Monday, September 9, 2013

The Glamour of Alcohol

There is a scene in Generation X, one of the X-Men comics I enthusiastically read in the 90s, in which Husk gets drunk. Though Husk was, at the time, largely characterized as a workaholic with an eye toward doing the right thing, when she is confronted with something that shocks her, instead of writing about it or otherwise engaging it, as one would have expected an intelligent X-Woman to do, she gets drunk and talks to Chamber on top of a pool table.

This is a pattern, my teenage self noted at the time. Resorting to the Drink to allow difficult emotions to surface. I thought about other comics and movies and books. The angst-ridden glamour of a disheveled man, dangling a slightly-tipped glass of scotch, in which all of the ice had already melted. The jagged walk of a grieving woman, an empty wineglass in her manicured hand. A buddy handing another buddy a cold beer to help him drown his woes. Entirely necessary self-medication, said these scenes.

This contrasted with what my father said about alcohol. And yes, it contrasted with some of my favorite Cagney movies. But by and large, the major message to my teenage self about alcohol was that it was the Thing. It was powerful. It could help you lose your unnecessary inhibitions. It could lubricate social situations. It could help you through a breakup, or bring you back together. It was the major Forbidden Substance. It was a potion. It was magic.

It's bunk.

Now before I go any further, I want you to know that I do drink alcohol. I've tried many sorts, and sometimes it tastes better than drinking water. Often it tastes better than drinking Earl Grey (sorry, Picard). I enjoy going to wine tastings, and having beer at Dungeons & Dragons games. I greatly admire the craft of my brewing friends. And I find alcohol useful in cleaning my keyboard.

But the physical feeling you get from alcohol--call it tipsiness, sleepiness, warm tinglings, drunkenness, or whatever--I don't get why you'd want that on a regular basis, let alone NEED it.

When I went off to college, expecting, as many kids do, to learn how to Handle Alcohol, I got panic disorder. It came out of the blue. I'd have panic attacks in class. In my car. In the shower. Suddenly, I didn't have control of my body, and worse--it was a mental lack of control. I didn't have a broken leg, didn't have a heart attack--I had something no one could see and point to. I had something many people thought I could "snap out of." I had something some professors simply wouldn't credit, so I had Fs. And with this lack of control came depression. A numbness with my situation. A fear to display my lack of control where people could see me. Agoraphobia.

Fortunately, my parents were on top of things. Before the year was done, I had begun going to cognitive behavioral therapy. I went onto cocktails of drugs. And I met other people with agoraphobia online. Most of them had panic disorder. Some used alcohol as their "medication." When I read about agoraphobia, I read that many people would go undiagnosed or, once diagnosed, would slip into alcoholism and never confront the mental illness.

When I started going outside again, I used Klonopin, which, if you haven't had it before, feels the same as having several drinks at once. Heaviness, blurriness, sleepiness. It would cut the edge off panic. It was also highly addictive. I was aware of this, and over the course of getting better, weaned myself off. But I saw agoraphobic friends get addicted. Not only to the chemical substance, but to having a chemical substance within reach just in case of anxiety. Which, for us, was nearly constant.

As I got better, I found I enjoyed attending Classics events with my spouse. I guess I expected such events to have less drinking--especially at conferences--but I'd forgotten that this is the discipline that studies Dionysus. They had more alcohol than I'd seen as an undergrad. Some genuinely enjoyed the Drink, which was fine, but so many more seemed to need it in order to speak socially. And of course, once they'd gotten tipsy, they spoke more, but not necessarily with any more adroitness. I recognized the anxiety there. I also recognized the avoidance.

I eventually defeated agoraphobia, went off all panic-related drugs, and began to live a normal life--whatever normal is for me, anyway. It took a long time, and during that time, I aged and my friends aged, and all our parents aged. I've two friends, now--both surely earning a place with the angels--who are taking care of parents with dementia. I used to think that dementia was an unfortunate not-so-surprising end of a particular genetic arc, or perhaps the result of not enough mental engagement at the end of life, easily solved with crosswords. It surprised me to learn that dementia can be caused by alcohol.

Odd. I didn't see any of those movie and comic book people slipping into dementia because of the Drink. I didn't see them freaking out behind a door, taking shots so they could speak to people. I didn't see them drinking wine to avoid psychological help, as if somehow a counselor is worse than not having control of your mind.

Agoraphobia meant that I didn't have control of my mind. I worked for a decade so that I could control my mind. I know that eventually, age will probably rob me of some of my abilities to control my mind. Why I'd want to seek out the alcohol haze when I've gotten back those hard-won things is beyond me.

