It was college, and my addiction had resurged.
Actually, a video game.
I had chosen to get back into this addiction because I was quitting pot, and it seemed like a “healthier” option.
Back before World of Warcraft, for decades, I think, there were games called “MUDs”. They were like text-based versions of WoW. You’d be a knight (“paladin” in my game) or warrior or magician or some other class. You’d be a race, from elf to dwarf to orc (or a human if you wish, weirdo).
I guess they were kind of the historical intermediary between Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft.
I loved my game best of all the one I had been addicted to on and off, like a bad lover, since early in high school.
I loved it because it forced you to actually “roleplay”. Not just to be some dude who looks like a dwarf but to be a dwarf. And if you didn’t live out this life, if you didn’t try to take it on fully whenever you logged in as Elgor or Parrpl (you couldn’t use real-life names), your character would be deleted and you’d be kicked out of the game. So every single person on the site was fully involved in being who they were.
I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a seed of this addiction that revealed a side of me that was waiting to come out: the writer. There was something so beautiful to me about truly living another life (or so it felt), about inhabiting the skin of another being, about interacting in an open world full of others who were just as devoted to their fake/real life as I was. It was the closest I had ever come to living another life, even moreso than novels, which had always transported me somewhere, but never let me truly live within them.
There was that positive element, that element of imagination and creation. But there was also a subconscious reason I played my MUD.
It was the same reason I had been addicted to pot: Life wasn’t so great for me, and so having another life that I could escape into was an incredible way to run from a world in which I had little control.
Unlike real life, video games, even ones as open as the one I played, have a structure to them, rules and boundaries, fairness and simplicity. They are designed by people, and so it’s impossible for them not to have an inherent structure, something I have always needed and craved desperately.
But unfortunately, when combined, these two things living inside of me (one good, one hidden and craven) would inevitably turn into a deadly mixture. The more I committed to this alternative life, this alternative character whose skin I inhabited, this alternative world in which life was beautiful and made sense and had steps and logic… the more I committed to all that, the more that my real life became a mess. Which made me want to leave real life even more. Which made me play my MUD more. Which made my real life even worse. Which made me play…
Anyway. It was a deadly combination. Sleep was lost, grades slipped, friendships dissolved, relationships never matured.
It was like high school, except now I had more time on my hands, less oversight, and practically no structure.
I knew, though, that this was happening. I wasn’t unaware of it. Instead, like a junkie, I would wonder for a moment whether I should get my fix before I jumped in, but I never stopped. And when I finished, I would look around, realize that there was this thing called real life, and it was worse than ever, and it was because of this addiction.
It was around the time it got really bad that I met Elliott Smith.
In case you don’t know, Elliott Smith was a singer/songwriter whose haunting, depressing, absolutely gorgeous melodies are known to a whole generation of people who grew up depressed or feeling misunderstood. His music are anthems to loneliness and pain, and yet they have this incredible ability to heal.
I met Elliott Smith through my MUD. This was long after he had committed suicide, and I had no idea who he was at the time.
Like any junkie, or any obsessive, really, I started to spend my off time from my addiction learning about my addiction, spending time researching it and getting to know it in all ways. Sometimes that took the form of joining forums online devoted to the game, or reading tips about how to become an even better MUDder.
This day, though, I was feeling particularly depressed, particularly alone. I was reaching some sort of breaking point, I knew it. My lack of sleep was killing me, my grades had slipped to a point of causing a total panic, and I felt more alone and depressed than ever.
For some reason I’ll never understand, I decided I would read reviews for the game. Why did I care about reviews? I’m not really sure. I loved the game, who cared what others thought? Junkie life, I suppose.
I went through one here and there. This game’s great, this game’s not great, there’s this game which is better, blah blah.
Then I clicked on one, and I could immediately see it was different. For one thing, it was much longer than any review. Rather than a couple sentences, it was a full-on essay. It was written without any typos or bad grammar. Curious, I delved in.
What flowed afterwards was pure poetry:
Do you want to know why I stabbed myself in the heart the first time?
Because the fair maiden would not take my hand nor handkerchief.
And do you want to know why I stabbed myself in the heart the second time?
Because the game was a dream in which I died. A lance straight through my heart had me gasping for air with my one good lung and smearing the pooling blood into “CARRIONFIELDS.COM:9999” on my cheap linoleum.
