Published in Mental Health - 5 mins to read

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about how celebrities and public figures can elicit such strong emotional responses from us, even though these are people we have never met, or interacted with at all. Why do we care about their lives? Purely because everyone else does, and says we should too, and we are desperate to fit in?

Public figures give us someone to project onto; someone whom we can tell ourselves we have some kind of kinship with, or who can act as a villainous foil to our virtuous selves, without the fear of rejection or of discovery that we have mischaracterised these people. This can be a good thing, when we feel inspired from a distance by them, but it can often bleed into something far less healthy (and even the briefest of peaks behind the internet curtain will betray that there are a lot of people out there who have unhealthy, unilateral relationships with these kinds of people).

Clearly I too have these kinds of feelings towards public figures, like Will Toledo or David Foster Wallace, who I think exceptionally highly of and have a strong emotional connection with, even if that connection isn’t reciprocated in any way. I am extracting some amount of wholesome, healthy inspiration from the two of them, but equally I project a lot of myself onto the both of them as well - I enjoy their art so much in part because I think they are similar to me, in regards both good and bad.

Byron “Reckful” Bernstein will be remembered as probably the greatest World Of Warcraft arena player of all time. He was an absolute legend of the game, and rode its wave as an esport in the old days - before all the prize money and the arenas - before it was cool. He went on to become one of the most innovative and successful streamers on Twitch, and again was one of the first to make a full-time living out of streaming.

I watched Reckful a lot when I was at university - he was one of the top Hearthstone players at the time, and I was playing the game a lot as well, so I’d follow his stream to try and get a grip on how to play Rogue like one of the best. He’d sometimes play poker as well, and my interest in that game was piquing also. He was articulate, funny, and clearly excellent at strategy games, so watching him was an easy escape when I was in a bad place myself. In recent months he’d been learning to play chess and streaming that too.

I haven’t watched Reckful so much in the past 5 years, but I knew he was still very successful, and was aware that he’d begun talking openly about his mental health struggles on stream. His older brother had committed suicide when he was younger, and it had clearly had a profound effect on him, leading him to develop bipolar disorder. He had plenty of manic episodes in a very public way, either on Twitter or on his stream itself. There are clips of him bursting into tears, seemingly unprovoked, or talking about his struggles with loneliness. Ultimately I think being open this way was admirable, he was educating people about issues that they might not understand, even if he did so in a raw, often scary way. Sure, plenty of people were beyond horrible and said truly despicable things to him in response - it is the internet after all - but he still had a thriving community, and still pulled in crazy numbers on Twitch of those who continued to support him.

When I found out that he’d taken his own life last night, I obviously projected a tonne of my situation onto his. I’ve never met or had any kind of conversation with Reckful, so why should I be upset? It’s not like I’m going to look at my phone tomorrow and think “Oh boy, I wish I could call Byron, but he’s never gonna pick up again”. Honestly it’s unlikely I’ll even think “oh boy, I wish I could watch Reckful’s stream right now”. I hate the idea of writing some kind of obituaryesque post about him, because there’d be so much naïveté in doing so. I kinda hate how upset his death made me - in many ways it shouldn’t bother me any more than any of the myriad tragedies that happen every single second. But it hurt, a lot - I cried when I read it this morning and I cried a whole lot more when I got home from work and decided to watch a tonne of clips and read a tonne of tributes to him. It’s frustrating to know that all that emotion is based off a projection, but it’s something I struggle to access within myself.

Seeing the outpouring of support and emotion after his death was what made it so hard I think. Photos of Stormwind Cathedral packed with players on every single server - Reckful’s impromptu memorial is now the biggest event in WoW history. So many heartfelt tributes from his friends and peers. Perhaps public figures serve a useful purpose in that way too, distance offers a new perspective. Reckful felt he was lonely, but from a distance that seems wholly incomprehensible. He felt like life wasn’t worth living - similarly, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people wanted him to not only keep on living, but to be a part of their lives also. Maybe when I feel those things, I can think about Reckful and try and zoom a million miles out from my own life and realise how stupid those feelings are. Or maybe not - maybe the whole point is that mental health problems are brutal, often all-consuming and completely detached from reality.

I don’t really know. A lot of people are going to miss Reckful, and I think I am too.