“This Vitamin D better work,” I thought bitterly to myself as I tilted a brown plastic supplement bottle into my hand. A tiny pill rolled into my palm. It was a small yellow droplet, golden like the sun, which I hadn’t seen in what felt like forever.
It was mid-December 2019, right smack in the middle of the Pacific Northwest winter. Even though we were only two months into the rainy season here in Washington (with seven months left to go), I felt like the near-constant rain had washed away all the joy and motivation I had left in my body.
“Most people in the Pacific Northwest are woefully low in vitamin D, and that’s part of what contributes to low mood,” Seattle-based therapist Cami Ostman told me. “In my observation with clients, the lack of connection we have with others when it gets dark is part of the problem. The winter lasts so long. It kind of closes up life for us.”
Living this far north, the sun won’t rise until 8 am, and close to the winter solstice it’ll set by 4 pm. Layer those minimal daylight hours with dense gray rain clouds and some days it’s like the sun hadn’t risen at all.
That particular winter, I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in my regular hobbies like hiking or gardening. I’d caught SAD, seasonal affective disorder, which affects 10.5 percent of us Washingtonians this time of year. It’s marked by most of the symptoms of depression, including listlessness, joylessness, decreased energy, and just generally feeling bummed out.
“When hope and stimulation are whisked away, like in winter or during the pandemic, suddenly all the things we would do to cope with stress, anything you might normally do to stimulate all those happy chemicals like oxytocin in your body, all of those things are taken away,” Ostman said.
That’s exactly how I felt. No gardening, no hiking, no patio happy hours with friends. I felt trapped inside my house with nothing to do, and when SAD set in, I felt trapped inside my head.
Then, the unexpected happened: My husband Zach got me an Xbox One as a Christmas gift. This was a weird and unexpected gift, because neither of us are gamers. The last time I’d played video games was in high school, when the guy who sold me weed would smoke me up if I let him win at Mario Kart, and that was over a decade ago.
When I opened the box, I marveled at its sleekness and modern look. When I turned it on, I was amazed by the breadth of opportunity at the tip of my fingers. Still, learning a new game felt like a huge lift while I was carrying around the weight of sadness on my shoulders.
I sat down in front of the TV and sent out a group text to my college friends. “Y’all this winter has me depressed AF, but Zach got me an Xbox for Christmas, any suggestions on what games I should play?”
A friend replied that we should give The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim a try, and followed that up with a long paragraph about how it was an “open-world” game with dragons and cat people and magic. I had no idea what an open-world game was, but the idea of escaping to a magical alternate reality sounded interesting enough. I took the bait and plunged in.
The first thing that struck me about the game was the quality of the graphics. The visual aspect of Skyrim surprised me with its beauty and artistry. From the detailed leaves on the trees to the epic mountainous moonscape in the background, it was gorgeous. Following footpaths and dirt roads through forests and meadows, I thought to myself, “This feels like virtual hiking.” Usually, I’d motivate myself to go on a few hikes in the winter, but SAD had me feeling like I was on emotional house arrest. Going on these virtual hikes in the game became candy for my brain.
“The fact is that our happiness or sadness is truly based on the thoughts that we dwell on,” Ostman told me. “Our brains are so powerful that if you’re generating the experience of adventure inside your body, it can have the similar experience of having the adventure outside. Generating the experience of adventure inside the body brings up oxytocin, a happiness hormone, and brings down stress hormones.”
I quickly realized that every person I spoke to in the game could lead me on a new adventure. Every passerby had a new opportunity to offer me, whether it was training in a particular skill like archery or speechcraft, or a quest they needed my help to complete. Unlike in real life, where I could barely manage to focus enough to get through a conversation over dinner, in Skyrim I became eager to talk to everyone I met.
One of the aspects of the game that most intrigued me was alchemy, the skill of making potions and poisons from plants and other items that you could find ripe for the harvest throughout the realm. I collected as many new items as I could and then rushed to the nearest apothecary to learn their medicinal traits and concoct new potions to use for myself or against my adversaries. There seemed to be an endless number of plants to collect and discover, and I delighted every time I identified something new.
Soon enough, I was clocking a few hours playing the game each day. Part of me worried that I was investing too much time in a stupid game, but when I tried to spend my evenings doing any of my other hobbies, like hiking or writing or hanging out with friends, I just didn’t have the energy. I was still depressed, and even thinking about putting on real pants and doing something outside my living room felt like an insurmountable obstacle.
Skyrim, however, didn’t require pants. It didn’t require me to leave the house. It didn’t ask anything from me, and I began to feel like the opposite was true. It was giving me something that I couldn’t give to myself: motivation, excitement, even joy.
“In the wintertime, when we can’t go sunbathing or go on picnics with friends or whatever we like to do in the summertime, we have to get creative about generating hope.” Ostman said. “You generate the idea of what’s possible. You build positivity even if you’re not able to go experience the thing literally. The process of imagining through video games can help you do that.”
By the time the end of February rolled around, the days felt longer and the sun poked out every now and then. I’d climbed to level 35 in the game and struggled for a few weeks to defeat the former Dragonborn nemesis in Solstheim. It felt impossible, and my interest in figuring it out waned. For all the excitement I’d felt over the past several weeks going deep into the game, I was getting bored with Skyrim.
“One question I often ask people is, when you discover something that brings you joy, what else does this joy generate? What else does this joy sponsor or ask you to create?” Ostman said. “Like, when you’re playing the video game and experiencing the joy, can you bring that feeling to other areas of your life? Does it make you think of other things that you love? We are always expanding the ways joy manifests in our life.”
The emerging early spring had me dreaming about applying the hobbies I’d taken up in Skyrim to my real life. I live on 5 acres, and last summer I counted at least 11 species of edible berries in my woods. The foraging and alchemy I’d learned in Skyrim made me wonder if I could learn the properties of the plants in my own backyard, and maybe make something useful out of them. I saw more potential in my land after harvesting the fruits from the lands of Skyrim.
As the days lengthened and my outdoor dreams grew, I also found that my attitude toward strangers also shifted after my time in Skyrim. The anxiety I felt at the start of winter, each time I faked a smile to an approaching stranger, had been replaced by curiosity. There was something to learn or glean from each interaction with someone new, and I found myself looking forward to chatting up strangers in the grocery line or waiting to cross the road.
“I know I can get some benefit out of sitting in meditation and imagining that I’m in an awesome place. Of course, the endorphins I get from going out and actually doing it exceed that,” Ostman said. “But if you can’t do the thing, it really can help just to imagine yourself doing it.”
Visualizing hiking and foraging through the mountains during the dark winter made me feel excited and energized to get out there and seize the day once spring came. I don’t know if I’d have made it through SAD without this video game—which is something my old nongamer self could never have imagined saying.
Seasonal depression is something that I and many others in the Pacific Northwest and beyond will continue to struggle with. But now I’m armed with another tool in my self-care kit: a virtual, open world where I can lose my sadness and find myself again.
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