A Pawn No Longer

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” — Denis Waitley

I know this is a long post. Thank you for reading it in its entirety.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder 14 years ago at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC. This was probably a diagnosis that should have been discovered long before the point of the nervous breakdown that put me in there. There have been inciting incidents, before and since, that have caused emotional reactions within me, and it has taken me years to develop the tools to properly manage my behavior in light of those reactions. The intensity of the emotions has not changed, but as I continue to work on myself for myself, these tools become more refined, more precise, and I handle these things better.

One of the ways in which these tools can be forged is through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). A DBT instructor’s manual on emotions defines them in the following ways:

“Emotions are complex; they consist of several parts of different reactions happening at the same time.

“Emotions are automatic: they are involuntary, automatic responses to internal and external events.

“Emotions can not be changed directly; we can change the events that cause emotional experiences; but not the emotional experiences directly. We can’t make ourself ‘feel’ a particular emotion and then feel it. Willpower won’t stop an emotional experience no matter how desperately we might want it to.”

The sequence in which synapses fire within our brains is not within our direct control. We cannot choose to not feel something. The emotions are not something we can stop or merely turn off. We have to handle them. We can avoid them with distractions, which is not advisable. We can cope with them through various mechanisms, some of which are healthier than others. Hardest of all is to try and reason with them. It is an entirely internal process. We must apply facts and evidence to a situation in comparison to the emotions being felt by that situation in an attempt to choose the best and healthiest way to handle and express those emotions.

For a person with a mental illness, going through the process of reasoning with emotions is far more difficult than it is for someone who is neurotypical. And this is not a temporary condition. It’s not like breaking one’s leg, then needing to learn how to walk on it again. This is more along the lines of a physical chronic illness, where walking in and of itself can be challenging due to the nature of one’s body.

It is unreasonable to say to a person with such an illness, “Just get up and walk! It’s so easy, why can’t you just do it! Your inability to consistently walk is holding me back/making me feel bad, and that’s your fault.

It is just as unreasonable to say to a person with mental illness, “Just stop feeling these things! I don’t, so why do you? Your inability to handle your emotions the way I do is making me feel bad, and that’s your fault.

These are things I have been forced to learn, wrestle with, and draw conclusions from since that breakdown 14 years ago. The steps have been incremental, sometimes frustratingly small, and some have fallen on unstable ground. There have been times when it has been difficult to take these steps and use these tools entirely on my own. Others can help, be they therapists or family or friends. But, in the end, no other individual can or should be expected to do it for me.

Within the last few months I have found myself gainfully employed after a long period of searching for work that falls within a marketable and well-documented skillset I possess. My list of published and referencable writing is rather small, while my experience with web development operations and programming is better at filling out a résumé. It is with the latter that I secured employment. After over a year of not having something with this rate of pay, this sort of work environment, and this sort of support and direction, the stress caused by not being an “earner” in a post-capitalist society was removed. My significant lack of an inability to recognize self-worth, however, remained, and in the space of that removed stress, that neural pathway found new room in which to exist. It amplified, causing emotions and reactions that proved very difficult to handle.

As I said, distracting ourselves from our emotions is inadvisable. I distracted myself by spending a great deal of time not engaged with my personal space or my partner, instead choosing to be elsewhere. This was pointed out to me by them and, at first, I denied the cause. Subsequent discussions, sometimes highly emotional ones, helped me realize what I was doing. As a result, I chose to take a step back from major in-person social interactions to focus on handling this underlying problem in a more healthy and comprehensive way.

Part of that process was writing a post about that sense of self-worth, and how much I want to believe in myself, now more than ever. Writing is, and has been, my primary way of expressing myself and exploring these spaces. Rather than do so in a story, I chose to write about my real emotions and experiences, and I chose to post it publicly. I made that choice for posterity, and to provide insight into my emotions and behavior. I thought it might be useful to and for those who are in my life, and who have watched me go through these moments of emotionality that have a negative impact upon them. Others can see or even feel the effects of what my emotions do to me; they cannot always see the cause.

