May 27, 2017
Chiang Mai, Thailand
As I mentioned previously, I have an addictive personality. Unfortunately, I’m not as addicted to writing as I am to other things that are less rewarding. It’s taken me a long time to force myself to sit down and tell more of this story.
Looking back, I sincerely regret the times that I sat in front of my desktop computer in the home office making conversations with people who weren’t actually in front of me while my kids asked me to come outside and play with them. That is time that I can never ever get back. That’s a very heavy realization. But those conversations were becoming my life, what I existed for.
The prevailing view of online dialogue has long been one of suspicion. The image of a sweaty, fat, bald guy wearing a grubby white wife-beater pretending to be a cute 15-year-old high school sophomore to gain the trust of other cute 15-year-old girls has always been the poster for “don’t talk to strangers on the Internet!” And to be fair, that has sometimes been exactly the truth. But my experience with chatrooms was not so much dealing with people who were posing, or pretending. The anonymity of the internet actually helps to create the opposite effect, in my opinion. Sure, people may lie about their age, their body shape, their occupations, but if you pay attention, the real them is what they are exposing. You see, when we are face to face with the “real” people in our lives, our parents, our spouses, co-workers, bosses, fellow worshippers, etc., we many times put on a mask or a facade. There are expectations of these other people that we must live up to. We often don’t really let those people see who we really are inside, because we fear the judgement that will follow. “What? You hate the sweater I bought for you?/ You don’t find me as attractive as that woman who is behind the counter?/ You think my idea for the office is stupid and you really don’t work as hard as you pretend to?/ You don’t really BELIEVE IN GOD???”
We constantly lie to those close to us with our actions and our dispositions. And we lie to ourselves in doing so. But, when in front of the computer screen where nobody really knows who we are, we are free to express our reality, our actual feelings and opinions. Because nobody there can hurt us with their judgement. If you don’t think this is true, try looking at online comments about race, politics, or other social issues, and tell me that those people who voice (text) some of the worst vitriolic statements would EVER say that out loud in front of real people who expect a certain standard of behavior and modicum. So real self-expression is buried deep until an opportunity for “masquerade” presents itself.
I was never able to talk freely about my thoughts and feelings to those around me. I had doubts about the religion that I was raised in and that all of my family and friends belonged to, but those had to be suppressed. I couldn’t speak out loud about how I was unhappy in my marriage, about my crush on a supervisor at work, or how much I liked Barry Manilow’s music. But when I was in the chat rooms, I could. I found people there who listened, and commented. Sometimes, the comments were not necessarily what I wanted to read, but I didn’t feel like I couldn’t express my feelings. And as usual, I also became a good listener to those who were trying to get things off their own chest in the chat room. Sure, sometimes I mocked them, but I would always do it gently, and usually make them laugh at their own fears. People in that room became my confidants, my sounding boards, my crying towels. One of them, who called herself Maggie_May (because she loved that Rod Stewart song), was a few years my senior, lived in western Canada, and was in a loveless marriage herself, became one of my best friends. I could tell Cindy (her real name, as she disclosed to me after a long time) just about anything that was on my mind. And she felt free to do the same. Sometimes we had private conversations outside of the room, but usually we just added our own honest comments to the running dialogue that was scrolling up our screens.
We all acknowledged what being in the chat room meant to us. Those friendships became real. I remember an occasion when one of the regulars disappeared from the room. Louise was an elderly grandmother with a very sharp sense of humor and one of the favorite personalities in CE1, the chat room that I frequented. After a few days, someone who was pretty close to Louise told us the sad news that the spritely older woman had died. One of her children had reached out to this person and told the complete stranger that his mother had passed, and that for some weird reason, Louise had wanted this group of anonymous people to know. We were able to get the email address that connected us to the family, and many of us wrote lengthy letters of condolence to them, telling them how much their mother/grandmother/auntie had meant to us. We told stories of how funny and caring she was, and how she had touched our lives. Those family members may have never known the awesome person that Louise revealed to us, but I’m certain that they were taken aback by the outpouring of support from this digital community.