I was introduced to Carrionfields on April 19th, 2000, the day after the release of my Figure 8 album. I didn’t want to see the reviews. I didn’t want to watch the news. I had a stack of boring indie music magazines sitting on my coffee table unread. I was using them as an ashtray along with the rest of my livingroom. I slumped into my couch and was tying off my arm when I heard a knock. Turns out it was somebody I used to know decided I needed some help. Intervention or whatever, so they came with their particular brand.
They gave me a little room and one of those boxed up computers with a monitor behind some strong glass. Like the ones you can make photos on at the grocery store, or pretend to anyway. There wasn’t anything else in there. And the screen just blinked with this green text on a black background. A skull asked me by what name I wished to be mourned. Mourned? I needed a hit but they were doing my stash already. I heard them trashing the place trying to find it and then the eery calm of junkies on the tit.
I got bad in a day. Quicker really. The screen just sat there, even as I tried to kick it through. I wasn’t going to die like that, to the prompt of another machine. But it stayed. My body was on the rack and my brain was the full rage. The complete anger of almost-satiation interrupted at the very last moment was on me continuously along with flu pains and an inability to eat.
I gave in and pecked out my name. It was day two and I knew I was dying. I gave the deathscreen my details. E-L-L-I-O-T. I found the keys slowly, deliberately. I communicated with the reaper through a locked up computer in an empty room — this modern life. My first suicide was with a keyboard.
Now I never believed in any of that energy to energy crap, or any Christian good old boy trash either, but there I fell. Reincarnated as some kind of promising youth in a land of dragons and magic and real gods with lightning and fire hail. I couldn’t believe. I got the dream I’d always dreamt and I lived in it for years and years. I believed in myself. I was happy. I married. I found treasures and made fortunes.
And then it came. It had to come. It opened the door and turned on the light. It stood up straight but addressed me crooked and uncertain, ‘Elliot?’
My world crashed down. I was back in my cell, and the youth was just text on a scroll being spun round on a spool behind the glass. I saw a stack of bowls and spoons in one corner and in the other a hole. I wasn’t anything but me, and I was still dead. I wanted to go back. I wanted to be that hero, and I took the knife from the cake in its hand (the cake said, “clean, 365 days”) and stabbed myself. Twice. In the heart.
the slow motion moves me
the monologue means nothing to me
bored in the role, but he can’t stop
standing up to sit back down
or lose the one thing found
spinning the world like a toy top
til there’s a ghost in every town
I was stunned by this piece of writing. Except for the stabbing, it perfectly described what I was going through as a MUD addict. The end especially. That crash from a world of fantasy where we get to be the hero, the person we always wanted to be, a world of order and beauty that makes sense, back into the world of being just me.
I was amazed by this piece of writing. It was so beautiful, so heartfelt, and so incredibly descriptive of the pain one goes through when they realize that they’re no more than a junkie, even if it’s only in the world of video games.
This person, I had no idea who he was, understood me. The first time anyone ever did when it came to this sort of thing. He understood me more than I did, because it took his words to really help me understand what was going on inside of me.
His words shook me so hard that I Googled his name: “Elliot Smith”, as the post had spelled it.
It turns out that the person who wrote this was actually Elliott Smith (two Ts), and he was a famous musician. He also probably didn’t actually write it since it was posted in 2005 and he had died in 2003. From suicide. From stabbing himself in the chest. Twice.
Elliott Smith was also an addict, but he had been addicted to much more than I was at the time. Many of his songs are about his struggle with addiction, including the song the writer quotes at the end of the “review”.
Like me Elliott had struggled with depression his whole life, had fought demons and tried to ward them off by living in fantasy lands, whether they were in his music or his drugs.
And since those were the heady days of Napster and easy access to any song on earth for free, I went off and grabbed a bunch of his music to listen to.
And wow. The heart. The words. The voice.
It was like getting access to my own soul, like he reached into me and knew exactly how much pain I was going through.
But somehow, even though he shared my pain, he also soothed it. His music seemed to have that power, this ability to talk about addiction or suicide or depression or breakups, and somehow also be healing, be this sort of “tikkun” as us Jews like to put it, a way of fixing past pains and turning them into something holier than the present could have been without them.
For days, for weeks, for months, I listened to his music as if he was the person who had actually written that review (it was so hard to imagine that he hadn’t, even though it made absolutely no sense that he could have).