I have been told “it hurts me to watch you put yourself through this, to beat yourself up.” I believe that. I’ve experienced that, as well. My partner, who has chronic illnesses, cannot always do the things they wish to do. To watch them struggle against the constraints of their bodily pain, to hear them express disappointment in themselves for not being able to do what they want, is painful to me.

At no point do I hold my partner’s illness against them. They can’t simply not be sick. It’s not their fault. It’s unfair, unreasonable, even cruel and abusive, to make them feel responsible for my feelings regarding their disability.

By the same token, it is unfair, unreasonable, even cruel and abusive, to make someone with mental illness feel responsible for another person’s feelings regarding that illness.

If something said or done directly to another person causes harm, the person who said or did the thing is responsible for that. And it does not have to be direct physical or even emotional harm, either. A manipulative turn of phrase — “if you love me, you’ll do X” — is the responsibility of the person who says it, because it is delivering an ultimatum to the person in question. Words have meanings; it is through language that we communicate what we feel, what we intend, who we are.

So when I write at length about an internal process regarding handling my self-worth, or as above regarding the nature of my mental illness, and no language is employed that makes these things the responsibility of others, to have others claim that I am making them responsible for these things or that this language is somehow problematic or abusive is absolutely baffling to me. As a person with a mental illness, I am using that terminology and language to expand upon and explore my condition. Again, I am making the choice to write this for posterity and to allow insight into my internal thoughts, emotions, and processes. That is the purpose of this writing. Nothing more.

These emotions of mine — complex, automatic, immutable — are simply that: mine. They are entirely internal. Disregarding their influence on my life, it does not impact other people when I feel something. When I feel a question or lack of self-worth, for example, that is an entirely internal process. No person outside of myself is responsible for it, nor is it my desire to somehow make it another person’s fault. That would be unfair. That would be manipulative. That would be bullshit.

When someone else, on the other hand, questions my self-worth, or validity, or integrity, that is another matter entirely.

I’ve read over my posts, this one and the previous one in this vein, several times. Others have as well. At no point in either do I directly say that a person or group of people outside of myself is somehow responsible for my feelings or my actions. These things come from a place within my self, and from no other source. These things are amorphous, difficult, and even painful. The last thing on this planet I would ever want to do is put them onto someone else. I would rather not deal with them; why make someone else do it? That is, as above, unfair, unreasonable, and even cruel and abusive.

We cannot choose when and how we feel things. We can, however, choose how to handle those feelings. And when we take action to handle a feeling, we can choose to take responsibility for those actions, or we can choose to make someone else responsible for it. We can own, or we can project. We can accept, or we can blame.

We get to choose that.

I do not agree with all of the choices I have made in the past, but I accept those are the choices I made. Some of my choices have caused me pain or loss; that, too, is my responsibility. Others have made, and will make, choices to make me responsible for things that are not mine. Those choices will attempt to manipulate me into taking responsibility for those things. In the past, my lack of self-worth and my desire to do good for and please the people around me put me in a position to simply accept what I was given, despite its absurdity or toxicity. It is a weakness of mine that has been exploited time and time again.

I cannot accept this. I will accept this no longer.

Just as how I get to choose how I handle my feelings, I get to choose who I am and who I want to be.

I am a person with bipolar disorder. And I choose to not be a pawn of my emotions, nor of anyone else’s.

Ballad of the Doomguy

I’ve been playing a lot of 2016’s DOOM lately. It hearkens back to the shooters of my youth. There’s a lot of catharsis in blasting demons with cool weapons and punching them in the face. The levels are large and they reward exploration with opportunities to customize your preferred blasting methods and adorable figurines. Perhaps most of all, for me, it showcases some fantastic storytelling and a wonderful way to leverage a silent protagonist.

The data logs you find on everything from the UAC’s methodology to data on the demonic minions you’re exterminating are very well-written. They, like the upgrade tokens, are fun bonuses. You can get all of the story you need, though, just from the brief in-game interactions and the Doomguy’s emoting. From the start, you get a sense of your avatar’s personality, without him uttering a single line of dialog.

