Content Warning: This is a long entry and a very personal one. I’ll be talking about mental health and my own personal & professional journey. Some parts will get a bit darker, even though it ends well. Skip this one if you’re not in the mood. 🙂
During my college years, I must have seemed perfectly poised to become a game developer.
In fact, I was a game creator and that was who I was. I’d been taking classes from the Interactive Media department at USC, one of the first programs of its kind. I was fresh out of a number of fancy Computer Science classes. I had a browser-based RPG game that I was working on with a friend called Chapter Fain. We had just enrolled our first 50 players in alpha testing and people seemed to be enjoying it. I was really proud of it. I was also gaming on a regular basis and I had friends and pen pals that I was writing to from all over the world.
The year was 2006 and the timing was ripe for innovation and for new titles. Everything seemed just right.
But then, something happened.
I suffered a major crisis of the heart.
Seemingly without explanation, I began to withdraw from social media. I stopped showing up on chat programs like AIM and MSN, I stopped responding to e-mails and to messages. I quit many of the games that I’d been happily playing before. I let a project that I cared about fall by the wayside. I “ghosted” many of my online friends and effectively disappeared from their lives. I ran away from my life as it was.
I didn’t have an answer then, but maybe I can start to unravel that puzzle now, some 12 years later.
To the folks that I withdrew from, I’m sorry. It was nothing that you did wrong.
I want to say that the crisis all began with a bad breakup around 2006, which did happen. I had come out of a toxic relationship around that time and I was trying to make sense of who I was. However, the truth is that the problems started much earlier. I’ll see if I can walk through some of the memories.
Growing up, gaming was something that was not well supported. Early on, it was something fun for my dad and me to enjoy. We liked playing Mario Brothers together. My babysitter also used to play with me. We had a lot of fun taking turns.
However, all wasn’t happy all the time.
Being female and not a guy, I often felt wrong and out of place for liking what I did. An early memory of mine is of a group of neighborhood boys getting together and playing Super Mario Brothers 2, the one with Princess Peach, and remembering that I really wanted to play. You could pick up turnips and carrots and it just looked like a lot of fun. However, because I was a girl, I knew that there was no way that they’d let me play. It made me sad.
As a middle schooler, I continued to play games. I often played by myself, but I gladly welcomed friends over when I had the chance. Over the summer, friends of mine and I would come over and we’d play games like Spyro or Croc. Maybe Frogger if we wanted to do a multiplayer game. It would usually just be myself and one other person, though, and they would usually just watch. I was okay with that, since having two sets of eyes was better than one. There were some good times there… and also hello to the metal sharks of Spyro. You were very mean to us! 😛 But we remember you fondly!
I rarely shared my gaming habit with anyone outside of close friends, and the reasoning was simple. I knew keenly that gaming wasn’t something meant for people like me. Or at least, that’s how I felt. So in order to enjoy it, it had to be secret. No one could know about it. I also felt a lot of shame for not being into more “normal” interests. I sometimes had trouble connecting with my peer group, who seemed more concerned with fashion or boys or gossip. I didn’t understand it, being a true geek at heart. I was much more at home reading science fiction or fantasy than I was in other situations. I was extremely shy and I didn’t make friends easily.
In high school, after my best friend transferred schools, I retreated to online and virtual worlds, where I was better understood and where I felt more at home. These geeky interests would offer much comfort and solace. They also got me through many difficult times. I will forever be grateful for games for this. It was escapist media for sure, but escapism also makes a lot of sense when bad things are happening in your “real life”. Games offered a sense of stability in otherwise turbulent times. At some point, my mom urges me to write to a game creator at a big company (I no longer remember who but I believe it was someone at Insomniac Games). I explain that I love everything to do with game making and am interested in all aspects of music, writing, art, etc. He replies that I’d do well to look into smaller studios. They have a better mix of people who aren’t as specialized. I am excited. It is one of the first times I think of an actual career doing the things I love.
However, there are still many hurdles to overcome. One thing that I am still stuck with is the sense that gaming is bad and wrong and that I should always minimize the time spent pursuing those interests.
