EXPeriencing SAD, Mental Health, and Triumphs Big & Small

I made it five days after NaNoWriMo before I had to open my computer and write something else unrelated to work. It looks like once you get that habit of writing 1,667 words per day for 30 straight days, you can’t help but write after that.

NaNoWriMo is quite the challenge. I always thought I was a writer. But nothing makes you come to terms with what that means like sitting down at a computer for an hour or more every night and hammering out the worst sentences you’ve ever written just to get them on the page – after working at that computer for eight hours already. I wrote 50,665 words in 30 days, and I am very proud of myself for that.

Five days later, though, I’m proud of myself for putting my contacts in in the morning and making it to work around 9 a.m. Over this past weekend, I had a slight panic attack/mental breakdown. After righting myself from that breakdown, I realized there were several things contributing to it:

  • The stress and excitement of finishing NaNoWriMo
  • A lot of being “on” during social time with NaNo and Terry’s birthday
  • Travel and family time
  • General workload
  • Weather

I could feel my typical depression symptoms creeping back in right after Thanksgiving: trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and trouble waking up the next morning; general irritability; and, my favorite, a vague but unshakable sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Yay!

So after crying in my husband’s arms and recognizing that I was suffering from some serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), I decided to do something about it. My doctor and I just increased my anti-depressant dosage a couple months ago, so I didn’t want to go that route just yet. Instead, I called my therapist’s office to make an appointment. It’s been a couple years since I was there, but that’s what you shoot for, right, to not need them weekly or monthly?

Yeah, I guess not at this place. They closed my chart.

And here we reach the rant I’ve been building toward for the past several paragraphs:

It is too damn hard to get mental health services in this country. I’m a middle class millennial with good health insurance through my job. I can get in to see my general practitioner or my OBGYN with just a couple days’ notice if I’m sick. I generally know I will find something in the near future that works with my schedule if it’s not an emergency.

Why can’t I do that with mental health therapy?

My GP referred me to this mental health practice. Even with that referral, it took me well over a month to schedule my first onboarding appointment. Every subsequent appointment was scheduled for about a month out because that’s what they had available. And appointments were only 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Because that is practical for people with day jobs. I made it work, and I think they helped. But after a while, especially once I started taking medication for my depression, I really didn’t need the appointments anymore.

But just as my anti-depressant dosage has steadily increased over the past several years, so, too, has the need for some mental health therapy as well. I would love to talk to a professional about some work stresses I have, family things that have happened over the past several months, and ways to combat SAD without increasing my anti-depressant dosage again.

But my chart is closed, and I would have to go through the onboarding process alllll over again if I wanted to go back to that therapist.

Again, I’m lucky to have good health insurance that I learned provides mental health services. Even still, I have to email our HR rep, figure out what the process is, call to find a provider, and then start the onboarding process elsewhere. And this is with employer-provided healthcare. I can’t even imagine what this would be like if the only place I had to start was Google. And what if I didn’t have insurance or my insurance didn’t cover mental health? Or if I didn’t have anti-depressants covered by an insurer in this gap when I’m trying to find additional services?

It’s hard to talk about this stuff. It’s hard to say, “I had a mental breakdown because it got dark outside too early,” and not feel like an incompetent moron. But the reality is that it doesn’t even have to be dark out to trigger depression and anxiety. It could just be Tuesday.

I could rant about mental health services and universal healthcare for hours. We need to do more to break the stigma and provide care. Until that happens, though, be there for your friends with depression and anxiety. “Hey, you got this,” goes a long way.

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EXPeriencing Anime

Header image via.

~Dusts off blog. Cringes at last post date. Begins.~

I love that nerd/geek culture is a mainstream identity nowadays. I have previously been guilty of the “you’re not really a nerd” thought. Seeing people lean into fringe cultures of nerdism irritated me. But then I realized that there’s room for everyone to love the weird pop culture things that speak to them, and I stopped judging quite so much. (With the exception of the Star Wars “fans” who drove Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran off of Instagram. Get out of my fandom.)

The internet makes it easier for everyone to access the things they like, and that was true for me, even during the dawn of social media and online publication spaces, circa 2005.

