Content warning for mental health, medication side effects, eating disorders, and anxiety/depression. This article contains a few spoilers for Celeste.
Celeste is a hard platformer.
In Celeste, you play as Madeline, a girl struggling to come to terms with her anxiety and panic attacks. Madeline decides to climb Celeste Mountain, just to prove to herself that she can. Along the way, she jumps, climbs, and avoids various deadly obstacles and learns how to use the environment—and work with her own anxieties—to make it all the way to the very top of the Mountain.
Celeste is a game about doing something difficult, having patience, and doing things at your own pace. I have often found myself attempting an area over and over again, sometimes hundreds of times, before getting frustrated and turning off my TV. Eventually I’ll come back and try again, but by getting impatient, I stop myself from completing the task at hand: getting to the end of each area. And at the end of each area is a new area. It’s incremental and frustrating, but every small step means I’m making my way towards the biggest goal: the summit of the Mountain.
On Halloween of 2019, for the first time in my life, I went to see a psychiatrist. I had been seeing my therapist on and off for four years, never quite feeling the need to leap to medication.
But right before I got married in October, I hit a wall so hard that something inside me broke. I had been holding myself together for what felt like ages, viewing myself as the metaphorical scaffolding holding my family together. Everyone in my family, including me, was slogging their way through the aftermath of a massive upheaval that took place in 2017, and I had stepped up to bear the bulk of the weight. Like most scaffolding, my support for everyone else was supposed to be temporary. But the weight kept piling on, for three entire years, until I could no longer support it on my own. And I broke. I absolutely, completely broke.
I managed to hold myself together enough to enjoy my wedding and happily socialize with my amazing family and friends who came from all over the country to celebrate with us, but once the post-wedding high died down, I fell to the lowest point of my life. I could barely—and on some days, just couldn’t—get out of bed to go to work. I would drive to the wrong destinations because my brain was on navigational auto-pilot. I couldn’t do simple math without getting confused. I was too depressed to fully enjoy what should have been the honeymoon period of my marriage. The scaffolding keeping me together had utterly collapsed.
Two weeks after my wedding, I saw my therapist and I said, it’s time. I want to go on meds.
I bought Celeste for myself as an early Christmas present in 2018, and finished the base game a month or two later. I am a sucker for hard platformers (as long as they have a compelling narrative), and I fought my way through every chapter of Celeste with gritted teeth.
My first playthrough of the game, I found myself so frustrated while I played it, clenching up and tight-shouldered, that I couldn’t relax enough to do the technical moves I knew I could do. I would turn off my Switch for a few days, fuming, then come back later when I had calmed down. And I found that once I had calmed down, I could get past my mental block on the first or second try. I fought with the game itself, at times, and in certain cases, had to ask my Pro Gamer Husband™ to help me through the hardest parts. I was so excited when I finally reached the final delicious cutscene, but when I was finally done with the base game and had worked through all of the actual narrative, I set the game aside for nearly a year before deciding to go back and master all of the extra content. (As many people know, I have major completionist tendencies; I’m all about collectibles in games.)
After my long hiatus, I happened to reattempt the game right around when I was prescribed antidepressants—specifically, I was prescribed Sertraline, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) used to treat major depression and anxiety. And here’s the thing about SSRIs: it can take quite a long time for them to actually kick in, and it can be quite a rough ride before you start to feel better.
This time through Celeste, to my surprise and despite my compromised mental health, I found it easier to be patient with myself and climb the mountain at my own pace. I didn’t restart with a new save file, but rather picked up where I left off, with the aim of collecting as many strawberries, B-side tapes, and crystal hearts as I could. I can’t say that I set out to 100 percent the game (as the C-sides will simply never be within my grasp), but to the extent that I can 100 percent the game, I intend to.
The day I met my psychiatrist, he prescribed me medication on the spot for my (what sure seemed to me) wildly out of control anxiety and depression. In my heart I know it was nothing he hadn’t seen before, but personally, I had never felt so much like I was spiraling into a ravine. Sertraline was what we’d start out with, he said, and see how my body and mind took to it. Turns out that prescribing psychiatric medication is more trial and error than I’d expected.
And here’s the thing about medication: I knew stepping into the world of meds might lead me to experience some side effects, but I had no idea the degree to which I would be experiencing them. And hoo boy, did I experience side effects.
I found it hard to sleep at first, with occasional insomnia that I self-treated with off-brand ZzzQuil. Then, I was sleeping too much—a side effect known as somnolence. I’ve always had a bit of a wacky sleep schedule, so this wasn’t too bad, although I occasionally found myself dozing off at work due to my excessive drowsiness.
But what really sucked, what was really unexpected and difficult to handle, was the nausea.
I have been in remission on and off from an eating disorder for over a decade, having been extremely bulimic in middle school and high school, so nausea in itself is a tough pill for me to swallow.
For nearly a week after I started Sertraline, I was sick every morning, and sometimes throughout the day as well. (There’s nothing worse than puking in a bathroom stall at work, but knowing you’re not actually sick so you can’t justify taking the day off. Capitalism, am I right?)
After that first week, I was mostly okay, but in the months that followed, periodically I’d still feel nausea pangs in my stomach and have to patiently breathe (and remember that my self-worth isn’t tied to my weight or my ability to keep my dinner down) until they either passed, or I succumbed to the whims of my Sertraline.
