Every day when I wake up, long before I grab my keys and head out of the door, I take three pills. They're to keep me alive. They're a constant reminder, not that I could ever forget, that I nearly died. Knowing you're not immortal is something most people can be forgiven for forgetting, but it's a fact I'm made vividly aware of every morning.
But the pills are more than just a physical and pharmaceutical legacy of my illness: they're also a reminder that life is good. I nearly died. I'm still here and, despite everything, I'm happy. I made it, I'm feeling healthier than ever right now, and I'm alive.
I was 31 when I had my heart attack, three years ago. Not an old man, not really even particularly unhealthy. It shook my world in a way that I don't expect you to imagine – it made me feel like an alien, an unreal element in the world I'd known before. Coming home from the hospital after a life-saving operation, I felt inhuman, and like every eye in the world was silently judging me. I was the "young lad who'd had a heart attack" – not the worst stigma in the world perhaps, but a weight to carry that I didn't need. I hope you never experience what I did. I hope you never squeeze your wife tighter than you ever had before through sheer fear, scared it'll be the last time you get to do it. I hope you never understand mortality the way I do today.
My path from then to this point has been long and winding, one that's involved therapy for anxiety along the way. But it's a path that's been directed by two constants: the support of my family, and video games.
The first thing I did after my attack that made me feel normal again was play a video game. It was Tank! Tank! Tank!, if that even matters, an average game made better by multiplayer, but a game nonetheless. I forgot about my maladies, I forgot about the world's judging eyes, and I felt safe again.
And it made me realise something more sharply than I'd ever considered it, previously. People who make you feel bad because you like video games: forget them. Even in 2015, with the games industry bigger than Hollywood, if you tell someone you love playing on your PlayStation 4 you run the risk of getting looked at a certain way. A negative way. I was a guy who'd had a heart attack, that was one thing – but a gamer who'd had a heart attack? I was ripe for mockery amongst a crowd that has nothing but the most absurd ideas about what sort of person plays video games. And you know what? That's simply not right.
Now, I'm not going to pretend that everything is rosy in gaming right now – it's not, and it's a pretty significant distance from being that way. But I am going to say that there are so many positives to gaming, way more than there are negatives to the hobby, the passion, but many of these pluses get lost in a haze of anger and resentment amongst a "mainstream" that no longer represents the majority. Video games made me feel good about myself in that moment, when I needed them, and they continued to do so for the entirety of my recovery.
Look around you, at the quiet, the introverted, the people in your office who don't laugh at every bawdy joke or cough up for cans of lager on a Friday afternoon or stick around after working hours to drink the sun beneath the horizon. Perhaps they're just that: quiet, shy, content. Or maybe they're trapped in their own minds, unable to communicate as well as they'd like to with their peers. Depression and anxiety are real illnesses, and they're as debilitating as they are destructive. There are those who aren't lucky enough to have support groups, and gaming is their therapy. It's something that's hard to understand unless you've experienced it, but anxiety (especially) is crippling.
My anxiety manifested through the feeling that I was going to die. Despite being told, multiple times, that I was fine, I felt a sensation akin to someone jabbing at my ribs, repeatedly saying: "But what if...?" It'd get to the point where I couldn't take it anymore, and for many there's just no escaping that feeling.
But I had an escape. I'd turn on a games console, I'd play, and it would all fade away – if only for a while.
I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but I couldn't get my head around placing my thoughts onto a cloud and letting them float away (your mileage may vary, so don't write it off without trying it). For me, games worked every single time. Of course they didn't make my problems go away forever, and therapy, combined with my support group and relaxation time (games, again), proved the ultimate cure. But when I was well enough to see outside of my own personal bubble, I realised that other people played games, and nobody seemed to be angry about them. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, seeing and experiencing these things for what they are: games. Playthings. Distractions. Relief.
Of course they can be more, and gaming's continued evolution is presenting players with wonderful interactive experiences that the medium's greatest creative powers of just a decade ago could not have foreseen, but sometimes picking up a Wii U GamePad and driving a tank around, shooting huge spiders and other monstrous creations, is just what you need. It makes you feel good, and that's enough – there needn't be an underlying moral, or message of some resonant kind that you carry with you through future gaming adventures. Sometimes, flying around a track in the latest Need for Speed game is the perfect antidote to what's ailing you, regardless of the piss-taking the title's getting on Twitter. It's even okay to admit to enjoying the story side of Gears of War. (Which definitely should not be underestimated, anyway.) It's fine to derive pleasure, satisfaction, a sense of calm, from all of these things and more. You should feel good about them.
My heart attack, and more pertinently my recuperation, taught me two things. Firstly, the National Health Service is something we should be loud and proud about. It saves lives every day on a stupidly shrinking budget that beggars belief. Secondly, games are brilliant. They let us explore worlds we alone could never imagine. We can be heroes or villains. We can disappear into the life of a teenage girl with time-rewinding powers in the same game as walking in the boots of a monster-hunting white-haired dude with cat eyes. And that is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and all the more amazing for it.
So do me a favour: the next time someone tells you "games are for kids", or mocks you for your chosen passion, tell them to get lost. Do it for me, and do it for yourself. Nobody has the right to tell you what you can or can't enjoy. Because the people that will try to, they truly haven't got a clue – about your loves, your pursuits, and certainly not about what you're going through if you're gaming as a means of medication. If it worked for me, it's working right now for countless others.
The stigma of mental health is alive, of that I'm sure, and that gaming can help with these terrible illnesses is something we should celebrate. I love games, and I'm proud to say it. A mix of stupid, throwaway experiences, along with deep, meaningful tales that touch you in a way no other medium can, and everything else in between. Games helped me through a period of my life that I'll never forget. Nowadays, I don't want to pretend my heart attack didn't happen. I'm glad that, ultimately, it made me no longer ashamed or embarrassed to tell people that I play games. And you, whether you're eight, 18 or 80, pills or no pills, should play them, too.
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