My name is Anna Kreider, and I’m a writer, blogger, and tabletop game designer, most notably of The Watch – which I co-designed with Andrew Medeiros. And the story I would like to tell today is about emotional abuse, predators, and non-romantic abusers. It’s also the story of how I co-wrote a game about dismantling patriarchy while being emotionally abused by my co-creator.
Before we go any further, though, it’s important to preface this by declaring what I want to get out of this. After this many years, why am I writing this post only now? What am I hoping to achieve?
- I want to finally open up about a secret that has been extremely difficult to carry so that I can have some measure of closure and healing.
- I want to educate people about how emotional abuse works, and the tactics abusers use to make people dependent on them
- What I emphatically do not want anyone to send him angry messages, or to talk shit about him on Twitter, or use this as ammunition to start fights with third parties. Seriously, don’t do that shit.
Because this story is long (abuse is complicated), I ask that you please read until the end before coming to any judgments.
Lastly, and this is important. If there is someone prominent in our community who has abused you or who is abusing you, know that I will believe you. But I ask that if you reach out, please don’t share the specifics of your stories of abuse. Second-hand trauma is real, and while I care about survivors and want them to be well, I have to maintain boundaries around what I can listen to for my own well-being.
Thank you in advance for your understanding.
How it all started
I first met Andrew Medeiros (hereafter referred to as Drew – which is what he goes by) at GenCon 2014; we played in a comedy LARP together and realized we actually both lived in the same city, not that far from one another. After that, we became fast friends in the way that you do when you play a really good game with someone at a convention and you’re lucky enough to be able to carry that energy forward into “real” life. We started spending a lot of time together: playing games, hanging out, and talking online while we were at work and as a result discovered that we had a lot of interests in common. Unsurprisingly, as one of our shared interests was game design, it just seemed to make sense that we would work together on game design projects.
I helped Drew with photography for his card-based LARP The Forgotten, and said after that maybe we should design a game together. So in December of 2015, he messaged me saying that he had an idea for a Powered By The Apocalypse game about women soldiers in a fantasy setting fighting a nebulous threat called the Shadow, although he didn’t have a clear idea of what the Shadow was. It was my idea to define the Shadow in a way that would ultimately become the core of the game when I said OKAY BUT CAN THE SHADOW LITERALLY BE PATRIARCHY. I then yelled ideas at Drew over chat for two days until he bowed to the inevitable and agreed to design a game with me.
In the beginning of the development process, things were great, because he was still great. I was going through a lot of shit in my life both personally and professionally, and he was very supportive and a good friend. I found Drew really exciting and energizing to be around, and I thought that he felt the same way about me.
And it was never a romantic thing for me; I have a monogamous partner and at no point did my friendship with Drew threaten my partner or damage our relationship. I just found him to be someone I vibed really well with, both personally and creatively. And because I thought that Drew felt the same way about me, I thought that I had found a true and lasting friend – one who would be around for the long haul. I didn’t know then how wrong I was, or how damaged I would be when everything fell apart and I was left holding the pieces.
See, what I didn’t know at the time was that I was just the latest in a pattern of women and AFAB people that Drew emotionally manipulated because he was attracted to them; I wasn’t the first, and I definitely wasn’t the last. And he had a type, which I fit to a T: short-haired gender non-conforming feminist gamer AFAB people.
He knew it was inappropriate to manipulate women he was attracted to into being physically intimate with him, but he had no problem with manipulating women into being emotionally intimate with him in order to satisfy his desire for intimacy with women he was attracted to (intimacy that just “happened” to come with physical contact like hugs or hand-holding, of course). Only that emotional intimacy was never real, because I was never more than a prop for his ego, to gratify his need for validation by women and AFAB people he found attractive.
So he did the same thing to me that he did with all the other women: he cared about my feelings as long as he was attracted to me, and when he no longer felt that attraction, my feelings were no longer important. But instead of having the “decency” to ghost me like every other dude friend I’ve had who has fuck-zoned me (and there have been lots), he became emotionally abusive.
