All posts tagged mental health

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games: Symmetra and Overwatch’, July 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games 

    With Symmetra, Overwatch is quietly taking on the stigma of autism – and for the fans, effort means everything.

    Backchannel story: 'The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games: Symmetra and Overwatch' by Andrew McMillen, July 2017

    For Samuel Hookham and his younger brother, Overwatch was an obsession that took root last spring. They played the fast-paced shooter video game almost every day, passing the PlayStation 4 controller back and forth across the couch in their family’s California home.

    Samuel was surprised to find himself selecting a female avatar. Overwatch offers two dozen characters of different genders and races, each with a richly drawn personality. But when Samuel played, he was almost always Symmetra, a slight but potent warrior. Her weapon of choice, a photon projector, locks onto enemies and swiftly depletes their energy. In the hands of a skilled player, she could be one of the most devious and deadly characters.

    As he played, Samuel began to notice that Symmetra’s behavior was sometimes strange. She often misunderstood social cues. When her teammate, Torbjörn, cracked a joke—“Hehe, there’s something on your dress!”—Symmetra would respond literally: “No, there isn’t.” She craved structure and got overwhelmed with too much stimulation. In the middle of tense battles, she would turn her back on the action in order to, say, rebuild defensive sentry turrets. In a voice clip, she told her teammates that she believed “the true enemy of humanity is disorder.”

    It was all a bit odd. But in Symmetra’s strangeness, Samuel saw himself. Near the end of 2016, he had been diagnosed with autism, and the label was helping him understand the ways his behavior was different. Like Symmetra, Samuel tended to take jokes literally and could get confused by social cues that others navigated with ease. Samuel began to wonder if his favorite Overwatch hero was autistic, too.

    So when his English teacher asked the class to write letters to public figures they admired, he saw an opening. While his peers sent dispatches to the Nintendo headquarters in Japan, In-N-Out Burger, and Prince William, Samuel wrote to Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s director and a well-known personality thanks to regular YouTube updates. It was a short note—just a dozen sentences— focused on the question that had been bugging him.

    “Dear Mr. Kaplan,” Samuel began, “My main question is about Symmetra. She’s my favorite character, hands down. I just wanted to clarify: Is Symmetra autistic? As an autistic person myself, I’d love to know.”

    He addressed the letter to Blizzard Entertainment’s offices in Irvine, California, expecting not to hear back. A month later, a letter arrived.

    “Dear Samuel,” wrote Kaplan, “I’m glad you asked about Symmetra. Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job of representing just how awesome someone with autism can be.”

    With 30 million players, Overwatch is among the world’s most popular video games. Kids like Samuel spend hours immersed in games, even though the avatars they control rarely reflect themselves. Characters with disabilities, characters of different races, characters with different sexual orientations, characters with autism—all are rare in video games. That means that when kids are building their conceptions of what heroes look like, they are almost never people with autism.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel at its new home on wired.com.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Think Inside The Box: Float therapy’, October 2014

    A story for the October 19-20 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    Think Inside The Box

    Solo enclosure in a dark tank of salty water isn’t everyone’s cup of calm, but converts to this niche form of stress management say there’s peace – and space for deep thought – to be found in the 60-year-old practice.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    I’m floating naked with my hands behind my back in a warm, shallow pool. Calming music plays quietly. My ears are plugged and submerged. It’s so dark that I can’t see my feet; the only light comes from a lamp outside, which filters through tiny slivers in the sliding door on the ceiling. I close my eyes, and from time to time, feel the currents of this private ocean causing my relaxed body to gently bump the sides. With the merest flex of a toe, elbow or finger, I push myself back toward the centre. Outside of my mother’s womb and my eventual coffin, I’m unlikely to encounter such a closed, sense-deprived environment – which, plainly, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

    After ten minutes, the music fades out, and I’m left alone with the sound of my breathing and my thoughts. I’m in a flotation tank: a vehicle for introspection slightly bigger than a dodgem car, containing 350kg of Epsom salts – hence the ability to float, as this water has the same density as the Dead Sea. It sits inside a storefront called Brisbane Float & Massage in the south-western suburb of Sherwood, yet for the duration of my disconnected hour inside, I could be anywhere in the world.

    I’m here because of Joe Rogan. Sometimes alternative therapies need celebrity advocates to shift public opinion from a fruity-sounding way to spend one’s time to an attractive prospect. For many float converts, Rogan – popular American stand-up comedian, podcast host and television presenter – has been the canary in this particular coal mine. “The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind – for thinking, for evolving,” he says in a YouTube clip that’s had more than 750,000 views. “Everybody should do the tank. You will learn more about yourself than any other way.”

