In the Game of Life
Quirky and awkward. That’s how most people saw me in middle school and high school. I was the big kid with clumsiness in his DNA, who spent most of his time in front of the TV playing video games. But the people who made fun of me didn’t realize why my eyes stayed glued to the screen for hours and hours. In the fictional worlds of video games, I was confident and invincible, things I rarely felt when I put the controller down.
I was born on May 26, 1991 in Rochester, Minnesota as the oldest of three kids. My parents still joke about how I was so big that the doctor said he might need to use a forklift to get me out. I have dozens of fond memories from my early childhood — I remember Thomas the Tank Engine trains were my life and I loved playing in the sandbox. But things took a turn for the worse when I got to middle school.
I sometimes wondered if I wore a magnet that attracted bullies. They seemed to come out of nowhere and I couldn’t escape them, no matter how hard I tried. If they weren’t commenting about my weight or cracking “fat jokes,” they were throwing spitballs, stealing my stuff, or calling me names. It was one big blur of a crapfest.
By eighth grade, the bullying had stopped after a classmate killed herself and scared us all back into kindness, but it didn’t change the effects it had already done to my psyche. It was as if those bullies had been woodpeckers, gradually drilling into my heart and my identity. To cope with the negative feelings, I buried myself in addictive video games, playing for five hours on weekdays and day and night on weekends. My parents saw how bad this behavior was, but they also knew what I’d endured from the bullying. I think they were just happy to see me enjoying something I was good at.
My addiction continued with no hint of letting up even when I went to college at Minnesota State University in 2009 and had more on my plate. Instead of putting games on the backburner, I placed my school work there. I would go days without touching my homework. At the last second, I would scramble and pull out a C+ out of thin air on assignments, proud that I didn’t flunk out of the class, as if that was an accomplishment.
The only thing that got me out of the house was church on the weekends. My parents had always been good at setting an example of putting God first on Sunday, and something in my heart kept me from breaking that routine. Going to church led me to meet other Catholic students who encouraged me to come to Catholic Newman Center events on campus. I was still playing video games eight hours a day, but for the first time, I was going out and socializing. Video games wasn’t all that I did anymore. None of my new friends were aware of my addiction because when I was with them, I felt like a different person. A better person who could be liked somewhere outside of an online chat room.
By my senior year, I had made lifelong friends and fell for an intelligent girl from the group. Mary came from a deeply religious family that, unfortunately (or fortunately), believed video games were the devil. I wanted to be with her, so I never revealed how deeply entrenched my addiction was. For a while, she became my new addiction. We spent all our time together, but when I graduated in 2013 and moved back in with my parents while I searched for a job, we saw each other less often.
With the extra alone time, my addiction flared up again, and Mary finally saw how deep the problem was. Whenever she tried to call, I struggled to set aside my games and answer the phone. She became an inconvenience in my life. When avoiding her didn’t work, I would answer and pretend to listen while I kept playing. She’d eventually notice and ask, “Michael…are you playing video games instead of listening to me?” Invested in my game, I didn’t hear her question and continued playing.
It was only a matter of time until she got fed up, and who could blame her? I was choosing a console over her. She called one day and told me, “I think we should break up. Guys like you turn out to be lazy bum husbands who never get real jobs and never amount to anything. I don’t need someone like that in my life.” Then she hung up, leaving me shocked and devastated. I stared at the TV in front of me, paused and waiting for me to jump back in, and sighed. What had I done? Mary was perfect for me. I realized then that I couldn’t let this happen. I had to get her back.
I pleaded with her to give me a second chance, and she agreed only if I was willing to show her that she was dating me, and not video games. It was like I had been hit in the head with a two by four. Of course, Mary was more important. I loved video games, but I loved her more. And so, I turned over a new leaf. I threw away my entire collection of games and signed up for a video game addicts program. (Yes, there really is such a thing!) Mary was so stunned by my quick response, she didn’t know what to say, but I could tell she was happy.
It sounds so easy when I say it. “Yeah, I just threw all my games out and stopped playing, easy peasy.” Life without video games, however, was not easy. All my life, they had been a crutch, a place where I felt safe and confident. Without them, I retreated into myself like I did as a child, and my life became very dull very fast. My hands would shake from the shock of not playing and my mind started racing with anxious thoughts. Why ain’t I in a job? Do my friends actually like me? Why am I such a bum?
Without even looking for a job, I settled back into my high school position flipping burgers at McDonald’s, not using my sociology degree or business minor. I eventually landed a job at a call center for Charter where I fixed customers’ cable problems. It was a step up from McDonald’s, but very monotonous and boring. Have you tried plugging in the TV? Living this boring life had me reaching for a controller again. Just a few hours won’t hurt, I told myself. I was working a full-time job and doing adult stuff so I convinced myself that I deserved some fun time gaming.
By 2015, I had earned enough money to purchase a ring for Mary. She and I were overjoyed to begin our life together, and everything felt like a dream. But there’s a reason why dreams can’t always become reality, especially when your wife thinks you are “sober” of video games.
Like any couple, marriage brought challenges neither one of us anticipated. I thought my video game playing was under control, but after we moved in together, Mary made me see that I had fallen into its clutches once again. While I wasn’t playing eight hours like I used to, I was still doing a few hours every night. I remember being annoyed with Mary when she wanted me to stop playing. She knew I became a different person when I was ensnared by video games. The man she fell in love with was lost to a screen.
“Are you coming to bed?” she asked, on more nights than I could count. “Just finishing up a game!” I would respond. When she started sleeping on the couch, I knew that my gaming fever was interfering with our relationship again and I had to get ahold of it. Marriage wasn’t the only part of my life suffering from my addiction either. I couldn’t focus at work and I often zoned out while people spoke to me. I was slipping into my old habits before I could stop it. I recalled the words of Elrond to Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, “Put aside the boy and become the man you are called to be!” I knew that it was time to become the man I was outside of video games.
The next day, I broke up with my games. I sold my PS4 and gave my undivided attention to my wife for the first time in weeks. It was hard to abandon something that had brought me comfort for years, but I knew parting ways with my play station was the right choice when the job of my dreams, a life insurance agent position, appeared in front of me. Although my bullying caused a gaming addiction and escapism, it also taught me empathy and a desire to help others which has helped with my job. And thanks to Mary, I didn’t feel self-conscious anymore.
As much as I would love to say that I am “healed” of my addiction, I consider myself far from perfect. I still like watching TV or playing video games from time to time, but they no longer take over my life. I’m glad that my wife was patient with me as I returned to the man she knew and loved. I don’t need video games to escape anymore. I have no reason to run. In the game of life, I have all that I need within my grasp, and I see now that life is sweeter when you look up from the screen.
This is the story of Michael Flanagan
Michael currently lives and works in Mankato, Minnesota. After a childhood of bullying that brought low self-esteem, the only place Michael felt good about himself was through video games which became an addiction as he crept into adulthood. When games began negatively affecting his relationship with the love of his life, Michael decided to say goodbye to them. He no longer needs to use them as a crutch to face reality because he now has the confidence to face the world head on. When Michael isn’t out on the road meeting clients, he is at home cooking new meals, playing board games at the kitchen table with his wife or helping to lead the local Young Adult Catholics group in the local parishes. While he still enjoys playing video games, they no longer control his life and he plays them in moderation when time allows.
Life Log #244
This story first touched our hearts on October 5, 2018.
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