Recent Reading

It’s been a few days since my last entry, but that seems to be becoming the norm – for the most part, my mental health status is relatively stable these days, and I haven’t really gotten anywhere with CPS training yet. I am still working with NAMI, though, and I am attending their SMARTS for Advocacy training in about ten days; it’s to help with advocacy for mental health treatment in the world in general, focusing on being able to tell your story clearly and coherently and get your message across to people in positions of power – like legislators – through meetings and letters or calls. It sounds like something worthwhile to do, so that’s where I’ll be spending a day.

Like I’ve said before, since I now work in an area of my job where I can listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts while I work, I get the chance to do a lot of ‘reading’. Recently, one of the better books I’ve gone through is called Extra Lives: Why Video Game Matter, by Tom Bissell. Bissell is a writer who has written on a number of scholarly topics, but in his spare time is also, it seems, a video game fanatic. This book goes through nine games from recent years, from Grand Theft Auto to Far Cry 2 to Mass Effect, and makes a case that while they may not necessarily be art (though they are certainly getting there), they are amazing achievements, and fun ways to spend time. I think I’d recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t play video games, but knows someone who does, and wonders why; it can be a little academic at times, and Bissell is often dismissive of games as an art form even though he is an avid fan, but it goes a long way towards explaining the reasons why gamers find video games so entrancing – they are far, far from the Pong and Asteroids of the early days.

It’s not like Jane McGonigal, by any means – this book does not talk about the traits of games that mean gamers are often learning while they play – about social interaction, teamwork, puzzle-solving, math, and other things – and how they can be used to help make society, in many aspects, better. Mostly, it just talks about why video games are so attractive to gamers, and how they have evolved over the last couple decades into the enormous works – of art, or just design – that they are today. Bissell does use some rough language, and does occasionally talk about his own past addictions – mainly cocaine – in relation to video games, but they do serve the point he is trying to make, even if it can get a little ugly.

Aside from that, I’ve also been listening to recordings (now podcasts) from the last several years on mental illness. The NAMI chapter of Athens, Ohio apparently does a monthly or bi-monthly radio show talking about mental illness topics, appropriately called Conversations about Mental Illness. Each show is only a half-hour long, but they interview a lot of people – either authors, or doctors, or people with mental illness who are living proof that you can overcome it and live a reasonably regular life. A lot of the information is old hat to me, having been through a lot of treatment over the years, but it is still nice to hear that people are trying to be so active in their advocacy for those suffering from mental illness, and the stigma of having it that exists even today.

I’m tempted to do something like a YouTube video talking about my own story, but I’m not sure how to go about it. I don’t really want to sound scripted, but I also don’t want to spend a lot of time just trying to fill air while I process my own thoughts. I’m also a little worried about what kind of reception it would get – would it get back to my employers? Would I have to severely restrict comments in order to avoid the torrent of comments about how terrible a person I am that inevitably comes with such things on the internet? I’m not sure, so if someone has any tips on how to make such a video, let me know.

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Delaying Tactics

Man, 11 days since my last post? I had no idea it had been so long. Time flies, I guess. It’s been a busy 11 days, so hopefully I can be forgiven for neglecting my blog for so long. When last I wrote, I had just been to church for the second time, and had just finished my first week at my new duties in the receiving area of my store. Things have definitely gotten more interesting since then.

For one thing, I actually managed – with the help of a good friend, who deserves all of the organizational credit, because I would have trouble planning my way out of a paper bag – to run my first session of an RPG called Dungeon World, which I’m sure I have mentioned int he past. The first session was at a nearby game store, and it was me, my friend, and two gals he knew from work (we all work at the same company, just different stores). I thought the first session went really well – people made fun characters relatively quickly, the system didn’t get in the way, and I felt like I was able to improvise pretty smoothly, all fo which seemed to lead to a great first session. I say first, because this week we got together again, this time at my place, and two additional gals showed up – making the demographics 4 women, 2 men, which is weird, but awesome. The two new players again made up new characters quickly, and we finished up the adventure that had been started in the previous session, finally killing the Spider-Witch Florimel and returning some very traumatized children to their families. It was a lot of fun, and a big confidence boost for me, because I had been really worried that I wouldn’t pull it off very well. hopefully we’ll have another game soon.

