Writing: Wizards & Work, Part 6

All the best things come in sixes, maybe? I had a midnight flash of inspiration for more of these, so have some new character scribbles! (Standard disclaimer: very very loosely based on people at Rebellion, and not intended to be a comment on anyone at all!)

You can also read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

 

She spoke in strange tongues as she worked, littering her speech with odd syllables and unknown words. We were not sure where she had picked it up, for the language was none of the known spell-speeches, but her words often made her work go faster. None of us could replicate her effects, although our efforts caused her much amusement.

But the mystique was undone when one day a visitor laughed, and said something in the same tongue. The staccato reply made it clear that their input was not welcome, but they just laughed again.

“What did she say?” I asked them as we retreated from the sorceress muttering her alien spells to her machine.

“Oh, she is calling it a plate of… I don’t know the word. It is an insult.” The visitor shrugged. “It makes it work better.”

 

Hir wisdom was boundless, deep as the sea and old as the mountains; hir thoughts ran in ages and aeons, and disdained such human notions as “hours”.

Hir colleagues eventually reached a compromise on the concept of “months”, mostly by pointing out how inconvenient it would be if they passed away from old age in mid-conversation.

 

The story of the princes who turned into swans is not exactly inaccurate; but the stories don’t say what happened to the ordinary folk caught in the same circumstances. Those without a beautiful sister to make them sweaters with spells woven into the patterns (an ancient art in itself), or without a handy hero to see them dancing in worn-out shoes, or without anyone to remember that they were once human.

Some do remember, though. Both humans, and birds.

And so if the wildfowl on the river flock to his handfuls of bread more quickly and readily than they do anyone else, maybe it is because they alone understand his murmured words, and appreciate his remembering what they once were.

 

“That was a terrible joke!”

“Oh, really?” the selkie says in his broad accent, not at all offended. “Ah thought it was alreet. I’ll get mah skin.”

 

The machine had been built to write routine spells: put a script in one side, and get a functional spell out the other. The problem came when it somehow got infected with sarcasm, irony and an awareness of current affairs.

Everyone agreed that the resulting weekly newsletter was very good, and even won some awards; and the machine’s notably radical leanings didn’t seem to affect the reliability of the spells at all.

They kept a wary eye on the effects, though.

 

She was usually cheerful; round-cheeked and smiling between sips of coffee and bursts of work. But woe betide if you crossed her.

The burned holes in the roof had been patched, and the tail-smashed desks replaced: but nothing could quite erase the soot-stains in the corner, or the memory of the dragon raging in the middle of the office on the day the coffee machine had finally broken.

And whether it was repairable was rather a moot point, now that it was a charred and melted heap.

Game Review: Spiritfarer

I’ve been playing a game on the Switch called Spiritfarer, which bills itself as “a cozy management game about dying”, and the couple of reviews I’d read (plus a suggestion from someone I follow) suggested it was right up my street.

Let’s start with the good bits. It’s got beautiful graphics, is adorably drawn, and it’s pretty easy to move around/do things. The first quarter of the story – the first four characters – is lovely; you’re led pretty easily through how to play, the base resources you can get, customising your boat, sailing places, all as you do tasks for the characters and make sure they’re comfortable… and when those character arcs are done, you can take them to the Everdoor, and usher them onwards. It hits all the right bittersweet notes, and one of them did make me cry. So for the first couple of hours, it’s a really nice, sweet, find-resources-and-do-quests game.

And then let’s move on to the things that made me repeatedly (over several gaming sessions) swear, want to throw the controller across the room, and finally actually give up on the fucking game.

First; whoever designed the plot/game mechanics apparently never even considered that someone might not do things in the “right” order. I actually had to restart after 5-6 hours gameplay because I got the “wrong” skill, and couldn’t progress; after I’d restarted and got past that same point, I then spent 8-10 hours almost running in circles, because what I needed to do to progress any of my quests was. Not. Fucking. Obvious.

I usually hate looking up answers, but I hit my limit. I accessed walk-throughs. I asked the same questions many other players had asked. I tried to guess and second-guess if I’d missed something. Each time, I did eventually manage to figure out what I’d missed – but when it’s several things, in different areas, and that had happened multiple times… I was done.

Constantly second-guessing a game IS NOT FUN.

Fun is knowing something is up there but not being able to get to it yet, or mashing buttons frantically because you just have to get that jump riiiiight oh fuck, ok, do it again. Fun is exploring and finding new things, new quest lines, and even if you can’t do one or two there’s still plenty that you can follow. Fun is being able to see what you can do and what your aims are, even if you can’t currently do it/don’t want to/feel like chasing comets instead.