Before streaming was a thing and Netflix just mailed DVDs to your house, I was known to stay up late watching TV in my room. One of these late nights flipping channels and avoiding infomercials, I landed on some animated show on Adult Swim, or Cartoon Network for the late-night crowd. It looked interesting, so I stuck around. What I gleaned from a couple episodes was that the show was about wolves who turned into people? And the world was ending? I had to know more.

At the time, YouTube was a little baby startup. People could upload just about anything because studios hadn’t known to crack down on rights yet. That’s how I was able to find and watch the full series of the wolf/human/end-of-the-world anime called Wolf’s Rain in three-part chunks. YouTube was my push toward anime.

I wasn’t completely new to anime in 2005, however. Dragon Ball Z had been a thing as long as I can remember. I’d watched a little Pokemon here and there, but my heart was with Nickelodeon, so I didn’t have much exposure to Japanese animation – with two big exceptions. My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were dubbed in English in the ’90s, and I have distinct memories of watching Kiki’s Delivery Service on repeat in my parents’ bedroom. But those were all for kids, right? The only cartoon adults could watch was The Simpsons.

It wasn’t until I saw Wolf’s Rain and the other anime airing on Adult Swim in the middle of the night that it clicked: animation isn’t just for kids, and there’s more out there than Fox and Nickelodeon. I’d seen enough shows about suburban families. I was ready for wolves who turned into people, and ninjas, and alchemists, and space cowboys.

It took me 16 years to discover anime, but I have spent the last 13 years leaning into that fandom. Watching Naruto in high school got a couple people to laugh at me. But I had a boyfriend (now my husband – imagine that) who introduced me to Fullmetal Alchemist and Bleach. And then those shows had merchandise at Hot Topic that I and other people could buy. It was still a little on the fringe, but they were making t-shirts and accessories that I could buy at the mall. What was there to be shamed by? Nothing.

Yes, Naruto is one of the most annoying characters in the history of anime. Yes, some of the long-winded anime have bad raps because of filler episode after filler episode. But the ones that have excellent narrative arcs and tons of character development – whether the main cast has five characters or 50 – are the ones to be on the lookout for. And with the prevalence of streaming today, you can watch all kinds of anime on Netflix and Hulu, new and old.

A friend recently recommended a couple anime for me to watch on Hulu (Tokyo Ghoul which is dark and violent but I’m into it, and My Hero Academia which is amazing), Terry and I started a Bleach rewatch, and I turned on the classic Yu Yu Hakusho as background noise that’s in heavy rotation. There are so many shows I know I should/could be watching across Netflix and Hulu and Amazon like The CrownOITNB, The Handmaid’s Tale… but honestly, most of the time I would just rather watch anime.

The internet can be a pretty grim place these days, but it can also be a haven for people to dive into the things they like, like Japanese animated TV shows.

My Favorite Anime

  1. Wolf’s Rain
  2. Fullmetal Alchemist (the original from 2003, not Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood)
  3. Bleach
  4. Naruto
  5. Cowboy Bebop

Steadily moving up the list: My Hero Academia

My Favorite Miyazaki Movies

  1. Howl’s Moving Castle
  2. Kiki’s Delivery Service
  3. Spirited Away
  4. Princess Mononoke
  5. Ponyo

EXPeriencing ‘The City of Brass’ by S. A. Chakraborty

Cover image via Amazon.

I know reading and travel quotes can be a bit cliche, but reading a great book can sometimes take you on journeys that rival those in real life. I found just that in S. A. Chakraborty’s novel The City of Brass. It’s an adventure in time, religion, and the fantastic, and I loved every single word.

Before going on a trip – the best time to find new books – I swung by my local library to browse. Except I had forgotten that my library is running with limited services right now as it’s being remodeled. While the children’s section is open, there were only three little library carts of new releases. Having made the trek, I figured I could browse what was there and if I didn’t find anything, I could run to Half Price Books instead.

