A puzzling thing happened to me recently. Though I'm hesitant to write about it, I've decided to because I believe that it is through sharing we can best help one another feel a little less alone. And there are times in all our lives when we feel desperately isolated: behind glass, cut off from the source of warmth.
What happened to me is that I both fell in love and had my heart broken on Facebook. On Facebook. With someone I'd never met and now have no care to meet. And though I now look back on it with equal measures of embarrassment, bemusement and chagrin, at the time it had been consuming. While I was in the throes of my virtual passion, I'd begun to question my sanity. I was teetering on the edge; it had become an obsession. I'd turned to friends for help. "You are not alone," they'd assured me. "You're part of a phenomenon. This is what is happening now."
"No, all over. People are having entire relationships online."
"They never meet?"
"They don't care to. Or they can't because they're attached to someone else. It's a great way to cheat -- or a perfect set-up for intimacy-phobes."
"But I don't know him," I'd whined.
"All the more reason to be hooked. You don't know him -- he's exactly who you want him to be."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm worried that he's short."
We'd laughed -- it had seemed ridiculous -- that the fire of my infatuation could be doused by something as tediously real as height incompatibility. But the whole thing had made me uncomfortable from the very beginning.
It had been one of the darkest periods of my life. My father had just died and my grief at his passing had been exacerbated by a series of sharp and swift emotional hits. My boyfriend whom I was very in love had broken up with me while my father was fighting for his life in the cardiac ICU (after assuring me: don't worry if your father dies, you have me.) A short while later he was in love with one of my close female friends. I'd spent nearly an entire year in hospitals. I'd been relegated to the role of caregiver for my father while he was still alive and then for my very emotionally fragile mother after he died. I'd moved in with them to help and put my life on hold. In addition there were career set backs, money worries.
I hadn't realized it at the time, but I was in deep crisis. And one of the problems with being in crisis is that while you are in it, you can believe in its eternity: you will never rise again. My feelings of myself as a woman had been destroyed. My feelings of myself as a human being had been eroded. I'd always been so free and suddenly I wasn't. Time was ticking. Death was overtaking. There was a perpetual pain in my heart, a nagging tug. I cried all the time. I couldn't sleep. And then during the day, I couldn't get out of bed. And I was lonely, so lonely.
I'd come to social networking somewhat late in the game. I'd had a MySpace page that had been largely unvisited. The whole thing had seemed perplexing to me: if I'd wanted to connect with someone, I'd pick up the phone or shoot off an email. But when I joined Facebook, I did it largely out of need -- I felt that my life had come crashing down around me; and in the rubble, I felt unbearably isolated. Through a year and half of illness, death, grieving, caregiving, loss and betrayal, I'd let many of my friendships go unattended. I wanted to see if I still had friends. I wanted to connect.
He wrote to me as soon as I joined -- it was like he was there waiting for me -- I'd barely had time to figure out the application. He was a friend of a friend, someone I'd exchanged a few emails with once upon a time. He was a fellow writer and had given me professional advice. And although he was married with children, it had seemed entirely harmless at first. But now, looking back on it, even our earlier email exchange had been overly long, overly friendly, overly flirtatious -- considering his marital status. He had asked if I'd IM him. I had told him no. I was busy and, at that time, uninterested. Besides, I hated IMing. I'd attached no significance to it whatsoever.
But when I joined Facebook, the playing field had been altered. Then not only did I have way too much free time, having had my entire life disrupted by my dad's illness and death, but I was an emotional vortex. I was a black hole of need longing to be filled. He, it seemed, was more than happy to oblige. It began with a few comments and messages. Then he began to tag me in notes. After some time, we began to write one another messages in swift succession, back and forth, several times a day.
Unschooled in the ways of social networking, this still seemed fairly innocuous to me, but not entirely unsuspicious. I confided to a friend, "This married guy is flirting with me on Facebook."
I showed her his photos and we made light of it, but I noticed that I'd started to anticipate his messages. I had a little thrill every time I'd open one. Yet I tried to reassure myself: he was just a friend.
At that time, I'd just moved back into my apartment in Brooklyn after living with my mother and father on and off for the better part of two years. The most disconcerting part about moving back into my life after having dealt with so much illness and death was that I'd felt the last two years of my life didn't happen. I was back where I'd started and yet everything else had moved ahead. Everyone else had moved ahead. I was in a time warp. I was "no child left behind." I didn't know what I'd done to deserve so much unhappiness. I felt betrayed by life. I started to share my feelings with him.
