The Healing Powers of Pokémon

I’m not expecting any SEO miracles from me posting something about Pokémon right now. Despite only celebrating its 15th day of life today, there has been no pop culture topic more talked about during these past two weeks than Pokémon Go, the free-to-play, augmented reality app that seems to have captured hearts and sculpted legs the world over. So, I’m not unique in bringing it up, and even the most astutely crafted blog post about this game runs the risk of falling into the Black Hole of Overused topics, but I’m here today because I just might provide a unique perspective for those doubting the game or stating that they “just don’t get” Pokémon.

First, a little background.

In 1998, I was eight years old and in the third grade. I was just starting to come to terms with two heavy realities in my life: my anxiety, which I live with to this day, and my parents’ looming divorce. While I had a lot of great friends, I couldn’t help but feel noticeably different from the flock, moreso due to the anxiety than anything. This fact would be told to my face the next year, but it was I who picked up on it first. I couldn’t go into rooms with high ceilings; I felt like I was going to get sucked into the atmosphere. I would cry instantaneously if someone said something mean, because I thought it meant they hated me. During reading comprehension exercises in school, my teachers would sharply question where I came up with things and would blatantly tell me I was “wrong” for interpreting stories the way I did. One teacher suggested to my parents that I may have had a learning disability. I just wanted to be like everybody else, but I never once felt like I truly fit in.

One thing that did help me feel connected to others growing up was video gaming. My two brothers and I had played video games since we had control over our own finger movements. Like many-a child at the time, we found ourselves at the feet of our parents to get copies of Pokémon Red and Blue for our Gameboy Colors when they first came out in the U.S.. What started out as a trend-prompted request became a virtual lifestyle shortly thereafter.

In the wee hours of the night – well, as “wee” as my brothers and I could manage without getting in trouble – we furiously trained our Charmanders into Charmeleons and, eventually, Charizards. My brother traded his Haunter to me so it could evolve into Gengar. I emitted increasingly loud groans when I ran into Chansey in the Safari Zone and could never catch her. This may sound like gobbledygook to someone unfamiliar with the games, but the overarching symbolism was what tied us to it.

To succeed at Pokémon, we had to invest hours of our time to train our monsters to be the best they could be. We battled in-game trainers, sometimes continuously, to reach increasingly difficult goals. My brothers and I had to work together to catch more Pokémon. In effect, the games were a fun, entertaining way for me to experience real-life responsibilities, even if they were in a fantasy world.

But I didn’t think of it that way at the time. Pokémon just made me so happy. I didn’t think about my anxiety when I played. I didn’t think about my parents’ arguments or those scary ceilings or my mean teachers. I didn’t really experience negative emotions while playing the game. Sure, I got casually frustrated, but the game was just too dang enjoyable for me to ever become truly disenfranchised with it.

While I never got into the trading card game and only infrequently watched the first incarnation of the anime, I continued to be a fan of the game series well into middle school. I let it go for a while in an attempt to be “cool”, as the fad had died down, but would secretly return to it from time to time, especially when a new game would come out. I continued playing in high school, but figured that in college I would “grow up” like everyone else and stop playing it.

Turns out, I needed Pokémon more than ever in college.

Between discovering my social identity, painstakingly learning about love through my rather intense, often damaging romantic relationships, and experiencing what was, at the time, one of the biggest decisions I had ever had to make (my college major), college was an animal far different from high school. After a hard day of studying, working with my student business organization, and hitting the gym, Pokémon was there to pick up the pieces and calm me down at the end of the day. Because I used it as a reward system after I had taken care of my responsibilities, I felt zero guilt sitting down to play it. It may have just been a game, but there was nothing else that calmed me down and brought me happy feelings so instantaneously.

As I transitioned into my whirlwind grad school year and began taking the CPA exam, Pokémon became an even more integral fixture. In order to get done what I needed to get done each day, I had resolved to breaking up my days’ commitments into hourly intervals. I don’t think I would have been as happy of a camper without my daily 30 minute-to-one-hour responsibility of playing Pokémon Black (the version I had at the time).

Which brings me today – and Pokémon Go.

I’m open on both this blog and my new one (cue mandatory plug of my new blog, Building Your Bold) about my struggles with anxiety and depression. As I get older, I not only gain more responsibilities, but become ever-more aware of the painful realities of this world, which unfortunately makes these illnesses harder to suppress and deal with. It doesn’t help that I’ve recently been having a tougher time than usual, likely because of my new relationship combined with creative struggles. (Keep in mind that I’m over-the moon happy in my relationship, but literally any relationship is so, so stressful for me at first, due to the amount of inherent risk involved and the amount of damage I am still undoing from previous ones.)

When Pokémon Go came out two weeks ago, I was nervous. On its outset, the game looked super different from its console predecessors. It was supposedly rife with bugs and appeared to be way overhyped. But I gave it a shot anyway, because it had been a while since I’d played Pokémon.

I couldn’t have picked a better time.

