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Small Shoulders & Heavy Burdens: Coming to Terms with my PTSD – By Richard Lee Breslin

I never knew it at the time, but as a child growing up in the 80’s, I was an undiagnosed child with Asperger’s. It never crossed my mind at the time, as I was just a child that loved comics, football and wrestling.  I was also quite an isolated child I enjoyed time to myself, time to immerse myself into what imaginary worlds I could conjure up. But I also wanted to make friends, perhaps I was a little over-bearing in doing so.

I was clearly perceived by the other children as being different and consequently, I was bullied a lot. Not only by name-calling, but physically attacked too. It didn’t matter whether it was on the street of my house or at school, it was everyday, for years.

My mother always used to tell me “not to go round the corner”, but I never always listened. I was often in my own bubble. I became even more isolated and used to wander, sometimes for miles, which would always result in my parents frantically searching the streets for me. I used to think nothing of it at the time, I felt very little about what was right or wrong. But as a parent now, I understand that anxiety for your child.

I couldn’t pinpoint my exact age at the time, other than I was still in primary school, but there was a bridge that I would always cross on my way to school. During my many days of wandering, I climbed over the barrier, fantasising of what would happen if I jumped. At least to my memory, that was my first contemplation of suicide.

I believe it was around that time that I discovered my passion for videogames, as it offered me a new form of escapism. It initially started when my parents bought me a Spectrum 128k, so that I could “do my homework”, but let’s be honest, that never happened. I discovered games such as Dizzy, various text-adventures, Double Dragon and Robocop. Particularly, Dizzy was a game that I would lose countless hours to – I absolutely adored this series as a child.

However, not long after starting middle school, the bullying continued. The combination of having the confusion of unknowingly being autistic and bearing secrets led me and my family to move to another area of town to start a new life. The bullying did stop in the most part, but my anger at the world continued to grow.

I started drinking at the age of 12. From the age of 13, I started to take mild drugs. By the age of 15, I had become alcohol dependant and had also moved on to much stronger drugs. It got to the stage in my life that I thought I’d never live out my teens.

Much of my whole life would be lived in fear, but from the age of 15 to 20, it wasn’t the drugs or drink that kept me together – it was my love for videogames. Games such as Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill for the original PlayStation. As videogames had done for me as an 80s child, gaming in the 90s played a huge role in giving me some happiness in a time of my life. As I approached 20, I would meet a girl who would be my soulmate and nearly 20 years later, I’m happily married with one awesome child.

My life had changed for the better, but it was still far from an easy road.

When I met my now wife, I had come out of an emotionally abusive relationship, someone that made me feel worthless and resulted in me forming an eating disorder. I’m not the tallest at 5ft 10”, but at 10 stone and ribs showing, I was still convinced that I was fat. Throughout the years that followed, my drink and drug addiction continued to grow, to the point that my whole life was dependant on it. I knew more of what it was like to be high than sober. Yet despite having the love of my life, this is where I knew my life was on a downward spiral.

Thanks to my wife, I was urged to speak to a counsellor. I believe I was in my early 20s at the time.  However, this was not a positive experience. I was trying my hardest to pluck up the courage to speak of what happened to me as a child, but my hints were falling on deaf ears. What he told me was the worst kind of advice you can give to anyone with depression. He said: “there’s always someone worse off than you”.

This advice would set me back a good 10 or so years, before I felt worthy of asking for help again. In the years that followed, I always told me wife that when we have kids, I would stop smoking, drinking and taking drugs. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But after nearly three years of trying for a baby, the day my wife told me that she was pregnant, I stopped everything. It was really tough, but looking back now, it’s one of the proudest moments of my life. However, as crazy as it sounds, the birth of our child was when I hit the lowest point of my life.

If you suffered as a child, even when much of those memories are suppressed they can start coming back quickly when you become a parent.  You start to question if they’re real, did you dream this or was it just a childhood nightmare? I feared that I could never protect my son from the outside world.

Around this time, I had also developed severe arthritis on my hips that would practically leave me with barely any ligament or cushioning on both of the hip joints resulting in a horrible chronic pain.  I had two failed operations that rendered me physically disabled; relying on daily morphine just to take the edge off.

However, once again, video games played a huge role in my mental recovery. I discovered gaming was also a fantastic distraction from physical pain, as well as mental pain. I could take steps to make my mental wellbeing a little easier and fight back against the demons that haunted me on a daily basis. It proved to be more challenging than I ever thought it would be, but it was quite possibly my largest step in my road to recovery.

I wasn’t truly aware to the extent of how bad my depression had sank. My wife knew and I don’t think anyone else could have put up with my mental torment. I couldn’t put an exact number on it, but I had taken several overdoses via my strong medication following the birth of my son. I got really scared that the next time I would overdose, I would never wake up and my wife, and perhaps even my child, would find me on the sofa.

Speaking to a counsellor again helped realise how low my depression had sank since becoming a parent, and that depression following a birth of a was more common than I had thought. These counselling sessions were pivotal in my life. It was at this time when having Asperger’s was first suggested to me, later leading to the diagnosis. It was also the time when I summoned the courage to tell my wife what had happened to me as a child.

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s not only answered a lot of questions, but also helped me learn about my habits, social anxiety, importance of routines and how I could plan my daily life. This would be the last time that I would speak to this counsellor, but I was incredibly grateful for the impact that she had on my life. It would be a few years until I would get the ball rolling again and, in my heart, I knew that conventional counselling perhaps wasn’t what I needed.

