6/29/2006 The Internet





When I became ill, I lost all my friends.  This is a common experience among people with mental illnesses.  People you thought loved you run away when they learn that you’ve gone crazy. 


I made friends in the mental health system, fellow patients who had been through similar experiences to my own, but most of these relationships were short-lived.  You can feel close to someone in the hospital, fall in love even, but once you’re both discharged, you find out you don’t have anything in common. 


Some relationships do stick.  I met Joe in 1986, at <st1laceName>Emerson</st1laceName> <st1laceType>Hospital</st1laceType>, and if someone had told me that in four years we’d fall madly in love with each other, I wouldn’t have believed it.  I didn’t think he’d want to continue a friendship after discharge, but he gave me his phone number, scrawled on a little slip of yellow paper.  By some twist of fate I didn’t lose that little yellow paper.  And in the end it was only death that parted us.  We knew each other for 17 years.


I didn’t have many friends when I got sick.  What few I had fell away as bark falls from a diseased tree.  My social circles narrowed as the years wore on.  In 1997 my friends numbered three: Joe, Susan, and Phoebe.  Phoebe moved to New York and unexpectedly severed all ties with her Boston friends.  I believe she had a drug relapse, but I never found out for sure.  My relationship with Susan deteriorated when I told her I wasn’t feeling well enough to see her.  She got tired of waiting, I suppose.  Joe got sick and moved in with his parents, and I barely saw him after that.  I can’t say for certain but I believe his parents felt I was a bad influence on him.  They did everything they could to keep us separated, for a number of months. 


By August, I was desperate and lonely enough to make an attempt on my life.  During the months that followed I thought of nothing but death: how to do it, where to do it, and when.  Even <st1laceName>McLean</st1laceName> <st1laceType>Hospital</st1laceType>, one of the country’s top mental institutions, failed me, declaring me “no longer in need of hospitalization” exactly when my insurance ran out.  In October my treatment team gave me an ultimatum: shape up or get shipped to the back wards of the state hospital for an extended vacation.


What happened during those dark months I remember fairly well.  My life had taken a tragic turn.  I kept detailed records of those days that I haven’t read since I wrote them.  I spent many hours by the railroad tracks, daring myself to jump in front of a commuter train.  I smoked in a little wooded area by the cemetery until a cop found me hiding there, waiting for a train to pass.  After that, I never returned to my secret hideout, but ambled out by the river with a loaf of white bread, tossing it to the ducks and geese that waited by the water’s edge.  It was a cold, crispy and dismal autumn, a season with a tone in synch with my current mood.


During the first week of December 1997, my mother took me to a store to buy a computer.  I had a not-so-crazy notion of having e-mail pals.  Within a week I sailed into cyberspace.


I am not exaggerating when I say the Internet saved my life.  I met about 200 people over the next few days.  Through correspondence, through writing, I was able to make friends in a way that felt comfortable to me in my narrow, limited world.  Some of those people are still good friends of mine.  I befriended people ages 17 to 79, from the US and abroad, people with problems, people I could help.  I had never helped anyone before, never felt valued enough as a friend to offer advice or consolation.  But here, in cyberspace, I flourished.  My typing speed increased from 45 to 70 words per minute, my eyes went dry, my wrists threatened to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, but I was not deterred.


There were pitfalls, as you will see in future entries.  But I have never gone back to the desperate state I was in during 1996 and 1997.  It is simply not true that cyber-relationships are shallow, or without meaning or substance.  Studies have shown that heavy Internet users tend to be depressed; you can chicken-and-egg this one all you want,  but the truth is that the Internet gives solace to those who are depressed and links them together in a way never before possible.  For every person who becomes depressed as a result of Internet use, ten are pulled out of depression; of this I am certain.  Never, never again will I be entirely alone.  The Internet indeed saved me.