I listened to “Between the Bars” and felt him reassuring me that he’d keep the “people inside” me that I didn’t “want around anymore” under control, even though I knew he was probably speaking to some lover of his that was in as much pain as me. What mattered is that he felt so deeply how someone could feel like they were a prisoner of themselves, a person whose multiple identities had trapped him or her. Maybe he was speaking to himself too.
As those weeks and months passed I realized something (and I had probably made a conscious choice at some point, but it had alluded my memory): I wasn’t playing video games. Definitely not that MUD.
How could I? How could I possibly? When listening to someone tell me exactly why I was doing it? That it was because I was escaping life, running away?
He understood addiction, this Elliott Smith, he understood it no matter what form it took.
It was around the time I had finally let go of this MUD, finally had learned to stay away from it, understanding it was just as bad as the pot I had been addicted to, that I started to explore my life more. Started to research spirituality and Judaism more, eventually ending my last year in Arizona after graduating going to my local Chabad house, where I eventually started the road towards religion. That road fascinated me, because it was world I could go into that wasn’t an escape, but one that forced me to look at life and give it structure. That empowered me to look at life like a video game, in a way. To see purpose in everything, and to try and use every moment as a chance to build myself, just like a character in a game.
When it came to the writer who had started all of this, who had taken me on this journey, for some reason I think some part of me really wanted to believe that Elliott Smith had written the post. But of course, he hadn’t. It was written 2 years after he died, his name was misspelled, and it was written with the knowledge that he had stabbed himself twice in the heart before dying.
So he didn’t write it. But then, who did? And why would they write it in such a way? How on earth could they inhabit a person’s identity so well? How could they understand the nature of addiction so well? How could they write in such a poetic way, even though they weren’t who they claimed to be?
It was only quite recently, when doing research for this piece that I reread this article about his (according to the article, mysterious) death that I suddenly felt I understood what had happened.
Tucked at the bottom of the article was this quote:
“Over on Sweet Adeline, the Elliott Smith messageboard where the “sad kids” Mary Lou Lord described congregate, stories continue to circulate. More than one correspondent is convinced they know the truth about the death, because Smith has appeared to them in a dream and revealed all. Another suggests that diehard fans should hire US television medium John Edward in an attempt to contact Smith beyond the grave.
In a way, you cannot really blame them for believing that Smith is trying to reach them in death: intimate, wracked with sorrow and personal details, his music certainly tried to reach people when he was alive. The website’s news pages report that Smith’s family will release his final album later this year. One of its tracks is called See You In Heaven.”
Here was another person who, whether he/she believed it or not, tried to commune with Smith in death. Someone else, like me, who found his words so beautifully poetic, so true to their own experience, that they felt that they had no choice but to express their pain in “his” words. In his experience, in the way he lived, and the life he experienced, not just his music.
This was more than fan fiction. It was more like fan fantasy. Or maybe fan spirituality.
And the irony of it was that this person had so completely inhabited the world of Elliott Smith, and so perfectly expressed the pain I was experiencing as an addict of a video game (something it felt like no one on earth could truly understand), that I was moved beyond words. That I then transitioned into listening to his music and didn’t even question whether he had written the review because it didn’t matter: all of us shared the same struggle, and thus the same soul (or at least, that part of the soul).
All of this is to give to you what I think is the final message of this piece: the power and necessity of art. The life-saving quality it exhibits.
This experience I went through, one in which an artist pretending to be another artist had inspired me to live a better life because of our shared struggles, was the most pure exemplification of the way Tolstoy defined art.
Tolstoy didn’t see art as anything more or less than an “infection” the removes all separation between its creator and its receiver.
As he says in his “What Is Art?”:
“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”
Elliott Smith may have saved my life. He certainly “progressed” my “well-being” and thus enabled me to do the same for others (hopefully) in my own art.
And so did his “imitator”, who did nothing more than pass on Elliott’s message but through the medium of an online game review board. No doubt this writer felt the pain I felt, and he felt a need to share it with the world in the way Elliott would have because he knew of no other way.
I can’t imagine anything more beautiful, anything more true to art’s purpose.
And now… now it’s my turn. To pass on my heart to others, the kind of heart that comforts them and brings them up, that shares in their struggles and lets them know they’re not alone, the heart that says, “You are not alone, you are not alone, let’s get through this together.”
And if you read this far, it’s probably your turn too.