Every day, we had a chance to talk in smaller groups about what was happening with our characters. Two to three core groups would get together, and an organizer would ask leading questions like, “What was an impactful moment for your character? What is a scene that will stay with you?” The way we started each debrief session was to go around in a circle and re-introduce ourselves to each other: “I was playing Katherine, and now I am Melissa.” At first, I thought it was just so that we could learn each other’s real names. But I realized later that it was two-fold: it allowed us to separate our real selves from our characters. One moment that stand out to me is in the last moment of the game, seconds after Act 3 ended: I heard Luke reassuring himself aloud, “It’s not real. It’s just a game.” followed by, “I was playing Sinclair, and now I am Luke.” I hadn’t realized until that moment just how important that ritual was, to help separate ourselves and our own emotions from the fictitious world in which we’d played.
Another way in which I have separated my character from myself is to stop speaking in the first person when talking about Katherine. It’s difficult when I am speaking to someone and narrating things that I said and did, but at least in my writing, I have been able to switch from saying things like, “So then I went over to the Pillow Room and…” to instead saying, “So then Katherine went over to the Pillow Room and…”
We all did one big debrief activity together. We stood in a circle and, one by one, we removed an item that was either given to us in game, or represented our character in some way. Then we stepped into the center of the circle and symbolically dropped it. At breakfast that morning, Mr T had given me one of his rings, so I was able to remove that. I was grateful, because I hadn’t worn any of my own jewelry to breakfast – the only thing I could have removed would have been my shoes, and that would not have felt as symbolic – especially since they are shoes that I have worn in my “regular” life.
After the game was over, I started carrying my cell phone around with me again. I didn’t have any cell service, but I was using the Notes app to write down little notes of thoughts I was having that I might want to expand on later. (I ended up doing this for about week after I got home as well, before I was ready to sit down and start writing and really processing.) I wrote this down on Friday afternoon: “Processing has been really hard. I started to realize while still in-game how much of Melissa I’d injected into Katherine, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized how much Katherine had bled out into Melissa.”
After the group debrief, we had some brief time to ourselves, and then we had some guest speakers. The first was Chris, the person who played Bruce. Chris told us that he is almost 70 years old, gay, and that he lived in NYC during the time period that we had just played. He told us stories about his lovers, his experience in caring for someone with AIDS, and what it was like to be living in NYC during this time. When someone asked how true to the time history we had been in our game, he said that the way our story played out is pretty close to how things really were.
The second speaker was a man from the University of Minnesota Youth and AIDS Project, or YAP. He talked to us about being young, HIV+, and homeless, about how many people think of HIV and AIDS as “past” problem even though it’s still very much prevalent today, and about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.
After our guest speakers, we had a few hours of free time before dinner. We were also asked to start packing and helping to break down the camp, as we were going to be headed out pretty early on Saturday morning. I remember walking around in a daze, feeling completely disconnected. One of my notes says, “In the last three days, I have literally lived an entire life.” I’ve felt very alone in my life before, but this was different in a way that I don’t really know how to describe. I felt as though I were with a group of complete strangers – because I was. I was still at the campground with all of the people I’d played with, so I had no anchor to the “real” world. But at the same time, all of the friendships and close-knit relationships that I’d built over the past few days had suddenly dissipated, because those people weren’t real. It was very disorienting, and extremely unpleasant. I didn’t know how to act around anyone anymore. In-game, I knew that almost anything I did would be accepted. Fuck-ups and acting crazy are good, for the good of the game, because they cause Feelings, and that is the reason we’re here – to feel things. But this was real life, and it felt less safe.
One of the strangest feelings for me was not knowing how to self-care. As a person who has struggled with depression for my entire life, I’ve figured out some coping skills that work for me. This is the first time I can remember not knowing what to do to help myself. I can usually figure out if I need to take a walk, or do some writing… to face the feelings head on, or to distract myself somehow. Sometimes I need to just go somewhere private and have a good, long cry. But none of those things felt right. I actually did feel a bit like crying, but it was a strange feeling that I’ve had in the past: feeling like I’m about to burst into tears, but also knowing that if I tried, no tears would actually come. It was a lump in my throat and a pounding heart, without the catharsis of the cry.
