I have pulmonary fibrosis. You know the feeling of your breathing being restricted because your dog (or very heavy cat) has decided to lay on your chest? That’s how breathing feels for me on my best days. As you can imagine, with my lungs trying to kill me because it’s a day that ends in Y, this pandemic has been extra terrifying.
Now that numerous cities around the US have entered stage 4 of reopening and are lifting restrictions for residents, people are getting back to their lives, albeit with masks (hopefully). There is, however, an entire population of people unable to have any sort of semblance of normalcy returned to us, largely because people are now starting to return to life as normal. Who? Chronically ill people like me and disabled people. In fact, I’m finding myself even more restricted now in my movement and in how safe I feel venturing outside my apartment than I did at the US’s very late start of all this in March.
I live in Chicago where the population density paired with the motorists-first design of the city makes it impossible to practice social distancing and so I take my dog out for her daily long walk donning my mask in the wee hours of dawn. Even at that hour, I cross paths with my non-mask-wearing neighbors also trying to walk their dogs, runners who can’t be bothered to give me a wide berth or wear a mask, or, my favorite, people out ambling slowly with their masks hanging down below their chins. Later in the day, the situation outdoors is even more impossible and selfishly irresponsible and so while everyone else is enjoying their summer, taking family walks, participating in scavenger hunts, doing carefree summer things, I’m inside with my dog, cut off from every person I know off of the internet, with nothing to do but work and play video games. The tedium is unbearable.
I am very much an introvert and I adore my solitude, so it caught me off guard when I realized how very much I missed people and connecting with them. One of the things that delights me living in the area I do, where my rainbow mohawk is complimented instead of stared at and I am accepted and welcomed is the conversations with perfect strangers I used to have every day when out walking my dog. Tali is a social girl, so she more than makes up for my awkward conversational fumbling. I love learning about people, getting little snippets of their lives in our brief, two-minute conversations while our dogs do their dog things.
One might think the solution would be to play social games with voice chat. Connect with people that way. But given that I am hard of hearing and a queer, trans person, well, I’d rather eat glass than have to resort to voice chat with strangers over the internet. Lately, the loneliness of isolation has been taking a toll, causing a flare-up in both my lupus and my depression and I knew I needed to find a novel way to occupy my mind and my mental health. Simulate what my life is lacking during the pandemic.
Enter my second playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2.
For those unfamiliar with Red Dead Redemption 2, you play the role of Arthur Morgan, a deeply flawed yet still endearing and lovable outlaw and member of a gang in the late 1800s US. Throughout the 60+ hours of story missions and optional side quests, Arthur meets an astonishing array of people, each with unique lives and stories, whom you can help or, if you prefer, rob and kill. I chose the former.
In this playthrough, instead of sticking mostly to the questline and trying to finish this very long game, I take on the role of outlaw/photojournalist, intent on talking with and photographing every person I meet in this massive open-world…and stopping to pet every dog.
This pupper was one I met at Emerald Ranch, a troubled little town with a mystery concerning an angry father and a woman who peers out at everyone from her window on the second floor of her father’s farmhouse.
Among my favorite of all the strangers I met in Red Dead Redemption 2 is this man. Gavin’s Friend. I first met him in Rhodes, a town wrapped up in a feud between two prominent families. Gavin’s Friend is desperately searching for his friend, Gavin. He asks you to keep an eye out for him and you will see Gavin’s Friend a few more times throughout your exploration of this fictional West. I don’t think he ever does find Gavin.
These two gentlemen, also in Rhodes, are a fun pair of friends, one of whom I’d recently reduced from snake bite poisoning by sucking the poison out of his leg. I could have just given him a health cure but I’d just spent all my money on new outfits, as one does, so I couldn’t spare it. The hat-wearing man is the one I’d saved and his friend is doubting his faith that I’d been sent from God to save him. Speaking of outfits, this kind man bought me a new one to say thanks for saving his life!
I met this man while out hunting in the Heartlands. He challenged me, a shootist, to a shooting competition. He even wanted to place bets. I won. Twice. And twice more when we met up a second time in Lemoyne.
Along our travels, my horse, Nancy, and I had a run in with a bison. It didn’t go well for Nancy and me.
Speaking of my best girl, Nancy, she’s a rather skilled mare. I found her up in the snowy mountains and after taming her, we spent a lot of hours together to cement our special bond. It’s become my habit to name my horses in Red Dead Redemption 2 after horses that have been a part of my real-life based on similarities. I wanted to call this girl Crackers, after a sweet old mare I cared for some years ago, but the game wouldn’t let me use inappropriate language, so Nancy it was.
Nancy and I met this woman and her attractive steed on our way home from a fishing trip. She thought Nancy looked impressive and fast and challenged us to a race. Nobody that has challenged Nancy and me has won (except the bison) and this woman and her horse were no exception.
The character of Red Dead Redemption 2’s Arthur has been special to me since my first completion of the game. There was something unsettling but so familiar about watching him slowly deteriorate to tuberculosis, his own health, and stamina affected in ways similar to how pulmonary fibrosis affects me. It’s also Arthur’s tuberculosis that snaps me back to the reality of the pandemic when he first shows signs of being sick, coughing in camp, surrounded by people, and my instinct was to worry that he was coughing around people and would infect them, not with tuberculosis but with The Virus, and it only reiterated to me how my entire life now revolves around this damn pandemic and trying to just keep myself safe and alive.
While it’s not a perfect solution for my mental health and how it’s being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m grateful for the thoughtful writing and the abundance of characters Rockstar put into this incredible game. It’s nice to have a break, however momentary, from thinking about how bleak everything feels and how, as a chronically ill person, my once-accepting and welcoming community has all but forgotten I exist in it.