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FOR three days straight after Christmas, I did nothing but play Pokémon. Red Version on a Game Boy color that my girlfriend gave me. That, plus the bike, sweater and socks that my parents had wrapped up, made me feel like an ecstatic eight-year-old. Like I finally got that Christmas from the movies where the kid comes downstairs and sees the overly full, twelve-foot-tall tree that’s been decked out with half a ton of ornaments and tinsel with boxes and boxes shoved underneath. I was, more or less, happy.

I didn’t have to work afterwards. Not the next day, or the one after. The upside of being underemployed and surviving on instant rice, or being perpetually depressed, is having plenty of time for hobbies. Hell, I even had the next week off, so I was able to denote large swaths of my time to catching as many Pokémon as I could, logging them into the Pokédex and leveling them up. In three days, I managed to make three grow past level 30: a Gyrados named Dummy, a Charmeleon named Firecrotch, and a Mr. Mime named MARCEL—after the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (I didn’t pick the name.) I also have a Pikachu named Poop Stain and a Clefable named Butt (female). On Wednesday alone I spent twelve hours in my sweatpants getting the Cerulean Badge, the Thunder Badge and the Rainbow Badge. I am twenty-five-years-old and have a college degree.

• • •

The first time I ever felt depressed, like really depressed—not leaving bed and wanting to actually die depressed—was when I got home from a study abroad trip to China in high school. I had gone to learn about the evolving politics in the east, but the things that stuck out the most were the disfigured children begging for money outside of gilded office buildings and guards outside of the apartment I was staying at holding assault rifles to keep out the homeless from the burned out buildings next door. Pair that with finally understanding how very small and insignificant you are in the global community and watch as something gets triggered in your brain. I spent four days at home, refusing to leave my room. I fought with my friends and girlfriend constantly over the phone and online. I had nightmares during the times I could finally fall asleep. I had been sad before, but not like this. So I tried taking a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of whiskey I stole from my parents, only to puke, taking the few pills I managed to swallow with it, because of the taste. I didn’t really understand it. I was also a punk-ass seventeen year old, so I didn’t want to talk about it. So instead, I’d play video games. Lots of Final Fantasy, a little bit of football, and, after digging it out of the attic, Pokémon. Pretty soon, anytime I thought about dying, that’s what I would play.

• • •

The game—for those who didn’t spend their childhoods under blankets with a flashlight, straining their eyes at the tiny Game Boy screen and using words like “elixir” and “power points” and “rare candy”—is where you play a young boy who leaves his hometown to fill an electronic guide with information about the 151 monsters that roam around the country of Kanto. These monsters are bastardizations of regular animals—chameleons that are on fire, turtles with water cannons coming out of their shells, and mice with the ability to control electricity. Your goal is to catch them all, storing their bodies as data, filling your digital nature guide—your Pokédex—and to become the best wild elemental animal trainer in the land.

• • •

In the time between coming back from China and going off to college, I would deal with my depression in different ways. Sometimes I would drive to the state line, turning the music up until it made the windows shake. Other times I’d cross dress, wearing skirts or dresses or women’s jeans and tops, paired with sloppy makeup and nail polish, feeling better by being someone else. And when things got really bad, when my friends and I fought or my boss reprimanded me for being late, or the weather was cloudy or something, I would get tattoos. It gave me something to hold onto. It was something tangible I could remember for the next time. Afterwards, I’d feel great. Cured, or something. And then I would go and spend the rest of my paycheck on coke and weed and booze. I was invincible. And I’d have that feeling for a few days before leveling out. By this point, my Game Boy had broken. Eventually it just disappeared.

I survived college for only a semester. My roommate and I had put up a drug abuse pamphlet, one that listed off every major narcotic. We used it as a check list, trying to catch them all. I burned through all of my savings, lost the majority of my friends, failed all of my classes, got evicted from my dorm, and eventually—on the suggestion of a freshman psychology major—decided to “get help” before something “bad happened.”  In the doctor’s office, I filled out a worksheet and then watched the doctor look it over and sigh. “I think it’s bipolar disorder,” he said. “You should go to a psychiatrist.”

• • •

In the game, about half way through, there’s this weird place called Lavender Town. It’s a small village on a fishing coast, nestled in a valley where there are a few small houses and shops. And a giant mega-tower that acts as a Pokémon graveyard, where the dead are mourned with gravestones and everything. This in a game where, when you beat another character in combat, it simply “faints,” and can be revived with any number of items. Throughout the level, you fight women who have been possessed by ghosts (one who demands blood), ghosts themselves, and a mournful Cubone whose mother, Marowak, was slaughtered by Team Rocket and haunts the tower.

I used to fly to Lavender Town a lot when I was feeling depressed. Inside the tower, on the first floor before any of the possessed women or ghosts, there’s a man. If you talk to him, he starts to tell you about his Clefairy that died. But before he can tell you about it, he starts breaking up, crying too hard to tell you the story. There was always something sad but comforting about that man. How deeply he loved, and how deeply he hurt.  If I could do something to get him his Pokémon back, I would. But of course, like real life, there’s nothing you can do to bring back something lost.

In Lavender Town there’s this special music, like in every other level, only different. It’s not as iconic as the battle music or the five notes that let you know you’ve successfully captured a Pokémon, but once you hear it the first time, you never forget it. It’s sort of like the Final Jeopardy music, but in a minor key with awkward squawks and tones. These tones, allegedly, were so jarring that when the game was first released in Japan, hundreds of kids committed suicide soon after arriving at Lavender Town. Others had seizures, and still others developed mental illnesses that followed them the rest of their lives. The story of the Lavender Tone goes on to say that some of the games released in North America still had the tone. Anyone who would have listened to it in the ’90s, like I did, ran the possibility of having one of the potentially dangerous games.

