Seeing Myself in Wonderland: Mental Health in American McGee’s Alice
I have to admit, I’m a little embarrassed when I, a grown woman at the ripe age of 25, tell people that one of my favorite games is American McGee’s Alice. It definitely has connotations of early 2000s mall-goth culture. You know, kids who had Vampire Freaks accounts, worshiped The Nightmare Before Christmas, and wore t-shirts that said, “Normal people scare me.”
Content Warning: This essay contains descriptions of suicidal ideation and self-harm.
When I mentioned Alice to my roommate, he said, “Yeah, I’ve seen that game before. It looks, uh, edgy.” I’ll admit, the game hasn’t aged well since it came out in 2000. And I’m not just talking the graphics. Over the last decade or so, pop culture has had no shortage of “beloved fairy tales, but dark and creepy” thanks to the likes of Tim Burton, DeviantART, and Hot Topic. So, yeah, “Alice in Wonderland, but she’s goth and sassy, and like, Wonderland is all morbid and depressing,” isn’t exactly as fresh in 2017 as it was when it came out in 2000, or even in 2007, when I played it for the first time. But get this: in 2007, that edgy, gothic Alice was something I desperately needed during one of the worst times of my life. Here’s that story.
[pullquote]I created a world within myself to escape into when my parents were fighting.[/pullquote]I have mental illness. I was first diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder at the age of fourteen, but honestly, I think I’ve been dealing with it my entire life. I had an intense home situation where my mother was emotionally abusive to me when she wasn’t passed out on the couch from painkillers. I isolated myself from my peers, thinking I needed only my computer and my fantasy books. I created a world within myself to escape into when my parents were fighting.
I didn’t have many friends. This was partly because of my extreme anxiety and partly because I was afraid to have other kids over to my house. What if they came over and my mom was slurring her speech after a healthy dose of Percocet or passed out with a lit cigarette in her hand? I was afraid if I let people too close, they’d find out about my family’s secret, and how rotten and sad I was on the inside. I spent most of my free time browsing the internet endlessly and adventured into increasingly toxic corners of the web, mostly 4chan.
My parents finally divorced the summer of 2006. I still remember that summer as one of the worst periods of my life. The stress from the divorce caused my mental disorders to go out of control, and I started cutting myself and displaying other symptoms so severe, my parents were finally like, “Wow, she needs help.” I dealt with mediocre mental health professionals for about a year as my depression steadily deepened throughout the summer of 2006 and sort of plateaued during my first year of high school.
I call that year the “Prozac year.” I wasn’t exactly happy, but I wasn’t as horribly sad as I was before. I was actually extremely numb. When I try to remember that year, it’s strange, because that year feels like it happened to someone else. When I think about my freshman year of high school, it feels like I’m watching a movie of the things that happened to me, but I don’t remember a lot of it actually happening to me.
I started coping with my feelings of emptiness with increasingly harmful self-injury. I wanted to feel anything at all rather than that overwhelming meh. I also thought about suicide a lot, because I thought it was the only escape to the horrible sadness, dread, and suffocating apathy that had plagued me my entire, short life.
Right at the end of my freshman year, when I was fifteen, I kind of tried to kill myself by attempting to slit my wrist. Yeah, I said “kind of,” and I don’t want to go too much into detail. It was so long ago, and my brain was such a mess, I can’t really explain to you my exact thought process. But I think it was more of a cry for help than anything. That entire year of high school, I tried to save face and accept my new, “improved” Prozac reality. I really, really wanted to be “fixed” and have things go back to normal. I guess that putting a razor to my wrist was my way of telling my family that when words were too hard.
Now that we’ve gotten the grisly backstory out of the way, let’s move onto how Alice plays into this. The divorce wasn’t entirely bad. I felt a lot better not having to live with my doped-up mother. I had a really good relationship with my dad, who had custody of me. Halfway through my first year of high school, we finally sold and moved out of the house I’d grown up in. It was pretty sad. In the interim, as we searched for a new place to live, we stayed in this really crappy apartment.
But there was a good thing about moving. After the move, my dad finally got us high-speed internet. Hell. Yeah. That meant I was able to torrent games. (Yeah, I was a teenage pirate, are you gonna judge me?) I had been torrenting music before on our old dial-up internet, but now that we had badass high speed, I was able to torrent big files like computer games in just a day or so, when before it would have taken weeks.
[pullquote]We’re both flighty, dreamy weirdos who create entire worlds in our heads.[/pullquote]Years before, I’d heard of Alice from an internet friend who used a picture of her face as her Livejournal icon. I was immediately intrigued. I have a life-long obsession with all things related to Alice in Wonderland, including the Disney animated movie and the Lewis Carroll books, which I’d read cover to cover so many times. This is because I relate to Alice a lot. We’re both flighty, dreamy weirdos who create entire worlds in our heads. Alice did that to escape the boredom of being a young girl in Victorian England, and I did it to escape childhood mental illness and a dysfunctional home life, but hey!
So when I saw there was a video game based on it, only it was dark and spooky, li’l goth me was delighted. Flash forward to a few years later when I finally had high-speed internet—I torrented it.
It actually took me a while to get it to work on my old Windows XP. The torrent didn’t come with a cracked file, meaning I had to find one online. I was at a loss on where to find a crack file, so I didn’t end up playing the game until June, after we had moved from the apartment to our new duplex. I was so frustrated.
