*TW This post talks about self-harm and suicidal thoughts*
Earlier this year, I was introduced to the Animal Crossing video game series published by Nintendo. The specific game that I began playing was Animal Crossing New Leaf on Nintendo 3DS.
I am not a big video gamer and I don't play any other games on a regular basis. However, I can safely say that this game has been a huge source of support for my borderline personality disorder.
Without Animal Crossing, I believe I would have engaged in far more self-harm, impulsive behaviours and have been a lot more distressed by my suicidal thoughts.
Before I dive into how Animal Crossing has helped me, let me give a quick introduction to the game. In Animal Crossing New Leaf, your character is the mayor of a small town populated with friendly animals. Your time in the game is spent engaged in leisurely pursuits; making friends with the residents, catching bugs, fishing, collecting fruit, hunting for fossils or carrying out other pastimes such as growing flowers or decorating your house.
Nintendo: All You Need too Know about Animal Crossing New Leaf
I thought I would outline the five main reasons why Animal Crossing is helpful for my BPD.
1. It's a safe world
Due to my BPD, the world can be a frightening place for me. My thoughts about myself, others and life itself can change intensely and suddenly. One moment I feel calm and cheerful, the next I feel suicidal or want to hurt myself.
Someone can say one sentence to me and it can plunge me into a whirlpool of distressing memories. Similarly, I can be lying on the floor crying because my friend hasn't replied to a text. I can feel shame and sadness so intensely that I'm in physical agony.
Animal Crossing provides me with a place that feels safe. It offers a world into which I can retreat when the outside world feels threatening and the world inside my head is terrifying.
Unlike most video games, in Animal Crossing nothing bad happens. The character cannot 'die', there is no 'game over', 'lives' or health'. In fact, the worst thing that happens to the characters is that they are stung by bees or fall into a small hole.
When my emotions are running high, I startle easily and my senses are rattled. When I am playing Animal Crossing I never have to worry about being startled or shocked- there is nothing which jumps out, chases or makes a loud noise. Everything is gentle, even the soothing music.
2. Interaction without people
When I am feeling particularly emotional (especially during the times when I am struggling with feeling ashamed of myself or scared of abandonment) I find social interaction really hard.
This is because when I am feeling very ashamed or anxious, I am extra-sensitive to criticism or rejection. This is because I can understand other people's words as 'proof' that I am a 'bad person'. At these times, I am vulnerable to 'episodes' when my emotions become agony and I become so scared that I can scream, shout, lie on the floor sobbing or hurt myself.
During these times, I find it easier to avoid people. This is because being triggered in front of people leads me to feel extremely embarrassed and exposed. Unless I am with someone who knows that I am feeling very vulnerable and is able to be extra gentle with me, every social interaction feels potentially threatening.
However, when I play Animal Crossing and the characters talk to me, I'm not at risk of being triggered by their words in the same way that the words of a friend or a family member can affect me.
3. The DBT 'Stop' Skill
One of the skills I have learnt in DBT is the stop skill. It's a skill which can be used when reaching crisis point. It's about being able to notice that you are reaching a point where your emotions are so intense that you might act impulsively (in my case, self-harming, running out of the house, wanting to scream).
I have incorporated Animal Crossing into my break down of this skill. When I notice that I am reaching a crisis point, I can 'stop' by playing Animal Crossing. I tell myself that instead of hurting myself or engaging in an impulsive behaviour, I will play Animal Crossing for twenty minutes.
I then focus all of my might on my character and my village. In my experience, is extremely hard to do this when your emotions are so strong and urges feel all-consuming; I have only learnt how to do it with the support of therapists over the years.
I use the DBT mindfulness skill of 'observe' whilst playing the game. I tell myself to hear the sounds: the gentle music, the sounds of the stream, the voices of the animals. I try to take in the bright colours, the flowers, trees, the beach.
As my therapist has told me, emotions are like a wave and they pass. Animal Crossing is there for me as a safe distraction whilst my emotions lessen in intensity.
There are so many reasons why I love Animal Crossing; not least because I love all things cute and I find the talking animals just so utterly adorable. Some people have been quick to judged the game as a frivolous or meaningless, but for me the game is a vital tool for me to manage my emotions.
In fact, the game has been there for me in a similar way that Samaritans (helpline) have been there for me: non-judgemental, gentle, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Animal Crossing offers a sanctuary that I can conjure with the touch of a button.
Thanks to Animal Crossing, I am able to be in a safe space for the time it takes for the world outside to feel okay to inhabit once again.
Have you played any of the games? If so, have they helped you? I would love to hear from you.