But what do I mean when I say he was emotionally abusive? Well, I’ve had to learn a lot about the mechanisms and processes of emotional abuse through the last few years, so let me walk you through it.
When we first became friends, Drew was the one who consistently pushed for an inappropriate level of emotional intimacy. TO BE CLEAR: it wasn’t inappropriate because both of us are in committed monogamous relationships. The whole concept of emotional cheating is based in toxic norms of monogamy and heterosexism that say that men and women can’t ever really be friends without wanting to fuck each other. And. As a queer asexual nonbinary person, I have SOME FEELINGS ABOUT THAT.
STILL, the level of emotional intimacy he pushed for was inappropriate. His interest in my feelings was only ever a prop to gratify his pants-feelings about me. And at every point in our relationship, he was the one that pushed for more intimacy, and he was the one who defined what that intimacy would look like.
There’s a thing that abusers do called love-bombing, where they want to accelerate you through the normal stages of a developing relationship (either romantic or platonic – it applies regardless) in order to make you emotionally dependent on them. He used love-bombing to emotionally manipulate me into believing that he was the most important person in my life, and it worked because I was in a very vulnerable place in my life and badly needed the validation and acceptance I thought he was offering. (Love-bombing is an extremely common tactic of abusers that often isn’t well understood, so if you’re unfamiliar with it, I urge you to do some more reading.)
So we became very close, and I thought it was a two-way connection, but it wasn’t.
Second: Trauma bonding
When he was still attracted to me, he treated me extremely well. He gave me presents, flooded me with validation and emotional intimacy, and quickly became a central pillar in my life. But when that attraction faded, he cut himself off completely. He would become very distant and withdraw affection for little or no reason, usually very unpredictably. Which was extremely emotionally damaging, because he was the one who had fostered that emotional intimacy and dependence in the first place. We would go through these completely exhausting emotional boom/bust cycles every few months that left me completely unable to function in other areas of my life because of how draining it all was to deal with.
It may sound trivial as I describe it. I must be such a millennial snowflake if someone not being affectionate with me could be so traumatizing, right?
Withdrawing affection is a devastatingly effective tactic used by abusers, because we are hard-wired to seek acceptance and validation from the people that we love. Still face experiments with babies show that it is neurologically devastating when someone we are emotionally dependent on suddenly withdraws their attention and affection. And that cycle of abuse, the emotional boom/bust cycle I described, becomes a literal physical addiction that causes the victim of abuse to crave that sweet sweet rush of dopamine created when you finally cycle back into a reconciliation phase. It’s called trauma bonding, and it’s the reason why abuse victims have such a hard time even realizing that they are being abused, and why they have such a hard time leaving.
So what did that look like in practice?
Drew would push the relationship to its absolute breaking point and then apologize. He’d convince me that things were going to be better, and that he understood what I was going through and how he needed to change, but he never would. And I would take his words at face value and believe that he really cared about me and that he was going to do better because the rush of dopamine when he finally apologized and gave me even a scrap of the respect and validation he had made me dependent on obliterated my ability to step back and observe that the pattern kept repeating without anything ever changing.
But an apology without change is just manipulation, and that’s the only purpose his apologies served – manipulation. He knew when he had gone too far and would always convince me not to listen to my feelings. Because…
Third: It was always my fault
That’s one of the central moves in every abuser’s playbook: convince them it’s all their fault. And that’s what Drew did to me.
According to Drew, the problem with our friendship wasn’t him. It was never him. It was my anxiety, you see. My PTSD. My depression. Most of all, it was my feelings, because my feelings were always incorrect. And my mental illness was also always incorrect. He would say incredibly hurtful things like he found my mental illness “too exhausting to deal with” as a way to prevent me from talking about my very real feelings of trauma and hurt about the cycles of emotional abuse that he was putting me through.
