How Pokémon Became My Safe Place

by Moth Moth Moth | photos by Jackson McMinn

My version of counting sheep is building Pokémon teams in my mind until I drift off. Ever since I was younger it’s been the most peaceful way for me to relax. I know the first 251 pokes front to back. From Bulbasuar to Celebi. This franchise has been a part of my life forever.

The simple Game Boy cartridges from the ’90s era of Pokémon seem like fantastical items when compared to the digital downloads of my current game library.

I believe that our relationships with pieces of media are a precious part of the human experience. Our ancestors collected pretty rocks in a cave
for no other reason than comfort and imagination.

My mother is the one who supplied me with the two most important games of my life.

During Christmas when I was 5, I received a classic purple Game Boy Color and my copy of Pokémon Blue. The square cartridge felt like a sacred and breakable object in my clumsy baby hands. When I realized it was a very reading-heavy game I did not let it perturb me for quickly inside the space of that cartridge I found a sense of home.

Even now I can close my eyes and run through all the parts of the game in my head. A world made of colorful pixels and chiptune music. My first starter was Bulbasaur I believe, though I quickly restarted to try out Charmander or Squirtle. The first Pokémon I caught myself, having my mother read the sentences on the screen to help me understand, was a Nindoran.

I was a lonesome kid. Back then we didn’t realize that I was disabled. I got labeled odd or a loner a lot. Sometimes kids and other parents would use the “r” word to refer to me and my interests. I hated every day of school and found my peers to be overwhelming and cruel. Adults seemed to never stop rolling their eyes at me.

I remember laying on my pallet in kindergarten looking at the clock and thinking about how much I wanted to get home so I could play through the S.S. Anne part of the game, a cruise ship with lots of people to battle. Usually, that cruise ship is where your starter Pokémon, received at the beginning of each game, will evolve to its final form. Seeing Pokémon grow and change into new forms is one of my great joys. What begins as a little guy with a bulb evolves to become a big strong monster covered in flowers. I’ll never grow tired of it.

Sometimes I refer to myself as a “career sick person”, as it seems I never catch a break on this planet. Getting out into the world has helped much to know that many of us live through the burdens of our bodies and carry a heaviness with us.

I was born blue and I could not breathe. My Aunt Paula called me a Smurf sometimes when I was little. Blue like the plastic on the Pokémon Blue cartridge.

I had to skip most of the first grade. Not because I was smart. Though I wish that had been the case.

Right before my late winter birthday, I came down with a case of strep throat that revealed something. As a doofy kid, I always used to say that god sent that case of strep to me to reveal the true danger. The infection hit a part of my throat. A mass that wasn’t supposed to be there. Wrapped around my Adam’s apple and hyoid bone was this invader I’d had since birth. It had been cutting off my airway anytime I had laid down since I was born. When the infection hit it blossomed into the size of a softball. I remember the looks the other kids gave me when I visited for the Valentine’s party in first grade. It’ll always hurt.

After seven surgeries at La Bonheur here in my beautiful magic city of Memphis, I had a year of recovery.

That year I could not play because my neck had to be supported and bandaged and even after that it would always be on the weak side.

I clutched my purple Game Boy and a magazine announcing the next generation of Pokémon that entire year. Piles of batteries were gone through. The pages of the magazine turned white in the corners. When I got to the second grade the other kids had all changed and the trends were different. I had a different voice than I had before because of the damage the infection and mass had done to my ears and sinus cavities. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t run or pal around.

So I did my thing. I had my little friends sometimes, but i never established long term friendships with anyone until high school. My body felt so much better than it ever had, yet I was very much alone.

So I drew pictures. So I played Pokémon. So I tried to be happy.

That November I remember coming home. My mother had that look in her eyes when she picked me up. A Christmas-time kinda sparkle in her clever honey brown irises.

Standing on the school desk she had when she was young was a gold box with a beautiful rainbow bird on it. Pokémon Gold. The new generation of Pokémon was here, I had lived to see it.

The warm colors of this new adventure became a mind palace for me. I spent more time in Goldenrod City with my monster companions than I did in my hometown of Pickwick Dam.

To be honest, the pixels that made up my Meganium, a flower dinosaur Pokémon, felt like more of a friend than my flaky playmates from school ever did.

Much later in life when I was 25 I had a grand mal seizure in the hallway of my home. It took two minutes for my partner to get me to come to. After this, I was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Add it to the list I guess.

And I had to spend another year recovering and losing my agency and the privilege of showering or bathing without someone in the house. I could no longer drive my little silver car.

It destroyed me. I couldn’t even remember how to think like myself anymore. My imagination felt like it burned up in the neural fire.

My drag shows were all canceled for a long time. I had to be in dark rooms on
medication to make sure I was safe.

So I listened to Florence and the Machine and wept and planned drag shows in my mind. When I got tired of being miserable I would smoke some pot and play those old Pokémon games under the covers with the brightness turned down. And that was another year of my life.

As much as I accomplish and as much as I do with my life, there really isn’t anything better than living to see another generation of carefully designed monsters get released into the world for people to love.

A piece of media can become your home. I’ll always be grateful to Doctor Behar, who cut the mass from my neck, to Church Health Center for supporting me when my brain fell apart, and to my archangel of a mamma for keeping me alive!!!

But I have to give a special thank you to Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori for giving me a place to go where I wasn’t judged, somewhere I could grow at my own pace, a place filled with wonderful monster friends who could protect me.

And I will give The Pokémon Company my money for the rest of my sweet little gay life. Happily so. With a new generation beginning this year in November with the release of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, I’m ready to continue having fun and expanding my imagination.

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