While there are few commonalities the internet of 1999 shares with the internet of today, one thing hasn’t changed.
Here is its most potent magic: with the push of a button, you can be heard. Any time, anywhere, from your phone, computer, or tablet, you can always shout into the void. Today’s internet is billions of miles away from the chugging 14.4k modem I had as an agoraphobic thirteen year-old, lurking behind two sets of doors with a phone line no one would call and disconnect. Though our 1993 Gateway lagged behind the technology race in ever-increasingly painful ways, it was my tenuous hold on sanity in what I still consider one of the darkest times of my life.
This is in response to an article over on the NAMI blog in regards to teens and mental illness. Fair warning: triggering content is under the cut.
In 1999, the common meeting grounds online were chat rooms, forums, and guestbooks. Maybe a web ring, if you were navigating by interests. At thirteen, I was hard at work at creating my own comic and working on my first attempt at writing an original story when my life changed forever.
It was February, and my older brother had finally gone off to college. He left two empty rooms: a bonus room with a TV and a Playstation, and the bedroom over the garage. It was prized territory as the quietest room in the house, and the bastion where the computer lurked. My bedroom was four nauseatingly pink walls at the end of the hall, but I spent less time there than I did in my brother’s rooms, playing Squaresoft RPGs or consulting the internet for slow-loading references for my attempts at anime and videogame fanart. My brother’s girlfriend had introduced us to Final Fantasy VII the year before, and it had taken over my brain in an unprecedented way. Welcome, considering the year that had come before and the hell that would follow.
I was thirteen, and the person who’d always looked after me and protected me and provided me with the few contacts I could consider trustworthy was gone. I had a couple of friends, sure, but they weren’t close enough that I felt safe enough to tell them what was really going on in my head. I felt too wary, seeing how their parents squinted at me, like they knew something was off about me. Wrong. Like they could see how troubled I really was, when I hadn’t figured it out for myself.
Eleven had made my limbs long and lanky, but I was still oblivious to what was happening to me. Twelve was when puberty finally kicked in, bringing along a slew of changes I rejected and refused to cope with. It was my brother who patiently explained there was nothing I could do but accept it. There was no stopping my changing body. No amount of willpower or denial would keep my body the same. He tried to give me the same talk all parents give their kids, but he didn’t have words that connected the distress I felt and the welts and cuts I wore into my skin. I’d only just stumbled across the tip of the iceberg when my brother left. When it crashed into my life, there was no way to stop it, no direction for me to fall but down.
I was thirteen, and it was February when I had my first panic attack.
It’s hard to describe that first experience of mind-obliterating terror. I felt sick, then cold. A shaking started at the tips of my fingers and toes and reverberated inwards, till I was sure I’d lose my mind or die of a heart attack. My mother asked me what was wrong, and I only had one answer: “I’m going to be sick.”
And that was what preceded and followed each panic attack for the next several weeks. One day, I was sent home. In the absence of school and people and pressure, I started to think. “When is the next one?” “What if I’m not home when the next one comes?” “What if they don’t stop?”
Days went by. My mother scheduled a doctor appointment. I described my symptoms; they sent me off with a note for stomach flu.
But it kept happening, and no one caught what it really was. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling as fear. It was so purely physical, so intensely sickening I thought, right along with everyone else, that what was happening to me must be some terrible illness. Something that would go away in time, resolve the way viruses and long illnesses normally do.
I hadn’t connected it to cutting, years of bullying, or a certain awful thing lurking in my memory I’d never been able to face. I couldn’t connect the terror I felt to the bodily changes I’d lost control over. The best I could do was hide the fact it was getting worse, so I retreated to one of the few places I considered safe. Behind two doors and a barricade of furniture, I slept during the day and crept out only when necessary. My mother tried everything, but nothing worked. In the end, she had to drag me, panicked and crying, to a doctor appointment so we could secure a note. The school was told I had mono, and a teacher delivered my assignments, along with get well cards and an entire trash bag full of paper cranes. I treasured each one, even though my classmates didn’t know what was happening to me anymore than I did. I closed myself off so much my family barely saw me, and no amount of yelling or punishments or cajoling did any good. The only thing that made it bearable was to hide from the real world, and that was when fandom stepped in.
At thirteen, I found myself in a strange place among fanartists and fic writers much older than myself. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar–I’d toddled after my older brother for years, tolerated by his friends for my precocious nature and disinterest in anything suitable for children my age. On the ‘net, age mattered even less. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the same tools as the people I admired, or their years of experience. I kept up with them however I could, making friends with kids in high school and college. Kind people, who encouraged me. They’d leave comments on my art and writing, offering pointers and bolstering my confidence.
I had plenty of precocity, but I had no idea how to answer when they asked what I wanted to do in the future.
What was my future when I lived behind two doors, too terrified to leave the house? How could I think about anything past the week ahead when my sanity was a thread maintained by fic updates and a handful of caring internet friends? By April, I’d begun seeing and hearing things I knew weren’t there. I would crawl under my bed and roll into a ball in the far corner, terrified of what would happen if I couldn’t turn whatever was wrong with me off. The most I could do was survive it, and when I confessed this to my friends on the internet, they finally gave me a word for what I was going through:
“You’re depressed,” an older girl told me.