I would come home from work every day that I’d made it into the office, still feeling ill, and boot up Celeste on my Switch. I’d slowly chip my way through a Chapter, trying to find every strawberry. I can’t remember looking up a single berry’s location online, because I was deliberately trying to be patient and discover them all on my own.
Platformers aren’t for everyone—my husband, for one, hates them (despite how infuriatingly good he is at them)—but to me, there’s something so satisfying about looking at the layout and design of a particular area, taking in all the elements you have available to you, and devising a path to get to the other side. Even if you fall a thousand times, finally executing the strategy you’ve come up with is the most amazing feeling.
Six weeks after I started on meds, I doubled my dosage. I’d realized that the medicine was starting to treat my anxiety, but not my depression, so the thing that had been keeping me getting out of bed in the mornings—frantic anxiety that I wasn’t getting things done, that I would upset people, that I had to immediately deal with the things I was irrationally worrying about—was gone, while the root of the problem (my desperate, soul-smothering sense of emptiness) was left unbounded to take me over. I knew I was in for another round of frustrating and triggering nausea, but I wasn’t willing to let my meds conquer me. As beaten down as I felt, I wasn’t willing to give up.
Celeste gave me an outlet to channel my frustration at not getting better faster into something that felt real, that felt tangible. Using my brain to accomplish small goals and reaching the largest one, the top of the mountain and every dang strawberry I could find, became the thing that I did with my spare time.
For months after I started and subsequently doubled my medication, I would boot up Celeste and pilot Madeline through the mirror temple, clean up Mr. Oshiro’s cluttered hotel, and battle her antagonist/deuteragonist alter ego, Badeline. The main theme of the game is seeing Madeline coming to terms with Badeline, realizing that she is “Part of [Her],” and that she needs to learn to work with the darker and more insecure part of herself to traverse Celeste Mountain and make it to the summit. By battling against Badeline and pushing her away, Madeline can never move past the obstacles in her path; eventually Madeline and Badeline team up to climb together, teamwork that becomes reflected in the game’s mechanics.
Of course, this plot line appealed to me, a person who was struggling with their own mental health. It felt very true to what I was feeling, to have to accept one’s mental health in order to move forward (if, admittedly, the message was a bit on the nose).
But there’s an eighth Chapter, “The Core,” which only becomes available once you have completed the base game and collected enough Crystal Hearts. I was excited, when I got to that point, to be able to play more plot content; an epilogue to my first playthrough.
In “The Core,” you guide Madeline through the inside of the Mountain to reach the eponymous Core. In this level, Madeline loses the ability to recharge her jumps, so the player only gets two jumps per room and good luck to ya. It’s a difficult challenge for a player who’s become accustomed to limited but rechargeable jumps throughout the rest of the game: you need to platform even more precisely in order to reach the end.
Eventually, the end I did reach. And the conclusion message I found was totally unexpected; whereas in the rest of the game, the persevere-despite-your-mental-health-challenges narrative was reliable and predictable, the end of “The Core” feels like what happens when you introspect and reach the center of yourself, and realize that not everything can, or should, be fixed.
In “The Core,” Madeline finds herself floating through an enormous, dark, empty cavern, after fighting her way through all of the obstacles from the previous eight chapters. And she says,
“…This is it? This is what’s at the center of all this? It’s so empty… and vast…
“Yet it feels nostalgic somehow. And peaceful.”
This hit me unbelievably hard. At the core of the Mountain, after all the work Madeline—and I—had put in, it was just… so empty. But, on the other hand, it was calm. And Madeline felt like herself. Truly herself. Empty, but at least familiar.
I cried when I reached the Core. After months of struggling with my own mental health, and my own difficulty with attempting to reconcile my medication’s side effects with my desire to reach the end of my own journey and feel calm and happy again, I had reached a point where I was feeling a little better, but still very much missing a joy and exuberance for life I used to have. I was feeling so empty, and here was Madeline, feeling just as empty as I did. And as much as I want to fill up that emptiness again, sometimes you just have to float in it and come to terms with yourself, sadness and all.
Things are hard, and often get harder before they get better. Trusting that things will get better from here is the hard part. But I’m starting to know myself better, and I’m slowly rediscovering certain dreams that used to drive me forward.
I’ve had to be patient through my difficult adjustment to my medication, and Celeste has given me something to focus on that isn’t my side effects. Celeste has forced me to slow down and learn how to enjoy the process of moving forward, even if you don’t always know exactly where you’re headed.
And I’m proud, really proud, that I finally started making steps towards improving my situation, for my happiness and my mental health. It took every ounce of courage I had to take these steps, to start up this new trail. But I’m convinced this is the right path, and for the first time in a long time, I’m not stumbling in the dark. There’s some light ahead of me.
I still haven’t finished everything I want to do in Celeste. I recently tripled my initial dosage of Sertraline and have experienced yet another bout of daily nausea. I’m staying positive, but I’m still having bad days. I know there will be many more. But I’m damn sure: I’ll never quit climbing this mountain.
For Christmas, my brother got me this mug. He’s seen me struggle over the last few months, but he knows—and I know—that I can do this.
Emily Durham is a freelance writer by day and a Sidequest copyeditor by… also day. When they’re not editing or playing with cats, you can find them playing Celeste or Hollow Knight, sewing korok cosplays, or… playing with cats. You can find their tweets at @sedimentalvalue.