In brief: explorers discovered an odd geological rift on Mars that was spewing a fascinating form of energy. The Union Aerospace Corporation’s CEO, Samuel Hayden — imagine the love child of Scott Pruitt and Elon Musk who downloaded himself into a cybernetic body — went into leveraging this resource to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. The EPA can’t file lawsuits if you’re exploiting a natural resource on another planet, right? Right. And Argent Energy rendered nuclear power and fossil fuels obsolete overnight. Hayden didn’t count on his head researcher being a covert cultist who discovered the energy was coming from Hell, and talked to demons about some sort of shady deal. Next thing you know, the UAC facility is getting worked over in the style of the colony from Aliens, and Hayden is trying to figure out how to maintain profits when all of his workers are dying horribly.

Enter the Doomguy.

Our hero hates demons with a fiery passion, and was put on ice after the last time he somehow made Hell worse, at least for its demonic denizens. He wakes up in one of the UAC’s isolated labs, find his iconic armor after smashing some zombified UAC folks with his bare hands, and realizes there’s a demonic invasion afoot. Hayden contacts him right away, figuring the Doomguy can clean the place up and get the energy production back on track.

It takes about 5 seconds for the Doomguy to communicate he’s not down for being a corporate stooge.

The monitor with which Hayden contacts our hero gets smashed to the floor. Moments later, in the elevator to Mars’s surface, Hayden tries again, giving some spiel through another monitor about “the greater good”. That monitor gets a solid, indignant punch.

I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Characterization in video games can be difficult, especially in shooters. Halo’s Master Chief is your stereotypically stoic one-man army in power armor. Most of the Call of Duty protagonists tend to be walking talking recruitment campaigns for modern military organizations. Other bullet-dispensing avatars whoop and wisecrack their way through the bad guys, kicking ass and looking for a fresh pack of bubble gum.

Doomguy’s just here to smash demons and give middle fingers to corporate America while he’s at it.

On top of the pretty obvious disdain he has for the UAC, the Doomguy’s got a sense of humor. When you find the collectibles, there’s a fantastic little sting of classic DOOM music as the hero looks the figurine over. But when you find one that’s the same coloration as your current incarnation, the Doomguy gives it a fistbump. The scion of anti-demon violence and masculine badassery fistbumps a figurine.

And then there’s this little Terminator 2 Easter Egg, when the Doomguy takes a bad step and falls into molten metal:

The developers could have easily just left the Doomguy as an angry psychopathic killing machine. But they didn’t. He has a sense of humor. There are glimmers of knowing self-awareness. And when confronted with the notion that smashing all of the UAC’s work will plunge the Earth into a new energy crisis, the Doomguy shows himself to be a person with conviction, weighing that reality with the fact that demonic invasions are literally the worst thing. Hayden doesn’t agree; the Doomguy doesn’t care. Demons are bad. Sure, making life difficult on Earth is bad, but it’s still life. Better to worry about the prices of your utilities than an Imp eating your face, right? Right.

Video games are mediums of visual storytelling. They’re made for showing, rather than telling. And 2016’s DOOM does this beautifully. I think that these moments, and the data logs, keep me playing just as much as the action and exploration. Fast-paced shooting is one thing; being compelled to see the next bit of story is icing on the cake. It’s a glorious storytelling experience on top of a visceral exercise in catharsis.

I love story-based games. My next solo gaming project is Witcher 3, which will be very different but, from what I understand, rich in its own storytelling. I’m just as invested in the lore of Overwatch as I am its game balance and being a better Reinhardt. But I’ll probably be coming back to DOOM now and again. There are harder difficulties, arcade modes, classic maps, challenges… there’s a lot there, and not just in terms of ammunition and well-designed enemies.

The ballad of the Doomguy is a work of pulse-pounding death metal punctuated by shotgun blasts and breaking bones, but its melody is one of those sprawling lyrical epics about one man standing against a tide of darkness. It’s Beowulf with a BFG.

And I am, as the kids say, so here for it.

Write Place, Write Time

Pictured above is Chuck Wendig’s writing shed. It’s a completely standalone structure made to do one thing: isolate a writer and make them write. It’s a deliberate, concrete manifestation of disconnecting from the world around us, and exploring aspects of how our world was before or could be in the future. Perhaps new worlds are being created in this tiny booth of creativity and frustration. It’s hard to say, until either the writer emerges with manuscript intact, or you go to the door and you knock.