Also, my birthday was this past Sunday. I turned 35, which sounds like a lot now that I think about it – so usually I try not to, because then it involves me trying to work out how close I am, percentage-wise, to becoming a Steve Carell character. You know the one. I celebrated thusly: on Saturday, after having nabbed the second Captain America movie on Blu-Ray earlier int he week, I started watching all 9 Marvel movies, in in-setting chronological order. I managed to get all the way up to the Avengers before calling it a night, then the next day, my birthday, got through Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 before going out to dinner with three friends, all of whom are awesome. We went to a Brazilian steakhouse called Fogo de Chao, and if you’ve never been to such a place, let me tell you – it’s like a festival of meat. They have a salad bar, but mostly, you sit at your table, and you have a little thing at your place setting – one side is red, the other green. When you flip it to green, servers magically appear with all variety of meats and give you pieces, until eventually you are so full that you get what one of my friends called the ‘meat sweats’. Then, for dessert, two of my friends, both women, rolled out a dessert they had constructed especially for me – a three-tiered pyramid of donuts from various places around Houston. Let me tell you, I was very full at the end of the night, and very happy. If any of y’all are reading, let me say this to my friends and family(both those who were present, and those present in spirit): I love you guys, and each one of you has helped me to have a life worth living. You have made my life so much better by being a part of it.

As for my professional life, I’m mostly used to working in the receiving area of the store now; my back still aches from being on my feet and carrying boxes all day, but it’s far less stressful than customer service for me. And I get to listen to audiobooks, music, and podcasts while I work – so far I’ve made it through Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal, all of the On RPGs podcast, and most of the podcast episodes of the Knights of the Night group dealing with their experiences with Dungeon World. At home, I’ve also been reading through a good book, through it’s taking longer than it normally would because I tend to read before bed, and my new job means that when I get in bed, my body tends to prefer sleep to reading much of the time. The book is called Friendfluence, by Carlin Flora, and it is about how friends influence us, change our lives, and can actually have an impact on our physiological well-being. It’s a pretty good read, and I look forward to finishing it (mostly so I can point out to my friends exactly what their presence is doing to my brain, which seems fun to me). I am still waiting to hear back from the Via Hope group on whether or not I will be accepted into this round of training for Certified Peer Specialists, and I should hear back from them by the 22nd.

All in all, it’s been a busy week and a half, but in a good way. I’ll make an effort to keep my blog more updated, because I know it’s something I have been neglecting, and I have some ideas for other things to write, but right now my body is telling me it was a bad idea to get up this early, so I’m going to listen to it and relax on my day off.

Life is Interesting

So, big things are happening. I’m not sure how they’ll work out, but they are certainly happening. For one, Calla is finally home. I’m not sure what is going to happen as a result, but I’m glad that she’s back from treatment. She’s been through a lot, and whatever she is thinking or feeling, I’m willing to be there for her. Even if it means she has no interest in a romantic relationship, I still want to be her friend, because the more I get to know her, the cooler she becomes. This seems to happen with all my friends, really, but with her especially.

Also, I put in my application to get training to become a Certified Peer Specialist. It sounds like a good job for the type of things I’m interested in; after talking it over with the doctor who runs the stepdown I was in, she told me that apparently, what a CPS does is this: when someone goes into a hospital for mental reasons, a CPS goes in to meet with them – essentially, helping them to deal with things, especially if they start freaking out over what it means to be in a psych hospital. I’d be helping people to deal with their time in the hospital, letting them know that they aren’t alone, and that there is help for them – both in and out of the hospital. I’d also be helping them once they get out, to find support groups, to build a support system, and find treatment that works for them. It sounds like something that would be really helpful – I wonder if someone like that would have been helpful for me the first time I went into the psych hospital.

Now, both of those things are pretty wide open; I don’t really know what will happen. I have yet to get a chance to really talk to Calla about what our relationship status will be since she got out, and so I don’t really know what’s going to happen with us. Along the same lines, my application for the Certified Peer Specialist training just went in, and I don’t even know if I’ll be accepted to training, let alone like it enough to go after a job in the field. So the next few days, or weeks, will be interesting. And that doesn’t even count the fact that my mother is asking me for help on a grant proposal to help add some elements of gaming (like the stuff Jane McGonigal talks about in TED Talks and her book Reality is Broken) to her classroom. So it’s going to be an interesting time.

