I was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was 17. It was right around my birthday in January, and I’d just started college the previous fall. I was living on campus because there weren’t any other students my age that had parents willing to let them share an off-campus apartment, and my roommate, she was nice enough, but not someone I considered a friend. My first involuntary commitment to a psych hospital came, ironically, during a lecture in my psychology class. My interpreter stood near the professor, but instead of interpreting what he was saying, he was signing something else completely. He was telling me that the professor was lecturing about me, telling the class that they were all part of an elaborate experiment in which the whole world was a stage and I was the only one not in on it. My delusion was very much like The Truman Show, in which I was trying to live my life, and everyone else was a participant in the experiment and all got to watch my every move and screw up. I asked my professor to stop, and the more he and the class tried to ignore my interruption and continue on with the lecture, the louder and more agitated I became. I picked up my textbook and chucked it right at the professor and ran out of the lecture hall, made a bee line for my dorm and locked myself in.
I don’t remember how much later this happened, but someone, maybe the RA, got the idea that pulling my roommate from her class to try and calm me down was the best approach to the situation. It wasn’t. In my mind, her coming to our dorm was their attempt at damage control. My outburst had messed up the performance and it was not so entertaining anymore, watching me freak out and become wise to the experiment. She was sent to get me back on track. Eventually an ambulance came and took me away, tied down to the stretcher.
We arrived at the hospital and I wasn’t provided with an interpreter. I don’t know if nobody told them I was deaf or if they just didn’t care, but they decided that every movement I made in an effort to communicate, was me trying to get out of the restraints, and every sound I made trying to make it clear that I was deaf, was just more psychotic ranting. There was one point, before I was finally given an interpreter (some nine hours after my admission, I was later told) that my hair had gotten caught in a restraint and pulled painfully each time I moved my head. My attempts to get it out were seen as me just being more crazy and trying to hurt myself, so a nurse just cut it off. She lopped off my two foot long ponytail like it was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. It was then that I realized that having the thoughts I did effectively made me not a human being in the eyes of the rest of the world, and that was doubly true since I was deaf. It was then that I realized I’d never be able to talk about my thoughts and beliefs with anyone. Not ever.
I stayed in the hospital for three weeks, even though I was diagnosed on the day I was admitted and started my medication regimen the next day. I was relieved to have a name for what was happening to me. But that relief was personal. I knew I wasn’t about to go out and tell the world, “Hey, everything’s ok, I’m not crazy, I’m just schizophrenic.” I knew my discovery on that first day to be the absolute truth. I knew that whatever was wrong with me, even though it now had a name, made me less human, so it wasn’t something anyone would ever know about me. Not if I could help it.
That one delusion, the belief that my life is something being watched by the rest of the world to laugh at and judge everything I do, has been the one that’s stayed with me consistently over the last 22 years. Since then, I also started having visual hallucinations and a myriad of other delusions, all centered around the inability to determine what’s real and what isn’t. What memories do I have that actually happened, and which are false memories, or memories formed from delusions and hallucinations? That’s my daily question, daily struggle. That delusion is the one that keeps me from letting myself meet new people and build new relationships. It’s what would keep me inside my house 24/7 if my family would allow that. It’s what has ruined so many friendships in the past because I need people to meet me where I am, but can’t give them the same kindness. I have a couple dear friends that I’ve met on the internet and for me, our friendship is wonderful and fulfilling and safe, because when all of my interactions are logged on my phone or laptop, I can always return to them the next day, or the next week, and make sure what I remember actually happened. I’ve known a couple of them for years and have yet to meet them in person, despite having had plenty of opportunities to, because the way things are, existing in recorded chat logs and Facebook comments, is safe for me. But I know that’s not enough for most people, that I’m not enough because while they are all I need in a friend, I’m not what they need because I can’t be their idea of a great friend. I get set aside in favor of relationships that are in the flesh, tangible, and I can’t blame anyone for that. I’m sure I’d do the same thing if I was able to. Facebook messages or going out and having lunch and conversation with someone? There’s always going to be a clear winner there. I mean hell, it’s drilled into all of our heads, put down your phone and have real relationships, real interactions because the virtual ones are ruining society. And so, I have a hard time making friends. It’s not that I don’t trust them, although that is a struggle and it has nothing to do with them, it’s that I don’t trust myself, or my mind.
