In October 2019, I fell ill with a flu-like virus. I took a few days off work, hoping to rest and recover and get back to work the following week but that didn't happen. I had various GP appointments and blood tests but nothing came back to explain my ongoing illness. Overnight, I went from being a busy Mum with a full-time job and a healthy social life to being unwell, unemployed, socially isolated and housebound. Five months later, in February 2020, I was still unwell with ongoing viral symptoms, brain fog and an extreme lack of energy. I was given a diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.).
Everything was on hold while I waited to see if my health could improve.
The first few months of my illness were especially hard; both physically (through feeling so poorly) and emotionally too. There was a huge sense of loss as I wasn’t able to do any of the things that made up my life; looking after family and home, going out to work, seeing friends, enjoying nature and long walks in the countryside, having hobbies like sewing and baking... Everything was on hold while I waited to see if my health could improve. But in March 2020, Covid-19 arrived and the rest of the country joined me in my new lifestyle; our normal lives were put on pause and everyone went into lockdown; sharing on some level, the same sense of loss and shock that I, myself, was just getting used to.
I think, for many people, the release of Animal Crossing New Horizons could not have come at a better time. The game has given me a daily purpose and it’s easy for me to access and enjoy, despite feeling permanently unwell. On the days when I’m feeling particularly bad I can snuggle up under a blanket and transport myself to my Island; passing the time and taking my mind off my symptoms. It’s really calming to follow the routine of the game – doing daily jobs like: collecting fallen branches, digging up fossils, picking fruit, pulling up weeds and removing fish from the swimming pool. When you suffer with brain fog, it’s nice to have that repetition; where you can just relax your thinking and immerse yourself what you’re doing.
...a huge sense of loss...
Another important aspect of the game, for me, is the outdoorsy vibe of playing on an Island. When you’re chronically ill and your life is mainly centred around being at home indoors, it’s great to escape to your Animal Crossing New Horizons Island and enjoy the nature there – with all the trees, flowers and shrubs; and that’s not to mention the bugs, fish and sea creatures you can catch.
When the sun’s shining on your island it’s so much fun to pop on your diving suit and run and jump off the end of the pier into the deep blue ocean; especially when it’s cold and wet outside and you’ve been stuck inside your house for months on end… Or, when it’s raining on your Island, you can pay a visit to the museum and admire all the bugs, fish and dinosaur bones you’ve collected. There’s even an art gallery for you to explore.
If you’re lucky, once the rain has stopped, you might even get to see a rainbow too. In winter, you can have a great time making Snowboys and catching snowflakes which can be used in special winter crafting recipes. The cold weather in real life really makes my symptoms flare; so being able to play in the snow on my Island instead is perfect.
I’ve also really enjoyed getting to know the villagers on my Island. It’s so much fun having conversations with them in the game and my brain can easily cope with the short and simple dialogue. I find it much harder to hold a conversation with people in the real world – but in the game I can read what the animals are saying and simply respond with a fun reaction. My friendships with my Island animals are not quite on the same level as those with my real life friends; but I do enjoy hanging out with them. It’s an easy way for me to feel socially connected on some level, at least and, when you’re otherwise socially isolated, it’s easy to get quite attached to them.
I find it much harder to hold a conversation with people in the real world
One of my favourite villagers is Cookie, a super cute peppy pink dog. For some reason, Cookie reminds me of a really close friend, who I haven’t been able to see much (due to my illness, and the lockdowns). Cookie’s a really sweet, chatty and fun character and the comments she makes really make me laugh. I actually also discovered that Cookie is a Gemini – which is the same as my friend!
Another enjoyable aspect of the game, for me, is being able to visit Islands created by other players. It’s a bit like going on a day out and it’s good to have a change of scenery, which doesn’t happen when you’re just sitting at home. I’ve travelled to a wide variety of Dream Islands and have been amazed at how creative some of the players are. I also visited another player’s island using a Dodo Code; as I wanted to collect all of the different fruits available in the game. That was quite a stressful experience as another player chased me around, hitting me non-stop with a net! I was super glad to get back home after that visit!
Over the last year, my Island has been centre-stage for the main events in my life. On my birthday, Colton, one of my favourite animal friends, knocked on my door and invited me over to his house for a surprise party. It was the best! Cookie and Goldie were there too and there was a cake with candles to blow out, music and dancing, and a fun piñata. It really helped to make my birthday special; despite not being able to go out and celebrate with friends and family in the real world.
I was also very proud that I managed to see in the New Year on my Island. I did suffer for the late night health-wise the next day; but it was totally worth it. There was a countdown and fireworks display at midnight – which I got to enjoy from the comfort of my bed! Perfect!
The other main benefit of Island Life when you have a chronic illness is that you can go shopping for new clothes at The Able Sisters and re-style your hair. I haven’t had a haircut in real life for months! And there’s not much cause for dressing up when you’re just at home feeling poorly – but it’s far less effort to make Island me look fabulous! You can dress up as a spaceman, a milkmaid or a cat; depending on how the mood takes you…
I’m really surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed playing this game. On the 20th of March 2021, one year after Animal Crossing New Horizons was released, I have over 1,200 hours of gameplay to my name. I have played Animal Crossing New Horizons every day, without fail, since it came out. Even my teenage son hasn’t put that much time into one game before; and he’s the gaming enthusiast of the family. Supposedly.
At some point in the future, I hope the Covid-19 Pandemic will be more under control; so that people can return to their lives and the lockdowns will ease. I imagine some of the Animal Crossing Islands will end up deserted again; but, as one of the many people living with M.E., my Island life will certainly continue.
It’s estimated that around 250,000 people in the UK are affected by M.E. and around 17 million people worldwide. Around 25% are severely affected, being housebound or bedbound. I hope that’s something the world will remember when the national lockdowns end.
I feel that I’ve been very lucky in my experience of M.E. as, although I’m chronically unwell, my symptoms are usually fairly mild; as long as I get plenty of rest and take things very slowly. Enjoying life on my Island has really helped me to cope with the first year of living with M.E., following my diagnosis, and I am sure Animal Crossing New Horizons will remain a big part of my life in the years to come.
If you need me, you know where to find me…