A life lived online

by annathaema

Computers have always been an integral part of my life. There are photos of me as a toddler, no more than two years old, sitting in front of our TRS-80 from Radio Shack. By the time I started kindergarten we had our first Apple Computer. I was the only kid in elementary school whose homework was typed and printed, and while other kids had Commodore 64s and Ataris, I had Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe.

So it was inevitable that when the internet finally crept into the average home (slowly, at 300bps), I would be involved with it. My parents gave me a Prodigy account for my 13th birthday, which let me go online and... To be honest, I don't remember what I did with that account. Not much. There was no Wikipedia then, no torrent sites, no Facebook and no Twitter. I also didn't know anyone else who had the internet, so I couldn't e-mail anyone. It was... boring.

We switched to AOL shortly thereafter, and at around the same time we got cable television, namely MTV, and that's when I figured out exactly what the internet could do. I discovered a band, and then discovered that they had a bulletin board on AOL. I started reading it, and then posting to it, and people replied to me. I'd made my first friends online. Which was good, because I had no friends otherwise.

I wasn't a good student, despite being very bright and creative. I was awkward and shy and a late bloomer, and the target of bullies. We also moved away from my childhood home to a rough neighborhood that wasn't really safe to play in, so I spent a lot of time alone. So having people to talk to, at last, was a blessing.

Especially in 1992, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, when I was fifteen.

Suddenly I was faced with losing my ONLY ally in the world. Over the next two years my mother changed from a funny, friendly woman to a shell of herself, ravaged by cancer until she lapsed into a vegetative state. My father had to work to pay the bills, which were mounting, so I elected to get my GED and stay home with my mother as her caretaker. I fed her, gave her medicine, cleaned her, and kept her company. Everything she used to do for me, everything no one did for me anymore.

If it weren't for the internet (and the library across the street) I might not have gotten through it. I told my online friends what was happening and they offered their support through the modem, the phone and the mail. My older friends (who knew I was young, and did not care) took on maternal roles, checking up on me and making sure I was okay.

When my mother died, my online friends were the first -- before most of my family, even -- to offer their sorrow and condolences.

There's so much more to this story -- decades more, because I'm 33 now and I've been online for twenty years. In those twenty years I have amassed a wealth of friends, companions, roommates, lovers, coworkers -- all online. I still talk to those folks from the AOL bulletin board, and in fact I'm counted as part of their family now. One woman is, for all intent and purposes, my surrogate mother. My online family remembers my birthday when my family forgets it. They keep me in their prayers when things get dark. They've taken up a collection to send me to my grandfather's funeral. And one of them got me the job that would introduce me to my current boyfriend of two years.

You say "oh, I met them online," and somehow there's a weird stigma attached to that. Like somehow that relationship isn't as legitimate as, say, meeting someone at a bar or at school. I've never understood that, because my online friends are the very best friends I've ever had. And I wouldn't change that for anything.

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