A Little Big Loneliness
After I survived a disastrous year abroad, dropped out of grad school and left a dysfunctional relationship, I was lucky to be able to move home to my parents’ basement. But that doesn’t mean I never felt trapped, some days.
I am grateful to have been able to return to a warm home full of people. Still, I was broken then, and alone with all the shards. I didn’t want the folks who loved me best to know how violently I’d been mugged by strangers or how ruthlessly I’d been wrung dry for money by the ex who’d met them all one Christmas. I was alone with the things I didn’t want them to see me as: victim, destitute, foolish, coward, co-dependent, nicotine fiend, master of denial.
Another thing that kept me lonely once I was supposed to be safe again was shame.
I’d been a grad student and now I was a holiday retail temp at a sporting goods store. A kid who bullied me to the point of suicidal thoughts in 6th grade used to come in and hang out in the athletic wear. We wouldn’t speak but he’d stare, seeming happy to have the upper hand once again.
To date, those are the darkest days of my life. And yet there were lights and catchy repetitive sounds and puzzles to keep my mind busy. Once home, I had access to every gaming system available in 2012 (thanks to my three siblings). The Nintendo Wii emulator was a giddy jump back into childhood. I was also ushered into the future with access to both an Xbox and a PlayStation 3.
An upper respiratory infection knocked me on my ass for the entire month of August.
I had no healthcare and no savings, which adds a unique flavor of misery to any illness or injury. I couldn’t work and was too dizzy to drive anywhere. It was hard enough to read for pleasure. I was both restless and exhausted, until my youngest brother offered to show me Little Big Planet.
I was 26 years old and this was my first PlayStation game since Twisted Metal for the original system.
I think I also need to mention that I got this humdinger of an illness while helping my ex-boyfriend babysit his toddler nephew. If that sounds innocuous, it shouldn’t. We were exes at this time. I am loathe to admit this but: he was dating someone else, someone new. I justified this to myself—I’d had him first after all. And I was bad bad bad and so very lost, I didn’t want to explain myself to anyone new. It was a comfort to reunite without someone who already knew me, and had known me before my life had taken such a nosedive.
We’d dated in high school and broke up, we dated in college then broke up, and all of my friends and family had let me know that breaking up was a GOOD thing. He held me back, wasn’t supportive, could be hostile to my friends, and I should absolutely let him go.
And I did … till I was home again.
Our time together became one more thing to obscure from the view of concerned loved ones. Before I fell sick we were hiking several times a week and holding hands through boggy ground. He spotted me by keeping his hand on my back whenever we climbed anything. Then I was picking his nephew up from daycare for trips to the park. We shared water bottles and very possibly bronchitis.
This sickness was just another excuse to be in constant contact: we had to text the moment our step tests came back (negative, but still expensive). When I told him what I was learning to play, he was elated. We connected online and could play levels, or even build our own worlds, together while we were quarantined separately.
The aesthetic of the game is difficult to describe, and that’s unfortunate, because it fits that First Love Ex-Boyfriend to a T. So that you understand him: He brought Anne Rice into my life when we were both 15 and we rekindled our spark over worship of Dave Grohl, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and Invader Zim. Think about the very first time you watched A Nightmare Before Christmas. That is what Little Big Planet feels like.
So that you understand the game: Characters are dolls really, but they seem meaner and tougher than the word suggests. It helps that they are brown with textures so lifelike I imagine I’ve touched them. Different weights of wool offer veritable shadows in between strands of “fabric.” We are not talking about Barbie here.
Players build and customize a doll, then drag this avatar along different levels. Teammates help each other move objects, collect sparkly prizes and complete levels, which are mazes or races. Yeah, it’s all scrolling and Mario Bros. is an ancient ancestor. (It should be no surprise that we live and die by “Overwatch” now.) But gosh darmit this was good clean fun. I got lost in those levels and felt my posture, sore lungs, and weary spirit ease.
I learned my own habits as a gamer, especially when playing puzzle games or aimlessly exploring boards: I talk. About my real life. If I am playing with, or just sitting in a room with, a person or the people I trust, I talk more when my hands mash buttons.
It was hard and perhaps the cough syrup loosened me up, for I confessed to my siblings, my best friends, about all the hard things that happened to me in the previous bad year. I also told them I was spending so much time with First Love Ex, because he felt safe and familiar. Even though he was dating someone else. I recoiled in fear of judgement, but none came.
Telling once made it easier to tell more, again, later. To others. To a therapist, eventually.
I started gaming again during a dark time and it made the world a little brighter. When my eyes were busy I could confess some painful experiences to the people who loved me best. It helped me recover imagination and creativity. It let me build worlds: first on screen, and then slowly, tenderly, to rebuild the one that is my life.
So small, the things that broke me: A knife at the throat. Living with a partner who drinks every day. Letting the first person you ever loved run a thumb over your lips while you feel guilty about what comes next.
Keeping these things to myself made them echo inside me, over and over, amplifying louder. The little big loneliness was the trap. Playing video games helped me imagine a way out.