Nearly a year before playing “Hellblade,” I stopped sleeping. The hell that followed nearly cost me everything.
My panic over getting to sleep created an endless loop of self-fulfilled obsession. I lay wide awake for three nights in a row one week, the exhaustion slowly chipping away at my sanity. The more I wanted to sleep, the less I could.
By the end of 2016, I felt a breaking point on the horizon. I did my best to hide my sullenness from my friends and coworkers, but I hated everything. I hated writing. I hated video games. I hated my job. I hated life.
I hadn’t been to a doctor in eight or nine years, but that misplaced pride crumpled in the face of the pain. The doc gave me a bottle of pills and a sleeping regimen, and I started sleeping again. I thought I was cured.
I wasn’t. My doctor knew it, and suggested therapy and medication to address the root of my problem. I told him I would think about it.
I didn’t. Not for several more months.
Echo chamber of panic
My wife Alicia lost her job before my insomnia was cured, then landed another with long nighttime hours that made her miserable. My own job security looked shaky at the time, and the country seemed to be headed towards nuclear war.
My continually simmering anxiety boiled over magnificently, manifesting as a deep depression. I was alone most nights, desperately trying to keep my spirits up with marathon sessions of “Yakuza 0.” More often, I looked at the news on my phone, which only served to tie my stomach into further knots.
It only got worse. I would shake in my bed when it was time to get up in the morning, terrified of everything that wasn’t in my house. I second guessed myself constantly, obsessively checking my email every 15 minutes on my days off, certain I would receive an angry email about something I screwed up. When I did screw up, I took it so personally I would often burst into tears.
“What good am I if I’m no good at my job?” I asked my wife between sobs, holding her hand during our weekly Disney movie of “Sleeping Beauty.”
Calling the Community Health Center and uttering the words “depression” and “anxiety” was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I felt humiliated. I felt weak. But I had lost about 20 pounds due to diminished appetite, and that inevitable breaking point was in sight again.
Being embarrassed no longer seemed that important.
So I got treated through a combination of therapy and medication, which also addressed my skyrocketing blood pressure. And it worked. It’s still working.
I feel like a new man now, no longer subject to constant stomach pain, frazzled nerves and panic attacks. I wish I had sought help 20 years earlier.
Playing at Real Life
The lead character in “Hellblade,” Senua, suffers from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is plagued by inner voices that put her down and visual illusions that confuse her reality. She’s often left broken and crying, but still gets up, battling her inner demons to find some kind of resolution over the death of her lover.
My battle with mental illness had just started (it was a one-sided pummeling before), and I immediately identified with Senua. Her battle was my battle.
Instead of allowing a tone-deaf publisher to stifle their creativity, the developers at Ninja Theory took a chance and financed this game themselves. Several mental health professionals were involved in the project to ensure Senua’s psychosis is portrayed accurately and compassionately, and they too were blown away by the final product.
All games are art, but Hellblade has managed to graduate to high art. The kind of art that changes lives.
A year ago, I envisioned a future so devoid of joy I thought it would destroy me. I’m looking at 2018 with a different set of eyes. Eyes tinged with newly found confidence. Eyes that will eventually see the death of nearly everyone I love.
Those kind of dark thoughts used to echo around my brain like an empty auditorium, gaining the momentum of paralyzing misery. But those thoughts no longer consume me. No matter how bad things get, I think can handle it now.
Just like Senua.
Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye—a GateHouse Media Company—in Burlington, Iowa. His weekly column is printed in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.