(reading time: 35 minutes – a bit over one TV episode)
(content note: queer & mental health stuff, the "heavy shit")
I don't know where the line is between "publicly taking responsibility for my past mistakes" and "masochistic exhibitionism", but it's the end of a decade – a good time to reflect, and share stories I've never shared publicly before!
In 2010–2019, I learnt a lot about being queer, going indie, and mental health. Life lessons found through trial-and-error-and-error-and-error.
So, what wonderful things did I learn this decade?
2010: The Year I Learnt I Was An Asshole
("Nicklaus Liow", circa 2010, who was an asshole)
I made my lab partner do all the work for our Science Fair project, which won a city-wide contest, and I claimed the credit. But when it lost the province-wide contest, I blamed the fool for dragging down my genius.
Whenever I lost a game, I'd accuse others of cheating. Whenever I got a test question wrong, I'd blame the ambiguous wording. Every other recess, I'd corner a religious classmate and quote paragraphs from The God Delusion at them.
Also I had a creepy obsession with knives. 🔪
It's a cliché story. Lonely angry kid, raised by a hyper-competitive tiger mom, thinks: "I want to not be lonely → I must make others respect me → I must make myself look powerful & others look weak."
In 2010, I learnt the scientific term for this style of cognition is called "being an asshole".
The realization took years. In 2006, we immigrated from Singapore to Vancouver. After four years of hanging out with other classmates, I learnt that their healthy friendships and families were based on, y'know, actual respect. Not the pile of narcissism, guilt-tripping, and psychological manipulation that I grew up thinking was normal.
A healthy relationship with another human being. I wanted that bad.
I wanted that so, so bad.
Thus, I finally acquired a "voice of conscience". It said:
"I want to not be lonely → I must become a good person → I must help others and make the world a better place."
Why not? It was 2010, a new decade, a new start. I was 16 years old and I knew everything.
What's the worst that could happen?
2011: The Year of Coming Out
I wanted to be a good person. A good person is honest. So, I came out to my mom as bisexual. She sent me to a child psychologist to convince me I was "just confused".
I felt like I was the asshole. My voice of conscience told me: She's a poor immigrant AND a single mom AND had an abusive ex-husband AND was raised by a narcissist mother... and now we're threatening her dreams of having grand-children?!
So, Mom & I went to the child psychologist. We all talked for a bit, then the shrink requested to speak to me alone. Mom left. I felt like I fucked up so badly. The shrink turned to me, and said with the most serious look:
"Don't worry, I get homophobic parents all the time. You're okay, Nick."
No-one's said that to me before. I may not be a "good person", but at least I was an "okay person". I felt so grateful to the psychologist, and I told him that. I also felt sexually attracted to him because he was the only warm father figure in my life, but I did not tell him that.
A few months later, a trilogy of ultraviolent meme-filled Flash games I made – under the online handle "NutcaseNightmare" – caught the eye of a developer at Electronic Arts. They offered me a student co-op internship in the Bay Area!
Heck yeah I'd sell my soul, I wasn't using it anyway.
I took the offer, mostly to get out of my family & to a more queer-friendly space. EA gets a lot of (justified) flak, but the Human Rights Commission ranks them as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly companies. I'm still deeply grateful to my EA colleagues & mentors who helped me during my coming out.
Which reminds me of one moment:
The CEO was giving the annual company talk, when he presented one of EA's employees: a trans woman.
This was the first time I (knowingly) saw a trans woman. Remember, this was 2011 – before the world knew Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, or the Wachowski Sisters. Probably the only trans character most people had seen was the villain from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
The woman spoke on how her coworkers helped her through her transition. I was selfishly relieved – if they accepted her while she was on 5-to-6 layers of queer, then I, "NutcaseNightmare", would be too.
(The CEO followed this by supporting the internet-censoring Stop Online Piracy Act. You win some, you lose some.)
2012: The Year of Dropping Out
I got sick of working for THE MAN™. So after my internship, I dropped out of college to rebel against THE SYSTEM™. I teamed up with a pal to found a "startup" that would – since my voice of conscience demanded I be a good person – MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE™.
