Yesterday, October 16, 2016, marked a thirteen year anniversary which, in spite of my best intentions, I vividly recall each and every year. On October 16th, 2003 in Karbala, Iraq, three members of my first United States Army unit were killed in action. Their names were Corporal Sean Grilley, Staff Sergeant Joseph Bellavia, and Lieutenant Colonel Kim Orlando. These wasn’t the first deaths in Iraq I faced, nor would they be the last. But it was a turning point for me as a human being and a soldier.
Colonel Orlando, despite his rank and the fact that he was my battalion’s Commanding Officer, is someone I would consider a friend. Not because we had a friendly relationship. No, it was because of the way he treated his soldiers. On the day I met him – the very first day I was in his unit – he greeted me with “Aric, right?” I was dumbfounded. No officer before had addressed me by my first name.
“Yes, sir,” was all I could manage in response.
“Your daughter, Uh-nee-ka, is that how you pronounce it? How old is she now? Two? Three?”
“Annika, sir,” I corrected, again dumbfounded he knew of my daughter and her age. “She’s two.”
“That’s precious. Kids are everything. We’ll make sure we get you home to her.”
I would later find out that Colonel Orlando made it his personal duty to memorize the first names and immediate family of all his soldiers. His battalion boasted upwards of 400-500 men and women, and he could address them all by first name. He knew their spouses and their children. Before I arrived in his unit he took my personnel file and made sure to learn as much about me as he could.
He famously said, “Don’t treat your soldiers like they are children. Treat them like they are your children.”
Orlando’s leadership style was one of a father looking after his kids. He was strict, he was demanding, but he was also loving. He endeared himself to his troops this way and his loss left a gaping hole in the unit he led. And, though I didn’t know him long, it left a gaping hole in my heart as well. In spite of the other things I encountered leading up to this, I feel I can pinpoint this as when I truly started to show symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. I wouldn’t be diagnosed with it for another year, and it would take almost a decade after that before the Veteran’s Administration would acknowledge it and treat me for it.
Why am I writing about this? Because PTSD has been one of the most defining aspects of my life since I joined the Army. Prior to joining the Army, during my time in, and since I left, there was another defining aspect: gaming. I’ve been a gamer as far back as I can remember. My first computer was a TRS-80 or Commodore 64, I can’t remember which one. I know I had access to both. I was maybe four years old – five at the most – when I first started copying game program code from the Commodore 64 magazines in BASIC to make my own games.
Gaming, or being a gamer, is an identity I have embraced. PTSD not so much – but it was one I needed to acknowledge. And it took me a while to do so.
So it was natural that gaming would become one of my outlets for my PTSD. My symptoms include all the classics: insomnia (“severe sleep disturbance” as the VA likes to call it), anxiety, depression, anger control, hyper-alertness. Basically, I’m the “crazy Veteran” stereotype.
When I was gaming I could channel that. If I found myself getting anxious and angry in the real world I would come home, load up World War II Online, and kill some virtual Germans. I’d fly a plane or a spaceship. It didn’t cure me, but it helped.
It didn’t mean I could just go out and interact with the world, though. I’m not sure if I can adequately describe what it is like to be outside in the real world when you have PTSD, especially with anxiety. Some of you certainly have had anxiety or panic attacks so you empathize. But let me see if I can try to help the rest understand.
Imagine you’re in a room filled with strangers. There are no exits. The strangers are faceless and menacing. They loom over you. They seem perpetually covered in shadow. Their motives are an enigma but somehow you can sense they aren’t benign. They are in front of you, behind you, to the side. Each one is a threat you can’t quite comprehend. You spin around because they are getting closer – pressing in on you. Your breath quickens. You try to tell yourself they’ve done nothing threatening. Nothing dangerous. But they are getting closer. Your heart is racing. Faster. You can hear it in your ears. The thu-thump of danger. Your breath comes faster but it doesn’t seem to bring enough oxygen.
You try to convince yourself it’s just your mind but the more you think about it the worse it gets. There’s a weight on your chest slowly pressing down and the people are getting closer and there’s nothing you can do – you have to get out but there is no exit. Where is the exit? Get out now. NOW!
This is the way a panic attack can take over your mind, your very thoughts. Everything becomes instinct. There’s no controlling it, no talking yourself out of it. There are relaxation exercises you can do, of course. The goal is to manage it so you can get the hell out of the situation. You aren’t going to fix it or end it – but you can try to control it long enough to get somewhere safe.
This has been my life for years now. Out in public, no matter where I am, I have a limited time before things go sideways. Of course self-medication can help. Drink enough to not get drunk – but to relax. Smoke pot, if you have access to it. Take the pills the VA is constantly sending you. Sure, it turns you into a zombie, but you’re a functioning zombie, right?