Fun is not being led, gently, along a path, and then being pushed off it – and having no idea if you can’t do a thing because you don’t have the skill, or you missed something, or there’s a bug. Fun is not being frustrated enough to have to research every single character you can pick up in the game to figure out which one you should get now, with the (apparently limited) skills, and realising that the answer is “none”… which can’t be right. Fun is not HAVING TO FUCKING RESTART because the devs apparently didn’t even consider that someone might not follow the game with the plot structure they had in their heads, and then have no way to remedy it.

Place that alongside some decisions not to signpost resources or provide any help in-game, and to only signpost some access points and not others (eg. places where you can jump are sometimes obvious… and sometimes very not obvious) and it’s a recipe for a fucking frustrating game. There was one instance with a high ladder, where one iteration of it is relatively easy to jump onto; it just requires the right position/skill. There’s a similar iteration where I must have tried 15-20 times, no luck – so I assumed, not unreasonably, that it required a skill I didn’t have. Apparently what it actually requires is the stars to align and a pink elephant to fly past, and you can climb up this ladder – I have no idea what I did differently to get there, but it was annoying. Times that by about ten different things, and it’s infuriating.

The paragraphs above don’t really convey the sheer annoyance of all of this, but my partner will assure you that I was PISSED OFF. And I would also like to point out that it’s not me being stupid; the decisions were pretty obvious, generally, and the game definitely didn’t point to one being needed before the other, or to where I could find more information – it did really seem like whoever designed this had merrily trundled along, assuming you’d do The Right Thing and just… not thinking about if you, maybe, didn’t or couldn’t do That Thing.

I want to love this game. I want to say it’s sweet, and cute, and fun, and it made me cry (which it did, twice.) I want to say it’s a neat little game about collecting resources and taking your passengers out for dinner and talking to rude passers-by and delivering lemons. I want to say that it’s a thoughtful, gentle story about life and death, and friends making their way into the afterlife, and about how we deal with death and loss and memories, and that it tugs all the right heartstrings.

I want to love it.

But, honestly: it is all of that – it is sweet and lovely and heart-tugging – and that’s not enough to overcome the flaws.

My real takeaway? Don’t buy this. Don’t bother playing. You’ll make the wrong plot decision, or not be able to do something, or choose the wrong action, and frankly – unless you like aimlessly drifting around a map while frantically Google’ing to see what you missed and where you should go next – it’s not worth it.

Adventures in Therapy

I’ve been having fun for the last nine months or so, trying to get some help to sort my head out. And by “fun”, I mean “want to scream at something and am probably more screwed up now than I was when I started.”

So, I figured: I’m feeling depressed and grey and numb and I’m coping, yes, but I’m not necessarily getting any better. Let’s see if someone else with more knowledge/experience/solutions might be able to help?

Talking Space

TalkingSpace is offered in the UK via the NHS, as a starting point for any mental health issues. You can self-refer, which is nice (saves going via a GP!) and they cover a wide variety of issues and problems.

However, the downside is that They Have A Checklist. You must work your way through this Checklist, because they need to make sure they’ve offered you all the (cheaper, quicker) forms of help, and make sure that you’re Doing Them Properly, before they can even think about offering you anything else.

And saying that you’re already doing X doesn’t count, because you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you might be doing it wrong.

(I can understand the rationale behind this, because even the most experienced person can learn new things – and I have always tried to be open to new therapies and new courses, because if I even learn one new thing, then that’s a bonus! But it also feeds mightly into the “You’re Doing Your Own Mental Health Wrong” and being outright dismissed when you say that you already know something… not guaranteed to help anyone’s mood.)

I’ve summarised my frustrations with CBT before but, of course, by turning up with Depression and Anxiety, that’s top of the list of solutions. And being told to do it again… fine, I’ll do the online course. I’ll get the tick in the box. I went through the entire course in a week, making helpful little notes as I went, and I think the person at the other end of the phone was both irritated and resigned when we had the next phone appointment; I had told him that I had 15 years experience of CBT, after all…

We had a conversation on general life; am I exercising enough? Relaxing enough? Eating well? Sleeping well? (Yes, yes, yes, yes.) He then suggested that maybe I wasn’t using my personal relaxation time correctly, and not doing things that aligned with my values. (Because of course, I can’t even relax in the right ways.)

Another check sheet. Another list. I sweetly pointed out how everything I did to relax did align with at least some of my values.

“Well, it sounds like you’re doing everything right…”

Ya think?!

It’s not like I’ve lived with this for half my life. It’s not like I’ve learned to function with it, and I am doing my best to GET MYSELF WELL. I am doing my best to make sure that everything I do benefits myself – and that means staying well, staying healthy, exercising as best I can within my body’s limitations for that day, making sure I relax, making sure I keep working and doing and keep my brain active.