I know that the major reaction from those who drink on here will be to defend themselves. Please, don't feel you need to. I'm fine with whatever you do. I don't understand it, but you might not understand my need to play video games or dress up as an elf and go hiking. It's all cool, as far as that's concerned. I'm just trying to wrap my mind around the idea that something with which I expected to agree turns out to revolt me. I wanted to explore why. And I guess I wanted to do it publicly so you, too, could explore your reactions to alcohol and the culture of alcohol. What did you expect alcohol to be? How do you use it now?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Gamer Motivation Update

Last week, I tried using gamer-style achievements to motivate me on an otherwise difficult working day. My hypothesis was that since games are often more addictive/motivating than "real life" tasks, I'd be able to get myself into an ambitious groove and finish my day productively.

I created ten achievements of varying levels of hardness, some of them attainable deliberately (edit six hours of space opera) and some attained more or less accidentally (fail in an attempt to kiss your spouse because of two children interfering). After blogging about it, I set to my tasks.

As in games, I went right for the easiest achievements first. Writing contracts, reading specific amounts, etc. This, I realized part of the way through, was a poor work habit: the most important and difficult tasks should be done first. But since I was having a bad day anyway, I decided to continue with the experiment.

The things I went to next were achievements that didn't require a specific block of time. I figured if I got them done quickly, I'd get more achievements with less effort. I played chess with lightning speed and wrote the shortest, sloppiest letter to a friend I've ever written. Again, going the easiest path.

By the end of the day, I had three achievements to go: two specifying a block of time, and one I knew would take a long time, specified or not. By this point, I had gotten enough achievements that my motivation was diminishing. Who cared if one of my achievements was for talking about a calendar for twenty minutes? I had awards!

I was also left with the least motivation for the largest tasks.

I tried to keep the experiment going. Hey! I thought, what if the reason it seems overwhelming now is that achievements aren't all supposed to be obtained in one day? What if I made a week's worth of achievements, broken down into smaller bits, and worked on them over the course of a week?

But I knew that the same thing would happen: without priorities, either explicit (gold award!) or community-based (rare award!), I'd end the week looking at the hardest achievements and deciding whether I could expand the experiment for a month. I terminated it.

There were positive results, mind you. Achievements were interesting and motivating for a day of work in which I would have accomplished little. And I can see how, in a classroom or work community, as in a game, social recognition of your awards would have positive motivational effects.

But let's not forget that those games I mentioned earlier--Civilization, SimCity, and World of Warcraft--all use achievements as a supplemental motivation. Most of us don't purchase and buy a game in order to get achievements, though some of us may continue to play for them. The same goes for achievements in real life situations: a gamer-style achievement won't substitute for a paycheck, a promotion, or a grade.

One day, when I'm tired and unmotivated, I may choose to do another round of achievements. Coming up with geektastic names for mundane tasks is a great tweak for an underused creativity complex. Until then, however, I'll follow the advice I've been given, and the advice I give to my clients.

Prioritize: hardest first.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Gamer Motivation as Life Motivation

I found myself lacking motivation this morning. I got up, dressed the boys, ate breakfast, and then looked longingly at my gaming laptop. Why, I wondered, is it easy to find motivation in games? I considered games I've played recently:

* SimCity: feeling of power, requires moderation to play, social aspect, achievements
* World of Warcraft: better abilities in exchange for time spent, social aspect, achievements
* Civilization V: history, feeling of power, puzzles to solve, social aspect, achievements

Looking over the list, I realized why it was easy to think of gaming this morning. I felt powerless--with young boys, one's time is not one's own--and lonely for adult company. My work on several long-term projects wasn't accomplishing anything tangible. Editing is often soul-draining. Sometimes there's the feeling that you're putting a nice polish onto good writing; other times it feels like you spend all your time erasing art. That negativity can build up.

Something needed to be done. I wanted to take the motivational success I found in playing games and apply it to my work day. I stripped the games down to their components . The process of breaking things into smaller bits so that you can plan better is one way of fighting powerlessness. Then I looked at my to-do list. I realized that many of the things I had to do today wouldn't yield a tangible result. The only tangible result was in checking off my to-do list. Then I realized: my to-do list was a list of achievements waiting to happen.

There has been some success in using achievements in college and grade school classrooms to motivate students. They're tangible, they're rewards, and they have no stress/grade attached to them. They're just like the little trophies that pop up when you're busy with something like Assassin's Creed. Hey, look, I did something work mentioning, you think. More, achievements are something you can share with friends.

