Today, I logged onto Twitter to find a tweet by Russ Pitts, Polygon's awesome features editor. It had a rather curious message.
Anyone else feeling the need for a "Child's Play"-like charity/outreach program for geeks suffering from depression or anxiety?
What brought all this on? Apparently, over the weekend, a game journalist freelancer committed suicide. Having dealt with suicide, I can definitely sympathize. A family member committed suicide several years ago. It's a confusing, frightening, and emotionally destructive experience. Even now, I'm tearing up just thinking about the impact suicide had on my family. In the years since, however, I've been privileged enough to talk two people out of suicide. It is still, quite possibly, the most meaningful thing I have ever done with my life--my highest point.
My lowest was when I contemplated it myself.
Those are details we don't need to get into, but I feel that I'm anonymous enough on the internet to share that.
Pitts' reaction--and the reactions to his tweet--are as predictable as they are encouraging. It's good to know that people care. It's good to know that they want to do something. But... in the end, I don't think it matters all that much. If such a thing helps even one person, it's a thing worth doing, but at the same time, I have my doubts about its effectiveness, particularly as someone who... hm.
Look, I'm going to say a lot of things about myself, and you can take it as venting or whining or what have you, but I don't really care right now. My goal here is to illustrate a point, and I don't know anyone's situation more intimately than my own.
I have been sick for seven years. For the first four or five years, neither I, nor my doctors, knew what was wrong. One of them, a specialist head of a specialist department, told me that I was one of, if not the, sickest patients she'd ever had. My situation was not--and still isn't--good.
It'd be nice if I could give you a name, like cancer or lupus, but I can't. What I have hasn't got a name, because it's a series of problems stemming from genetic damage that... it's never really been satisfactorily explained to me. I get how the main element works: my body doesn't keep things that are good for it, like magnesium and Vitamin D, but it does store some things it shouldn't, particularly benzene. This has the unpleasant result of my body not producing nearly as much serotonin or dopamine as I should.
As a result of this illness, I had to give up my dream of becoming a professional pilot. That, right there, is incredibly depressing. I know I don't talk about airplanes all that much, but that's because it's hard. It's painful. I can't be around the thing I love the most because it would kill me.
The symptoms of my illness currently manifest in a multitude of ways, so it might be beneficial for me to explain a typical day:
I'm in pain.
Most days, if it's not the alarm that wakes me up, it's the pain. A night of uninterrupted sleep is something of a rarity, and a good night's rest is even rarer. People have suggested taking painkillers or smoking pot, but doing much of either one would do more harm than good, unfortunately. Even if I did, it's not likely that it would matter--the last time I can remember not hurting was when a doctor gave me some vicodin and I took way more than I should. I didn't feel pain-free, either. I felt numb. If you're having a hard time understanding the nature of chronic pain, try watching House, and you'll get an idea.
Coupled with the pain, I'm tired, and not the good kind of tired, or even the "I worked all day so I'm exhausted and could just fall asleep," tired, but the "oh god, I feel so tired I can't even muster the energy required to fall asleep," tired. It hurts to stand for very long, unless I'm doing an activity that might generate more dopamine than usual, like visiting a place I really enjoy.
Any chemical exposure--maybe filling up at a gas pump or having a conversation with someone who's just had a smoke or peppered herself with too much perfume, results in a massive headache that often causes even more pain, exhaustion, and tosses in some brain fog to boot. I've gotten a few tweets/private messages asking why I haven't been writing that much lately, and the answer, unfortunately, is that my boss has assigned me to work in a dusty, moldy room. As a result, thinking or putting forward the effort required to write has become a challenge. More on that later.
On top of that, I've got a bunch of miscellaneous side effects, like food cravings, the occasional bout of social anxiety, heightened allergies, and more.
Before all this, I was different. Everybody liked me, even the people who didn't want to. When it came to popularity contests, I won. I wasn't attractive, nor was I great at sports, I was just... very smart, very charismatic. Everyone liked me. Everyone wanted to talk to me. I've been told I was gifted and that I had a knack for dealing with people. Girls--and guys--flirted with me.
When I got sick, everything changed. Depression is the simplest explanation, but that doesn't really convey how afraid I became. It doesn't really explain why I locked myself away in my room, only leaving the house at night to buy groceries if I could. It doesn't really explain why I went from being a straight-A student to failing most of my classes. It doesn't really explain how I went from being a guy that you'd be guaranteed to like to a scared, confused, shut-in idiot.