• • •

This last Christmas was great—not just because of the gifts that I received, either. Sure, I got to reconnect with one of my favorite games, but I did a pretty good job giving gifts, too. A handmade clock for my dad, a custom dream journal for my mom, a hand printed t-shirt for my sister, and a baking set for my girlfriend. Yeah, I was left with $1.47 in my account, and sure, I might have cried when a sympathetic cashier gave me a discount, but by the end, I felt ok. I was happy to just be there, to be alive. Which, all things considered, is a huge success.

Christmas six years ago wasn’t so great. I moved back home with nothing but a drug habit, student debt, a failed attempt at joining a band a few states away, a car that didn’t start in the cold and an official bipolar disorder diagnosis. As I opened the presents my family gave me while knowing that I had nothing to give in return, something snapped in my brain. I had been on antidepressants for a week, and now I felt worse. I got mad, started crying, locked myself in my room and then crushed up and snorted the rest of my sleeping pill prescription. I hallucinated for a while before falling asleep, and woke up at three in the afternoon the next day, disappointed that I had woken up at all. I smoked some weed and went back to sleep.

When I woke up on the 27th, I figured the antidepressants weren’t working. A few days later, I was back at the psychiatrist’s office.

“I feel worse. They make me feel suicidal.” In the office, my psychiatrist had framed articles calling him The Number One Behavioral Psychiatrist in the Country.

“Have you tried hurting yourself?” He sat looking down at his pad. He rarely, if ever, made eye contact with me throughout our time together. He had a ’60s-style bowl cut/mullet that he pushed back over his ears and slacks that were too short, never meeting his white tennis shoes.

“No.” I lied. I had friends who were honest with their doctors and were rewarded with 72 hour holds in the hospital. I picked at the threadbare couch, fluffed the pillows in their faded clown cases, and tried to sound casual.

“Ok. Let’s try the seizure pills.” The cure for seizures, apparently, is to regulate some of the same chemicals in the brain that cause the manic-depressive mood swings.

A week later, after suffering a never-ending rash, I was back in the office, looking for a different option.

“Let’s see. Any other changes you’ve noticed?”

“I’m pretty sure there must be. I’ve noticed everyone is always looking at and talking to me wherever I go. Like, when I went to-”

“Let’s try the antipsychotics. We’ll try lithium out.”


• • •

The Lavender Tone is a bullshit rumor. But, like all rumors, it’s based on truth. The music in Lavender Town had binaural tones—two tones that when played simultaneously in stereo, while wearing headphones, combined to create an unsettling third tone that caused headaches in a lot of kids. Nintendo changed the music way before it was released in America. The idea that the music in Lavender Town was dangerous, that two high frequency 8-bit notes could crack the brains of so many kids, is ludicrous.

But maybe there is another bit of truth in there. Maybe, upon learning that Pokémon died, upon understanding what death meant and how it would destroy those around the one who died, something inside these kids was triggered? What if, with these kids learning the finality of life for the first time, there were some long lasting psychological effects?

Or maybe I’m reaching, trying to find some way for it all to make sense.

• • •

After a year of lithium, I decided to stop taking meds. Lithium balances your emotions, but so much so that you stop really feeling anything at all. I felt like I would rather deal with the ups and downs, rather learn how to do it on my own, than wander through life feeling neutral. This was much to the chagrin of my new psychiatrist, though she looked me in the eye and said that there were other options. She talked about doing art and talking to people and drinking tea. I eventually dove into work, and over the years learned how to manage my time so that I was never without something to put my energy towards, something to distract myself.

Pokémon teaches you that every problem has a unique solution. If you’re going up against a fire type Pokémon, you need to use a water type. I wish I could say that I learned this lesson from playing the game. I wish I could pretend that as I started building a life, living on my own, having healthy relationships and getting clean, that it was all because I understood the right way to address my problems.

But it was harder than that. After years of going back to school and learning how to avoid getting too lost and learning when to talk to people and do all of those other things that people who can call themselves “better” do, while fucking up, drinking too much, fighting with my friends sometimes and getting depressed sometimes and getting too excited sometimes, I am still playing Pokémon just for fun. Just like I did when I was eight, just like I did when I was seventeen. And sometimes I still fly to Lavender Town and walk into the Pokémon Tower just to talk to that man in the lobby with the dead Clefairy. And while that music plays in the background, those creepy notes that rumor says drove kids to kill themselves, I see how torn up this guy is over his pet and I think about what my family would do, how they would feel if I were to give up on getting “better.” So I walk away and play on. I walk away and play on.


Wyl Villacres is a human being from the Midwest. He is the senior editor for Chicago Literati, a mediocre cook, and a terrible video game player. His fiction has been featured in the Friend. Follow. Text. anthology, Whiskey Paper, One Throne and others. His non-fiction has appeared in Time Out Chicago, Good Men Project, Hypertext and others. His voice has been broadcast over microphones at 2nd Story, Reading Under the Influence, Write Club and others. His graffiti has been featured in bathroom stalls, elementary school desks, and the backs of trapper keepers. His blood has been spilled on three continents, and bones broken on two.

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BT #008 © 2014 Wyl Villacres. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, May 2014.


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by wyl villacres