Growing up, gaming was frequently made out to be the villain by the adults around me. My dad would yell at me if I spent too much time on the computer or console. I’m well aware that this wasn’t a problem unique to my household. One of my friend’s mothers would take away her keyboard each night so that she wouldn’t play too many games. Another friend’s family sent them to an intervention of sorts for game addiction. Games were rarely treated as positive outlets for creativity. They were problems. Problems to be eliminated.
Yes, true game addiction does happen, and people should seek treatment for it. However, I think a lot of addiction stems from other major life circumstances. It’s rarely just the games. It’s everything else in a person’s life, too.
Flash forward to college and I am just starting to find myself and make sense of life beyond my parent’s home. However, this rite of passage is a lot more difficult than I thought. I am living on my own for the first time in a dormitory and I choose my major as computer science. I choose this major because I am on the computer so often and because I’d like to one day make games. Games are what I love.
However, within the first year of being away from home, problems began to arise.
In freshman year, during my second semester, I am forced to drop my Calculus class. Having never gotten anything below an A or B before, I feel like my world is coming to an end. I had made the mistake of not studying hard enough on a test and there wasn’t enough time in the semester to make it up. I am forced to drop the class. I do this with the intent to retake it later. I keep this a secret from my parents and from my friends and family as I was afraid they will think less of me. I felt foolish and stupid.
In my second year, I make another mistake academically and accidentally enroll in two computer science classes, one of which was the prerequisite for the other. I don’t know how this happened. I was also enrolled concurrently in a physics class at the time. I drop the physics class on the day after the drop date because I felt too overwhelmed with my other classes. I am sad. I add another failure to my list.
Thinking that I needed a change, I change majors, this time to Interactive Media, which was the game design major at the time and a new program being developed. I began eying this program when it was first being introduced and I feel excited that I can switch. Maybe this time everything will work out better.
My schedule changed, and instead of all science classes, I soon found myself enrolled in film and design classes. I even enrolled in an animation class. Unfortunately, these didn’t do much to improve my sense of self. In the course of an entire semester class of film studies, we watched movies that were almost all depressing. (I kid you not, the first movie we saw was about a busload of children going off a cliff and a small town dealing with the emotional aftermath. Oh so very happy! The rest of the semester did not get any better.)
My interactive media classes were indeed fun, and I remember designing a short 2D game with a rocket ship. It was cool seeing the sprite move across the screen and knowing I’d coded that. I also created a board game with some classmates which I greatly enjoyed. One of my professors was big into Second Life at the time and we also learned how to make a simple 3D interactive puzzle/maze game there too.
But still, there were doubts. I also would remember my dad telling me that I should be studying hard sciences, not art, as these subjects were more valuable. Was I on the wrong path? How could I continue when I kept running into roadblocks? The doubts begin to show themselves again and I feel bad again. I feel like I am letting people down.
Having been the only female member of my Interactive Media classes at the time, I feel alone again and out of place. It’s not so much sexism as just the stress of feeling like I didn’t belong. Was there really a future waiting for me in tech and in gaming? Even though I kept telling my classmates that I wanted to own my own game company, or work in game development, a sort of cognitive dissonance began to take hold. I begin to have serious doubts about myself and I don’t know what to do with them or how to address them.
In 2005, I attend E3 for the first and only time. There, I get to play an early version of Okami and also a new Sonic game, among others. I am really excited about Okami especially because it was a very original play style at the time– you could draw with a brush!!
E3 is a great experience and I am learning a lot about the many types of games that exist.
Still, I feel out of place. The year 2006 rolls around, all of these experiences have begun to catch up to me.
I decide to switch majors again. I give the excuse that I’m worried about graduating on time. The truth is that I feel out of place. EALC, my new major, was not my first choice, but it worked out. Being the one set of classes (languages) that had never posed any difficulty for me (and because I had already tested out of the language requirement), I switched majors from Interactive Media to East Asian Languages and Cultures. I then do my best to finish up studies in computer science so that I could at least have a minor in the subject. So that my time studying for those classes isn’t wasted.
