Depression, Metaphors, and Old-School Gaming: Part One

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m currently receiving therapy for my depression issues for the first time in my life.  The decision to get help necessitated another difficult decision: whether or not this would be public knowledge.  As I’m sure anyone reading this is aware, there’s a lot of misinformation about mental illness and health in our culture, which contributes to negative stigma for those dealing with it. I’m convinced that an important way of combating this is open discussion, but believing that is a lot easier than acting on it.   Even though I ultimately decided to be open about my own issues, I still struggle with that decision.  One of the issues I’ve run into in working through this,is that depression seems to have an overabundance of metaphors attached to it.

“It’s like drowning.”

“It’s like Suffocating.”

“I feel like a ghost.”

“Imagine being buried alive.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the surface, the number of metaphors is a good thing, because it means it’s being discussed. It’s also true that these metaphors have a certain accuracy to them, at least for certain people. But their limited nature can make clear communication difficult for individual people, and lead to damaging stereotypes; especially the idea that depression is strictly an emotional state, affecting only “emotional” people.  People untouched by clinical depression, and without extensive research on the subject, usually don’t understand the variability and pervasiveness of depressive symptoms.  Metaphors are often necessary to communicate these things, but it’s difficult to find one that is both accurate, and not overused to the point of meaninglessness.

The challenge then is finding metaphors that communicate something of both the objective causes and subjective experience of depression, while also referencing the variability of its idiosyncratic manifestations; not an easy task for a complicated disorder. One I’ve found very useful, interestingly enough, comes from a video game.  Designed like a classic platformer with great puzzle aspects, the game Fixation addresses the difficulty of navigating symptoms and treatment in daily life.  One beautifully simple way it does this is by designing its obstacle-course puzzle levels like the main characters house.  The struggle to get through each level, requiring increasing ingenuity an effort, occurs alongside the character’s discussion of her symptoms, and attempts to help her friend with her own.

My only complaint is the ending.  This game is a prequel to another game, The Company of Myself, which is pretty dark.  By necessity, the ending of Fixation needs to fit this tone, so I don’t recommend either game to someone looking for an uplifting experience.  However, Fixation is still a very effective humanization of depression, anxiety, and what it’s like to navigate those problems.  If any of you have time to play it, I’d love to hear your opinions.

Question of the week: have any of you found an innovative example of mental health being addressed in a productive way?



  • November 7, 2013 - 3:00 am | Permalink

    Hi! I’m busy applying for things so don’t have much time, but i didn’t want to let this post pass without pointing you to a post i just read at Queereka that touches on the same arc, and provides both some less helpful examples (+ reasons why), plus a suggestion for a better example, to your question. For my own part, i haven’t been successful at this in recent memory…but i’ll think on it.

  • Jaime Wise
    November 7, 2013 - 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! I’ll check it out.

  • November 9, 2013 - 4:16 am | Permalink

    Thank you for mentioning this game – it really does capture some interesting things that, as you said, defy easy metaphors. Unfortunately, I only got to play up to the second chapter because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the timing on those cursed smoke rings… aw well…

    • Jaime Wise
      November 10, 2013 - 4:36 pm | Permalink

      lol, that does take some practice. I won’t even tell you how long it took me to figure it out. Challenging as it is, I think that actually works to underscore the message of how difficult ir can be to navigate your life with those issues.

  • Jane Wolterstorff
    December 7, 2013 - 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I also face the difficulty of depression, and the myriad of metaphors and misunderstandings surrounding the experience of clinical depression. I did not have to make the decision to go public or not. That decision was made for me when, as a missionary in Russia, I needed to return to the U.S because of a depressive crash. The life and struggle of a missionary is inherently public – which also supplies much needed prayer and support. So, that decision having been made, I went with it…and spoke openly about my depression.

    In my circles, depression is the poster child example of a “spiritual” problem that somehow means something about the depth of a person’s faith (or lack of it). I learned that depression is a physical problem – a not so popular position among people who do not struggle against it. While emotional situations certainly can be precursers to depression (ie:grief, trauma), I am a strong proponate that medication is critical. The bodies ability to produce enough of the required brain chemicals to maintain a satisfactorily elevated mood has been reset to a lower default level (metaphor #1 that helps me) than needed. Metaphor#2 that I have used in certain circumstances is: a person with diabetes cannot “think away” the insulin imbalance in their body. They need to take insulin. Regardless of the cause of the low level of mood chemicals in their body – a person with a depression disorder needs to take an anti-depressant. Until that chemical level gets back to a normal level and the mood elevates, it is not possible to deal with any other emotional issues that could be relate to it – if those exist.

    I do believe that we may need different metaphors for different situations that we may face. So, sharing our metaphors gives all of us more tools in our toolbox ( metaphor #3 that I like).

    If only depression was named or defined by its physical characteristis, we would not have to battle the misunderstanding, as well as the depression.

  • January 23, 2014 - 2:01 pm | Permalink

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