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How Gaming Made Me Realize I Was Sick

I've played World of Warcraft since shortly after it launched -- February 2005, to be exact. Although I initially rolled on a PvP server to be with my friends in the time before cross-realm zoning, I found myself more drawn to raiding PvE content. For the non-gamers out there staring blankly at the previous sentence, this means I didn't want to smash other players in the face. I wanted to smash monsters.

I practiced hard. I joined progression-based raiding guilds when I was good enough to pass their stringent application and audition process; first I'd have to submit an in-depth written application on their forum, stating why I wanted to join and explaining a bit about myself and my approach to playing, and then if I sounded like someone they wanted to raid with, I showed up for a test night where I'd run with them and show off my skills in person. If I did enough healing and kept the party alive long enough, I was in. Not to seem vain, but for sake of honesty, I was never anything but in after that first run.

Raiding guilds, however, rise and fall. Real-life obligations sometimes overtake primary raiders' free time, and worthy replacements are not always readily available. Sometimes in-fighting and drama would collapse a guild inwards onto itself. Once or twice I just felt that I didn't mesh as well with the guild as I'd hoped and sought out a new home where I didn't feel so much like an outsider. After a few guild and server changes -- you have to go where the loot is, after all -- I decided to try leading raids myself. It required a great deal of strategy and organization, often having to make tough calls about who was "ready" to join the melee when progression was the sole focus. My own gameplay had to be completely on point, otherwise who was I to advise other people? I had to know the mechanics of every class and every spec. When a new patch was released, I pored over every line of the notes to determine what would be relevant in planning our attack that night. It was a ton of work, but I loved it, even if it was very nearly a full-time job in addition to the one I already held.

Then one day a new patch dropped, and the notes didn't make sense.

I thought I was just tired, overworked. The words that once were so comprehensible to me now seemed like they were written in another language about a subject I knew nothing about. I devised a strategy for a boss that night according to the best of my ability, even given the strange fog, and it led to wipe after wipe. Frustrated and ashamed, I refused to accept input from another guild member who didn't seem to be experiencing the same confusion, and we fought quite viciously over voice chat. I left the guild -- and raid leadership -- behind shortly after.

My skills started to falter. Fights and mechanics that previously had given me no trouble at all were now insurmountable obstacles. I couldn't tell what direction objects were moving in. Sometimes I couldn't tell if they were moving, period. My reaction time dropped through the floor. I couldn't see certain particle effects or tell where they actually were on a three-dimensional plane. The patch notes continued to be incomprehensible to me; I knew what the words said, but I couldn't give them context or meaning with regards to the game. Eventually it got so bad that the only way I could complete dungeons was to run with a close friend, the sole person who knew I was having difficulties, who would mark himself with a raid icon so I could follow his movements easily and stay out of trouble. My normally impeccable typing in chat turned into a jumble of misspellings and incorrect word substitutions to the point that I just stopped talking to people altogether.

I went from being one of the best healers on my server to barely being able to keep the main tank healed. I was beyond aggravated with myself; I would mute myself on voice chat and have panic attacks from the first boss to the last. My joints started to hurt, making it difficult for me to sit through an entire raid and causing my already-slowed reaction time to plummet even further since clicking the mouse button or moving suddenly to avoid an enemy spell would send excruciating pain through my fingers and wrists. Maybe it's just carpal tunnel and staying up too late, I still believed. The doctor ruled out carpal tunnel. The pain got worse.

Around the same time I noticed that I could no longer play Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade, a game for which I'd previously participated in exhibitions and won competitions. Not only was the pain terrible, but there was a point at which my legs would just lock in place and stop receiving any signals from my brain. In music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I could no longer keep rhythm. The song would speed up and slow down randomly for me, and I found myself scrambling to avoid failing the level. I'd watch people I played with to see if they were struggling too; none of them showed any indication of a flaw in the game or the television set we were using.

It was getting harder and harder to deny that something was terribly wrong. I saw multiple doctors over that ten-year span, none of whom could figure out a name for my affliction. Despite being able to provide a clear and specific list of symptoms, what with my gaming difficulties bringing them to the front and center of my attention, I was told nothing was amiss and that I was probably just looking for attention or for drugs. I resigned myself to giving up on DDR altogether and never raiding again. I wandered through World of Warcraft with no guild, no close friendships, because I was too embarrassed to let anyone else see me play.

A few months ago my boyfriend noticed that I was experiencing more frequent severe pain and that my dexterity issues were worsening. He convinced me to go to a doctor one more time -- as may be expected, I was skeptical that anything different would happen. This time, however, I was diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome and fibromyalgia, both of which explained everything I was going through. There is no cure for either disease and I likely will never be able to regain the level of gaming skill I once possessed, a heartbreaking realization for me given how much pride I used to take in my ability.

I've found ways to cope. I switched to damage-dealing classes in World of Warcraft, which are much easier and less stressful for me to play than healing classes. I've structured my action bars in order of key strikes for the rotations I find on sites like Icy Veins -- I let other people do my number-crunching and figuring now, since I can't do it myself anymore -- and I try to put similar types of attacks in the same general area across my characters so I can rely on muscle memory instead of my impaired memory and cognition. I still haven't returned to DDR, and I play Rock Band exclusively with my boyfriend and his kids, who don't care if I mess up the whole time. My hope is that if I keep trying, I can rehabilitate myself to the point that my neurological impairments don't affect me quite so much, though playing with people I don't know is still terrifying to me.

Which is why I'd like to end on a positive note with a story from a day or so ago: I got up the courage to start running dungeons in World of Warcraft through the "Looking for Dungeon" tool, and was placed in a group of complete strangers for a particular dungeon which is especially difficult for me due to particle effects I can't see and a need for precise positioning. I couldn't even make it past the entrance of the dungeon; I died six times in a row. Sure that I'd be berated or kicked out of the group anyway, I sent a message to the party chat saying "I'm sorry, I have a visual impairment with the bombs and can't get to you, so I'm going to just drop."

The tank in the party insisted I stay and that they'd come get me. The healer followed to patch up wounds in case of a misstep while the rest of the party called out where and how I should move to avoid the bombs. It was fifteen seconds of kindness that brought me to tears and, for the first time in years, made me feel like I was really playing again.

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