It was probably late afternoon by the time I woke up — I typically got out of bed around three those days. I started drinking immediately. I ate a piece of toast for breakfast, then replaced the rest of my meals with cigarettes. At 9:40 p.m. I wrote in my journal, in tiny crabbed letters that list across the page, “I want to see blood.” Less than an hour later, I skirted past my father, who was asleep on the living room couch, grabbed a knife from the kitchen, and disappeared into the bathroom.
About a month earlier — June 2015 — I’d crash-landed at my parents’ house in New York after weeks of gallivanting around the Midwest with friends, celebrating our graduation from college with endless rounds of drinks, joints and a few harder drugs. The hangover hit like a closed fist. I think I slept for a few days straight before I even spoke to my parents.
While I was still in school, I’d considered this my worst-case scenario: returning to a bedroom so small it would horrify Harry Potter, with no job, no money and no plan. Suddenly, most of my friends had scattered across the country, started jobs or vacations, moved on to the next chapter of their lives. But I was stuck. Stuck at home and stuck with the memories of the girl I’d wasted my senior year chasing, the girl who preferred femmes, the girl who would never feel for me what I felt for her.
Maybe living at home made me nostalgic, or maybe my fear of the future left me craving something familiar and safe, a world I could control. Maybe I just needed something to do when I was high — I must’ve been smoking a blunt before every meal those days. I can’t say for sure why I returned to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, an already outdated game I’d played as a teenager, but I started a new game shortly after I moved back home and ended up spending many hours in its mythical world of mages, elves and anthropomorphic cat-people that summer.
Skyrim is an open world role-playing game, the kind that lets you create a character and run amok. It’s set in a massive country of snow-covered mountains and vaguely pre-industrial cities populated by semi-believable shopkeepers, thieves, mercenaries, and, of course, copious enemies of every shape and size, from scrappy little rats to gigantic fire-breathing dragons. (I should also mention that it’s an excellent game, widely considered to be one of the best ever made. If you’re a gamer and you somehow haven’t already played it, I highly recommend giving it a try.) There is a main storyline that I assume involves your character harnessing their power to absorb the dragons’ souls, and therefore their abilities, but I never bothered to complete it. I wasn’t interested in the story the game’s developers had written for me — I wanted to create my own narrative.
The star I created for my private show was a dark-skinned warrior woman with a dreadlocked mohawk named Syd. I gave her a skin tone and face that roughly resembled my own, but our similarities ended there. She began her story as every Skyrim protagonist does: as a prisoner, about to be executed after being mistaken for a member of the rebel army. Just as she lowered her head onto the chopping block, a dragon attacked and she escaped in the ensuing chaos. For a while, she played at being the hero the prophecies foretold her to be. She spread the news of the dragon attack she witnessed, slayed another dragon and consumed its soul, travelled to the monastery at the top of the world’s highest mountain and learned from the monks about her destiny to defeat the dragons and save the world.
But Syd, like me, was never one to be concerned with destiny. She preferred to forge her own path. Rather than submit to the tutelage of the monks, she made her way to the massive mead hall at the center of the city of Whiterun to join a band of fighters she’d spotted wrangling with a giant in her travels. After proving her worth by roughing up a local troublemaker, wiping out a horde of goblin-like Falmer at Shimmermist Cave, and retrieving a shard of the shattered battle-axe Wuuthrad — said to have been forged from the tears of the first leader of the Companions — from Dustman’s Cairn, she was finally instructed to appear at the Companions’ underground chamber at midnight.
She became a werewolf, able to take the form of a beast at will, whenever faced with a large group of foes or one particularly annoying adversary. Eventually, she pieced together the fragments of Wuuthrad and carried the legendary axe into battle once more. Any enemy that could not be dispatched by the axe’s blade would surely fall beneath the monstrous claw of the werewolf. She became Syd Skullsplitter, the terror of men.