("Nick Liow", from a 2012 fundraising video for our bullcrap startup. Note how fundamentally uncomfortable I am in my own body.)
Apparently, it's stressful to run a fake startup while being technically still a teenager. In 2012, I had my first panic attack in public, and tried drowning my anxiety disorder in random hookups with men old enough to signal "daddy issues".
(hot tip: if you ever go to an orgy at a venture capitalist's house, they'll be amused if you call it a seed round)
One time, I had unprotected sex in a gay bathhouse. After he came inside me, he mentioned, oh by the way he has HIV. I got tested. Negative. But I had to get tested again in 3 months to be sure. I was in a daze all season, listening to Diseases of Yore on loop, thinking, "Oh God, I've killed myself."
Tested again. Negative again. The biggest fucking sigh of relief.
(HIV isn't the death sentence it used to be, but god damn.)
If reality had Proper Storytelling Technique, this should have the wake-up call to collaborate with my "negative" emotions in a healthy way, rather than drown them in dick-based distractions.
It was not. I learnt nothing. (Okay, I learnt to practice safer sex and get an STI checkup every six months. Not a total loss.)
Anyway, our startup failed! Nobody cares. Here's a more fun year in my life:
2013: The Year I Filled A Sink With Blood
I was back in the Bay Area. I was renting a bunk-bed, in a room with 4 people, in a shared house with 10 people. Housing sucks in the Bay Area.
Remember my "creepy obsession with knives 🔪"? That's right, it wasn't a throwaway one-liner, it was a Chekov's Gun foreshadow! Proper Storytelling Technique!
For my birthday, I bought myself a hunting knife. For reasons I can't comprehend, I wanted to look at it in a Safeway supermarket. But I didn't want to scare others around me, so I tried opening the knife in the dark of my backpack, and sliced my thumb open.
Well, I didn't want to bother anyone – a good person puts others' feelings before their own! – so I grabbed some paper towels, wrapped my thumb, and snuck out of the Safeway while the intercom blared "code 211". I assume that meant "cleanup".
I took the hour-long Caltrain ride home, and tried rinsing my thumb in the bathroom sink. Strangely, blood just kept coming.
After half an hour(?), the manager of the shared house knocked on the door, and asked if I was okay. Apparently, he was concerned about the blood drops leading to the bathroom.
I said I was okay, but, um, maybe needed a little bit of help if that's not too much of a bother, I don't want to be a bother. I unlocked the door, and he came in.
A bunch of blood + a lot of water + a clogged sink = not a pretty sight.
He drove my dumb ass to the hospital, while I went full Canadian and said "sorry" 500 times. This was my first run-in with American healthcare – without insurance – so, oof, let's say I'm glad I saved money by dropping out of college.
But here's what shocked me the most: nobody was mad at me.
I was the kind of person who was so terrified of being a burden on others, I'd rather bleed out than bother anyone. That's when I finally learnt:
It's okay to ask for help.
Asking for help doesn't make me a bother, or a bad person, or a narcissistic asshole. And to internalize this lesson, all I had to do was to almost lose a digit to bacterial infection! 👍
2014: The Year I Peaked
I started the year convinced I was a bacterial infection.
I was back to making indie games, but my voice of conscience was screaming louder than ever:
You're still not a good person! Help others! Make the world a better place!! All we do is make opiates for the masses in the form of "satire" videogames, with the intellectual sophistication of a newspaper political cartoon!!!
In February 2014, my crowdfunding campaign – for a satire videogame about mass surveillance – was failing. I needed a promo, quick.
I narrowed it down to two options:
An interactive tutorial on how I did the 2D lighting effect in my game, or,
A My Little Pony parody. That marketing strategy worked for the indie game Fighting Is Magic, right? Bronies eat this stuff up!
Sadly, I couldn't do Option #2 in time, so I settled for #1.
I made Sight & Light – my first-ever "explorable explanation".
Sight & Light got way more popular than the game it was promoting. It was even seen by Bret Victor – former Apple designer, now working on a lab where "the entire building is the computer" – who invited me to a workshop for people who make experimental media...
