Pokémon GO Saved My Life

By Matthew Forde on at

There was a time during the first month that Pokémon GO launched where anyone and everyone was jumping into catching ‘em all, to the extent there was a popular joke about the game being the closest this planet has ever come to reaching world peace. Though the scale three years on is not nearly as vast as it once was, and many players have left, GO remains a vibrant, thriving community.

Since Niantic launched Pokémon GO on July 6th 2016, the game has been downloaded over 550 million times (via Sensor Tower). Not only this, but the game has accumulated $2.65 billion in player spending, as well as being on track to surpass the $3 billion mark before the end of 2019. The devotion from those players is still significant, with the impact of the AR title working in numerous ways and changing lives more than many would think.

Stephen Lee, a 28-year-old civil servant/public sector worker from Cardiff, grew up alongside Pokémon like many UK residents of a certain age, and was “eagerly awaiting” the day Pokémon GO went live.

But near the end of 2015 Lee suffered an unexpected seizure and was hospitalised for three weeks. Consequently, he was diagnosed with epilepsy, causing him to wake in the middle of the night with terrors and vomiting profusely at the thought of leaving the house.

“I was born with a rare condition, so rare I’m not even sure that it was correctly diagnosed,” Lee tells me.

“It’s called Haemolymphangiomas - basically small cavernomas in and around my skull/brain can fill with blood, this can lead to small haemorrhaging which in turn has damaged parts of my brain. The iron from my blood has made tiny scars and in turn, causes my seizures.”

Still, Lee attempted to “suck it up” and “just push through” for the entirety of 2016, where each morning he would repeat the excruciating cycle of waking up from a disturbed sleep to vomit heavily before venturing out. The one thing that helped calm Lee on his 20-minute journey to work was Pokémon GO.

“It gave me a distraction, a much needed one. I’d throw my headphones on, blast some music, load up the game and focus on not dying - dramatic, right?” says Lee.

Sadly, after having a system in place to tackle his anxieties, in January 2017 Lee experienced a complete mental breakdown and was signed off work. From here, depression set in and Lee was diagnosed with panic disorder, GAD, PTSD (from the seizures) and agoraphobia.

“I was suicidal, I couldn’t be left alone, I couldn’t leave the house - I was totally trapped,” Lee says.

According to the NHS, in the UK two out of 100 people can experiences panic disorders with a third of them going on to develop agoraphobia. The disorder usually starts between the ages of 18 and 35 and is twice as common in women as men.

Struggling to be left alone, Lee stayed with his mother throughout the week, while his partner was at work. An arduous six months followed which contained multiple different drug treatments and hypnotherapy. Again though, the one constant that slowly helped Lee journey out of his comfort zone was Pokémon GO.

Every morning, Lee and his mother would visit the local park before eventually expanding their perimeter to catch more of the pocket monsters. “It gave me a reason to go out,"says Lee. "It made me want to take those first steps out of the front door.”

“The biggest push was when raiding became popular and legendaries/shinies that were available through raids were released. It almost became a ‘now or never’ situation and, being the stubborn completionist I am, I didn’t want to fall behind everyone else and not have the chance to catch ‘em all."

From here, Lee built up the confidence to interact with other Pokémon GO trainers in the community, even if those first few occasions were “nerve wrecking”.

“I felt like people would suss me out and know how I was feeling; people might judge me for being anxious about being outside,” Lee explains.

“Turns out nobody noticed and everyone embraced both me and my Mum. We ended up making regular raid buddies and would drive around together looking for our next legendary.

“It gave me time to bond over playing with my Mum and make new friends that I became comfortable enough with to share my condition, so I didn’t feel so anxious about being outside. I knew they would understand if I felt overwhelmed, and that was reassuring.”

By Christmas 2017, Stephen managed to return to work and has been continuing with his own Pokémon GO-like therapy. A year on he even earned a promotion and decided to share his story with the two million members of the Pokémon GO Reddit group. The post was thunderously applauded for its honesty and bravery, culminating in 6,200 fellow players showing their support.

From Lee's post:

At first, this was because I couldn’t bear to be alone, but I introduced her to Pokémon Go while we went for walks, and soon she was hooked. Slowly we would start to walk further, venture out. We met other players who invited us to raid groups. We then started going out a few times a day to raid with our new friends, it became an addiction but a really good one.

By Christmas 2017, and after a year of hell, multiple drugs and hypnotherapy, I went back to work. Now a year down the line, I’ve got a promotion, and I’m doing much better. I still look forward to playing Pokemon Go daily, and still play it on my bus ride, but because I want to, not because I feel I need to.

“I think it was part of my own healing process that made me want to share,” Lee says.

“I always found comfort in hearing stories from people who were going through a similar situation to mine and so I felt it was only right that I share mine, to potentially help others. I ended up getting hypnotherapy to try and combat my problems and get me back to work, and my therapist actually used Pokémon GO in our sessions to make what she was saying relatable to me.”

Though in a much better place than before, Lee is still on a waiting list for cognitive behaviour therapy after more than two years. It's a common issue for many seeking help, and an illustration of how the UK’s mental health resources are seriously under-funded.

Three months on, Lee continues to play Pokémon GO, recently hitting level 40 on the game’s third anniversary and describing the achievement as his favourite moment to date.

“I still get anxious, but I manage so much better than I did,” Lee says.

“I want to get to a point where I feel comfortable going further afield again. I used to travel abroad every year, but my last plane journey was in early 2015. I’d love to go regional hunting, maybe Canada for a Pachirisu!”

Our chat ended with Lee echoing his sign-off from his original post: he still looks forward to playing Pokémon GO daily on his bus ride to work, but now it's because he wants to rather than needs to. It's a testament not just to GO itself, but to how games can help us cope with life's bad times; and how a technology like AR, used smartly, really can make the world feel like a different place.

And a reminder that Pokémon, this miniature universe we all know and love, isn't just about catching monsters. In the right circumstances, it's so much bigger than that.