He became completely fragile when confronted with even the gentlest assertions that he had done something wrong, because never being in the wrong was completely central to maintaining his control over me. So even the mildest requests for introspection and examining his own motives and actions? That just wasn’t okay, and he would DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender) to convince me that I was the one at fault.
He would give me the silent treatment to punish me for doing or saying things that he didn’t like, and especially for naming his bad behavior – a tactic that only became more frequent as time went on. I remember one time in putting together a games day for my birthday, he assumed that mutual woman friend wouldn’t know anything about a certain genre of games and suggested she wouldn’t be comfortable playing that genre of games. This friend actually knew quite a lot about this type of game, and rightly got upset with him for assuming she didn’t know anything about this type of game and thus needed to be protected from it.
At that point, I still couldn’t stand up for myself, but I could stand up for other people, and I tried to tell him what he did was wrong. Gently! With empathy and emotional hand-holding and metaphorical whispering in soothing dulcet tones about the unfortunate unintended effects of his action: that he had hurt someone because of sexist assumptions and that he should apologize. And as a result, he didn’t talk to me for about two weeks.
I ultimately broke down and apologized to Drew, even though I knew that he was in the wrong. Because by then we were nearly a year into the design and playtesting of The Watch, and I was too invested in our game to risk having it fall through over something as “small” as a “minor” disagreement. And because I had become dependent on his attention and interaction, even when I knew that interaction maybe (definitely) wasn’t healthy.
Having him refuse to talk to me was agonizing. It would make me feel actually physically ill. So even though I knew I was right, I was willing to contort myself into whatever emotional configuration was demanded of me in order to maintain the relationship.
Another time, he didn’t talk to me for almost a week because I had jokingly accused him of mansplaining, when that was exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t doing it seriously, it was a joke – one that I laughed at a lot! And I wanted to let him know that I was in on the joke, but even naming something he was doing as a joke wasn’t okay. Because naming a thing that he was doing that wasn’t okay was too much for him to deal with, and that was always the most important factor.
Fourth: social justice jargon as a form of gaslighting
Lastly, Drew was very good at weaponizing the language of social justice to make me question my perceptions and beliefs. He was very good at using feminist jargon about things like checking privilege and toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and he was very good at validating my lived experiences of sexism and misogyny… as long as they didn’t implicate him or personally inconvenience him.
The fact that he was able to use social justice jargon to name and describe the complexities of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and how they affect men made me question my feelings about how he was treating me. He couldn’t possibly be mistreating me, because how many times had I watched him lead conversations with other men about how toxic masculinity damages men while acknowledging himself as part of that problem? It didn’t make sense that someone with Drew’s understanding of social justice concepts could be abusing me, so I refused to acknowledge it.
The problem, of course, is that simply using and understanding social justice jargon doesn’t mean that one has internalized those concepts or taken them to heart. Drew used those terms to establish social justice cred, which he used as a shield against his own behavior, and which he used to get women he was attracted to to lower their defenses with him. I witnessed him on more than one occasion using that kind of performative wokeness to gain trust and become close to other targets, and it was only after I gained distance from the situation that I was able to see what he had been doing.
Writing The Watch: Like fiddling on the Titanic
We were more than two years into the cycle of abuse by the time I found myself finishing the text of The Watch, and things were getting to the point where they were becoming untenable. When we first started developing The Watch, we were still in the second honeymoon phase of our emotional boom/bust cycle and things, from my point of view, felt great. However, by the time I was writing the actual text of the game in late 2016 / early 2017, things had gotten real bad. There were a number of times when I distracted myself about how ill Drew’s emotional abuse was making me feel by knocking out a whole bunch of word count for the book, which is a special kind of fucked up when you consider what the game was actually about.
Sadly, things only got worse from there.
In September 2016, I finally realized that the situation was abusive and had to stop. Once again, just as I had many times before, I tried to have it out with him gently and with empathy. Once again he apologized, said he would change and do better. And once again, he immediately manufactured a crisis that made him the REAL victim, meaning that he, you know, needed space. (Remember DARVO?)
