How the Internet saved my life

The came to my rescue when I got online access in 1997 and made connections through e-mail correspondence.  I think the fact that this happened to me was a big part of my sudden recovery (for want of a better word) at the beginning of 1998.  I still believe that making these connections saved my life and saved me from ending up in the state hospital.  And let me also add that it was my choice.  I asked my mom if she’d help me get a computer.  I insisted that we do this right away.  She didn’t see the sense in it and wanted to put it off, saying I already had a computer so what did I want a new one for, but I wanted one that had a modem and an operating system like Windows even though I had no clue what these things were.  I had heard of this thing called AOL, too, which stood for America Online but I didn’t even know that.  I knew I had no friends, no support, no one who believed in me or cared about me.  Day treatment or clubhouses weren’t the answer.  I couldn’t relate to these people.  I didn’t want to sit around with people who smoked and stared into space.  I wanted real conversation, something meaningful, and no way was I getting anything close to that at the “programs” I’d tried.  I knew that long ago, postal correspondence was a huge part of my life.  What would e-mail correspondence be like?  I hardly knew what e-mail was and I didn’t know what it looked like.

So I insisted.  I went home with all the cords and machinery and ignored my neighbors’ stares and gossip and all their behind-my-back comments that I could of course hear about where I’d gotten the money for this fancy thing, and their talk about how I was Jewish and “came from money.”  I told myself I was doing this to save my life.  I just knew.  I hooked up the computer all by myself.  I found an AOL floppy I’d received in the mail.  I’d only known the big floppies, the ones about five inches, but this smaller floppy, that wasn’t really floppy, fit in the machine okay.  I installed AOL and heard a guy talking to me saying, “Welcome!  You’ve got mail!”  For months, and for the next few years that I used AOL, I would be comforted by that voice telling me that someone cared about me.  It didn’t take long.  Maybe within five hours, I was corresponding with people.  I’d put in an ad asking for “e-mail pals.”  All I said was my age.  Actually, there were hundreds of e-mails in my box, and they kept coming.

Only a fraction of these e-mails were spam.  Some wanted to date me, and I explained that that this was not my intent.  This was never a problem, and no one harassed me in any way.  Actually, there were a handful of times where “I do not want to date” turned into an interesting dialogue that gave way to a meaningful friendship.  Most of the people who wrote to me were people who were curious and thought they’d see who I was and if I was for real.

I was real, and learning very quickly that despite what the doctors claimed, I was indeed capable of effectively communicating with others.  I was capable of being supportive to others.  I could have real friends and be a friend.  My friends didn’t have to be limited to other chronics who went to programs and spent all their lives in and out of hospitals.  I didn’t need a “structured program” to help me have a social life and be supervised all day long and feel dead inside.  I wasn’t the loser the doctors said I was.

I guess some of the times that really helped me were when I would get contacted by a young person, often by a teen, who had randomly come across my “pen-pals wanted” ad and e-mailed me and something told them that they could trust me and open up to me.  These kids were in a bad place in their lives.  They were lonely and misunderstood and had nowhere to turn.  It’s hard being a teen in the first place.  They were suicidal, some of them.  Some were depressed.  All of them were desperate and didn’t know what to do.

Who was I?  I mean really, what could I say to these kids?  The doctors had told me I was worthless and sick and needy.  But these doctors hadn’t listened to a word I said anyway.  If I wrote something, they didn’t read it, assuming it was just psychotic garbage, and told me to “summarize” and tell them what I’d written in a sentence or two.  I’d just sit there feeling like my writing attempts were useless, even though it was a decent way to communicate, and feel disgusted.  I’d shrug and hang my head.  They’d say, “So you have nothing to say for yourself, eh?”  They’d shoo me out of the office, papers in hand.  I realized now that these doctors didn’t even know what I had to offer the world.  They were clueless.

I reminded myself of this, and wrote back to each one of the teens.  It’s so damn hard to be misunderstood, not listened to, told that you don’t matter and that your feelings aren’t important.  I knew, and have known in many times of my life what it’s like to feel desperate and that there’s no one you can trust and nowhere to turn.  Boy do I ever.  I sure did feel that way when I was their age.

