How Dungeons & Dragons Helped Me Make Sense of My Mania
The simplicity and certainty of the game was precisely what I needed. Who was I to refuse the guarantee of a certain reality?
The Curse of Strahdcould
I was back home after some time teaching abroad, unemployed and unsure of my future. I found myself relying too much on the routine of friends’ assurance to provide comfort amid the blank days. Again and again I’d call at all hours to ask: “Am I a good friend? Am I a good person?” If my texts were left unanswered, or loved ones simply took too long to respond, I would call them heartless on Facebook or accuse them of cruel betrayals. Soon, invitations to parties and group chats ended. I was left in the dark. My best friend emailed me to break things off: “I don’t know who you are anymore.”
Slowly, the boundary between reality and fiction eroded, grew porous. My brain no longer informed me which territory I belonged to. I read articles of murders or other unspeakable crimes and then believed—immediately, fervently—that I was their perpetrator. Driving became a fraught endeavor. Once, I dragged my mom out of bed to have her drive with me miles away to a lonely parking lot. In the dark, I was convinced that a speed bump had been a body. Another time, I begged my dad to take me to the county sheriff’s office: I thought I’d committed a hit-and-run I’d seen on the local news, and since it was only a matter of time before the police found me, it’d be better if I took the matter into my own hands and confessed to the crime myself.
My mind was a cracked prism through which I peered out into the world, and it was all I had. Unmedicated and undiagnosed, I had no idea how to mitigate this cognitive distortion. All I knew was that, somehow, I had to find a way to turn off my brain.
I soon found an answer in alcohol. Or, rather: I returned to the consistency of its promise. At least, through drink, I could control a loss of control. Rather than lie in bed and allow my brain to churn out its nightly conspiracy, I took covert sips from a bottle of wine or whiskey that I hid in a shoebox in my bedroom closet to avoid its discovery by my teetotaler parents. I never went out at this time—the thought of driving, let alone drunk, was enough to induce a moderate panic. Instead, I drank and drank alone until the weight of this alcohol-induced anchor dragged me beneath the waves of sleep. Blackouts, inevitably, became the sole goal of my drinking—a scheduled oblivion.
I began to plan my death. I constructed a scaffold of logic around this premise: I’d never get better. It was only a matter of time before I hurt someone for real. I saw, therefore, death as a preventative measure for further harm—a fate that I could control. I planned to try it when my parents took a three-day weekend. My childhood dog had just died, and we had a leftover bottle or two of his painkillers. When my parents left, I went to a specialty wine store and purchased a seventy-five-dollar bottle—for me, at twenty-five-years old, the most expensive one I’d ever bought.
It’s clear now that a voice in my brain still begged for survival: There was no way in hell a dog’s dosage of medication would be enough for me. And I still couldn’t bring myself to spend more than one hundred dollars on what was meant to be my final bottle of wine. That night, I drank it all, and I left the medication untouched. I vomited until my lungs felt raw. I fell asleep on the linoleum. A week later, I admitted myself voluntarily into a monthlong intensive outpatient program at the Methodist Hospital.
“We think it’s bipolar II,” my therapist told me, after a bevy of tests meant to codify and unify my symptoms into a recognizable diagnosis. I remember I cried. There was relief in being able to give a name to the ache. My unbidden fantasies of violence were labeled as “intrusive thoughts.” My fear of imminent prosecution for my apparent crimes was called “paranoid ideation.”
I had what was called Harm OCD, a subset of OCD in which sufferers tend to obsess over thoughts of hurting others. Most of all, I was offered the talisman of a routine: From eight to twelve every morning, I sat with other patients diagnosed with variations of bipolar disorder. We talked about our emotions, or quantified them within a manageable scale.
Around that time, shortly before the inpatient program—I think, although thanks to the nature of my illness, the chronology of that year resists a confident order—I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. In childhood, I’d heard of it yet avoided its call. Although the Satanic Panic of the ’80s had worn off throughout the country by the mid-2000s, it lingered in my Southern Baptist church, where witchcraft and its “demonic influences” were still considered to be an agenda of most “secular” culture.
