Friday, May 15, 2020

Ain't No Therapy Like Poketherapy

CW: talkin' about OCD and germaphobia and all sorts of other thought processes related to mental illness.

Colorado's stay-at-home orders have technically been lifted, although the state government's official stance is "for the love of god, STAY HOME ANYWAY." The streets around my neighborhood, a suburb of Denver, are still largely empty. Anyone who is out walking around is thankfully observing physical distancing guidelines, and kids are still being confined to their homes and backyards for the most part. Heck, with my underlying physical and mental health conditions, I, too, am largely couch-bound for my own protection, and to stave off boredom I've been re-introducing Pokemon to my life.

I hadn't really thought about Pokemon much since I was a kid and the card game was at its absolute peak in the United States. I was super into it, though, and I drove my mother up a wall by watching the dubbed anime anytime it came on TV. I had the electronic talking Pikachu plushie. I knew the Team Rocket creed by heart -- okay, I still do. But I never owned a console I could actually play the video games on, so once the furor around the cards had died down and I'd seen all of the TV episodes a hundred times over, there wasn't really much of a way for me to stay in the fandom.

Now I am a strong and independent human who makes her own money and I, a fully-fledged adult, chose to spend it on a Nintendo Switch and Pokemon Sword about a month ago. The flames of fandom weren't rekindled in me; it was like they'd never gone out. My short-term memory is still shit enough that I've left the oven on and nearly killed us all more times than I can count, but show me a brief glimpse of any Pokemon and I will immediately have committed to memory its evolution path, silhouette, and elemental weaknesses/strengths. Go figure.

At this point I've pretty much filled my Pokedex in Sword, and I'm not quite ready to dive into Let's Go Eevee (the correct choice), so I found myself once again feeling the edges of that Poke-hole -- shut up -- that had been previously filled -- I SAID SHUT UP -- by Sword. And that is when I was reminded that Pokemon Go exists.

I still remember the launch of Pokemon Go.  It was... less than smooth, with the servers going down under the strain of so many folks trying to create accounts and start catching 'em all. Even once the initial zerg slowed down, there were still a handful of server and UX issues that meant I played briefly, but quickly lost interest, especially after I'd left my at-the-time job in the games industry and couldn't go for walks with my team or run across the street to the other campus after a company-wide alert that Charizard had spawned.

But now? No traffic to dodge, few if any people to avoid, and boredom. The perfect time to stage a comeback.

I redownloaded it fully expecting that this would be a solo affair, as it always is for people like me who are chronically late to the party when it comes to popular games, but I pitched my trainer code onto Twitter anyway (for the record, it's 1233 9814 1659). Within a matter of seconds I had five new friend requests and that number is still continuing to grow. It turns out my coworkers are playing it, my games industry associates never stopped playing it, and the park right across the street from my house is a Pokemon Gym that is constantly changing ownership. As I found out while walking around my neighborhood with my face buried in my phone, the folks who live here are also remarkably unfazed by someone's phone chiming followed by their stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to swipe at the screen, and in fact will yell words of encouragement and ask what you caught, so it's safe to assume that the number of extremely local players is more than Just Me.

Now here's the thing: the pandemic has sent me spiraling with obsessive-compulsive behaviors and a thorough powering up of the agoraphobia I've battled for years. Walking to the mailbox requires crossing the threshold of my nice, safe, secure house, and some days even that requires a pep talk. I avoid talking to people because I am convinced that the minute I open my mouth, they're going to detect that I am weird and awkward and make fun of me for it, or I'm going to accidentally upset them and then I'll feel all-consuming guilt over it for the next two decades. At the moment I'm also terrified of anyone getting within visual distance of me because people are covered in germs which I will inevitably contract and die from or give to my friends and family members and then be responsible for their horrible deaths. But throw some cute cuddly monsters and game mechanics at me, and suddenly... well, I still don't like it, but I can distract myself from the pervasive fear that has me wanting to run and hide the minute somebody looks in my direction.

Then there's the kinesiophobia is the fear of pain caused by movement, and considering that movement is one of the things that causes my joints to all decide they should go off in different directions at the same time, you can imagine how I feel at the mere thought of going for a walk by myself. Would I be able to make it without being in agony? Sometimes my knees dislocate while walking to the kitchen for a tea refill, so what do I do if that happens while I'm in a part of the neighborhood I'm unfamiliar with and nobody is around to help?

Well, as luck would have it, Pokemon Go means I've got my phone with me, and my husband is working from home, so in case of emergency all I have to do is make a call and tell him what street I'm on. Sidewalks are everywhere here and extremely well-maintained, so even if I did collapse while walking, I wouldn't have to worry about falling in the street and getting run over by a car. And as far as the pain goes, I noticed that around the time I'd start feeling those creeping "please stop whatever you are doing if you want to remain upright" signals, I'd find a Pokemon and have to stop to catch it, anyway. Those short intermittent breaks were enough to help refresh me on my way to the nearest PokeStop a couple of blocks away, and since PokeStops themselves are usually public areas -- most of ours being playgrounds and parks here -- I was able to sit down on a bench once I got there and chill for as long as I needed.

This is around the time that I realized if I tossed a lure down to attract more Pokemon, this particular stop was close enough to houses that a decent chunk of the neighborhood would probably be able to catch them without ever having to go outside or at the very least leave their yard. So I did, and not long afterwards I heard a little kid's voice shrieking in joy, "WILL! GO GET YOUR PHONE! IT'S A LURE!"

A note to Will: I hope you got your phone, and I hope you and your sibling/child/friend/etc. caught some damn good Pokemon over the following half hour.

One of the things that's been bugging me is that because of my own health situation I've been unable to do much to help in my community. The sense of powerlessness and uselessness has led to feeling like a burden, which led to some serious depression for a while that I've thankfully been able to shake off, but it's still lurking in the proverbial tall grass. But realizing that with this small gesture I gave at least one other person something to occupy their time, I decided to expand my planned route as far as my joints would let me to hit up all of the PokeStops and gyms I could reach and put down lures where I could. It was a cheap way to get some much-needed dopamine hits for feeling like I'd done something good, and maybe given some parents and kids a break from everything going on in the process.

Okay. Yes. I also sat there and caught the crap out of some lured Pokemon, so it wasn't all entirely altruistic from the very beginning. I never claimed to be a saint.

By the time I got home from my adventuring I was feeling calmer and happier, and not just from the Skinner box effect of the game itself. I left my house. I did it by myself. I had positive experiences with other humans just from the "hello!"s and friendly waves and smiles. I completed a whole walk without struggling or suffering. That walk itself counts as much-needed physical therapy to lessen further pain. I did a small nice thing for other people. I got fresh air and quiet.

Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go, couldn't possibly have foreseen how chronically ill and neurodivergent folk like myself would benefit from their game -- but I'm more grateful to them for making it than I can ever express.