I didn’t have to make Syd a warrior. Skyrim offers a choice of essentially three combat styles: magic, stealth (my usual preference, because I am a coward), and brute force. I chose the latter for Syd because I wanted to know what it felt like to be strong. When I was still trying, and largely failing, to present as feminine, I spent hours scouring Tumblr and Instagram for pictures of butch women. They were almost always white, stylishly dressed and sporting trendy haircuts. Often, they stood smirking in front of bathroom mirrors, topless aside from a sports bra or binder, flexing to enhance the definition of their six-pack abs and toned, muscled arms. Black women, when they did appear, were almost invariably shirtless and more cut than a personal trainer. I understood these women to be the epitome of female masculinity: strong, confident, effortlessly sexy.
I, on the other hand, am so malnourished-looking that friends’ parents pull me aside at dinner parties to ask in a stage-whisper if I might be suffering from an eating disorder. (I am not, and even if I was, I surely wouldn’t discuss it with my friend’s drunk mother, however well-meaning she may be.) I knew I could never meet the standard of masculinity I’d internalized from those images. In the mirror, I saw a scrawny, hollow-eyed girl dressed in ill-fitting boys’ clothes, a parody of a parody of masculinity, someone who had failed for so long to be feminine only to find that she couldn’t succeed at masculinity either. But in the screen, I saw myself made strong, confident, fearless, perfect. I saw a woman whose masculinity was only ever questioned by those who hadn’t yet felt the crushing blow of her mighty battle-axe.
I’ve spent most of my life slipping in and out of depression — I got my first taste of it when I was twelve, after one of my classmates died of leukemia — but the night I cut myself in my parents’ bathroom was the closest I’ve come to making my frequent fantasies of suicide a reality. It was my crush’s birthday, and I whittled away the hours scrolling through pictures of the two of us from college — we were close friends then, despite my painfully obvious crush on her, or maybe because of it. Sometimes I wished she was straight, because that might’ve made it easier to explain to myself why she didn’t want me. But she was a lesbian too, and I knew her type: high femmes with light eyes and dark hair, white or white-passing women who wore dresses and makeup, women who were beautiful in a way I could never be. I couldn’t stop wondering if she would’ve liked me if she’d known me before I shaved my head, stopped wearing makeup, got rid of all my girl clothes and amassed a new wardrobe of jeans, button-downs and blazers made for teenage boys. What if I were a real girl, a girl who dressed and acted the way girls are supposed to? Would that make her love me?
After much toil, Syd became the leader of the Companions, but she soon tired of slaying beasts and werewolf hunters on their behalf. She joined the Dark Brotherhood, a mysterious and cult-like guild of assassins, and quickly became one of its deadliest weapons. Many of her fellow assassins chose to dispatch their targets stealthily, with silent arrows shot from shadowy corners or poisoned apples planted on dinner tables, but Syd preferred to tell her targets she had come to kill them and give them the opportunity to fight for their lives — not because she had any moral qualms concerning murder (she did not), but because she craved a challenging battle. Those who fought and lost died with dignity, and those who chose to cower or flee deserved the ignominious death she provided.
Finally, Syd was sent to the crime-riddled city of Markarth on an important mission. There she met a blonde, blue-eyed young woman named Muiri who desired the death of her former lover, a man who had used her to get close to her adoptive family and steal their valuables. Just killing the man would have fulfilled the Brotherhood’s obligation, but Syd also murdered another of Muiri’s enemies, the adoptive sister who had forced her out of the family. Pleased by the demise of both of her foes, Muiri rewarded Syd for her efforts with an enchanted ring and promised never to forget her. Some time later, Syd returned to Markarth and requested Muiri’s hand in marriage. (Yes, this game lets you get gay married.) The two wed and settled in an ostentatious manor in the capital, Solitude. They adopted two orphaned children Syd had seen wandering the streets in her travels. Syd, the consummate warrior, had never imagined herself taking a wife or raising children, but something she saw in the determined face of the woman who had made her the instrument of her revenge had changed her mind. Perhaps they shared a certain ferocity.
