I enthusiastically bought Rollercoaster Tycoon a month ago. I was thrilled to revisit a simple game that I adored growing up. It also appealed to the part of me that, now as an adult. enjoys building simulators. The act of organizing and beautifying a park with rides, flowers, and pathways is therapeutic. The certainty that if you do it well, people will come and your park will receive a good rating is soothing. There is a direct, reliable correlation between action and outcome.
At the beginning of quarantine, the Internet was full of new Animal Crossing players, myself included, and content surrounding the crafting of one's island flooded Twitter. I didn’t consider the state of the world’s relationship to the influx of “new gamers” picking up AC. I simply embraced and celebrated the trend, after all, there would be more people to talk to about games now. Without realizing it, games have been a coping mechanism I have personally utilized for years.
I have never been able to get a good night’s sleep. Throughout high school, I would stay up until 2 AM and wake at 6 to straighten my curls into the pin straight fashion of the time. I sat in front of my childhood desktop computer in the kitchen deep into the night for years. Livejournal, AIM, The Sims, and Rollercoaster Tycoon took me temporarily out of my home and connected me with a support system or gave me a semblance of control over the outcomes of others’ lives — when I felt more than powerless in my own.
My father was an alcoholic and verbally abusive to my mother and me. After his drunken insults, our harsh yelling back as defense, and my eventual tears, I’d turn completely numb. I would reach this plateau of “tomorrow will be better,” although I knew it wouldn’t be. In that space, I couldn’t feel anything. In the dark, staring at a screen, I had peace and quiet.
A phrase I have repeated so many times now that is engrained in my mind is: I never saw my dad sober until I was sixteen years old. What I mean by this is, any time I saw my father not completely obliterated, he was hungover beyond recognition. It was easy to tell when he was drunk. Aside from the obvious signs that someone is intoxicated, one of his eyebrows would be perpetually raised high and it turned his ruddy face into a horrifying mask. The desktop computer and the tiny, closet-sized bathroom in the garage where my father drank cheap Canadian whiskey and chain-smoked cigarettes shared a wall. As I sat there, typing away, I would hear him violently coughing or vomiting. I would turn up the volume on overtly sentimental emo bands, or anything I could find on Limewire with a heavy enough chord progression to drown out reality.
Thanks to a TikTok I stumbled upon on another sleepless night of mine in recent history I came across an account that gave a name to the crippling feeling of being stuck I know too well: freeze mode. I had often gotten teased by coworkers when I’d loudly exhale after unknowingly holding my breath. I would joke that I did so when I thought deeply about something — like ringing in orders during a busy dinner shift — but, apparently, breath restriction is a common effect of freeze mode. The last time my father was hospitalized for emphysema, a couple of days before he passed, I heard my mother bathing him through another shared wall. It becomes a bit fuzzy after that point, but I remember laying in bed, unable to move. I think I stayed in my room until the ambulance came.
He stayed sober after his third trip to rehab my junior year of high school and he died my sophomore year of college. Ultimately, it isn’t shocking that after his death, I eventually turned to alcohol. Whenever emotions became too heavy or strong and my heart began to audibly pound, I wanted to turn them off. I thought it was grief or college or heartbreak. Given how normalized alcohol consumption is today, even if I didn’t have a personal reason to imbibe, the occasion or social activity would suffice. Whether it was bloody marys at brunch, martinis after going to the movies, gin and tonics at a concert, pitchers of beer at bowling… it didn’t matter. Drinking became more about numbing myself than celebrating a moment. It was a form of escapism heavily romanticized by my line of work at the time… and society as a whole.
I stopped playing games after I left for college. It wasn’t until I started dating someone new that games showed back up in my life. Parker, my former bartender from across the street and neighbor, and I fell in love and moved in together. We would meet at a myriad of drinking holes, anywhere we knew the bartender working, to share the night’s anecdotes. We both worked in the restaurant industry at the time and embraced all of the good and bad that went along with it. After running around like a lunatic as a server, my body was pumped nightly with adrenaline, and then after all the guests left, I had nowhere to put it.
Heading to the bar with coworkers to unwind and vent about that night’s dinner service was the way I’d consume boilermakers until I felt calm enough to fall asleep. Everyone talked about wanting to cut down on the booze or take time away from it with varying success. Some were able to have one fancy cocktail at home or at the bar; since I regularly had 4 beers and 4 shots of whiskey a night when I started out with an “I’ll only have one or two” mentality, I instead vowed to head straight home after work to play Stardew Valley. Parker played games and often suggested ones he thought I’d enjoy. The repetitive tasks of watering fruits and vegetables to calm down were meant to serve as a healthier ritual and although it was a new game it wasn’t new behavior. It worked a little.
My last restaurant job in Chicago was the most toxic of the many I held. Despite this, there were moments of after-work-drinks that felt fuzzy and warm but only after I got sober did I realize alcohol had nothing to do with it. Looking back on my time in the restaurant industry, and the magnetic friendships I made and then quickly lost, it’s hard to not want to redo it, this time without the weight of my erratic and destructive behavior.
Working hungover was accepted and expected, doubly so for brunch shifts. Feeling hazy and distractedly numb from overindulgence became commonplace. Now, whenever I feel a craving to have a drink I think about the time, “I haven’t gone out for three days and I feel like a superhero” came out of my mouth and how utterly sad that was. I lived life on hard mode because alcohol was a surefire way to superficially freeze time and put off addressing and working through messy thoughts and emotions. I would rather have my crutch than a clear mind. I didn’t know then about the “pink cloud” and that high-anything-is-possible-holy-shit-I-am-a-superhero feeling in the early stages of sobriety, but I would get to know it well after trying, again and again, to stop drinking. I wish my father were here to talk to about it, but I remember him empathetically.
Especially given the political climate and the upcoming election, after doom scrolling or frantic distracted bursts to clean our apartment, I turn on Rollercoaster Tycoon when I feel overwhelmed or anxious and need a break. Or Spiritfarer. Or Zelda. Or whatever point-and-click puzzly/narrative-driven detective game I am currently obsessed with. I gravitate to meditative games that quiet the mind. I still lose too many hours to them, sometimes. The in-game time versus real life tends to make the passing of it hazy. But instead of spending time blacked out or writhing from a headache, I build a kickass theme park or feed adorable animals their favorite meals in the afterlife. The time isn’t lost in the same way.
Knowing that this behavior is at its core self-preservation lifted the shame surrounding it for me. After an emotionally grueling conversation, if I am feeling stuck and like I physically can not do anything, it’s fine. I can wait it out without feeling bad about it. I accept the fact that my body protects itself by literally forcing me to slow down. For years I ran around like a chicken with its head cut off — no longer giving in to that temptation is more freeing than constrictive.
I wish I had listened to my body’s response to trauma the way it wanted me to sooner… but I’m happy to be here, finally.