I explained my concerns in quite some detail to a doctor. It was during this appointment that it was suggested I was suffering with PTSD. I didn’t want to believe it at the time, because I was always led to believe that only people in the military suffered with PTSD. I was only a normal, everyday person – how could I have PTSD? But the more I thought about it, the more I realised the trauma I had suffered at a very young age, as well as the years that followed, was the cause. So some months later, I took my doctor’s advice and would start my sessions of psychotherapy. This was a truly game-changing moment in my life.

It was also a scary time in my life. My memories were all in pieces and some of it didn’t make sense, but in the months that followed, these session were not only unlocking parts of my memory, but I was effectively putting together jigsaw pieces of my life.  At the time, I couldn’t see how reliving the trauma would benefit me, but these sessions helped me more then I could ever realise.

Life can be horrible and cruel, and at times nothing makes sense.  It feels like no matter how many loving people are around you, you still feel alone carrying a burden that no person should bear.

Your darkest times sneak up on your during loneliness. Sometimes time can be a healer, but it can also be your worst enemy, especially when you’re sat at home with negative thoughts. But it doesn’t matter what the generation it was in my life, video games have helped distract me from issues of self-worth, from those whispers that push you towards negativity.

No person’s story is exactly the same, but I guarantee to you, there is someone that can relate to you. For the best part of 30 years in my life I had held on to heavy burdens, but the moment I found the courage to seek help, was the moment that I began my road to recovery.

So if here’s one lesson I want you take away from reading this, please speak to someone. Whether it’s a loved one, family member, friend or a person that you’ve formed a bond with while gaming online – we live in an age now where we can communicate with more people than ever before.

To use a video game analogy; when we get tested in our lives and we continue to fight, every time we survive, every time we defeat it, we win. We keep on fighting until the next challenge comes along, and with each victory it makes us stronger. We level-up.

When you feel there is no point in carrying on, that no one could possibly understand, speak to someone. I promise you, someone does care and it might just surprise you who’ll be there for you when you need them the most.

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How gaming helped me find belonging in an invisible world – by Anthony Haigh

Mental Health is such a difficult beast to live with. This is probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to write. Talking about myself has always been difficult. But I truly believe that by understanding other people’s experiences with mental health issues, it may help someone to deal with their own. Or even help to spot it in someone else. 

I’m sure many people will say, “Anthony? No, he’s always happy!” And yes, that can be true to some extent, but certainly I struggle with things. Generally, my childhood was amazing. I didn’t really want for anything. I had a good family who were supportive, although perhaps did not understand me fully. I really enjoyed gaming, from my 48k Spectrum to the Mega Drive and beyond. It was my ‘thing’ and unfortunately, none of my family could see the fascination. 

I would not spend hours playing video games – but it felt that any time I did, I should not be. I felt guilty, naughty, for playing Sonic the Hedgehog, even though I was captivated by it. I dreamed about producing something so amazing one day. I never let this negative attitude stop me playing – but even now, I still have that guilt when I’m gaming.

At about the age of 10, I started to feel more confident in myself and experiment with a new haircut. It wasn’t amazing, but very spiky and very cool at that time (a huge departure from my bowl-cut look!). We had a school photo and when I went to the front of the class to collect mine, the teacher said loudly and in front of everyone: “There, now you can see how stupid you look with your new hair!” The class laughed. I was totally shocked and didn’t know what to say. Now it may sound like a minor comment, but it was really a huge catalyst for everything that followed. 

From that moment, any pride in myself was lost. My hair went back to normal, I went quiet and decided that I no longer wanted to be seen. I constantly thought, “Does everyone think I look stupid?” I was no longer joining in and every comment made was cutting me deeply. I always got good reports from school but this resulted in other kids bullying me more for being a nerd. It was easier to be invisible. My only escape from this – to be cool again – was gaming. Being that one person who was good at games gave me that something I could talk to other kids about. And there were other nerds like me! 

Through school, the bullying continued and got worse but I always tried to keep it from bothering me. I learned to wear a mask as the more you showed it hurt, the more you got bullied. So the mask went on and no one knew. 

As it came to choosing my career, working in games was high on my list. But the industry was very different then, it was harder to get into. Adding to this, my household felt it was a waste of time. So, I went into hospitality. Work went very much like my schooling, with bullying during split shifts and long hours. I lost track of what few friends I had made in school and my only friend became the console sat in my room. 

Throughout my career, I have felt like the invisible man. Opportunities have been overlooked, with people just seeing my ‘happy mask’ – where behind it stands someone crippled with anxiety and doubt. If I did not have that other world of games to jump into, life would have been very lonely. 

Things have got better. With age, I have learned to be happier, force myself to do things and not listen to the wrong people. I have found an amazing wife and have a beautiful daughter who both love gaming. My ‘happy mask’ has actually become ‘happy me’ – well, most of the time. I still feel invisible in my career, resulting in more anxiety and depression. There are good days and bad days, but gaming has always been a constant help. So much so, that I’ve created a gaming community with monthly events. It’s helped me and many others to find that place they fit in, to push away that social anxiety and enjoy being themselves. And that makes me so proud.

I still pine for that games Industry job and maybe one day it will happen. I have trained and learned various ways to deal with anxiety and depression, and can spot a ‘mask’ a mile away. It’s important to spot those signs and offer help if you can. Often, an ear to listen is the best thing. Show that person that they are not invisible. 

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