jekyllian

Category: nonfiction

The Petty Savior of Bioshock

Note: I have made a lot of empty promises about things I’ve written about Bioshock Infinite, so here is an essay full of rage about Burial at Sea, Part 2.

When I started Burial at Sea, Part 2, I wasn’t exactly excited. I felt anxious. Unlike those who claimed that Elizabeth Comstock was nothing more than a gameplay mechanic in the form of a girl, I connected with her. Like her, I had not one but two shitty father figures. Like her, I was a young woman who grew up with books. (She does bear a striking resemblance to my still-favorite Disney Princess, Belle, of Beauty and the Beast.) Like her, I was a sheltered girl who discovered her own power.

“It has been a year since the anxiety, since I first played Bioshock Infinite,” I wrote in my notes when I started the second part of Burial at Sea, referring to the worst bout of anxiety I’ve ever experienced. “I cannot be wholly objective about it, tied up in me as it is. It was one of the things that saved me, in a way. It has been a year and the prospect of actually being Elizabeth kind of terrifies me. In that way that loving anything deeply is always terrifying.”

I tell you this not to evoke any kind of sympathy, but to explain where I’m coming from: I know that there is no impartiality when it comes to me and Bioshock Infinite, and especially me and Elizabeth. I know that Elizabeth means more to me than she means to most people who played the game, probably. But even if I manage to set my own feelings aside, it is easy to admit that the ending of Burial at Sea – and thus the entire second part of the DLC – did the character a great disservice.
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a writing exercise

an exercise from writing group, about writing group. the prompt was to write a very long sentence and can be found in steering the craft by the fantastic ursula k. leguin.

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The group had gathered for the first time—each of them had some connection to the others, but she only knew one of them, or, that is to say, she had met some of the others but only briefly, at the birthday party of the woman hosting the group—they were to be a writing group, but this first meeting was more like a small get-together; there were many bottles of wine opened and drank and she could feel herself getting drunk and charming (at least, she hoped that she was charming; these people all seemed so interesting and attractive and she wanted them all to like her so very much)—she wrote down a joke that they kept coming back to, but later when she would try to explain what a “stack of dicks” was to anyone who wasn’t there, it lost its luster, as inside jokes always do, even when one documents their origins—and so the wine flowed, and she felt that friendships were being forged, and she was glad.

not really an update

So, I am continuing to try and figure out what I’m going to use this blog for, but in the meantime, you can check out some of the writing I’ve had published lately:

i. frenzy of the maenads (Voicemail Poems), which should really be listened to & not just read
ii. Sinners & Saints: the short-lived religion of the city of Columbia (Memory Insufficient), in which I pretend to be a theology scholar in the universe of Bioshock Infinite

From last April

Posting on a Friday evening is pretty much taboo, I know (who is on the internet on a Friday evening?), but regardless, here I am. This is a thing I wrote last year, in the midst of anxiety. Don’t worry, soon I’ll probably be talking about video games or something less intense than anxiety.

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The funny thing is, I’ve tattooed symbols of change on my body.

I am recalling the summer (and fall, and winter) of 2007, a year of hard change, a lot lately. I kept repeating to myself: snakes shed their skin to grow and heal from injuries. This year there are no injuries, but I have a feeling there will be enormous growth.

Jeanette Winterson, then as now, saves my life. I told her as much when I met her and she said, “Oh, well, that’s not so bad, is it?” Reading Why Be Happy now, at this point in my life, feels like fate, like kismet. She talks about madness as a process. She says: Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.

Somewhere along the way, I hardened. I blame DC, often, but it could just be adulthood. Academia rejected me and forced me into this wilderness where I have felt myself lost. (Another symbol tattooed on my body.) I used to describe myself as flowing like water but what am I now? Ice? Hard and fragile: that sounds about right.

The Weight of Anxiety

Last year, in early March, DC shut down because of snow. Excited for a day off in the middle of the week, my partner and I finished watching the first season of Homeland, which follows CIA agent Carrie Mathison – who believes that Nicholas Brody, a Marine prisoner of war, has been flipped and now works for al-Qaeda. After watching very male-focused shows like Justified and Mad Men, Carrie was a welcome and refreshing change.

I immediately identified with her – she was doing the sort of work I wanted to do in high school, when I was amped up on spy dramas and one of the few politically-minded people I knew. I had even gone so far as to apply for a CIA scholarship, which guaranteed summer internships and a job after college. I managed to convince my mentor to write one of my recommendations, even though he had deep misgivings about it, but I did not manage to convince the CIA. Years later, it was easy to imagine myself in Carrie’s place.

It was her struggle with mental illness, more than her career, that I identified with. The day after finishing the first season, I had an anxiety attack that lasted a week. And that was only the beginning of a months-long endeavor to escape from the inner voices that hounded me, telling me I was too crazy, telling me that everyone I loved would leave me.

Early in the show, Carrie reveals to Virgil, who has helped her spy on the Brody family, that the pills she takes are for her bipolar disorder. This moment solidified the instant connection I felt to Carrie – though not because I suffer from bipolar disorder. What connects me to Carrie is the weight of mental illness. It is a thing that bears down upon you, whether it is bipolar or anxiety or depression.

