When Online is out of line: Girl needs to get a life. Hell, a job

Why did I stay for so long on an internet forum that treated me so badly? It came down to attachment, addiction, stubbornness and fear. Over the years I’d gotten attached to the board and to the people on it, even to the people I didn’t like.  There were probably other places on the internet and places in real life that would have been a better fit for me but I’d grown to know and love this forum.  I’ve never done well with change or goodbyes and I’ve always been slow to warm up to new places and new people.

In my previous blog post about this I explained my philosophy behind the actions I took on that board but when I was in the moment, I was acting not so much on reason but out of compulsion and force of habit. I felt compelled to look for names and news stories to post on that board. When I had a question or wanted advice I felt compelled to ask the board about it.  I felt compelled to share my experiences with the board, to participate in almost all of the conversations that went on there and to read almost everything that was posted there, even if I wasn’t particularly interested in it.

There’s something addictive about that forum, about internet forums in general and about the internet in general. The concept of internet addiction is controversial. It’s not in the DSM and it was first introduced as a joke but these days many people take it seriously.

Addiction is usually thought of in terms of chemical dependence on drugs or alcohol. Addiction to the internet is both similar to and different from addiction to drugs. While there’s no chemical dependency on the internet and you’re not going to die of an internet overdose, being on the internet can activate reward centers in your brain like drugs do and internet addiction has negative effects on your health and your life like drug addiction does.

People with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are more prone to internet addiction. I have both depression and anxiety and I’m particularly affected by social anxiety. When interacting with people in real life seems scary and overwhelming, it can be tempting to try to fulfill your social needs by interacting with people online instead. I turned to that forum for socialization and friendship. The problem was that only a handful of the people on that forum were actually my friends and many of them were my enemies. When real life is hard and miserable, the internet can become a form of escapism.  You’ll know from my previous blogs that I went through some really hard times in my life over the past decade.

Some professionals object to characterizing internet addiction as its own disorder because they think its better classified as a symptom of other disorders. I’m reminded of the old “Which came first-the chicken or the egg?” debate.  Does internet addiction cause depression, anxiety and social isolation or is it caused by depression, anxiety and social isolation? I’d say both are true and that it becomes a vicious circle. The internet is a double edged sword and that forum was a double edged sword for me. It both helped me and harmed me.

There are some internet addiction tests available online. Some of the questions ask whether your internet use is interfering with your love life, your social life and your career. In my case there was no love life, social life or career to interfere with.  I had a huge hole in my life and I turned to that forum to fill it. The need to fill some kind of hole in one’s life is often what’s at the heart of any kind of addiction.

Many people on that forum felt that my use of it was problematic and pointed that out but most of them did not do it in a kind or compassionate way. They did it in a cruel and humiliating way.  Their intent was not to help me but to shame me.  Some people do subscribe to the misguided notion that by shaming someone for their problem you will motivate them to make positive changes in their life but that’s not how shame works.  Shame destroys the mechanism in a person that makes them capable of change. It makes you feel hopeless, helpless and worthless. I had plenty of shame in my offline life and combined with the shame I was subjected to online I felt as though I was trapped under a shame avalanche.

One time a woman who went by the screen name of Rudey Bozo (names and screen names in this blog series have been altered to protect the innocent and make fun of the guilty) went on a vicious profanity laden, typo filled rant against me that she ended with “Girl needs to get a life. Hell, a job.” In one of my favorite internet comebacks of all time, a fellow board member, Bernadette, replied “How nice of you to share those opinions. In my opinion you need to get some empathy, manners and a spellchecker.” It was at that moment that my friendship with Bernie really took off.

I had tried to get a job but I had been unable to find one and that left me feeling like a worthless failure so Rudey’s comment was especially hurtful. While Bernie and a few other members said that was a really shitty thing to say, there were also members who said it wasn’t that bad and didn’t qualify as a personal attack because she hadn’t called me a bitch.

