that’s up to you.


I got rolled into the MRI room. The technician had to do a lot of imaging, so we got to chatting. She asked me a lot of questions about my medical situation. I had to give her the full run-down, which is a long list of medications, medical issues, and treatments. When I was done, she stared at me.

“You’ve got all that memorized, huh?”

I shrugged. “I’ve got practice.”  When you’ve got chronic health issues, you’ve got to learn what’s up with you, so you can talk to doctors as an educated patient. I came prepared for speaking to my doctor with all my medications memorized or in my bag, the full run-down of what’s been going on, and the doctors to contact if more information was needed. Par for the course.

We chatted for a while longer. She asked what I did. When I told her I was a game designer, she gave me the same response plenty of people do. “Man, my __________ (insert relative here) would love you! It must be a great job!”

And I always say the same thing, “It’s a hard one, but I love it.” Because I do. Every day, I get up and I know I’m working in the creative field I love. I get to write words and people read them and enjoy them. I help bring books to development that will give people joy. I run larps and see people get excited, and get immersed, and come out loving what they’ve experienced, the stories they lived through if only for a little while.

I think about my deadlines as I’m lying in the MRI room. I’m thinking about the larp I’m writing, the books I’m developing, the projects I have planned. I think about my novel and the few chapters left to the end, dragging on and on because I’ve just been so stressed and exhausted.

I am exhausted. I’m always exhausted. And I’m always, always mad. I’m furious at my body for giving out on me in the prime of my life, of how it fights me for the littlest things these days like going up a flight of stairs or reaching for something in a store aisle. How I wake up in pain that robs me of a good night’s sleep. How I have to take medication just to get through the day, especially painkillers so often demonized by others for their addictive properties.

I’ve been on those painkillers for six years under a doctor’s care, and never deviated from treatment, never taken more than I was supposed to. But I’ve still had people in my creative field try to slander my name by calling me a junkie. I think about life without pain management, about the screaming muscle pain and the blinding migraines and the fatigue from just fighting the pain. A junkie, huh?

And people wonder why I’m always so pissed off. I do a lot of meditation, a lot of spiritual exploration. People tell me I should do yoga, as if yoga will cure things. People suggest a lot of things. “Have you just tried not thinking about it?” is my favorite. Or, “I heard if you just go vegetarian/paleo/Atkins/low carb/stand on your head, you’ll feel better.” Or the old favorite, “You’re always sick all the time.”

Yes. Yes, I am.

I practice a lot of that anger management meditation to deal with dumb-ass questions, concern trolling, unsolicited medical advice, inaccessible venues for my wheelchair, and unapologetic discrimination against disabilities. I need a lot of patience. There’s a lot of bullshit people deal with when they’ve got chronic disabilities, especially some that are invisible. You need a lot of patience explaining your needs to people around you in everyday life. At airports, conventions, at the corner store. Some people make it easier. Others make your head just plain hurt.

I practice a lot of deep breathing and remember that old saying: oh lord forgive them, they know not what they do. And even if they do, anger is only some bricks in my already overflowing backpack. I do my best most days. Most days.


But I can’t do that best alone. The days of being able to just bear up and do things by myself have sadly vanished. And because of that, I have to rely a lot on the kindness and support of others around me. It’s not a natural state for me, to ask for help. Anyone who knew me in my twenties would know I was always taking on too much without delegating, without even letting others know when I was in trouble. It’s an ongoing challenge. Once I got sick, however, that went out the door. Some days, getting food can be a challenge, or wheeling down to the corner coffee shop, or out for pizza.

I have good people in my life. Amazing people. Brilliant people. We travel together to conventions, to concerts, to days out. And some days, that includes pushing my wheelchair, snagging me food, making sure I sleep, I eat, I drink. I push too hard and fall over, and they’re there to make sure I don’t fall. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to survive, let alone be creative.

I remember every day they give me strength. I remember to thank them as often as I can. I am afraid I’ll wear out my welcome with them. I’m afraid they’ll get tired of the sick friend, who makes it hard to get places, who has a wheelchair. I get concerned I’m asking too much when I ask for help. I am afraid I’ll lose them.

I have lost friends. Friends who didn’t get it. Friends who called asking for help ‘being selfish.’ Friends who just drifted away because I couldn’t come out as often, couldn’t be there. It was painful. It hurt. But people drift out of our lives. And I learned to be more thankful, to let people know how much I appreciate things more, both in my everyday life and at work. People throw around the word blessed on Instagram and Twitter in hashtags, but that’s what I know I am. I’m blessed. And it fuels me to keep moving every damn day.


