“...And that’s how I, an agender jackrabbit with ADHD, found myself floating down a river in a dinosaur-packed jungle with three apex predators who kept calling me a snack.”
This is a real sentence uttered by me after returning from an extended stay in my hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas. I went home, you see, to tend to my father and his wife. At the time, she was in the hospital and had been for a month with what turned out to be end-stage kidney failure. That is enough on its own, but she and my dad also both have advanced dementia, and he could hardly remember where she was or why. So I flew home. I am the only child now, and the things I always knew I would have to face but never really KNEW I’d have to face and handle were happening very suddenly.
Almost the first thing I did upon my arrival was hunt down the local nerd store and ask where I could find a regular D&D game to play while I was in town. There are several reasons for this. One, obviously, playing D&D can be spectacularly fun. Two, I would likely make a few new friends in a place I had left due to philosophical differences between myself and the general population. Three, it would keep me out of trouble (heh heh, but really). Most importantly, though, is four, it would allow me to keep my sanity in a time of extreme stress.
For the first two weeks of my stay, my stepmom was in the rehab center receiving life-saving dialysis and 24-hour care. The facility was an hour’s drive away and so every day involved long commutes. We would stay for about an hour, during which was guaranteed to be a long period of circular conversation between the two of them: her asking to go home, him saying well sure, why can’t we take you home, what are they even doing for you in here? And me reminding them the dialysis was keeping her alive.
If I took a break, went to the restroom or anything else at all, I would return to find him cornering some exasperated nurse, demanding to know why his wife couldn’t go home, when she could go home, what exactly they were doing for her in that place, and many other questions it was not those nurses’ jobs to know how to answer. Questions I personally had answered at least a half dozen times just that day.
Parent-wrangling is a very special, ironic kind of Being In Charge. Having to be the boss of people who remember changing my diapers but don’t remember the past ten minutes requires vast amounts of patience and compassion I did not know I possessed. Repeating conversations hourly without losing my composure, talking my dad down from driving to the city (he would have gotten lost anyway) to “break her out” every night about ten o’clock. Waiting outside my room because I knew he was about to come back for a replay of that talk-down.
It can’t be a mystery why I would find playing a character with zero responsibility and zero impulse control cathartic. As Dandelion the harengon I did ridiculous things like sign up to be a jockey in the dinosaur races, and bait a camp of ghouls into ambush by insulting their mamas. I caused a large, particularly rude stork to plummet from the sky and laugh himself to death. Putting myself in extremely dangerous (fantasy) situations and allowing myself to respond in whatever outlandish way I felt like responding, with the only stakes being whether or not I could make my teammates laugh, somehow made the very real drama of my daytime life easier to manage.
I’m not alone in this sentiment. I have spoken with many friends over the years and it is always the same: we get to play out our no-consequences wishes in an arena that celebrates fun and creativity, playing make-believe with others who want to go along on the journey. That’s not all: we learn to take risks and think on our feet. It improves our problem solving and teamwork skills. It literally teaches us how to be better at being human (or, you know, elf, or dwarf, or gnome or tabaxi, whatever your true form is).
The jackrabbit was not the only fantasy role I played while I was home. I also led a game (I was the DM, or Dungeon Master for the uninitiated) for the first time, with a group of friends online. The world we played in was light and whimsical, full of puzzles and gossip. As the DM I had to think fast and improvise in nearly every moment. It was something like a reversal of the other game: I set the boundaries and kept the players on track, but instead of herding people around trying to keep them safe like I did in my daytime life, I was encouraging them to be free and have fun. Once again stretching out of the stressful box I found myself in.
It is easy to chalk up the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons to simple escapism. In a way that’s exactly what it is, and not everyone necessarily uses it to cope. Coping isn’t always what I’m doing when I’m playing, either. Sometimes it’s just fun to be around friends and laugh a lot. But it has come through for me in heavy times. It would be irresponsible to suggest that gaming could take the place of therapy; it absolutely cannot. What it can do is provide an outlet for the creative play we forget how to access as adults. We all need to pretend, sometimes, to keep us human.
To the would-be players who haven’t tried D&D yet, I say go in with the intention to laugh and have a good time. It is a silly, silly game. But don’t forget to let yourself try things, take risks, stretch your imagination. You will find you are more than you knew. And to anyone in a stressful situation that makes you play the adult more than you want
to (everyday life?), try Dungeons and Dragons. My dad is still alive, and I am not a murderer; I have playtime to thank for it.