“You’ve always been addicted to the internet.”
Those were the words that my brother spoke yesterday when we talked on the phone. And he’s right. I was actually addicted to social media before the world wide web was a thing. Back in the early 1990’s, I started getting on bulletin board systems (BBS for short) in an effort to connect with people during the times that I spent at home alone. I’m pretty sure that I was 11 years old and in 7th grade the first time that I dialed in.
“If you’re on the computer with other people, you’re not alone.” was my response. We chuckled about it and moved on with our conversation.
But it got me to thinking. Even when I went away to summer orchestral band camp in 10th and 11th grades, I spent a good amount of my free time (when I was not practicing percussion) in the library at Sewanee, telnetting in to Shadowscape in the hopes of saying hi to friends. I spent time when I could have been connecting with new friends, or growing as a person, desperately trying to stay in touch with old ones so that I wouldn’t be out of the loop when I got back.
The same was true for me in college. Using the BBSes to stave off loneliness was such a real thing for me that I continued to do it once I started at Berklee. With the advent of AOL Instant Messenger, I lost the big conversations that happened in teleconference, but I got closer to many people through individual chats.
I used my computer for friendship so often that my first set of roommates kicked me out for typing too loudly, late at night. My second-semester roommate also noticed how glued-to-the-screen that I was, as I chose not to try to find parties or hang out with other students and instead waited, often for hours, for my long-distance boyfriend to log on to say hi.
I transferred to USC my sophomore year of college, and tried in vain to rush a sorority and make friends in real life. My roommate was a total cunt who went out of her way to hurt me. And I met my first husband, who was similarly attached to his computer, though his addiction was video gaming.
I realized that USC wasn’t the place for me, and I went back to Berklee… but I didn’t have the self-confidence necessary to break up with that guy, so, even though I had my own apartment in Boston, I didn’t go out exploring. I didn’t go to parties in a city where there are more college students than regular citizens. I stayed in, waiting for him to log on to See-You-See-Me or AIM. And on the rare occasion when I did choose to leave the apartment or have friends over, he accused me of cheating on him (which is kind of hilarious in retrospect, since he went to parties at USC and admitted to cheating on me.)
After he moved to Boston, I will admit, my obsession moved from social media to him and business planning. I was convinced that if I wrote the business plan for AudioXtacy well enough, that I’d be able to get venture capital, and could help change the landscape of the music industry. Oh, the hubris!
In late 2002, one of my friends from the BBSes introduced me to Live Journal, and a new obsession was born. Not only could I keep up with my friends from the BBSes who were busy writing about their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams — but also friends from college who were trying to promote their bands and build their brands.
In 2005, after my divorce, I moved to Los Angeles for law school, and Live Journal is where I found my people. There was another girl from the BBSes who had moved to L.A., and our friend-overlap was huge, so she invited me to meet “the geeks” she was friends with in L.A. It was love at first type.
If there was ever a time in my life when I actually got out of my home and lived, it was during my first 2 years in Los Angeles. I was the Section A representative for the Student Bar Association. I felt what it was like to be well-known for something other than being the weird, brainy Jewish kid, and I liked it. I went to bars or parties at least 2 nights a week. I read up on human sexuality when I wasn’t reading case law. I worked out at least 2 hours a day, and was in better shape than I had ever been in my life. I got on OkCupid — another social network — which was responsible for my meeting and ultimately falling deeply in love with Adam (my current and forever husband), who ended up getting a job at MySpace.
And then, I was diagnosed with MS.
The diagnosis itself wasn’t what drove me back to social media overuse, though it is what caused me to start this blog. Truthfully, I never stopped reaching out online. I was still posting daily (sometimes multiple times per day) on Live Journal, always had AIM open on my system, and with Adam and our friend Gideon working at MySpace, I spent a truly stupid amount of time on that platform as well. Once Twitter and Facebook became things, I was on them, immediately. And often, to my detriment, in class. Hell, I even had a Friendster account at one point.
When seizure disorder struck, and I couldn’t make it to all my classes or safely go out with friends, Live Journal and Facebook were my only real windows to the outside world and the people I cared about. Then Live Journal got purchased by some Russians, and everyone just stopped blogging.
I spent a good 5 years couch-locked because of seizures. During that time, if I wasn’t preparing for the bar exam or doing the basic chores of life, I was on Facebook (or, for a hot second, Google+). That includes when we had to move to Romeoville because MS and 2 years of unemployment had basically bankrupted us, and the years we lived in Chicago-proper, before having Henry.
After Henry was born, Facebook became even more important to me because the message boards on TheBump were filled with angry, self-righteous bitches. I was so painfully lonely in that apartment, trying to figure out how to be a mom while dealing with MS, seizures, lack of transportation, and a horrible case of PPD.
And now, after studying how food affects me, I have fewer seizures than I have for the past decade. Most days, I can walk to the store or Gymboree with Henry easily. Most weeknights, I can make it to the gym. But I wasn’t fully living in meatspace.
Where did I look for healthy recipes? Facebook (and Pinterest). Where did I go for support and guidance with weight loss or suicide prevention or questions about motherhood? Facebook. Where did I do research into the best methods for homeschooling my son? Facebook. Where did I spend most of my time, when I should have been cleaning and connecting with my son? Facebook.
I was still looking online for companionship. I was still scrolling compulsively. I was still feeling innately lonely. Hell, even with my husband in the room, I still felt the need to constantly check in, and I didn’t realize how that may have been hurting him. (Sorry, babe.)
And when my PTSD went absolutely haywire a couple of days ago because of the combo of time-travel and a terrifying news cycle, I got angry when confronted with the fact that I quite literally couldn’t look away.
So, at the age of 38, I’m breaking a pattern that has served as an emotional crutch for 27 years — nearly two thirds of my life. It’s downright painful.
I feel like I’ve abandoned a ton of people who I deeply care about, even though I am actively reaching out to folks on the phone and over text. In the interest of personal growth and positive mental health, I’ve abdicated responsibility as an admin on more than 20 groups, without warning anyone, which feels really shitty, since I derived a sense of purpose from helping people in those groups. And to be frank, I feel like I’ve entirely cut myself off from society, since I still can’t drive anywhere, and all of the community’s social events are available to view there.
I feel like a failure at one of life’s most basic skills: just being okay being alone. And I have no idea how to make friends who aren’t the mothers of my son’s playground playmates anymore. That being said, I’m profoundly grateful for that small handful of mommies. They are real friends, and it’s because of them that I feel like I am up to this challenge.
I hear that making friends after your 20s is tough for most people anyway, and that fear of loneliness drives some of humanity’s most prolific and toxic behaviors, like substance abuse.
So, I guess, when it comes to needing to grow this skill, I’m really not alone.