Thought Catalog

The Internet Saved My Life

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I was on the Internet way before I was old enough to be there.

It started with a message board for fans of Superman comic books. I was 12. I’d go on every day after school to read what people thought of the latest issue, but I didn’t become full-on addicted to the board until the premiere of Smallville, the WB’s teenage take on the Man of Steel’s mythos. There was a lot to discuss.

My username included the word “angel,” but somehow no one guessed I was a tween. I never hid it, but it never came up. Beyond the superficial superhero conversations, I was finding real people. One of my online friends was an Australian twenty-something struggling to come to terms with being gay, one was a tattooed rock singer who lived somewhere outside Boston, one was a 30-something woman raising a son with autism.

Before everyone decided that ‘It Gets Better,’ I was a teenager hiding a burgeoning queer identity while living in a small religious community. I desperately needed to know there were people out there, living in the world, who thought like I did, who appreciated the same aspects of pop culture I did, and especially, who loved like I did. I needed to know it was better (already!) in cities I’d never been to, and for people I only dreamed of being friends with in real life (IRL). I needed it to be better now, at a time when I didn’t know anyone who openly supported gay rights. This was only possible for me through my dial-up modem.

Like a lot of people (and Ben Folds), I grew up in the suburbs feeling isolated. The painful reality of my solitude was obvious: I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. A lot of people, adults and children alike, told me I was “weird” and so I believed I was weird. The only one. Alone.

It very well could have gone like this:

I remember being made fun of during a fourth grade class. Sadness welling in my tiny chest, I asked to be excused. I ended up standing at the top of the staircase of my school, looking at the floors below.

“I could jump right now,” I thought. I was ten years old. “I shouldn’t exist anyway if no one else is like me. I should just die.”

I stood there for a long time. Until the bell rang and students filed out of classrooms. Two years later, I found the Internet.

There, people were different. They loved art, books, music, films, paintings, and stage performance. More than that, I can never remember thinking being gay was wrong — if anything I always seemed to identify with LBGTQ people in movies and TV. Meanwhile, my friends in real life used “lez” as an insult. I gravitated to the strange and the off-beat. I loved aliens and ghosts, I listened to stand-up comedy, I wrote short stories where the uncool girl became an international soccer star or got invited on to the Spice Girls tour bus. But I desperately wanted to fall under everyone else’s definition of “cool.”

I even crushed on the “right” boys because the geeks (and girls) I really liked were, to borrow a phrase, “social suicide.” But I always felt two steps behind — like everyone else in my middle school class was receiving a nightly transmission with “how to be cool” and I somehow always missed it because I was too busy organizing my rock collection.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I was out-right laughed at by the people I considered my closest friends. “Why do you read so much?” “Are you actually writing stories in that notebook?” “Can’t you ever just be normal?”

I had questions for me too: Why did my friendships with other girls make me so nervous? Why couldn’t I just like what everyone else liked? Why didn’t I know how to act or what to say? Why did I always feel like I was wearing a mask? Why couldn’t I just fit in?!

One time I was so embarrassed about having no friends that I told my concerned parents I was going over to someone’s house when really, I walked to a nearby Starbucks and read by myself for two hours. When I came back, I told them all about hanging out with my “friend.”

I was desperate for companionship, and these online friends liked me. We talked for hours about our lives, shared inside jokes, planned group chat hangouts, watched TV shows together on AIM, talked each other down off the ledge (metaphorically and literally) and basically lived complete friendships with our computer screens between us. Sometimes simple, kind social interaction makes all the difference for a kid.

Some might say this is indicative of the weakness of our generation. Queer kids and “weirdos” in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, had to make their own way, had to fight with no weapons, had to quite frankly, survive each day. Alone. I know, for me, if the Internet hadn’t existed, I would not have gotten through middle and high school. Maybe I should be embarrassed about that. I used to be.

Without the Internet, I never would have known the potential I had for a full, crazy, diverse, amazing life. There would have been no one to show me. That bleak scene on the fourth grade staircase — and others like it — repeated throughout my adolescence. Without my online friends, I probably would have jumped.