Getting a minor involved taking a few more computer science classes. One of the classes that I took during this time was Computer Graphics, taught by an awesome professor who I still speak to. Thank you!!! Having already switched majors, I felt out of place there, but I was still really excited to be there. Some of that enthusiasm still showed through and my CG class was exciting on so many levels.
There were also a few particularly shining moments, like in the summer of 2007 when I went with my then Computer Graphics professor to SIGGRAPH. It was an amazing experience to see so much technology on display. I got to see some of the very first 3D printers, an early prototype of an e-reader/e-ink device, and some really neat student posters about rendering complex fluids like honey. I also got to meet what was effectively the entire lighting team at Dreamworks. They seemed really awesome! I wish I had been able to take advantage of all of these amazing opportunities at the time.
Unfortunately, even these really great experiences did nothing to ease my sense of failure at the time. I still felt like a fraud for having switched majors in the first place. I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to be in computer science. I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like I was fooling everyone into thinking that I was somehow more capable than I was. It felt like people would quickly abandon me as a lost cause if I ever opened up about it.
Emotionally, I became very brittle. At some point, I forgot how to cry. It was as if I just forgot how to feel anything for awhile. It seemed that there was nothing left for me to do but to give up. I had all the of the dreams and aspirations and passion of a game developer, but not the resiliency nor emotional maturity to back it up. I wasn’t ready yet.
Life went on. In 2008, I took a health class. Health became something of a side obsession of mine, and I found that I was very interested in learning what combination of factors helped people to be healthy. I encouraged people around me to eat well and exercise. This would set me off on a new trajectory. Feeling as though I lacked other options, I decided I would try things the “conventional” way. Truly, I was at least somewhat curious about the subjects like biology that I hadn’t really covered before.
I decided I would become a doctor like my father. My dad was really excited. My mom was upset at me because she thought I was just trying to make dad happy.
I was just trying to not feel like a failure.
My plan was to take a year ‘off’ in Japan, a place that I’d wanted to spend time in since I was little. After some careful negotiating, I took an extra year as an undergraduate student and made it happen and thus got to spend a year at Waseda University. I joined an English-Japanese language exchange club called Paddy and did my best to keep busy. I made some good friends and told everyone I’d be studying to become a doctor. While in Japan, I applied to post-baccalaureate premedical programs.
Over the winter break, I found out that I’d been accepted at Columbia University in New York City. It was a two-year program and from there they had a high acceptance rate into medical school. I finished my year up at Japan and then when I got back I prepared for NYC. At Columbia, I volunteered and took classes in biology, chemistry, and mathematics. In 2011, I finally retook that physics class that I’d dropped in 2005, and even began to tutor my fellow classmates. It was still challenging, but I found that I enjoyed the subject.
I tried hard to push my “art” and creative side away, but it would pop up with a vengeance that surprised me. Ironically, trying to suppress my creativity meant that I actually produced more art than before. I sometimes found doodles in the margins of my notes, for example, and I occasionally found myself obsessively creating Blender 3D models between classes. The big hope was that when I eventually became a doctor, I’d have the money and time to pursue what I really wanted. Maybe, just maybe, sometime after residency, I’d be able to squeeze in some of the “living” that I so desperately wanted to do. I would bargain with myself so that I could have a few moments of art time. Simple decision making also became difficult at this point, and I had trouble ordering items from a restaurant menu.
This should have been telling that I maybe wasn’t on the right track, but it wasn’t.
In 2012, when I was finishing up at Columbia, another unexpected turn would happen when my father was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As a result, I located a summer job near home as a lab technician. This allowed me to be close to home and near my parents. I felt like they needed me to be close. So with a heavy heart, I returned home to Redlands. Even though he would later go into remission, the situation was definitely tense, and it was shocking to see how much weight he had lost during chemotherapy. Sometime after I came back to Redlands, I quit making art and drawing. The negative self-talk had gotten too bad.
The first round of applications to medical school since I left New York went out and I was not accepted. I had applied late, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was possible that they had picked up on my lack of enthusiasm, though I’ll never know for sure. I got one interview, but that’s it.