Pokémon Go has revitalized my desire to go on walks and explore the beautiful city I live in. It’s helped me feel more comfortable making conversation with random strangers, because I finally feel like I have something in common with people. It’s given me a reason to exercise more during the day, which is vital given the sedentary nature of my job. Best of all, it’s reminded me that Pokémon has always been there for me as a stress-reliever and all-around “happy-maker”. I know I’m not alone in this, as I’ve seen dozens of people around the internet say the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dropping everything else in my life in favor of Pokémon Go, and even though it’s great exercise (the game requires you to actually walk around to land items/catch Pokémon), I try not to spend too much time on it unless I’ve completed my “real life” stuff for the day. I still go to work, I still sit down for healthy(ish) meals, I still spend time with friends and family, I still volunteer, and I still make plenty of time for writing, pole, and all of my other hobbies. And to be honest, I think this is how 99% of all other Pokémon Go players are. Yes – even the ones who sneak in a gym battle or two during work hours :).

Moreover, I’m aware, albeit painfully, that Pokémon Go may not be here forever. The craze may pass and the creators of the app may cease developing new iterations. Worse yet, I may eventually find that the app doesn’t hold up for long-term play, especially since it’s so different from the console games I grew up with. I know that I may one day have to drag myself outside without the motivation of an egg hatching or a rare creature sighting to excite me. That’s okay. I can accept that and will enjoy it while it’s here. Plus, if anything, I always have the main series games to fall back on should I be specifically craving a Poké-fix.

In conclusion, I’ll say this: let people enjoy Pokémon Go and any other video game they might love – Pokémon-related or otherwise. You never know what kind of impact the game might have had on their life and you never know how productive they might be in their life outside of the game(s). And even if they aren’t productive? Who cares. I find life is most enjoyable when we focus on improving ourselves and not criticizing others. But that’s just me.

Now, excuse me while I try and track down the Hitmonlee I saw earlier.


Surviving Life as an Extremely Sensitive, Anxiety-Ridden, and Self-Critical Person

Up until age 12, I went to Catholic school. I don’t understand the lies the media tells people about Catholic school being austere or disciplinary – we had and did the coolest stuff. Even as a budding baby atheist, I was loathe to leave the catechismal system that afforded us a clothing system for lazy people (i.e., uniforms) and a get-out-of-school-free card that included a free cracker after 2nd grade (mass).  Among the other cool things we had were after-school class parties. These usually coincided with the end of the year and were a great opportunity to eat stuff like pizza and do cartwheels, since we could wear pants instead of jumpers and skirts.

The end-of-the-year party for fourth grade took place at an arcade, which in my mind was the best possible way to celebrate our ascent into the last year of elementary school. In attendance was the very first boy I had a crush on. I knew this was my chance to show off my best gaming skills and, by natural progression, become his girlfriend due to how awesome he would think I was. Plus, I was wearing my rainbow heart girly-girl shirt and had my hair done in two buns. My braces, freckles, huge ears, and spindly limbs would be hardly noticeable under all that hotness, baby.

I set out to win a funny-looking stuffed animal from a claw machine to give to my crush. In fact, I succeeded, and proceeded to seek out a suitable friend who would make the delivery and perhaps slip in the message of my admiration (obviously, I wasn’t going to give it to him myself – that was just crazy talk).

When I approached my most gregarious friend, whom I swore would be up to the task, she looked at me disconcertedly. She pulled me aside – in that we both walked towards the DDR machine, where others would be too distracted to hear what we were talking about:

“Ummm…Haley…I feel bad about this, but um, I saw Spongebob* holding hands with Sandy*. Then they went over to the basketball machine and he had his hands on her waist while she played.”

In an instant, my throat closed up and a searing warmth coursed through my blood.

“I think they’re dating. Like, boyfriend-girlfriend. I’m sorry, Haley.”

It was all too much for my ten-year-old self to bear. I started tearing up and walked outside, my friend following me. She continued trying to talk me down, telling me that it was okay, that he was stupid and dumb anyways (accurate, at the time). I started to feel okay, ish.

Then she said something else to me, something that solidified my growing knowledge that I was different from everyone else.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but…some people say you cry easily”.

She was right. I did. So I reinforced my own stereotype and cried some more.

My bout of sadness over Spongebob was neither the first nor the last example of my sensitivity rearing its ugly head. But the day I was told I cried easily is indelibly printed in my mind. My unrequited “like” for Spongebob faded, but I was left with the reminder that I’m an overreactor, a weakling, and a cryer.

The truth is, I’ve always been sensitive and although I handle things in a much more balanced way as an adult, I am still prone to being extremely sensitive. I still cry more than the average young adult female, for sure. Crying, contrary to what criticism others might have of it, is extremely therapeutic for me. It’s like the negative emotions are riding a waterslide out of my mind.

Others, though, have different thoughts. To many, my sensitivity – and crying – are not only disadvantageous to my development, but a clear sign of unprofessionalism. As a 25-year-old professional woman, I’m expected to be calm, cool, and emotionally collected at all times. Even in my personal life, I’m bombarded by statements that “big girls don’t cry” unless something emotionally devastating happens, like a death in the family. Or even more appropriately, when a movie like The Notebook comes on.