Look, I’ve seen Law and Order. I know that any time a teenage girl talks to people online she ends up in the Slovakian slave trade. But for me, having access to the Internet at a young age was a completely positive experience. In fact, as Dr. Phil as this sounds, I unironically believe it saved my life. And I stand by that: unashamed. TC mark

image – Gaby Dunn

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    • Alexis

      absolutely wonderful. i feel the same way.

    • guest

      :’D This is so beautiful and it makes me feel so many emotions at the same timeeeee waaaahhhhh!!!!!

    • Anonymous

      This made me cry…I’m sorry that things were so bleak and I’m glad that you had the support of Internet Friends !

    • Guest

      Obviously the subject matter is great, but the writing is terrible. Is this someone’s college essay?

      • Anonymous

         Is it really necessary to find something wrong in everything?

      • Michaelwg

        Don’t worry, someday someone will love you…

        • Olves_bianas

          of course there will be………………………………………………………………….. ;)

    • http://www.facebook.com/efollettbotha Emma Follett-Botha

      Thanks for this article. I went through an internet-friend phase a few years ago. Thought I was such a weirdo!

    • Robert

      I’m 21, queer, and a classical musician. I fell in love with classical music in middle school. I would say I was quite social but purely out of desperation rather than curiosity, but I knew I didn’t have a lot of “real” friends at school. As I got into youth orchestras and spent my summers at music festivals, I always felt within school a sort of shame. Though I had good friends in orchestra that I’d see once a week, my quotidian realm was full of empty characters written in to further the ennui. I stayed in the closet throughout high school, but being surrounded by art and artists made me feel free. Now, I’m in college, out and about, and still doing music. Music was my crutch (and everyone has one… just a majority of us turned to behavioral dependence) and it is my life today. You should not feel ashamed, but proud to be precocious and introspective. What’s wrong with a society where the kids that get it faster must be outcast and grasp for each other in the woods? Whatever the forest you found yourself in, you found company. It was either that, or wait ’til college to realize your life is supposed to “begin again” and have to be a little disappointed with your first try.

    • Guestropod

      Yes!  god bless the internet

    • http://twitter.com/JonTargaryen Carly Fowler

      That Ben Folds line, oh man! <3

      I was friends with a bunch of 20 somethings from NZ on neopets when I was 13 or so. Had my share of negative influences from the internet, too. But right now I'm apart of this great group of kids. They're NYC based, so I only see them once ever few months because of the 2 hour difference between us and train fares. Yet every time I see them I'm overwhelmed with this fuzzy feeling and it feels like coming home. In the times between, we use google hangout and watch movies together/read each other bed time stories. I used to go to Starbucks to pretend to hang out with people. Now I go to Starbucks to pretend to be alone, when I'm actually in the city with people who accept me. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=612928768 Samie Rose

        Dude. I had so many virtual pet website friends too. Neopets and Subeta. NOT EVEN EMBARASSED.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9383035 Scott Muska

      Tonight I might YouTube the final clip from that Smallville pilot where Clark daydreams he and Lana slow dance in the barn while Lifehouse plays in the background.

      …Wait what?

      • Guest

        Oh my god you’re my spirit animal. 

    • blushing_girl

       I’m a (secret) writer, and I post my work in an online community. I’m fairly sure that my ‘real life friends’ would judge me to hell and back if they knew – but the people I’ve met on the site don’t, because they’re all the same. And, to be honest, a lot of the time I like them more than the people I know in real life!

    • http://sosaysjessi.tumblr.com/ Jessi Smith

      To this day I am Facebook friends with several of the people I befriended on the Incubus message board when I was 13. Your middle school experience sounds uncannily similar to mine. Great piece.

      • Anonymous

        I befriended people on a forum for making AIM profiles, and I am still (at least Facebook) friends with them to this day. In a time when I was isolated, they made me feel witty/wanted/worthwhile, and I don’t think I can express how much I needed that.

    • Ted Pillow

      This kicks ass…ah, the days of message boards and chat rooms. How I (strangely) miss thee.

      • Olves_bianas

        <3

    • Haifisch

      One of my dearest friends is someone I met on Facebook.  I honestly don’t even know what I would do without him at this juncture.