After that, I cried every day for six months because I knew our friendship was over. I hated him and the effect he had on me, even while I hated myself for being unable to stop caring about him and how he felt about me. But this time I didn’t apologize. I stuck to my guns. And that marked the beginning of the end.
Even then, even after I finally let myself know and accept the reality that I was being abused, I chose to remain silent. By the time things between us blew up in late September 2016, the book was already halfway done. We had a budget set, reward levels planned, vendors and artists sourced, and a Kickstarter launch date set. I was committed – both legally and personally – to seeing this thing through, and resolved to do whatever it took to get my game into the world, because I believed that it was important. Unfortunately, though, Drew turned out to be as shitty as a business partner as he was as a friend.
The deal we had made was that he was supposed to be the public face while I handled the back-end stuff, mostly because dudes are shitty to AFAB people online and because we knew we could make more money if we made him more prominent. As such, Drew did the lion’s share of playtesting and was supposed to handle things like backer updates, answering questions, and dealing with backer complaints. Meanwhile, I was supposed to handle things like dealing with the printers, arranging shipping, and paying vendors. And. Well. When it came to being the face of our campaign, Drew really enjoyed doing podcast interviews, but when it came to anything else… he just didn’t show up.
He didn’t follow up on the things he promised to do, and he would get cold and aloof with me when I tried to ask him to do something. I spent three months asking him to write a few paragraphs for the introduction of the book so that both co-creators were reflected, and I finally gave up because he kept promising to get me something and just wouldn’t do it. He finally got so prickly every time I asked him that I just got tired of chasing him. It wasn’t worth it to me to continue getting punished with the silent treatment for trying to get him to give me something that should have been part of the book.
Similarly, he never took initiative in doing backer updates – even when we had milestones that were important to share like ‘hey, we paid the printer an advance for going to press’. So instead of Drew doing backer updates, I ended up writing them and sending them to him for approval. Sometimes he would then change things behind my back and post them under my name, and I would get blamed when it caused confusion or unhappiness. And then he would do another interview and congratulate himself on what a “great working relationship” we had and how well we had done in distributing the workload 50/50, when the reality is that the work needed for publication once the game was finalized was done 85% by me. All while I clenched my teeth and yelled my frustration at the tiny handful of people who knew us both and knew what was going on.
And that’s the horrible irony of the whole situation. I wrote a game to fill my need for stories about women and nonbinary people destroying patriarchy, and I co-authored it with a man who used patriarchal programming to abuse me and make me question my own reality. He emotionally damaged me so badly that I spent two years convincing myself that the reason I was miserable was because I was broken and unlovable. And I spent another year after that undoing the damage that he had done to me.
The lasting damage of trauma, and figuring out the path forward
I already had complex PTSD before Drew, but I have a whole raft of new triggers now from his abuse – and some of them look like they’re going to stick around forever. The biggest being that I’m not able to trust cis men who are too nice to me when I meet them, which is sad because I meet a lot of really great men at conventions who play The Watch and have some pretty transformative experiences and then want to express their gratitude for opening their eyes to experiences of marginalization they’d never fully understood.
I smile and do my best to be gracious, but I can’t trust them – not after how I met Drew and everything he put me through. I mostly keep them at arms’ length because men who are “too” nice to me give me emotional flashbacks to how Drew love-bombed me to set up the abusive relationship and all of the feelings that came after that. And I just can’t go back there.
I am better now than I was. I am very lucky to have had access to trauma therapy and EMDR. I also worked very hard on getting free of him – getting him out of my life and getting to the point where I wasn’t dependent on him both emotionally and socially – though I’m not completely there yet. My local social circles are a lot smaller than they were when I was friends with Drew, and it’s been very hard and isolating to deal with the fallout of ending our friendship.