Carrie also reminded me most viscerally of myself at sixteen, when I self-diagnosed as bipolar because my time was spent either being depressed and anxious or manic. The girl who broke my heart would pull me in with some small kindness and then jab me where she knew it would hurt the most. I nursed that heartache for a year and a half. I called those periods when my depression mingled with anxiety over the future “existential crises.” (I was reading Camus that year.) I didn’t sleep because I kept picturing my own death.

So I wasn’t just with her when she became obsessed with Nicholas Brody, with her when she realized she might love him, with her when her heart broke – I was her. Her feelings mirrored my own so closely that it was hard to watch the last few episodes of the season, which depict Carrie’s mental breakdown. She spent a weekend in a cabin with Brody on a whirlwind romantic getaway, confessed that she spied on him, told him she thought he was a terrorist, and shortly after was hospitalized for injuries sustained during a bombing. Like Carrie, I wanted some sort of reconciliation between her and Brody. My heart broke with hers when it became increasingly clear that such a thing would not happen. I wanted things to be okay for Carrie, because I wanted things to be okay for me.

While Carrie’s life unraveled, I felt like the strands of my own life were being tugged apart. A dear friend moved across the country. My grandfather died. On the day of the wedding rehearsal of one of my best and oldest friends, I got a call telling me that my grandmother had also died. My partner applied for grad school, making the future even more unclear. My responsibilities at work increased dramatically. But watching Carrie’s breakdown seemed to be what broke me.

I found myself unable to breathe, trying desperately to suck in oxygen. My mind ran wild with negative thoughts like an oversized, vicious dog I couldn’t control. My heart tightened as though anxiety had fingers that could wrap around it and squeeze. I cried all the time – most embarrassingly at my desk at work – and over anything. The tiniest provocation would bring me to tears. I could not get a handle on myself. I knew that if I could not get a grip, my crazy would drive everyone, especially my partner, away from me. Who would want to deal with me, with this, after all? I certainly didn’t want to. If I was getting tired of dealing with it, I couldn’t imagine how bad it must have been for the people who had to put up with me. I reached out to friends, unloading my anxieties on them, apologizing as I did so for being out of touch and then burdening them with my problems. (Each and every single person I opened up to in that time period told me they did not mind. It was pretty much the only good thing to come out of the anxiety, that blessing of friendship.) That week I thought that the shape of my life had changed, that I would be a mess of anxiety forever. I was terrified that I would never get better.

Suddenly I understood what would lead Carrie to electroshock therapy. Yes, I thought, I know this desperation. I would have done anything to get rid of the near-paralyzing anxiety I felt almost all the time. I called a dozen therapists (one of whom graciously scheduled an appointment with me that same week). I would have taken pills. I would have, yes, probably even have undergone electroshock if someone had guaranteed it would work.

I’d had bad bouts of anxiety before. As I mentioned before, I suffered through insomnia, depression, and anxiety when I was sixteen and heartbroken. Despite the year and a half that I clung to that familiar heartbreak, it never felt as unending as that week in March did. It was akin to the dripping of a leaky faucet: more or less constant, with some moments of solace in between. Four years after that, at the end of my junior year of college, I was dumped. That time depression and anxiety mingled and I started to experience anxiety attacks: unable to breathe, feeling alone no matter who tried to comfort me, knowing with certainty that nothing would ever be okay. I found myself wishing to go home to a state I hated. I wrote pages upon pages in my journal. I self-medicated with booze and Jeanette Winterson novels.

None of it compared to that week in March. It truly felt like it would never end. When I thought about it, though, one thing seemed odd to me: generally before a bout of really bad anxiety, I had my heart broken. There was no such impetus this time – unless, of course, you count my empathetic heartbreak for Carrie. I can’t say for sure if it was actually connected with the onset of my anxiety last year, but the fact remains that Carrie Mathison (circa the first season, anyway) is an unusual creature on television. The show never seemed afraid to show her at her worst (or craziest, for that matter), but it still maintained a sympathy for her. It was easy to watch her make choices and know they were both unhealthy and inevitable.

Luckily for me and for national security, any unhealthy and inevitable choices of mine were not made on such a grand scale as Carrie’s. (It is probably for the best that I did not wind up going into government work.) They were much smaller things. At sixteen, I continued to try to be friends with the girl who broke my heart while she tore me down piece by piece, all because I couldn’t stand to lose her. At twenty, I had learned that particular lesson and I resolved to stop talking to my ex but tortured myself with social media, which made it easy to see how well he seemed to be doing.

I saw myself in all of Carrie’s worst qualities, regardless of scale, and some of her best, too. (Especially the ones that pertained to her romantic life. She may have fallen for a terrorist, but look at what a huge capacity for love she had. Carrie loved Brody so much it threatened to destroy her and nearly did.) Anxiety – along with depression and several other mental illnesses – lies to you. It tells you to believe all of the bad about yourself and none of the good. It urges you to hide your “real” self from everyone else, because if they knew what you really were they would leave you. It whispers to you to pick up the knife, the pills, the gun. It assures you that you are not worth it. And the worst of it is, knowing yourself as you do, having lived with mental illness as long as you have, you know exactly what to tell yourself to make it really hurt.

I gathered an arsenal of tricks to see me out of that prolonged anxiety attack and the months of anxiety that followed, but one of the most used was constant vigilance. I had to keep reminding myself that so many of my negative thoughts were anxiety lying to me. My partner asked me, during the writing of this, if showing Carrie at her craziest made me feel less crazy and the answer is no, it did not. But it did make me feel less alone.