I groan and pull the covers over my head. My mom comes in, as she does every morning now. To check on me. To make sure I haven’t gone back to it.
“I’m fine, Mom.” It’s been three weeks since I got out of the hospital, but she acts like it was just yesterday.
“I know, I know. I just worry. You doing okay today?”
“Yes, but I’d be better if you let me sleep. It’s Saturday morning.” I look at the clock.
“Alright, alright, go back to sleep. Sorry to disturb you.”
“Well I’m up now.”
“Well good, because I made breakfast. Your favorite.”
Chocolate chip pancakes. I could smell them from the second she opened the door to my room, but I thought I was hallucinating. Or smellucinating. Is that a thing? I don’t think so. Whatever. The important thing is that the smell is real and coming from our kitchen.
“I’ll be right down. Just give me a second to wake up.” She leaves, and I sit up and rub my eyes. I love my mom, but she’s been kind of overbearing ever since I got out. I mean I get it, it must be scary to almost lose a child, or I guess to think you were going to lose your child, even though the doctor said I was perfectly healthy the whole time, but I digress. The special treatment is nice sometimes, like the fact that this is the third time in three weeks that she’s made one of my favorite meals, but otherwise it’s kind of a lot. The morning check-ins, constant texts and phone calls, the nightly check-ins… Three weeks of this coddling and I’m starting to question whether I’m really a college student or if somehow I was taken back in time and am actually six years old. Wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened in the last few months.
Life has been a roller coaster, that’s for sure. I get up and pull a shirt and some sweatpants on and look at myself in the mirror. I’m starting to slim out again, a little definition has returned to my abdominal area, though my arms are still a bit jiggly. I used to be so in shape, believe it or not. Just a year ago, I was the captain of my college’s D1 soccer team and almost broke the school’s record in track for the 800 meter. Missed it by seconds. I wish I hadn’t thrown it all away.
I guess I should explain. I’ll start at the beginning, that being six months ago. It was November, the soccer season had just ended and I had a bit of time before I needed to start getting ready for track. Since Christmas was approaching, of course every gaming company was releasing new games, consoles, whatever they had up their sleeves to rack up as much money over the holidays as possible. Now let me make it clear, I wasn’t a huge gamer. I played every so often, usually just with my friends. I’d much rather be outside, or out with friends, or spending time with my family.
One Saturday that I visited home, I was sitting on the couch talking to my dad while the TV played in the background. We were talking about how the semester was going, how the soccer season went, that kind of thing. I glanced over at the TV and lost all focus on our conversation. A commercial came on for a new gaming console, the X-Station Liv. It seemed to be kind of like the virtual reality systems that I had seen around but this one had something about it. I can’t explain it. I was captivated from the second the commercial came on, like I had been hypnotized. I had to have it. Once the commercial ended, I snapped back to reality and realized my dad was just staring at me. “Sorry, did you say something?”
He raised his eyebrows at me and just laughed. “I was asking you if you had any idea what you want for Christmas, but I think that answered my question.”
I chuckled and felt myself blush.
Flash forward a month and a half to Christmas morning. I follow my five-year-old sister as she runs into the living room to stop her from tearing through the presents before Mom and Dad can see. My mom, being the sentimental type, is searching for her camera to capture the magic. The second she gets into the room my sister, Tasmanian-devil-style, starts whirling around the tree snatching up all the presents with her name on them. She grabs a huge box from the back of the tree and hands it to me.
“I was hoping this was mine but it’s for you,” she says, and then goes back to dismantling her mountain of gifts.
I carefully peel back the wrapping paper and see a familiar logo on the box. Grinning, I rip off the rest of the paper and there it is, the Liv. I hold it delicately, like it was made of eggshells. Grinning, I look up at my mom as the camera flash goes off.
“Merry Christmas,” she says in unison with my dad. “Thanks, Santas,” I mouth.