Then there were members who acted as though they were concerned about me but I sensed that their supposed concern for me was not genuine. In the same thread in which I was attacked by Rudey Bozo, a member called Maleficent said that she’d been tracking my time online on the board for two days the previous week ( that board had a “Who’s Online?” feature). She’d noticed that I’d been online all day for both days and so much time online was not good for my mental health.  Since Maleficent had a habit of attacking me (and others on the board) with cruel insults that certainly were not good for my mental health, I did not believe she really cared about my mental health. She was just trying to embarrass me. Of course in order to have noticed that I was online all that time she would have had to have spent as much time online as I did but she excused it by saying those were two days when she’d been too sick to get out of bed and she certainly didn’t spend that much time online on a regular basis since she had a job.

I knew that the people who were were being jerks to me wanted me to leave the board. Since they were jerks to me I disliked them and since I disliked them I didn’t want to give them what they wanted. I once told a friend on the board that any reasonable person in my shoes would have left the board a long time ago. Yet I stubbornly refused to leave. If I left that would mean the jerks had won and I couldn’t let them win.

There were a few people who seemed genuinely concerned for me and expressed their concern for me in a kind, compassionate manner. Some even offered suggestions for improving my life such as volunteering to tutor English and offered me helpful links. I appreciated the suggestions and I recognized the wisdom in what they were saying but while kind, supportive friends can propel a person towards positive change, they alone cannot make the person change. Change has to come from within the person themselves and at that point I was too scared and too lacking in confidence.

I’ve never been a very confident person but after the mental breakdown I’ve chronicled in other blog posts, my confidence took a major nosedive. My confidence was lowered even furthered by the  barrage of cruel, insulting comments I was constantly subjected to from my stepfather and from that forum. I would complain on that forum about the way my stepfather treated me and would be told that he was a real asshole. The irony is that the comments he would make to me were similar to the kind of comments that were made to me on that forum and had the same kind of effect on me.

My stepfather also subscribed to the misguided notion that by shaming me for my problems he would motivate me to fix them (I may be giving some of these people too much of a benefit of the doubt. They may have never had any intention of helping me. They may have just been trying to hurt me.)  He would tell me that I was a lazy parasite who contributed nothing to the world and therefore I did not deserve to be treated nicely or to have a say in my life. He would constantly tell me how I was annoying I was.  Annoying was also an adjective often ascribed to me on that forum but my stepfather considered me to be annoying for different reasons than the people on that board did.

As most of you reading this blog know by now, I’m on the autism spectrum and have tics/sterotyped movements. My stepfather was always bothered by this and always got angry when he saw me engaging in them. He told me that it was annoying and unnerving to watch, that it was not normal. If I had to do it, I was only allowed to do it in my room where he didn’t have to see it. He’s not the only person who”s been bothered by my tics/stereotyped movements and he’s not the only one who’s made nasty or awkward comments about it. It’s made me self conscious. As annoyed as people got by me online and as many nasty comments as they made about me, at least online they could not see my tics and thus they could not be annoyed by or make nasty comments about them.

In real life I’ve never been popular socially. There have always been a few people in real life who disliked and said mean things to or about me. However, in real life, I did get the impression that once people got to know me, I was generally well liked. Before my involvement on that forum I had never been targeted or ostracized by such a large group of people. Before it had seemed that liking me and thinking highly of me or at least being neutral towards me were the norm. Disliking me or thinking poorly of me were the exception. After I was targeted on that board, it seemed that disliking me and thinking poorly of me was the norm, liking me and thinking highly of me the exception.

Outwardly I always defended myself against the people who attacked me because I felt they were being unfair and that they had some serious problems themselves but inwardly I suspected they were right about me. While I shared many details of my life on that board, I did not share every detail. Most of the details of my mental illness that I’ve shared on this blog, I did not share on that forum. The things I said and did when I was in the worst throes of my mental illness filled me with intense shame. I’d think to myself “If these people think this poorly of me based on what they know about me, imagine what they’d think if they found out the things they don’t know.”

My friends on that board would validate me and tell me that the people who targeted me were full of shit but remember that my best friend on that forum, Bernadette, was someone who was also targeted and ostracized so I figured that perhaps all those people were right about both of us.

