Disabilities in Roleplay

I’ve always loved to play characters that challenge me. It doesn’t matter what the circumstance is, the challenge is what I enjoy most. In theatre, I loved playing Margie in Bye Bye Birdie because I have never ever been a screaming obsessed fan girl. So it was rather interesting trying to portray that. I loved playing Ellen A’Dale, despite being typecast as a bard (yet again) because I had never before played a criminal. My favorite roles in theatre are the ones that challenge me and my acting abilities. I want roles that make me research and think and try to figure out exactly the right way to do it.

I have a special love for portraying various disabilities and mental illnesses. On one hand, I teach special education so I am around those who have these issues on a daily basis. They are a large portion of my family. They are people that I advocate for and fight for regularly. So, on one hand, I have a lot of first hand knowledge of what these individuals deal with and how they may or may not think.

But on the other hand, there is something so challenging about portraying an individual with a mental illness or a disability. When we play someone dealing with this kind of thing, we have to consider whether or not we are being accurate to the disability or are we mocking those who live that life?

I like to challenge myself. I very often play characters with some sort of disability that causes issues in their every day life. In the World of Darkness roleplaying books, I am in love with the Vampire Strain of the Malkavians. They are known for their mental illness issues and the insanity that they live with. I have a future character idea who is a priest of music, yet is completely Deaf. Priests of music in this game “feel the beat in their heart and soul” and live out the words of their king or queen. This individual literally needs to feel the beat. I have another future idea for a character with severe learning disabilities, severe to the point of causing her to actually be a mutation away from the strain/nationality of her family.

Then, I have characters like my current character, the characters that solidify my love for playing various disabilities. This character has a severe mental illness brought on by a traumatic childhood. She was born and raised in slavery. I started off by doing weeks of research to see what kind of mental state individuals who have recently been freed from a slave life deal with. It wasn’t pretty. Many of them are severely mentally ill. I started doing research on kinds of mental illnesses that might make sense. Eventually I settled with Severe Borderline Personality Disorder.

Firstly, let me state, in no way do I try and portray these disabilities and mental illnesses to make fun of any individual who lives that life. I want to better understand them. I want to portray the situation properly and do it justice so that people never feel as though I’m insulting those who actually live with these issues.

Secondly, roleplaying a mental illness really hits home on how much people with mental illness need care that is appropriate to their situation.

The DSM-IV currently lists 9 symptoms of BPD. Of those 9, my character has 8. The only one she is missing is the suicidal thoughts/tendencies. She has every other symptom. Sometimes the symptom does not get a chance to manifest itself. I will admit that I am somewhat bummed when that happens because I love the challenge of roleplaying the symptoms correctly. However, it makes sense that in some situations not all symptoms will be present. Many other players and characters of the game have noticed that there is something going on with my character. She is not all right. She needs help.

Then no one gives it to her.

This is the part that amazes me. An individual is known to be not okay. You know, you can even prove, that they are not stable (emotionally or mentally) and yet you do nothing? Many characters have stated how much they want to help my character learn about her new life. But many don’t succeed. They don’t even try, to be honest. So few people are legit trying to help the character, that it actually offsets and cancels out the lessons of those who are struggling to help.

This past game, my character was over stressed from reliving a lot of emotionally difficult memories. It led to her having nightmares. So, she’s not sleeping. She’s not feeling okay and she is then forced to relive even more memories. Her emotions were way out of wack from it all. Emotions can be and often are irrational and in a character who intellectualizes and rationalizes everything, over emotion is rather strange and seems like something that should be stopped. However, whether it needs to stop or not, the first step to fixing the situation is acknowledging that yes, my character is terrified and angry and hurt from what she’s dealing with. Start by validating her feelings. Don’t yell at her for feeling them.

What makes it interesting is the number of times she was yelled at by people who genuinely thought they were talking about the right way to handle something. Yet, despite their genuine wish for good, they only caused far greater harm than the emotions she felt could have done alone.

The actions of the other characters in the game actually triggered the onset of her 8th symptom of BPD.

Instead of providing the character with the needed support to start healing and start controlling her symptoms, they triggered the onset of another symptom.

Little things like this, while neat for the research that I needed to do for it, amaze me because they’re the moments that remind me of how each individual needs individualized care tailored to their needs. If not handled this way, you’re only going to hurt the person even more, which is the last thing we want.

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