How EarthBound Helped Me Battle Mental Illness

When I was a child, my imagination was constantly held hostage by the world of Nintendo. From the luscious fields of Hyrule, to the treacherous landscapes of the Mushroom Kingdom, to the whimsical region of Kanto — Nintendo was always on my mind in one way or another. However, it never occurred to me just how astronomical of a role the game company would play in my life, even into my adulthood.

I was born in 1994, which is coincidentally the same birth year as an influential Nintendo title called EarthBound. Due to the inconvenient time of my birth, I wasn’t able to enjoy this game when it released; that, coupled with EarthBound’s relatively lackluster sales in the U.S., meant it would escape me for years and years to come. When I finally hit an age where I had the motor skills and mental ability to play and enjoy video games, the Super Nintendo had run its course, and the Nintendo 64 reigned supreme.

Throughout the years, EarthBound was always the unreachable Nintendo title. I didn’t own a Super Nintendo system, therefore I had no way of playing the game for a very long time. My only real exposure to the title was through its main character, Ness, when he appeared in the Super Smash Bros. series. As a result, EarthBound remained a mystery to me for two decades, but when it finally made its way into my hands, it couldn’t have been at a more opportune and life-changing moment of my life.

During my first year of college I began experiencing a crippling mental illness. I was getting nailed with panic attacks left and right — to the point where I felt my sense of reality slipping away. I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to eat. I just wanted the pain and the fear of what I was experiencing on a daily basis to go away. I had to pull out of school. I saw a psychiatrist and was prescribed several different medications — none of them worked. I didn’t know where to turn. I couldn’t leave the house and I couldn’t see my friends. I couldn’t live. There were times when I thought if I just gave up and died that I’d be better off, because there was no way I could see myself going through this for the rest of my life.

Since I couldn’t go outside without experiencing an attack, I spent the next few months in my room playing video games to pass the time, as I was so used to doing. Around then, Nintendo released EarthBound on the Wii U Virtual Console service. I instantly picked it up. I was excited to finally play the game that had been out of my grasp for years, but I had no clue just how much of an impact it would have on me.

EarthBound starts off fairly similarly to a lot of JRPGs: you name your characters, explore your hometown, and events happen that lead you on an adventure that takes you all over the world where you defeat enemies and gain experience as you progress. Enemies appear early on and, if you’re not careful, they can really do some damage. This wasn’t much of an issue however, as I could just return to my house where mom would make my favorite home-cooked meal to fully heal me. I remember spending the first couple of days with the game simply drifting around my house, picking off enemies and going back inside to healing whenever I was hurt. It felt comfortable. So safe.

As I gained a little more experience, I ventured off into the next town, talking to locals and getting a feel for my surroundings. Unfortunately, there was a gang of ruffians sneaking about, and they saw me and immediately initiated a fight — a fight in which I got my butt absolutely handed to me. When I came to, I wasn’t at my mom’s house, but instead in a hotel room! A room that I had to pay for! This was a far cry from the meal I had grown so accustomed to mom making me. Suddenly, I identified with the character I was controlling. He was learning about the dangers and consequences of going out on one’s own.

As I pressed on through the game, I met new friends and companions that accompanied me on my turbulent adventure. I found new places and encountered dangers that increased in severity, with each location feeling less and less like home. I felt out of place. I felt overwhelmed. But in a strange way, I wasn’t alone. Although they just appeared as little lumps of pixels on my screen, my followers were my friends! They were extremely helpful, and they got me out of a ton of binds over the course of my adventure. And they all provided help in unique ways.

It didn’t take me long to realize that every emotion that this seemingly dinky little game was evoking in me was entirely intentional — I was supposed to feel nervous about leaving home, and I was supposed to feel like I was sticking out like a sore thumb, because we all feel like that at one point or another. EarthBound was slowly but surely helping me realize that I wasn’t alone in feeling alone, as it were.

After completing EarthBound, I took the lessons I learned from the experiences and applied them to my own life. I progressively started venturing out into my own world, eventually learning to love the little adventures I’d go on. I learned to confide in my friends because, although they weren’t mom and dad, they were all dealing with similar life changes and could help provide a fresh perspective on the problems that I was experiencing at the time.

Growing up is hard (and sometimes it really sucks), but there’s a lot of great things that come with it — independence, accomplishment, pride, and success. All of these things will follow if you swallow that knot in your throat and venture out into the crazy world surrounding you. I didn’t learn this from a book, or from a movie, or even a seminar. I learned this from a video game, a video game called EarthBound. And I’m proud to say that since completing it, I haven’t had a panic attack. Now, I’m not saying EarthBound cured me of mental illness (because that would be a little too good to be true), but I firmly believe the lessons I learned while playing EarthBound helped me develop good habits which, bundled with support from my friends and family and continuing to seek professional help, led to me conquering my mental obstacles. February 2016 was when i last had a panic attack, and I’ve never felt more alive.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental illness, get help. See a professional. Get to the root of your anxiety or depression. There is help all around you, and there is no shame in asking for it. And most importantly, never, ever feel like you’re alone.