Later in life, rid of Sunday school and its admonitions, I became an immediate convert to D&D. The escapist nature of its narratives at first appealed to me, of course. Unlike the true crime TV I watched with my family, whose horrific acts of violence I absorbed and believe I committed, the fantastical conflicts within D&D podcasts like The Adventure Zone or shows like Critical Role were more resistant to this kind of interpretation. It was somewhat harder for my brain to persuade me that I did, in fact, murder, say, a ragtag band of goblins who lurked within the mossy throat of a cavern.
But what I loved most of all were its numbers, its knowable rules, its conquerable mechanics. D&D strived to capture the ephemeral dragonfly of Abstract Thought within the flimsy amber of data. Example: In D&D, a character’s physicality and personality is dissected into six measurable categories—their Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Each attribute is given a rating from one to twenty, which in turn can influence a character’s chance for success in a given action. As I soon learned, due to D&D’s apparent urge to translate all facets of human nature through the cogs of its ceaseless mechanics, even mental illness could be recast as a character trait, and therefore made palatable by its rules.
Years later, I discovered characters such as Critical Role’s Caleb Widogast, whose traumatic history with fire led him to develop symptoms of PTSD and who was asked to perform a Wisdom Saving Throw to shake off those intrusive memories whenever he set his foes aflame. I watched Dimension 20’s Adaine Abernath, an ambitious and scholarly high schooler who suffered from anxiety and whose panic attacks were likewise caused by an unfortunate roll of the dice. While this act of reskinning mental illness into game mechanics robbed these actual diagnoses of vital nuance, the simplicity and certainty that these mechanics offered was precisely what I needed.
Who was I to refuse the seductive guarantee of a certain reality?
I started to recover. I assembled the skeleton of a routine. In the evenings, I watched hours of D&D or listened to D&D podcasts on the commute to my new job. In the mornings, I continued to sit and sip burnt coffee with the other patients as we ran through worksheets and exercises meant to provide a form to our formless emotions.
“Let’s sit with our uncertainty for a moment,” Robin, our group counselor, told us, toward the end of my stint at the hospital. “Where do you feel it in your body?”
Perhaps, for some, uncertainty manifested as a quavery shake in the hands or a dull weight in the chest. When I was asked to identify how uncertainty expressed itself within me, I remember I said it wasn’t inme, but besideme, around me. It was a ceaseless entity that loitered in the corner of all rooms. Whenever I woke at night in a bloom of acrid sweat, uncertainty was the visitor who sat at the foot of my bed, apathetic yet ever observant.
Now, with years of therapy, I describe uncertainty as a high-maintenance roommate, someone with whom I’ve resigned myself to coexist. It’s a shitty circumstance, to be sure, but I can’t evict him. I need him from time to time. So instead I have learned to live in his presence all these years. And, before this year, I thought I had gotten pretty good at it.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Cue: a global pandemic.
Before the lockdown occurred in earnest, I drove from Las Vegas back to my childhood home in San Antonio, where years ago I hid those bottles of wine in the throes of my breakdown. At first, this disruption of routine was a welcome respite. During the days, I shoveled homemade nachos into my mouth while playing Stardew Valley until I passed out at 9 p.m. to relistens of Not Another D&D Podcast. But soon, the lack of structure got to me. Things would be “back to normal” by the end of March, they said. Then: We’ll need fourteen more days, tops. Then: Who knows if we’ll ever return to “normal,” whatever that is.
Meanwhile, my anxiety over this nationwide uncertainty announced itself, grew bolder. I began to develop symptoms of hypomania—a rare occurrence, for me. I’ve called hypomania the “Caffeine Drip,” because that’s what it feels like to me: like an IV filled with the strongest coffee is pumped right into my veins. I didn’t sleep for seventy-two hours because my body told me I had no need for it. One day, I wrote over five thousand words in a ceaseless bout of productivity.
