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Like many things in my life, my knowledge of e-therapy is a result of my obsession with fanfic.
In the circles I moved in, the role-playing engine of choice was Omegle, a site which had you type in a few key interests and then hooked you up with an anon who had the same keywords. Though I received my fair share of people who were annoyingly obtuse, the exercise hooked me on the magic of meeting with someone simply to create something. We could indulge our need for embarrassingly soppy cuddle-fic or five rounds of in-character insult-throwing before shaking hands and moving on, the connection easy and free of assumptions made because of our looks, sex, or occupation.
Thus, when my strongest relationship imploded and took 99% of my friend circle with it, all I wanted was that kind of faceless connection to comfort me when I felt my most monstrous. When my favorite fanfic Tumblr linked to a site called Compassion Pit, specifically designed so you could tell strangers your problems, I dove right in.
These kinds of sites often come up when you Google “e-therapy”, but to me it seems they’re more closely related to Chatroulette. Namely, they make no secret of the fact that the people you’re talking to aren’t accredited therapists, but self-appointed volunteers. Once you’re past the warnings that these people don’t have licenses, you can choose between two boxes labeled either “Listener” or “Venter”.
I always chose “Venter”, which sent me to a clean white text box where I could type out my misery to my heart’s content… and at that point, the misery welling up inside me seemed pretty much inexhaustible.
If you’re sitting there saying, as one of my friends did, that talking to a bunch of people is just as legit as talk therapy, my experiences might change your mind. Much like Omegle, I found you couldn’t just jump to the heavy topics (death, cancer) or people would immediately disconnect.
Some people seemed unable to actually read what I was writing and come out with outrageous howlers in response to my depression (“Well, maybe your relationship wasn’t real,” was a good one, up there with the person who sagely announced that I “just need to get laid, ASAP.”) Even worse were the people who would spout self-help nonsense that I couldn’t get them to explain even when I asked them (“You create your own reality!” was a favorite).
On the other hand, I seldom met a volunteer that didn’t seem to have a real desire to help. (One that I talked to said that he was serving as a Listener because the site had helped him so much in the past.)
One site I still occasionally use, BlahTherapy, assigns random pairings of verbs and nouns as screen names, so I would at least be mildly amused to find that I was now “Inscrutable Lamp”. One user, “Cutting Marbles,” drew me out of my misery by playing goofy word games that culminated in us flinging emoticons at each other and rating them for “sexiness” based on completely nonsensical criteria.
And then there were the people that urged me to hold on, who praised me for my progress in getting on once a week instead of every night, and who offered their own experiences and made my own raging grief seem less abnormal.
It was also weirdly comforting, in a the-universe-will-eventually-end kind of way, to realize that many of the people I talked to admitted they didn’t have any solutions and could only listen with sympathy. It made my problems seem more legit, in that there wasn’t a quick fix that I was just too drowned in self-pity to notice.
You might also be wondering why I didn’t just find a real therapist, and, ironically, I was in fact looking for one to meet with in person before my crash. Using Marianne’s tips and Captain Awkward’s blog as guides, I was researching local therapists on the Internet and going to trial sessions to see which one would be the best fit for me.
But right in the middle of that the crisis hit, a double whammy that took away both my financial ability to pay out-of-pocket for care and the mental energy to look for other options. (I’m embarrassed now to realize that I might have been able to find low-cost therapy or borrow money from relatives, but the fact that I was struggling every day to do basic tasks like unload the dishwasher also makes me think I might not have been able to act on that information.)
The faceless people who I spoke to during my e-therapy chats also had the benefit of not having eyes or voices for me to dissect for nuances. One therapist I tried out shortly after the crisis began seemed to radiate kindness… and that, somehow, made me feel more hideous after I’d laid bare the miscommunications and anxieties that had caused the collapse of my “chosen family.” The next one was much more matter-of-fact, but left me with the impression that she couldn’t understand why I was having such an extreme reaction to such ordinary problems.
By contrast, the people on my chat sites could be easily cut off and replaced with another, or confronted if I thought they said something stupid with fewer repercussions. Best of all, the fact that there were dozens of Listeners available at one time meant that I could spread my misery across 12 separate people, rather than give it in more concentrated form to the few friends I hadn’t had to cut off in order to give us all a chance to heal. God knows what would have happened if I had subjected them to the full force of my mind gremlins every single day.
Now that I no longer feel like I’m looking at life from the bottom of a hole, I’m both a in awe of the fact that I actually came up with strategies to get through it all (Breakups! Job loss! Acquaintances dying!) and positive that there was more that I could have done for myself.
Every day, I had a list of what I thought of as my responsibilities, which included everything from “fill out these forms for work” to “floss teeth.” I’d plod through these until every last one was checked off, then would ask myself if I wanted to do anything else. If the answer was “no” (and for months, it always was) I’d go on the Internet and tell people my problems for hours at a stretch. I took a lot of baths, Margot Tenenbaum style, with my laptop balanced on the toilet, and watched every single episode of “Supernatural”.
But when I compare my current ability to do laundry, write articles, and bake cookies all in the same morning with my abilities then, I feel a little better about the hours I spent vomiting my feelings into chatrooms. At least it wasn’t alcohol or drugs.