Depression and Board Games or: Speculation on Subjects I Don’t Fully Understand or: Writing is Easy…

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The hard part, of course, is that this kind of post is now cliche.(1) It’s also tremendously hard to formulate. I mean, what’s my point here? What’s the thesis? Why do I feel pressure to create a singular thesis here, when I’m fine being ambiguous in other writings? My theory is that it’s a backwards defense mechanism–if I put this impossible criteria on the piece, I can’t ever complete it, which will fuel the demon just fine. So take whatever you want from this. As much as I loathe the idea of “genuine” self expression as good in and of itself, in this case it’s cathartic, and I’m fighting against it enough inherently to satisfy my scruples.

I’m depressed.(2)

What that means in my case is, of course, unique and special (note: not true). We all know the list of symptoms that define the condition, and that list is remarkable for how much it simultaneously pinpoints exactly what’s going on while communicating more or less nothing.

The best I can put it is this: when I’m particularly depressed my mind is such that everything–anything that happens or comes into thoughts–leads, logically, without ambiguity, towards the truth of my own awfulness. It’s not an exciting battle or an outside force acting upon my feelings. It’s reality as I know it, and it’s just as banal as the meta-assumptions in your own mind–the ones you probably don’t think about much precisely because they’re so much a part of you that you don’t separate them out for examination.

I take medication to help, and it seems to even out the weight of that perpetual logical conclusion. It still doesn’t take it away. The words “I hate myself” still sound as true and as obvious as “the sky is blue”, but on good days they simply don’t have much effectual power. They become words without meaning, like when you repeat a word over and over again that it transforms past meaning into that weird realm of unfamiliar (but familiar) sound.

“Grant me Lord to know and understand which comes first–to call upon you or to praise you, and whether knowing you precedes calling upon you”(3)

There are all sorts of other ways it manifests itself (can’t I have a normal nightmare that doesn’t feel like psychological warfare for once?), but that’s the core of it for me, I think. The hard part of talking about depression is that it’s so much a part of you that you forget what’s “normal” and what’s not. I also find it impossible to remember what it was like before I was depressed (was there a before? can it be bisected so cleanly?), or what it was like back when it was destroying my years in college, or what it was like a couple of months ago. I can’t trust my memory.

“In seeking him they find him, and in finding they will praise him”(3)

This is why telling a depressed person to “think happy thoughts” or “smile” is utterly useless. We can think sentences that correspond to a happy thought, and we can shape our mouths that way, but we don’t have any memory of their substance. There’s no weight or form to them. They’re nebulous concepts, drifting about with no real meaning. It’s like if I told you to “think as if you could flap your arms and fly”. You could think the words “I can fly”, but you couldn’t believe them, or (easily) create the mental experience of believing it.

The reality is a lot more painful and difficult, of course. I trust my wife, who has suffered my existence with a truly absurd amount of patience, when she says that the medication seems to have helped a bit. And while, as I understand it, there’s still a lot experts don’t understand about SSRI’s, they have helped a tremendous number of people. Experts have also helped a lot of people through therapy, which, in my experience(4), helps the mind bypass that logical trap I spoke of earlier. Hopefully it provides enough tools to bypass it entirely. In my case I know some of the tricks and with the help of my pills, I can create a bit of separation between my depressed mind and actual reality. I can, sometimes, pry open a crack with a mental crowbar and peer through it, wistfully. Often that’s enough.

One consistent theme among psychological research is that community is a positive force. If I were to think of depression as an intelligent outside force I might say that this is the reason my natural animal instinct is always to run away and hide from others.(5) I do exactly the opposite of what I should.

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”(6)

Board games are a delightfully communal hobby, and I’m not just talking about what we’d call social or party games. Nothing against them. I’ve had some fantastic times there. But even the most dry and non interactive multiplayer-solitaire Euro can be a beautiful shared experience with the others around table. Everyone’s in the same space, interacting with the same object, and everyone is presented with similar intellectual puzzles and choices. The mystery and design of the game is shared by everyone. That’s community, to me, as much as any game of The Resistance.

And what a cool meta-community around the hobby itself! Modern games draw us in for all kinds of reasons. But there are enough similarities in our experiences to create this massive, international collection of mutual empathy we call “the community”. (If we can keep it, of course.)

I’m not an expert, and I haven’t done any research on this (see footnote #4), but I suspect that the kind of communal experiences board games provide are fantastic antidepressant tools. It’s cliche (again), but spending some time away from screens and directly with others has to have a positive effect, on the whole. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that board games are some kind of magic bullet and that every single person should be playing them. That would be a ridiculous thing to say. But I do think they’re alright on that front.

