“The following is a contributor post by the Blood-Stained Metal Mage.”
When I first entered the world of Lordran, it was 2012 and I was sitting on my friend’s floor. The game’s aesthetic appealed to me, but I was intimidated by the notorious difficulty that came attached (and my brother’s testimony pertaining to Demon’s Souls), so I circled the series with apprehension. It was night, and my friend and her boyfriend were resting in bed. As they watched, I picked up the controller, suddenly brave enough to take my first steps into the Dark Souls world. I look back on that moment fondly. What followed was an increasing love for a series that taught me to not only ‘git gud’ in the game’s vast landscapes, but in my personal life, too. It’s been a conduit for my rage and sadness and an important tool for learning how to approach the seemingly impossible and surpass it with newly acquired abilities. Video games have helped me in the past for different reasons. Souls and Bloodborne became the ultimate healthy release for that stage of my life – a way to escape relapse. So, in my free time, I was able to work through my problems rationally.
My first experience didn’t go well. Despite my passion for gaming and history with titles of varying difficulties, I was terrified of confronting even single enemies. I’d slash with my sword, make uncomfortable squeaking sounds, run away, or circle my tormentors awkwardly. My friend’s boyfriend kept shouting encouragement but I eventually threw the controller up onto the bed so he could play instead. I died. I failed. I wasn’t ready. I abandoned the series.
Until 2014. I was due to have my first surgery to remove endometriosis, a condition where tissue that typically lines the uterus is found in other parts of the body. I had a pre-admission appointment at the hospital, where they discussed the necessity to have a bowel specialist on hand. My case being particularly bad (all of my organs were fused together), they needed it done at a certain hospital with suitable staff in case bowel removal was required. I was also experiencing a disastrous break up, so, confronted with overwhelming news and possibilities, something flickered in me. Arriving home after my appointment, I switched on my TV and placed Dark Souls in my PlayStation 3. I transferred my feelings of fear and hopelessness into the game, and found I advanced. I memorised enemy placements and attack patterns, learned patience, and unleashed my pent-up feelings of aggression into my character’s weapon. Every death was a lesson. Those valuable skills I connected to life itself. You learn from mistakes and keep going — despite the enemies, traps and seemingly insurmountable hurdles your personal world places between you and happiness. When I succeeded in the game, having never given up, I discovered a new-found sense of confidence when applying it to my real life, too.
But, life happened. Mental health happened. My motivation and strength drained not only from myself, but from my dedication to the Souls series too. I was struggling to fight through my days and nights, and had nothing left in me to do it in a video game also. However, its initial lessons lingered within my mind. The series haunted me. I knew I’d return when I needed to learn more. To me, it was more than a video game: I recognised its value as a coping mechanism.
Then came Bloodborne. Given my love of it now (and platinum trophy), it’s amusing to remember the hopelessness and rage — flicking through my mental dictionary of profanity and launching every single colourful combination at the screen, throwing my controller to the side, and exhaling like a brat through my nose. Father Gascoigne was my enemy. I could emerge victorious over his first form, but his second? Cue flying controller, pursed lips and crossed arms. Like my first foray into Dark Souls, I pushed it aside for that one, shining moment where everything would connect. I have BPD (borderline personality disorder), and suffer from extreme rage and depressive episodes. I knew the series would act as an outlet. I have a chaotic past constructed of self-harming behaviours, and wanted a game that would allow that same release of violence and pain. I am always an advocate for video games assisting mental health. This series, for me, is a shining example of how effective it can be.
The perfect moment came in the wake of tragedy. Soon after my dismissal of Bloodborne earlier in 2015, I went through the painful experience of an unexpected pregnancy and traumatic miscarriage that October. The doctors treated me horribly. One coldly stated I should be prepared to lose it, and another adopted the same tone to offer condolences and send me on my way with no connections to mental health professionals. What followed was a descent into the aforementioned self-harming behaviours. With no doctor taking my pain seriously, I hurt myself to escape the loss instead. One particularly dark night, I sat on the wooden floor of my rental, fearful of the acts that had plagued my late teens and 20s. I didn’t want to be that way again. I didn’t want to feed those addictions and waste another decade of my life chasing demons that never let me breathe. Crying, I looked up and saw my copies of the Souls games. Bloodborne. I hid every harmful implement and buried damaging thoughts. I picked up my controller and returned to Dark Souls. I didn’t want to forget my child or what I had endured. I wanted to release that negativity and threats to my survival through a video game. I wanted to try, and try; die, again and again, only to be reborn, stronger for it.
