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ADMITTING I'M A VIDEO GAME JUNKIE
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
December 31, 2007. I'm standing on the Arlington Memorial Bridge, maybe an eighth of a mile from the Lincoln Memorial loop-de-loop, and the mid-teens windchill has my breath coming in gasps. My asthma gives me a rough enough time, thanks to the 235 pounds my five-foot-nine frame heaves about daily. Tonight I've forced myself to march out into the 9:00 PM darkness to where few cars dare to go, thanks to the intermittent freezing rain. Even my thick-soled Colorado hiking boots are having a difficult time gripping the slickness.
I told my wife I was heading to CVS for cough drops. Instead of stopping at the drugstore at 23rd and C Street, however, I just kept plodding along, head hunched against the cold and the wet. Yeah, I was unsure of my destination. But damned if I was going to head back home to another bout of the 'What the hell's wrong with you?'
one-upmanship that always leaves me on the losing end.
I'm focusing on the plink-plink of rain against icy ground and the crunch of my boots as I head farther away from home. For as long as I can recall, I've been my own best company. I enjoy long walks to nowhere, although lately that's proved to be less calming than ever, thanks to my perpetually unquiet mind.
For three years, every thought has been dominated by a single focus: the World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online computer game (MMOG), also called a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), in which players control characters who explore a huge virtual world, battle monsters and other players, socialize in enormous cities, and complete quests for money, fame, experience, and loot.
While others are living normal lives, I'm actively occupying my alternate world. I inventory my characters. I prioritize quests. I mull over high-powered weapon trades. I reimagine my gaming group's website. I fret about the battleground honor I need to earn. I consider how many real-world dollars I can afford to spend to buy in-game equipment on eBay or from gold farmers (people who make a career out of playing video games simply to sell acquired virtual loot for real-world cash).
Consumed by this never-ending, breathtaking virtual universe that I discovered by accident three years earlier, I might as well have been clicking away with my mouse in front of my twenty-one-inch screen even here, dozens of blocks from my home machine, as if an unseen digital umbilical cord is keeping me eternally wired to the game that demands my every waking moment.
Halfway across the bridge, I stop. My brain is telling me to climb up on the barrier. In fact, it's insisting on it, ridiculous as it seems for a thirty-five-year-old professor to huff his way up a frozen concrete barrier on this D.C. bridge. I haven't climbed a tree or a fence or anything for fifteen years, but muscle memory serves me well. As a child, I squirreled up the fifty-foot pines behind our Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, house and the crab apple tree out front. The neighbor's slag-rock chimney was fair game, too.
Now, standing atop the barrier between safety and the plummet to certain icy death, my brain is holding me hostage, despite my crippling fear of heights. My kids hate me. My wife is threatening (again) to leave me. My friends no longer bother to call. My parents are so mad at me, they don't bother to visit their only grandchildren anymore, even here in D.C., a tourist paradise they've longed to visit for years. I haven't written anything in countless months. I have no job prospects for the next academic year. And I am perpetually exhausted from skipping sleep so I can play more Warcraft, the latest video game to have a choke hold on me.
'You're not good enough. You'll never be good enough,' my brain insists, flogging me with feelings of worthlessness, well-earned shame, regret, despair, and panic that I'll forever remain unloved, alone, and scrambling for a glimmer of meaning in my life.
My head turns swimmy, and for a moment I can't see straight. This is absurd—leaping to one's death at the apex of winter on a bodiless bridge. James Stewart even contemplated the same swan-dive scenario in It's a Wonderful Life (admittedly on a much less historically significant bridge). Only he had a guardian angel flitting around, ready to pull a Walt Disney abracadabra and make everything terrific. I can't shake the idea that if I had my own guardian angel, I'd snatch her out of the air by her gossamer wings, smash her in the chest with a balled-up fist, and steal her lunch money to cover another month's subscription to Warcraft.
The wind blows a strand of hair across my eyes, and I push it back, noticing how greasy and matted my hair has become. It might've been two, maybe three, days since I'd showered. That's what a recent eighteen-hour stretch of gaming, followed closely by another five-hour stretch, does—you skimp on nonessentials, cutting every corner you dare to squirrel away a little more game time.
God, it's cold.
A semi roars at me from the Arlington side, and for a moment I'm sure he'll phone 911 about the nut-job pirouetting on the bridge railing. But whether the guy was fiddling too intently with the XM radio tuner or was simply too amped on NoDoz and cheap cigarettes, speeding along to a New Year's Eve party, he keeps driving. Within twenty seconds, the crimson glow of his taillights vanish around the bend.
Want to know why I haven't already jumped into the Potomac? It's because the distant memory of the old, responsible me whispers that I've been too lazy to have increased my insurance from my pre fatherhood years. The current cash payout wouldn't be enough to really make a difference for my wife and my two daughters.
My messed-up brain screams at me to do it anyway and let them reap what they have sown for not supporting me. For not loving me unconditionally. For not understanding. For screaming at me endlessly to 'stop playing that fucking game,' the one thing in life that gives me any sense of satisfaction, joy, accomplishment, and purpose.
Screw them all, my brain tells me again, persuasively.
But there's a difference between wanting to die and wanting the tumult in your life to die. Sometimes the only way to imagine that all that crap will cease is to imagine yourself dead, at peace, one with God and the universe and all that. Enter the suicidal gesture and my current dilemma: to go for it or to step down and face the hell that my life has become.
A moment of clarity arises, like the tip of an iceberg in a swirling sea of confusion. I don't want to die. And getting to this point is, I now realize, what this late-night walk was all about.
And then comes God's little 'haha.' I slip. Right as I'm trying to clamber back onto the safe side of the walkway area, my left heel catches a patch of invisible ice, and my leg shoots out in cartoon fashion. For a moment, I am Wile E. Coyote minus a little sign that reads YIKES! as I hang in the air, defying gravity. Then reality returns, and I collapse onto my back, WWF-style, the wind expelled forcibly from my chest in a rush.
I begin to slide the wrong way off the ice-shellacked railing, the Potomac suddenly a big dark magnet and me a huge lump of iron slag. One of my boots tears loose and heel-over-toes all the way down until it's lost in the swirl of wind-stirred water, which is frigid enough to kill a man faster than being shot in the gut.
It's not hypothermia that kills you, I've learned from one of those Discovery Channel shows, but cold shock. You inhale the water, which leads to heart attack, stroke, panic, gasping, and hyperventilation. Next on the agenda: rapid drowning. Hypothermia operates on a scale of hours; cold shock takes mere minutes.
Oh, my God, this is it.
I manage to hook one elbow through the concrete pillar and try to hoist myself up, but my body feels leaden, even without the rain weighing me down more than I ever imagined.
I begin to holler for help, my voice faltering as my asthma flares, making each gasp for breath a blinding chore.
Of course, I didn't carry an inhaler with me because I didn't have one, so poorly insured are we here in D.C. With our Clemson, South Carolina, house sitting vacant and unsold since July 2009, I couldn't afford the Proventil or Advair anymore, but now I wish I'd splurged on it and committed to eating Ramen noodles for a month for a single deep puff of that miraculous, oxygen-giving medicine.
©2010. Ryan G. Van Cleave. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Unplugged. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442