On the middle library cart was a book with thick spine with a unicorn sticker that categorizes it as Fantasy. I snatched it up and read the inside cover. I was a paragraph in when I started walking to the check-out desk. The premise: It’s 18th century Egypt, and Nahri is a con-artist with some peculiar healing abilities. When she accidentally summons a fire djinn – a daeva, he’ll insist you call him – and they fight off an ifrit, the daeva realizes Nahri must be part-djinn and whisks her unceremoniously off to the djinn capital, Daevabad. And that’s just the first couple chapters. The journey there, and the palace intrigue when they reach Daevabad and Nahri befriends Prince Alizayd, is completely page-turning. I couldn’t put it down.

Really solid world-building is almost a character in and of itself, and when it’s completely unfamiliar to me I love it even more. I love that The City of Brass is not only set in 18th Century Egypt and spans further east to modern-day Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan, it celebrates all the cultures in between. The clothing, weapons, and mythical beings all stem from Middle Eastern tales and history, and it was fascinating to read more about them. There are several characters who are also Muslim – Prince Alizayd being particularly devout – and it was lovely reading about Islam through a fantasy lens in a world where there is magic.

I’ve said it on Twitter and Facebook a few times, but I’m sick to death of Anglo-European-based fantasy novels. Even if the world is completely made up, having lore and creatures and even just names from diverse locations in the real world is refreshing. The City of Brass was like a full spa day, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

If you’re looking for a great, thick fantasy novel to curl up in, I highly recommend The City of Brass.

EXPeriencing ‘Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection’

Cover image via NaughtyDog.

There weren’t a ton of games I felt I was missing out on by having an Xbox 360 instead of a PS3, but the Uncharted series was one of them. I knew they had Assassin’s Creed-like puzzles and an Indiana Jones-like story line. What’s not to like about that?

When Terry and I got a PS4 for Christmas this year, Terry also bought me Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, a remastered version of the first three games. I dove right in.

Was it worth the wait?

The Gameplay

This part was not worth the wait. The only word to describe the gameplay in the first three Uncharted games is “linear.” The first game was particularly bad: kneel behind a crate, shoot at a bad guy, kneel, reload, dive to another crate, repeat. There was no strategy to how to take down enemies. They would rush you and you would shoot them. Sometimes you would shoot them with an AK-47, sometimes with a 9mm, sometimes you’d throw a grenade. Once you cleared the area, on you went. It was more mindless than anything.

As the games progressed, the combat got a little better each time – more stealthy takedowns, more weapons, more vantage points. It was still very linear overall, but it felt less like being led down a tunnel, and more an open-air hallway.

I also found the instructions could be a little vague. In the first game, for instance, I had just gone through a section where you were speeding along in a jeep and would shoot the bad guys if you had a chance. The following area saw you on a jet ski, and I was trying to book it through enemies shooting at me. Well, turns out, this particular section was the opposite of the jeep section: take cover and shoot down the bad guys before they can shoot you. Didn’t realize that ’til I’d been blown out of the water about three times.

It’s very jarring when you die in Uncharted. The screen goes black and white, a discordant brrring plays, and one of your allies yells, “Nate!” Whereas in some other games when you drop down too far, they just force you to climb up again. But when Drake falls too far, he falls outside of the playable area and it’s game over, back to the last checkpoint.

And you will die a bunch. There are a lot of times where you only really know which way to go next by dying. Either you’re running as fast as you can along a crumbling walkway and you jump in the wrong direction, or there’s a guy hiding behind a wall with an RPG that you just didn’t see until he blew you up. These types of deaths can be especially frustrating. The few sections I had to attempt over and over and over again were where these games definitely weren’t my favorite.

The gameplay aspect I liked most was the puzzles. I had been looking forward to these the most, but they weren’t as amazing as I was expecting. They really fell on two ends of the spectrum: trivial and obscure. A lot of the puzzles I was able to figure out before the NPC bantered hints. But there were some where I fumbled through by guessing and was about 5 minutes from Googling it before I got it right. There wasn’t really much middle ground. Frankly, I think some of the memory-type puzzles in Skyrim and the skill-based jumping puzzles in Assassin’s Creed were more deftly crafted.