The MRI tech finished up what she was doing and got me ready for transport.

“You know,” she said, “you’re doing better than a lot of people with half of your issues. A lot of folks would have just given up by now.”

I blinked at her. “And done what?” I asked. “What’s my alternative?”

She started laughing. “See, that’s why you’re making it.”

As the attendant pushed my gurney out, I shrugged and said, “Nah, I’m just stubborn. They’re going to have to wheel me out of this life feet first.”


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My first Star Wars larp in college.

When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. A very brusque, uncommunicative doctor in Brooklyn sat me down and explained why I was so depressed and then utterly manic, why I was having trouble with suicidal ideations. He said the only way to get things under control was medication. He didn’t explain much about my illness, only that I was going to have it my whole life. That was eighteen years ago, and I spent most of my twenties struggling to come to grips with my mental health. I can only be glad I got it (fairly) under control before my health kicked out.

 

I get up every morning, and I take my medication. I feel no shame in talking about taking medication for anything that’s going on with me, be it chronic health or mental illness. These are everyday parts of my life, my reality. And I find no shame in seeking treatment for what is wrong, for what needs correcting so I can live a healthy, safe life. I take my mental health as seriously as my fibromyalgia or my Cushing’s Disease, maybe more. Depression, to be blunt, can kill you as fast as a mismanaged endocrine system. Maybe even faster.

The MRI tech reminded me of something I’d promised myself when I started the latest course of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. I was just starting grad school and I’d been on and off medication for too long. I took my first dose of a new medication and within hours I was feeling better. I called a friend and asked him if this is what normal felt like, when the windstorm of mania in my head had calmed down and I could think straight for perhaps the first time in a long while. And I promised myself that day I’d take all that energy I used to use to hold onto being stable, a fight I sometimes only won by my fingernails, and I’d turn that to working and gaining my goals. To succeeding at my dreams, and never, ever give up.

They’ll have to wheel me out of this life feet first.

I keep that motto in mind every day.


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Me at the Women’s March on Washington D.C. in 2017

And some days, it just doesn’t work.

 

I woke up today and I’m fairly sure I’ll be asleep for a good chunk of the morning. I’m back from the hospital, and I was right. The doctors found a nasty case of severe dehydration (my medication makes me dehydrate pretty fast), some gastric issues, and a whole lot of fibro symptoms that masquerade as something more serious. (Ever get rolling chest, arm, and neck pains that squeeze the breath out of you? If those symptoms sound like a heart attack, ding ding ding. Now play the home game, “Am I dying or is it fibro?”) I lie down, thanking everything that looks out for itinerant writers that the ACA provides me with the insurance I need. I drink a ton of water. My body is still sore from the muscle spasms. I’m loopy from medication.

I have to work today.

I don’t have to. But my brain is itching to write. I wake up at 8AM and put hands to keyboard and write this post, not because I want to bitch about my health (although a little exposition to get out the feelings never hurt) but because I need to write. I need to. It’s a part of me as much as anything else, and so much more true to me than the pain from the chronic ailments. Because writing was here before I was sick and will go on through it all.

I don’t have to write today, then. But I will. Hell or high water, I will.


I’ve met a lot of people in the gaming and writing world dealing with any number of medical issues, any combination of chronic illnesses. I’ve seen people I know get knocked down by serious illnesses and terrifying diagnoses, or else stand with family and friends when they’ve had the same. Being sick or being a caregiver saps the hell out of your energy. It rips away from you the daily stockpile of spoons you have to spend (and if you’re not familiar with Spoon Theory, check it out here to understand more) and instead leaves you at a deficit that can wreck agendas, plans, even careers.

For everyone out there facing this, I see you. I see you struggling to get up in the morning to finish that game book on time, or to attend a convention no matter how much energy it will take. I see you fellow wheelchair buddies fight to get into accessible venues, or those with chronic issues seeking accommodations at events so you can participate. From creating quiet rooms for those with overstimulation to people advocating for longer breaks between events at conventions for proper self-care, and to every game dev and editor who recognize chronic health issues and are understanding, I thank you.

I see you and what you do. I thank you for making sure the games world makes room for creatives who are chugging along, trying to make it work. Who aren’t willing to give up the muse, even when sometimes the body is trying to give up the ghost.

Today, I’ll take it gentle on myself. I’ll try to give myself a wee break. I’ll curse a little at my muscles, still ripping me up with tension. I’ll pull out my edits and get back to work.

And I’ll take this day head on, until they take me out feet first. Because I know no other way.