Video games have been a boon to my ability to build relationships. The Deaf gaming community and mental health advocacy community on social media are big and a positive force for change, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of both. Discussing games and advocating for better inclusion and accessibility has allowed me to become much more social that I’m naturally inclined to be, and while I still feel that wave of fear and self-doubt every time I hit the “Tweet” button, I’m far less isolated and lonely than I was even two years ago, just before I began doing deaf video game reviews.
There are numerous video games that let me do the things I can’t bring myself to do in the real world, and there are even more games that allow me to feel like I’ve achieved something when I may not feel that I have in any other part of my life. A lot of the games I play are very personal for me. In Dragon Age Inquisition, I can start and maintain relationships, gain a loyal following, and not have to always worry about what I’ll screw up because I can always go back to an earlier save and try again. In Skyrim, I can explore the world without any of the limitations I’m forced to accept in my daily life. MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV let me be a part of a group and serve a distinct purpose for the people I adventure with. I can do all these things in virtual worlds that my mental illness won’t allow me to do elsewhere. I recall reading an article by a man with severe agoraphobia describing how video games were how he could be social. For me, video games are a safe way for me to exist in a world and experience it without having to fear whatever is going on in my head.
*Some spoilers for the Prey story below*
Enter Prey. I didn’t know much about Prey before it was released, other than the fact that it looked stunning and that I was a big fan of every other game from Bethesda and Arkane. So I excitedly fired it up the day the first hour demo was released and was completely unprepared for the effect it would have on me.
The game starts with you waking in your apartment to your alarm, followed by a message from your brother, Alex. He’s welcoming you to your new gig aboard Talos 1. You can do mundane apartment things in your apartment, like shower, read your books, look at your family photo, pick up your video game controller and throw it across the room. Your goal is simple and ordinary enough. Get dressed in your work suit and board the helicopter waiting to take you to work. En route to the elevator you can stop to chat with a maintenance woman. The view during your ride to the office is breathtaking. You see mountains in the distance, a lovely suspension bridge, modern buildings, and a pristine sky. Your brother greets you inside and guides you to go begin your test.
The test brought me to my first of many WTF just happened, am I hallucinating IN games now? moments. See, games have been the one place where I can be 100% certain that my head isn’t screwing with me, because they’re games. The whole thing is not real and game worlds more or less bend to my will in that I can very easily escape them and put my mind on something else if one ever becomes too much. Not so in Prey. During your test, Dr. Bellamy asks someone to get him some coffee and in the last testing room, he reaches for a cup that has suddenly materialized on the table in front of him (right next to one that had been sitting there all along) and as he examines it seeing no coffee inside it, the cup morphs into a Mimic and basically eats his head before disappearing and you lose consciousness.
When you regain control of Morgan, you’re experiencing the exact same scene in your apartment that the game opened with. Same alarm message, same message from your brother, same mission objective; put your suit on and leave the apartment. The one difference? Your emails that were originally nice welcome notes and the like, have been replaced by one repeated message from someone named January. “DANGER. LEAVE NOW.”
This time once you walk out the door, you understand the meaning of January’s messages and the world is revealed for what it really is. Patricia the normal maintenance woman is dead, her head bloated and disfigured just like Dr. Bellamy’s and if you pick up Patricia’s wrench and hit the fish tank behind you, you see it was nothing more than a screen with a very realistic fake fish. Everything you hit with your wrench is discovered to be fake. Your view from the apartment is fake, the helicopter is fake, it’s all a stage that changes to fit whatever part of the controlled experiment you’re supposed to be experiencing. Once you’ve escaped your apartment, you come across a sign that explains everything. The world is a stage, everyone you interact with is in on it, and your life is The Truman Show.
This was the point at which I decided it would be best if I turned off the game, deleted it, and went back to wandering in Skyrim. Why? It felt like whoever made Prey had gotten into my head and recreated my nightmare. I play games to escape that, not revel in it and feel even more screwed up and backwards than usual.
