Illustration by Leanna.

Illustration by Leanna.

At the butt end of a winter 10 years ago, I was through with love. As far as other people, and especially guys, were concerned, it was over—“Finito. Kaput. Endy story. Goodnight, Vienna,” I told myself when I thought about it, quoting from one of my favorite books (books, so much better than people). The previous year had brought about some of the biggest and most unexpected changes I’d ever withstood. I’d gone from having an outwardly “normal” life to dropping out of school and moving in and out of mental hospitals as I dealt with the suicide of an abusive parent. Those catastrophes tossed whatever stability I had to the wind, and I was left scrambling for something, anything, to hold on to for comfort.

At first, I decided this meant guys. My mother’s death had left me with an unprecedented amount of autonomy—since her rules didn’t apply to me anymore, I could go anywhere I wanted, with anyone, at any time, and to my sheltered 17-year-old self, this was intoxicating. Drunk on the power of self-governance, I stumbled into the murky waters of dating.

I kissed a boy for the first time that year—a boy who stuck his hand up my knickers and pulled my boobs out of my bra, despite my asking him not to, and pretended not to recognize me in school the next day. After swallowing my disappointment, I made out with another guy I’d had a crush on for a while, who insulted my body as he groped me in a taxi. When he, too, ignored me afterward, I soldiered on and went on a double date with my best friend. I wasn’t really attracted to my date, but made out with him anyway, then—guess what?—never saw him again. Still, onward and upward! Even when my social circle became terribly limited after I dropped out of school, I wasn’t about to let the lack of IRL interaction put an end to my liaisons with guys. Instead, I turned to the internet.

I began hanging out in chatrooms, instant-messaging long into the night with older men from all over the world. I fondly dreamed of meeting and falling passionately in love with them someday, despite the fact that they were more invested in sending me dick photos than in taking part in any conversation that didn’t have to do with sex. Looking back, I find it really disturbing to imagine what would have happened had I not lived in India, continents away from most them, but at the time, it was all an adventure to me—just something to hold on to until I got tired and moved on to the next real-life guy.

After a few months of this, I somehow scored an actual date with a regular-seeming local dude that I’d met in a chatroom. When we got together in person, I found him utterly fascinating, and after we met up for the second time, I took him back to my father’s empty apartment. But when we undressed, things went south: His reaction to my naked body was soul-destroying to the point that now, even a decade later, it still hurts to think about it. In my insecurity and desperation for any kind of closeness, I let him touch me anyway. Two days later, we met again. After we had sex, which was my very first time doing so, he made the promises I’d been waiting so long to hear, telling me he’d be there for me forever. I believed him, until I called him the next day and a girl picked up the phone and told me he wasn’t around. Turned out the expiration date on forever was less than 24 hours.

That experience was harder to get over than the others, but one last IM-based romance took over my life before I totally gave up on love. This time, the guy lived in a different city and was eight years older, but those things didn’t matter to me when he spoke so enthrallingly about my kind of books and music, which resonated with me in a way that none of my many conversations with men ever had before. Two months later, I flew out to meet him, fell achingly in love with him within hours, and spent the next two days trying to persuade him to have sex with me. He refused, which, given how vulnerable I was at the time, now seems like the most decent thing he could have done. Back then, though, it was more than I could take. Upon returning home, I sunk into a deathlike stasis, barely getting through the days and doing the barest minimum I needed to in order to stay alive. I completely retreated from people in the real world and on the internet, relegating myself to a monkish existence. Thoroughly convinced I would only ever know lifelong loneliness, I gave up on trying to extend myself to others in any capacity. As winter turned to spring, I settled into my solitude, hanging out only with my dogs and turning to books again after almost a year’s break from reading.

Throughout my life, the universes contained in books have always been my primary source of emotional sustenance, and I’ve always fantasized about them long after finishing the actual volumes. Although I wrote copiously as a teenager, I had never thought of setting down the stories of Middle-earth that I idly dreamed up instead of the execrable poetry I filled my notebooks with—the concept of fan fiction was totally alien to me. That all changed on the night I followed some links on a Lord of the Rings humor site to a blog where a writer known as Cassandra Claire collected her “crackfic,” or intentionally absurdist fanfic, in a series called The Very Secret Diaries. Delighted by her jokes about elves and pointy hats, I searched the internet for more writing like hers, and it sucked me into a community that would dominate my life for the next five years.

Internet fandom provided me with some of the purest joy I’ve ever experienced and offered sorely needed respite from my loneliness. Different facets of fandom are variously populated by fangirls, fanboys, and nonbinary fans; the niche I stumbled into had a mostly female following, which was one of the reasons I felt so safe there from the beginning. These women were smart, hilarious, and superbly creative when it came to their obsessions. They all wrote fanfic and drew fanart, and much of it was very, very good. I instantly loved that the community was built on imagination and a shared passion for something everyone was creating together.

After immersing myself in other people’s fic for a while, I tried my hand at creating my own. My specialty was the erotic subset of fan fiction known as slash. I indulged my long-suppressed BDSM fantasies by acting them out on the page with the characters from LOTR, and as I entered university, fics focusing on the Weasley twins from Harry Potter obsessed me so thoroughly that they became the focal point of my life—I can truthfully say that most of what I read as an undergrad was fic. I would print out stories to sneakily read during class and spend nights before big tests online, repeatedly telling myself, Just one more story and then I’ll look through my notes. Predictably, the notes remained unread.

I loved these fandoms so rabidly because they brought me the solace I’d never found in real people. As a writer of fic, I had the sureness of complete control over the characters I loved so much, and as a slasher, I found that sexually removing myself from the picture altogether was the most satisfying feeling imaginable. It was the ultimate defense against emotional vulnerability, since I wasn’t an active agent in my fantasies, nor were any people in my actual life, the ones with the pwer to hurt me. My stories involved only imaginary people, which gave me the distance I needed to feel safe, but they were familiar enough to feel almost real to me.

I decided that I never needed to be hurt by another human being again. One of my LiveJournal entries from that time reads, “Fangirling is healthier [than real relationships], yes, I’ve proved it.” Although I would later change my tune about this, recusing myself from interpersonal relationships in favor of fic gave me the space I needed to recoup from the emotional onslaught of my past sexual experiences until I felt like I’d regained some control in that aspect of my life. As it built my sense of self back up, slash fic also helped me prepare me for my first positive romance. By reading and writing it, I was giving myself new templates for what mutual sexual respect and truly caring about another person, fictional or non-, could be like.

I finally started drifting away around the time I got serious about letting that IRL love into my life (which, without fic, I might not have been capable of doing). My deep-seated issues about my bisexuality meant that it took me a long time to acknowledge my girlfriend as more important than the alternate universes I spent most of my time constructing and reconstructing, but when I finally did, it was because her touch had come to feel far more real and comforting than my fantasy life with the Weasleys. My interest in fandom continued to wane as I moved on to new interests, like fashion and the fat acceptance movement, until it vanished completely.

About half a decade has passed since then, and my life has changed immensely, but the gratitude I feel for fandom will never diminish. It’s fascinating to me now that my interactions with actual people once scared me so badly that I needed to escape to a wholly imaginative space—but it’s a story that many fangeeks will be able to relate to. Fandom was one of the few situations in my life where I’ve experienced unconditional acceptance and provided me with some much-needed warmth in a world where I couldn’t form bonds with real people. It made me feel loved when no one else did. And while I may have ultimately chosen to be an active participant in my own real-world life and love affairs, it’s good to know that, should I ever wish to return to the Weasleys, fandom will be right where it has always been, ready to welcome me back. ♦