Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
As I reach its conclusion, RiME, a puzzle game that began in a quiet, otherworldly beauty way, turns into an allegory about grief. An exploration of a gorgeous, sunlit island darkens as the red-cloaked boy I control wanders belowground, discovering crumbling towers and a world filled with thunderclouds. In RiME, shadowy, faceless figures whisper unintelligibly as I pass by, and every now and then I snatch visions of a memory—the boy and his father on a boat during a storm, one of them falling into the roaring ocean, never to return. The only constant comfort is an adorable fox that guides my way when I’m unsure where to go next.
It’s later that I realize each of the game’s five phases model one of the stages of grief as popularized by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Ironically, I don’t notice the parallels to my own experience until almost the very end because I’m too distracted by anxiety.I find the entirety of RiME, even the darkest parts, a cathartic experience.
I started playing the game when my body was in a state of panic—chest tightening like a giant fist squeezing my lungs and making every breath an effort to suck in. People who suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and depression will understand the feeling of being illogically overwhelmed and unable to reason your way out of it. That’s what anxiety does: it’s not just mental but takes its toll physically as well, and the only thing I can do when it strikes is distract myself (often with video games) and try to stay calm.
I find the entirety of RiME, even the darkest parts, a cathartic experience. It portrays true beauty as light that comes after darkness. The tropical landscape and sound of the ocean waves is more breathtaking than I probably would have noticed in a calmer state of mind. I’m desperately looking anywhere I can for joy and, lo and behold, I find a piece of it in front of me on my screen.
There’s no dialogue, which is fine with me because I’d rather get lost in silence than have another person’s voice in my ear, even my own (it’s an anxiety thing). I’m tired of talking; I’m tired of seeing the looks of pity on people’s faces when I tell them I’m feeling anxious, or worse—confusion and misunderstanding. I’m tired of asking God questions and not hearing any responses back. I just want to rest in His presence for a while. I just want some peace.
The main character does hum, sing, and shout life into inanimate objects. I enjoy yelling at statues and seeing their glowing essence fly away to unlock a door or activate a platform. Though I feel like I have no life to offer others right now, the boy I control does—or so it seems.
As my surroundings take on a darker tone, I’m no longer serenely meandering through an ocean paradise but running from a giant, feathered monster and releasing black clouds of energy into the sky—initiating an impenetrable veil that covers the sun and invites shadow people to roam the earth. The world is now covered in darkness, and I’m not sure why. That’s the weird thing about anxiety. Er, I mean, about this game.
The stages of emotions people go through in the grieving process aren’t actually a formulaic pattern like RiME may indicate, however. “We may find that we fit the stages precisely as Kubler-Ross outlined, or we may skip all but one,” writes David B. Feldman PhD in Psychology Today. “We may race through them or drag our feet all the way to acceptance. We may even repeat or add stages that Kubler-Ross never dreamed of. In fact, the actual grief process looks a lot less like a neat set of stages and a lot more like a roller coaster of emotions.”
Everyone’s experience of anxiety is different, but for me, a blackened sky is an apt metaphor. I’m afraid it’s going to shadow my steps forever, much like the sailor feels in the poem RiME is named after; in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner feels he will be haunted by the dead, and his grief, forever. His guilt is only removed after prayer, though he still ends up stuck in a cycle of needing to tell his story over and over again when agony strikes.
Anxiety feels cyclical like this. Even when I pray, it keeps coming back. And it’s easy to feel guilty about it, like I’m not trusting God enough and if I just refuse “to be anxious about my life” I’ll be better (Matthew 6:25). But that verse refers to worry, not to clinical anxiety. Worry is usually rational and can be solved with problem solving. Anxiety is irrational, and there’s often no rhyme or reason (pun intended).
The later stages of RiME are confusing, gloomy, and chilling, but I can’t stop playing; it’s like they’re reflecting my state of mind back at me. Maybe anxiety and grief aren’t so different. Or maybe I’m grieving because I feel like I’m losing myself to a mental issue I have no control over.
I want to let the emotions go. And at the same time, I don’t, because they’re familiar and I’ve become used to them. Grief can be the same because we’re afraid if we let it go, we’ll lose our last attachment to the object of our emotions. And that’s why working through it can be a process.
At the end of the game, the boy loses the one constant in his adventure—his orange-furred, pointy-eared companion. He cries out in despair as the fox dies in his arms. Then he turns into a being of darkness himself before a final puzzle where he makes his way back to the light. We are greeted with cutscenes that reveal the entire game hasn’t been about the boy—it’s been about the father, overcome by grief that his child died on the boat. The boy’s adventure was a metaphor for the father working his way through difficult emotions to acceptance.
The good news is that if Christ is my constant, I will never lose him. Even if He doesn’t respond to my anger and frustration, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). He sees our grief and suffers with us. Sometimes I just have to let myself experience the darkness, the chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and thoughts running a mile a minute, and continue to make my way toward the light—just like the boy’s father does—even if I get lost and frustrated along the way. No matter how many playthroughs it takes.
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