Just be prepared if you knock, because writers are most definitely a frustrated lot.

Being able to isolate oneself is, in my experience, rather essential to the process. I’m sure there are writers who thrive on doing so in the midst of a crowd. Somewhere out there, there’s a novelist who can’t make the words happen unless they’re sitting on a bench in the middle of Grand Central Station getting bombarded by people and PA announcements and smells and odd looks. More power to them, I say. I’m more of a “writing shed” kind of person.

The best I can do is walk up a few blocks to my local library and get in on one of their little work rooms; failing that, use a public terminal that doesn’t have about a thousand distractions a click away. Because let’s face it: writing is incredibly frustrating work, and most writers I know are more than happy to do things that are not writing. Writers are avid gamers, outdoors enthusiasts, movie buffs, even parents… all of these things take the writer away from their writing, and unless they’re isolated to some degree, most writers I know would opt for those not-writing things instead of disconnecting from the world and getting the writing done.

Even this blog post is an example of this. I’ve gone back into my previous entries on writing to see if I’m repeating myself — I’m sure I am to some degree. I’ve looked at other writers’ Twitter accounts to see how far off I am — not all writers are the same, after all. I’ve been distracted by Discord, Facebook, the traffic outside, the sound of the TV in the flat’s main room. I’m thinking about my phone interview in half an hour. I’m thinking about Mad Max Fury Road, and Dungeons & Dragons, and…

Well, you get the idea.

If I were trying to finally put some damn words into the manuscript that’s been very patiently waiting for me to finish it, it’d be even worse. If I weren’t sitting in a place free of most distractions, save perhaps for some good mood music, I’d be getting nothing done and I’d end up frustrated over that. I know I can close my distractions as easily as I can open them. I try to do so whenever I need to get something like this done, let alone laying out hundreds of new words in a story I need to finish. In one particular case, there’s a definite need there, and despite its lengthy gestation period, I think this novel is becoming more relevant as time goes on, not less.

But that’s literally a story for another day.

With the weather in Seattle being its more temperate summer days of late, days of mild temperatures and little precipitation, going to a library for a few hours seems like a likely prospect until I secure more steady dayjob work. The challenge for me is making the time and devoting the energy to do so. Job searches are soul-crushing, heart-eroding, mind-grating things, and I think this is the longest one I’ve been on. I can’t yet sustain myself on writing alone, and the competition for freelance work is just as breakneck as it is for salaried positions, if not moreso. I’m not giving up, but I’m also reminding myself that I still want to write, need to write, and the only way to do it is, to use an old metaphor, “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I’m going to be working to find the right time, and go to the right place, to do just that.

Don’t worry, I’ll clean up afterwards.

The Deep Mines of Published Adventures

I’d like to give you a bit of a peek “behind the curtain” regarding where inspiration comes from and how basic materials from other sources can lead to new ideas and new directions in storytelling. This past weekend, I put together a one-shot D&D adventure for Seattle fans of Critical Role. While I did re-watch some favorite episodes from the first campaign of the series, and read up on a good deal of material in the Tal’dorei Campaign Guide, considering this was a one-shot, I wanted to make sure that the adventure had direction and balance. With that in mind, I turned to my time acting as a Dungeon Master for the Adventurer’s League.

The two Adventurer’s League modules that I took as my basis were “The Waydown” and “The Occupation of Szith Morcaine”. They’re from the same season of the Adventurer’s League, the “Rage of Demons”, and thus had a lot in common. Both were delves into the Underdark, both involved strange beings to both interact with and fight against, and both were influenced heavily by the machinations and madness of the demon prince known as Graz’zt.

But the Adventurer’s League modules take place in the Forgotten Realms. This was an adventure in Exandria, on the continent of Tal’dorei. This lead to some questions for me, as the Dungeon Master: where is the Waydown on Tal’dorei? How are drow, duregar, myconids, and so on different in the world created by Matt Mercer? And what would Graz’zt want with Exandria?

