Content warning: this post includes spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition, and discussion of suicidal thoughts and abuse.
Last year I was hospitalized – I couldn’t go a day without breaking down into hysteric, full-body sobbing about how much I hated myself, and how everyone in my life would be better off if I was dead. And I really felt like dying was the only solution. Years of trauma built up and I just… kind of broke, I guess. I thought I’d hit low points before, but a year later I can honestly say it was the lowest point of my life.
When I got home from the hospital and resumed trying to live a normal life, now with medication and therapy, it was still tough. You don’t automatically want to stop dying. Autism, PTSD, and OCD made figuring out medications tough. Staying alive was a choice I had to actively make, like – okay, I’m not going to kill myself today.
And I had a lot of reasons for not wanting to, even when I was at my lowest. My husband, obviously. My grandparents and aunts. My friends and loved ones. But when I hated myself so much that I thought everyone was lying to me about how much they loved me, I needed reasons to live that were mine and mine alone, not dependent on anyone else.
Dragon Age: Inquisition kind of became that for me. Specifically, Cole became that for me.
I don’t talk about it often, because I’m still scared, but I went through some kind of nightmarish abuse when I was younger. A lot of it had to do with my being autistic. Growing up with autism is difficult enough, and doing it with the upbringing I had was even worse.
It’s hard to describe how completely and totally unlovable I felt. I saw myself for the majority of my life as something truly evil and monstrous. On bad days, I still do. I felt guilt for spending time with people, because I was taught to think that my very presence was a burden. Autism isolates you. You want to fit in so bad, and you mimic the other kids and try to do what they do but it’s all wrong and they all know it. You’re like the uncanny valley come to life, and as hard as you try, you don’t know how to fix it. Because you’re the problem.
I read Asunder, the novel David Gaider wrote that takes place pre-Inquisition, which is where Cole was introduced. I felt an immediate connection to the character – thoughts he had about himself almost word for word mirrored ones I’d had before. Cole was abused too. Cole didn’t know what he was either. My heart ached for him. I knew before Inquisition even came out that he was going to be important to me in a way no other fictional character ever had been.
Everything I saw from Cole’s writer in Inquisition, Patrick Weekes, made me feel even more hopeful. So often autistic people are portrayed as robots in media – unfeeling, cold, always obsessed with math for some reason? Seeing so many characters fitting that stereotype even started to make me feel like I was being autistic “wrong”. But Cole’s defining trait is his empathy. His kindness, how much he genuinely cares for other people, even total strangers. And it doesn’t make him “less” autistic. Even with his good intentions and desire to help, he makes social missteps. He accidentally hurts people sometimes. So do I.
But the thing about Cole that was so important to me was how much he was loved. Not by all the other characters, sure. But the Iron Bull, even with his fear of demons, affectionately looked out for Cole and loved him anyway. Solas, who can be prickly to other companions at the best of times, treats Cole with a gentleness and care reserved only for him. Seeing Cassandra come around from being wary and afraid to striking up a deep friendship with him, hearing her laugh gently at his comments – all these things made me feel like people could love me, too.
Cole’s personal quest scared me the first time I played it. For as much as Solas and I seemed to agree on everything else, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Cole to forgive the man who killed him. I thought about what Cole had been through – being abused by his parents, being locked up by Templars and left to die alone – and I couldn’t accept the idea of it. But I was afraid, because the other option – letting him work out his anger, which I was much more in favor of – meant Cole would become more “human”.
I didn’t want to lose the connection I felt to this character, even if he was fictional. I didn’t want him to stop visibly stimming in scenes, when he’d rhythmically swing his leg when he was excited or nervous. I didn’t want him to leave me behind. Cole can become more human – I can’t.
I cried for the entirety of that scene, first out of sadness, and then relief. So often, a character like that “becoming human” means losing the part of them I related to. Like the part that makes me “me” is something subhuman. But Cole stayed Cole. Still awkward and unsure, prone to social missteps, but able to grow and learn from them. I can do that, too. Still filled with a desire to help people – his first concern after his change was how he could put honey in Leliana’s wine without her noticing. He’s still weird, different – still autistic. But he’s learning to cope with things. I am too.
When I was recovering and needed reasons of my own to stay alive, Cole was one of them. Inquisition was one of them. “I can’t die now because Inquisition’s not even out yet.” It’s a fucking ridiculous sentence, but when you’re in a place that dark, you need to grab and hold onto whatever works. “If I die now, I won’t get to play the DLC and I’ll miss out on more of Cole’s new party banter, and that would suck.”
And, well… I’m here, because of medication and therapy and projecting hopelessly onto fictional characters. I have a lot of reasons to stay alive, most of which don’t revolve around a boy from a video game. It’s still hard, sometimes. A lifetime of self-loathing and harm isn’t something you can undo in a year of treatment. But when I hear that voice in my head starting to be cruel to me, starting to tell me how awful I am – I stop, and I breathe, and I replace it with Cole. Because even when I can’t be kind to myself, I know he always will be. It helps.