Naturally though, my step-mom, who is a shrink and is equally fond of video games, decided it would be good for me to play it, in small increments, to see that it’s just a game that I could beat.
The more I played, the more I felt that Prey was an important game. Not for me, I still don’t feel like it’s serving the purpose my step-mom thought it would in helping me cope with my own delusions, but for everyone else. At least for me, Prey is a mirror of my schizophrenia, and it explains what I try to deal with on a daily basis far better than I have ever been able to. Anyone that plays through Prey and has an experience filled with wondering what’s real and what isn’t, who/what they can trust and what’s there to deceive them, is experiencing my life during a schizophrenic episode. And how better to learn about something than to experience it for yourself?
Early in the game, you’re introduced to January. You’re told she’s something called an Operator that’s holding onto the memories and directives that have been wiped from your mind. Everything she tells you seems to be incredibly helpful. She tells you of the danger you’re in, where to look out for enemies, and what you need to do to survive. For me, January is one of the voices that has been with me for over 25 years now. Most people think of schizophrenia and voices as harmful, awful things that are out to ruin you. And sometimes they can be. But a lot of the time, they feel like your navigational help through life. Some of the beings (it’s hard to consider my own “voices” because being Deaf and schizophrenic, they aren’t so much voices as they are beings that live in my mind and communicate with me in thoughts and sometimes, ASL) feel like my only friends in the world sometimes. They give me warnings, tell me what’s safe and what isn’t, who I can trust and who wants to hurt me. Mostly, they keep me from being lonely, which is exactly what January is in Prey. Your sole companion in a terrifying world.
A bit later on in your exploration though, you’re introduced to December. December gives you information that conflicts with that which January gave you. January wants you to die for the greater good. December wants you to escape and live. Who do you trust? Once again, that’s what goes on inside my head. The voices conflict with each other, and just like people in the real world, I never know who to trust.
The next trouble spot for me is the Mimics. They are alien life forms of some sort with the ability to take on the form of inanimate objects, such as the mop buckets and caution signs in the image above. Get too close and they attack, which leaves someone like me who is prone to paranoia, afraid to move and constantly exhausting myself through beating the hell out of everything I see to make sure it’s not a Mimic. While the fear of inanimate objects transforming into monsters intent on killing me isn’t a delusion or hallucination I have, it plays into the fear of constantly wondering what’s real and what’s not. That’s not to say Prey doesn’t speak to my hallucinations. Visual hallucinations, all very similar to my experience with my interpreter signing one thing and me seeing something completely different, are a part of most days for me. Playing Prey as a Deaf person without the help of visual cues when a strange noise is made, often leaves me wondering if I actually saw what I thought I did or if my mind is screwing with me, like in the image below. It’s your first encounter with a Mimic and until you get too close, all you see are brief flashes of its tentacles moving, which given the rest of the story of the whole world being fake, makes you wonder if it’s actually a thing or if the game has you paranoid that early on.
I’m still fighting my way through Prey while simultaneously fighting myself to get through it without completely losing it, and while I know it’s meant to be a fun, captivating experience that is supposed to mess with your head, as video games tend to be, I think if framed right and people get into it in the right mindset, Prey has a unique opportunity to teach empathy and show an experience most people can’t imagine.
Since first picking it up, I’ve made my entire family play it, and I know that even though it’s just a game, they understand me a little better. They have a better grasp of what I struggle with and even why I behave in some of the ways I do, that I haven’t been able to properly articulate. They get now why I’m afraid to leave the house, or why I can become inconsolable or wildly jealous sometimes when I witness them (or anybody, really) having normal relationships and friendships with people. They have a better understanding of me because of Prey, and therefore are better equipped to help me when I need it because they’ve witnessed what I fear and have feared it themselves, even if only in a video game. They’ve seen that what’s so often labeled by others as crazy or irrational behavior and thoughts is anything but that when experiencing losing touch with reality. You do what you need to do to survive the day, even if that involves beating the hell out of coffee cups with your wrench to be sure you can trust them, and it certainly doesn’t seem crazy or irrational in the moment.