I added another knock in my life’s list of failures, and I continued on.
Eventually, I turned that summer job into a degree program, at the encouragement of one of my professors. There was also an offer of a possible MD/ Ph.D. program which seemed exciting. It meant free tuition. Hence, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Loma Linda University, where I would find myself for the next few years.
It was at Loma Linda that my actual healing journey began, though I wouldn’t realize it at first.
The key to unlocking that inner potential again came as a result of my hitting what I would call my own personal rock bottom. Several years passed at Loma Linda and I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. My first year there I had announced to my professors that I was quitting. However, as I was still thinking of medical school at the time, they convinced me to continue. I’m glad in retrospect that they did.
The program was not an especially good fit for me. While I was at least somewhat interested in health sciences, I didn’t find myself as enthusiastic or devoted as my classmates. They all seemed to have a sense of purpose. There were times when I became quite jealous of their apparent sense of peace. My anxiety levels increased and sometimes I didn’t want to leave the house.
However, perhaps because I felt like I had everything to lose, I worked hard. I excelled at what I did, especially within the confines of the lab, even if my heart wasn’t in it.
Continuing my quest to be accepted to medical school, I decided to apply again. This time, after a series of interviews at various schools back East, I was accepted to Temple University for their incoming medical school class.
I could finally become a doctor! My life’s dream, realized!
Instead of being overjoyed at this possibility, however, I found myself slipping further and further into a depression. After a few difficult days of consideration, I realized that I needed more time to decide. I wrote to the medical school and told them I needed to postpone my acceptance for a year to finish my research. This is true, but not the full story.
With each passing day of trying to be cheerful and happy, I felt myself slide further and further into a cycle that I wasn’t sure I could get out of. I took up knitting and began to do so obsessively. I made hats and scarves and anything else I could think of. At nights, I would cry and not know why. At classes, I would smile and pretend nothing was wrong.
At some point during this mess, I even gave up playing games altogether, something I’d never done at any other point in my life. I was certain that if I just stayed “offline” and existed in the real world more fully, then I would magically become healthier and happier. I convinced myself of the narrative that life was simply better without games. I existed just for work and study. I could play and have fun later. I had swallowed the rhetoric that games were bad and wrong and that they couldn’t be part of a good and healthy life. They were something to be squashed down and minimized.
When I thought things couldn’t be much worse and that I was so wretched and unlovable and messed up that I’d never unravel the puzzle, that’s when I started therapy. To be honest, I did not think it would work for me. I was actually quite convinced that it wouldn’t. But somehow, it did. I found the right person to help me and began going to weekly sessions.
Therapy wasn’t a magic bullet. Far from it. It actually required a lot of effort from me. Still, though, I owe my life to it and it really changed my trajectory.
Out came so much of the grief that I’d bottled up inside of myself. Out came the emotional turmoil and negative thinking.
I was finally able to recognize my struggles as what they were. Temporary. Transient. Very human. Faults, sure, but not permanent ones. Besides, they were MY faults and no one else’s. I realized too that I’d been living someone else’s life, and that I had gotten off track. I had thought I was safe. After all…
- If your life is not your own, no one can blame you.
- If you never put yourself out there, no one can hurt you.
- If you never let people know the real you, they can’t hurt you.
- If you never venture anything, you can never lose anything.
Or so I thought.
However, this way of living is not the road to lasting happiness. Quite the opposite. If you never live your life, never stick your neck out, you will end up with way more regrets. It’s way better to make decisions and to live with the consequences than to give up your sense of agency to others and let others decide for you.
Hitting rock bottom showed me what I didn’t want out of life. Though I wasn’t happy about it at the time, I am now so grateful that I had this opportunity.
Probably one of the most important tools or lessons that I learned from therapy and from this journey was the gift of self-compassion. I define self-compassion as the ability to forgive myself for any perceived faults or transgressions but almost most importantly, the ability to be honest to myself and to stop lying to myself… to stop participating in self-deception… and also, to stop denying the truth which was that I love games. Always have, always will. To me, games are much more than just some passing fancy. They are what I want to devote my time and energy to.