In the end, it was my friends on that forum that made all the abuse I was subjected to on that forum seem worth it. They were the only friends I had. If I left the forum I was afraid I would lose them. The forum was where we had met and where we interacted with each other. It was our common bond and the center point of most of our private conversations. I did not know these people in real life and at the time I was not active on Facebook because I was too ashamed to show my face to the world.

The prospect of trying to branch out and make new friends or rekindle old friendships was too scary and intimidating. If the general forum opinion of me was correct, if I had become annoying and unlikable, than attempts to reach out would likely result in further rejection,humiliation and emotional pain. It wold be even worse than what I experienced on that board, especially if it happened in real life. As horrible as what I was enduring on that board was,  having no friends and no socialization seemed even more horrible.

A few month ago as I sat in Kate’s office with tears filling my eyes,  I said “Those people on that forum were so mean to me and they made me feel so awful. I could have left at any time but I didn’t because even though I had a lot of enemies there, it was also the only place where I had friends.”

Adventures in Mental Illness: Part 11

Although ECT had taken away some of my bad memories, there were some things I would never be able to forget and all the experiences I’d had throughout my adventures in mental illness had left emotional scars on me that were as prominent and indelible as the physical scar my ECT port had left. All the stupid, gross, terrible things I had done and been through had become a part of me. They had affected and altered my self image.

I’ve struggled with low self esteem and poor self image my whole life. These adventures in mental illness had taken away feelings of self worth that I couldn’t really afford to lose. I was now someone who had dropped out of school multiple times, been sent to a residential treatment facility and spent time in the back ward of a mental hospital because I was deemed unfit to fraternize with other mental patients. I was someone who had masturbated in front of other people, spit in peoples’ faces both literally and figuratively and eaten out of garbage cans. I was someone who had been put on antisychotics and diagnosed as being delusional. I had baffled, horrified and frustrated many people including myself. Now I was left living with my parents with no job and no social life. I saw myself as a loser, a failure and a fucked up person.

A few months ago I read a book that pointed out that if your cancer went in to remission, you wouldn’t be ashamed of yourself if it came back so you shouldn’t be ashamed of yourself if your depression comes back after it goes in to remission. It seems like such a simple concept but it had never occurred to me even though I was familiar with the concept of treating mental illness like physical illness.

I was deeply ashamed of the fact that I had thought and acted as though I had defeated my depression for good and then sunk in to the worst depressive episode of my life. I was ashamed of the things I had done during my depressive episode and the resulting consequences of my actions. That shame spread to the things I had done before and after my depressive episode as well. Shame became the predominant theme of my life. It was a destructive force and a major obstacle for me.

On the surface it might seem like feeling shame about one’s life circumstances would motivate you to make changes and improvements but shame rarely works that way. It actually tends to have the opposite effect. It makes you feel hopeless, helpless and worthless, it damages the mechanism in you that’s capable of change.

Depression deprives you of energy and makes even the simplest of tasks seem overwhelming. ECT had lifted my depression and renewed my energy to the extent that it was no longer difficult for me to get out of bed, eat meals or read books but doing things like making plans with friends or looking for a job were still very intimidating.  It meant having to interact with people and for me interacting with people meant awkwardness, humiliation and judgement.

I felt so inferior to other people, not just to people who were in good mental health but also to other people who were mentally ill. It seemed like most people hadn’t allowed their mental illness to destroy their lives the way I’d allowed my mental illness to destroy mine. I knew there were people who had done worse things and ended up in worse situations than I had but I decided those people had some kind of reason or excuse for it whereas I didn’t.

I felt a distinct otherness from the people in my therapy groups and the people I read about in self help books. What did those people know about being a loser and a failure when they had jobs, marriages and children, things I would never have? I bet those people never masturbated in front of other people, ate out of garbage cans or spent time in the back ward of a mental hospital. There was hope for those other people but there was no hope for someone like me.

I fell in to the ‘I’m unique’ trap. All those suggestions for improving your mental health and life would work for other people but they would not work for me because I was fucked up in a way that those other people weren’t.  I thought back to the the time I’d asked Marlene if she’d ever had a client like me and she’d replied “No, you’re pretty unique.”

