In my last post I presented my “Board Game Biography” – a summary of my life of playing board games. There was one paragraph in there where I mentioned a period in my life when I was in a deep depression. A “dark night of the soul,” so to speak. I think many of us have been there. In my case, board games played a role in pulling me out of that darkness. In this post I will tell that story.
How exactly I got into this dark state isn’t important at this juncture. Let’s just say I had been going through some tough times, and had recently lost my job. I was living alone, in a big house which I was house-sitting for some friends who were living abroad. This was when I lived in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. I had all my possessions Tetris’d into a Fonzi-space; ie. a finished room over a garage. Some of my stuff was still in boxes in the garage itself.
I was seeing a psychiatrist, and was taking medication. Prozac, to be exact. I was in my early 40s, and I suppose I was having a severe midlife crisis. There’s something almost cliché about the whole affair. But I shouldn’t downplay it: I was very deeply depressed.
I would sleep until noon or later. When I awoke, it felt like a huge, oppressive weight held me down. Like the whole firmament was pressing down on me. I didn’t want to be awake, but inevitably I would be forced out of bed by the pestering cats. In addition to house-sitting, I was cat-sitting, and the creatures needed to be fed. Despite existing in a dark fog, I was able to muster the energy to briefly emerge from the darkness to take care of necessary tasks, such as feeding the cats, or feeding myself.
I suppose you could say that the cats saved my life, with their incessant daily pestering – with their very existence, which created an obligation on my part. They kept me on life support while I robotically went through my meager routine. After feeding them, I would go and lie down on the couch in the living room, and I would sleep the day away.
If you’ve never experienced a feeling of having no interest in life or any desire to do anything, I’m not sure that I can explain it to you. It’s just where I was in that time. All that I cared to do was the barest necessities to keep myself alive, and then I just wanted to shut down. Like I was a robot with no function to perform, in a state of suspension.
In the evening I would stir, and feed myself. Then would come my busy hours – I would watch the late night news on TV, and then the late late night talk shows, until the wee hours. And then I would go to bed. Rinse and repeat. I would do nothing but sleep and watch TV, day after day.
I should have been looking for work, and I suppose I must have had some savings to burn through, because I didn’t bother. I must have gone out for groceries from time to time, or I would have starved. And I know I was going to my appointments with my psychiatrist, because he eventually gave me the advice which was to be the springboard out of my deep, dark place.
I was neglecting other responsibilities. One day I noticed a flyer taped to the front door. I’m not sure why I opened the door at all, or if I saw the flyer from outside. It was a citation from the town, warning me that the grass in the lawn was too high, and that I would be fined if it was not cut down by some date in the near future. I had not been mowing the lawn, as I was supposed to do in my role as house-sitter. It looked like a wheat field. I took care of it, and learned how hard grass is to mow when it gets that high.
Another thing I learned was a bit about how the post office works. I would usually only check the mail once in a blue moon. I didn’t leave the house for days at a time. When I checked the mail, the mailbox would be stuffed. It would be a struggle to extract the contents. One time, surprisingly, the mailbox was empty when I checked it. It should have had some mail, considering how long the intervals were between the times when I looked inside it. But no mail came any more, not even days later. I called the post office to find out what was going on, and they told me that they had stopped delivery because it looked like no one was picking up the mail. Apparently that was their protocol. I assured them that I lived at the address, and they confirmed that they would resume delivery.
As you can tell, I had some inkling of an ability to function when needed, though for the most part I was wasting my days away doing absolutely nothing. I was constantly in a very depressed mood. I was talking things through with my psychiatrist, and he suggested that what I needed was a social life. I really wasn’t seeing anyone at all, since I lived alone and was unemployed. He thought that the best thing was to use a hobby or interest as a way to meet people.
A logical choice for me was board gaming, which I had done a lot of in my life before, just not recently at this time. There was a game store I knew about not too far from the house where I lived, and I figured they must have some kind of regular open gaming, which is normal for board game stores. The hard part was going to be getting me to change my habits and actually go there, given my state of mind.
The first thing I did was drive to the store and just check it out from the outside. I figured out that they had board games nights weekly on Wednesdays (I think this was posted on the outside window). I resolved that I would attend. On a following Wednesday I drove to the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in. Or even get out of the car. I turned around and drove back home.
Every Wednesday thereafter I got a little closer to participating in the social event of board game night at this store. The next Wednesday I actually got out of the car and walked up to the store before I turned around to go back home. The Wednesday after that I went into the store, walked through it to the back, then turned around and left. The store was full of people sitting at tables, playing board games (maybe about half a dozen tables with a few people at each one).
Why was this so hard for me? If you’ve never experienced agoraphobia, let me tell you it is no fun. For me, it was this intense anxiety and self-consciousness when approaching or potentially mingling with a crowd of people. I just wanted to run and hide, which is exactly what I had been doing for months now, living in my shell of despair, alone in someone else’s house, with no company except cats. But that little inkling of a voice inside me was telling me that I had to overcome this fear, or I would be trapped in my shell forever.
On my next visit I entered the store, and this time I walked more slowly through it. I found a table where a guy was sitting alone, setting up a game. I asked him about the game. I must have said something like “that looks cool.” It was a wargame called “Commands and Colors: Ancients,” and he was supposed to play with someone who hadn’t shown up yet.
And then he invited me to play. He said his friend wouldn’t mind if I took his place, that his friend would understand since he was running late. So I sat across the table from this guy and he taught me how to play. His name was Henry, and I am eternally grateful to him for inviting me to be his opponent in Commands and Colors, and thus to begin my journey of recovery from depression and isolation.
His friend did show up, and just as predicted was cool with sitting with us and watching as we played. I don’t remember who won the game; it was probably Henry, since this was my first time playing. But I had plenty of opportunity to play more games with him in the future, and even joined his role playing group.
Eventually, I started going to a different game store, and met even more gamers. From there I got hooked up with other fun game nights at people’s houses, and a really cool board game convention in the area. There is no doubt that this increased socialization did wonders for my mental health. My psychiatrist had the right idea, and I thanked him in the best way I could – by stopping my medication and never seeing him again.
I got a new job in 2007, and when my friends for whom I was house-sitting returned stateside, I started looking for a house of my own. In the summer of 2009 I bought one and moved out of my friends’ house. I said good-bye to them and their cats. All the stuff I had crammed into the space above their garage exploded into a three bedroom townhome. Suddenly I had lots of space to work with.
I had moved on to a new and better phase of my life. In some ways, my dark time was a bit of an aberration. I usually have been a socially active, fun loving person. But I also have had bouts of depression going way back into my past. I hope that this story might help anyone reading it who has experienced or is experiencing mental health problems. Know that there is a way out, that the dark night won’t last forever.
I believe that at the root of mental health is having meaning in life, that it is better to address the need for meaning and purpose than to rely on medication, which is at best a stopgap measure. For me, board gaming as a hobby and being part of the very large community of friendly gamers has been an important source of meaning. For you, it might be something different.
In this one case I describe in this story, the kind invitation of a friendly board gamer willing to play with a total stranger helped to pull me out of a very dark place. And that is how board games saved my life.