I visited family in Tennessee last year and managed, at age 37, to give myself my first serious injury that was not related to childbirth. It was decided that a visit to Fall Creek Falls was in order, so my mom, dad, stepdads, siblings, nieces and nephew congregated at an available pavilion, where we had a picnic before several of us walked over to the river to swim. I hadn’t gone swimming in a natural freshwater setting in many years, and thoroughly enjoyed myself even though the temperature of the water was quite brisk.
On our way back to the pavilion, my ankle turned under me and I promptly found myself on my side on the ground, unleashing a torrent of profanity in spite of the presence of many young ears. I then learned that sprained ankles are apparently rather common in my family. Among the most notable of the stories shared was an incident where my younger sister sprained her ankle on a pine cone while out jogging, and one of my nieces had sprained her ankle so badly the injury included a fracture.
Fortunately it was my left ankle, so at the end of my short visit, with a soft bandage wrapped around my ankle and a pair of crutches, I drove the kids and I back to Illinois. There wasn’t anything to be done except stay off my feet as much as possible and give the ankle time to heal – and it certainly needed time. I was originally told up to 3 months, but at 4 months went to my doctor due to the amount of pain and swelling still occurring, and was informed that symptoms could persist for up to 6 months.
For the first few months, I spent almost all my time stretched out on my bed with my injured foot propped up on pillows. I had my laptop, but there was only so much time I could stomach spending on social media or reading, and I was still dealing with too much depression to have the focus for writing. So I turned to a game I’d intended to play two years before – No Man’s Sky.
My husband had purchased a copy of No Man’s Sky for the PS4, but I never got around to buying a copy for myself for PC use, because the new expansion of World of Warcraft had come out not long before, and I was already playing that. I’d never actually played games on the PS4, and hadn’t really played console games since childhood, but I decided it would be worth it in order to have some way of passing the time.
I quickly discovered that I fucking loved No Man’s Sky. I started on creative mode first, so that I could get used to the controls in safety. I played around with building bases, and explored the planets of the system I started in. I was severely annoyed the day I discovered another player had appeared on my planet. I didn’t want to be friendly. I didn’t even know how to be friendly, as I hadn’t yet learned where to find the controls for basic gestures. I exited the game.
Either my husband or son later showed me how to change my options so that people couldn’t join my game. I happily returned to playing. For years, before depression had so thoroughly taken over my life, I had wanted to travel. I wanted to see the Andes, the Alps, the fjords – the architecture of Morocco and Spain – the majesty of Iceland’s desolate vistas. Over time, anxiety and depression had stolen that dream. Travel seemed like it would be too stressful, even if I eventually had the time and money for it.
Now, with No Man’s Sky, I had an entire universe to explore, a universe that belonged to me. I could travel this virtual landscape from the safety of my own bedroom, without any of the anxiety-inducing awkwardness of real travel. I went from planet, to planet, to planet, from star system to star system, deeper and deeper towards the heart of the virtual universe. I was awed by how pretty the game could be. I loved how silly, frightening, cute or startlingly strange the randomized creatures I found on the planets could be.
I took screen shot after screen shot after screen shot, as if I were a tourist with a camera.* I relished having an entire universe to myself. With few expectations to fulfill in the real world I sank into this temporary new existence and found some of my long-held tension draining away. It was a genuine surprise when I discovered the depression was lifting, too. Months of guilt free laziness and a proxy for travel had worked some kind of healing for me.
The mental and emotional healing that happened because of my forced bedrest literally changed my life. I realized I had to do something to prevent myself from spending the rest of my existence in the river of despair, and now I finally had enough energy to push past my fear of therapy and seek help. I’d lit the fuse. There was no going back, now, only a desperate desire to find a way to be happy – or at least, not be miserable.
When we move this July, it will have been a year since I sprained my ankle. Big, necessary changes are taking place in my life and my relationship. This break from depression has already lasted longer than the six month break I had in 2016. The changes I’m making may actually prevent a recurrence of another major, long-lasting bout of depression. I may actually be at the start of real, lasting – maybe even permanent – healing. On my way to becoming a functional human being again.
All because I was lucky enough to sprain my ankle.
*The header for this blog is one of my favorite screen shots from No Man’s Sky.