The word unique is such a double edged sword, especially when it comes to mental illness.  We’re all unique, just like everyone else. We shouldn’t judge anyone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes and for the most part we have not walked a mile in another person’s shoes even if we suffer from the same mental illness they do because everyone’s circumstances are different.  Yet at the same time we shouldn’t get so wrapped up in the idea of our own uniqueness that we decide no one else can possibly understand us, relate to us or help us.

Mental illness often gives rise to a host of other problems, which are exacerbated and reinforced by the mental illness and vice versa, leaving the sufferer feeling trapped in a vicious circle. I’ve been on the autism spectrum my whole life and I’ve suffered from mental illness for a good portion of my life. I’ve heard of many people with one or both of those conditions being horrifically bullied throughout their childhoods and in to adulthood. Although there had always been a few people who disliked me and treated me cruelly, for the most part I had escaped bullying. That changed in the aftermath of my mental breakdown. I was cyber bullied by a large group of people on the internet and emotionally bullied by one person in real life.

My depression caused me to behave in ways that others found annoying and off-putting, as did my autism spectrum issues, both of which interacted with each other. My situation also left me vulnerable and made it hard for me to get away from the bullies. I knew that the things the bullies were saying to and about me were wrong and that they had issues of their own. Usually when they attacked me I outwardly defended myself but inwardly I suspected they were right about me (I’m vagueblogging about the situation now but the details will be revealed in time.)

There was also other life crap that got in my way. I experienced loss. My stepbrother died tragically and unexpectedly, my dog died tragically and unexpectedly, my grandmother died. I moved away to another state thinking I was getting away from a toxic environment and a month later I had to move back. Those situations weren’t caused by my depression but they made it worse.

I had good people in my life who encouraged me and tried to help me but they could only do so much. They could lead me to water but they could not make me drink. I had to take certain steps that I was unwilling or unable to take. I was encouraged to reach out to people, to reconnect with old friends and make new friends. I refused. A few of my old friends tried to call me and e-mail me but I did not respond. It had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. The thought of having to explain my humiliating life experiences and circumstances to them and compare it with their much more positive experiences and circumstances was too much for me.

The thing about depression is that everything you see, hear and experience while depressed will be filtered through the lens of depression. If you suffer from low self esteem, everything you see, hear and experience will be interpreted to reflect the way you feel about yourself.  When people would tell me I was smart, funny and beautiful my mind would tell me that if I was smart, funny and beautiful my life shouldn’t have turned out as badly as it did and it must have turned out this way because I was such an awful, fucked up person.

I was still relatively young so I didn’t need to think my life had ‘turned out’ any particular way. I was told to let go of the past, to focus on the present, to create the future I wanted for myself.  I just couldn’t seem to do that though. Along with sadness and shame, another theme of my life was regret. I regretted so many of the decisions I’d made in the past. I tortured myself trying to come up with logical reasons for why I did what I did but the only reason I could ever come up with was that I was mentally ill.

All I could focus on were the bridges I’d burned and the opportunities I’d lost. I’d fantasize about what my life could have been like before if I’d made different choices and what it would be like now. I did not want to work with the circumstances I had now to build a future for myself because I was sure that now I could not create a fulfilling life.I wanted the life I could have had. I guess that by refusing to move forward with my life, I was in a way denying the painful reality of it and by dwelling on the past keeping alive the fantasy that it could be changed.

When I went back to school I did not feel proud of myself . Instead I was ashamed of myself for dropping out in the first place. I was embarrassed that I had been to three different schools on four separate occasions. Being back on the campus of the first college I had attended was a painful reminder of the ‘college experience’ I had ‘thrown away.’

One of the classes I took was Theories of Psychotherapy and one of the assignments for the class involved writing a personal essay. In my personal essay I shared some of the details of my adventures in mental illness and my struggles with it. When the professor handed back the essays, he’d written on mine “Finding happiness isn’t easy. It’s a process. Now begin the process because you do deserve it.”

I wasn’t sure I did deserve it.