I. Am. Goddamn. Trying. And for every single mental health service to start with “Well, you’re not doing it right” gets exceedingly wearing.

(Although, I admit, they are obviously coming from a place of wanting to teach you something, because if you knew it all, you wouldn’t be asking for help? Hence my philosophy of being open and saying yes to things, in the hope that maybe I can learn a new way of doing something, or find a way that works better for me. But sweet zombie Jesus is it frustrating to constantly be told I don’t know my own brain.)

BetterHelp

So during the six months that it took TalkingSpace to work through their Checklist, I took things into my own hands, and tried BetterHelp on the recommendation of a friend.

It was… ok. It’s quite easy to get set up on, and the major benefits of it are that you can pick your therapist (and switch very easily), and also schedule sessions very flexibly. It’s all done via the website/app, so the therapist never knows your phone number, and you have access to a chat feature and “I need to contact you outside of a session” messaging whenever you need.

The downside of it is that (at least I found) most of the therapists are in the US, which meant odd scheduling hours, and it was quite hard to pick someone; I could understand if you need someone specifically for family therapy, or don’t want someone religious, but I just… needed someone to talk to? It is also somewhat expensive – I had a code for two free weeks but only managed to schedule one session in that time, which isn’t really enough to get to know someone. So, mixed feelings at the start.

I got to talk a bit in the first session; there was a questionnaire to do, which helped a lot as I felt it covered a lot of the background info, so the therapist was fairly up-to-speed on everything. We spent a while chatting about everything; home, family, mental health background, what I felt the problem was. The therapist was fairly chatty too, so I learned a bit about them, but it was in a good back-and-forth way, so that was nice.

Second session was a bit more frustrating. I found it harder to talk; the therapist spent more time talking, which was ok, but again not the most helpful thing when it’s talking about how I should feel, or making assumptions. The break point for me came when we were chatting about strategies, and they suggested dreaming more – which, of itself, is a fairly good suggestion… but not a great one for me. I have always found it very hard to visualise anything in the future (I never had any sort of career plan, for example) and that, combined with the fact that I have had things that I’d had as life goals, and then walked away from them… it’s not really something I enjoy doing. Then add in the fact that (not being immodest, but…) I could probably do anything that I wanted to, IF I wanted to – and that’s the problem. I can dream about owning a bookshop-cum-coffee shop*, but a couple of minutes’ thinking tells me that it’s a really daft idea, particularly in the current economic climate – and the fact that I hate dealing with people most days. I want to run the book side, and have someone else run the coffee side! Add in locations, rents, business problems (I already run Book Polishers, so I know some of the business fun) and dealing with the general public, booksellers, book buyers… it’s not a fun dream. I could do it: I just don’t want to. And so dreaming, for me, becomes impractical – and it’s not fun. There aren’t any “pie in the sky” things; it’s too easy to bring them down to earth.

And then the therapist spent fifteen minutes telling me about their dream, and what they wanted to do. (Run a heated greenhouse cafe in a wintery US state, which does sound fantastic – being able to go somewhere warm and humid with beautiful flowers when it’s cold outside? Bliss!)

But… seriously? I am paying for this service. I am the one trying to fix myself. I am the one needing help. Why am I spending a quarter of the phone call listening to someone else tell me their dreams?! (It feels so self-centred to be annoyed that someone isn’t focusing on me, and I have spent a lot of time trying to balance my innate desire to stay in the background and listen to people with the knowledge that for this to work, I need to be the centre of attention. It’s horrible and it’s so hard.)

But, after that, I changed therapist. I had a five-minute call with the second person; five minutes of broken connections, crackling lines, and awkward chat via the app; and then I gave up. Cancelled the service, and went and hugged my cat. I can’t afford it, both monetarily and emotionally; I can’t face starting over again with someone else, explaining everything AGAIN, paying money I don’t have for something that might not help…

My friend (who recommended the service) said they went through four therapists before they found their good one, and I get that – people aren’t always going to be compatible. But it’s just extra time and emotional energy on top of everything else. I might go back to it at some future point when I have some spare money, and try to find someone in the UK (for a hopefully better phone connection!)

*Called Lucien’s, for some reason – I can’t remember why I picked the name. I was trying to work out if I could do a lending service instead of a bookshop, because a coffee-shop-library sounds more fun than a bookshop, and means you can sit in the comfy chairs and read! A friend suggested adding cats, too, which is an excellent idea.

Employee Assistance Program

I got a tick on my “Mental Health Bingo Card” from this chat, at least: “Well, you sound fine.”