...which was where I met Vi Hart – math YouTuber, VR/AI researcher, cool snail-person – and together we made Parable of the Polygons!
Polygons was a simulation of how small biases can segregate the world. It got 3 million plays. Remember, 2014 was the year of #GamerGate and Ferguson, so, "it was timely".
(I also started my Patreon around this time, for side-income)
What about the game I crowdfunded, and was supposed to be working on?
Many things sucked about it, but especially the writing. I had no Proper Storytelling Technique! So, I decided to deliberately practice my storytelling skills, by writing 1 short story every other day on r/WritingPrompts for a month.
But I still needed to practice storytelling for games. So, during a 3-week game jam, I made Coming Out Simulator, a "half-true story about half-truths". It was an interactive story about the time, in 2011, when I came out to my family as bisexual.
("Half-true" – I left out the part where my mom sent me to a child psychologist, because I thought it wouldn't be believable. I shifted the year from 2011 to 2010 so I could make Inception jokes. I added back my mom's abusive ex-husband to make her more sympathizable – Proper Storytelling Technique dictates that all you need for a sympathizable character is a tragic backstory, right?)
Turning my painful memory into a game was cathartic. The game reached a million folks, including lots of queer teens, who needed some hope in hard times.
. . .
Sight & Light, Parable of the Polygons, Coming Out Simulator – all side projects I made to distract myself from my failing main project – are still some of the most personally meaningful things I've ever done.
Best of all, it got my voice of conscience to shut up! (For a few months.)
In 2014, in a different shared house, my housemates wanted to pull a prank, which somehow involved someone crossdressing as a woman. I was the only volunteer.
My friend lent me her dress, bra, and wig. She helped me put on makeup. I distinctly remember looking in a mirror...
...and wondered why, for the first time in my life, I actually felt comfortable in my own body.
But deeper questions about myself would have to wait for another day. For now, it was imperative I post the photo on Facebook with an ethnic joke:
Meanwhile, my online handle "NutcaseNightmare" was too long for Twitter, so I shortened it to "@ncasenmare". Then, shortening it further, I bought the domain name "ncase.me". Finally, I realized I hated having the last name of a father who was never there, so I retconned my own name to fit my website – I changed "Nick Liow" to "Nick Case".
No... that didn't sound quite right.
That sounded... good.
2015: The Year of My ⭐️ MAGNUM OPUS ⭐️
Okay, fine, I was "non-binary".
I don't know the bio-psycho-sociological reason I feel this way. Maybe prenatal factors or whatever. But I do know when I look & sound androgynous, I feel, "this body actually belongs to me."
Strangely, coming out as non-binary was much easier than coming out as bi. I guess it's because: 1) I was in a more LGBTQ+ supportive environment, and 2) I wasn't adamant on what pronouns people used for me. I mean, I didn't want to be a bother.
(Nicky Case, 2015, who was not a bother)
. . .
My voice of conscience was satisfied that in 2014, I made meaningful projects that helped others. So in 2015, my inner voice congratulated me:
MAKE MORE, YOU LAZY DINGUS
Sure, Parable of the Polygons had a pro-diversity message, but we're just preaching to the SJW choir! And Coming Out Simulator never gave any actual advice on HOW or IF to come out! We just made #relatable content to capitalize on gay eyeballs!
We're still the narcissistic asshole we were before 2010! Help others! Be a good person!
So in 2015, I set forth on my ⭐️ MAGNUM OPUS ⭐️: a game mixing my personal journey with hard science, that would help others by blah blah blah it was an overscoped, bloated piece of crap that never launched.
(During this time, I didn't have a 9-to-5 job, and my Patreon wasn't enough to sustain me. I took on random freelance gigs while burning through my savings. Also, I cancelled the satire videogame I crowdfunded, and gave everyone a 75% partial refund.)
While failing to "help others" in my professional life, I also tried to "help others" in my personal life:
I dated two people with mental disorders for the purpose of "saving them." Unsurprisingly, that was condescending & shitty. (I'll make no excuses: I was the asshole here.)