And he responded. "I am here for you. You are not alone. If you ever need someone to talk, talk to me -- I will listen."
Over and over again: so much care, so much understanding. Pitter patter. Pitter patter. It was the solace I'd been pining for: the hug I'd never received from my boyfriend when my father died, the connection I'd thought I'd never feel again. Plus he was good-looking (from his photos), interesting, engaged with many of the things I was engaged with, and pang upon pang, a brilliant writer. And when he began to confide some of his woes to me, I was smitten. He somehow made me feel like he was speaking directly to my heart. I was no longer alone.
But I was worried. How could I be falling in love on Facebook? With someone I'd never met? And worse than that, someone married?
I confided yet again to another friend.
"You're both just sensitive souls. You're lonely and hurt. He's probably emotionally starved in his marriage. It makes perfect sense."
"But it's not real."
"Your feelings are real even if the relationship isn't. It's an expression of your longing to love. We all feel that. Watch it," she admonished sharply.
I read her some of the exchanges.
"He's very manipulative," she told me. "Be careful, don't think you are the only woman he's been writing to. He's a writer -- a big narcissist. You are very vulnerable now. You don't need this."
I didn't listen. Despite my ill ease, I allowed the messaging to go on. But when he began to confess his marital dissatisfaction to me, I woke up. His attempt at confidence was alarming to me with its "my wife doesn't understand me" predictability. I looked at the photos of his children on his page: two cute little boys and an adorable girl. Then suddenly I envisioned several trains hurtling toward one another at full speed in the night. I saw the passengers clearly -- the innocent victims as well as the conductors -- and I wanted to jump off mine. I should have. At that point, looking back, I should have "defriended" him immediately and directed my attention to the real things in my life: developing real relationships, building myself back up, healing myself from my grief. But I didn't realize how toxic he was, how he would keep coming back again and again like a cancer to manipulate my feelings. He'd found the road in. He didn't even need a map anymore. And more importantly, I couldn't admit to myself that I'd become a Facebook junkie -- I was addicted to my interaction with him. My empty holes were being filled, if somewhat poorly, and I couldn't remove myself from my source of succor. So yet again I told myself the lie: we're only friends.
Things unwound as these things usually unwind -- they became more convoluted, more hurtful, and more anxiety producing until they ruptured. I shan't go into details here, but my friend had been right, this guy had serious issues -- he was a serial internet seducer, possibly an extreme narcissist who gets off on the power he can wield over others. I had learned over time that I had not been the only Facebook "other woman" -- there had been at least one other "other woman," probably more.
And while I know it's not a story that couldn't have happened in real life, it's a story that couldn't have happened to me in real life. Had I met him through work or friends, I would have stayed away -- the role of home wrecker has always been beyond my range. But there was something about the "virtuality" of it that had allowed me to be sucked in, first by its seeming harmlessness, then by the way the internet lends itself to fantasy -- the brain to brain contact, the brain to heart connection. With the physical cues removed, the linguistic ones reign supreme. Words have deep meanings and subtle vibrations. Words have erotic and worse than that, emotional potential. They can unearth hopes and dreams that are buried within us. In a world without bodies and only language, our hearts can be laid bare. Or rather it can seem like they are laid bare, and it is in this seeming, that the danger lies. Because words can also be highly manipulative and the internet can create a false intimacy. It promises to connect, but it can actually increase isolation with its false promise. This bizarre "relationship" ended in a "defriending" and for me a big sigh of relief.
But the relief did not come without a certain amount of pain and soul-searching on my part. Sometimes we have crises, so we can learn. Sometimes we allow our pain to deepen, so we can be motivated to make changes. I left my apartment in New York where I had felt so lonely. Now I am living in a cabin in the woods. The feeling of being in nature has gradually brought me back to my center, connected me to the earth, connected me to my body. I am no longer a Facebook addict. I am no longer an internet junkie. I have to drive ten miles to town just to check my email. My life has slowed down, my mind has slowed down. I'm living in a warm and friendly community. I'm dating a real live man. We eat dinner together face à face. We talk, we do stuff together. He's not married to someone else and ... I know he's not too short.