After I ate dinner, I had walked over to the stream and sat there for a while, watching the water, and hoping that the anxiety I was feeling would diminish. I figured that after I’d gotten some fresh air and fresh perspective, I could go back inside and start socializing again. I even stood up to go back in, glanced over to the main lodge where everyone else was inside chattering excitedly, and thought, “NOPE.” Everyone seemed to be deep in conversation, and I either didn’t feel totally comfortable with them, or didn’t want to interrupt their conversations. A note that I took in that moment was, “The thought of going back inside the mess hall feels stifling.”
I was wracking my brain, asking myself, “What makes me feel better when I’m anxious?” And then it hit me: cleaning! I’d mentioned earlier to a friend how I’d felt anxious on that first day when we arrived and got off the bus, and how I’d stood off to the side by myself. They confided that they’d felt similar, and that’s why they’d rushed to get their room assignment so quickly – they’d wanted something they could do. I knew that we had to break down the camp anyway, so while the others were still hanging out eating and chatting, I went over to the Dark Room and started untying things from the walls, collecting the sex toys and safer sex supplies into a pile, and removing the posters from the wall. It really did help, too. Having something to do always helps me feel better. (It’s why I often end up helping out with things at parties.) So, thank you, friend. I won’t call you out by name – your anxieties are your business – but I do want you to know that you consoled me without realizing that you were doing so. When a group of people walked in a little while later to clean up, they stopped and looked around in surprise to see that most of it was already done! (Side note: as a D/s submissive, I actually really enjoyed trying to get as much done by myself as I could, because I wanted people to walk in and be surprised when it was all finished!)
I had a lot more bleed from my in-game relationship with Santiago than I’d expected to. I suspect part of that is because we as players did a lot of cuddling and making out, so the relationship felt a lot more real than in any other game I’ve played. I am a very cuddly and clingy person in the real world, and that part of me certainly bled into Katherine. A huge portion of my game play involved Katherine’s “fairytale” romance with Santiago; I’d spent a lot of time with her. So once the game was over and Ashleigh returned to her real-life girlfriend (who was also a player in the game), I felt guilty about being jealous and wanting to spend more time with her. I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was bleed, or an actual crush on her. (I’d felt drawn to her when I first met her, before I even knew that she would be a major character for me.) And I felt awkward about all of the emotions I was having, so I chose not to say anything – at least, not right away. I recognized that bleed is a thing, and that all of my emotions were overwhelming me – especially after having stayed up so late the night before. One of the questions in our official debrief earlier had been, “What is one quality from your character that you wish to keep?” In the moment, I wasn’t sure what to say. But now I know: I wish that I had the confidence to be as open and honest about my feelings as Katherine was.
Later in the evening, when the after party started, I’d thought that I was feeling better. I was hanging out and chatting with people. Someone had brought a bottle of tequila, so I had a small shot before starting on the 3% alcoholic beers. Being a lightweight when it comes to drinking, I actually managed to keep my buzz for a while by drinking several beers in quick succession! I was dancing and having a good time when suddenly, my imposter syndrome came back. I don’t belong here. I felt awkward, lonely, and insecure. While everyone else was at the main lodge for the party, I went back to the cabin so that I could sit by myself in the quiet for a few moments. I decided that I was finished drinking, and that I should go back to the party and drink some water, and try to make the best of it. In the end, I sat by myself outside near the bonfire, just quietly staring into the flames as the people around me conversed and laughed, feeling just as disassociated and lost and lonely as I had earlier. I ended up falling asleep out there, and when I woke a little while later, several other people had also sat near the fire. At that point I knew that I was both mentally and physically exhausted, so I went back to the Pillow Room to snuggle with some folks, and sleep.
I am a romantic. I am also extremely picky when it comes to my partners, so when I do find someone that I like, I tend to latch on to them. I think that is why I refused to give up Katherine and Santiago’s romance. As a player, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that aspect of the game for me. In Act 3, I asked some friends for help because I was feeling lost. I felt like Katherine’s story was pretty solid, and was at a loss for what she should do next. All of the suggestions were things I could do to throw a wrench into my relationship, and I rejected all of them. They would have been angsty for my character, which probably would have been great – after all, the point of the game is to Feel things – but I refused. I think that is why the third act was not as powerful as it could have been: I refused to give up what I so desperately want in real life, so I wouldn’t allow Katherine to, either.
