The Obligatory Editor’s Note: This isn’t any fancy piece of writing by me. It won’t win any awards (not that admittedly my good pieces of writing do either!) but it’s cathartic.

It’s a terrible thing to discover that a close friend of yours has been killed. Learning through the medium of Google rather than through a ‘real’ person felt even worse. This was the story I found when I googled the name of a good friend of mine around 6 weeks after he’d seemingly vanished off the face of the earth.

Russell, or Elm as I knew him, was only 18 when he was killed. I’d never actually met him but he was and still is one of the closest friends I have ever had. I met him in a Yahoo Chat Room I used to frequent in my younger days. At the time he was an irritating and very cocky 14 year old that not many people really liked. I initially found him annoying and deliberately antagonistic but as time went on, we built up a strong friendship. It’s a cliché but a lot of the irritating sides to his personality were simply defence mechanisms. He’d been through a lot, his mother had some serious mental problems to the point that she tried to kill him once. It was lucky that he was a big lad otherwise he wouldn’t have got past 16. With a father that blamed him for the mother’s mental problems, Russell suffered badly from low self esteem. He really thought that he was completely worthless which was terribly sad as he was such a bright and caring lad. He just seemed to have drawn the short straw in life.

I treated him as my little brother. We might never have met but I truly cared for him. Once his PC died and he couldn’t afford to buy a new motherboard. So I sent him a new one to tide him over, he was my ‘brother’ after all; it’s what you do for loved ones. I’ve still yet to meet someone quite as genuine and kind spirited as him.

Besides computers, his one true love was bikes. He said riding a motorbike made him feel truly alive. Only a few weeks before his death, he had a fall. Only a minor one but enough to shake him up a bit. I reminded him not to screw up, that it can only take one mistake and that’s it. He promised me that he’d be more careful. Life at the time was finally going well for him. He was doing everything in his power to join the Navy to become a Communications Technician and make something of himself. He was constantly terrified that he would become like his mother, but I don’t think he would have. He had too much drive and too much of an urge to improve himself. He just needed a little more self confidence.

However it wasn’t to be. On his way to work one day, Russell swerved to avoid a tractor that had pulled out suddenly and hit oncoming traffic dying instantly.

The unfortunate thing about online friends is how do you find out these things? If a friend vanishes offline for a while, how can you find out if it’s just that they’re busy or that they’re dead? The sad truth is that quite often you just don’t know. As the days and weeks went on, I worried more. It was very out of character for him, especially as I’d only talked to him the night before the crash. His mobile phone was always switched off but I figured maybe he hadn’t paid the bill (a common occurrence). He wasn’t the kind of friend who just vanished, even when his internet connection had been cut off, he still found a way of getting in touch just to let me know. I knew it all along really, but it wasn’t until I dared google his name and the aforementioned news story popped up, that I knew for certain.

The other problem reared its ugly head then. I had never suffered any real form of grief. I had been fortunate that until 2005 I had never suffered any true loss but now I felt like I had nothing. I could tell my parents, they understood the online friendship thing. But my ‘real’ friends? They never got it. In the end, I just didn’t really tell anyone. Instead I retreated to Counterstrike.

I spent an entire week playing Counterstrike. I don’t just mean a few hours a day, I mean the entire time. I caught a few hours sleep but otherwise I was probably playing Counterstrike for 18hrs a day for the entire week. Clanmates would log on before work and I’d be there, they’d go to work and come back, I’d still be there. I wasn’t playing alone at least. I played alongside a good online friend of mine who was unemployed at the time so he was quite happy to be there for me the whole time. He didn’t know Russell, but he knew how much it was affecting me.

Counterstrike meant that my brain was always occupied. Simply put, I couldn’t cope with Russell’s death. It was all too much and I felt very out of control. I was returning to University in a mere week or two to complete my third year. That was scary in itself as I had no idea what I wanted to do once I’d graduated. Plus my boyfriend at the time had just cheated on me and left me. I had never felt so powerless before. So I picked up a virtual gun and stayed in the safe world of de_dust and cs_office.

I had control over this. All that was required of me was to kill the enemy and maybe plant or defuse a bomb once in a while. It was simple, I could deal with this. It was the world of emotions in my head that I really couldn’t deal with. So I hid.

Was it sensible? Probably not. I was avoiding facing up to the fact that my friend was dead, that’s not really very healthy. But I honestly think it was something that I needed to do. Just to give me a little time to try to figure it out. The truth is death isn’t something that you can figure out. It’s just plain old shit, no matter how long you think about it. There’s no solution to it. But I guess at least Counterstrike showed me that I did still have some control over my life. Even if that meant that I chose to hide in a game for a full week.

If you’re at all interested, more information on Russell is located here.

At some point I’ll write the second part of this, although that’s going to be a touch harder as it’s more recent and about my Dad.

Escapism Through Gaming – Part One