SHANE'S BLUE HENS: AN UNEXPECTED MEDIA REPRESENTATION

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Trigger Warning: Suicide

This week, I started playing Stardew Valley, a farming simulator game available on the Nintendo Switch and PC. I knew from past experiences playing games like this that it would be all too easy to sink into the repetitive tasks, watering crops and taking care of animals and giving gifts to villagers until I could fulfill whatever oddly specific goals I would come up with. It’s how these games usually go, and I tend to keep an interest in games like these long after my friends have moved on to games with more varied gameplay.

In this instance, I was very surprised by the presence of a mental health journey, which was explicitly called out as such and made a part of the gameplay. It’s something I’ve never seen before, even after being a gamer my whole life.

This story centers around Shane, who is living with his aunt and goddaughter on a neighboring farm to the player’s. At first, he is completely unwilling to talk and open up, dismissing communication with rude remarks and pushing everyone away, including those who he cares about. He lives with alcoholism and doesn’t hesitate to drown his problems in beer at the local saloon, and he seems to have little more going on in his life than a dismal job at the local supermarket.

It would be easy to ignore Shane considering he doesn’t seem to want much interaction, but I became determined to befriend him to earn the exclusive ability to purchase and raise blue hens.

The relationship started slowly, his rudeness decreasing in extremely gradual increments as he began to open up. One night, he shared a beer with my character and began to discuss things that mattered to him. On another rainy night, my character found him at an absolute crisis point. (Spoilers for Shane’s 6-heart event below.)

My character, a farmer named Annie, finds Shane nearly passed out drunk, mumbling to himself on the edge of a cliff. He sees falling off the cliff as the only way to take control of his life, and to “dull the feeling of self-hatred.” He asks why he shouldn’t roll off the cliff right now, and the player then gets to choose from several different responses.

I chose the one I heard from my family when I asked a similar question years ago after a crisis of my own: that there’s so much to live for. He puzzles through it, voicing his thoughts and fears aloud. And then, Shane asks Annie to take him to the hospital, beginning to see the first inkling of hope.

The doctor tends to the physical effects of his overindulgence before recommending him to see a counselor, specifically using the words “I’m most worried about his mental health.” Never before have I seen the words “mental health” in a video game, and I was shocked to see that the doctor didn’t just sweep the mention of his suicidal thoughts under the rug for the sake of the player.

As the days go by, Shane goes to see the counselor and begins therapy. He slowly gets better over time; in a later scene, he chooses sparkling water over beer, and uses the money he would have spent on beer to buy his goddaughter a special gift. He also rediscovers his passion for taking care of a flock of blue hens, which he offers to share.

Only by experiencing this journey can any player unlock blue hens, which means even people who wouldn’t be inclined to look into Shane’s depression will still share this journey with him, even if only for the reward.

Watching these scenes reminded me of tough times in my own life not too dissimilar. I was never on the edge of a physical cliff, but mental ones have presented hurdles that are just as foreboding. Five years ago, when I was mired in the deepest mental health crisis of my life so far, I think it would have been comforting to see that other people were dealing with thoughts like these, and they could get help too.

Mental illness can be extremely isolating. Even with people who try their best to understand, it still sometimes feels like you’re the only person in the world who has to deal with what’s in your mind. Shane’s story was particularly meaningful to me because when I had thoughts of suicide, I felt like every time I shared them, I lost another friend, another acquaintance would look past me, another person would get scared off even before I had time to explain that thoughts are different from actions, and I never had any plans to do anything. Showing a scene like this could have helped me express my thoughts better at a time when I felt like my brain wasn’t working right.

As for Shane, he is now a proud husband and father who still has some depressed thoughts, voicing them to his wife Annie from time to time. But they’re peppered in with happier things, giving him the variety he needs to thrive.

The game is full of stories like Shane’s, just like in real life. But unlike in real life, they’re brought out into the open, leaving room for learning, hope, and positive change. With more exposure like this, people dealing with all sorts of mental illnesses can have a springboard to discuss this topic with friends and loved ones, and for once not feel quite so alone.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.

THE COMPLICATIONS OF VALENTINE'S DAY FOOD

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Chocolate or vanilla?