I was a suicidal teen once.  It wasn’t because I was crazy.  It wasn’t because something was really badly wrong with me, and even if there was, what I needed most, and didn’t get, was for someone to listen and care.  There was nowhere to turn.  Why was I so desperate?  It was because I was in a shitty situation and saw no way out.  I was in a trap and didn’t think anyone would believe me if I told them the truth.  The last people I could go to were my parents.  My parents were half the problem anyway.

Suicide was an option.  I had other options.  Running away was another.  In many ways, perhaps running away would have been a better choice, but I had no clue how to do this.  I didn’t know about shelters and didn’t know how to find out about them, and shelters were hard to find anyway back then unless you were on drugs.  Drugs were the teen problem and if you weren’t on drugs you went unnoticed.  If you had bad grades you got called into the guidance counselors’ offices and get a lecture and then shooed out the door, and as you walked out, they’d tell you you’ll never get into college if you don’t shape up.

So it was suicide or running away, or my third option, the one I ended up doing, sticking it out.  Trust me, every day was miserable and no one knew, but I did stick it out.  I lived a life of lies.  I did this not because I was dishonest or had bad morals or was mentally sick.  I was being bullied.  You do what you have to do to survive.  Some people go through the trash and collect returnable bottles.  Some find half-eaten McDonald’s sandwiches in the trash and devour them.  I had my secrets.

It would have been better if I’d had some teacher I could talk to.  Just someone.  But the kids who found me, if only for a few e-mails, had the Internet, something I didn’t have when I was a teen, and it was vital to them that they had this venue.  I felt that they needed someone who could listen.  I knew that my high school had been blind to my situation as had been my family.  I knew what that was like, and I knew that being a caring person who listened was far more important than being a person with a bunch of degrees who was being paid to sit there and might not believe you anyway.  So I listened.

I didn’t bullshit or anything.  No cliches about what a great world this is.  In truth, it wasn’t a particularly good world for any of us right then.  I couldn’t promise anything, only to say that way back when I was a teen, I chose the third option.  It was like I was sitting by their side and holding their hand in cyberspace.  Some of them cried and that was okay.  I cried, too.

I had a lot of friends through correspondence, and got my life together.  No one could believe that this person who was a hopeless case was actually capable of living a productive life and that this didn’t mean going to a “program” and living around other people labeled “chronic.”  Using my computer and writing skills that I honed while writing e-mails, I wrote my first novel.  I went on to college, something else that blew away the doctors.  They thought that because I couldn’t stay in a group for the entire 45 minutes, I was incapable of sitting in a classroom.  The groups had been boring and meaningless to me.  I was insulted so I walked out half the time, tired of being treated like a child.  But I found the classroom fascinating.  I had walked away from being the loser they thought I was and stepped into a new and exciting world.

I still correspond with people, but not many.  E-mail isn’t very popular these days.  It’s been replaced by Facebook and “social networking” I guess.  Maybe those venues are more effective and faster at getting the news out about various social causes, and Facebook doesn’t end up in your spam folder.  There have been some instances where social networking has been the vital step in mass communication.

As a memoirist, I can look back at my experience in 1997, how getting on the Internet saved me, and then brought me out of the land of the dead, so to speak, and write about it and make meaning of it and shape the experience into something, whatever I want.  I started off this article with a different title, actually, wanting to talk about something entirely different, but then got side-tracked and moved by writing about what happened to me, so I went with that topic and deleted the other stuff I’d started off with.   That’s something I do when I blog sometimes.  I start off with one thing, and then just let myself go wherever I want.  It’s always a learning experience.

I get very little feedback, but I know there are a lot of people out there reading what I write.  I haven’t a clue why people stop by.  I guess they come for many reasons.

It was very nice having the experience of writing this.  And it’s very nice that I’m not sitting in an office being told to “summarize” what I’ve written in a sentence or two, isn’t it?

Later, alligators.

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