    • wha

      beautiful…
      aren’t you straight and also dating josh gondelman?

      • Guestropod

        just because she’s dating a dude doesn’t mean she doesn’t like the ladies 

      • Anonymous

        I am vast! I contain multitudes! (My ex before Josh was a lady! Whaaaaaaat!)

    • ka.yt

      I met a friend on some forum website about two years ago.

      If it wasn’t for him, I’d already kill myself. He did more for me than anyone else ever did.
      Internet isn’t always as horrible as people say it is.

      • Olves_bianas

        i think i know you…

        • Olves_bianas

          i m kidding ok…

          #peoplethesefuggindeys

        • Olves_bianas

          my boy friend did this to me too….
            p.s.  this guy on FB (Jacob Froe) will love to talk to you… <3

          #anythingwillgetbetter

    • trombone13

      I think it’s great that you were able to find something that saved your life. As a straight male, I can’t really identify with your struggles, but I have a gay cousin and I have a friend/acquaintance from high school who is gay, so I can(sort of, not much really) understand what people   in the LGBTQ commonality go through

      • Anonymous

         Thanks! Dude, that’s why I included “weirdos.” Straight kids get picked on too.

    • http://twitter.com/philosolaktor Lakshitha

      This really hits home. I had the no friends IRL phase for a long time, on and off between when I was 12 and 16. I’m 18 now, and though for the last four months I haven’t spoken to my “friends” much at all, I’ve learnt how to be self sufficient without really having anyone.. But it still gets really hard, and I still need the people I know only as a screen name in an IM chatroom to get by, sometimes. People who are there. Even people on TC even though I don’t interact with you, it helps to read stuff like this and know there are people I can relate to, they exist and they’re there somewhere and we have something in common. Thanks :)

    • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

      I started around the same age too. 
      At first it would be all I thought about. It consumed me.
      I just wanted to get home and log in to the message boards i was in. One was a teen one and the other was a soccer one.
      Then, I told my friends about it and they thought i was weird, but since at that point i just felt like a little follower in their group, I felt such a stronger connection to my online friends.
      I think I lied about may age in some at first. I would say i was 15 or 16 instead of 12 or 13.
      I still have 1 or 2 as Facebook friends but I feel I got along better as a 13 year old with them than I could now.

      Also, it’s where i got my music taste from. 
      I distinctly remember clicking on the signature of this guy, Tyler, who was probably 16-18 and one of the more popular board members , when i was about 12 or 13 and liking Bright Eyes and Beirut from there, which I still do.

      • Anonymous

         Bright Eyes <3

        • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

          Looking back, Bright Eyes was the biggest influence, apart from the internet as a whole, that I had at that age.
          Knowing that there were people with the same urge to be happy one day.
          After their show, when I was 13, I knew there was something to look forward to, which I had never felt.

        • Olves_bianas

          life is always bright with some one in it…. jk jk… hey….. bff?…. wanna be friends?…

    • Michaelwg

      SHEESH, another article bashing the Slovakian slave trade. C’mon T.C
      I kid I kid. If you’d have jumped it might have impaired your writing abilities, so for purely selfish reasons i’m glad you found the internet!(Ok, maaaybe i’m glad you didn’t do it anyway)

      • Anonymous

         That was very sweet!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586876452 Arvin Alba

      That was beautiful, thank you.

    • staleness

      Word. *nods* 

    • wildlysophisticated22

      I can identify with this so much.  The Internet has opened up my mind and my world.  It’s so great to find people “like me” from all over the world.  Thanks for sharing!

    • Joshgondelman

      A really sweet and necessary piece of writing for people to see. Nice work, Gaby!

    • Haifisch

      You know, I don’t think this essay is about being gay, per se.  I think it is more about the human condition and how we all need each other.  My stepfather was just diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer and if it weren’t for my online friends, I would be  – lost. 

      • Anonymous

         Totally. I never even saw it as being about being gay so much as being an “outsider” or having a situation — any situation — where you need people to understand you. I am so sorry about your situation and I’m glad you’re talking to friends, online or elsewhere.

    • Jen Avezzano

      This article saved my life. You’re an amazing writer. 

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