Hopefully, though, not interesting in the sense of the Chinese curse.

PS: This is getting posted late (or early, I guess) because I thought I hit the publish button earlier, but I woke up early/late, wandered over to my computer, and found it still up. I’m now going back to sleep.

The How of Happy

I’ve been watching a lot of TED Talks lately. Yeah, yeah, so sue me. They show a lot of them in our groups. But this most recent one I got from SuperBetter, the game designed by Jane McGonigal that I mentioned several entries ago. It is all about the science of happiness. Yes, happiness can be scientific. Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard, tells us why and how.

So happiness all comes down to choice. Not only does it come down to choice, but it also comes down to us being stuck, essentially, with the choice we make. When we are left in a situation where there is uncertainty in the choice, we tend to think about it so much that we make ourselves miserable. Here, I’ll use an example (sorry, this example assumes a male, because that’s what I am; I imagine it is easily reversible for women). Say a guy talks to a woman. While talking to her, he says that he has feelings for her, and asks if she would like to go out. Now, if she says yes, happiness will probably result. If she says no, there will be disappointment, but ultimately happiness will probably result. But if she gives him an answer and then gives him the option of changing her mind later, the guy will be miserable because he’ll constantly be wondering if his choice was the right one.

Not a perfect example, I’ll grant you. But it seems that happiness comes down to two things – choice and our ability to change that choice. There’s a well-known quote that I’d like to use here, from a man named Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Anyone familiar with AA and other 12-step programs will be familiar with this, the Serenity Prayer. This is a quote that leads to happiness. When you accept that you cannot change some things, no matter how horrible they might be – in DBT, we call this ‘radical acceptance’ – then you will, in the long run, be happier than if you try to obsess about changing something you just can’t change.

Happiness is possible to synthesize, it turns out. We just need to be shown how to do it. It won’t be easy, I imagine – there are things I know I can’t change that I still want to change anyway. But accepting some things won’t change – like accepting that I have depression, which will never go away – can help us to move on, and be happier with the things we can change. That acceptance is a key ingredient to happiness, it seems. So I’m going to try it out.

Breaking Reality

I mentioned last night that there was a book called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. I’ve read it before, and I am reading it now, partially because I like the way she writes. I am also re-reading it, though, because I think that the ideas she puts forth have a lot of meaning, and could be very important for things like my treatment – and also my theoretical teaching style, should I get a teaching job. So, what does she talk about?

Largely, she talks about how video gaming, in all its forms, from World of Warcraft to Angry Birds to the tiniest Facebook game, have the potential to help us reach our potential. Games are important, especially to the people who play them constantly – when she wrote the book, back in 2010, the subscribers to World of Warcraft had collectively spent over 50 billion collective hours – or about 5.93 million years – playing it. She notes that that is about the amount of time mankind has progressed from its first ancestor standing upright. And that was 3 years ago – how much more has been played?  So what keeps people playing these games for such long periods?

Well, for one, our in-games avatars, or representations of ourselves – our characters, if you will – tend to look much cooler than us. Take, for instance, this picture of me:

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Now, contrast this with a picture of my character, a high-level human paladin (holy warrior):

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Our in-game representations are clearly far cooler-looking. But that’s just a surface characteristic. What games like this give us- and I’ll use World of Warcraft as a good example, though there are many others – are many things.

First, they give us a sense of achievement. Things happen to our characters in a game like WoW (an abbreviation for World of Warcraft); they gain levels, get new abilities, acquire new equipment, look cooler. This happens constantly, and so we feel like we are getting something out of it – but there’s always more to get. Second, we are challenged – but not unreasonably. There are thousands of quests in WoW, and as you progress through the game, each quest you get will, almost always, be just a little harder than the last – it will push your abilities just a bit further, make you pay just a little more attention, and make you feel just a little better when you achieve your goal. The quests aren’t unreasonably hard, and the game will let you know when you try something that is probably outside your capabilities.