Most people know their answer to that question right away, and most people celebrated Valentine’s Day with the sweets of their preferred kind. For me, however, it was a frustrating experience that shed light on something I usually try to avoid.

As someone whose primary obsessive phobia is vomiting, I grew up as an extreme picky eater. Only in the past several months have I truly been able to eat in a more conventional way, even though I am still unwilling to try meat or fish. I’ve been mixing foods together, something that was always hard for me as a kid, and I’m also trying lots of new foods, including cuisine from around the world.

The one thing I never had a problem with was dessert, at least until I was diagnosed with a severe allergy to nuts. As a kid, I knew I had the allergy and avoided nuts, but because of how I expressed this knowledge, it was hard for the people around me to believe it until I experienced anaphylactic shock. Now that I know what that feels like, I’ve gotten more paranoid about the foods I eat, which makes a previously uncomplicated area of my eating life quite the burden.

On Valentine’s Day, many people eat sweets. I’m a chocoholic, and I love just about every kind of chocolate. Other flavors, however, can sometimes come off really strong. I have a strong sense of taste, and it can be hard for me to overlook a different flavor when I’m the kind of person who can tell the colors of peppers and Goldfish crackers apart by taste alone.

My new workplace is the kind of place where people really, truly care, and they try their hardest to provide an option for me to eat even though I’m the only nut-free person there. On Valentine’s Day, I got an email that there were going to be nut-free desserts at the office party. I went and checked it out, picked up some different flavors and thanked my coworker profusely.

I appreciated it with all my heart. But at the same time, I wished there was some way for me to say that there are some foods that I just don’t like.

The same thing happened to me for my birthday not long ago. It was so considerate for people to think of me, and to accommodate the allergy they know about and the OCD they don’t. But it was still hard for me to pick at the food and smile and squeal over it when really I was thinking about the chocolate cupcakes that had a risk of nut contamination, the ones everyone else but me could eat.

I ended up leaving the room after a long period of awkwardness, internally chiding myself for having preferences. After all, how can I say that I just don’t like something, if it fits the requirements of both my OCD and my food allergy?

I feel like I don’t have the right to express a preference in food in these situations for many reasons. Saying I don’t like something makes me feel selfish, or like I’m hurting others on purpose. As a kid, I wouldn’t even put the food on my plate, and I had a lot of excuses for it - if I was with non-Jewish friends, for example, I’d simply say that the food wasn’t kosher, and that was enough to confuse most kids into just letting me do what I wanted. As an adult, I tend to find some way to flee, all the while beating myself up on the inside.

Why can’t I just eat these things, and pretend to like them? I wondered as I sat at my desk picking at a vanilla cupcake with overly sweet frosting, a kind gift yet one that I was having trouble actually swallowing. Of course I thanked my co-worker immensely for thinking of me and getting me something nut-free, but there was some horrible part of me that almost wished she hadn’t, if only to avoid this feeling.

I find that adults can be very skeptical and un-accepting of the times I don’t eat something not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to. At my old job, a coworker once started reading me all the ingredients of things off of the menu and asking me about each individual one until I bolted for the bathroom, staying there until I knew the conversation would change focus. I’ve been asked all kinds of questions, everything from what kind of diet I’m on to why I’m being difficult, and people often don’t stop until I repeat several times that I’m happy with what I ordered, even if it’s just a side dish.

Until recently, I would declare I didn’t like a food before I even tried it. Now, I have a rule that I give myself three tries. There are several foods that have failed my test: pasta salad, quinoa, mushrooms, mixed greens, farro, and more. It’s not that I obsess about these foods, and I can even eat foods that have been around them. And it’s not that they could hurt me because of my allergy. It’s just that I honestly don’t like them, and I find myself at a loss for words whenever anyone asks me why I’m not eating.

I’m still trying to work my way through this problem. I don’t know if it’s a lack of confidence to express my preferences, a sense of shame for not being able to fully accept the kindness of others around me in the times when I do receive it, or some combination of both. It might be a fear that others will think of me as difficult or, like a waitress told me in front of my coworkers last year, that I’d be judged as a “picky little kid.”

