My internet family

By Lee Ravn Kristensen

When you feel like you don’t fit in in the world around you, be it due to who you are or what you like, it is invaluable to find an accepting community – even one that’s spread around the world. This is Lee’s story about finding a family in the online universe.

Growing up different

I guess I’ve always been a bit of an outsider. I love video games, comic books, and Dungeons and Dragons. I spend most of my days indoors in front of my computer, alone in my apartment with my cats, Darth Vader poster on the wall, and Batman logo on my sheets. When I was a child, I was bullied relentlessly. The most common thread to pick at was my unusual hobbies. I was a nerd and a “tomboy”, and I was alone: an easy target for bored kids with something to prove. Except it wasn’t just the kids. It was my family as well.

“Wouldn’t you rather like something normal?”

“You can’t live your entire life in a fantasy world.”

“Don’t you have any real hobbies?”

I learned to be ashamed of my interests, but there was nothing I could do about it. I liked what I liked, and I just learned not to talk about it. It became like a dirty secret everyone knew, but no one talked about, and it hurt, deeply. My family, who was supposed to love me unconditionally, didn’t. They made fun of me, but only because “they were worried others might make fun of me”. That reasoning didn’t help my budding anxiety disorder.

Faraway friendships

When I was 15, I realized I was gay – and I was terrified.

I had this idea that of course my family loved me and would accept me no matter what, but that hadn’t been my experience in the past. If something as harmless as reading comic books was a shock to their “normal” world that they felt the need to correct my behavior, then what would my sexuality mean to them? Would I be further ostracized for another thing I couldn’t change?

The first person I came out to, I’ve never actually met face to face. I met Jim through a game we both played online. He’d referred me to a message board where other people who played the game would chat, both about the game itself, but also other games and real life. I found a lot of kindred spirits on that forum, mostly around my age, but there were a few younger, and older. There was even a grandfather!

Jim was a father of two from Liverpool, and he played the game with his oldest daughter. I didn’t even mean to tell him I was gay, at least it wasn’t what I had set out to do that day, but he casually mentioned he was going to the pub to meet his buddy’s new boyfriend, and the offhand mention of a gay couple just set me off, and I told him.

He wasn’t surprised I was gay, he told me, which threw me for a loop. He said he’d suspected for about a year now but wasn’t going to say anything, because it didn’t seem like I was ready yet. Then he threw a second curveball: A lot of the people I was talking to on the forum every day were LGBTI+. And I just had no idea.

Growing up online

I grew up and into an adult while on this forum, and the other users grew with me, and suddenly I had all these friends who were struggling to be adults right alongside with me. We became each other’s support through a terrifying time of deciding what we wanted to do with our lives, going to school to realize those dreams, and suddenly having to file taxes.

The internet has grown a lot since I was 15, and it’s never been easier to keep in contact. At first, it was just text, but these days everyone has a microphone, and we talk daily. We’ve moved from forums to Skype, to Discord, but it’s the same people I talk to, my “Internet Family,” I call them.

For over 10 years, I’ve known these people, shared hopes, and dreams, shared a drink from across the world on a Friday night, and if that isn’t family, then I don’t know what is. If I don’t show up for a few days, someone checks up on me, if I’ve mentioned going somewhere, someone will ask how it went when I come back. When I experience something exciting, my first thought is to tell my online friends, and with a phone in my pocket, now I can.

I have anxiety and depression. Something I’ve struggled with for years now, and something I’ve found too many young people suffer from as well. When I told my biological family I was depressed, the most common reply was “Why didn’t you say something if you were struggling?” and “It’s no wonder when you sit on your computer all day and never go outside.” I understand the sentiment, the concern that sparks these responses, but they never help – quite the opposite. I just became that little child who had to be afraid of their own existence again.

When I talk to my internet family, I never feel like I have to hide. I don’t have to tone down who I am to “seem more normal” to the world around me. I can express my feelings and opinions, and I receive honesty and compassion in return. This summer, I visited an online friend across the country, and without any prompting from me, he cleared his bedroom so I could hide in there if I experienced sensory overload or just needed a break. My grandmother sometimes still asks why I spend so much time in the bathroom at her house.

Long (social) distance

These days with social distancing, it’s been especially important for me to have the network I do. For a long time, I couldn’t visit my grandmother or go to work, and I still don’t meet people as often as I used to, and definitely not in the same way as before. But one thing that remains largely unchanged is my online network.

We’ve arranged movie nights before the virus, but we’ve never had quite as many as we’ve had this summer. Every week we’ll get together three or more people to watch a movie online together, and that has really helped with the feeling of isolation. I communicate with my Internet Family the way I always have, but I’ve been so fortunate that I know how to use all these online tools to get together, and I’ve found myself helping a few of my “real life” friends and family members with how to join a Zoom call or use the Discord client to speak to multiple people at once.

Recently, my grandmother said to me “So this is what you’ve been doing on the computer”, with a sense of understanding in her voice that nearly made me cry. It’s taken a long time, but it seems like people are getting around to the idea of having more of an online presence and the importance of having a network, regardless of whether it’s online or face to face.

Having my Internet Family has saved my life, and with them, I’ve found love and understanding beyond my wildest dreams.

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