Poems

Whispers

Whisper the words that give me permission to cry,

Whisper the key to my shuttered heart

So that it may beat again.

It has forgotten how sweet the taste of

Bloody emotion is.

Whisper the memory that pushes open

Rusted gates with overgrown mental weeds

Weaving around iron coping behaviours.

The hinges screech like anxiety in the morning.

They have forgotten how much they liked

To swing shut on unsuspecting moods.

Whisper the question that you’ve wanted to ask

The one that might undo the neglect

In this garden.

Whisper it

As loud as you can

But remember that your whispers sound like screams

To me.

Mental Health, Uncategorized

The devil of the thing is…

This is one of those things everyone has to write about at least once: Mental illness. And it’s my turn. I don’t know if this is going to turn out to be one of those ‘inspirational’ posts that is supposed to make you feel like mental illness is something fleeting, or if it’s one of those ‘eh, it exists, deal with it’ posts. My own personality leans towards the darker end of the spectrum, so I doubt there’ll be much happiness here.

But first, some history. Now, I’m only going to divulge enough to for you, reader, to make sense of where I am, and why it’s been so damn hard to deal with this.

I was born, prematurely (should’ve been born on Valentine’s Day, funnily enough), with a hereditary genetic condition known as Saethre-Chotzen Syndrome. It’s a mutation of craniosynostosis, and is a fusing of the skull’s plates prematurely while in the womb. A baby’s skull is soft and malleable, and grows with the brain. The mutation meant that this didn’t happen, and so the skull grows abnormally, creating a deformed facial profile.

This happened to me. I had a more severe form of the disorder than my dad, but through the good fortune of being born A) in the UK and B) at the right time, I was able to receive world-class and cutting-edge treatment from Great Ormond Street Hospital. There are pictures, and maybe one day, when I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll post them here. To add complications to the already quite unique situation, I was born with two large holes towards the rear of my skull, with the only protection of my brain being the skin.

The odds of someone being born with this disorder is 1 in 25,000. My mutation puts it up somewhere near 1 in 50,000. It’s rare enough that they initially didn’t know what to call it. I’ve only met people like myself at Great Ormond Street when I was growing up.

Needless to say, I grew up lopsided. My childhood was surgery, then convalescence, some school, surgery again, enforced isolation from anything that could cause problems (I couldn’t partake in any contact sports until I had the holes filled when I was 16), more surgery. I was asked to make major decisions about my surgery from quite a young age, and so grew up fast. My family is a subject for another day, but suffice it to say that we were… dysfunctional.

 

 

As you can probably tell, I do not have a good relationship with my body. I didn’t really begin to process the enormity of my early years until I was 17, and began to hurt myself in an effort to take back control of my body. I’m 33 now, and still don’t have a good relationship with my body. This is not the point of this post.

I now know that what I felt all through my teens and twenties was depression, poor self-image and anxiety, and it took me a long, long time to get help. I refused to see that I wasn’t coping well with feeling different and devoid of hope, and I still struggle now.

The worst feeling in the world is the absence of feeling; of knowing that you’re supposed to smile when something good happens, or cry when something bad happens; that you’re supposed to get angry when wronged. You’re not supposed to wrap all those emotions up in a ball and push them down until your body dissolves those feelings and turns them into numbness.

You’re not supposed to look outside and feel panicky. You’re not supposed to count every step until you get home and feel like you can spread yourself out. You’re not supposed to shy away from people because you were isolated for your own health. None of this is right. And yet it feels right. It feels comfortable and safe and soft, and feeling better is a story someone else gets to tell.

Arm’s length isn’t a saying, it’s a survival tactic, where keeping people out of harm’s way protects you and them. It’s about knowing that you’re a moment away from the grenade in your mind exploding and throwing emotional shrapnel at the ones you love. Depression is a friend who only ever takes, and promises to pay you back one day. Anxiety is the lover who makes you feel sick, but you trust them to energise you when the time is right. Or wrong. Or whenever.

Until you get to the day when your partner has been wounded one too many times by the sharp edges you leave out when you’re in your fortress, and says they can’t deal with it any more; that you need to get help taking down those traps, because they’ll hurt you more than anyone else. Until the day you’re sick of tripping over anxious breaths and stunted feelings, and want the colour grey to be forever gone from your palette. Until the day you realise that the friends who are still with you, love you even when Depression and Anxiety hog all the attention.

And then you realise that a day is just a unit of time, made to be filled. That it’s not out to trick you, but your mind is, all the time. Time is a thief, and it conspires with mental illness to rob you of your right to live; it is a villain in the story that must be vanquished before you get that happy ending. Time can be defeated, more than mental illness. But mental illness can be fooled, unlike time.

