The McMaster Files

The Rules

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #113. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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A repository for games and ennui.

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I love games. All types of games. For a long time, I thought I loved them because of the competition, or the adventure. Maybe I would say I love the escape they represent. I’m pretty sure I do like all of those things, but I don’t think that explains my lifelong love and obsession. It was some time back that I realized that my mental illness made it almost impossible for me to dislike games. It also made life a lot more difficult until I understood it.

A few years before my dad passed away, he became a Christian. I asked him about it once, since he had never had much use for it before. “Son, I don’t know for sure if any of this is real, but either way if you follow the basic rules of the Bible – to be kind and respect each other, even if you’re different… well, that isn’t a bad way to live.” I agree with him. A lot of bad things have happened in the name of religion, but if you just go by the basic tenets of Christianity, it’s a doctrine of peace. I consider myself a Christian, even today. I may not like organized religion, but love the philosophy behind the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.

My dad left us in the early 80s. He sobered up and decided he had spent too much of his life as a drunk and wanted to go see what he had missed. My mom had always been Christian, but at this point we started going back to church. People react in different ways to being hurt and this was hers – to find comfort in a higher power. I was young, so I would spend my time in kids church, which was fun. We had sing-a-longs, blacklight puppets and more. Other than all the fun and games, there were serious parts where we would learn about the bible. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point I picked up the idea of the Age of Accountability.

Many of you might not know about this, but the Age of Accountability is how old you have to be before you are accountable for your sins. It’s a rather philosophical point, and I’m not sure how I heard it, but it made a huge impact on my life. What my parents or I didn’t know at the time was that I am Obsessive Compulsive, or OCD as it is commonly referred. I wouldn’t know this for decades to come, but my disease rendered my religion into a somewhat terrifying framework of how I should live.

Being Obsessive Compulsive means, to me, living with certain rules that can not be broken. Maybe it’s different for other people, but I only know what I live with. When I was diagnosed, I had been getting up every hour or so each night to go check my door locks and count my cats. If I didn’t see one of my cats, I’d have to find them no matter what time of day, or I couldn’t sleep. These are rather obvious manifestations of the disease, and quite common. It wasn’t until the common side effects showed up that I was diagnosed. With further study and introspection, these issues had been present since childhood. Like with the Age of Accountability.

Being Obsessive Compulsive means, to me, living with certain rules that can not be broken.

The way the rule, as I saw it, had been explained to me was that at a certain age, you are old enough to be judged by God for your sins. God cannot be in the presence of sin. The only way to cleanse yourself of sin was to pray for forgiveness. This creates a catch 22 that I couldn’t handle as a child. I had to either pray all the time or die before I got old enough to be accountable. Suicide is a sin, another rule, and you can’t pray after you’re dead, so that wasn’t an option. So, other than being killed accidentally, I was going to have to pray a lot. And I did. Often these prayers included bits where I’d pray to die before I got too old.

After a while, the prayer itself became a compulsion. When I’d end a prayer with amen, I would then imagine that I had just imagined saying it. If I didn’t end the prayer, it didn’t count. This would lead to a cascade of amens, hundreds of them. Me repeating amen to myself, under my breath, for minutes at a time. If anyone ever noticed, no one said anything.

Some days would turn into nothing but prayer. I applied for and received a work permit to go work in a local grocery store during the summer. I vividly remember praying while bagging groceries and bringing in carts. I remember praying while stocking and breaking down boxes, saying “amen” hundreds of times to myself.

As I grew older, I discovered alcohol and drugs could quiet the noise and give me a bit of peace. The hangovers and paranoia didn’t hold a candle to the horror of breaking the rules. What was once a child’s fear of going to hell (in all reality, it was not being with my mom in heaven for eternity) had become this force of destruction and shame that took over for a while. I retreated further and further into games.

When I finally found help, I had been lost in World of Warcraft. I was having trouble at work, my house was falling apart and my wife was severely depressed. Instead of dealing with any of those problems, I killed raid bosses. There are very clear rules in World of Warcraft, specifically in the dungeons and raids. All of these things made sense to me, whereas the world outside of Azeroth was miserable. So I spent more than forty hours a week in game. I’d come home from work, go to my office and start farming. I ate all of my meals there. I would eventually drag myself to bed so I could get up, go to work, come home and do it again. This went on for well over a year. What’s funny is that I didn’t even enjoy it after the first few weeks. It just made sense to me, and I’d rather live in a world that made sense.

They call that moment when you can finally see what you’ve become the “moment of clarity.”  Eventually, that happened to me. The funny thing about my being OCD was that I had started to realize it. Most of the things I had been doing for so long that they were just a part of me. The stress of work and my family pushing down on my fantasy world would occasionally break through. The old obsessions were no longer enough and I developed new ones – locking the doors and counting my cats. After weeks of sleeplessness and constant depression, I broke down and realized I couldn’t keep on. I went and saw a doctor and began to get my life back under control.

This was a decade ago, and I’m still struggling with it. I imagine I will for the rest of my life. As I look back on the past 42 years, I want to comfort the kid I was. I want to tell him what I’ve learned since then. I want to tell him that just because someone is an adult, it doesn’t make them any more lost than him. I want him to know that most of us are just doing the best we can. Most of all, I want him and anyone out there struggling with mental illness and addiction to know one thing – there is no shame in asking for help. You are loved.

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Jason McMaster is a writer and editor with a lifelong passion for games. When he isn’t working on Unwinnable, he’s either on his PC or playing a board game. Follow him on Twitter @mcmaster

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