I had a "fan" emailing me every day, threatening to kill himself if I didn't keep responding to his emails within 24 hours. I was a stranger's one-person suicide hotline for six months. (Spoiler: he wasn't suicidal, it was just good ol' psyschological manipulation)
I tried reconnecting with my mom. I hoped she changed her views on homosexuality – and she did! She denied having ever been homophobic, she's always been the best supporter of gay rights, and boasts to the other parents about how open-minded she is to have raised such a brave child.
. . .
Why did I try so hard to change others?
In hindsight, I know the exact answer: I needed to believe that, with enough kindness, anyone can change for the better. Why? Because I needed to believe that I could change for the better.
...that I could become a good person.
I didn't want to be just another narcissist raised by a narcissist (who was herself raised by a narcissist). If it wasn't for my supportive friends, or the sexy child psychologist, or the internship that got me away from home... who knows, maybe I'd have shot up my school.
I don't mean that flippantly. In 2015, I started suffering from violent intrusive thoughts. My most common intrusive thoughts included: cutting off my fingers with garden shears, opening someone's skull with a rock, burning a person alive.
I told no-one about this.
This is a subtype of OCD called Harm OCD. Of course, I didn't know that at the time – let alone how common it is, how it doesn't predict actual violence, or how “85%(!) of the non-OCD population admits to having unwanted violent thoughts.”
You know how "don't think of an elephant" makes you think of an elephant? That's how Harm OCD works. Your voice of conscience says "don't think of something evil", your imagination comes up with something evil, your conscience freaks out, uses that as further proof you're a monster, lather rinse repeat.
That's how my conscience worked. It reminded me: you remember the Virginia Tech school shooter? He was ALSO a lonely Asian immigrant kid with a history of severe anxiety and creating ultraviolent media! That could have been YOU! That's why I need to keep you in check:
If not, you'll become a monster.
And so, 2015 ended and I was still not a good person. But at least I started self-studying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helped me realize that anxiety was irrational. CBT says anxiety/depression is caused by "cognitive distortions", like jumping to conclusions, should/should-not statements, the just-world fallacy, etc.
Learning about CBT gave me hope: maybe I could fix myself! The decade was only half-over.
I could still learn how to be good person.
2016: The Year I Almost Committed A Murder
"Before you rent a room in the house I'm living in, you should know I was convicted in my 50s for having sex with a 15-year-old."
He didn't say it with quite so much narrative exposition, but close enough. I'd just moved to Boston for a journalism fellowship, and this was who I found on Craigslist.
You know where this is going. I was more afraid of being selfish than being safe: that's why I let myself bleed out into a sink rather than bother anyone. My voice of conscience demanded I give this 70-year-old a chance:
He already served his time. Aren't we believers in restorative justice? In forgiveness, grace, redemption, compassion, empathy? That anyone can change for the better? If we reject him we're preventing ex-cons from re-integrating into society!! We're promoting mass incarceration!!!
Besides, he told me about how he was molested as a kid. Proper Storytelling Technique dictates that all you need for a sympathizable character is a tragic backstory.
So, I sympathized, and agreed to live with him.
Did I get anxiety about it? Of course! But now I knew anxiety was just irrational "cognitive distortions". So now, my voice of conscience could override it with reason:
The old man kept putting his arm around me? Just a guy trying to be friendly!
He tells me about nearby parks where people used to have gay sex? Just an old man rambling about the good ol' days!
It turns out – after searching his name online – it wasn't a one-time fling with a 15-year-old, but two prolonged years with three 13-to-14-year-olds? And he only served 5 years? Hey, we all embellish the truth sometimes!
My colleagues saved me. They noticed I was coming into the newsroom each day sleep-deprived, as if I'd spent each night carefully watching the lock on my bedroom door for two weeks.
They helped me get out, and one of them kindly let me crash on her couch while I found a new room. (The new room had bedbugs. An improvement, really.)
Around this point, I wondered if maybe – just maybe – my voice of conscience was my anxiety.
. . .
A few months passed.
Summer 2016 was hectic for journalists. Brexit won. 49 people were killed in a gay nightclub. Hillary & Trump were campaigning. 85 people were killed on a beach in France. A gorilla was shot.