Pills help. So does talking about the past. The future still looms, but taking steps in the present lights a candle that shines just enough to illuminate tomorrow. The forest path through the mind is pitch black beyond that, but get to tomorrow and the day after takes care of itself. The medication cracks through the gloom enough to push you forward; the talking prevents you from looking back. The candle may flicker and sputter, but it is protected by the ribcage surrounding its heart. Each breath becomes a defiant roar against the world, and eventually… eventually that path will widen, and might even have an end.

But just getting to tomorrow will do. For now.

 

Mental Health, Poems

Skeletal Identities

I was born with two holes in my head,

One you could fit all the knowledge in the world into

And it would never fill up.

The other was filled was nothingness,

That threatened everything around it.

It wanted to swallow that knowledge and say

‘See, that junk is no good for you.’

I was born with a fused skull,

A brain that kept pushing

Because it wanted to break through the bone ceiling.

I had surgeries to give it

More room,

But it was never enough.

The brain grew too quickly and too wrong and now I don’t know how the brain wants

To see the holes in my knowledge

And how to fill them with life giving understanding.

I had the holes filled when I became an adult,

To keep in what I’d learned,

To show that I could be like everyone else

Whose bones kept textbook information

Faithfully organised

In uniform histories.

I turned down surgery to

Move my hairline back

Because I knew that my hair receding

Wasn’t a concern.

Instead I worried that I would lose my understanding

Of our differences in biology

And culture, the stuff

I tried so hard to keep

In a skull made with two holes;

 

One for learning,

One for forgetting.

Mental Health

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering… something.

It’s been a while, blog. I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting you for such a long time. I’ve been meaning to come back to you for a while, but a lot’s happened in a year. Probably too much to really detail in one post, I think. But eventually, perhaps.

So, why did I decide to revive this thing? Because I feel ready to start talking again. About what? I don’t know. When? I don’t know. But I do want to talk. I’ve been in therapy, to deal with a lot of long-standing issues, and it’s unwrapped a part of me that I’ve not used for a long time.

I’ve become a lot more politically activated in the past year; a lot more comfortable with sexuality (both mine and the wider world’s); a lot more comfortable talking about uncomfortable things. So I have a feeling this blog will become something of a sounding board for whatever rankles me on a particular day. Along with signal boosting the crap out of people I feel need to be heard.

I’m going to take this slowly, but I’m ready.

Mostly.

Gaming, Geek!

It doesn’t matter; it’s only a game.

Writing. Storytelling. Self-expression. An integral part of most creative endeavours, yes? Does a story form the core of an entertainment experience? Or is it merely an afterthought; something merely to shift a viewer/reader/player from point A to point B? I’m finding, more and more, that – in the gaming industry, at least – the latter is becoming seemingly dominant.

The subject for this post really just popped into my head as I was lying in bed last week and willing my mind to shut up. As my eyes closed, the last thought that shoved its way through the cracks in my lids (Indiana Jones-style, of course) was ‘huh, I wonder how many people are queueing up for Modern Warfare 3 tonight’. Of course, my brain immediately fired up and thought ‘STORIES IN VIDEO GAMES ARE RUBBISH. DISCUSS!’ So, here I am.

Modern Warfare 2 broke all kinds of records on its day of release two years ago, and by all accounts, the third will do the same tonight. For its parent company, it has already made an unfathomable amount of money. But why? If the general consensus is to be believed, the multiplayer component is the overwhelming winner. Which is fine, if you’re sociable and enjoy the camaraderie that is a unique aspect of the multiplayer experience.

If you’re a single-player, campaign-focussed and story-oriented gamer like myself, however, you’re a little more hard done-by. I bought MW2, played through the campaign, played the multiplayer for roughly 3 months, and then traded it in. Shocking, I know. Especially as the servers for the game (well, until the launch of MW3, anyway) are still full of people playing. What possessed me to do this?

Well, a number of reasons. Firstly, I got bored. Seriously. Few things can put you off a game as quickly as jumping into a match and being killed by someone, again, and again, and again. Particularly if they’re using one of the well-publicised glitches for which the game is now infamous. Secondly, multiplayer gaming is repetitive. Unimaginably so. I quit WoW after 6 months for the same reason. But enough people have stated this in many other posts, so I won’t dwell on this point.

(Those readers who might exclaim that these two reasons are really one: I separated them deliberately, as personal experience found the repetition mostly unnoticeable when I was actually doing well. It was only once I hit the mid-ranks that I realised that I was grinding.)

For me, the main reason for giving up on MW2 (and a lot of other games since) is that I felt its storyline was incredibly uninspired. This is also true across the entire gaming sphere, with a few noticeable exceptions (more on that in a minute).

