This is a post about online friends, meaning friends that I have made contact with online but have never actually met 'in the flesh'.
So are online friends real? Yes. Thanks for reading!
Hee hee- no I'm not going to end here, although it would be fun writing the shortest blog post ever. I'm going to explain my thinking.
You all know a bit about my story, going from being an active sociable soul to being housebound and potentially very isolated. But I took refuge in the things I could still do, like going online and I used this to reach out. I joined a support group to help me understand what was happening to me, and this was the best thing I could have done. I made contact with other people with the illness, lots of whom came and went, but a few that I really got on well with and seemed to gravitate towards. Over time (around a year) I got to know these people, I saw photos of them, sent and received personal messages and befriended them outwith the confines of the blog through Facebook, sharing home addresses and exchanging mobile numbers. * This led to exchanging letters, presents and other surprises through the post.
When extra poorly, a card would appear through the post just when I needed it most, and it meant a lot to come from someone who was poorly themselves, thinking of me instead of themselves. I found my new friends to be strong and inspiring.
But its not all about being sick together. We celebrate the small achievements and the funny sides of being ill. We share other interests like weight loss tips, art, gardening, crafts, poetry, TV and films, books. We talk about everything and nothing. We laugh together and cry together.
But are these friends 'real'? Or do these friendships only exist in cyberspace?
I was talking to one of my online friends one day about how good it was to be friends but how lovely it would be to live nearby and just pop over for a cuppa and a lounge around. How it'd be so lovely to be friends 'in real life'. I made a distinction between my online friends and my real life friends. My friend replied that this WAS real life, that we WERE friends in real life and that she called the 'real life' friends that she has 'flesh friends'. This avoided the implication that her online friends weren't real. I thought this was fabulous (but only wish that 'flesh friends' sounded less like something from Dawn of the Dead).
I define a friend as someone who is there for you. Someone who cares, who makes you laugh, who listens and supports. Someone you care about back and want to support. Someone who shares laughs, tears and interests, someone you want to spend time with.
Why is spending time with someone online any less valid than seeing them in the flesh? That person is real and exists in a physical sense ** albeit not in your living room.
And even when you do not have an established friendship, acquaintances can provide a lot of comfort and support too. Instead of bumping into friends of friends in the outside world you might join a FB group on crafts, for example, and meet someone who likes the same things as you. A positive comment from them on a photo you share can mean a lot.
But don't just take my word for it.... Here are what some of my online friends say:
Defining a friend is always a tricky one, for me it’s someone you care about with whom you share things, since getting poorly and being mostly housebound the things I have on offer to share have changed. They are still important and valuable and worth sharing but not the ‘things’ a healthy person might share. So those who I thought were friends slowly drift (and in one case very suddenly after declaring ‘you’re not disabled! my thoughts really, well you try living with Severe M.E). You lose touch, I couldn’t talk about work, or nights out, big holidays or having children. A lot of the time I just couldn’t talk, my body and brain failed at even the simplest of communications.
So I turned online and found friends and yes they are real, we share our hopes and dreams, our mistakes, our grief and sadness, we care about each other. I celebrate their achievements and good news from them makes me smile, I cry with them when their journeys are hard. When my life gets hard I seek comfort from my friends, when it’s good I want to share and that now means reaching for my laptop.
So, it’s not how ‘normal’ people do it; I have never and may never meet these people, we don’t share visits to coffee shops, work places or clubs but I do sit on my sofa and have a cuppa with them and share things, to me they are real, they are true and they matter". (Tareen)
"To come to rely so heavily on people you have never met for emotional support must seem so odd. I'm sure it would to me if I wasn't in this situation. But hand on heart these people, that I've never met, have become a life line. They live in my computer and I meet them there every day. Obviously you can't often beat a real life bear hug but to have people in your life who actually understand what it is you're experiencing as you navigate your way through chronic illness has been the saving grace in all of this. My journey would be so bleak without them." (Anna Jones)
"One of the best things about online friends is that
on things like Facebook and forums, you can reply at your own pace and
in your own time. No need for immediate responses, you can dip in and
out of conversations when you're able - something you definitely can't
do in real life! I can go weeks or months without seeing anyone except
my mum and my boyfriend; without my online chums, loneliness would get
overwhelming. Before I found my online ME buddies, illness completely
isolated me - now I am part of a community of amazing people who are
only a keystroke away. The Internet is a blessing when you're this
poorly. Trust me". (Rachel)
"Having been ill since I was eight, and not being well
enough for school, college or work, one of the things I've most
struggled with has been the isolation and lack of friendships. It's so
hard to meet people, let alone maintain relationships when your whole
life centres around the limitations of being severely ill. For the first
fifteen years of my illness, I didn't have internet. Experiencing this
level of isolation throughout my formative years was detrimental to my
sense of self. Now, being a member of online groups of similarly
affected people with shared interests and hobbies (such as arts and
crafts) has literally changed my life. I no longer feel like an outsider
who wouldn't fit in anywhere. I'd never experienced being part of a
community/group of friends before. Now I have friends who I've met or
spoken to in person after 'meeting' on Facebook as well as sharing
support, laughter and inspiration whenever I'm up to reading my phone
and either typing or dictating into it. I've also discovered my worth as
a friend and it feels great to be there for others. Thanks to virtual
events hosted on fb, I even attend parties and rarely miss out on
interesting conversations as you can join in with comments when next
online, regardless of when the conversation was initiated. When it gets
too much for me, I can put my phone or laptop away until I have enough
energy again. These are real friends in a situation that caters
perfectly to those with my kinds of needs. And, as both healthy and
disabled people alike use Facebook, I can connect with all different
people who I'd otherwise lose touch with and can feel a member of the
bigger world rather than just a ghetto for ill people. Long live online
gathering places, I say!" (Germaine)
"The benefits of online sickie friends is that they
just get it! You don't have to explain and you get honest supportive
understanding responses. Which i value highly.
I appreciate my
healthy friends too but they don't get it, as much as they try to and
then you get the cliche answers about staying positive and it will get
better or well at least you have this etc or they try and give answers
to fix it when it cant be fixed or tell you you should have this in your
diet or start doing this as it will make all the different etc
you just need people who understand and go yes its really crappy and it
really sucks but i totally understand and I'm here.
people don't feel that comfortable taking the piss out of your illness
or wont laugh with you about it. It gets uncomfortable and you get
sympathy instead, which is not what you want when you are trying to
laugh about dropping something or walking into a door or sticking
something in the fridge that doesn't belong there. Fellow sickies can
help take the piss and make you laugh and make it that bit easier to
live with." (Name withheld)
So in answer to my question it seems to be unanimous- yes, online friends are real friends. A few have been more of a friend than some of the flesh friends that used to be in my life. So don't get too hung up on the distinction, stay safe, and when you make that connection you might find over time that an 'online friend' becomes simply 'a friend'.
*A note of caution about internet safety here, you know the drill. Be very careful about who you befriend online. Never give out your address or telephone number to people you don't know. This happened for me after a long period of building trust. If you arrange to meet in person, meet in a public place and even better, take someone with you.Remember that people are not always who they say they are online.
** Except when they do not and are doing something very unsavoury. See above warning.