One hot summer day, I thought again about that creep. I was angry that I let myself be manipulated, that he got away with it, and that he probably found some other vulnerable intern to prey on.
But – I thought as I looked around the newsroom – that's just how the world is. Horrible shit happens, nothing I can do about it.
I thought some more.
Actually, it's pretty obvious what I could do about it. I went to the kitchen, got a serrated steak knife, and started walking to the creep's address which was just 20 minutes away.
My anxiety of conscience flipped out. NICKY THIS IS EVIL.
You're the reason this happened in the first place. Why should I listen to you now? You're just an irrational voice who's tortured me my whole life.
Okay he was awful but he shouldn't DIE for it!
Cognitive distortion: "Should Not" Statement. Morality is just a hegemonic social construct.
If you kill him they'll put you in jail for life!
Cognitive distortion: Jumping to Conclusions. 40% of murders go unsolved. And I've a better chance of getting away with it, because the police won't look closely into a murdered kiddy fiddler.
They'll suspect one of his past victims, and you'll get them arrested!
Cognitive distortion: Just-World Fallacy. Too fucking bad for them.
I got to the creep's house. The neighborhood was empty because everyone was away at work – except for him, who I knew worked at home. Alone.
I hovered my finger over the doorbell, and gave my inner voice one last chance to talk me out of it.
Th... the knife isn't sharp enough?
I looked at my steak knife. Oh, right. I worked in journalism. We can't afford fancy cutlery. This isn't a steak knife, it's a bread knife. A blunt, dinky bread knife.
I felt too embarrassed to murder a guy, so I went back to the office, ate lunch, and told nobody about it until December 2019, when I started writing this blog post.
. . .
Why the heck did I just tell you this?
All but one of my friends strongly advised I do NOT share this story, lest I get "cancelled". Yet, that just made me want to share it more!
After much thinking about my thinking, I think here's my 3 main reasons:
1) Nobody was hurt or even knew about it, thank god.
2) A story where an inner voice convinces a mentally ill person to not commit a murder? What a delicious subversion of a standard horror trope! Proper Storytelling Technique!
3) I want to de-stigmatize talking about violent urges. The years I suffered from intrusive thoughts, I felt like I couldn't tell anybody – not my closest friends, not a therapist, and definitely not the whole internet.
A parallel: in the last decade, we've made tremendous progress on de-stigmatizing talking about suicide – so that folks suffering from suicidal thoughts can get help to not act on them.
Likewise, we should de-stigmatize talking about violent urges – so that folks suffering from violent thoughts can get help to not act on them, either.
Survivors of abuse/neglect aren't just more prone to suicidal ideation – we're more prone to homicidal ideation, too. But "you can't talk about it". Therefore, you don't learn how common (and treatable!) it actually is. So you bottle it up until you implode on yourself, or explode onto others.
And then a newsroom like mine reports "oh what a horrible tragedy no-one could have seen coming". Lather rinse repeat.
. . .
To be clear: I made a deeply immoral mistake. I don't endorse my actions, but I take responsibility for them. Still, I learnt two valuable life lessons:
One – Self-studying a therapy may have limitations.
Two – "Your feelings are always valid" and "Negative emotions are irrational" are both harmful bullshit. What anxiety says can be right, wrong, or a mix of both. My journalist colleagues gave me a useful quote for dealing with emotions:
"Trust, but verify." (thanks, Reagan)
I didn't know how to balance trusting/verifying my anxiety, but it and I reached a ceasefire. I wouldn't try to drown it out with risky sex or cognitive-distortion-finding – and in return, my anxiety promised:
Okay, I'm sorry. I won't try to motivate you to be a better person by comparing you to school shooters. Like the 2014 Isla Vista shooter, who was also a lonely, mentally-ill immigrant who hated his Asian heritage. I also *won't* say the only reason we're not an "involuntary celibate" spree-killer is because we're queer and therefore have easy access to HIV-infected dick.
It also stopped demanding I make my ⭐️ MAGNUM OPUS ⭐️ – now, I could do smaller experimental projects!
In October 2016, I made We Become What We Behold, a 5-minute story-game about hate, violence, and news cycles. (A lot of my frustrations of working in journalism went into this)
In November 2016 someone got elected.