It doesn't really explain a lot of things, and I don't think I'll ever be able to come up with a word that encapsulates my situation. I lost myself. I lost everything I was.
So let's just say it was bad enough that I thought about suicide.
But, obviously, I didn't do it. I'm still here. I no longer think about suicide. My life is still hell. It hurts to work, to play, to sleep, to breathe, to be... but... here I am. Ask me some time, and I'll try to go into greater detail about how STALKER changed all this.
Now let's focus on the people.
I know that I often come across as negative, and I'm sorry for that. Believe it or not, I like just about everyone. A major element of my life over the past couple of years is that I have been forcing myself to be a more outgoing, friendly person. I have been fighting--hard--to be the person I was. It's not just that I want everybody to like me again, it's that I want to get over all my little fears and frustrations and start liking everyone else again. A couple weeks ago, when I was at a particularly low point, I wrote one of the best things I've ever published, reminding people how awesome they are, because despite my bad days, I still believe that. People are great.
People aren't empathetic.
Pitts might have the best possible wishes, but let me tell you what people have done to me as a result of my illness. If you can't give your disease a name, people won't sympathize with you. Got cancer? People will support you. Got something with no name? People aren't so great.
When they first hear you're sick, they're nice, because people are supposed to be nice... then it all changes. You try to put a positive face on things, you learn to get through a day without crying from the pain, you learn to live, and they start to think you're okay. They start to wonder why you can't do more. Before you know it, they're complaining about you not going to social functions. They yell about how disappointed they are in you, how you should be doing better.
At one point, I was living with family members who berated me for not finding a job because "you're being too selective about finding a job that accommodates your illness." My whole reason for living with them was because I needed to make bi-weekly visits to a hospital for brain scans. This hospital was a three hour drive from my home.
At the time, I couldn't even work a normal nine hour day without falling to bed the second I got home, waking up at 7 AM the next day, and going to work still feeling exhausted. I'm better now, but it's still challenging. It's not like I can work retail and remain standing all day--or even for a few hours at a time--much less take a construction job or something.
Even my parents and siblings, who have taken this journey with me for years, still have a hard time understanding what I'm going through. They still get upset when I can't do the things they'd like me to do. They're still frustrated with me. They still demand to know why I can't do everything I want to do. They still belittle me for playing video games or watching movies, when I "could be out there doing rock climbing or something more productive," like I used to.
...Friends and family are one thing. Employers are another entirely.
Teachers are great. Ed, a professor of mine back when I was first getting sick, caught me crying one day. He got me my first job, and you know what? It was great. Student worker positions, as it turns out, are really, really flexible, which makes them great for people with health issues.
The retail position I held? Not so much. Not only was I never trained, but one of my managers constantly abused me by forcing me into the dusty warehouse to pick up supplies. No matter what I was doing, he tried to pull me away to send me to the back. As it turns out, he didn't believe in "allergies," so it was his way of 'helping' me get over myself. His manager finally got him to stop, but called me a few months later and threatened to fire me because "you've called in sick three times this year." He then reduced my hours to the point where half my salary was spent on gas that allowed me to drive to work.
It didn't matter that I was his best salesman. In fact, we had several pizza parties as a result of my sales figures. I wasn't invited to any of them, however; I wasn't even told that these parties had happened until afterwards.
My current boss is worse. She recently fired a coworker--the president of the Student Government Association, in fact--after the girl's car broke down. On four separate occasions, she has burst into the room screaming at me, making wild accusations that coworkers have told me aren't true. Remember how I mentioned I'm working in a room that's making me sick? Her call. I told her that it made me sick, so she complained that I wasn't "being flexible" (never mind that I'd said "I'm available to work any time you want, just so long as I'm not in class") and assigned me to spend nearly all of my time in this room. She has actively tried to make my life worse because she thinks I'm using my illness as an excuse not to be a good worker.
...which is kind of weird, because every teacher I do jobs for (my job is to support the teaching staff) has complimented my work. Several of them have said that they keep their work for me, specifically, to do. As with every job I've had, I'm being praised on my performance.
People can be wonderful, sure, but if they don't understand what you have, they can't sympathize, and, what's worse, they don't trust you to know what you can or cannot do. They think they can make value judgements as to your abilities... and they can't.
So that's illness and people down. What next?
