How Dark Souls helped me deal with depression

Despite writing about video games for a living – and spending most of my life playing them – I’ve never really believed in their healing power.

I read books like Jane McGonigal’s simply fantastic ‘Reality Is Broken’ with an air of cynicism – not because I doubted that games *could* help people, but because it was something I had never personally encountered.

So imagine my surprise when I realised a game series I have been playing loads in the last few years was helping me deal with the mental health problems I suffer from better than counselling, medication and CBT. Perhaps mostly surprising of all was the fact that the games that were helping me were From Software’s Soulsbourne series.

On their surface, the Souls games are not ones you’d peg as having an uplifting message. These are, after all, deeply bleak games that exclusively take place at the end of an era – maybe even the end of the world. They are set precisely when shit is getting *really* real.

Not only do they appear depressing, they’re not exactly approachable titles either. These are titles that don’t really explain anything. You often wander around the world entirely lost, initially not sure what any of the mechanics really do or indeed how much of the game actually works.

But – upon reflection – these games train you to think in some very specific ways that I feel have had positive effects on my mental health.

Lesson One: You can do it 

Depression often tells us that we are unable to do things. It creates mental blocks that make it impossible for us to even contemplate doing some things – getting out of bed in the morning, going to work, leaving the house to see friends… But what Dark Souls has taught me to do is break down a problem before trying to tackle it, or try an understand and overcome a negative thought process.

This is largely due to the fact that the games don’t really explain anything. The player needs to figure out what to do, how to defeat a boss or particular enemy.

In Souls releases, the player – a measly human – is facing ridiculous odds. Not only have you normally charged with saving the world, there are often enormous barriers in your way. The bosses in the Souls games are terrifying and the player has the fate of the world in their controller caloused hands.

When you first see one of the games’ grotesque bosses, the gut reaction of any sane person is sheer panic. Show me someone who tells you they didn’t shit themselves the first time they came up against the Gaping Dragon and I’ll show you a damn liar.

The odds are when you first try your hand at one of the boss fights, you will be dead within seconds. You’ll probably break the controller in two then complain for a bit about how utterly broken and unfair the game is. But you’ll be back – the second time you may get it down to half health, at which point some super-powered second phase will take effect.

You’ll probably die (more on that later), but now you’ve got the knowledge to effectively get through the first half, know some of the bosses attacks and be able to dodge and eventually kill them.

The Souls games effectively teach you that anything is possible. Any time you go through a fog door and see some monstrosity for you to put down, you know that it won’t be easy, but that it is possible. And, for me, that was incredibly empowering given that I have to put up with voices in my head telling me that I’m incapable of doing something 99 per cent of the time.

Lesson Two: Asking for help is okay 

Mental health problems do have a tendency to isolate you and make you feel worthless. In the middle of a bad episode, the thought of leaving the house or even having contact with another human being is bad enough, let alone me going to someone to ask for help. But this is an essential part of handling problems like these.

The Souls games – while famed for their challenge – have also fostered one of the most amazing communities I have ever come across in video games.

The games are difficult, sure, but there is always help at hand if you know where to look and are willing to ask.

Within the games themselves are the multiplayer mechanics, whereby players can summon other gamers into their world for help. Or you can be summoned to someone else’s world to give them a hand. This is a system I didn’t really explore much in the original Dark Souls – not until Ornstein and Smough I don’t think. But I started to enjoy the game more once I admitted to myself that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but realising that you need support from someone going forwards.

There’s also Dark Souls’ basic communication system, which lets players leave and read messages on the ground. A lot of the time, players will be trying to trick others into doing dumb things. The messaging system in the game is primitive and simple, but lets you know that you’re not alone in this, and someone else is suffering through the exact same situation. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how bad things are, other people are going through the same thing and are succeeding.

Lesson Three: It’s okay to fuck up

With my day to day life, any single failure or moment where I don’t achieve what I set out to feels like I have entirely fucked up as a person. I catastrophise and imagine the worst possible outcome from a single, ultimately insignificant, event. But Dark Souls helped teach me that failure is a lesson

The Souls series is almost entirely about death and those playing the game are going to die. A lot. Their bloody demise is waiting around every single corner. It will probably be very unpleasant, but quick. The now infamous ‘You Died’ screen will appear. Back to the bonfire.

Because the Souls games don’t really tell you how they are played, death is used as a tutorial. Basic lessons like how players shouldn’t just weigh on in with their sword, instead using a shield and playing more defensively – aren’t taught by a conventional tutorial, but learnt from experience. Players learn form being brutally murdered by enemies. Thus, death goes from being something to avoid to being a learning experience.

This is far from a unique premise – death *is* arguably a learning experience in any video game. But because of Dark Souls’ unique opaqueness, I feel that is more a means to educate the player than most others.