    My first session reveals the truly abstract notion of time, as in the silence, I quickly lose all sense of the clock. For someone who has zero experience with meditation and a similarly low desire to spend time alone without some sort of stimulus – music, book, notepad, video game, smartphone – I wasn’t sure how I’d handle this dark, quiet vacation from reality. After I got comfortable in the water – whose warmth mimics my body temperature – time seemed to stand still.

    Before long, though, I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to hear the music return, signalling that five minutes remained in the hour. In the tank, a wide range of topics crossed my mind – partner, family, health, work, music, self – and I was able to carefully grasp each of these and examine it with newfound clarity.

    British-born John Battersby, 56, is the owner of Brisbane Float & Massage, one of only a handful of tank operators in Queensland. He shows me around his simple premises. “I built this myself,” he says, gesturing at the surrounding walls. “It’s not high-quality, but it’s functional.” A qualified sports therapist and local soccer coach, he leads me into one of his two float rooms, which both contain showers to be used before and after each session. Battersby explains that he found this therapy after a car accident in Sydney in 1989 left him with whiplash, a neck brace and limited mobility. He was sceptical of this alternative therapy at first: “A Pom, lying in a big bath of water?” he jokes with a smile. During his first 90 minute float, he experienced extraordinary pain relief. After that, he floated every day for six months.

    The sensory deprivation tank was first explored in 1954 by American physician John C. Lilly, who sought to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. Flotation therapy has since become a niche form of stress management. After its initial popularisation in the 1980s, public interest in floating dried up following health concerns about AIDS and the transfer of bodily fluids. “Now we know that’s not possible,” says Battersby, “as the water is so sterile that you can’t grow bacteria in it.”

    Battersby, who lives with his wife Kerry in the Lockyer Valley town of Laidley, 85km west of Brisbane, has used the tank at least once a week over the past 25 years. “It’s such a simple process that anyone can do it,” he says. Anyone, that is, except most children, whose short attention spans tend to limit the appeal of sliding the lid closed on a small space for an hour or more.

    When I mention Joe Rogan, Battersby describes him as “a breath of fresh air”. “I don’t believe in his use of drugs, though,” he clarifies. “We don’t allow people to use drugs here. But he’s an experienced floater, and he does good things. We need more of him.” For Battersby, the tank represents “one of the most creative spaces I’ve ever found. There are no distractions – only what’s going on between your ears.”

    For some, that same space between the ears can be the source of seemingly endless darkness and despair. Michael Harding knows a bit about this. A former army infantryman, Harding was medically discharged from service in 2011 after developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) born out of an intense, prolonged firefight in Afghanistan during which he witnessed a fellow soldier shot and killed. He developed full-body twitches, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and sent home early. The two years that followed were a mess of prescription medications and alcohol abuse. He’d drink a bottle of spirits every day, while his partner was at work, and his junk-food diet saw his weight top out at 110kg.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014. Michael Harding and Rebecca Houghton photographed by Russell ShakespeareHarding discovered floating in March and in his first week completed three sessions. “The changes I’ve seen in him after floating are incredible,” says his partner, Rebecca Houghton, who left her office job to care for Harding full-time. Having since lost dozens of kilos, Harding now wears his brown hair in thick, curly locks that belie his military history. He’s sitting in shorts, thongs and a black cap in an armchair outside the two float rooms in Sherwood, with Houghton at his side. The pair [pictured right] met at primary school in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s north-east, and reconnected just before Harding joined the army.

    As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not view flotation therapy as a valid form of rehabilitation for Harding’s PTSD, their visits to Battersby’s Sherwood premises were paid for out of their own pocket. Both 27, they live in Lawnton, on Brisbane’s northside, and found that the 100-minute round trip was adding to Harding’s stress, eroding some of the benefits gained by floating. The solution? Battersby recently installed a reconditioned tank in their home basement. “I was in the tank by 3.20am this morning, for a four-hour session,” Harding beams. “It’s been great for my positivity, and my motivation. It allows me to de-stress, and get out of my head. A lot of my mates prefer to drink, take meds and try to forget about it all.”

    It’s a little early in my own floating career to expect to see the remarkable improvement in mental health and clarity that Harding reports. “When you first start doing the isolation tank, it’s hard to completely let go who you are,” Joe Rogan cautions in that popular YouTube clip. “But as you get more and more comfortable with the experience, you get better at actually letting go.”

    Once the music stops in the tank, I slide back the door on its ceiling, stand up and allow the salty water to run off. I shower, dress, hand over my $50 and bid Battersby a fond, grateful farewell. I look forward to my next session, and the one after that, as I float in the quiet dark and allow my mind to venture deeper and deeper inward.