Well, I had to give up my dream, so most of my education is for a career I can't actually do. My new dream is something video game related, whether that's design or writing or journalism or whatever, I don't know. It's the hobby that saved me.
When I finally returned to school, after my illness had caused me to drop out, I was pumped. Then... the department fell apart. I helped put it back together--my design document for the degree has helped reshape things. Unfortunately, I've got a new problem: Financial Aid has decided that I will not be eligible for anything after next semester. They want me to graduate and then leave. Never mind that things fell apart last semester and we basically learned "how to fiddle with Second Life," in classes that should have been about mapping and texturing; I didn't learn much, and I won't be able to learn more. At this stage, the department only has three teachers.
Since I work at school--it was the only job that hired me after more than a year of searching--that means I'll be out of a job, with no money to pay off my loans, next may. I don't have the education to get a job making video games, and I'm too sick to continue my aviation education.
I. Have. No. Future.
On top of all this, my dad recently lost his job, so I, the minimum wage, sick student, am currently giving a third of my paycheck to my parents. The rest is being spent on food, gas, and, occasionally, video games, to help me get away from everything for a while. They're my distraction. As it stands, I am my family's biggest breadwinner, and I will be jobless in May.
Actually, I might be jobless sooner. Remember my boss? Yeah. She's threatened to fire me twice for trumped-up reasons that my coworkers swear I'm not doing. I may be able to get a job working for another department here at school, as three separate ones have shown an interest in me, but they're all saying "wait until next semester," and there's no guarantee I'll have many hours.
Oh, and, to add insult to injury, my dog just had a huge, six inch tumor removed from his abdomen, and the vet thinks he might have cancer.
So, to recap: I'm sick. My education has failed. My Dad is jobless. I'm in debt. My dog has cancer.
Suffice it to say, I could really use some help right now, but just talking isn't going to do it. I'm talking right now. Maybe someone responds, maybe they don't. Though it was a fever-fueled first draft wiritten while I was in extreme agony, "Let's Talk About Death" is the best thing I've ever written. It helped me confront my mortality. For me, that was therapy.
...but it doesn't change anything. I still don't have a future.
The people who are the most supportive of me right now are teachers and co-workers who can only offer advice. Several teachers have told me that they like my writing and feel I'd do well as a freelance writer. It's an avenue I'm currently looking into, but so far, no bites. It doesn't help that I really don't know how one goes about freelancing.
I'm desperate. I'm depressed. I'm in pain.
All I can do is write, so I do.
What I want--what I need--is to get a job doing something that won't impact my health, like, well, writing. Unfortunately, I can't dedicate much time to writing well, since all of it's currently eaten up by this minimum wage job that I may or may not be keeping. Even then, I wouldn't know how (much less be able to afford) to set aside the time to sell a novel or a screenplay, and I can't afford an artist to write some of the comics I'd like to try shopping around.
Russ Pitts charity idea might be able to help some people. It's a noble, worthy goal. But assuming it's Child's Play-like, and it gives people who are feeling down some free video games or maybe someone to talk to, is it really going to help deep-seated issues like joblessness or illness?
I sound depressed, I know. It's because I am.
I need to mean something to people. I need to do things. My life needs to change at the fundamental level, and I have literally no idea how to do it. I want to give up almost as much as I want to keep going. I don't know how I'm making it from day to day. I just am. Telling you this--writing out this blog post--hasn't fixed anything. Having received a couple gifts from extremely nice people brightened my mood for a few days, but that's as far as I've gotten.
To help someone like me, to really, truly help the people who are in deep need of help... that's going to require something a lot bigger than a charity could ever provide. It might make you feel good about yourself to support a charity dedicated to being nice to people, but you should be doing that anyways. It is one of the most important parts of being a worthwhile human being. It shouldn't take a charity to help those who need help--that's what you should be taking into consideration every moment of every day. Even I do it, and my life, as I've demonstrated, is pretty terrible. That's fundamental human duty.
Whatever form it takes, this charity will be a good thing, but I worry it'll only be good in the way a band-aid is good. It's ultimately a temporary fix. Can it do better? Can it help people with issues as huge as mine? I have a hard time believing that's possible... but that's because I've lived so long without hope I barely remember what it feels like.
Here's hoping Russ can do something great, but consider me skeptical.
...and, yeah. If you need me? I'm here, broken though I may be, ready to help. Always.