After all the festivities were over, I ran up to my room to set up my new system. I open the box and pull out the contents. It has a motorcycle-helmet-like headset, though much lighter and sleeker. I try it on. It fits perfectly, like it was made for me. I look around, and I can see everything around me very clearly, which shocks me. The VR headsets I’ve tried at my friends’ houses block out your vision entirely once you put them on. I feel like I shouldn’t be able to see anything, but I can. Convenient, since the last time I used VR I ended up tripping over a chair and breaking a flower pot. Not my finest moment.
I take the helmet off and examine the console itself. It’s rectangular and stands upright in a base. It’s thin and black, matching the helmet. I run my fingers over the smooth corners and along the edges. I plug it in and watch as it lights up a rainbow of colors along the edges and on the power button. I press the button and watch the screen come to life. I am absolutely hypnotized as I watch the loading screen swirl in a kaleidoscope of colors. I dive in right away. Unlike a lot of older consoles, there aren’t any discs or cartridges or any physical elements that need to be inserted; there’s an online database filled with thousands of games, even ones from the retro consoles. It has built-in emulators to allow it to run any game that’s ever been created, along with having a new set of games specifically for the console that allow it to showcase its virtual reality abilities. I scroll through the options of games to purchase. The system comes with four games pre-purchased and gives you an access code to buy one more, so I systematically sort through the games, eliminating the ones I don’t want and making note of the ones that look interesting.
The majority of my winter break was spent in front of my TV. I rearranged the setup of my room so that I had enough space to move around and not hit the wall or trip over my bed. I cleared my desk and put my TV on it, so I could easily pull my desk chair out to sit in when playing games that didn’t require movement. I even bought a new desk chair with Christmas money from relatives because my old one wasn’t very comfortable. I saw my friends less than usual, and I kind of missed them, but I filled that void with online friends and NPC’s. I went out a couple of times, like for New Year’s Eve. I went to my friend Laura’s New Year’s Eve party, but all I could think about was getting back to my system to perfect the level I was on. I had 2/3 stars on it, and while everyone else was thinking about who they were going to kiss when the ball dropped, I was formulating a strategy to get that third star.
A few weeks later I packed up my gaming gear, my nice new chair, and the rest of whatever I needed for school, and headed back to campus. I decided that I didn’t want to do track this semester, it would take too much time away from gaming. I was excited for all the free time. When I got back to school, my phone was constantly blowing up with notifications from friends wanting to see me. At first, I told them to come over and check out my games, and they did a few times, but eventually they wanted to go out, to do something else, and the requests to hang out became less frequent. I didn’t mind though, I never really enjoyed going out anyways. When I weighed out the options, playing games, which made me feel happy and accomplished, was way better than going to places I didn’t want to go to impress people I didn’t even really like. Plus, if they didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do, why should I have to do what they want?
I don’t remember much of the middle of the semester. At that point, I was too far gone. The Liv enveloped me in these crazy new worlds where I could do spectacular things. Every time I saw the loading screen I felt a sense of peace wash over me, like I was in a cloud and noting could bother me. Why would I give that up to live my boring regular life? “Maybe because it’s fictional and you aren’t going to do anything productive with your life if you spend all your time playing video games,” you might be thinking. And I would agree with you… now. But back then, I couldn’t think of any future besides that of the village I was protecting from dragons. Or the one of the simulated family I created, in their large mansion with the llama hedge and bookshelf doors. These are the people and things I cared about. And anyone who tried to come between me and them put themselves in danger. I was never violent, not even on the soccer field. I’m not the aggressive type. But at that point, I was willing to fight anyone who got in the way of my game time.
There was one time when my friend Mark came over to check on me and we ended up just arguing for about 20 minutes. Well, I argued. He was calm, and he tried to talk some sense into me, but I was having none of it- I didn’t believe I had a problem. I didn’t look at him through the entire conversation, I hadn’t even glanced up when he walked in, too focused on my game to give him the attention. So at one point he gently tried to take the helmet off of me, and my arm reflexively bolted up, closed-fist, straight into his jaw. He was stunned, and the worst part is I didn’t even apologize. I just continued playing my game as he left the room.