In December 2016, I made To Build A Better Ballot, an interactive guide to alternative voting systems.
2017: The Year I Peaked, Again
In March 2017, I made LOOPY, a tool for making simulations of systems by drawing them.
In May 2017, I made Fireflies, a simulation of fireflies.
And then... my lucky break:
In July 2017, I made The Evolution of Trust, an interactive guide to the game theory of trust – and how to build it (or destroy it) in the world.
I still don't get why this was the piece that made my career – maybe because 2017 seemed like a zero-trust dumpster fire – but it got 5 million plays, and doubled my Patreon income.
Specifically, my Patreon now paid my food and rent.
Goodbye random freelance gigs! Goodbye bouncing from internship to internship! After 7 years, I was now... 🌈 FULL-TIME INDIE™ 🌈
(But seriously, I'm super grateful to the 1000+ of y'all who have supported me via Patreon over the past few years. 💖 You're buying me my sustenance and shelter, not to mention creative freedom. Thank you, deeply. I hope my story about almost killing a guy didn't freak you out too much.)
In hindsight, The Evolution of Trust also answered my biggest moral problem:
"How do you be a good person without being taken advantage of?"
As you've seen, my maladaptive version of "forgive & forget" + "put others before yourself" led to several shitty situations.
Game theory has a better solution: in The Evolution of Trust, little simulated characters play a game of trust with each other, where they can either "cheat" or "cooperate".
If they only play the game once, the winning strategy is "Always Cheat". But if they play the game repeatedly, the winning strategy becomes "Copycat": cooperate in the first round, then do whatever the other player did in the previous round. Do unto others!
But if mistakes can happen – e.g. someone meant to cooperate but accidentally chose "cheat" – one error between two Copycat players means they'll take revenge on each other over a single slip-up, forever.
So, in a repeated game with mistakes, the winning strategy is "Copykitten": cooperate in the first round, then keep cooperating unless the other player cheats *twice in a row*.
Copykitten thrives, because it forgives the occasional mistake, but is not so forgiving that it enables a co-dependent relationship with an abuser.
Maybe my voice of conscience could learn a bit from game theory.
. . .
After such a huge success, my voice of conscience prompted me once again to try a ⭐️ MAGNUM OPUS ⭐️
So, I designed not just a tool for understanding systems, but a tool for designing tools for understanding systems! This would change the world by blah blah blah it was a mess in concept and execution and I should've killed this darling earlier.
I also dated another person with mental disorders for the purpose of "saving them." This was still a terrible idea.
But aside from that, the "Nicky is Non-Binary" sub-plot was going well! I bought femme clothes, wore makeup and nail polish in public more often, and tried feminizing my voice.
I also found a cool hack for getting nice tits and ass without hormones: weightlifting workouts targeting the chest and glutes.
(Nicky Case, 2017, who had a nice ass)
2018: The Year of Dreaming Small
On New Year's Day 2018 – during a cramped five-hour car ride – I had a deep personal conversation with a close friend of mine. He helped me realize:
- My obsession with sacrificing myself for strangers
- My obsession with making a big ⭐️ MAGNUM OPUS ⭐️
Were the same thing:
- My maladaptive belief that I had to "do the big heroic thing".
It's our cultural ethos – Dream Big, set ambitious goals, shoot for the moon if you miss you'll land among the stars...
I finally realized it's all bullshit.
I already knew it was BS in game development – every beginner gamedev tries to make an open-world MMORPG as their first project, coz "Dream Big". That's why gamedev schools say it over and over: Scope Small, iterate quickly, prototype early and often. Or:
Evolution > Revolution.
Lots of tiny steps > The big sexy thing.
And in my professional life, the small experimental projects were usually more meaningful and popular than my attempted Magnum Opi.
But my friend helped me realize I made the same mistake in my personal life – trying to change myself in big revolutionary acts.
I want to be more considerate? Let's bleed into a sink instead of bothering anyone! I want to help people? Let's be this stranger's one-person suicide hotline for six months! I want to be more forgiving? Let's live with a serial kid-fucker!
