It was 2008 and I was rushing to Margate’s QEQM Hospital in an ambulance with sirens blaring.
My son’s birth was quite a traumatic event. It shouldn’t have been, but we’d decided on a home-birth, something I would strongly discourage all first time parents from doing. It was a split decision: I’m vasovagal and almost pathologically phobic about hospitals and my wife thought we would get better, more personal (1 on 1) care in the safety of our own home. The resulting disaster turned what should have been the happiest day of our lives into a situation that would have found a better fit in a horror movie.
I went onto autopilot as we were bundled into the ambulance and it literally screamed through the streets, I felt numb in the delivery room as I waited for what felt like an age for my son to arrive and – crucially – for him to take his first breath. He was taken AWAY from us to a corner of the room in a huddle of doctors and nurses and the wait was agonising. My wife lay on the operating table and I just sat on a stool away from everyone.
When all the fear turned to relief and we ended the day with a beautiful and healthy baby, I drove home alone while my wife stayed in hospital to be monitored. When I got in the front door, I did something I never do: I went to kitchen cupboard, found the strongest bottle of wine I had in the house and downed the entire bottle, just staring blankly at the wall while the world blurred around me. Up until that point, I’d been worried primarily that I would be a terrible father (my own had had nothing to do with my upbringing) but had not been especially worried about the actual birth. The shock of the day’s events had numbed me completely: I couldn’t sleep, so I’d put on Lost in Translation and remembered thinking at the time that it was one of the most powerfully upsetting films I’d ever seen (something I believe to this day).
In the months that followed, I struggled with constant worries that I wasn’t being a good dad, that I never really knew what to do and that I wasn’t doing absolutely EVERYTHING I could. To complicate things, Hodder were in the process of releasing a series of books I’d written and the first three were going into the children’s bestseller lists, meaning there would be a further six-book deal and precious little time to write them in. I worried that I was failing as a father and that I’d soon fail to deliver the books and be exposed as a worthless charlatan on that score, too. The worry didn’t go away in the year that followed: we’d settled into a strong routine with my son but the concerns about the books and the insane sales targets were soon justified. We hit no.s 2, 3 and 4 on the childen’s bestseller lists but we needed to do that. Instead of six books there were now going to be fifteen.
The pressure was just becoming too much.
When things get too much for me, I have a tendency to drag other people into misery: I was determined not to do this to my family and as nearly all of my friends were not parents themselves and regularly referred to the fact that they thought I led a charmed life, I felt a distinct lack of understanding around me. All this resulted in me looking for a place to hide.
That’s when I found Second Life.
It’s quite hard to explain to people OUTSIDE Second Life what Second Life actually is, but I’m going to attempt it in the simplest terms: Second Life is a virtual world very much like the Oasis described years later in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: it has its own community, its own currency and its own timezones. It is not a game in the sense that there’s something to win and although there are communities inside it that play games on mini huds (Tiny Empires and Vampire communities used to be quite common), it’s more like a worldwide social group based on people’s interests and preferences.
I created a male avatar called Jonesy Sharktooth, based on a principal character from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, and wandered around as a bit of a nomad, trying to make friends and find things that were interesting to do and see. The place I eventually found to settle was a Wiccan community called Witches Island and a sprawling village square dominated by a lively virtual Inn called The Artemis Tavern. This thriving social group was run by a UK-based alternative religious group called The Children of Artemis. It was arranged in quite an odd way: there was a High Priest in charge but he rarely appeared aside from the odd appearance at specific events and instead a High Priestess (unrelated) did a lion’s share of the work, armed with a group of men and women who formed a small army of social hostesses and would engage newcomers in conversation with particular agenda outside widening the community and spreading the word.
I’m not religious in any determined way, but I’ve dabbled in just about everything. I’ve been a Christian, a Roman Catholic, a Wiccan, practitioner of high and low magic, a Master Freemason and even a Chaos Magician: I’ve played around with all of it so the community didn’t phase me at all: what DID concern me was the level of damage I was likely to do to a fairly decent bunch of people, especially when I was a bit wounded myself.
I have a tendency to view life as a video game: not in any sense where I set out to upset people but almost as though I forget there’s an actual person behind the screen at all. I often view people in games as non player-characters and I’m nearly always looking for the cheat sheet. This can be make me quite a toxic ingredient in a community if I spot an element that I don’t like. Fortunately, I ran into three people that I really did like and I started to look forward to my moments in Second Life, which was becoming a handy escape hatch from reality.
Bad news at work? Disappear into Second Life for a spell. Argument with my wife? Nip into Second Life to moan about it. My friend pulls a no-show on a film night? Nobody stands me up in Second Life. In the mornings at breakfast I would chat away with a friendly Australian barmaid and in the afternoons a charismatic British witch; in the evenings an entire bunch of folks populated the tavern in their own unique timezones: they all had unique characters and personalities: a furry, a pirate, a fairy, a clown – they were all fantastic and each person had their own story.
As I wandered around Second Life, I found more and more people there for a wide variety of reasons: people who were physically disabled and found they could do things in Second Life that they couldn’t even dream of in their first one, people who’d lost loved ones and were doing their grieving in the virtual realm, even people who came on looking for an education (there was a very active university/lecture circuit community).
Eventually – as with any social group containing more than a handful of personalities – there was drama. In the case of the Artemis Tavern, this resulted in a very large faction war with half of the community splitting and following the High Priestess while the remainder stayed fiercely loyal to the management. I probably didn’t help this state of affairs and naturally sided with the breakaway faction, nipping between the communities as if I were playing Skyrim and wanted to get the maximum amount of quest points from both sides. Naturally, I ended up distrusted by both and became a catalyst for further trouble as the conflict widened.
Second Life was very much First Life for a lot of the people I encountered, which immediately clashed with my own mentality of using the place purely as a First Life escape. Naturally assuming that everyone else was hiding from something, too, I would often be surprised to find the same people on there, day after day and week after week. I would marvel at the fact that people did ACTUAL jobs in Second Life, had shifts in virtual bars and were paid in Lindens. They owned property, got married and even had kids.
At one point I owned a fishing hut on stills. It was only when I found myself dashing in there every morning to sweep my front step that I had a sort of negative eureika moment and thought ‘What am I doing? The broom doesn’t exist, the step doesn’t exist and the even HOUSE doesn’t exist: why the hell am I paying rent?’
When my time in Second Life ended, I looked back on the entire experience quite positively. I’d met two really awesome people who both became friends, if only in a remote sense. I’d learned a lot about things like prims (an object indentification term) and Lindens (a currency) and – most importantly of all – I’d hidden from the real world and managed to charge my batteries at the same time.
These days, you can often find me in yet another virtual world; the post apocalyptic desolation of Fallout 76, hanging out with friends amid bursts of gunfire and the occasional nuke. It’s a different sort of escape hatch…but a useful one. Before that, it was World of Warcraft. You can always seem to find a virtual world in a crisis.
Every now and then, I go into Second Life and wander around, visiting a lot of the places I used to hang out. They all look the same…but a lot of them are abandoned. I haven’t been in since the pandemic started but I can only imagine the lockdowns must have generously reignited the population of Second Life.
I guess there’s only one way to find out….