Third, we feel like we affect the world around us. In the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, WoW introduced something called ‘phasing’ – if you completed certain quests, things in the world around you would change. Completing a group of quests for the Argent Crusade would cause a base camp for the group to be set up the next time you returned to the area – other players who hadn’t yet done those quests wouldn’t see the change, but you would, and so you felt as if your actions had consequences.

Fourth, and this was a bgi one for me, WoW was a social game. At its height it had over 11 million players around the world, divided up into hundreds or thousands of servers. Even though you almost never physically met many of the people around you, you could interact with their characters, talk to the players, and generally just feel like you weren’t alone. I joined a guild, or like-minded group of players, called Warforged, and while I never met any of the other players, I got to know a number of them online and through the characters they played.

Games can do a lot – make us feel happy, make us take risks, make us be more social. In one portion of her book, she talks about her game, SuperBetter, which she created to help herself get over a bad concussion, setting small, manageable goals for herself each day that she turned into quests that she had to achieve to fight off the bad guy,  her concussion. I’m using it now to help myself with my depression, and I think it helps. It even helps relax people – McGonigal talks about a survey of high-level executive, including CEOs, which found that 70% of them play computer games at work regularly, in breaks ranging from 15 minutes to an hour, “to feel more productive” (“Games at Work: The Recreational Use of Computer Games During Working Hours”, Leonard Reinecke. CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2009, 12(4): 461-465).

So, when I think about games now, and about how they can be used, I think about something in the first section of the book: “What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what’s wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?”

Well, what if we did? It’s something to think about.

Gratitude Challenge, Day 6

As promised, I am writing an additional entry for the day to cover my gratitude challenge.

Today, I find myself grateful for my friend Laurel, who comments here occasionally (it’s not her real name, so I’m not outing anyone). We met at Menninger, and I found her to be an extremely intelligent and interesting woman. She has been a great support for me; she tends to think more logically and rationally than I do, so when I start freaking out while talking to her, she almost always has a useful suggestion – often one of the skills we’ve learned in treatment, but usually one I have forgotten in the heat of the moment. She’s a good person, and a great friend, and I don’t think I’d feel as secure in Houston without her.

For that matter, I’d like to extend my gratitude to all the readers of my blog. it started out with just a few fellow patients. friends, and family members reading it, but I have acquired several more people along the way who have chosen to follow my mad scribblings. I don’t know how they found their way to my blog, I’m just happy they did; knowing that people read my blog, and that it is circulating beyond the small initial group of readers, is part of what makes me keep writing it. As always, I encourage anyone – and everyone – who reads this to feel free to add comments, criticism, or questions; I try to answer most, if not all, of them.

Finally, for today I am grateful for Jane McGonigal. She wrote a book called Reality is Broken, gave two TED Talks (two links there, one for each talk), and created an online game called SuperBetter, all because she believes that changing the way that society sees and plays games – especially video games – can change the world for the better. I know I have found SuperBetter to be a fun way to do a few things every day to make my life a bit more positive, and the idea that all of the time I have spent playing games – video, roleplaying, and otherwise – doing something productive with my time makes me feel good.

As for a positive experience over the last 24 hours, I think I’ll go with one of the groups today, where a former client of the step-down program came in and spoke to us about how coming to the step-down changed, and possibly save, his life. Where before he had been dealing with problems including alcoholism, now he is sober, healthy, and has a decent job. It as nice to get a chance to see that for at least one person, a year down the line, life has actually improved significantly from where it was when he entered the step-down program. I am glad that he was able to do that, and I appreciate that he felt willing and able to come in and speak to us, current clients of the step-down, about how he was doing. I hope that in a year I’ll be able to say the same thing.

As far as exercise goes, today I went swimming for 40 minutes – which, after moving furniture yesterday, means that I am sore. No, really sore. I still managed to get in a few minutes of meditation despite all the soreness, though, which surprised me – I would have thought the pain would be distracting, but it turns out that it focuses the mind really well.

As far as writing an e-mail to a friend, I sent one out to a friend who I lost touch with after she left Menninger; I hope she gets it and responds, because I worry about her and would like to know how she’s doing. I know she’s a strong woman, but I always feel better knowing that my friends are OK.

That’s it for now. Tune in again tomorrow.