Some of us use gaming as an escape. Whether things in life are too hard or just too much for us, gaming gives us a world that we can to run to when we need to find some peace. Maybe it’s just somewhere that you can be the hero, or change the world, or save the princess, or find people who understand you. When Chronic Fatigue Syndrome took over my life, that was what I needed—a place where people understood me—because I felt more alone than I had in my entire life. I wasn’t physically alone, but when you’re the only person you’ve ever even heard of who is battling CFS, it’s harrowing. Most of all, it’s isolating.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Me
I was exhausted all the time. I was taken out of high school in my junior year and dealing with uncooperative tutors. My parents were as supportive as they could be, but that didn’t change the drowning sensation I felt every day. I felt like a failure, like I was just scraping by—because I was. I was barely passing my classes. I was sleeping between 14 and 16 hours a day because if I didn’t, I felt even more exhausted and drained than I did before. This was my life, I convinced myself, and it would never get better. The physical therapy I went to twice a week didn’t help. I thought I’d finish high school with tutors, and then just be a shut-in for the rest of my days. I had trouble just sitting down and playing video games, even though it was one of few things I could still do and enjoy.
Enter Persona 3, a Japanese role-playing game from 2007. A PlayStation 2 game that seemed interesting enough to dust off the old system for, Persona 3 was something I knew would be long and, as far as I could tell, mindless. I knew the game was about a group of high school kids that held guns to their heads to fight against monsters. In a dark way, it was a mentality I connected with. It was just dreary enough to spark my interest.
But Persona 3 isn’t just about fighting monsters or grim science fiction. It’s about death and all the consequences surrounding it. It’s about being isolated and different, and no one else really understanding your struggle. It’s about being orphaned from society. It was about me.
I find it hard to project myself onto the average video-game hero. Rarely, you do see an actual “everyman” take up the mantel of unexpected hero, but I wasn’t even the everyman (or everywoman). Far from it. I have asthma in addition to CFS. I was in a state where walking around for a few minutes made my stomach weak, and standing—just standing—might cause me to lose consciousness. Escaping into video games was just a natural thing for me do. I was incredibly excited to see someone who wasn’t your super-fit, unstoppable cliché hero who wins the day.
The main character in Persona 3 is a high school kid, like I had been, thrust into a new environment and given a chance for a fresh start. He had to make friends, find clubs, and fill his time, while also fighting monsters at night. In a way, it was a gateway—a look at what I was missing. This life without isolation was what I was fighting for.
The game did more than encourage me; it helped me remember why I needed to get better and be healthier. Spending time and socializing with my Persona friends reminded me of times when I would go for walks in the woods with my own friends, or people-watch with my friends at the mall. It was like seeing everything through a different scope, through the eyes of a lonely and isolated character that did his best to put himself out there and to get better. That’s what I wanted, and in the many hours that I had to spend in bed because I was too tired to get up and move, I played Persona, remembering what I was working toward.
It took months of physical therapy and, at times, agony to get up and keep moving. I had to set higher and higher standards for myself, and it felt impossible. This video game was comfort and friendship when I wasn’t allowed to have friends visit me or to spend time outside. I find it confusing when people bring up video games as something that ruins lives. Games can offer encouragement and friendship at your lows—and a reminder of everything you have at your highs.
When I booted up Persona 3 again this past January, six years later, I was met with a really strange mixture of emotions. It was like seeing a bunch of old friends again and going out for one last ride together, like the old times. It wasn’t necessarily nostalgia, but more like remembering a different person, someone you used to be. I’m a different person now, and weirdly enough this game was there at my impasse and served as the bridge between who I was and who I am now. A reminder of days where I’d wake up and do nothing but stare at the ceiling and feel useless.
Now I wake up and go for runs. I exercise and live a healthier life. I write and podcast, not lie around and resign myself to the life of a shut-in. Persona 3 reminded me of all I could have. Maybe not directly, but it was exactly the experience I needed at exactly the right time.