“Just breathe.” White snow blows across my computer screen as these words appear: “Why are you so nervous?” A soft piano tune opens a pixelated scene of dirt platforms, some covered in snow, and white flakes continue to fall against a background of trees under a dark, cloudy sky. Madeline—my little digital character with orange hair—stands at the bottom-left corner, ready to begin her journey up Celeste Mountain. As I tilt the PlayStation 4 controller’s analog stick and press buttons, Madeline jumps and climbs her way forward as lamp posts guide her path.
Soon, she comes across a cabin with an old lady, who tells her the mountain might be too much for her. “You might see things. Things you ain’t ready to see,” says the old lady, laughing. Her laugh follows me as I leave on a path of grey stones that collapse underneath me as I run along. The music intensifies, almost swallowing me, until I unlock a dash move for the first time, allowing me to make it to the safety of a dirt platform where a blue bird waits. The scene calms and pans up to a snow-filled sky with one last reassurance: “You can do this.”
Celeste is a pixel platformer game created in 2018, but I only bought it at the beginning of 2021—our one-year anniversary of surviving isolation. I tried the first few levels and decided to buy the game, which was a steal at the time for $5.49. But it’s funny how a mere five dollars can give you so much. Like most platformers, I had to get Madeline through various maps and puzzles so that she could reach her destination. But it’s difficult. So difficult that you’re constantly dying. The game even gives you a death counter to let you know how many times you’ve fallen to an enemy or to the ground. It’s the type of game where your mind borders insanity, and each death tempts you to fling your controller out the window. And would I play it again? Absolutely. I would play it for the first time all over again if I could.
While the character’s base name is Madeline, the game gives you—the player—the option to input your own name instead, establishing Madeline as your pixelated persona.
Near the start of your journey, you come across, well, you. It’s a doppelganger of your character, but with purple hair and red eyes, who crashes through a mirror and identifies itself as a part of you. This “other” self discourages you from climbing the mountain. “You can’t handle this,” the Other says and chases you, playing the antagonist. As you progress, the game introduces new characters, who help reveal more about your own character and your desperate need to climb the mountain. You begin to recognize anxiety not only personified in the Other, but also manifested through the darkening of the scene, dialogue, and music. The more you play, the more you see that the Other is also doubt. And fear. Stress and depression. The Other is every struggle your character carries, and eventually, you see it as a monster.
I turn off the game and close my eyes for the night. Nothing exists, except for me. There’s a voice in my head that I recognize as my own, and though it is more outspoken and spiteful than I am, it is still me. It is my Other.
My Other doesn’t have purple hair or red eyes. It doesn’t even need to reveal itself. Its voice is enough to haunt me, especially when I try to sleep. My Other is loud. Too loud. Sometimes, it even mimics other people—family, friends, or strangers—to remind me of my worries, just in case I don’t believe myself. I know, deep down, it’s my voice, but what if the people in my life really do think I’m not good enough? What if they don’t need me? Over and over, I hear my Other, long enough that these illusions become truths I believe.
I can’t remember when it became so hard to sleep. The night numbs my mind as I fixate on the need for rest. While falling asleep has never come easy to me, this problem worsened when, four years ago, the hospital became “home” for a month.
I was admitted into Trillium Health Partners’ Mississauga Hospital, where I spent half my time wheeled around from one exhausting test to the other, just so that they could tell me it would never end. I was diagnosed with lupus. The news of an auto-immune disease only fed my Other. One month may not seem like a long time, even when I think back on it, but when you’re living in those moments, the stretch of each second is a cruel joke. Fatigue, loneliness, needles, medication, and physiotherapy were only some of the obstacles I had to face on my way to recovery.
Still, if there is any good that arises from struggle, it is the stronger person that comes out at the other end. Sometimes, I can’t believe I made it out of that hospital room. All the unknowns at the time muddled my mind. I couldn’t process my mess of emotions. But I do remember one instinctual feeling—isolation.
I was never alone in the hospital. I was treated by doctors and nurses, spoke with staff, had family visits, and most importantly, my mom never left my side. So, why? Why was I overwhelmed with loneliness? How was it possible to feel so alone when surrounded by so many people? It was a feeling I wasn’t aware of until friends started to visit me, which left me with two realizations.
One—it helps to know people are there for you. Their presence can take your mind away from yourself and gives the Other fewer chances to talk. In a hospital, where so much is often undetermined and terrifying, seeing someone or something familiar provides comfort. I had no idea what was wrong with me when I was brought in by an ambulance. I didn’t even have time to think of the worst-case scenario because my body felt like it was already going through it. Though the ambulance’s siren was louder than the Other in my head, it made me anxious all the same.
For the last two months prior to my stay at Mississauga Hospital, I was bedridden at home because of fatigue and joint pain. Clinics told me I had mononucleosis and that it would go away. So, my stubbornness made me ignore the severity of the state I’d been in until I was struggling with my speech and dragged onto a stretcher with a burning fever. Whenever I would see or hear an ambulance pass by, I would wish the person inside well. I never thought about being the one inside. From glimpses of scattered medical equipment to the paramedics’ voices, to my mom’s face, and to the feeling of my own tears running down my cheeks, my mind took in everything until it took in nothing at all. And when I woke up in the hospital, my Other was there to greet me.