I’m sure that I’ll probably lose a couple more friends for writing this, but this silence I’ve carried for too long is already heavy enough and I won’t apologize for finally setting it down.
Staying silent for the better part of three years, even after I knew that he was an abuser, was difficult, and not something I did lightly. A big part of my silence was fear for the reception The Watch would get. I needed it to succeed. And as much as I can say, well – the really good bits, the bits that make it the game that it is, came from me. I mean, come on, the Shadow, the Resist the Shadow move, the mechanics that are integral to the themes of struggling with and transforming societies in resistance to white supremacist patriarchy… those come from me. But, 50% of the ideas and mechanics are still his, and I can’t meaningfully call it my game without acknowledging that it is his game as well.
And I still love my game. Because after Drew broke yet another promise (and he broke many) and left me to run 100% of the promotional sessions in advance of the Kickstarter launch in February 2017… since then, I’ve run at least thirty sessions of The Watch at various conventions, and I’ve gotten to see the look on mens’ faces when they really understand something they’ve been doing in their life, something that didn’t make sense until just then. Seeing that realization and hearing them thank me for opening their eyes has been incredibly healing, and is one of the few things that consistently gives me hope that maybe the gaming community can learn to do and be better.
Even more meaningful has been the conversations I’ve had with other trans and nonbinary people who have been so joyful about being able to play a game that explicitly reflects them and their experiences. I’ll never forget the trans masc person at Breakout Con who declared that the Eagle armor option “glorious and bulky” was their actual gender and the glee that accompanied that proclamation.
Being able to reflect people who are normally invisible was a big part of the reason why I wanted to make The Watch in the first place, and why I stuck with it despite everything that went wrong between Drew and I. Because I needed a game that told stories I wanted to tell featuring people who looked like me. And being able to witness queer joy at being seen has been transformative, and has validated the choices that I made to continue forward with the project.
So yes. I love my game.
But it’s been very painful having to share the byline with someone who harmed me, and who I know has harmed other people. And the only reason it’s even possible for me to say this is that he doesn’t really do tabletop roleplaying games anymore. If he still did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this.
Drew is exactly the person that I’ve been laying breadcrumbs to for the past 3+ years, with my writing about emotional predators and my frustration with our inability to deal with predators in our communities. Because this is the story that I needed to tell.
I know that telling this story will probably mean that The Watch’s sales will suffer, which is a big part of the reason I’ve waited this long to say anything. And I understand that impulse, not wanting to give an abuser money. I do. But I ask that people don’t boycott The Watch, because I still do love and believe in my game. I believe that it’s absolutely vital and transformative. I wish I could get more people to play it, and I don’t want it to languish because he’s terrible, and that fear is a big part of what kept me silent for so long.
So. That’s my story.
It’s sprawling and messy, just like me. And it’s not the whole story, because there are parts of the story that aren’t mine to tell. But if you’ve gotten this far, thank you for reading. And if you’ve read this far and any of this feels painful or familiar, or describes something you’re experiencing right now, then I want you to know these two things:
- Abusers don’t have to be romantic partners or family members to harm us. Platonic relationships can be every bit as as powerful, and every bit as damaging.
- You are not weak for continuing to need attention from your abuser, even if you know you are being mistreated. Abuse is a literal physical addiction, and you are not broken for responding the way your abuser wants you to. That said, there are people who want to help you be well, and who will help you get away if you ask for help.
To that point, I would be remiss if I did not thank the people in my life who helped me get away. Supporting someone recovering from abuse is not easy, and I know that I was pretty (very) frustrating to deal with, and pretty (very) disrespectful of boundaries around venting extremely intense feelings. The peak of Drew’s abuse overlapped with the emergence of my anxiety and PTSD, and that definitely made things harder and more complicated. So to the people who supported me, who validated me when he made me feel worthless, who told me not to talk to him when I was jonesing for his attention, and who generally put up with me being a broken record, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your love made it possible to get free and begin the messy work of healing.