And after taking on a certain enemy way too many times, suddenly you can defeat them.

Ultimately, like any treatment for depression, anxiety and all the rest, your milage may vary with this. CBT and anti-depressants never helped me, but the Souls games have made my life better in some small way. It’s entirely possible that this entire article is mad conjecture, and that the reason I feel better is that the worlds of the Soulsborne games are so irreversibly fucked that my life and problems don’t seem quite so bad.

I just hope that Miyazaki’s masterpiece has helped other people from going Hollow.

Prozac – A Love Story

The first thing I remember about being on prozac was being able to dream again.

I don’t mean having dreams or being optimistic about the future, but closing my eyes at night, falling away and having refreshing REM sleep and waking up with half-baked memories of the messed up stuff in my head. To someone who thinks of himself as creative, this was a dream come true.

That my atrophied brain (great name for a band) was thinking, sparking off and coming up with interesting ideas was a great milestone. As a person who spent most of his waking hours writing or thinking of cool ideas for doodles, this was a dream come true.

After years of going to sleep and waking up a total zombie, it was refreshing to… be refreshed in the morning.

It made the headaches, the random aches and pain, the appetite loss and weight gain, and my uneven moods almost seem worth it. Despite all of those horrible side effects, I was in some small way becoming a better, more healthy person.

And people noticed that I was chipper. The counsellor I was seeing could see a marked improvement in me.

Then one day I sat down to write. This would have been about a month into my course of medication. At the time, I was studying English Lit and took several creative writing modules. While I was never the best writer in the world, it was something that came easily to me, and I was learning to edit my work to make the splurges of text as good as possible. I could come up with interesting scenes, create characters that were believable. Was it mostly pretentious as hell? Sure, but it was something I enjoyed – and it was something I was good at, and only getting better.

I remember staring at the page, pen in hand, but nothing came. The mind fog that had hindered me in the past was back with a vengeance. I could not focus, or make clear decisions. I could not decide the first word on the page, what the scene was to be able, who the characters were or what their motivations were. I figured I was having a bad day, so left it and decided to come back to the piece the next day.

The following day; the same problem.

And the day after.

Before long, it was time to hand in the piece. I edited and handed in some of my work from the year before in place of some original work.

It was a moment of true panic – that what had been my sole outlet for how I felt was being taken away from me.

But then the side effects became worse. The aches and pains that before were barely noticeable became unbearable, the gains in weight unhelpful to my self esteem, and the crippling mood swings unmanageable. And when you are ultimately taking a drug to give your mind some relief, so that you can get your shit together, being unable to concentrate or focus is something of a hinderance.

So, six months into my course, I stopped taking the drug. Overnight. Rip off the plaster. One fell swoop.

And I felt better. My moods were more level – a pretty consistent and even low – and the aches stopped. I even began to lose some of the weight I had gained.

But the writing never came back. This is a problem that has continued on to today – eighteen months since I stopped taking the drug. 

In her book Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel – after much internal torment and suffering – finds relief in prozac. Sadly for me, I found no salvation in a pill. I’m sure for the millions of people out there – the members of the prozac nation – it brings them some kind of relief, and I’m happy for them.

Maybe my ability to write came from my deep-seated unhappiness with life. It’s well documented that mental health and artistic ability go hand in hand. Or perhaps prozac is a chemical lobotomy. If anyone knows, get in touch. Would I give it another shot? If it was going to help me, definitely.

These days I write for a living, and about something I have a genuine passion in. It’s a struggle, true. Whether I will one day find it as effortless as it was before will be something time will tell.

This chemical relationship lasted but six months, and there was some good to be seen – some moments of happiness. But like all failed relationships, over time you just remember the negatives.

Turn on the Bright Lights

The stage lights up like a slab of white crystal, protruding far into the centre of the crowd. The crowd has disappeared into darkness as the lights fade to black, accentuating the flashes of photojournalists and kids with their smart phones taking snaps. The air was filled with the snap-snap and blink-blink, nearly saturated with excitement, filled with the excited screams and cheers of the audience. Tonight the world would be seeing the new collection from Valerie Glamour for the very first time.

The music starts, a low and mystic sound, setting the scene as the back stage is lit up light blue. The first model hits the stage and the music picks up, a beautiful soundscape. She walks in time with the bass, as if every step she takes shakes the earth. The exquisite black dress hugs her luscious curves, showing them off in the way only a pro would know how. Strutting to the centre of the stage, she poses, the cameras crowding around her. She stares blindly into the distance, the Never does an expression touch her face. Like a work of art, she stands there, petrified so that she might live forever in photo. The lights reflect off the silver jewellery around, blinding some members of the crowd. Turning off, she returns backstage, and another female model takes her place. Then another male model, dressed in this year’s style. He looks like a drag queen.