The ability to express oneself freely and without fear of judgement by loved ones or peers can become addiction. We recognized that ourselves. There was a term that someone in the room coined for people who were in our “real” lives. We called them “shadowcasters”. Shadowcasters didn’t really understand us, not the real us. They only saw the person that we showed them. And because of that, we longed to retreat into the safety of CE1, where we were among friends. One occurrence that I’ll never forget was when the husband of one of the chat room members entered CE1. His wife, who was a regular, had confessed to us that she had cheated on her husband with a man she met online in another chat room. And that she felt horrible about it. She either got caught, or admitted it to her husband, and he got very upset and tossed his wedding band down into the toilet and flushed it. She was destroyed by the thought of her marriage falling apart because of what she had done. So, after a couple of days of her absence from the room, her husband came in and identified himself. He wanted to know why. Why was his wife spending so much time in this ethereal place with people she didn’t really know? What was the attraction?
Many in the room were sympathetic towards the man. They tried to tell him how much his wife loved him and that she was terribly sorry about her actions. A few were hostile, blaming the guy for not paying attention to her so that she had do find solace elsewhere. I chose a different path. I reached out to the guy in a private message. My first goal was to try to distinguish if he was really who he said he was, and not just a troll (yes, they do exist). I paid close attention to his responses and I really got the feeling that he was torn up by what had happened. I could sense the anger and sadness and confusion pouring out of him. So for the next half-hour or so, I calmly had a discussion with him about the addiction that his wife was experiencing. I told him that it was none of my business whether he stayed with her or got a divorce, but that if he chose to stay, then he needed to understand just what kind of hold that chat rooms had over his wife. I explained about the acceptance, and the freedom to be, that the room offered. I spoke of my own struggles, how I often neglected my own family because I could not break free. I told him that he would have to be a support to his wife if she were to overcome this addiction, that he would have to be there for her, just like if she was recovering from enslavement to heroin, because the pull to come back would be there. This had become home for her. And she was going to miss it terribly. He was going to have to work hard to become her home again. After I finished, he didn’t tell me what he was going to do. I don’t think he had decided. But he thanked me for the insight into what I call “chat addiction”, and said he had no idea that it could be that powerful.
It wasn’t all somber and melancholy, of course. Much of the time we had great fun in CE1. We made jokes, satirized events and each other. One of the funniest games we played was “Buffalo Chat”. Or maybe I just remember it fondly because I helped to invent it. I don’t remember the context, but someone made an offhand comment about “buffalo gals”, which was a line or name from some silly song that came from my dad’s era, I think. Someone else picked it up and turned it into “buffalo cops” or something. I tossed “buffalo” into another phrase, and then with some encouragement, all kinds of hell broke loose. There was “Ally McBuffalo”, “Little Buffalo on the Prairie”, “The Tale of Two Buffalo”, and just about anything else that someone’s imagination came up with. The scroll upwards on the screen was almost too fast to keep up reading, and I know that I was not the only one in literal tears of laughter as I read what my compatriots were inventing. Yes, looking at it in this paragraph, it looks stupid as hell. And it was. But it was very funny at the time, and every so often, if discussions in the room got too heated or funereal, I would drag someone into playing. Yes, there were always a few groans from some corners, but most people got into it and unleashed their creativity with “buffalo” for the next fifteen minutes or so until we ran out of ideas or just got tired of it.
I truly believe that part of my addiction was that I felt like a fixture in the room. As I said before, the fact that I was greeted by genuine “shouts” of joy when I would enter CE1, watching “Porny!!” scroll up the screen about 20 times in different fonts and colors was gratifying. I was important. I mattered. People cared about my presence.
Psychology Today defines addiction as follows:
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.
Next time, I’ll talk about how I broke free.