Yes. Yes, I do sound fine. That is because – like a lot of people who have to function in society with bad mental health, because otherwise we can’t buy food or pay rent and it’s perfectly clear that the damn Tory Government doesn’t give a fuck about helping, so don’t expect any social assistance if for some reason you can’t function in a job, and if you don’t have a pile of savings or for some reason don’t want to live off your parents when you’re trying to be an independent adult – I am very, very good at pretending to be fine.

And if I say I am not fine, it’s because I am most definitely. Not. Fine.

This chat line was via Rebellion, and was offered as a multi-problem service (they can help with debt, family issues, mental health, etc.) You could ring a helpline and get put through to your service of choice! Yay. So I rang one evening when I was feeling moderately ok but definitely not Well, and thought I’d see what they had to say.

Not much, as it turned out. I got sympathised with, but told that I “need to have a problem to solve” – apparently “being depressed” is not a specific enough problem. I’ll actually accept that as a somewhat fair thing, though, because they’re only able to offer six counselling sessions (which is a rant all by itself, because of course six sessions is enough to cure any problems!) and I can see that having an end goal in mind for that would be beneficial. My issue, of course, is that if I knew what my problem was, I’d be trying to solve it myself… and I’m asking for external help because I don’t know what the problem is…

My particular Person At The End Of The Phone was, however, also very fond of the sound of their own voice, so I think I got ten minutes of talking versus their twenty. It’s always fun when you phone someone for help and they spend more time telling you how they think you feel, rather than actually, y’know, asking you. (And then maybe letting you tell them? That’d be good too.)

All in all, an incredibly frustrating experience – but hey, I can “call anytime!” For more of the same? No, thanks. Hard pass.

(I did pass my experience and thoughts on to our work HR, though, so at least they have one black mark against them if HR do decide to look into alternatives.)

Psychological Therapies

Speaking of frustrating, my brush with NHS Psychological Therapies was… also fun.

I was referred to them via TalkingSpace, with the aim of trying something – and I’m up for that, because at this stage I don’t know what will help. I can’t remember the name of the therapy it was supposed to be, which is annoying, but it was basically to do with examining your emotions as they happen (which I have only figured out afterwards, when trying to analyse the appointment.)

The therapist was nice, but the first consultation was an assessment, and she… just tried to get me to talk. “What would you like to talk about?” she asked.

I. Don’t. Know.

I did point out that I could spend an hour talking about the print production process for fiction books, and could she give me some pointers on what would be most useful for her? (She did start asking some slightly more useful questions after that.)

She also, infuriatingly, would ask close-ended questions. “That must have been frustrating for you.” Yes, it was. And? Do you want more information? If so, what aspect would you like more information on?!

I was actually getting fairly angry towards the end of the second session, because she simply wouldn’t tell me what she needed from me: the first session was assessment, yes, and she suggested a therapy. Ok, great, I’m up for trying that! The second session… I couldn’t understand if it was the actual therapy, or still assessment, and if she needed more or less detail on situations, or what she actually wanted me to talk about… she’d had a “yes, I’ll try it” from me, so – did she need more information? Another yes? What was I supposed to be doing?

What it boiled down to, I eventually discovered, was that she was trying to get me to display my emotions.

So, let’s summarise the problems with this.

  1. I try not to display emotions in a professional or meeting setting, because that IS NOT THE TIME;
  2. I have spent YEARS making sure that I am able to be professional and calm and collected in front of other people even when I feel terrible, because randomly crying on someone is not helpful, and is often actively unhelpful (especially if you’re a woman, and double especially if you’re a woman in a professional setting);
  3. I was deliberately trying not to display my emotions because, silly me, I’d assumed that she was actually wanting to talk to me, and spending half the session in floods of tears doesn’t seem like a good use of anyone’s time;
  4. And most importantly, I am not going to cry in front of someone that I have met for an hour, via Zoom, and frankly don’t like very much.

But apparently I am not suitable for that type of therapy because – I am summarising here – I can’t cry on demand.

It’s just another bundle of straw on the ever-growing pile of fury at mental health help, really. I’m not doing it right. I’m not saying the right things. I’m not feeling the right way. I’m not Being Depressed in the Correct Way. I just Don’t Understand and needed to somehow do the right things, despite not being psychic and knowing what the right things were? Asking gave me a black mark, too, as apparently I needed to be led, and needed the right answers to be pointed out? Or something like that. I don’t know.

Anyway, fuck that particular therapy.

And now?