For now, I’ve got a makeshift solution: politely accept the food, smile as much as I can, pick around it to make it look like I ate, and dispose of it in a place where no one will see or know. But I can’t fake the enthusiasm I have when there are chocolate nut-free cupcakes or some other food I really, truly love. It’s something I have to work with every day, and something I hope I can either overcome or learn to live with in a better way. But for now, I’ll head to my drawer and enjoy a treat of my own that I brought for the occasion, and I’ll try to treat myself with the kindness of my coworkers this Valentine’s Day.

 

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.

OVERCOMING A FUZZY PHOBIA

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Anyone who knows me knows I love my dog.

It might be how there’s a photo of him yawning in a tie as the lock screen of my phone. It might be because of the 14 pictures of him decorating my cube at work. Or it might be because whenever I know I’m going to see him soon, I can’t stop talking about how excited I am. (28 days and counting!)

Most people who encounter me now would have trouble believing that I once ran into the street as a little girl, so determined to get away from a dog lying on the street that I almost ran directly in front of a car. They wouldn’t know how I would be anxious when my mom would drive me over to friends’ houses for playdates, in case they didn’t feel like putting their dog in another room. Even if the dog did nothing more than look at me, I would be so scared that I would literally shake.

When I was a teenager, I decided that I needed to change. I thought it would be easy – I would start by petting my cousin’s dog, the first one I would encounter, and then I would start to pet dogs on the street, and then from there I would be fine with them. I remember scooting over in an office chair, keeping my feet off the ground, reaching out to pet the curly black fur, and realizing the dog in question was not going to hurt me.

But then, things started going too fast. My parents were encouraged by my bravery and before I knew it, there was money down in our name on a goldendoodle puppy in Florida.

I got very involved in the process, choosing him from a picture, naming him, and getting excited about how he was going to be my friend at a time when I had few friends. My family took a road trip to pick him up and I even got to hold him first, a little eight-pound pup who snuggled into my arms like he belonged there.

It felt okay on the car ride, but by the time we got home, I was starting to get anxious. Even just seeing him walk around was somehow causing me a great deal of anxiety, even though I knew he was a little dog and mine, to boot. I sat and stared into my plate of spaghetti and watched the puppy walk around my house, knowing that everything was going to change, and definitely not liking it.

In the beginning, I was scared if I didn’t know where he was. I needed to see him if we were in the same room, and I turned my bedroom into a safe zone where the door was shut and no dogs were allowed. I liked the jingle of the metal tags on his collar because I could always hear him coming. My biggest consolation was that he was so incredibly lazy that he usually stayed in one place for a very long time.

A particularly difficult challenge for my OCD was that it took a very long time for him to become housetrained. I would have obsessive thoughts about him needing to go out, and I voiced them enough that my parents stopped listening, even on the rare occasions when he did actually need to go. I was irritable, snapping at everyone, disappointed and angry at how he had changed everything. He had everyone else enchanted, but I saw him as little more than a cute, cuddly nuisance.

Every day, I tried to find ways to push through the anxiety, to get around it, to do anything to stop it from affecting me like that. And after a while, we settled into a routine where he and my mom and dad were incredibly close and I usually just ignored him.

It took me until I left for college to realize that I really did care about him quite a lot, and whenever I came home, the now-70-pound dog became a highlight of my visit. The more time we spent together, the more I wanted to spend time with him. I fell in love with the real dog rather than the cute puppy picture I’d seen online, and we began to develop our own rituals. He doesn’t usually sit in my lap like he does with my mom, but he lets me dress him up in ties and scarves, he squeaks when he yawns around me because he knows that’ll get him a treat, and when we watch TV together, I sit on the floor and he sits on the couch and rests his chin on my shoulder.

Now a senior, my dog is a wonderful friend who I speak to on the phone every night, my mom lifting his ear flap so I can tell him he’s a good boy and he can lick the phone. After his recent bout with anal gland cancer, I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable when I go home, but I’m so excited to see him that I usually don’t even care. And it’s gone beyond him to other dogs – nowadays, I still run across the street when I’m not supposed to, but it’s to greet a dog as a new friend.