I’ve recently taken a break from gaming, as GeekGirlCon really forced me to look at the wider problems facing geeks of all backgrounds. Sexism, racism, homophobia, etc….I’d done what most people had done, and stuck my head firmly in the figurative sand, pretending that if I wasn’t perpetuating it, it wasn’t my problem. It is, though. What I’ve felt, and noticed, in the past few weeks is an immaturity in the industry that I’d foolishly begun to hope was disappearing, albeit slowly.

Nope. Geek Feminism recently linked to a document by @fireholly99 titled ‘The sexism in video games bingo card’, which lays out, in a bingo card style, the variety of sexist comments aimed at women gamers. Hands up how many of you have seen at least half of these comments being made? Yeah.

So I go back to my initial reason for writing this post tonight. Storytelling in gaming, as well as the gaming industry as a whole, is immature, trite and riddled with clichés. While I’m aware that the movie, TV, music and publishing industries have their fair share of tat, there are numerous examples of well-written content in every single one of those realms. But when I look at my games shelf and think about what is there, and what was there, it gives me pause.

Leaving aside the sexism issue (there’ll be other posts for that), I have maybe five games that I will not give up, as their stories are what I consider to be the small hope for storytelling in games. In case you’re interested, dear reader, they are (in no specific order): Bioshock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Assassin’s Creed (I include all the games under this umbrella), Mass Effect (same again) and the Orange Box (and Portal 2).

(Please note that the following links lead to detailed synopses, and as such, WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!)

Bioshock‘s story is at its heart a power struggle between the Objectivist ideals of one man and the capitalist ideals of another, with your character as the pawn in the middle. Mass Effect, preparing for and ultimately (if the buzz surrounding the third is anything to go by) stopping the eradication of all sentient life in the galaxy (which itself owes a lot to the Revelation Space universe created by Alastair Reynolds) by a race of sentient machines. The Deus Ex series examines the increasing dependence on technology by humanity, set out against a backdrop of conspiracies and topical events, and which ultimately leads to its downfall. And so on.

I consider these to be some of the best examples of writing in games from the last few years, but they still play up to various clichés and tropes. Player characters (mostly male, notice, although Mass Effect happily allows for a female lead) with gravelly voices, dark pasts, races against time, conspiratorial organisations plotting for world domination… I could go on. So why do I consider these to be the shining lights in the industry? Because they managed to take these tropes and turn them into something interesting and compelling.

Bioshock and Deus Ex, in particular, emphasised the ambiguous morality of their respective worlds, and gave the player choices. Choices in how the story unfolds, how characters respond, how the tale ultimately ends. They use the medium to make the player care. Even when we are occasionally led along the same ‘I have a dark and troubled past, and therefore must find out why’ line.

There is a worrying trend amongst game developers and publishers that multiplayer is all-important. Or that graphics and gameplay innovations are more important than giving players a compelling narrative reason to use these neat tricks. Sure, it may be cool to have a weapon that can shoot angry squid at people, but I would really appreciate a reason for why the hell someone built it in the first place. (And yes, I did just pinch that gun from Despicable Me).

Mostly though, I find that the narrative efforts of most games are little more than orders. Go here, shoot that, solve this puzzle, get the shiny weapon/trinket/save the world (which is best demonstrated by the ‘Ramirez, do EVERYTHING! meme from MW2). I am a big proponent of games as a narrative medium, and it’s frustrating to see the most popular games either use the same basic plot as their predecessors, like the Pokémon games; or ones that revisit the same ‘alien invasion must be repelled by our noble troops’ trope, as exemplified by Halo or Resistance or Gears of War (which admittedly isn’t set on Earth, but it counts); or are the same D&D influenced fantasy fare that has been around since the early days, like the Elder Scrolls series.

Storytelling in gaming is still vexingly two-dimensional at the moment, with even the best games suffering from clichéd and well-worn plots. As much as it invites controversy, the Grand Theft Auto series does actually contain story. But it’s been the same rags-to-riches tale we’ve seen in each previous incarnation, just with more to do. And judging by the trailer that’s just been released for GTAV, nothing has changed. Two games that were heavily marketed as story-driven experiences, Heavy Rain and Alan Wake, both disappointed in that respect, as they both relied heavily on suspect plotting. Alan Wake, especially, I felt was woefully voice acted and uninspired. I feel alone in this, as reviewers heralded the atmosphere and plot line as being the best parts. I bought Heavy Rain, mostly because I want games like this to succeed, otherwise nothing will change, despite the plot being full of holes and contrivances.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on games. Maybe the industry is still in its adolescence and I should be patient. Maybe I’m the exception in wanting a creative medium to challenge my preconceptions about life. It’s disheartening, however, when I read that the industry generated £2.875 BILLION in the UK alone in 2010; that the average age of a gamer is 37 years old; that 42% of gamers are women; and STILL the average output is seemingly aimed at the coveted 18-25 male demographic, with guns, explosions and unrealistically proportioned characters.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’m tired of seeing an industry pretend that it’s mature, when it’s still drooling over comically oversized boobs or the specific way in which a player is rewarded for kills. Maybe I’m tired of never having a good enough reason to care about these things. Maybe I want emotional investment in the characters and their motives. I’m not asking for games to ape film or TV. There are many unique ways in which the interactive medium can convey story (see the branching story lines of Deus Ex and most Bioware games for examples, or Braid). I just want more developers to take a risk. I want more publishers to allow mistakes to be made, particularly if that developer has a track record for sales and quality. I want games and gamers to be more embracing of new ideas and new perspectives.