It was at this point, too, that I began to truly understand just what it means to have a “growth” mentality, rather than just paying lip service to it. I was too much of a perfectionist before in my life and any little flaw or mistake meant that my whole world was crashing down.
I am a different person now. I am more mature and more centered than ever before. Mistakes are no longer threatening to me. They are merely what happens as we practice and improve. In fact, if you aren’t making mistakes, chances are you aren’t challenging yourself enough. You really ought to be making mistakes if you want to actually grow.
After this breakthrough in therapy, I worked hard to create a niche for myself at the lab. I turned down the offer at medical school, finally realizing it wasn’t where I needed to be. Even though I was not highly invested emotionally in what I was doing at the lab, I found that I had a talent for the work that I was doing. I was really good at troubleshooting. I was really good at managing projects. I was a good mentor. I cared about the people at the lab.
In my spare time, I started making art again. I picked up programming. I even started playing the piano again, all of which I’d abandoned by the wayside years earlier. Healing was slow, but it did happen.
Healing from perfectionism also meant healing from a lot of toxic thoughts. Instead of trying to crush myself or force myself to be a certain way, it meant internalizing a different message– Mainly, that it’s okay to be imperfect. It’s okay to fail and keep trying.
“It’s the idea that you don’t have to be perfect to be lovable or to be loved.”
“It’s about creating an environment where imperfection isn’t just accepted but is celebrated, because it means we’re human.” – Rasmussen
The truth is that, for most of my life, I found it easier to pursue something that I didn’t like rather than to pursue something that I cared about and felt passionate about. The reason is that because the subjects I was passionate about were too precious and dear to me. If people never saw the real me, how could they hurt me? I didn’t want to be hurt anymore. I’d had enough of that and I couldn’t handle it. Hiding away seemed the only reasonable response.
Medicine and the biological sciences weren’t easy by any means, and it was doubly so not easy when they are your passion or when you haven’t been studying them your whole life. However, thanks to being a quick study and a fast learner, I did well. While I don’t want to continue pursuing medicine in the future, I am nevertheless very glad that I had the chance to study as a Ph.D. student. Having been in that program did wonders for my sense of self-determination and self-esteem. I am also glad that I was able to learn how science and research works in a laboratory setting. It’s certainly way more challenging than I thought it would be. I can understand why people would want to devote their lives to it. It’s a truly honorable and important calling. I just learned that it isn’t MY calling. I care deeply about other people, and it’s because of this that I know that I will find other ways to help them… ways that are more in line with who I am and who I want to be.
Even though the Ph.D. program was not a great fit for me, I will forever be grateful to the people there at LLU. My labmates and my classmates were incredibly supportive of me, especially as I began to pick up the pieces and find myself again. I also had a REALLY great and awesome PI/boss. So thank you, everyone. I continue to be very appreciative of your wisdom. I am glad that you convinced me to continue and to finish my Ph.D. program. I am happy that I didn’t quit, even though I could have. I decided to stick it out and I’m glad.
Looking back, here’s what I can say.
While it’s true that never putting yourself out there can mean you’ll never be hurt, it also denies you the chance to live up to your full potential. There is so much that you miss out on. You never let your true light or potential shine through. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. The cost of not trying is too great. Fail, but try again. Be creative.
So to anyone out there who might be reading, DON’T GIVE UP! I believe in you and you can do this! And if you ever need a pep talk, please please contact me. I’ll do my best to prop you up. Or if I can’t help you, I’ll do my best to help you find someone who can help. Seriously!
The truth as I see it now is that I am a game developer, a scientist, and a programmer. I am a creative person. I am an artist. I am smart enough. I am good enough. I will work hard and these are the subjects that I am my most passionate about. I will fight for them and I am proud of who I am.
So this is my official “I’m back” message. I took a break from game development for almost 12 years, and now I’m ready to take another crack at this “follow your passion” business. This time, I’m here to stay. 🙂