Overcoming phobias is a lifelong journey for me. Sometimes, it feels like there’s always something else to conquer, but my journey to beat my first phobia has inspired me to get through so many other things, and I’ve gone through them all with a faithful friend by my side. I now understand why people say dogs are a man’s best friend – by learning how to make friends with my dog, I learned a lot about my strength and what I can do if I set my mind to things. He’s a great listener about all the things I care about, and I’ve even got him trained to eat “second breakfast” just like a hobbit from my beloved Lord of the Rings – and he never rolls his eyes.

It may have taken us a long time to bond, but when I go home in 28 days and see the paws scrabbling on the car window to make it open faster, I wouldn’t be able to imagine a comfortable and happy home any other way. 

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was
diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her
condition and end the stigma against mental illness.

WHY I AM ONE OF THE ELLIES

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I am one of many people who uses creative expression to work through the problems presented by mental illness. Everywhere from online writing forums to Tumblr, Deviantart and more, I see countless examples of people turning struggles into triumphs and navigating the complexity of their thought patterns. For me, it’s always been writing. Losing myself in a story is a great way to get past the tough times, whether it’s difficult times in my head or simply a boring day - and I’ve also managed to find a good deal about myself in the stories I write.

One pattern I’ve noticed over the years is that my stories tend to have a character nicknamed Ellie. It wasn’t something I planned, but somehow, some of my most involved stories over the years have focused on a series of women all bearing the same name - and the same mental illness. The differences in how each story plays out has helped me map a course through my own journey.

The first Ellie’s story came to me when I was in high school. Sitting in the bleachers at a pep rally, I was captivated by the performance of a gymnast wearing a red ribbon in her hair. I named her Scarlett for the ribbon, but in brainstorming the piece, I soon discovered that it was the story of her mother that I truly wanted to write. I called her mother Eleanor, and the first Ellie quickly took shape.

She was the first Ellie to have OCD, which expressed itself as both perfectionism and hyperfocusing. She had compulsions too, at the beginning, mostly involving certain rituals influencing her luck in competitions. And yet, her focus was seen as something amazing, since it was fueling her drive to compete and make her way to the Olympics. No one would ever think someone like her was weird, unlike me.

The story changed when I faced a nearly-fatal illness a few years later during my freshman year in college. Ellie lost everything, including her ability to walk, and as I limped around campus, both she and I lost a great deal of our old selves. Where was her confidence, her drive, her need to succeed? She seemed to lose it all, and tried to navigate her way back to her old self just as I did.

A second Ellie worked in a hospital as I tried to overcome my fear of hospitals after my surgeries with all sorts of techniques including writing out hospital scenarios, watching documentaries and soap operas about hospitals, and listening to hospital sounds like ambulances and machines beeping. The noises made her nervous too, and in her story, she befriended someone who she had previously hated on principle and they worked through problems together. Her heart raced slower in the presence of a friend.

 When I was sick, another Ellie was sick too. But unlike the first, she didn’t stay sick for long. She bounced back quickly, and sometimes even literally, because she embodied the part of OCD that makes me so overexcited about things that I can seem like a hyper kid. I could talk about things forever, even as a kid, and I had to learn that conversation is like a tennis match and you have to let the other person play too. This Ellie was annoying at first as I tried to see my own flaws, but she also plays into my excitement, considering that I’ve written her into a Tolkien fanfiction. His works are my biggest obsession, and after years of being too ashamed to share anything, I finally began spreading my wings on fanfiction sites. This Ellie hasn’t made an appearance online yet - in my story, she isn’t even the main character - but she grew on me, enough for me to want to write her the happiest of endings.

 Probably the greatest Ellie was the one who inhabited my college thesis. Helena was her proper name, but she was a true Ellie from the moment she stepped onto the pages of the story. Her tale began with a list of steps she used to go through traveling, a process that was filled with anxiety for her. As I listed out the steps, I fell into her voice all too easily, and I heard from several professors and classmates that I really, truly understood her.

Of course I do, I wanted to tell them. She’s me.

 Specifically, the me of my childhood, the one who was facing near-constant obsessions and compulsions until I could barely function. I imagined that girl who had to ask the same question ten times or touch things in a certain order as an adult, and wondered what would have happened without the love and support and therapeutic help that I was fortunate enough to have. It was scarily easy to put myself in her place, even when she made decisions I would never consider making.

