“Skyrim” is my Depression Barometer

Ain’t he something?

This is Iowaên. He’s a Bosmer, a Wood Elf from a village in the north of Valenwood. He was outcast as a child, an orphan offspring of the Great War and the bastard son of an Imperial. As an adult he turned to petty thievery in the south of Skyrim, searching for acceptance among Men and Nords. He found none. He got caught up in shady crowds — the Thieves Guild, the Dark Brotherhood. But he’s doing his best to be some kind of hero.

He’s also me.

Iowaên is the role I chose for myself in “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” perhaps my favorite role-playing game of all time. Plenty has been written about what makes “Skyrim” so enchanting. We love its freedom of choice, variety of weapons and powers, beautiful landscapes, amazing stories and haunting soundtrack. I love those things too, but they’re not my favorite thing about the game. My favorite thing about “Skyrim” is its ability to tell me whether I’m depressed.

Last month I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar disorder type II. That means that I spend about a week being what’s called hypomanic, then over a month afterwards being depressed. Hypomania is kind of like that feeling you get when you drink a lot of coffee and pull an all-nighter, except it lasts for days on end. For multiple nights I’ll avoid sleep thanks to too much energy and a clinically inflated ego. You know that “in the zone” feeling you get when you’ve been studying for hours? I get that for a week straight. It’s pretty easy to notice. Not sleeping? Check. Thinking I’m invincible? Yep, I’m hypomanic. No problem.

But depression is sneaky. It starts with being a little tired. Then a little more tired. Then I tell myself that I’m too tired to do anything. Then suddenly I haven’t left my bed in two weeks. How did that happen? Wasn’t I just a little tired?

Depression precludes us from doing the simplest of tasks. For me, it can make even my favorite music seem grey and dull. But for whatever reason, videogames are some of the few things I can engage with while depressed. Maybe it’s because I can do it laying down, only moving my fingers.

Fantastic wintry wonderland / Gloomy depressive blizzard

But just because I can play games doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy them. More often than not, I play for thirty minutes or so, and instead of stopping myself from playing all night (manic much?) I just stop, because playing a game seems pointless.

With “Skyrim,” I don’t just play grumpier. I play completely differently. See, “Skyrim” offers absolute freedom. I can save a damsel or save the world. I can slice throats or purses or bad guys. I can fight a dragon, or I can high tail it right the other way. I can uncover ancient secrets, fight the primordial powers of the world, or pick flowers to make potions. But none of that happens when I’m depressed.

Other games nudge me down fun little hallways or simple mission objectives. Other games keep it simple, so I can easily mosey through whatever the developers cooked up for me. Since “Skyrim” lets me off the leash to pursue whatever I want, I end up not doing anything at all.

Ye gods, look at these daunting quests

My quest log starts to look more like a to-do list than an invitation to adventure. I start focusing less on the role I’ve created and more on the few things the game won’t let me be. I can’t stand how long it takes Iowaên to walk to new places. When I see a dragon, Iowaên won’t run to vanquish it. He becomes a coward. I stop seeing the game as a fun, engaging challenge — instead, it becomes this unattainable fantasy, a beautiful work of art that’s always just out of reach. I stop feeling like I’m Iowaên. He becomes a talisman for the nervous wreck I am and the hero I’m not.

I need to start recognizing when I play this way. Depression might sneak up on me, but being incapable of enjoying one of my favorite games? That’s a pretty severe red flag.

This probably sounds obvious; “Of course,” I can hear you say. “Of course Iowaên acts depressed when you’re depressed. Why not just recognize these feelings in reality?” I wish it was so simple. Part of my disease is being delusional about my own wellbeing. When I’m hypomanic, I figure that no one with so much energy could be unwell. When I’m depressed, I tell myself to get over it. I tell myself that it’s my fault, not a fault of my disease. So maybe “Skyrim” can tell me that I need help when I’m being too crazy and cowardly to tell it to myself.

Hopefully I’ll be able to put this realization to use sometime soon. I’ve only had this diagnosis for a little over a month, and I’m only just now getting on the right meds. I’ve been struggling with bouts of depression for over three years now. I’ve been struggling for so long that I began to think that depression was normal. Now that I know I can fight back, I’m excited to putmy self-care skills to use. I’m sure the “Skyrim” barometer will be one of them, and I hope it works as well as I’ve made it seem in this piece.

But for now, I’m on a pretty even keel. I’m even stable enough to want to play “Skyrim” and appreciate all the beauty its developers squeezed into its snowy tundras and bloodied mountain caves. I think I’ll play some right now.

Wish you were here
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