I love Dungeons and Dragons. I enjoy losing myself in the storylines and character development. The excitement of rolling a crit and the general shenanigans that parties get into are some of my favorite things about D&D. But to me, it’s more than just a game. It was a lifeline.

[Trigger Warning: This article discusses depression and suicide. Please be advised.]

A Personal Story

It was the spring semester of my sophomore year in college. 

A group of friends and I were considering starting a game of Dungeons and Dragons, but it hadn’t ever come to fruition until then. I had no idea what I was doing — it took me several hours to fill out my character sheet. After lots of consideration, I ended up writing a half-elf fighter named Valzana.

I texted my boyfriend (let’s call him Dan) and rambled on about my new character. Our relationship was beginning to unravel, and I thought being excited about something would help. All he said was “cool.”

I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t seem to care, but I didn’t have time to focus on that. I was taking eighteen credits that semester. Two writing classes, two project-heavy classes, upper level German, and a T.A. position. The amount of work I had bogged me down and it took a toll on my mental health.

However, for the first few weeks, the excitement of starting my very first campaign is what got me through school. I wasn’t too bothered by classes because I got to play Dungeons and Dragons on Fridays. So what if my major classes were awful? I got to kill an ogre with a shield that had a giant spike on it. It was cathartic.

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Collection of Dice, pt. 1 [Image courtesy of Haley Paterson]

Things Go Wrong

On February 25th, I went to dinner with Dan and a few friends. Dan was particularly quiet that night — he wouldn’t look at or talk to me, and he kept his gaze focused on his food. 

I was riled up because I had two big stories due within two days of each other. I have a habit of accidentally yelling when I get excited. Everyone I was with knew that, and we had an established pattern of just politely telling me to be quiet. This time though, Dan slammed his hands on the table and loudly shushed me, cutting me off. He glared at me before going back to his food. I excused myself quickly enough before the tears came. One of my friends drove me home early.

Dan broke up with me over text.

In that week’s Dungeons and Dragons session, Valzana shouted at everything.

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Favorite Stories and Handbooks [Image courtesy of Haley Paterson]

Petunia

I went home for spring break on March 3rd. My emotions were still raw, but I was away from everything. I didn’t run the risk of seeing Dan because I was home with my mom and my eleven-year-old dog, Petunia. We drank hot chocolate and watched empowering movies, and I was never expected to get over my sadness. I told my mom about my character.

Petunia was a healing presence. For almost all of my working memory, she was there. My parents’ divorce, getting the lead role in a school play, an abusive high school relationship, a surprise birthday party. She was a constant in my life no matter what, and I loved her so, so much.

That week I was home, she wasn’t doing too well. She had an awful cough, and she couldn’t jump. Whenever she wanted to get on the couch, she would get her front paws up and stare at me until I helped her the rest of the way. One day she wouldn’t eat — and she was the most food driven dog I’ve ever met. One time she ate an entire rotisserie chicken in under thirty seconds. The not eating really concerned us. Maybe that should have been a signal.

Still, I was glad to be around her. I drove back to school on March 11th. Before I left, I kissed the spot on top of her head and told her I loved her. She looked up at me with her big brown eyes and gray face and wagged her tail. I gave her a snack for good measure. It hurt me to leave — once I closed the door and headed to my car, I could hear her howling. She hated when her people left.

On March 12th, she died.

Petunia
Petunia, 5-31-2016 [Image courtesy of Haley Paterson]

Breakdowns and Podcasts

I think this is when the depression really set in. I had to deal with an ending of a year and a half long relationship and the death of my childhood pet within a span of two weeks. Getting out of bed was almost impossible. There were times when I thought to myself, “if I went to sleep and didn’t wake up, I wouldn’t be upset.” I didn’t want to live.

The only thing I was enthusiastic about was Dungeons and Dragons — it was an escape from the grief within my reality. I could project my ideal version of myself onto my character. Valzana was physically strong when I was weak. She is kind of dumb when I had to be smart for the sake of my grades. She is confident and outgoing when I was a nervous wreck. Valzana isn’t afraid of life where I started to have my reservations.

Eventually, my group broke up. I couldn’t get enough of D&D, though. It’s like I almost needed it. I searched for something, anything, to help me cope when I stumbled upon The Adventure Zone podcast.

I listened to that podcast constantly. It played on my way to school, before bed, before and after homework. It made me laugh — really, genuinely laugh — for the first time since before the break up. Magnus Burnsides was my favorite character — he was a lot like Valzana. It felt odd projecting onto someone else’s Dungeons and Dragons character, but it helped me deal with things.

Character Sheet
Valzana’s Character Sheet [Image courtesy of Haley Paterson]

Life

On one of my particularly bad days, when I was contemplating life and whether or not I wanted to experience it, I had it playing in the background. The group’s healer, Merle, was talking to the big bad of the story, John. They were also talking about life.

“What brings me joy is life. I think you can find joy anywhere in life, I think it’s a conscious choice. I think you choose joy. And no matter how bad things are, no matter how crummy, how dark… you find joy,” Merle said. 

Then John told him that life is pointless.

Merle replied, “Kiss my ass, you sanctimonious bastard.”

I think back on that now, and I’m so thankful. The aggressive positivity of it helped pull me out of a dark place. Whenever it happens now, I can’t help but think of “kiss my ass” and feel better.

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Collection of Dice, pt. 2 [Image courtesy of Haley Paterson]

Thanks, Travis

It was late May, and I was out of school for almost a month. Since I didn’t have to deal with school, I thought I would get better. But I didn’t get better like I thought I would — I was getting worse. I thought that the lack of assignments would give me time to focus on myself. Instead, not having anything to do gave me a lot of time to be anxious.

Travis McElroy, the mind behind Magnus (and someone I’d grown to look up to), tweeted: “Dear everyone, but especially teens: It is perfectly normal to feel frustrated/confused/lost/anxious/other not-great emotions. Everyone at some point has felt them. More importantly, not only is it okay to talk to someone about what you are feeling, it is GREAT!”

And I’m not sure why that tweet was any different than any of his others (they were all that positive, for the most part), but it stuck with me. It motivated me enough to get out of bed and actively look for therapists. For the first time in months, I wanted to take control of my life.

In June, I started going to therapy. In July, I started antidepressants. My therapist told me to find a creative outlet to help with the healing process. I wrote characters in my free time.

It was the fall semester of my junior year in college. My group got back together, and Valzana was a more well-rounded character.

Now

I’m in a much better place, mentally. The depression still lingers and I have my bad days, but I’m able to manage it. I still listen to The Adventure Zone to feel okay, and Dungeons and Dragons remains a healthy outlet. I don’t know if I’ll ever fall into serious depression again, but at least I know where to turn to if I do.

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