Video games really need to grow up. And soon.

Awesomeness, Geek!

Safety; or a lesson in geekery from GeekGirlCon.

As a male geek, life is a breeze. Being part of that coveted 18-30 (just) bracket, my whims are (supposedly) pandered to at every turn. I can walk into a comic book shop, or a game shop, or indeed most geek-oriented shops, and buy something that is aimed at me. Of course, this leads to complacency; a feeling that life as a geek is good. Which, in turn, makes it very easy to forget that this isn’t the case for everyone. Women, in particular, whose representation in the geek world is still sadly lacking.

Therefore, when Erica McGillivray told me last year that she and a group of geeky ladies were planning on organising an entirely female-centric convention, with a focus on celebration of the female geek, I was intrigued.

Putting the final touches on, before the doors open

(Full disclosure: Erica, myself and Lisa (my lovely, geeky wife) have known each other for around seven years now, having met at the first WriterCon in Vegas, so a concept such as this wasn’t entirely out of the blue.)

The idea was sparked by a panel at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, titled ‘Geek Girls Exist‘, which was designed to promote geeky women in a positive manner. So naturally, an entire convention centred around this idea had to happen. It needed to happen.

Fundraisers were held, Twitter and Facebook accounts were conjured, and an all-out push to create and promote the con was launched. Burlesque showsBuffy Summer’s 30th birthday parties were held; even a flashmob tribute to the Hero of Canton all helped to raise awareness of the con.

(From left) The Doubleclicks, Molly Lewis and Marian Call perform for the attendees

Now, flash forward to the weekend of October 8th and 9th. We flew out to Seattle the Wednesday before, met up with Erica (with whom we were staying), and immediately set to work making ourselves useful. At 6a.m. on Saturday morning, GeekGirlCon staff – and any volunteers who were awake (including ourselves) – arrived at Seattle Centre’s Northwest Rooms to begin the set up. Everyone was tired, but there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air.

As the sun rose over the city, the first of the attendees began to arrive. The excitement grew with the numbers, as time glanced pointedly at the clock (think about that one, would you?). There was a brief ‘holy crap, that line is HUGE’ moment just before the doors opened. And then… the world changed.

I’m not going to outline every single event that took place this weekend, but I will convey my feelings about the con. In short, approximately 2,000 people joined us in celebrating and welcoming the female geek PER DAY. Take a minute to just process that. I’ll add something else to help that sink in: the con was completely sold out. They were turning people away. Not bad for a first-year con, eh?

The GeekGirlCon staff posing for a photo.

Well, how was it? In a word: unbelievable. The atmosphere was warm, welcoming and safe. Every single volunteer had a smile on their face the entire weekend. The panels were informative, varied and fun. The cosplay was some of the best I’ve ever seen. But I’ll repeat myself here and say that the most important thing about GeekGirlCon was its safe and welcoming environment.

As a guy, there is a lot of privilege that needs to be overcome, not just by myself, but by the geeky community (and the world) at large, and it is humbling to see women of all ages come out to the con and just have fun.

I heard someone mention that the number of women attendees at Comic Con grew from just 10% (in 2009…? If someone could remind me, that would great!) to 45% last year. That is a significant jump. But looking at the various industries, content is still male-centric (for an example of how NOT to welcome female readers, look at the new Starfire design), and there is still a weird territorial and belittling attitude to lady geeks that needs to be overcome. To see GeekGirlCon succeed in the way it has is heartening, not to mention its significance on a wider scale.

The weekend itself was hard, tiring, long and manic. But it was rewarding, fun, manic (see what I did there?) and, above all else, inspiring. Seeing so much support from so many different types of people really made me take pause and realise, ‘I’m taking part in something important’. This is something important.

They are diverse. They are hard-working. They are geeky. They are women. They are here, and they are not going anywhere.