That was when I realized I not only had to create achievements for my day, but share them. By doing so, I included a version of the social component popular in modern games. So here's my list:

* Ommmmm: Practice yoga for an hour
* Wibbley Wobbley: Alter a contract to add more time
* Timey Wimey: Teach a kid about the calendar
* Checkmate: Teach a kid how to play chess
* Anarchy in the Sci-Fi: Read over 100 pages of LeGuin's The Dispossessed
* Live Long and Prosper: Edit at least six hours of space opera
* Friendship is Magic: Write a snail-mail letter to a friend
* Kiss the Girl: Fail in an attempt to kiss your spouse because of two fiendish creatures
* Levitical Cats: Read & research a chapter in Leviticus
* The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze: Write project plan for [project with sun-related name]

The list took a bit longer than I'd have liked to spend on it, but if it helps me through a day in which I'd probably have turned to gaming, it was worth it. I don't see this as an everyday thing: just a thing to make today less everyday. That's the thing with games, isn't it? When you're bored, you switch it up. Well I'm switching it up today. I'll check back later and let you know how the experiment went.

Windows Wide Open

Looking at my current blog, I can't help but compare it to my old LiveJournal blog, which I kept in my early twenties. I wrote in it almost every day--the way one might tweet or post to Facebook--about everything that popped into my head. No self-censoring, no dodging around controversial topics. I was writing a door into my head, and the door was open.

Sure there were some issues--back then, I was very much an American conservative. And because I liked art and technology, I had many liberal friends. I was proud of the fact that we could discuss issues without flaming one another. More or less. There was one who went anonymous so he could say things without being polite, but, you know, ISP-stamped messages are rather identifiable. We dealt with it.

Then I became a Guardian, a GM for Furcadia. Hey, don't judge: it's in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest MOORPG. Anyway, my job in the community was to mediate conflicts and ban those who continued causing trouble. Naturally, this led to harassment of yours truly. I largely dealt with it using the Ignore command. After all, you don't feed the trolls.

Then one day, someone with my name backwards showed up on LiveJournal. He (or she, but the vast majority of harassment of this sort comes from men) made his own journal, and filled it with details from my life, distorted into a grossly sexualized parody. He catalogued where I was in real life: I felt stalked. He posted on my friends' journals. And when people started noticing him, he only got more prolific.

Eventually, I realized I could write to LiveJournal and have the site shut down. I made my blog utterly private, and eventually stopped writing in it. I thought I'd learned a valuable lesson: writing less will provoke less.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. I've been a longtime fan of Feminist Frequency, and followed the recent cybermob harassment of Anita Sarkeesian with sympathy and anger. When she participated in a panel called Online Harassment: What it Drives and How it Lowers Visions, I had to watch it. She and two other women--and academic and a journalist--discussed online harassment as something I'd never considered before. That some (not all) of the trolling I was taught as a GM to tell players to ignore was part of a larger, systemic harassment culture on the Internet. You should see the videos for yourself, but here are some elements:

-- Between 2000-2012, 72% of online harassment victims were women.
-- Seeing the sexualized harassment of others discourages women from participating online.
-- Cyberbullying is a social activity, providing positive incentives for others to join in harassment.
-- Bullying replicates cultural assumptions that exist outside of the Internet.

After I saw the videos of the panel, I thought about the sexism inherent in the harassment I received: how, by focusing, for instance, on the size of my vagina, one blogger was able to reduce my existence to that of an object. How it changed me, someone who, at the time, was already seeing a therapist for agoraphobia--avoidant behavior--to the person I am now. How it's constantly there under the surface, the worry. I learned to choose gender neutral names when an alias was an option. I never show my gender on a gamer forum. In MOORPGs, I usually play male characters. You get less unwanted attention that way. And talking to other gamer women, I realized we all thought about potential harassment from male gamers.

I wondered about my online writing, too. Have I failed to regularly write on the Internet because of avoidance/fear? Do I choose NASA or books or childrearing as topics because they aren't, in my mind, too controversial?

Before, I would have said all of these changes were because I have grown older and more cautious. Some of them probably are. But remembering how the harassment felt, reading what I wrote then, and seeing these videos, I've begun deconstructing the emotions I felt at the time. And while I still stand by the general rule of not feeding the trolls, saying something when I see someone being attacked for her gender or in a sexualized way may be, at times, the better response. And removing sexist attacks from my comments section isn't inhibiting free speech: it's providing culturally relevant accountability for otherwise unchecked antisocial behavior.

As for writing on the Internet? Well, I'm here. On this blog. Writing. I'm doing this realizing I'll feel a twinge of anxiety for a few hours after I post this. Fear must be faced. And while I won't throw out courtesy and reasonable caution, I know that I must fling my windows wide open again.