More specific to my experience, and maybe not as universally applicable, I find board games to be a fantastic way of helping me contextualize depression-soaked decisions in my life. I’ve written about this before, but board games present very clear, very understandable problems, and then force you to make decisions with limited knowledge. They give you decision points distilled down to clearly recognized incentives. Decisions in “real life” are a million times more complicated, but they are siblings, maybe cousins, to the kinds of decisions in board games.(7) Even if I’m not cognizant of it in the moment, I know there have been times when I’ve been able to comprehend decisions I’ve had to make because of board games. With a mind that frequently has problems comprehending itself, that’s an accomplishment.

I also find board games to be a respite from a lot of the chaos in my head that I have to deal with every day. I used to find this in debate, which I participated in for 9 years, or when I got into a particularly good discussion, or when I was writing a paper in college on a topic that fascinated me (until that changed). I think when I engage my mind in a challenging but fun task it sort of pushes aside the dark, sad parts to make room.(8)

So now I write about board games. The fact that I’ve made it this far and that I’ve written this much is an accomplishment for me, though I constantly have to battle the part of me that says how unproductive I’ve been. Part of this “success” has been learning to accept missed deadlines and to not let them fester in the back of my mind.

Okay, I need to stop talking about me. But all I can think of to write is a trite “moral of the story” that I said I wasn’t going to do at the beginning of this. Oh well, being trite is a lesser sin in my book.(9)

For those also depressed, or who think they might be: you’re not alone–not even close. Your depressed thoughts are wrong, as much as they are real. Find people who will simply sit with you–in silence, or playing a game, or over the phone, or over the internet. Contact me. I’ll sit with you, as best I can.(10) There’s a tremendous amount of pain in the world, and everyone is innately, deeply messed up (no one’s unique in that regard). But there’s also grace.

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain

it must sometimes make a kind of singing.

And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—

First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing. 

For those without this particular struggle: be, as best as you can, someone who sits with others.

(1) Cliche in more than one way, even. The depressed writer has been a narrative forever, even though it’s directly harmful. I resisted medication for a while because I was afraid of it messing with my mind and taking the magic away, or something. Also, the person ‘coming out’ on the internet as having a mental illness seems like a passe attempt at self-promotion and eliciting pity. Though that’s horribly uncharitable. What else am I supposed to expect? Self-promotion is part and parcel of the internet age anyway; it’s built into the system and not unique to this particular kind of expression. Keeping this information inside is harmful. It’s a tough case to make that letting it out in one particular medium is bad while elsewhere it’s good. However, there can be troublesome applications of the confession. Furthering the depressed writer mythology is one of them. The point is to try help others. I can’t forget that, even though the temptation to self-promote out of some grotesque sense of self-pity is strong. I can’t lie–it’s there.

(2) Ugh, that makes it sound like there’s a weight on me, and while depression has been described that way, it’s not my experience at all. I’m struggling with depression? That makes it sound so sterile and distant. I am a depressed person? That seems to imply no hope. There’s no good way to communicate it. I guess I’ll still try.

(3) St. Augustine, Confessions. i(1)

(4) Past experience, that is. That it’s not current is probably a mistake, but I’m sure those who are or have been in my situation can empathize completely the truly bizarre set of anxiety and emotions seeing a therapist can produce. Do what I say, not what I do, here.

(5) I’m depressed. I’m also extraordinarily lazy. I have no clue where one ends and the other begins, and that’s terrifying. It’s also something I feel like I should understand, but trying to figure it out is definitely harmful in the short run. I hate this dilemma. I hate that I have to pretend that trying to ignore it is a morally neutral decision. I don’t know what it is, but I’d like to have at least some idea.

(6) Romans 7:15, 24-25 (NASB)

(7) Again, not an expert. But if I may speculate–there’s got to be a parallel here to developmental psychology in children, where play is a method of learning necessary social skills and assumptions. Maybe not even a parallel. It’s probably nearly the same thing.

(8) God, that sounds pathetic. (It’s not, it can’t be.)

(9) The post-modern sensibilities of the last couple of decades put the beat-down on sincerity by draping everything in ironic quotation marks. The western zeitgeist is slowly turning around, thank God, and let’s not stop that progress by shaming earnestness.

(10) Which often is not nearly enough. Forgive me, I beg.

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