Maybe it was divine intervention that I couldn’t figure out how to crack Alice for so long, because if that hadn’t been the case, maybe I wouldn’t have discovered the game after my kind-of suicide attempt, at one of the lowest points of my life. I felt utterly worthless and broken. I had no real friends outside of the internet. I was sick of being sad, and sick of being tired all the time, and sick of walking through the halls of my ugly high school feeling like I wasn’t really alive. I felt like I would never be able to be happy like any of the other kids I knew. I was deformed and twisted inside, and nobody could help me, not even doctors who fed me pills or the well-meaning therapist guy who told me that God still loved me. I just really wanted to die or to disappear.
I was feeling awful and browsing 4chan. I was on the video game subforum, and found a link to a website full of cracks for games. So I went there, and lo and behold—there was a crack for Alice.
When I finally cracked the game and loaded it for the first time, I was ecstatic when I saw the loading screen appear instead of an error message. There was Alice on the home screen, looking all confused in her creepy Victorian asylum bed. Dark locks in a mess, her blue eyes agog at some unseen horror as she clutched a tattered stuffed rabbit to her chest.
I was drawn to one small detail that I almost overlooked—on the artwork for the home screen, Alice is wearing a bloody bandage on her wrist, suggesting a suicide attempt. I can remember, very clearly, looking down at my left wrist where the scar of my own kind-of suicide attempt was still fresh.
I clicked New Game.
This is the story: Sometime after the events of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through The Looking-Glass stories we’re all familiar with, Alice’s house catches on fire when her cat knocks over a lamp. She’s the only member of her family that survives. Due to the immense guilt, she becomes catatonic and is hospitalized.
The Wonderland inside her mind that was once her reprieve has become macabre and decayed. All of her old friends have been turned into twisted versions of themselves, and her once-beloved escape from the doldrums of reality is now unrecognizable.
She learns that the Red Queen (who is a weird amalgamation of the Queen of Hearts and Red Queen characters from the books, but I digress) became Wonderland’s tyrant and is responsible for the corruption. Alice sets off with the aid of the Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit on a deadly journey to find her old friends who can help her defeat the Queen and restore Wonderland.
I was completely and utterly hooked. I had never been able to play a lot of games on my own before because my parents refused to buy me any consoles, and my computer was never good enough to handle any state-of-the-art games. I’m pretty sure the only reason my computer could play it was because the game was already seven years old.
I remember the first night after I started the game I tried to go to sleep but couldn’t, because all I could do was think about Alice, with its beautiful music, creepy atmosphere, and the poetic wisdom of the Cheshire Cat. I have this really vivid memory of getting out of bed at five in the morning, creeping into the kitchen to get some Pop-Tarts, and then sitting down in front of my computer to play some more, as my cat stared at me and demanded Pop-Tart crumbs.
[pullquote]Alice will still need to defeat the Red Queen, but doing so means she’ll have to face her trauma head-on.[/pullquote]About one-third of the way through the game, Alice meets up with the hookah-smoking Caterpillar who drops a truth bomb on Alice: Wonderland isn’t messed up simply because the Red Queen took over. Alice’s grief and mental instability have laid waste to it and allowed the Red Queen’s rise to power. Alice will still need to defeat the Red Queen, but doing so means she’ll have to face her trauma head-on.
The game gets progressively darker as Alice makes her way through Wonderland. She gets captured by the Mad Hatter, who’s allied with the Red Queen. The Mad Hatter’s level is hugely influenced by Victorian asylums, complete with padded cells and wandering children wearing bizarre metal head pieces. This level seriously touched a nerve within me. The previous year, I had been grappling with issues of feeling “insane” because I was being treated for mental illness. I had all these terrible visions of myself ending up in a padded cell or some Girl, Interrupted ward thingy, but with no sexy ’90s actresses in their prime.
During a mini-boss battle in this section, Tweedledee and Tweedledum mock Alice, calling her a lunatic and making reference to her taking medicine. I remember that resonated with me especially—I had been mocked by a classmate earlier that year for having a panic attack in the middle of class. He called me “psycho,” and I was a wreck for like two weeks about it. I also resented that I had to take medicine that didn’t seem to be doing a whole lot of good for me. So defeating those douchebags felt really good.
After the battle with the Tweedles, the Mad Hatter appears and further taunts Alice about how much she fears facing the truth of what caused her hospitalization, and the memories of grief and loss. It was around this point in the game that I had decided Alice and I were fighting similar battles. Like Alice, depression and trauma had turned my inner Wonderland into a hellish prison. I was trapped inside my own mind and couldn’t escape.
Alice was dealing with grief and survivor’s guilt. I was grieving in my own way—my next therapist would later tell me that a lot of kids react to divorce with grief. I was utterly empathetic to Alice’s plight and determined to help Alice fix Wonderland and herself.
It goes without saying that I saw myself reflected in Alice’s character and the situation she was in. I wasn’t on a bloody crusade to free Wonderland from the Red Queen, but I was waging my own war against my unique set of circumstances. My parents had divorced, I had severe depression, and to top it all off, I was in high school. To see how Alice reclaims Wonderland, and how her victory over the Red Queen inspired me to overcome my own set of obstacles, stay tuned for the next installment of this piece.