Dungeon crawling with chronic illness – Allison Alexander

Worlds of fantasy can be both escape routes and empowering for sick people, says author and Dungeons & Dragons player Allison Alexander.
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Photo of Allison Alexander by Carrie Lynn Unger Photo. A pale-skinned woman with short dark hair sits in front of a bookshelf, looking at the camera with a slight smile

In April, Allison Alexander released her latest book, Super Sick: Making Peace With Chronic Illness*, which focuses on the importance of representations of chronically ill people in media. When not writing, one of Allison’s hobbies is to dungeon crawl with a pack of adventurers in the fictitious worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, be it as an eloquent bard or a quick-witted drow (dark elf) sorcerer. She tells Gabriel Leão about her spoonie journey and inspirations.

Q: When did you become chronically ill? 

A: I’ve had severe IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) for as long as I can remember (my best guess is since age seven), so it’s always been my life. I was officially diagnosed in my twenties after a colonoscopy, but my childhood doctor had already been treating me for IBS. As an adult, I developed other issues (chronic fatigue, pelvic pain, iron deficiency, anxiety attacks, etc.). I’m seeing specialists now who think it’s all related. It’s frustrating when issues keep piling on because there’s no cure.

Q: Who in spoonie and related communities inspire you?

A: I was particularly inspired by several authors whose books I read in research for writing Super Sick, including Kira Lynne (author of Aches, Pain, and Love: A Guide to Dating and Relationships for Those With Chronic Pain and Illness), Maya Dusenbery (author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick*), and Toni Bernhard (author of How to Be Sick*).

I also appreciate Emily McDowell and her glorious greeting cards that are specifically designed for people with chronic illnesses, and Allie Brosh, whose book Hyperbole and a Half brings me to tears of laughter and includes some apt descriptions of what living with depression is like.

Izumi Curtis of Fullmetal Alchemist was a three-dimensional, awesome character who took part in the plot, even though she was sick. I loved that.

Q: Who is the mainstream media character with disability or chronic illness that caught your attention first? 

A: The first sick character that I could relate to was from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist. I watched the show for the first time as a teenger. Izumi Curtis shows up as Ed and Al’s stubborn, feisty teacher, and at one point, she starts throwing up blood. You learn later that part of her intestines are missing and this just happens to her at random times. I was struck by her character, not only because she had an illness where random attacks could hit her at any time (like mine), but because she wasn’t shoved into the sidelines due to her condition. She wasn’t treated as ‘less than’ or only there to be an ‘inspiration’. She was a three-dimensional, awesome character who took part in the plot, even though she was sick. I loved that.

Q: How was your first contact with Dungeons & Dragons?

A: I was immediately hooked. I played a druid, made some amazing new friends (in game and in real life), and learned to think before acting because there might be a group of goblins ready to attack if you jump out of hiding and start yelling. I was 25! I didn’t try it until I was an adult. 

Many types of entertainment—TV, video games, art—have helped me cope with chronic illness. D&D is similar in that it distracts me from illness-related anxiety. It’s also nice to be someone else—someone who’s not sick and goes on grand adventures that I couldn’t manage in real life—for a while.

Q: Who do you play D&D as?

A: Bard has been my favourite class to play, but I’m playing a sorcerer in the current campaign I’m in. She’s a young, sweet drow (dark elf) adopted by a human family. She left her village because of the prejudice against her and found some new friends to adventure with (plus a whole lot of trouble to get into).

We recently killed this giant flesh creature that had grown around a bell, and when the bell rang, our characters took psychic damage. If it rang five times without being interrupted, it took control of one of our characters. That was a tough battle. I remember rolling a lot of ones, but finally got a critical hit and that always feels great.

I deal with anxiety and fear on a daily basis, so it’s nice to step out of that in-character

Q: Is your Dungeons & Dragons character a side of your own personality or someone else entirely?

A: One of my sorcerer’s main personality traits is that she’s more curious and fascinated by all the weird, creepy stuff the party comes across than she is afraid. I deal with anxiety and fear on a daily basis, so it’s nice to step out of that in-character.

Q: Do you recommend the video-game versions of D&D for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses?

A: I’m not sure what games you are referring to— Baldur’s Gate? — but I don’t think I’ve played any specifically based on D&D. My current D&D group has been playing our campaign online through roll20.net, though (due to COVID), and it has been really nice not having to leave the house.

Q: Dungeons & Dragons is known for its cherished roster of characters like the mage Elminster or the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden. How do you see the representation of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses in this environment? Can it be improved?

A: I haven’t read a ton of D&D-based novels, though I have read Dragons of Autumn Twilightby Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which has a fascinating character — Raistlin Majere —with a chronic condition. In general, there’s much to be improved with representation in fiction. Many characters with chronic illnesses or disabilities that do show up fall into various harmful tropes, like only being in the novel to ‘inspire’ the main character, or to be pitied, or to be cured, or to die. I’m encouraged when I see well-developed characters with conditions who play a meaningful role in the story.

Fiction has the power to encourage, to inspire, to represent. It should be using that power for all minorities.

Q: Why does representation matter in subcultures and mainstream media?

A: Representation matters because people want to see themselves in the media they consume. When we rarely see characters like us, and when we do see them, they’re shoved into the sidelines or portrayed as worthless, it’s depressing. It makes us feel like we don’t matter. Fiction has the power to encourage, to inspire, to represent. It should be using that power for all minorities.

The cover of 'Super Sick: Making Peace With Chronic Illness' by Allison Alexander

Q: How has chronic illness influenced your writing?

A: Well, the book I recently wrote, Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness, is all about—you guessed it—chronic illness! So, it has been very influential, (laughs). Writing helps me mentally and emotionally process, so I’ve done a lot of online articles and blog posts on the topic throughout my career. When I work on fiction, I’m also very conscious about including significant characters who aren’t able-bodied. I’m the editor at a small press for sci-fi and fantasy and am delighted when I receive novel submissions that include characters with disabilities.

Q: Where can readers find you?

A: You can check out a chapter sample from Super Sick, sign up for my newsletter Invisible Ink (and get a free resource on creating characters with disabilities), or follow me on Twitter. I’m always happy to chat about living with a chronic illness. Or D&D. Or The Legend of Zelda. Or dragons.

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