The Story

Before you think I despised the games because I wasn’t a fan of the gameplay, I actually did really enjoy them overall. While every time I died was super frustrating, the story was incredibly compelling, well acted, and entertaining. I liked Drake and his roguish Indiana Jones-style treasure hunting a lot, especially through his excellent portrayal by voiceover extraordinaire Nolan North. Sully, his BFF, and Elena, his on-and-off again flame, are equally entertaining; the three of them make a great team. The other allies and villains were fairly well-rounded, too, although the cast was pretty whitewashed throughout the games. I could have done with more main characters of color, though I do believe there are more in the subsequent games.

I also like the Indiana Jones/X-Files mystical/alien-meets-real-life aspects of the story. They’re hunting for historical treasures, but there’s always some magical element that defies logic on top of it. It provided a good framework for the shooter-meets-crumbling-puzzle mix of gameplay.

Ultimately, like any good entertainment, you don’t play Uncharted for the mechanics, but for the story. The mechanics improved with each game, but I often found myself lamenting that I wasn’t playing Assassin’s Creed every time Drake made some physics-defying leap – or fell two feet and died. The story, however, was compelling enough to drive me forward to finish each game and relish in the cut scenes rather than scowl at the quicktime events.

I’m glad I played the games, but I’m also glad it was only $20 to do so. If you haven’t played the first three Uncharted games, now is a great time to pick them up – just know that playing through the first game might be really rough if you’re coming from Assassin’s Creed: Origins or Overwatch. If you’re a diehard Uncharted fan, I absolutely see why, and I’m glad I got to experience this story.

EXPeriencing Console Wars & Rekindling a Love for Console Gaming

Cover photo via Pennyworth Reviews

Twelve years ago, Sony and Microsoft were engaged in a battle that still wears on today, though thankfully with less internet yelling. Nintendo dives in occasionally, too, but when I think about “console wars,” I’m taken right back to 2006 when Microsoft released the Xbox 360 and Sony fans were impatiently waiting for the PS3.

My relationship with gaming consoles before then was kind of erratic. My dad introduced us to gaming when he bought a Super Nintendo for Christmas one year. I played a lot of Disney side-scrollers in those years. I also watched my dad play A Link to the Past a LOT, as well as the original Tomb Raider on PC. Years later, we got an original PlayStation that I played until the PS2 came out, which I played until mine got stolen, then got a new one which I played until it became outdated.

That was right around 2006 when Terry and I were dating and he got an Xbox 360. The first game I played on Xbox 360 was the first Assassin’s Creed. I was hooked. From there, every new game that came out we got on Xbox 360 and called it a day.

But, not every game.

Not all games are available on all systems. That’s obvious in the case of Nintendo’s IP – Mario, Zelda, you know the drill. But while Xbox and PlayStation may have quite a bit of crossover, they do have system-exclusive titles. While I would have kept right on rolling with PlayStation, you couldn’t get Halo on that system. And while you could get Assassin’s Creed on both, you couldn’t get Uncharted or God of War for Xbox.

So, you either bought both systems, or, because you were 17 and your mom wasn’t about to spend $800 on gaming systems, you bought one, and you chose.

In 2006, we chose Xbox.

Rarely did I wish I had a PS3. Occasionally I’d go to a friend’s house and we’d play some PS3 fighters, but there was never anything I was dying to play that I couldn’t play on Xbox. Even a few years ago when we decided to invest in an additional system, we got a Wii U because it was super cheap and we wanted a Zelda machine. (Yes, we probably should have held off until the Switch, but that’s another blog post.)

It really wasn’t until Terry and I started watching Outside Xbox and Outside Xtra religiously on YouTube that I even realized how many PlayStation exclusive games I had and was missing out on.

So, this Christmas, Terry and I bought ourselves a PS4 and a slew of games to go with it: Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, Nier: Automata, Journey, The Unfinished Swan… AAA titles and indie gems alike are loaded up onto this baby, and it’s been really fun going back to games that defined a generation of the consoles.

Now about some of those old games…

We’ll talk about those in another post.