The first time I played Skyrim, when I was a teenager, I married Farkas, the least obnoxious male member of the Companions. (Yes, my closetedness extended to video games.) But this time, as Syd, I chose Muiri, and for obvious reasons: she was as close as any NPC (non-player character, for the uninitiated) could be to a dead-ringer for my college crush. Marrying Muiri seemed then to be the closest I would ever come not only to winning the affections of the girl I loved, but to any experience of requited love. When the ceremony was over, I felt accomplished, as though I’d finished building the fantasy life I hadn’t known I wanted. But I was also inevitably and painfully envious of my in-game alter ego. Who would I have to kill to earn a love like that?
I didn’t go into the bathroom intending to kill myself. It was meant to be a practice cut, just to get used to the sensation, a rehearsal for the as-yet-unscheduled performance. I was so drunk and so enraged at myself for being deficient in so many ways, but I still struggled to mete out the punishment I thought I deserved. I went to bed feeling like a failure — too worthless to live, too weak to die.
The next day, I got high and sat in the backyard, sipping coffee and staring at the roses. They’d only just bloomed, but already they were wilting in the heat. I decided that my failure the night before meant that although I wanted to die, my body wanted to live. All the layers of flesh that barricade my veins, the unbearable pain that attacked me as the point of the knife approached them: defenses set up to protect me from myself. Since my body had won the battle, I called a truce and stopped the war. I dedicated a week or two to learning to enjoy being in my body again. I ate slowly. I smoked less. I sat in the yard, warmed myself in the sunlight, and looked at the roses.
I didn’t stop playing Skyrim after that night, but I did stop seeing my avatar as the embodiment of masculine perfection I could never attain and started seeing the life I built for her as a reflection of my unacknowledged desires, a road map to accepting and improving the butch woman I am instead of worshipping one I could never be. I started exercising and eventually picked up boxing. I set up an OkCupid profile and started dating. Nearly nine months after I’d arrived at my parents’ house, I got a job. I moved out the following summer. Doing these things made me feel stronger, more confident, more comfortable in my body and the clothing I choose for it, but I’ve since realized that the quality I most needed to take from Syd wasn’t her physical power or presumed sexual prowess. I didn’t need to be more like Syd at her peak, when she could go into any fight certain that she would be the last woman standing. I needed to emulate her at the beginning, when every battle was a struggle and just lifting that massive axe required an almost impossible amount of effort, when she would get knocked down again and again and keep getting up to take another swing at some monster twice her size. I didn’t need her confidence. I needed her persistence, her dedication to improving herself one battle at a time.
It’s impossible to overstate now how glad I am that in those dark days, when death called to me constantly, I listened to the insistent beat of my heart and heard an injunction to live. I know many of you may not be able to relate to my love of a game that revolves around fighting dragons and collecting treasure, but I don’t know any gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer people who have never wrestled with themselves the way I did then, never been ordered by the repressive voices in the world or in their minds to justify their own existence. By offering me a non-judgmental, nearly unlimited stage on which to craft a show in which I was both star and audience, Skyrim enabled me to confront my fears of weakness and loneliness by enacting my fantasies of limitless strength and storybook romance.
All of the strengths I imparted to Syd were my own perceived weaknesses. She was powerful because I saw myself as powerless, beautiful because I saw myself as ugly, loved because I saw myself as unlovable. But creating her inspired me to re-create myself, and loving her, loving this dark-skinned, undeniably masculine woman with my face, made it possible to imagine one day loving myself. I’ll never really be like Syd — my battles are fought with words, not axes — but being her for a few months gave me the courage to try again to be myself. And I’d like to think that in some alternate universe, Syd’s still out there in the mountains, slaying dragons, splitting skulls, and going home to her beautiful bride.