I am, of course, not going to answer that last question here. This is going to be more than a one-shot, much to my delight. But I will say that, since these two adventures were related by the overarching “Rage of Demons,” it wasn’t difficult to tease a few bits apart, remove things that didn’t work, and weave them together into one coherent adventure with Tal’dorei flavor and and plenty of places for a party of adventurers to go.

One of the things that saw me moving away from Adventurer’s League was that in a short, two- or four-hour session, it can be very difficult to get into character, establish rapport with other players — or, if you’re the DM, any players. On the other hand, the published adventure modules are adjustable for all sorts of parties in terms of difficulty and rewards, and the through-line of start to middle to end is very easy to follow. With the change of setting and a longer session time, this flexibility made the matter of adding more narrative storytelling a straightforward one.

Now that the party’s established, and these initial adventures are completed, we can move on. While it can’t be called entirely original, considering the involvement of Graz’zt and the very nature of where Tal’dorei came from, the storyline and character hooks I have in mind are all mine, informed by my fantastic players and rooted in the desire to tell a great story woven through with emotion and character.

I also run a game on the occasional Thursday night, and we’re going through the 5th edition starter set’s “Lost Mine of Phandelver”. Again, however, this adventure has been transplanted from the Forgotten Realms to a campaign setting entirely of my own design. The world of Levexadar is my first real attempt at something like this, and as a result, I’m still tweaking things and looking to published materials. On top of the Phandelver resources, I’ve incorporated some adventure and setting trappings from the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons. You could say I’ve “filed off the serial numbers”, and I don’t feel bad about that. So far, it’s made for a good story.

When it comes to role-playing games, you can delve deep into the fertile veins of published materials and find all sorts of things to tell a story of your own. I find my thoughts turning to parts of the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover and materials even older than 4th edition as elements to use in one or both of these campaigns. The echoes of the familiar in unexplored territory can both comfort a player, and present an opportunity to surprise them. And if you manage to surprise your players, get them invested in the world and the story, and anticipatory of what’ll happen in the next session or even the next minute, you’ve got a great game of Dungeons & Dragons on your hands.

500 Words on Outrage

Between the political landscape and my personal situation, it’s very tempting to just type out the word “AAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHHH” 500 times and be done with it. It’s also tempting to just fire up a video game and try to forget about the things that are taking up space in my brain and making me froth at the mouth.

However, no amount of playing cards, rolling dice, or escorting payloads contributes to the solutions of the problems at hand. And even if I spend my time writing fiction or working on programming tutorials and projects, there’s a nagging voice inside of my head telling me that my time should be spent finding more work, or doing something about my country’s political situation, or fighting for the rights of others. You know, addressing the stuff that makes me angry.

Anger, as an emotion, can get a bad rap. I remember Yoda saying in the first Star Wars prequel “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering,” as if there’s always a linear path that emotions take. Anger is almost always spoken of in negative terms. After all, anger fuels a lot of negative or violent outbursts.

But as with so many things in life, the proper application of anger can get a lot done. Anger is a problem, as are its causes; what matters is how we use that emotional energy to create some sort of solution. It motivates us to finish more projects, to put forward better behaviors, to act in defiance of injustice. Sure, there are those who subscribe to false narratives and let their misinformed anger push them to make bad decisions. But I’d like to think, optimist that I am, that those folks are in a small (but very vocal) minority.

I get little bits of hope, here and there. Seeing people come together in solidarity to fight back against abuse. Social media exchanges of trying to reach a mutual understanding in a civil discussion. Servants of justice constructing their cases to take down the wicked. A phone interview. A comment on Ao3. A hug and a kiss from a loved one. Play of the Game in Overwatch.

It quiets those annoying head weasel voices that try to convince me I’m wasting my time and getting nothing of substance done. I have to look after myself, stay on top of my mood, and keep from falling to pieces. It’s self-care. It’s necessary.

I have a lot going for me, when I stop to look at it. There’s a lot of love in my life. I’m in a safe place. I’m trying to keep an eye on my diet and what little income I’ve actually got, and doing my utmost not to be a drain on my family or friends.

The outrage remains. It bubbles under the surface. It seeps out through cracks in my veneer.

But at least it’s not exploding. Because nobody deserves that.

I’m using my anger; I refuse to let it use me.

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