EXPeriencing the 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge (and looking forward to 2018)

Hello, old friend. I’ve missed filling your pixels with my rambling thoughts about books and video games. Well, it’s a new year, and like I end up doing every year, I’m committed to writing on you more. Three times a month feels reasonable. We’ll see how that sounds come August.

To kick off the New Year, I’m going to look back for a moment at last year’s reading challenge. I’ve never hit my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal, but this year… this year I came so close.

2017 Reading Challenge Books

Out of my goal to read 24 books – two per month – I read 23 and a half. I’m almost done with Libba Bray’s Before the Devil Breaks You, but I couldn’t quite get through all 550 pages between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Especially considering we got a PS4 for Christmas.

What I’m most proud of about nearly completing my 2017 Reading Challenge is that I read far more books by authors of color in one year than I ever have before (which is really sad to admit. This is why we need diverse books). I also read several varieties of books that I don’t normally dive into, including memoirs, contemporary fiction, and poetry.

Looking forward to 2018, I set a goal to read 25 books instead of 24. This is primarily because I’m in not one, but two book clubs: one at work and one for my sorority. The January books for those book clubs are some of 2017’s finest: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have a feeling most books won’t overlap, so there’s the potential for two books per month right there. Though, knowing me, the non-in-person book club will take a backseat to my work book club, the YA fantasy novels I’ll make time for, and video games.

Favorite book(s) from 2017: An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

Book I’m most looking forward to in 2018: The Power by Naomi Alderman

Cheers to 2018!

EXPeriencing ‘An Ember in the Ashes’ by Sabaa Tahir

Cover image via.

You know when you read a new Harry Potter book for the first time and you just couldn’t stop reading? All the way through the night, you kept turning pages because you just had to find out what happened next. Rarely did a chapter end where you thought, Yeah, I can put the bookmark in and go to sleep now. No, you read until the sun came up and then went for a walk in your neighborhood before even the golfers were awake.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

That inability to put the book down, though, and turning page after page no matter what the clock reads is exactly what happened when I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. I started the book Saturday afternoon and finished it Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 1 a.m. I. Was. Hooked.

An Ember in the Ashes is a young adult fantasy novel—like all the best books are—and is set in the fictional Martial Empire. This empire is located in the ancient desert kingdom of the Scholars who were conquered by a Roman-esque emperor 500 years before.

The story follows two protagonists: Laia, the Scholar slave, and Elias, the Martial soldier-assassin. As the back of the book says, “Elias and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.” I love these kinds of stories. Each chapter switches back and forth from Laia to Elias. Following their stories to see when they would meet and when their paths would cross again is one of the big reasons I kept turning page after page.

It helps that Laia and Elias are also really compelling characters. Laia, a free woman until her grandparents are murdered and her brother taken by a Martial Mask, seeks out the Scholar Resistance to save her brother. Elias is a Mask, the most talented one at Blackcliff Academy, and he hates it. When the Trials to choose a new emperor are called, Elias participates reluctantly, and Laia is sent as a slave to spy on Blackcliff for the Resistance. I would say “hijinks ensue,” but that casts it in way too light a tone. For instance, the Trials. Think the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but if Harry had to make sure Ron drowned faster than Hermione, Cho Chang, and Gabrielle Delacour. It is brutal.

But Laia and Elias are not the only characters, of course. All the characters, from Resistance fighters to Blackcliff students to slaves, are unique with their own motives and fears and desires, and play vital roles in Elias and Laia’s stories.

Tahir paints a brilliant world full of life and death and beauty and pain. World-building is something I love most about fantasy. Does it read true, even though there is magic or mystical creatures? Do I feel like I’m there, or just like I’m watching it on a far-away screen? How keenly do I feel the characters’ emotions? I can sum up Tahir’s Empire in a world: vibrant. I was there, it was real, and I didn’t want to leave.

I know not everyone is a YA fan. I get that it’s just not up everyone’s alley. But if you’re looking for a fantasy novel set far away from yet another rehashed England/France/Western Europe location, An Ember in the Ashes is worth the read. You’ll knock it out in a few days, have a new appreciation for diverse fantasy, and be dying to read the next one. I know I am.