Thankfully the NHS therapist was quite happy to refer me back to TalkingSpace (I caught a definite whiff of “Getting rid of a potential problem client that Won’t Do What I Need Them To Do For This Therapy”) and TalkingSpace have said they’ll refer me on to a traditional counselling service, as they think that just talking to someone might be helpful.

I might have rolled my eyes quite hard at that, because that’s what I’ve been asking for all along. But hey ho, they’ve got a Checklist, and it looks like I’ve now reached the point where I might be getting useful things.

In short: I have been through various therapies, and have got no further forward, and a lot more pissed off. Yay for mental health help!

(The counter to all of my frustration, and the only thing keeping me sane, is that it is so hard. With a broken leg, at least you can do an X-ray and see how it broke and how to mend it and if it’s healing. With mental health, it’s an ongoing process, changes day-to-day, depends on the person, and depends on so many other random factors that I sometimes wonder how on earth our salty lump of bacon even pilots our fleshy meat sack without doing a Windows Update every ten seconds. So anyone trying to work with someone else’s mental health is hugely impressive, as trying to figure out my own has been hard enough.)

My current strategies?

  • Quit the job that was causing a lot of stress
  • Hug my cat
  • Make cake
  • Eat cake
  • Writing? I’m currently enjoying working on No Man’s Land/Every Ghostly Scar, plus I’ve had a few other odd bits floating around. So progress!

 

 

Five Happy Things: January 2021

I know it’s February – but have some posthumous January happy things! (I am considering that a very appropriate word, considering that getting through each month in 2020 was… well, a 2020 challenge. I’m bringing the same energy to 2021. Take that, January! We got through you!)

1.Animal Crossing

I had a bit of a frustrating start with Animal Crossing: New Horizons (the learning curve is far too steep for a game that’s meant to be fun) but Otter and Gem trundled along to the island too, and we’ve been planting flowers and catching fish and making snowmen. It’s felt productive and gives me a chance to turn my brain off, which is pretty much the perfect combination in a game at the moment.

Animal Crossing characters wallpaper

2.Therapy

I’ve started therapy sessions with BetterHelp, on the basis that I need to take some sort of productive step forward! (I can rant about TalkingSpace but that’s not a happy thing, so let’s just say that it’s been very much a tick-box exercise so far.) I also, after two sessions with the first assigned BetterHelp therapist, took what I felt was a scary but needed step and changed therapist (that’s another rant) to someone that I hope will suit me better. It was anxiety-inducing, but there’s no point talking to someone that doesn’t quite click… so I’m counting that as a win!

3.Website work

As you may have noticed, Writing&Coe has had a bit of a facelift! Nothing major, but I spent an afternoon updating the theme and hopefully making everything a bit cleaner & simpler. I’ve got some back-end work to do next, just updating SEO and sorting blog posts, but it felt good to be organising that.

4.Bobble-cat

A cat glaring while being scritched
Believe it or not, this is his happy face…

He has decided, over the last month or so, that he has a Schedule. Mornings are lap time (and he may allow me to get tea first, if I’m lucky) and then it’s a combination of yelling, napping on convenient humans, and glaring out of the window at the crows to make sure they’re not Up To Anything. It’s got to the stage where if I sit down on the sofa, he’s right there on my lap – and if I’m not available then he’ll reluctantly take other laps into consideration… or just snooze on his radiator bed, because at least that has the bonus of being a mere three steps from the sofa. It’s such a tough life when you’re sixteen.

(I should add that the yelling is less cute because he’s mostly wanting more food, and as he’d go through his daily biscuit allowance in thirty seconds if we didn’t ration them, the yelling is very rarely productive. This doesn’t seem to have sunk in yet, but then he is a Cat With Opinions… one of which is that he should have All The Biscuits. Debate is ongoing on the matter.)

5.Sending Presents

A picture of colourful iced biscuits in cake & bird shapesThere’s a couple of birthdays coming up, and I’ve also been taking the opportunity to send things out! My current (expensive, but so worth it) favourites are Biscuiteers, because both their biscuits and tins are fab, and they do letterbox-sized packages! There’s also Say It With Brownies, which are made on the Isle of Wight and are AMAZING, and my old favourite Bloom&Wild, who do beautiful flower arrangements and letterbox plants. It’s been a lot of fun choosing things for people, and I’m currently in the middle of arranging a surprise for an upcoming birthday, too – it’s been hard to track down what I want, but I think they’re going to like it!

We’ve also got a serious family discussion going on about getting my father a Horrible Cherub for his birthday. Apparently the last one sadly got given away, so obviously that means he needs another… (mostly joking, but I am tempted to find him one of those wonderfully awful plastic ones, just to see the face he makes!)

 

I’ve also managed to do some reading – review post coming soon!