Returning to World of Warcraft After Being Addicted
BY JJ ULM
When I first discovered Azeroth, my life was a smoking ruin.
I was several years deep into a psychologically abusive relationship that I couldn’t escape thanks to untreated depression and anxiety (and finances—the minimum wage is a feminist issue). I was struggling to change careers. The fandom convention I’d gotten involved with, that I’d invested my time and my heart and my very identity in, had changed hands, leaving me socially moorless. I had recently been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. My creativity had dried up. My car was dying. My elderly cat was dying.
In short, I was desperate for an escape, an addict waiting to happen.
World of Warcraft was my perfect drug. In addition to the dopamine hit of small, regular accomplishments—a hook inherent to the very nature of games—I found a social group untainted by my boyfriend’s admonitions that “everyone” thought I was too loud, too quiet, too critical, too out-of-control. And I got involved in my server’s roleplaying community, which rekindled the fire of my writing. I had an eager audience again, and collaborators in an ongoing story. I was able to redefine myself away from my old clique.
But only when I was logged in.
Back in the real world, fear and anxiety still ruled my closest relationship, the only job I could dig up was second shift at a tech support call center, and my car was getting worse.
So Warcraft became my life.
I got a better call center job that paid well enough to leave my boyfriend (though not before finding someone else through the game). But with him went most of my old friends. So on weekends I would play for entire days. On weekdays I’d play from when I got home from work until 2 or 3am and go into my new job half-asleep. I’d spend Saturday nights with nine friends in Karazhan, wearing no pants and chugging chocolate milk straight from the half-gallon. I read all the tie-in novels, even the awful ones.
And most tellingly, being away from my computer made me anxious. I was out of my old relationship, but I was still deeply damaged and in need of help I wasn’t getting. I needed the comforting embrace of Azeroth. I needed to forget myself in my characters.
It wasn’t all unhealthy, though, and I did eventually get my shit together. I got up the courage to be single, found a psychiatrist and a therapist, and accepted that I was a lesbian—with help from a gay character I was roleplaying. I met my current best friend, the first person to support me getting that treatment after years of being told I was fine when I clearly wasn’t. I got better.
I still played, but I didn’t need to anymore. And when the story stopped interesting me—when my favorite plotline wrapped up—I left.
For years after I would have flashback memories to places there as if they were real. That was how deeply I had fallen in.
So I panicked a little when I walked in on my best friend-cum-roommate looking at the login screen this past August. It was like an alcoholic walking in on their AA buddy with a bottle of whiskey. Do I take it away from them or ask for a sip?
But, I told myself, WoW wasn’t alcohol. My life was better. Working freelance had given me too much free time and too little money, but I was happy. I was being treated for depression and I saw an LGBT-focused therapist weekly. It was still a fun game. I could return to it and not fall in too deep… right?
One at a time my other friends started logging back into long-forgotten accounts in time for Legion. I tested whether my old gaming laptop could even handle it. When I discovered it could, my defenses crumbled.
I was playing again, but this time I swore I wasn’t going to get lost.
I and another former addict-friend agreed to watch out for each other. I talked about the game with my therapist—and we discussed it as training wheels for my social anxiety. I gave my new character the same name as someone from my writing project to remind me where my attention needed to be.
Nearly two months in, I’ve spent my birthday money to build a new PC, but the time I spend playing—3 or 4 hours a day—is time that was wasted before. At first I felt that old anxiety when
I was AFK, but it’s eased. I think I can do this.
I believe I can do this.
And if not, maybe I can write for a WoW news blog.