And then the final exhibit, the man called the modern day Adonis. Perfection. Daniel Green takes to the stage. The crowd goes wild. Cameras and flashes capture the exception sight of him in just jeans and a crisp white shirt. He reached the end of the stage, and as a final stage piece, ripped off his shirt, , showing off his carved and oiled chest . The flashes and subsequent shadows serve to emphasis the already well-defined shape of his body, and shine his white teeth as he grinned into the crowd.

The cameras did not quite capture the missing or cracked teeth, or the stain of brown. They failed to see the stretch marks and the lose skin that hung off the skeleton of a man, or the cuts all over his face from shaving drunk that morning. Neither did the cameras catch the shape of his matted hair that he tried to hard to style every morning. The next issues of the world’s fashion magazines will feature him on the cover, and overnight bloggers will upload pictures and articles before breakfast. None will capture the depravity and emptiness of the man. The pictures do not see the needle marks, or the hole where the bridge of his nose used to be, worn away from drug use. On his arm was an infected needle wound, right out of that film, all purple and black. He looked in pain, moving the arm awkwardly.

Turning to walk back and return backstage, his leg gave way, bone snapping as he falls down. The audience see him posing on his side, pandering to the cameras by the stage, one leg bent up, as he lies looking seductively into the eyes of the cameras.The stage had met his face with considerable force, the Perspex that formed the surface breaking leading his face to crash into the strip lights beneath. He was barely conscience by this point, his mind recoiling at the horror of his situation, blood dripping into his eye from his forehead, the smell of burning flesh permeated the air as the hot strip light burnt away at his cheek. Tears rolled down this scarred cheek, dripping down on to the light, evaporating with a sizzling sound and diffusing into the air. T

he neon stage snaps off, as stage hands come to pick up left clothes, and give the stage a quick clean before the next batch of models hit the stage. They lift Green off stage. “Good show” they says, “nice improv, the press loved that posing at the end. Some great shots!”

They do not know whose blood is on the stage. He had never imagined it would be like this.

This and That

Credit cards, debit cards, crinkled receipts kept in case of dissatisfaction and returns, one play slip, donor card, good brand of condom, drivers license, library card, an unflattering black and white passport photo an unhappy look, all enclosed in brown leather, complete with that distinct smell of authenticity, all under an embossed metal logo, where the real monetary value of this simple object lies.

Now I sit on my bed, the contents spread over the red covers as I scan from object to object and I wonder what the kind of person owns this. A personality, a series of snapshots, bank details, and phone numbers, bric-a-brac, all scattered on my bed. I sit there waiting for the imminent collapse of my personality, waiting for someone to break me down into pieces of plastic, Internet histories, credit card bills, the food and things I buy.

I found the wallet on the pavement; smack bang next to a large puddle with some spilt and wet chips floating in the dirty water. This was not normally the way I walk home but on a whim I decided to live the life less ordinary. Fate. That is what some people would call this. I was drawn to this wallet. This all happened for a reason. Now the wallet is dry, and the leather feels smooth and warm under my cold hands. The window blows through the curtains, knocking the wind chime hanging from the curtain rail. My one bedroom flat is cool this time of year. I find myself wondering what fine specimen of a person owns this, what pinnacle of evolution and genetics, filled this with themselves, then lost it. Did they lose themselves? Was their life forever changed? How many phone calls? Police, credit cards companies…

Their picture stares up at me and I find myself slowly imagining their lips on mine after a nigh in a fine restaurant, all paid for by one of these fine pieces of plastic. I imagine slipping the condom on, I imagine me imagining the moment of release. I imagine taking a drag on a shared cigarette between their seductive lips and mine. Find this person, I am thinking, first date in a small café I’m thinking, together forever with no wedding I am thinking. That is how I am meant to react isn’t it? You find attributes of someone attractive and your mind wanders. Thoughts snowball but sometimes mine feel like tumbleweed, and fuck me this desert is lonely.

Slowly I put everything back in the wallet, feeling a little dirty, a little strange at that timeline in my mind, formed from fragments of someone I do not really know. Someone who I feel I want to know. A set of cards, trinkets and a phone number. Maybe someone I can love. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe I repeat to myself until the word starts to sound strange.

A few seconds suspense before the phone begins to dial. One, two, three tones, along with the fragmented sound of my own breathing. “Hello” a gruff voice, “who’s speaking?” He sounds like a drinker, a smoker. He sounds older than I expected. But hey, a girl can dream.

Heart of Gold

Antonia is facing down the street, looking towards the distant mountains and past the Station Hotel. Two men, a bartender and a waiter, are sharing a cigarette they bummed from a passing workmen, and they suck back delicious smoke as a child and his father sit on the other side of the main entrance, talking about buying ice cream. The air is filled with laughter and the sounds of passers by, all heading to the station as the three fifty heads into town. Men and women on days off adorn roadside cafés, sipping on whiskey, white wine or coke, nibbling on warm ciabatta with melted garlic butter.

