How Kingdom Hearts Helped Me Through Mental Illness

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What started as a Square Enix alignment with a little-known animation studio they shared an office building with, is now a giant franchise whose fans cannot wait for January 25th, 2019 to come. In my personal experience, I have found there is a deeper reason that Kingdom Hearts (KH) and its defenders: Sora, Donald, Goofy, Riku and Kairi have won the hearts of gamers across the globe.

As a kid, I never owned a Playstation. My family’s budget priorities never included a game console after they bought the Nintendo Entertainment System on sale in 1992. Having always been a huge Dis-nerd, as soon as I heard about Kingdom Hearts I was dying to see it. This was also the peak of my chain-wearing phase, so clearly, the protagonist and I had a lot in common. I ended up watching my friends play it, being also too self-conscious about my poor reflexes to even try playing myself.

Of course, I wasn’t disappointed, Kingdom Hearts created a world of its own (see what I did there?) and gives ‘good vs evil’ another dimension by layering it atop the ‘dark vs light’ battle. And that battle, thanks to a bit of time hopping, memory wiping, and Heartless lore, evolves into the battle we have with literal alternate pieces of ourselves.

When I was 19, I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder with post traumatic stress disorder. Long story short, by 27 my mental health was so poor that I had to leave the professional work environment for a bit. Wanting to make the best of an awful situation, I started an IRL Twitch channel dedicated to educating others about the cause. I started playing Stardew Valley on stream but one day I mentioned that I had dreamed of playing Kingdom Hearts since I was little. My community was all for it and was excited for me to embark on learning how to use a controller properly (none of that Mortal Kombat and Smash Bros button-mashing I had been practicing). My husband, a gamer since he was six, promised patience, and after finding a great deal on a PS4, we took off.

I was re-enchanted by the Disney characters from the first second—but as an adult, I noticed more of their complexity and commitment to persevering in tough situations, whether they found themselves with friends or alone.

There were many twists in my emotional journey as I embarked to complete the first game. For one I was terribly frustrated that my fingers were not working as quickly as my mind was processing on-screen information (my husband still teases me for screaming “MAGIC” at the top of my lungs at an approaching enemy instead of pressing the appropriate buttons). By the end of the thirty hours it took to finish just the first game, I was blown away by how deeply I connected with all of the characters’ mental turmoil as it surfaced through their decisions.

The evil beings for most of the game are called, quite descriptively, Heartless. Personifying darkness, they run amok and are constantly trying to take over and hurt the protagonist. The main villain, Xehanort, is hellbent on creating a world full of darkness at any cost. In my mind, both of these are a great personification of depression. It’s aimless, everywhere, and will take over if you don’t actively fight it.

Our heroes are determined to fight and in more ways than one

Heartless, Disney villains, and Xehanort’s plan do well to keep Sora and his friends—love interest Kairi and best friend Riku—apart. I have found that depressive symptoms, such as lack of emotion and apathy, can feel personal to those who have never experienced it before. It’s hard to understand that there is an evil Xehanort-like voice in my mind saying things to keep me low and too scared to turn to others for help. As a result, my relationships have always been rather strained, creating rifts between family members and friends for me. But if you hear stuff like this all the time, how could you permit anyone to stay close?

“All worlds begin in darkness, and all so end. The heart is no different. Darkness sprouts within it, it grows, consumes it. Such is its nature. In the end, every heart returns to the darkness whence it came! You see, darkness is the heart's true essence.” Ansem (a villan), Kingdom Hearts 1.5

I have lost quite a few friendships. I have had friends like Riku, who misconstrued Sora’s disappearance to fight against the darkness as a personal slight. Even worse, without his friend, Riku succumbed to the darkness himself. He does so to both connect with Sora and because he knows it is so within reach for him. His emotional journey through the series includes pushing others away, although he does desire to save them in the end. He feels like he has to sacrifice himself for others to be fulfilled. I liken this to withdrawing from friendships because depression lets you believe you are less capable than others or worse, I often believed I didn’t deserve friends.

This world is perfect for me. If this is what the world really is...just this, then maybe I should fade back into darkness." Riku, Kingdom Hearts 2.5

You Never Win Against Depression Alone

For many of us, mental illness becomes such a constant guest in our lives that we are forced to go seek new friendships with people who might understand it better. Sora finds these friends in Donald and Goofy, as those are the only beings who can truly comprehend the scope of his task, the darkness that lies ahead, and are willing to make the situation the best it can be in the process of overcoming it. During the worst of my illness, I found a community on Twitch which has now become a large support group, assisting each other through personal ups and downs. Like Hercules in Kingdom Hearts 2.5 we may have hit rock bottom, but we really just need the right people to help us believe in ourselves again. Connecting with people and creating a community is what inspires others to open up, even if they may not have done so otherwise.

I started my gameplay feeling like Aqua at the end of Birth By Sleep: about to give up, considering fading “into the darkness”, but both of us were reminded that there are others fighting just as we are, and that helps us continue wanting to keep fighting and pushing through.

Yeah, there's darkness inside me, just like you said. But darkness is my enemy! And you are, too, for making everything around here reek of it!"” -Riku, Kingdom Hearts 2.5

You Can and Should Continue To Fight Depression

There was one final lesson I learned about the perception of mental illness that I truly felt may have been the most important. The worst advice I have heard time and again for handling mental illness is to buck up, which needless to say, is not helpful. I found that Kingdom Hearts approached this with a refreshing angle. When I first watched Donald tell Sora the conditions of his companionship I was upset: “… You can't come along looking like that. Understand? No frowning. No sad face. Okay?” Sora had just lost his friends and wasn’t sure he would ever see them again. I know it’s just a game, but while I was not feeling well, I didn’t need one of my favorite Disney characters telling me I wasn’t welcome unless I was faking joy.

What I’ve learned this actually means in the lore of this game, is that walking around thinking of how unwell you are is not what gets you to your final goal. If you are truly unwell, you should stay at home, but if you can, consider the bigger picture at hand: what good could you be working on spreading?

Knowing that something did not end well and made us feel a certain way is never a guarantee that the future will hold the same. If we want to keep going forward, we have to take the attitude of going forward, taking our bouts of depression in stride as part of the road we’ve been put on. I ended the game realizing what Donald really meant was, we can’t let our thoughts, our past, or our hurt, stop us. We must smile, but not so that others think we are ok, but so we remain hopeful that things can get better.

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I write this the day before starting a new job in the professional world. Of course, I am not claiming that Kingdom Hearts “cured” my mental illnesses with its brilliant adventure and complex story-telling. What it did was put my mind at ease, as I saw my problems reflected in this story, one with incredibly brave heroes. Despite the hand they were dealt, they chose to continue putting other’s needs before their own, shining brighter and proudly while helping others. 

Some will see these parallels as a stretch, many will think they oversimplify the story, but I think there are hundreds of people who are now smiling, believing and pushing forward, because Sora, Riku, Kairi, Terra, Aqua, Ventus, Donald and Goofy showed them how. I went to look for these parallels because I was looking for answers. The result, was that I was inspired to be the kind of person who also wants to keep fighting. I hope you are too.