A reckless species of joy inhabited me—I burned furiously, relentlessly, like a firework trapped in a jar of quartz. But it wasn’t long before I became scared of this joy. It threatened to swallow me whole. No longer could I withhold control over my body’s behaviors. Now, its fickle biochemistry dictated my days. Soon, I again found myself online. I wanted someone to tell me how much of my Klonopin would be “enough.”
Instead, my rational mind intervened and reminded me of ways to cope. So I reached out. I asked old college friends if they’d like to start a D&D campaign—an idea we entertained but never had the time to realize. We began. I helped the newcomers settle into the familiar back-and-forth pattern of collaborative storytelling that D&D offers: (1) I’d describe to the players, say, the interior of the Durst manor from Death House, with its crackling hearth and cobwebbed oil portraits of a reclusive gentry, and I’d notify them of a locked door that barred their entry to the rumored dungeons below. The players, in response, would (2) tell me how they’d like to try to unlock the door: with lockpick, or brute force, or, as Will’s paladin suggested, “Maybe we can stick that skeleton’s fingerbone in there.” I’d then (3) ask them to make the relevant D20 roll to see how well they’d succeed.
While the player’s chosen action determined the difficulty of the roll they’d have to achieve, there were certain objective laws our game had to follow: If the player rolled a Natural One, it was deemed a Critical Failure, whereas a Natural Twenty was a Critical Success. And no matter what, as the DM, I had to honor the dice. They were beyond my control.
This world was mine, after all. I held sovereignty over its construction.
The uncertainty of the dice added a dash of chaos, sure, but the narrative the DM could provide in their wake was wholly of my own making. If a character failed, I couldn’t control the failure, but I could control the severity of its consequences. If a player couldn’t open a locked door, I could choose whether or not this failure meant either they got a weak splinter jammed in their finger, or, I don’t know, an asteroid hurtled to earth and obliterated the entire party. I could also elevate the accomplishments.
I aimed to craft a story that tried (and tries) to arc toward a magnitude of joy. I chose to be gentle to my players in moments of failure. I went wild as hell when my players succeeded. And I’ve tried to do the same with myself at the end of each of these days. I can’t control what happens to me, to us, in the midst of this uncertainty—but I’ll try my hardest to control the story I tell myself about 2020 each night as I prepare myself for rest.
As I write this, we’re still about eight months into the pandemic. The “I Am Sober” app I’ve downloaded to my phone tells me I’ve now been alcohol-free for over a year—or, rather, one year, one month, thirteen days, three hours, fourteen minutes, and forty-five seconds. I still attend therapy every two weeks. And we still play our D&D campaign just as often.
A month or so ago, my friends’ adventuring party, the Blades of Barovia, awoke beneath the base of a massive tree. As the rest of the party doused the dying cinders of their campfire and prepared themselves for the trek ahead, Jared’s character, a Blood Hunter named Zeph, snuck away from the group to feed his addiction: Dream Pies, said to offer vivid pleasures whenever a person sleeps, and whose ingredients include the crushed bones of children.
“Zeph’s about to run out of Dream Pies, you know,” I reminded Jared. “What do you want to do about it?”
“I think,” Jared started, “that Zeph will try to realize that he should get rid of the pies. Should I roll something for that?”
I wasn’t sure what I could offer. The addiction was governed by a game mechanism—so surely Zeph’s attempt at recovery could be made into a mechanism as well?
“Roll a Wisdom Saving Throw,” I told him. “You have to get a fifteen or higher. If you succeed, Zeph will know it’s time to ask for help.”
Jared rolled the dice, twice. He cursed under his breath.
“Fourteen, total,” he told me. “Dammit. Zeph still wants the pies.”
What could I do? I had to obey the dice. Zeph would feed his addiction for another day.
Still, I exerted control over what I could in that moment. Through Julian, a coffin maker’s apprentice and my personal avatar within the game, I could tell Zeph what I’d needed to hear back in the midst of my breakdown. I could tell him what I wish my friends had told me when I was at my worst. I could offer him the advice I needed then—and have managed, despite it all, to give to myself now.
“Julian puts his hand on Zeph’s shoulder,” I narrated. “He leans in. And he tells Zeph, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll be here whenever you need me.’”