April 7, 1999
Cyber Evolution

"SecraTerri is online but not in a chat area."

If you signed onto AOL almost anytime between August 1995 and October 1998 and ran a Member Search for me, that's the message you would have received.

(Or one of the messages, anyway. "SecraTerri is ordering everyone to stand on their heads in The Baby Boomer Chat Room" was also a possibility. "SecraTerri is sitting alone in a private chat room, talking to herselves, just so you'll think she's cool and popular and unattainable" was another. Or -- my personal favorite -- "SecraTerri is online but cannot receive instant messages. Please leave a message with her SecraTerri.")

Didn't matter what time it was. Crack of dawn? There I was at 5:45 a.m., holding the blow-dryer in one hand and typing e-mail with the other. Middle of the day? A furtive i.m. session with forty or fifty of my closest cyber pals, while the boss was conveniently (and stoopidly) out of the office. Dinnertime? Cheap chablis, stale Doritos and the Chat Room. Midnight? Closeted away in private conversation with the cyber beau du hour.

Didn't matter what day it was, either. I remember more than one Thanksgiving spent balancing a plateful of lukewarm turkey and mashed potatoes on my knee, talking to friends online (while the rest of my family celebrated more traditionally: by eating dinner in front of a "Simpsons" rerun).

Even when none of my buddies were online, I found ways to entertain myself. Voluminous e-mail exchanges. Message boards. Online trivia games. Member Directory surfing. Uploading grainy .gifs to the Gallery. Tinkering with my AOL profile ("Hobbies: Bungee-jumping from the hood of my car and collecting empty margarine containers"). Making up faux screen names and spying on people. No cyber activity seemed too pointless or stupid or demeaning or dangerous or brain-deadening or wrong ... as long as I was connected.

That was the key. I loved that feeling of being connected to something.  Even if that "something" was sucking the life right out of me.

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I have been profoundly surprised three times, so far, in my adult life. (Four, if you count sex after 40. But this is a family website.)

The first time was when my son was born. I already had two daughters, who I loved obsessively, and during that third pregnancy I nursed the foolish and secret fear that I wouldn't know how to love a son. The power of my feelings for him, as I lay on the delivery table holding him after his difficult surgical birth, was overwhelming.

It happened again, a few years later, when I stood in front of the Lenscrafters mirror and slipped a pair of glasses onto my nose for the first time.  I realized -- with mingled horror and delight -- that I'd spent the past several years of my life looking at the world through a thick layer of Vaseline. It was a moment of startling visual and mental clarity.

And then there was the moment when I first connected to the online world.

I've written about this before, elsewhere on this website: the thrill of hearing that first screechy modem noise ... seeing the little bolt-of-lightning AOL icon appear on my monitor ... feeling that a piece of me was breaking loose and winging off into the 'zone. It still gives me goosebumps, nearly four years later, whenever I remember the way I felt at that moment: charged, exultant, relieved -- it had been a confusing and expensive process, getting signed on for the first time -- ...

... and connected. Certain that everything about my life was changing at that moment. I don't know how I knew. But I knew. It was like a religious experience, except the only *voice* I heard was the little automated AOL guy, announcing that I Had Mail.

Why the instantaneous, overpowering infatuation with cyber? It combined elements of so many things I loved, for one thing. Writing. Typing. Computers. Conversation. Humor. Pen pals. Information. The exchange of ideas. Audience. Acceptance. Competition. Fun. Gossip. Flirtation. Sex. Music. Sitting around on my butt with my feet plopped on top of my desk.


(And  --  of course  --  alcohol. The chat room was tons more fun when I was slightly snockered.)

It was a time in my life when I was feeling particularly isolated, for another thing. I worked in a one-person office all day long, with no one to talk to but the occasional phone tech or cranky customer. My silent and sorry marriage was hanging by a thread. The Tots were morphing into teenagers, with busy lives of their own. I had a handful of women "friends" I rarely saw (and could barely tolerate, most of the time: they always wanted to talk about curtains and toenails). Before I discovered AOL, I would come home from work and spend my evenings alone and semi-comatose, eating Uno candy bars in front of the tube. Weekend nights I would sit at my desk, drinking crappy wine and categorizing my True Type fonts. I felt very separated from the rest of the world in those days. I secretly worried that eventually I was going to prefer it that way.

