Playing the Mental Illness Game

By November 25, 2014Blog

As the mom of three girls I never had much exposure to action video games. My kids gravitated to games like ‘The Sims’, ‘Farmville’ and ‘Super Mario’. So, until recently, I’ve had a very passive, apathetic view towards the skill and attraction of games like ‘Minecraft’ or ‘Call of Duty’. But about a month ago, Ricky, a very adorable and charismatic 8 year old, managed to get me hooked on a game called ‘Battle Cats’. My kids thought it was hilarious (or pathetic) that their middle-aged mom was suddenly glued to her smart phone for something other than emails or Facebook.

I myself was surprised at the allure of this kid’s game. Ironically (or not), for me there was a strong parallel between playing ‘Battle Cats’ and playing the real life game of ‘Battle the Mental Illness System’. Maybe I’ve just been living the world of mental illness for too long, but here are some of the similarities that I’ve found:

1. Blindly stumbling along as a beginner. When my daughter was first diagnosed I felt like I’d been dropped into a foreign country or a distant planet, with no map, no translator app or phrase book, nothing to help me find my way. I didn’t know where to look for help or guidance so I basically grabbed onto anyone or any article or website that might provide information. So it was with Battle Cats, I just started randomly clicking buttons, trying to fend of the enemy and to protect my home.

2. Learning that resources exist. After a few games I began to recognize that I had some tools. One weapon would push back the attackers in one fell swoop; another would give me some additional cats to strengthen my ‘army’. And so it was in real life. As I became familiar with the different aspects of my daughter’s illness and treatment, I began to understand the resources that could help us – her therapist, psychiatrist, other parents, credible websites, and books.

3. Knowledge is power. The more I played the game of ‘Battle Cats’, the more I learned and the better I played (and Ricky was a great coach). The more I immersed myself in learning about mental illness, the more comfortable I became with making decisions, and the more I was able to support and help my daughter.

4. Developing a strategy. Playing ‘Battle Cats’ was complicated. There were so many different aspects to consider: was it better to quickly gather less powerful but more easily attainable resources or to wait while the enemy forces advanced, knowing that I was earning points with each passing second and I might be able to add some high powered, more resilient cats to my army. Should I use my points to increase the skill level of my existing army or ‘purchase’ a new type of ‘cat’ in anticipation of future battles? What about supplies – did I have enough or would my trusty army run out of energy? So many variables, so little time!!!

I faced these same sorts of decisions as we searched for treatments that were effective and had some staying power. Should we try a new medication that could take weeks to show any positive (or negative effects) or was it better to increase (or decrease) an existing medication? How about diet, food allergies or hormonal disorders that could mimic a mood disorder? Should we wait weeks to see a specialist to rule out something obscure but plausible? What if we completely missed a diagnosis that could be cured simply and completely?

5. Learning to be patient. Patience is NOT one of my strengths, but I’ve had years of practice in improving this crucial trait. When I play ‘Battle Cats’, I want to win. I want to zip along from one country to the next, trying to catch up to my friend Ricky (who seems to always be a continent ahead of me). My lack of patience almost caused me to give up the first day that I played.

Now giving up on Battle Cats is hardly a calamity; giving up on my daughter on the other hand would be unthinkable. But that silly game of ‘Battle Cats’ reinforced for me the importance of not giving up on things that are harder, more important, maybe even life or death. I have to practice patience daily because it’s a skill that fades away quickly and doesn’t just come back like riding a bike.

Patience allows me to assess the situation, consider my resources, gather information, weigh the pros and cons, and even know when to allow the experts (that includes my daughter) to make the decision. Patience allows me to respond rather than react.

6. Not accepting defeat. Every time I lose at a round of ‘Battle Cats’ the word ‘DEFEAT’ flashes across the screen. It mocks me, pushes my insecurity and frustration buttons and sometimes makes me want to throw my phone across the room. But, unlike life, there is predictability to the game that has taught me that sometimes, no matter what I do, I’m going to lose one or two rounds before I can win and move on to the next country. That is where patience comes in.

Real life isn’t so predictable, but I have found that when we hit a road block, when one, then two, then three medications fail, quitting is not an option. Sometimes I learn that we’re going down the wrong path, that it’s not the medications that need to be changed, but rather our expectations, or some aspect of lifestyle. Or we find that changing schools doesn’t solve the problem, instead we learn that we have incorrectly identified the problem and need to change our perspective.

7. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this cliché I could probably finance a years’ worth of copays! But, there is a lot of truth in that short sentence. If I sit down and try to play ‘Battle Cats’ all the way to the end I’m going to find out that a) I don’t have the stamina; b) there may not be an end. So I’m better off balancing my time between fighting the good fight, being there for the other aspects of my life and taking the time to care for ME. Putting 100% of my energy (or even 90% or 80%) isn’t going to give me the same return on results. I have to take time to recharge, refuel and regroup.

8. Trusting my skills, losing the fear. Lastly, I need to trust in my skills, even if they are a bit wobbly or a bit rusty. And I have to let go of the fear. Playing ‘Battle Cats’ isn’t exactly terrifying but there have been a few ‘white knuckle’ moments. Caring for my daughter and fighting for wellness has been beyond terrifying. There is nothing, in my experience, worse than seeing your child suffer and not being able to make it all better. But if I let the fear take over and paralyze me, I lose all chance of helping in any way, big or small.

I can’t say that playing ‘Battle Cats’ has turned me into a video game fanatic but it had the surprising effect of reminding me of just how far we’ve come in this 12+ year battle of mental illness. Just the fact that I have had the time to play ‘Battle Cats’ is a miracle in and of itself!


  • Mary K says:

    You are to be admired! Great analogy and good lessons for us all. Thank you!

  • Doug says:

    a good analogy but you only hit on some of the aspects. Patience is the main ingredient, 22 yrs for my family, and all have a different mental illness, there four of us. Managing is almost impossible but you can never give up because a day of happiness is worth a lot. It’s been a long road and it’s not over, so to strive for a better life everyday is the key. Medicine is vital and it is a crap-shoot, one works for a while, let’s try another and on and on but you need it. The most helpful aspect is behavioral health therapy. You must learn to express yourself so you can let people know what the day is bringing to you. Find a good therapist and a support group and go all the time. I hope the Battle Cats family does well because there is nothing in this world more debilitating than mental disease, not even a stroke, I know. The depression that comes with the stroke is the absolute worse and my wife has to deal with depression everyday, God Bless all who suffer.

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