 Her ultimate downfall could have been prevented by anyone from her husband (if he’d cared to listen) to her friends (if they had been around) to the strangers she interacted with every day, but as each scene went by, she spiraled down more and more. I learned from her to share and be open, even if it’s something I’m afraid of, even if it’s something I’m afraid will scare other people. Even if I’m afraid of where I’d be if I was too much like this Ellie.

 I never intended to give the characters the same names when I was first writing each story, but over time, I came to realize that perhaps my group of Ellies from diverse backgrounds, personalities, and even universes was telling me something. I don’t always have a character named Ellie in a story, but my OCD always informs my writing, whether serving as a hyperactive muse or showing me the way through a plot hole by giving me a thousand “what ifs,” and my stories inform my own life and have helped me get through phobias and panic attacks and everything in-between.

 I’ve chosen to call myself Ellie here because I, too, am a work in progress. Every day is like another chapter of a story where I decide how to overcome my challenges. I’ve learned from the advice I give my own characters to seek help when needed, to form a supportive community around me to the best of my ability, and to face issues of mental health where they are rather than shying away. Every Ellie has taught me something, and I hope my stories here can serve as an Ellie in some way for someone else, forging a way into a world where conversations about mental health can be as open as the pages of a book.

 
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was
diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her
condition and end the stigma against mental illness.

I EAT FRENCH FRIES WITH A FORK

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Hi! I’m Ellie*, and I eat French fries with a fork.

You may think that’s a little strange. Not many people do that, and those of us who do are usually faced with some kind of comment about the weird behavior. Many times, it’s easy to play off - I grew up doing it, I say, which can then launch a discussion about my outlandish family and get us off the topic, or I say I didn’t have time to wash my hands before sitting down.

I don’t say that when I was little, I couldn’t touch food without washing my hands. If someone else passed me a French fry, I’d bite the part they hadn’t touched and then find someplace to hide the rest. My lap was my usual go-to, since it was easy to slide the fry over into my pocket. If they had big fingers and touched a lot, it’d be disappointing because I’d only get to eat a little. But even my love for fries couldn’t make me actually accept one from someone unless I saw them wash their hands.

It’s a little thing to most people, but growing up with OCD meant that it wasn’t little to me. Something so small could turn into a whole thought process that could keep me up at night.

 And so, I eat French fries with a fork.

 These fries I’m trying today are a sign of me being brave. I’ve never had beer battered fries before, and trying new foods is as hard for me as it is for a toddler. Just the thought of trying a little bit can make me incredibly anxious, even if it’s something most people have had a thousand times. I try to ration it, and I have all sorts of solutions for upset stomachs of different kinds just in case. I’ve even got some stuff in my purse, just in case one of my valiant efforts goes wrong.

I tried pizza at fourteen, mac and cheese at eighteen, and I’ve always eaten French fries with a fork.

It’s not quite a compulsion, but it came from one, many years ago when I was a little girl trying to learn the difference between obsessive thoughts and normal ones as I mastered the ABCs. I never had to eat French fries a certain number of times or anything, but on vacation, I had to have my routine: plain pasta for dinner one night, French fries the next, because that was all I’d eat for dinner. At home, it was just pasta, but on vacation, I branched out.

I still eat French fries with a fork.

 I’m in my 20s now, successful according to the benchmarks of American culture. I’ve got a job, I live on my own, and I can pick apart the thoughts that come through my head with relative ease after so many years of practice. It’s still a messy process, but I’ve gotten to the point where most days, I can toss away the obsessive thoughts I don’t want and choose others to harp on for hours. I like to choose my stories, and whisk myself away to a world of my own imagination.

And yes, if you go out to dinner with me at a place with not many vegetarian entrees, I’ll still eat French fries with a fork.

But there’s so much more to see and learn - just like any person living with a mental health condition, my story goes far beyond the things you can see, whether they’re big or little. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share my story with you, and I hope the next time you see someone doing something a little bit strange, you’ll think of their story too.

 

“No Shame On U is thrilled to introduce Ellie as the Lead Contributor for our new blog.
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was
diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her
condition and end the stigma against mental illness.