And -- on top of everything else -- I have one of those "addictive personalities" that the women's magazines are so fond of writing useless anecdotal articles about. When I love something, I love it BIG.  I love it stoopid. I love it blind. And I love it, occasionally, to the exclusion of all else. (Or, at least, that has been a pattern in the past. I'd like to think I've evolved a little since then. But that's another story for another day.)

Point is  ...  it's hard to imagine anyone more ripe for cyber addiction than I was, that summer of 1995.

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I want to make something clear. I don't believe for a minute that "cyber addiction" is wholly to blame for the wrong-headed choices I made, a couple of years later. It doesn't explain or excuse or absolve me of anything. Neither does alcoholism. Neither, for that matter, does the personally toxic combination of the two. But one of the more interesting new developments in my struggle with sobriety is this desire  --  this need  --  to own my mistakes. In this case, it means admitting that the Baby Boomer Chat Room and a box of Livingston Cellars didn't blow my family apart. I did that all by myself.

But the cyber stuff certainly didn't help.

I would also hasten to point out that I have enjoyed a lot of good, positive experiences online. Friendships, especially. Within days of that first tentative chat room visit -- "What does LOL mean?" -- I'd zeroed in on the people I felt were the coolest and the sharpest and the funniest  -- including David -- and I've pretty much stuck with them ever since. I consider these friendships to be every inch as valid and important and sanity-sustaining and life-affirming as any I've made IRL. Maybe more so. (My online friends never expect me to talk about curtains and toenails, for example. Except maybe for Bottlenekk.)

Being online has also sharpened my writing skills (although you'd never know it, to read this website sometimes) ... blown my self-esteem ridiculously out of proportion, and then slimmed it back down to a more manageable level ... opened up the world to me, in ways I could not have imagined four years ago ...

... and, of course, brought me the love of my life.

So it hasn't been a complete waste of time, energy, thought molecules and $8,014.60.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"They're doing song titles again," I said to David last night.


My interest in online stuff  --  the cyber world in general, and AOL in particular  --  has decreased, over the last few months, in almost direct proportion to the health and balance I feel being restored to my real life.

I still love my friends. I don't write to them nearly as often as I should  --  and I agonize over that  --  but I still feel connected to them emotionally. I still read their profiles to see if they're talking about me. And I still love to sign on and find their e-mails waiting in my cyber mailbox. (Usually bearing Subject Titles like "Where The Fudk Are You?," "How 'Bout That $150 You Owe Me?," "Abusive Letter From OSHA To Follow.")  I love it when an old pal from the Boom Room days resurfaces and writes to me. It's always fun to talk about stuff I have absolutely zero conscious memory of.

I still love to slip online once in awhile and i.m. with Shell Pile or Mizzle or my special pal MrFyre for a few minutes, catching up on gossip and music news and death threats.

But I gave up chat rooms right about the time my marriage collapsed. All of a sudden the whole idea seemed wearying. Thirty people exchanging winky-wink sexual double entendres/faux .wav files/bad poetry/annoying ASCII "art," all at once? Pass. I stopped participating in string mail and message boards shortly after that, for pretty much the same reason. Life is too short to spend precious time wading through one hundred and fifty variations on the ROFLMAO "theme."

Last night, though, I decided to skim through the old haunts while David fixed dinner. Song titles, apparently, have once again replaced actual conversation on some of the message boards. I read for approximately half a minute ... and then signed off. It merely confirmed what I already knew: that AOL and I have drifted apart.

I looked at David. "I just don't care about this stuff anymore," I said tiredly. "What's wrong with me?"

"Nothing's wrong with you," he said. "We're just enjoying the real world, right now." 

And he's right, of course. Right now real life is a bazillion times more fun and more interesting and more healing and more everything than the cyber world ever was. Having a real life relationship beats a 3,000 mile separation and semi-annual conjugal visits, any day. But it's still a teeny tiny bit ... what's a good word? ... wrenching, I guess, to let go of something that has been such a HUGE part of my life, the way AOL has been. It's the same way I felt when I sat in a restaurant last fall, newly sober, and watched the couple at the next table order a bottle of wine with dinner. I don't want to go back to doing things the way I used to ... but I haven't quite figured out how to fill the void yet.



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