(I thoroughly despise such hokey nonsense as The Notebook and all similar films, and only cry when that movie comes on because it exists.)

When I was assigned to a different department within my old company a short while back, I found myself crying in the bathroom and/or my car for nearly an hour at a time, closing my eyes and wishing I could be transported away. Despite my best efforts to learn the (temporary) new job and put out as much work as I can, I was utterly dismissed by my team, who saw me only as a nuisance who got to leave earlier than they did. Since I was coming in more as a “reinforcement”, I was technically restricted to an 8-hour day, and only permitted to work more if I expressly stated a desire to. I never did. I hated that I had been pulled in against my will, I hated the way I was treated, and I absolutely despised the work. Crying in that gross bathroom was the only thing that got me through each day.

To add special flavor to my cocktail of dysfunction, I happen to be a particularly over-analytical person about both myself and the world. This is because I have the gift of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which I was diagnosed with in college and take no medicine for. When others ask me why I don’t take medicine for it, I have a painfully simple reason: I want to take care of it my damn self. Also, the potential side effects scare the crap out of me. Let me be as honest as possible, though, and say that I would probably benefit greatly from medicine, as many people would.

I do this through dedication to exercise, avoidance of (most) mass media other than truly good movies and documentaries, and dedication to making my dreams happen. These, as general as they seem, are things I recommend to absolutely anyone struggling with anxiety or depression. Largely because they are 100% in your control. They’re not a panacea, and some people may truly need medicine. But that’s a choice you can make after your own research.

(I’ll go into detail in my next post about why it’s important that we normalize mental illness in the workplace, and why taking medicine is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.)

Going back to the dysfunction, though, since that’s juicier: I hold myself to a ridiculously high standard – especially now, as an adult. When I devote myself to something, I have to be incredible, or at least have the knowledge that I will be incredible someday. I don’t have to be the best at everything, but I always make sure I’m the best at something. But oddly, I’m hardest on myself about how I treat those closest to me.

If I fail to make a family member, friend, or partner happy, I see it as a black mark against myself. I rail on myself, insisting that I’m a failure and a fraud. I look in the mirror and see a deplorable person, even if my offense was minor. I often make it worse by nagging the individual, asking repeatedly if things are okay, if they’re okay, if we’re good, if there’s anything I can do better. Understandably, this drives people nuts.

If I know this person less well than a longtime good friend, family member, or partner, I might go the other extreme and stop talking to them altogether, for fear of being reprimanded or told I was terrible. My lack of knowledge on how they will react paralyzes me. I actually did this recently, to someone who had become a very good friend. But I’m afraid of what she thinks about me now, so I don’t dare reach out to me first. The truth is, I know I acted terribly, and I’m sitting here, silently giving myself hell for it.

If you’re bored with this diary-like diatribe, I understand. But this entry isn’t meant to be (entirely) self-serving.

At minimum, I’m writing to anyone else who feels like I do. To anyone who’s dictatorial hippocampus (just real quick – that word is super hilarious, don’t you agree?) rules their entire brain. To anyone who feels like they’re alone with their horrific thoughts, even in the midst of a face-to-face conversation with someone they love. To anyone who takes their Spongebob going off with another girl as hard as I did.

At best, I want to save someone from certain thoughts, if only by asserting, “I exist. I’m here, and I’m a lot like you. Let’s talk.”

If you’re like me, you’re not too sensitive. You are just sensitive. That is okay, and is often wonderful. You are more susceptible to hurt, perhaps, but you are infinitely more susceptible to love, to understand, and to forgive. If you have anxiety, that’s okay, too, because you will do whatever you can to manage it. Even if you improve 1% a day, it’s a huge gain.

As far as how I survive personally, there’s a whole lot that I have to keep in line. For my sensitivity, I always endeavor to understand other peoples’ point of view to keep myself in check and make sure I’m not overreacting. I also let people know that I’m sensitive, so that they understand the ins and outs of it. The great upside to being sensitive is that I am sensitive to other feelings just as much as my own, and am an amazing listening ear. Not to toot my own horn, but…naw, I’ll totally toot my own horn. 😉

For my anxiety, I keep myself busy, always making sure that I’m part of a project or undertaking in addition to work. I make art. I occasionally play music and sing. Since I’m highly introverted, I balance time with the few but incredibly meaningful people in my life with my alone time. As much as I like this alone time, though, I cannot stress enough how instrumental others are in helping me accept my sensitivity and manage my over-anxious brain, provided they are a positive influence.

I mean it when I say that I am 100% here for anyone who wants to talk to me. Seriously. I have never shied away from internet companions; you guys were the ones reading my online GameFAQs walkthroughs 10-15 years ago, after all!

This entry was but a sliver from my struggle oeuvre. I have plenty more I can share to anyone who reaches out. Hearing how others deal with life in general is always helpful, so feel free to comment and share this freely.

Well, you can do this with all of my entries, but do it for this one especially. Someone might really need it.

Oh, and I don’t say this enough, but…thank you for reading this.

– H

*Note: Spongebob and Sandy are, regrettably, not the real names of those involved. But that would be awesome.