“Depression” was a word I knew, but hadn’t applied to myself. I’d gotten it into my head I was experiencing the bad end of puberty, and it would eventually abate and move on. Not so, my dear internet friends explained. Depression could happen to anyone, at any time, and there were medications that could help. But medications were something I’d thought were only available to adults. I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest along with a plethora of dark classics, and I knew what was happening to me couldn’t possibly happen to a kid. That had been the consensus from the people around me. I was only being difficult, willful, a juvenile delinquent, refusing to go to school just because I didn’t like it. And I often found myself thinking along the same lines, thinking I could will myself out of the corner I was trapped in. I didn’t realize how dangerous depression really was until the night I spent an hour on the kitchen floor with a knife.
I had lost the concept of the future. There was only the present, a grueling series of seconds that dripped into hours while I fought to keep the worst of it at bay. There was no college for me. No high school. Only right now, a dreadful place I couldn’t escape. Nothing I did worked. I’d fought for months, and I was too exhausted to do it anymore. There was no help, no exit, no hand that would pull me out of my hell.
That was what led me downstairs to my mother’s knife block. I was only thirteen. I didn’t know the different types of suicide, other, more peaceful ways. But I knew if I stabbed myself deep enough, hard enough, I would die. I would bleed out on the floor, and I wouldn’t have to endure the agony I lived in anymore.
I took the largest knife and knelt down to figure out the most effective angle. I tested the knife, pressing it against my side. The motion was enough to make me sweat and tense up. Once I started, there would be no stopping. It would be painful, but I reminded myself that physical pain was nothing anymore. I was determined. It didn’t matter that I’d wasted down to 98 pounds, that my wrists were too small to exert enough force. All I had to do was angle the knife and fall on it.
The clicking of my dog’s toenails on the linoleum made me hesitate. I looked up as he trotted across the kitchen, tail wagging, and my heart sank. I threw the knife away from me, ashamed of what I’d almost done. Zeppy sniffed my face while I cried, and followed me as I ran back up the stairs. I held him while I waited for the modem to connect, hands shaking as I typed a message to a friend. I told them what had happened, how scared I was. And thank God, they understood. They had the life experience to get why I’d locked myself in a room, the precious few years I might not have ever lived to see if someone else hadn’t been out there in the void.
If I hadn’t had those friends to help me make sense of things, I don’t know what I would have done. I’m not sure I would have had the bravery to tell my mother that I wanted to commit suicide, or the strength to assert that yes, I was depressed. My mother called her parents, and my Papa and Gramma came down to stay with us. Papa knocked on my door each morning after everyone left, calling “Come on, Miss Superfantastic, I know you can get out of that room!”
We moved in slow steps: getting me to stay in the kitchen. Walking into the hallway, one step at a time. Then out of the house, down the walkway, and a hundred feet down the drive. Down the street, sweating and panicked, but struggling to make progress, no matter how slow. It took a solid month of my mother driving back and forth in slowly-increasing distances before we could get me to a psychologist’s office. Even longer to get me back into school. I’d managed honor roll despite everything, but classrooms were still too terrifying. I wouldn’t officially go back to school until that fall, after several sessions on a therapist’s couch and a course of meds. All the while, I had the support of understanding friends I’d never met in person, people who checked in on me and asked me simple things, like how my writing was going. Whether I wanted to see a new drawing they had. They’d get me to talk about my favorite pairings, the things we wished had happened in our fandoms, but never had. I kept writing and drawing, and eventually discovered words were my way out. For all the words I couldn’t say out loud, there were hundreds, thousands upon a page, and the friends who’d saved my life understood exactly what they meant.
I say this on the heels of NAMI’s article because of just how important it is to ask kids what’s going on in their heads. Sometimes they might not be able to properly communicate what’s happening. Stigma only complicates things, pushing unthinkable suffering into even more dangerous places.
It isn’t impossible for a child or a teenager to experience the same debilitating depression as an adult. In the right circumstances, anyone can experience depression. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, if you had a good upbringing, or “have nothing to be sad about.” Imbalanced brain chemicals are strictly biological, and no amount of willpower or bootstrapping can force them to do what you want. It’s a lesson I went on to communicate working inpatient mental health, and while I often wished that the patients I worked with hadn’t suffered the same things I had, I was grateful I knew what to do to help.
I was glad I’d survived and could give my patients the two words that had saved my life: “I understand.”
“I understand” encompasses a whole host of other meanings: that the other person isn’t alone, that you care, that you’re listening. They are words that connect your experience to theirs. A verbal hand, offering something to hold onto long enough for the other person to get the rest of their words out.
Talk to the kids in your life. Listen to them. If they come to you asking for help, NAMI.org is a great resource. Both the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America have regional chapters and great resources for where to find support groups and other forms of peer support. Advocacy and awareness isn’t limited to groups like MHA and NAMI, though–even Facebook is launching new protocols for suicide prevention this year. Resources are more available than ever before, so get educated. Know your options. There are many more than you’d think.
And if you’re reading this, thinking you only have one option–please try this one first.
Stay strong. Hang in there. You’re not alone. There are more people than you know who understand. ❤