Once I got home and was still feeling disassociated and disoriented, I got worried about myself. I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, even as a child. In the past, I’ve always done a combination of talk therapy and other natural ways to “cure” depression (exercising, eating more healthy foods, getting better sleep, etc). I’ve struggled though it enough times that I can tell when I’m starting to fall into another hole. This time, at the urging of one of my besties who has been doing incredibly well with their own meds, I decided to try taking antidepressants and see if they worked for me. When I left for JaLL, I’d only been on them for about two weeks, and knew that I was probably not feeling the full effects yet. So when I got home and still felt terrible for a few days, I struggled to recognize whether I was feeling major con-drop mixed with intense bleed, or a true depression. Trying to lift myself out of a depression when I’ve been feeling incredibly lonely, going into a fictitious world where the intensity of emotions is magnified, and then coming out of that world back to reality… it was like riding a roller coaster. (Pro-tip: I don’t like roller coasters.)
When I got home on Saturday, I dropped my suitcase and immediately went to sleep. That is very unlike me; even when I am exhausted I can usually manage to stay away for long enough to unwind a bit. When I woke up, I had a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. This often happens if/when I sleep too much, and when I am really depressed. I cried for a little while. Knowing that keeping busy makes me feel better, I unpacked my suitcase and took a shower. I cried some more in the shower. Even though I was home and back to my regular life, I was still feel disassociated. Nothing felt real. When I asked Facebook for company, an old friend reached out, so I made plans to meet her for lunch. I put on a pretty dress that I know looks good on me, thinking that perhaps if I feel pretty, I’ll start to feel better and more like myself again. But I still felt like I was going to burst into tears at any given moment.
As soon as I left my apartment to go meet my friend, I started having second thoughts about going out. I suddenly did not feel like company at all. But I had already made the plans, and it was too late to cancel. I told myself that I would do some writing when I got home later that night, and try to do some more processing. In the end, I was really glad that I went out. I talked about JaLL a lot, explaining to my friend what it was and what it was like. Eventually, the conversation topics drifted, and we talked about other things. I hadn’t seen this friend in a long time, so it was really nice to catch up. After a few hours of walking in the sunshine and talking, I felt more like myself again. Of course, I couldn’t help jabbering on about JaLL again later – it was all I could think about for at least a few days!
About a week after the game, I was finally feeling more normal. (One of the notes I took was, “Time is the great healer, and all that jazz.”) I started writing this document, which helped a lot. So did reading other people’s stories. Those were almost like drugs, in fact – I wanted to hear everyone’s stories and points of view. It was fascinating to hear about the arcs of other characters and players that I had barely interacted with in the game, as well as the same stories from other people’s points of view! Someone had started a group chat on Facebook for anyone who wanted to join. Having that, being able to reach out and talk to people who were there with me and understood what I had gone through, was incredibly helpful. So was the Facebook group, where people were sharing their stories and their art, and discussing their experiences. Especially helpful was Rachael, one of my best friends, who had played Leon in the game. She was one of the characters that I didn’t cross paths with in my own game, so hearing her story was wonderful – but it was also just a lifesaver to have one of my besties to speak with about our experiences. Being able to converse with other players in the chat was immensely helpful, but it’s a wholly different experience when you can share that with someone you’re close with.
For some reason, I had a note to myself to “talk about your feelings re: saying ‘I love you’ and the intense love-feelings you had after commenting on Nancy’s FB post.” Looking at that now, I have no idea what FB post I was referring to! I do remember feeling intense friend-love feelings toward all of the people I’d played with, though. So, here are my feelings on love: Growing up, my family was not super open with our emotions. Both of my parents are now deceased, and one of my regrets is that I did not say “I love you” more freely to them. I am a lot more emotionally open now, as an adult, and I make sure to tell my nieces and nephew that I love them at least once each time I see them. It’s still hard to say it to my brothers, since we are not very close. But I feel it, and so I try to say it. It’s important to me that the people in my life that I love, hear me say so. I also try not to overdo it. I don’t want to say it so often that it loses its meaning. If I say “I love you” to someone, it’s because I truly do love them. I try not to throw the words around carelessly. Sure, I love chocolate, and I love Netflix, and I love baking. But saying “I love you” to a person is different.
So, there you have it. JaLL has been, hands down, the most intense gaming experience of my life. I loved it so much that I’m applying for the 2018 run in Finland! I’m so happy that I got this chance to play. Thank you to Rachael for talking me into going when I was on the fence, and to the organizers for making it happen.