Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor (kistaro) wrote,
Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

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I'm not really sure what says more about me: that my existential nightmares frame themselves in video games, or that the identity-destroying pit that stress throws you into is, according to my subconscious, named Gus.

I suppose it's a strange sort of nightmare, but it certainly seemed like one until I picked it apart far enough, and I suppose waking up to this not-so-nameless anxiety at 2:20 AM, even after an overtly whimsical dream that itself frames itself as a fictional allusion to the entire thing, can't really be anything but a nightmare. I guess I haven't had one for years, for which I'm grateful. They used to be pretty bad.

As far as the dream went, I was playing some form of Rhythm Heaven that doesn't exist (and presumably never will), still for the DS. The details aren't important, but the summary is that I was, as far as the game goes, in over my head and failing epically. It seemed more interesting to keep trying than to resign, though, so I played the course to its conclusion, watching this sort of stat meter on the touch screen (no, Rhythm Heaven doesn't have one) drift rather rapidly down, with the text label of how I was doing getting both more dire and more amusing. (Honestly, if Rhythm Heaven did have some sort of live score feedback like that, it's probably how they'd do it.) Part of it is that I was curious how far down it went; I wasn't really trying anymore, but I didn't need to do anything special to fail spectacularly, either.

Well, the meter sunk down past "Please Check That Your Headphones Are Functioning", beyond "Perhaps You Should Just Shut The System Off Now And Take A Break", past even "The World Is Actually Coming To An End Because You Have No Sense Of Timing", and then reached an end. A bit unexpected, by design; the meter was never shown in its entirety, just a close-up view of the current position on it sliding by a more static indicator (a sprite-style chibi-style illustration of the player character in the specific rhythm minigame). The meter simply bottomed out, then fell over; my dream wasn't really sure whether the status was now "Bring on Gus!" or simply "Gus"; the impression is of "Bring on Gus!", except looking at the readout, it always said "Gus". It's worth noting that the text field could hold maybe thirty characters, so none of the messages I just listed could actually fit. This is a dream; they were simply there, that's all.

Anyway, the music sort of wound down to an unmelodic stop, like the air was being let out of the band, and the screen did this sort of spiral wipe to black, and then another scene. It was some text about "uh-oh!", stating that my performance wasn't good enough to world moving-ahead of the ever-dangerous all-devouring Gus, escaping whom was apparently the theme of this version of Rhythm Heaven. (It's worth noting that, in the dream, I actually briefly checked the game box at this point. I wasn't confused by this, but I figured I'd literally forgotten, since, as a series of whimsical music minigames, I was pretty sure it didn't have an actual enduring threat. It was plastered all over the box and manual, though, so I sort of mentally shrugged and went on. Note that this is in the impressionist way dreams are, since I equally distinctly remember it being completely identical to the Rhythm Heaven box I actually own.)

So it did this little cut scene of Gus, this spiral-shaped animated pitch-black shadow with teeth, drifting into the center of the screen, eating the world, then absorbing the game display itself as a sort of wipe-to-black animation. It was slow enough, but the music was light and taunting. (As he drifted onto the screen, it actually unlocked some sort of medal for this, titled "You met Gus!", with the descriptive text "Congratulations! Your performance in a course caused Gus to eat the universe. Don't sweat it, it happens to everyone." associated with it, making it clear that this dire event was, like the rest of the game, not very serious.) After the screen stayed black for a couple of seconds, the text "New Game- press (A)" showed up on the screen, so I did, and the game rebooted- unsurprisingly, without my save file, because Gus had eaten the universe.

With confidence the game was just messing with me, I proceeded to create a new save file with the same name and data as the previous one, figuring it'd give it back to me at some point. I started playing through it again, re-doing the early minigames, and starting to conclude that maybe it wouldn't after all. (The dream kind of skipped over this part; I was starting to wake up, so it was summarizing.) Realizing that now I wasn't tied to my previous save, I went back and started a different new file, by a different name, going for something more elaborate and hand-drawn in the draw-your-own-character part. Halfway through the unskippable tutorials, Gus drifted in from the bottom of the screen with a Cheshire grin, carrying this wave of black behind him- which revealed the normal end-of-level screen for the level I'd failed on with my original save file. As the status for the level: "What, you thought we'd really delete your file? C'mon, this game is supposed to be fun. Thanks for being a good sport and playing along! Choose a new save slot, since you filled your old one." And it gave me a new save slot to choose from. After doing that, the game dropped me back into my previous save file's main menu, with one last taunt of "And dude, next time, just switch off the game. You won't corrupt data, we programmed for people to do exactly that."

That was about when I was waking up, and the dream was ending. And in that mostly-asleep state, I felt this all-consuming void of nothing, nearby, slowly approaching, ready to destroy me and all that I cared about, and his name was Gus. Abruptly, the whimsical nemesis of the video game was very real and very immediate, and the joke wasn't so funny anymore.

In my mostly-asleep state, this had me desperately trying to shore up my spiritual wards, cursing myself for not maintaining them well enough (and blaming it on spending too much time and attention on material things for the last... three years), trying to fight this darkness with waves of illuminating energy, and when it felt like it was doing nothing, seeking divine intervention.

Which came. Apparently, stopping someone from flailing about in nightmares is exactly something Thoth is perfectly willing to do, especially when that person is a- is there a word for someone with respect for and similar values to a deity, without being a follower in the traditional sense? I think our language is missing that, because it expects worship, but, seriously, that's not how everybody can or should relate to the divine. I digress, though. Anyway, the divine intervention was mostly a push to mindfulness, in which I stopped long enough to look and realize that this supposed threat wasn't coming from anywhere, didn't exist, and is simply what anxiety decided to look like when it had nothing to be anxious about but was there anyway. The reason for that anxiety, though, wasn't "none"; it was "there's a part of you that has been screaming this for a very long time but you've been unable to listen". More of a spillover effect, because I could only really experience that now that the threat was gone.

Because I figured out what Gus is a symbol of, as far as my subconscious is concerned. Gus is the all-consuming soul-destroying void that is stress. He's not the same as depression, although he is very closely related. He just swallows you up, and everything that you care about, and takes it from you, cuts you off from it, in large part because you didn't know when to quit, and all you're doing is the same thing over again in the hope it will somehow be different and Gus will go away, giving your life back.

But he doesn't. Gus goes away, and gladly, when you stop, start again, and do something different. (Depression is when you don't get this far, and just sell the cartridge instead. It really does make you start over. You can't snap out of it; you must rebuild yourself and everything you value, because there is no other way back out. At least that's what it felt like, for me.) Then you can have everything back, because you're doing something that will probably work better- you tried again, actually changing something.

So, yes, this entire thing was a metaphor for my burning out at Microsoft, being forced to resign, and starting over again and doing it differently. And I could hear that anxiety because it was coming to an end- in one week at a new job, I've gotten my life back. Specifically, I've gotten my identity back, and my values, and my ability to be and to maintain a spiritual life, which I'd lost somewhere along the way. Over the last week, joy came back, and I think, just now, I finally did. This threshhold of chronic stress has been crossed, and I'm able to function again. I now know what that actually feels like.

I think I also now know to just shut off the damn game next time and save myself quite a lot of trouble. I can point to the exact day I should have walked out and never returned, actually. I just didn't know that at the time, and a misguided and futile sense of duty thought it knew better than the part of me very aware there was no possible way I could succeed in the circumstances.

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Tags: nightmare, work

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