Another child is being dragged home, tears in his eyes. Antonia catches a glimpse from the boy’s red eyes, and knows immediately that he is going to be beaten. Probably for bad grades or something, but he has that scared look in this eyes. One of inevitable pain and punishment.

She turns to Marco, falling into his arms. At last she is his, and her former life dies behind her. The smell of his cologne intoxicates her. It smells of freedom, of the future. She used to wear perfume similar to this, to avoid implicating her clients, and getting them into trouble with their partners. Marco admires the hotel, his hotel, and his life’s work.

With a crash of glass, a wastepaper bin flies from a third floor window, landing on the brick red of the pavement, flaming bank notes inside, spreading and landing all over the pavement.

“Ay dios mio” someone screams, people rising from their lunches to stand and watch the burning bin, now in full flame, bank notes burning like scattered ashes all in the street. At first, a little smoke comes from the broken window, then more and more until it billows into the sky like a dark stairway.

Marco shouts to the waiter and bartender to get inside and help put out the fire, before turning on his heels. She grabs him, kissing him on the lips, half in terror of something bad happening. He whispers everything is going to be okay, turns and runs away to the fire station. Antonia stretches her arm out as he goes, almost used to his warmth and now it is gone. The fire now has taken over the entire building. The little boy outside dropped his ice cream, and it melts into the gutter, staining the dusty red pavement.

“Todo por mi culpa” she whispers to herself as the train pulls out of town, and the roof of the hotel collapses in on itself.

 

She had a heart of gold, really she did, but what she wanted most was a Midas touch

 

Six Word Stories

Hemmingway, rather famously, said in an interview, that the shortest story he had even written was only six words: ‘Baby’s shoes for sale. Never worn’. This is an interesting concept as from those mere six words, you know exactly, or at least have a good idea, what is going on. With that in mind, I have been doing my own recently. Here are a handful.

Third world problems, first world guilt

Drunken mistake, a beautiful baby boy

Tarnished engagement ring in pawn shop

Poppies survive the cracked, war-torn earth

Turns out the gun was loaded

Hemmingway is turning in his grave

Naive

A childhood game, gone wrong. Under-edited at the moment.

————————————-

I remember the crack as his head hit the ground, our shouts ringing in the snow silence, spreading like the mist we breathed in the cold.

It started with throwing snowballs, just the four of us, on an iced over road near my house. It was not used often. I would later learn that it was a supply road for a bar in the rugby club nearby. Our only light was from the distant main road, with the red and white of passing cars. Those bold enough to brave the slippery roads, alongside the occasional blue of emergency services. “Probably ambulances” we speculated. Only our cries of laughter and conversation could be heard.

My hands were red-raw-cold, putting the finishing touches towards a snowman we made earlier. He has one of our hats, not sure whose. I was smoothing down part of his head, trying to get that picture perfect thing you see on Christmas cards and in musical films. A cold block hits the side of my face and I spin with the impact, finding myself facing down towards the main road. I touch my face, checking for blood. Ice in the snowball, I think, but there is nothing.

Shadows grow from the main road, a group of figures, silhouetted against the orange of the streetlights. Each was taller than us. My friends moved closer together. Safety in numbers.

“Eh, boys?” one of the figures shouted, “mind if we join?” All spoken in a fake London accent. Kids from the Northwall Estate. Rough part of the neighbourhood.

“Sure” one of us replied, all of us surprised they have not just come to beat us up. That they are so calm. I am not sure who answered, but before long the nine of us are dodging and dipping between blocks of snow. For the first time, we are interacting on a level where threats and egos are not involved. “Maybe this is what growing up feels like”, I remember thinking, “past all that childish scrapping.”

It is only five minutes before it all went wrong.  One of the Northwall boys was bent over, blood coming from his nose. In his hand, on the floor, was something. A block of ice.

“Tha’s fucking ice!” holding it in the air. It wasn’t big, but it shone with hardness. Finger prints of bloody red tainted the clear white.

One of our lot threw it. He was apologising, saying he had no idea, that it was an accident, but it was only seconds before the Northwall boy’s first collided with his face and he was on the floor, his nose also bloody. That crack, I will never forget.

Both sides were tense, ready for something to happen. The Northwall boys were crowded around the boy with the bloody nose. We had picked up our boy from the floor as he clutched his nose. Was bent. Looked like it might be broken. We knew more was to come, so we ran.

We ran.

They chased us.

The icy air in my lungs burning.

The pain in my side as a stitch came about.

Looking back now at these flashes, these stupid childhood moments, I cannot help but laugh at my naivety, but it is nice to see that one day we would all just get along.