Accepting Anxiety, in Celeste and the Psalms

Allison Alexander

I wish I could tear out the part of me that experiences anxiety—the part that makes my breathing quicken and my chest tighten. Feeling panicked, scared, and alone, sometimes out of the blue and for no apparent reason … well, it sucks.

Madeline, the character you control in the platforming video game Celeste, feels similarly. She’s determined to reach the peak of Celeste Mountain in an attempt to forget about her other problems—namely, her struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. She wants to prove to herself that she can do something challenging. But Celeste Mountain, a fictional, frosty setting, is home to an abandoned city and supernatural forces that literally bring Madeline’s anxiety to the surface.

After she discovers a mirror, her reflection breaks out from it and haunts her. Madeline refers to the pink-haired, red-eyed version of herself as “Part of Me.” This figure plagues her with doubt, telling her she doesn’t have what it takes to climb the mountain. Sections of the game that would be difficult on their own become even trickier as Madeline is chased by Part of Me; if she catches up to Madeline, it’s game over.

The game involves climbing, running, and leaping. You can’t pause to think about your next move because you can only hang on to the side of a mountain for a few seconds before falling. The frantic pace reminds me of my own experience with anxiety, where my brain races at a mile a minute.

A pastor once told me that worrying was a sin. He quoted Matthew 6:25: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” And so on top of feeling anxious, I struggled with guilt because of emotions I couldn’t control. Was I not trusting God enough? Was I failing to follow his command to “not worry about tomorrow?” Like Madeline, I attempted to run from my feelings of anxiety. I wanted to escape them, certain that they weren’t biblical and that I was a bad Christian for struggling with stress.

Looking back, I don’t think that pastor understood that I was going through anxiety and depression, and that advising someone to just stop feeling those things is unhelpful, even damaging. Clinical anxiety is not overcome; it is managed. If I could stop feeling anxious with the flick of a switch, believe me, I would.

Perhaps if I had looked at the Psalms more closely, I would have noticed that many of them are actually emotional poems written by a depressed soul. Consider Psalm 42: “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

The psalmist goes on to question his emotions and his faith—“Why, my soul, are you downcast?”—struggling with his doubts even though he knows God is sovereign. He remembers “shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng,” but gets dragged down by his downcast soul. He remembers the good times, but can’t connect with the feelings associated with them. He struggles with this contradiction, crying out to God in pain.

If I could stop feeling anxious with the flick of a switch, believe me, I would.

As Madeline continues to run from the physical manifestation of her anxious self, Part of Me multiplies until there are many of them chasing after her. As you direct Madeline, they follow your moves exactly; if you need to cross a space you’ve already been, you will find yourself dodging multiple versions of Madeline that will force you to restart if you touch them.

At one point, Madeline and Part of Me have this exchange:

Madeline: “You’re everything I need to leave behind…. I don’t need you anymore.”

Part of Me: “So you’re just ... abandoning me?”

With that, it becomes clear that Madeline had wrongly assumed that the purpose of her climb was to get rid of her anxiety forever. But the harder Madeline tries to escape, the more difficult things get until Part of Me drags her down the mountain, ruining all the progress she’s made to get to the summit. It’s here, at rock bottom, that Madeline realizes Part of Me is, well, part of her. Though her alter ego now wants nothing to do with her, Madeline chases her down, reversing the previous gameplay where she had been object of the chase.

Part of Me throws fireballs at you and brings rocks falling across your path; it’s even more difficult catching her than it was running away from her. Every time you catch her, she darts further away. Until, finally, she gives up.

At this point, Part of Me says, “Fine. You win. I guess you don’t need me after all. If you want me to go away, I’ll try.” But Madeline responds, “That’s not what I want. I need your help now more than ever. Please. Let’s work together…. It’s OK to be scared.”

The trek back up the mountain, even though Madeline and Part of Me are working together, is still brutally difficult. This is a tough platformer—a fitting metaphor for the difficulty of dealing with mental-health issues. On the way up, Part of Me comments that they wasted a lot of time fighting each other; Madeline agrees to change how she perceives this part of her when she returns to her normal life off the mountain.

This time, as you’re bouncing over spikes that destroy you if you land on them and leaping from platform to platform, Part of Me helps you, tossing you higher than you could jump yourself. The dark colors of previous levels transform into calming blue sky and pink clouds as your pixelated figures ascend.

I don’t think the psalmist is actually rejecting God’s existence when he continually asks “Where are you?” I think, like Madeline, he’s accepted that anxiety is a part of him and is working through it, instead of denying its existence. It’s never going to be easy, but by accepting those parts of myself, and knowing that God loves me as I am and will never drive me away, I’m able to manage those emotions better.

It’s OK to be anxious. It’s OK to be depressed. It’s OK to be scared. We’ll work through it together.

Topics: Games