April was when everything really turned upside down. The little time I did spend away from my gaming system, I started having issues. The system had taken over my mind, and even though I was physically separated from it, I was mentally still attached. Each game came with a different problem. If I had been playing a war game, stepping away from it meant I began having PTSD-like symptoms. If something fell off a shelf, I’d have a war flashback- imagining that I was in combat, dodging bullets and grenades being hurled my way. If I had been playing my simulation game, I’d have multiple personalities, switching seamlessly between them as I could do in the game. If I had been playing a horror game, I’d be terribly paranoid and jumpy. Anyone walking behind me was a jump scare waiting to happen. This made it difficult to go to class, so I stopped going. Not like I really went much for the months before that, but this was the point that minimum effort became zero effort. I stopped seeing my friends altogether; the only people I saw were my housemates, but since I had my own bedroom, I didn’t even see much of them.
They’re the ones who found me.
They had gotten used to not seeing me, but they had also gotten used to hearing me (very loudly) reacting to whatever was happening in my game. But one Wednesday night, they heard nothing. They thought it was unusual, but they thought maybe I was sleeping or that I had finally left the house. They ignored it and went about their business as usual. The next day, they came back from their classes and again, they heard nothing coming from my room. No lights from underneath the door, no sign of life in there at all. They knocked, and when I didn’t respond, they walked in. It was dark aside from the dim light of the “sleep” screen of the Liv, which illuminated me sitting in my chair, facing the TV, not moving at all. They said my name, tried tapping my shoulder, picked my arm up and watched it flop back onto my lap- nothing worked. I was totally unresponsive. In a panic they called for an ambulance and I was rushed to the hospital.
Obviously I don’t remember any of this, as I was unconscious. But I will back up and explain from my perspective. I don’t know how I got to that state, everything seemed normal. I had been sitting in my chair, gaming helmet on, immersed in one of my games. I can’t even remember which one. But I had been playing for a while and all of a sudden, all I saw was white. I turned my head, looking all around, thinking it was just a weird part of the level I was on. When nothing changed, I thought maybe the helmet had short-circuited or something, so I went to take it off to find the problem, when this awful sound started. It was high pitched and fluctuating, presumably because the frequency was bordering what the human ear could pick up, but I don’t know. What I do know is that it was LOUD. The next thing I can remember is waking up in a hospital bed.
The room was dark and I couldn’t tell what time it was. I had an oxygen tube in my nose and an IV in my arm. A heartbeat monitor was behind me, and the beeps sped up as I gathered myself. I looked around, confused as to how I got there and what I was doing there in the first place. I found the button to call for a nurse and I pressed it. Less than a minute later the door opened and a nurse came in quietly but quickly. She looked surprised and relieved. Before she had a chance to speak, I asked what was going on. Why was I in a hospital? What happened to me? I felt perfectly healthy. I shouldn’t be here.
She looked troubled, unsure of how to proceed. “Do you know what day it is?” she asked me slowly.
“It’s Wednesday. The 24th. Isn’t it?” I was less sure of myself after every word. “No. Today is May 2nd. You’ve been comatose for a week.” I shook my head, thinking this was some kind of joke or prank. It was definitely the 24th. But then again, the last I remember I was in my bedroom, so I guess my memory isn’t all that reliable at this point. “What happened? Why am I here? Am I okay?”
The nurse alerted my parents that I had woken up and then began filling me in. Apparently, they were staying in a hotel nearby. They had taken turns spending the night with me while my sister was staying with a relative closer to home. This was the first night they weren’t here. In terms of my situation, the nurse explained how my roommates called the ambulance and got me here a week prior. The doctors were confused, they had never seen anything like this before. All my tests came back perfectly normal, no irregularities in my breathing or heart rate or anything. By all means, I should have been awake.
It’s still unclear as to what exactly happened. I was released from the hospital with orders to avoid the system until further information is released about what may have caused the noise and the screen malfunction. And that brings us back to present day.
I go downstairs and see my mom has made me a plate stacked with pancakes. My parents have surprisingly been so supportive through all of this, considering I was failing all of my classes because I was addicted to my video game console, but going into a coma made it so I could get a medical leave of absence and those classes won’t count. Now I just have to worry about getting myself back in shape and reaching out to all of my friends to apologize for being a slug for the past six months. Baby steps.