“So What Do You Do For Fun?” – Magic: The Gathering, Mental Health – And Me, by Claire Stephenson

“So What Do You Do For Fun?” – Magic: The Gathering, Mental Health – And Me, by Claire Stephenson

“So What Do You Do For Fun?” – Magic: The Gathering, Mental Health – And Me

“What about hobbies, Claire?” my doctor asked me quite apathetically, a question he’d asked plenty of times before to no avail, “Have you taken up anything that helps keep your mind busy?” The usual answer to this question over many years had been video games and a half attempt to lie about some sort of exercise – only because that’s what he wanted to hear from me. Yes, I know that physical activity is good for keeping your mind healthy but when you are so far in the depths of despair that you struggle to even get out of bed everyday, a simple jog seems like an assault course. His despondent face told me that he was expecting the same pitiful response I always gave him.

“Well, I’ve taken up a game called Magic: the Gathering…” I told him quite sheepishly, “It’s a card game that makes you think about strategies in order to win.” His eyes widened.

“Is that like… poker?”

“No, it’s more like Pokemon if I had to compare it to something.”

“And has that been helping you since your mother passed?” he scribbled something down on a piece of paper before printing out a prescription for my usual antidepressants. I nodded.

“That’s wonderful, it’s very good for your mind to have a hobby like this… Magic… the something…”

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the tender age of 13, after a period of self-harm which was picked up at school. Until a mental breakdown in 2012 when I was 22 I spent those years in denial about my poor mental health, despite further times where I would hurt myself and attempt to end my life. I’d been on and off medication since I was 18, as I tried to fool myself that it would always pass and I would be rid of the misery one day if I just pushed on. Even losing my dad at 15 wasn’t enough for me to lose the public mask I’d worked so hard to keep up. I didn’t want to be depressed, I just wanted to be a normal functioning human being. But after ending up in hospital after four months off work and taking an overdose, I realised there was no way I could keep lying to myself and the world. I started on medication full-time and began to re-assess what I was doing with my life.

After the breakdown and the end of a significant long-term relationship, I dipped my toes into Magic: the Gathering via the PC game Duels of the Planeswalkers. A long distance friend of mine had played Magic for a number of years and I wanted to join him in it as it looked cool. A few months of playing DotP (and a brief fling that ended badly – cue lots of alcohol and sadness) I decided to take the plunge into Real Life Magic by attending a local FNM. I’d got hold of a deck builder’s toolkit and threw together a pitiful 80-something R/B deck – the two colours I enjoyed playing on DotP. With my unsleeved silly deck I rocked up to Globalgaming Netadventure in Birmingham to play in my first Friday Night Magic.

As soon as I walked in, I wanted to run right back out of the building.

After registering my DCI number and getting my first booster pack, I sat in the corner of the room and hid my face desperately. Soon enough though, one of the patrons came over to talk to me and ease my anxiety before I started playing. (That same patron is now my husband – that’s a story for another day!) My first game went pitifully as I expected but my opponent was more than helpful in showing me how my cards worked as well as the physical triggers and what I could do with the ‘deck’ I was trying to pilot. I felt positive about the whole evening and went home to look up cards, decks, sleeves and an actual spindown counter as opposed to the random D20 I brought along with me. It was exciting and fun, and it took my mind off drama in my life.

Until six weeks later when my mom was diagnosed with cancer very suddenly and taken into hospital. It was hard to hide my fear from my fellow Magic players but they were very kind and supportive as I stocked up on fat packs and boosters just to ease the more negative feelings. Only a week after she was taken into hospital, I was told the cancer was terminal and there was nothing they could do. On the same day I was given that devastating news, she died five hours later.

That is a Holiday Box sleeve on my head…

The world fell away around me. At age 23 I had lost both my parents and I didn’t know what to do. Still, I played Magic. In the immediate weeks after my mom’s death it wasn’t uncommon to see me either manically joyous or in tears at random bursts. The friends there along with my boyfriend kept supporting me, even if that was just by playing games with me or helping me build (frankly, quite terrible) decks. It was a wonderful distraction from the sheer sadness I felt whenever I thought about my life. I enjoyed the Theros prerelease that September as one of my friends dressed in a toga and I pulled a Xenagos, the Reveler from my prize pack too! It was around this time too that I discovered Commander (EDH) and built my first deck around the only Legendary Creature I owned; Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts.

I’d had fun with Standard and Sealed formats, but EDH is where I thrived. Other players had poked fun at my expensive CMC commander – that was until I wiped the floor with the three of them in one swipe thanks to Debt to The Deathless and their inability to attack Teysa during the game. She started my love for the format and the constant hunt for new EDH deck ideas during the nights where I couldn’t sleep for fear of the nightmares and crying out for my mom. Despite the problems I faced with family, housing, work (I left my job at Blockbuster when they were closing down for a job where the manager sexually harassed me until I walked out) I always had Magic: the Gathering. I played and played, usually worn out after a few games due to the amount of mental energy it took to focus so hard.

Our wedding cake toppers – they are not Standard legal, sadly

However, my mental health deteriorated. Over 2014 I went through times of severe self-harm, suicidal thoughts and fall-outs with friends. Not only did I stop playing Magic, I stopped writing, reading, drawing, gaming – all I did was sleep, eat and cry. I was just a shell of a human being, existing each day just to make it to bedtime. My boyfriend continued to play Magic and I wished I could play with him, but despite tagging along with him to a GPT in Manchester that year I just stopped caring. It was one of the biggest signs that a storm was coming as far as my mental health was concerned. After months of very erratic, self-destructive behaviour, I was finally referred to a psychiatrist where I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. At long last I had an answer to the emotional instability, mood swings and tendency to harm myself when I felt low enough to do so. This diagnosis allowed me to finally begin to learn how to deal with myself all over again.

It’s been nearly two years since then. Over the past six months I’ve finally been able to pick up Magic again, starting with my love for EDH but I’m now also dipping my toe into Modern and even Legacy! My boyfriend is now my husband, and he’s built a Cube for drafting that I play each week with our friends. We went to GP Manchester last month and had a blast as I traded and chatted with other players, and reminded myself of why I fell in love with this game in the first place. It allowed me to escape my mind. Now? It’s how I have fun, plain and simple.

“So what do you do for fun?” I get asked that question whenever I meet new people in my freelance line of work.

“I play a game called Magic: the Gathering,” I reply, before hastily adding, “Please don’t ask me to explain it, just know that it’s fun and it keeps me sane.”

Claire Stephenson

“So What Do You Do For Fun?” - Magic: The Gathering, Mental Health - And Me, by Claire Stephenson
Writer and MtG fan Claire Stephenson talks about how Magic has been involved in her mental health in recent years.

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