So, in 2018, I opted for evolution > revolution.
Small daily habits > big sexy goals.
My New Year's Resolution for 2018 was to "try making one new habit a month". Without repeating my blog post about it, here's the habits that I still have, that helped me the most:
- Meditating 10 minutes a day
- Spaced repetition flashcards (to learn French! Omelette au fromage!)
- Voice-feminization training
- No porn
- Making my bed each morning
None of this revolutionized my life. Which was the point. It "merely" improved my life. I felt more focused, more energetic, and – though I still had an anxiety disorder – my physical+mental health had never been better.
As a sexy child psychologist once told me: I'm okay.
2019: The Year of Being Okay
I made two more important habits:
- Reach out to a friend every day
- Meet a friend face-to-face once a week
These two habits alone boosted my mental health by a heckload. Friendship is THE problem when you work independently. There's no school or work schedule to automatically make you meet the same people regularly, so it's too easy to just... forget.
I'm lucky I formed this habit of staying in touch with friends. Because in 2019, I finally had to move back to Canada. Under the new US administration, it was a lot harder to get a visa. (along with, um, many other things that got harder)
I'm also lucky I was learning French, because I moved to Montréal. Tabarnak de poutine!
I had a one-month depressive episode after moving – I felt like I left all my friends behind. But thanks to 1) US friends introducing me to Montréal friends, and 2) Regularly scheduled videocalls with US friends, my psychological need for belonging was fulfilled!
Friends: I love you. You are my family. 💖
Before & during & after my move, I made Adventures With Anxiety, an interactive story about anxiety... where you play as the anxiety.
I knew I didn't want to do a Magnum Opus to "make the world a better place", or even to "help others"! I wanted to do this project for a reason that, in years past, I rejected as the sick philosophy of a narcissistic asshole:
I did it for myself.
When I asked my educator/researcher friends how they do things for the world, they replied: they don't. They do what's valuable for themselves, which has the sustainable side-effect of doing work that's valuable for others.
(And because you're doing it "for yourself" and not "for the world", you have the incentive & know-how to make it actually valuable, not on-paper "valuable" like my BS startup or Magnum Opi)
So, I made Adventures With Anxiety because it'd help me – with the side-effect of helping my friends, and the 1 in 27 people worldwide with an anxiety disorder.
At first, I planned to make the anxiety-wolf character just a total jerk. However, Proper Storytelling Technique dictates that all characters should have clear relatable motivations.
Huh. That was an interesting question: what is anxiety's motivation? I asked my anxiety about it. I listened. It said:
I want you to be a good person.
Yeah, so you've told me a zillion times. What else?
I want you to be safe.
That... made a lot of sense. The evolutionary function of the fight/flight response is to keep an organism safe. Anxiety, who I always thought was a Big Bad Wolf, is actually trying to be a guard dog. What else?
I want you to be loved.
My memory scrolled up 6000 words to the Year 2010 section, where I wrote:
"I want to not be lonely → I must become a good person"
Are you kidding me. Ten years of throwing myself into big Magnum Opus projects, of hurting my physical & mental health for strangers, of trying to find "meaning in my life"... was all just because I was lonely?!
But of course. Social pain is neurologically similar to physical pain, because humans have no natural defenses, and thus evolved to a need to belong to a tribe who'll keep them safe. That's why people join cults & hate-groups – you sell an outcast a tribe that says you're better than all those fuckers who rejected you, why, you got yourself a sale.
So I listened to my anxiety, and made this the wolf's motivation:
Anxiety wants to guard your fundamental human needs.
The rest of my decade inspired the rest of this game.
In Chapter 2, the human tries to drown out their wolf with something horrible. This was inspired by me numbing myself with risky sex in 2012.
In Chapter 3, the human is about to do something horrible, and the wolf must save the day. This was inspired by my almost killing a dude in 2016.
In Chapter 4 (the final chapter), the human and wolf do something utterly shocking... they sit down, chat, and listen to each other.
This was inspired by – strange loop – me trying to write this game in 2019.
Just like how writing Coming Out Simulator helped me make sense of my past, writing Adventures With Anxiety helped me have a much healthier relationship with my emotions. In fact, after 10+ years, I...
