Gender & Identity, Life

This is how writing in online communities saved me from total isolation

I was homeschooled and depressed... but thankfully I had an internet connection.

I don’t believe in homeschooling your children. Not the way it happened to me.

Through a mishap with my district lines, moving because my mother wanted to be with a new man, and a whole lot of other mess, I was in between schools. I had a few options: go to the Catholic private school I’d heard nothing but bad things about, go to the local high school that required a dress code to make sure you didn’t wear any kind of gang memorabilia, or be schooled online. My mother felt like she had messed up severely, and she had, so she let me choose.

Fun fact: it’s probably not a good idea to let a traumatized sixteen year old dictate the next two years of her life.

I already had incredible social anxiety. We moved to New Jersey when I was in sixth grade. I didn’t make anything resembling a solid friend group until the second half of ninth grade. It was bad to the point where I greeted someone by the lockers in homeroom once, and she was genuinely surprised I wasn’t mute. The idea of starting over was paralyzing.

So, I stayed inside.

I started schooling at an online high school. I’ll tell you right now: I didn’t learn anything. Thankfully, I was smart already. I googled most of the answers to my tests, and wrote the worst essays known to man. I never emailed my teachers. We didn’t even have to speak with them if we didn’t want to. All you did was read, take quizzes and turn in essays. It was a quest to find the right answer, never to comprehend it.

I didn’t realize how depressed I was. My mom thought I was lazy. I was supposed to do the dishes, walk the dog, do various chores here and there. Instead, I slept until noon. I spent all day in bed anxious about small tasks. I’d attempt to do schoolwork, but find myself scrolling on endlessly on Tumblr. I usually wouldn’t shower until the afternoon. All of my friends lived at least a half hour away, and my parents weren’t very eager to let me visit them. So I’d see them on the weekends, but the weekdays always felt so long.

I tried to write stories. I read a lot of online fiction. A lot of scanlation manga, whatever I could get my hands on that was, most importantly, free. Eventually, my casual love of Harry Potter found me into what would become a large chapter of my life: online roleplaying.

The simplest explanation of it is that you pick a character, you write their history, and you write them against other character’s that folks have created. There, you let them run wild. Relationships bloomed, they crashed and burned, and there was a coalition of people behind them giggling at their actions.

I created lifelong friends. I would log in and message back and forth with them, talking about our characters, our daily lives, our various fandoms. It made me feel like I was a part of something again, a part of a society I was so isolated from.

You get a kind of digital worldliness by cultivating online friends: I met a woman who lived on Navajo reservations, one who worked for the British consulate in New York, a travelling stage manager for the opera, and an Australia writer who always left when it was “beer o’clock.” It was overwhelmingly femmes who populated these spaces as well. We cultivated a pseudo-sisterhood. Of course, it was like any kind of friend group. There was bickering, there was drama, there was favoritism and unfairness.

It was everything I needed.

When my friends were at school and I was staring at a screen that was trying to teach me algebra, I knew I was one message away from a connection with people I was growing to love. We knew each other’s schedules and time-zones because we were so intertwined in each other’s lives.

Naturally, all things fizzle out. This community was one of them. There are only so many things a few people can write about for so long, and our attempts to bring in fresh voices were in vain. I was lucky that this disintegration coincided with summer break and my admission to college. Really, though, I was lucky to have them. I keep in touch with some of them to this day, mostly through Instagram. Some have moved away from home, some have moved back, but we haven’t forgotten about each other, and that’s the most important part.