I never knew the difference a visit could make until I felt my sanity slipping within the four dull, beige corners of my room. At the right times, other people can offer reassurance and distraction, and I had that support whenever my family or relatives were there. But I noticed that when friends started to visit, I felt some sort of twisted validation. I saw these visits as evidence against my Other that kept telling me I’m invisible, I don’t belong, I’m unimportant. It was as if my mind couldn’t believe that people cared enough to go out of their way to come see how I was doing.
I’m lucky to have a family that I know will always be there for me, but for everyone other than my family, there were no expectations or obligations for them to visit me. I could only hope.
Two—I dreaded that lupus made me different among the people in my life. Now, I come with a risk warning. Want to go on a hike together? I might have to stop every few minutes from fatigue. Planning a trip? Let’s look for the nearest hospital in case my lupus flares up.
The limitations made me feel like a burden to others because I was a burden to myself. To see what others could do and to remember life before lupus, especially at a point when I couldn’t even walk, was frustrating.
Self-reflection can be rewarding, but it often aggravates your Other first. For me, these two realizations made me feel worse before I felt better. Like dominos, memories came crashing down one after the other as I recalled all the times I felt alone and questioned my self-worth. I fell into a jumbled mess and wondered if it was any use picking up each piece to start over.
In these moments, I saw my Other convince me that if I wasn’t useful to other people or didn’t measure up to them, I would be isolated. My diagnosis rattled this fear, but the Other had planted this idea long before through various aspects of my life.
When it came to academics, whether it was in elementary school, high school, or university, I always seemed to be surrounded by people who knew what they were doing. My grades were average, but they fell below, especially when it came to math or science, where stereotypes only lowered my self-esteem. Again, I was out of place. I viewed other people as if they were on pedestals that I couldn’t reach. And as I grew, so did those pedestals; they were the platforms I needed to climb.
My fear was also born from the somewhat sheltered way I grew up. I recognize that I’m afraid to do most things on my own because I grew up heavily dependent on others. Something as simple as making a phone call to the bank or asking questions to a professor knots my stomach. If I need to go somewhere, someone needs to drive me, as I’ve never been behind the wheel. The thought of driving makes me anxious. And so does taking public transit. And so does walking alone. I was warned so often about all the things that could go wrong—accidents and crimes committed by human hands—that I eventually convinced myself something will go wrong. If I drive, I’ll probably crash. If I walk to the grocery store alone, maybe I’ll get mugged. The fear of everything that hasn’t happened holds me back. You can’t do it, my Other tells me. Don’t climb that mountain. I look around and all my friends have quickly grown up. And here I am, barely hanging onto each platform as they keep getting higher.
You find yourself back in Celeste, sitting around a campfire under the digital, twinkling sky with Theo—another mountain-climber you befriend on the journey. “This Part of You that’s haunting you, maybe [it] comes with the territory,” Theo says. And after talking through it, you decide, “I’m ready to put this all behind me.” And so, you confront your Other. You try to leave it behind–the same way you’re afraid to be left behind. You think abandoning all those parts of yourself that you hate is the best thing for both of you. But this only angers it more as it drags you back down to the bottom of the mountain. You fall, and you think about giving up, but you come across the same old lady from the start of your journey. She suggests something you never thought about; she suggests that your Other is scared. After your talk, you find your Other to apologize for leaving because you realize the old lady is right—your Other is just the part of you that doesn’t want to get hurt.
Look, we’re at rock bottom. There’s no point in fighting.
I can keep digging. I could pull us down to the center of the earth.
What would be the point? Let’s climb out of here together.
Except your Other doesn’t trust you. How could it? It pushes you away, leading to a final, intense platforming level where you are the one running toward the monstrous Other, not away from it, as you face everything it has to throw at you.
“Fine. You Win. I guess you don’t need me after all. If you want me to go away, I’ll try,” the Other says, as pain replaces the malice in its eyes.
But now you understand this part of yourself. You’ve explored your feelings and where they come from. You want to work together—a balance within yourself—because after all, in the end, it is you. At last, you reach the mountain’s summit together.
It still takes me a while to rationalize my fears—to remember that it’s okay to be scared and that it’s okay to fail. Trying to distance myself from negative feelings made them impossible to process, and like strangers, they terrified me. They still do sometimes, but I’m starting to get to know them. In this balance with my Other, my fears can fuel my motivation. Other people become an inspiration. Though I still haven’t driven, I took the first step in getting my driver’s license and passed the written test. I’ve become more comfortable talking to people over the phone and asking questions when I need to.
There’s no doubt these emotions are common for many people, but maybe they feel so lonely because expressing our anxiety, depression, stress, and fear is difficult to do and not often done. Maybe this is why I’m sharing parts of myself that I hate, some of which I’ve recently discovered. It’s because I don’t want to hate them; I want to learn from them. And it’s something I can only do with the help of myself because I am my own antagonist. Other is me. I am Other.
When I close my eyes, nothing exists, except for me. And that’s okay. That voice, which may be irritable at times, is there and always will be. But it doesn’t have to be a villainous mirror of myself. I can find a way to make peace within the isolation of my own mind.