This was 2016, when those problems – that had long haunted me – desisted. I gradually stopped throwing up. My arms were clean. I threw away medications. Any time I wanted to hurt myself, I picked up that controller instead and hurt my enemies. They became a representation of the monsters in my head; the doctors that never helped. Defeating them felt like a personal victory. I wanted to give up, so many times. Bell Gargoyles, Ornstein and Smough, the Anor Londo archers, the lag in Blighttown – any time the enemies respawned, it felt like problems that never end. Chronic health problems. Mental illness. People from the past that continuously torment the present. However, as the player, I respawned too, better equipped to overcome any difficulties standing between me and the end. And that sense of achievement, when I finally made it through a frustrating area or boss? It opened my eyes to how liberating it is to persist and achieve success, and was transferred to my daily life. I pushed through my studies and job, despite negative forces desperate to push me down.
In April 2016, I finished my first Souls game. My best friend was due to arrive from Mexico, and before leaving my house for the airport, I sat on the same wooden floor that was once a seat for my misery and confronted Gwyn. I didn’t get angry. I took a deep breath, remembering all I had learned, and won. I witnessed the game’s ending just as my ride for the airport arrived, and sat in the car crying immediately after. I know that, to an outsider unknowing of the power video games possess, an extreme reaction is questionable behaviour. Yet, it was more than finishing a video game I loved. It represented my life, struggles, and dedication to improving myself for the sake of advancing. As I greeted my friend at the airport, I screamed, ‘I FINALLY FINISHED DARK SOULS!’ at him and laughed hysterically.
What followed was me working my way through the entire series, with each game providing varying degrees of comfort and assistance when overcoming my past. Any time I felt the pulsating need to turn to my vices, the Souls world became my shield. If my hands twitched to harm, they were placed on a controller. Every time suffocating injustice connected to the loss of my child or my health weighed heavily on my mind, I rediscovered confidence through my newly acquired Souls abilities.
I played through the games in order of release. When Bloodborne rolled around, I reentered the world with confidence. My first, proper play-through, I decided to go for the platinum, and aligned this with my second endometriosis surgery recovery. The attached risks weren’t as severe as the ones in 2014, but there was still a gnawing sense of frustration over repeated procedures and the intricate ways my health problems were connecting within to dismantle my sense of self.
That’s another angle I wish to delve deeper into. Those years I challenged with Souls and Bloodborne by my side were the most significant regarding my health. I had been recognised as suffering from both endometriosis and fibromyalgia (a chronic pain condition) for years prior, but autoimmune diseases started to make themselves known through physical symptoms and blood tests. Despite the ways endometriosis had ravaged my organs and fibromyalgia had severely impacted my mobility and quality of life, I found my body succumbing to something else entirely: what is now understood to be lupus (where the immune system attacks tissues and organs, among other things) and antiphospholipid syndrome (a disorder of the immune system that targets the blood). This difficult time was pivotal to the Souls series’ success, as I found myself battling the desperate waves of bitterness and resentment that other chronic illness and disease sufferers can identify with. The old me was fading. I was required to grow slowly accustomed to this new, sick life full of life-long monitoring, therapies and medications. I was frustrated with the health system, the reality of life, and most importantly, myself — for wasting my healthier days and state of being with self-destructive tendencies. I yearned for the before-times; those years I once thought were the worst moments of my life but were ones I should have cherished. So, facing newer levels of daily migraines, weakness, fatigue and pain, I turned to the series so I could feel strong again. There were days I couldn’t leave bed, exhausted from work, my studies, and medical conditions. Those games inspired me to believe in myself again. The character on the screen was walking, running, fighting — strong in all the ways I felt I wasn’t. I got to live through their actions, that world, and understand I could do the same thing. I could fight the same ways and refuse to die in the same style.
Recovering from that endometriosis surgery in bed, I successfully platinumed Bloodborne and have done the same with the others since then. I have approached the games differently: advancing through the NG+ modes and embarking on runs where I refuse to level up or wear armour. It’s a series that promotes difficulty, yes, but also unique styles and combinations to keep the world fresh and innovative. It’s more than a game to me. Now, it’s why I don’t hurt myself. It was my solace when I had endured yet another miscarriage. It was a valuable lifeline when my hands were itching to destroy, and my mind was begging to explode. It taught me to endure; continue fighting, because that sense of achievement and strength is better than giving up.
Thank you, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne. I am forever grateful, even now, for the ways you help me survive.
Lunatic Pandora is the Blood-Stained Metal Mage here at TWRM, writer of the soon-to-be-released poetry book Dancer in the Dark, video game, horror and metal fanatic, and can be found in people’s basements, where she places curses on the neighbourhood children. Follow her on Twitter @gimmethefife!
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