The worst part, though, is you worry it’s going to happen. And by worrying, you start to fear that it is going to happen. The fear turns into anxiety. The anxiety becomes panic. And then you find yourself having a panic attack over whether or not you were going to have a panic attack.
Now this, of course, is just one aspect of dealing with the rest of the world when you have PTSD. Combine it with the irritability and general malaise of only getting two to four hours of sleep at night. Combine those with the hyper-alertness you already have – hyper-alertness now boosted by the gallons of caffeine you drink to combat the insomnia. And you’re already touchy. It doesn’t take much to piss you off. And that’s when things are good. That’s when you’re home, safe, relaxed. But now you’re out in public. You’re tired. Zonked out of your mind on caffeine. You’re twitchy, shaking, scared, panicking about whether or not you will panic.
Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? Well, this isn’t an article about how horrible my PTSD is. This is an article about how great the Star Citizen community is.
Wait, what? I haven’t even mentioned them yet. How could it be about them? Let me tell you.
You now know what my life was like up to the launch of the Star Citizen Kickstarter. You know what it was like after I pledged. What you don’t know is how my life has changed thanks to this game.
Less than a year after Arena Commander went live I upgraded my Internet. I was looking for a way to test the upload and download speeds and started watching Twitch streamers. At the time it was mostly Wtfosaurus and BadNewsBaron, as I recall. I thought maybe I could test my Internet by streaming but I didn’t know the first thing about it.
Then a friend, who was interested in Star Citizen, said he wanted to watch me play it. I figured I’d stream it. Nobody would watch anyway because I was a nobody. It’d just be me and him. I figured out the basics of running OBS, a free streaming software suite, and set up a basic scene with an overlay and webcam so he could see me as I was playing.
I fired up the stream and started playing Arena Commander. It was just the two of us in the channel for about twenty minutes. Then another showed up. And another. Pretty soon twenty people were watching me. They were talking to me. I didn’t want to talk with them – they were strangers. But I made a mistake: I set up the bloody webcam. They could see me. I wasn’t some faceless anonymous guy playing a game on the Internet. I started to talk back to them. They asked questions. I answered them. They complimented my abilities in the game.
I was expecting them to be like any other gaming community I have encountered. Full of trolls, hateful comments, people making fun of you, the works. Instead I found warm and welcoming viewers who were eager to learn from me and to teach me. They joked around. They asked if they could join in the matches. They wanted me to be a part of their community.
Over the next two years I discovered Star Citizen has the most welcoming, friendly, and truly community-oriented community of any game I have ever played. I’ve made dozens of good friends, hundreds of acquaintances. And I’ve noticed, as time passed, that I have become more open and relaxed with my streaming and interactions with the players.
For example: the first time I was invited on a podcast I declined. I was not ready for that kind of interaction. The very thought of it terrified me. Nevertheless, eventually, I was the only option as a filler for a show. So I accepted. And made it through the whole thing. Months later I’m a regular on several podcasts.
So where is all of this leading? To the first week of September, 2016. Almost two years after I started streaming and thirteen years after that fateful night in Karbala, Iraq. Up until this point I successfully avoided going to various streaming and gaming-related conventions with my fellow streamers and Star Citizens by virtue of them all being far away and expensive. But Pax West is located in Seattle, Washington, and is only a few hours away. And one of my fellow streamers, SupremeTokyo, was offering to pay for my ticket to the convention. All I needed to do was drive up there. So I was out of excuses.
I agreed to one day. I figured I could handle one day at a convention – provided I was with people I knew and I could easily get the hell out of the building as needed.
Well, that plan went down the tubes when Tokyo called me the night before I was supposed to go and asked me to come up that night to join him at some VIP party. I reluctantly agreed, provided I could crash on the floor of his hotel.
I spent the night up there at the party. That was something way out of my comfort zone. A loud nightclub full of strangers, most of them younger than me and who would have no clue how to relate to my discomfort.
The next day I joined SupremeTokyo at the packed convention center. Surrounded by strangers all day long. I made it home that night and initially had no plans to return. But then other people wanted to see me, and there was an event for Star Citizens the next day. Reluctantly, I went back up.
It wasn’t until I arrived home Sunday night that it hit me: I spent three days and two nights, essentially, in a strange city full of strange people and not once did I have an anxiety attack or even feel one coming. I didn’t even feel that out of place.
No, the community didn’t cure me. But it has helped me interact with the rest of the world. By interacting with this welcoming community in a safe area that I could control – my stream – I was able to slowly learn how to interact with people outside my safe zone. I’m still not comfortable around strangers. I still have issues, even an hour or so at a bar. But I’m better today than I was two years ago.
And I definitely have this community to thank for that.