Hang on, let me find some wood to knock.
...I don't think I have an anxiety disorder anymore.
I think my anxiety is very well-ordered now, thank you very much. It shows up to meetings, offers valuable constructive criticism, but is open to discussion with my other emotions.
I'm serious. For example, my most recent bout of rumination: I was struggling to decide if I should share my violent-urge stories in this post. After consulting with close friends, I brought my emotions together for a board meeting.
My "negative emotions" listed some pros & cons:
- Pro: If we don't share our story, we're being inauthentic.
- Con: There's a chance of getting ostracized over this.
My "positive emotions" also listed some pros & cons:
- Pro: We gotta share ALL the stories! We're an ARTISTE
- Con: Oh girl, wouldn't it be cool to take a secret to the grave? That's sexy.
(So many self-help books ask you to challenge your negative self-talk, but not your positive self-talk. Spoiler alert, that's how you become a narcissistic asshole.)
I trusted my emotions, but verified them with reason. Working with my emotions as (imperfect) advisors, I decided to share my story, taking care to minimize the risks that my fear helped me notice.
Thanks, anxiety. This time I mean it.
Adventures With Anxiety reached 2 million people. I'll always cherish the fan-emails I got, saying it helped them deeper than therapy ever had. 💖 Some fans even drew their own anxieties as animals, i.e. "fearsonas"!
In line with my new philosophy of "do things for myself (that happen to help others)", my next project – launches February 2020? – will be a free, online tool for trans/non-binary folks to train their voice.
We'll see how it goes, along with the rest of the new decade. Then I'll publicly own up to my new mistakes, dissect them in a long blog post, and share what I learn.
Here's queer cheers to 10 more years. 🎉
(Nicky Case, 2019, who is okay)
Epilogue: Proper Storytelling Technique
Everything I said was fiction.
Not a lie – but fiction, the same way the physics idea of "point mass in a frictionless vacuum" is fiction. A simplified model.
There were 3,652 days in this decade. If each day were a data point...
...then my story was merely the curve of best fit:
Stories are like maps – they're helpful not despite being simplified, but because they're simplified. “The map is not the territory, but you can't fold up the territory and put it in your pocket.”
Call it post-post-modernism. (or, "pragmatism") Sure, every narrative is made up – the same way every map is made up – yet some maps give better guidance than others.
So now that I've mapped out my last 10 years, what guidance does it give me for my next 10 years? Or:
No Seriously, What Did I Learn This Decade?
Here's my current Life Map, drawn in pencil, subject to change:
- It's okay to ask for help.
- Violent intrusive thoughts are common, and don't mean you'll act on them.
- "Your feelings are always valid" and "Negative emotions are irrational" are both harmful bullshit.
- Emotions are (imperfect) advisors: Trust, but verify.
- Forgive the occasional moral mistake, but don't be so forgiving you enable abusers. (It's game theory!)
- Evolution > Revolution
- Small daily habits > Big heroic acts
- Do things for yourself, that happen to help others. (or at least not hurt others)
- Anxiety is a guard dog for my fundamental human needs: for survival, growth, and love.
And some stuff to figure out in 2020:
How to balance time working & time with friends? Experiment: try cowork-dates with pals?
How to balance "explore" and "exploit"? I like doing wildly differect projects, but I feel bad there's no "unifying purpose". And when I do focus on one project, I feel boxed in. Experiments: Have multiple unifying purposes? Take one day off per week for "pure exploration"?
How to balance being authentic & not getting "cancelled"? And I can't just "not care about strangers on the internet" since my food & rent is paid for by strangers on the internet. Experiments: Share more personal stories? Offer constructive criticism about toxicity in the social justice movement? Reveal that I've secretly been a furry for 15 years and here's my two catgirl fursonas?
I feel disappointed-yet-relieved that these questions are kind of boring compared to "how do I deal with intrusive thoughts of cutting off my own fingers?" I guess I'll need to find new sources of growth & excitement outside myself.
Why not? It's 2020, a new decade, a new start. I'm 25 years old and I know everything.
What's the worst that could happen?