I’ve always hated the phrases “online friends” and “friends in real life.” Sure, back when the internet was first getting popular for social uses, all your internet friends were “friends in real life,” and it felt necessary to differentiate between people you enjoyed talking to (usually anonymously) in chat rooms or on forums versus people you knew and socialized with offline. But, that’s not how the internet works anymore.
I know several people who met their now-spouses (or serious significant others) online, and many of us with disabilities find that a majority of our social lives take place online. Via this blog and my associated Instagram account, I’ve met some amazing people and have greatly expanded my world. My sister went on a foreign exchange program while doing her bachelor’s degree and made friends from all over the world, and I used to be jealous of that. However, I’ve realized that I have close friendships with people from all over the world, as well. Granted, a majority of the people I’m close to are from the USA, but I have good friends in other countries even though chatting with them is more difficult due to time zones. When I think about it, my sister is probably the only person I know “in real life” that has friends that are more spread out than I do.
One of the best friends I’ve made via my blog is Kali, from This Spoonie Speaks. I can’t remember why we started talking, but I know it’s because we both belong to the Chronic Illness Bloggers group. I think we followed each other on Instagram during one of the group’s “follow me” threads (there is a private Facebook group and a public group). Kali lives in Ohio, near Columbus, and I live in Colorado, near Denver. If I do door-to-door directions on Google, we live 1268 miles apart (which would take about 19 hours to drive). Because we live so far apart, and we’re both chronically ill, we didn’t expect to meet until we were much older.
Kali (pronounced kay-lee) and I have talked via text daily for about a year and a half. That entire time, we talk about things we’ll do when we meet up (because it’s always been assumed), but never made any sort of plans. One day, she was upset because her family does a yearly vacation to one of her favorite place and it looked like she was going to have to stay home to take care of their dogs because her cousin couldn’t do it. Her dad said they would do something together to make up for it, and I jokingly said “see if you can guilt him into bringing you here.” Then I left my phone plugged in and had to make dinner, went back and my phone had exploded! Turned out, her dad said yes and was on the computer booking plane tickets! There was a lot of screaming from joy on both our parts, let me tell you!
We were pretty much holding our breaths from the time he bought the tickets until they were at the airport. With chronic illnesses, nothing is ever a guarantee. Both of us were terrified that something would happen so that they wouldn’t actually end up coming! She had a layover on the way here, and when they got on the final flight, I had a panic attack. “Wait… what?” I realize that makes no sense, but I’ll explain.
Now that I have the autism diagnosis, I’m pretty sure this is a part of my autism and the PTSD I have from growing up with undiagnosed autism (I’ve talked a little about all of this in these three posts: one, two, three). I have crippling social anxiety. I hear “oh, well I get anxious too, that’s normal” frequently, but this isn’t the same, I guarantee it. Going to a group event should cause some mild nerves, because it’s a thing that you have to navigate on a complex level. For me, however, the level of anxiety can be paralyzing. The anxiety has gotten so bad at times that I have actually come up with excuses to get out of events at the last minute. Even if I know the group of people super well, I’ll get anxious. Thankfully, I’ve been trying to work on it, so it is slowly improving.
I’m much better at conversations and talking via text or email than I am via phone calls or in person. Because I’ve almost exclusively talked to Kali via text (there have been two phone calls), I had a total panic attack meltdown about meeting her in person because I was terrified that she would hate how awkward I was and decide she didn’t want to talk to me as much and then I’d be lonely again. It sounds ridiculous, but similar has happened. And when I say panic attack, I mean the typical hyperventilating, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, tears streaming down my face, can’t form coherent sentences, panic attack. Dan hasn’t seen me have one that bad in a long time, if ever, and he was concerned. He was trying to make me feel better and said, “if you two don’t get along, the world will end.” And I started crying harder and went, “no pressure, I’ll only destroy the entire world if I f*** it up.” Side note: panic attacks make your brain ridiculous, and I was legitimately thinking of a cartoon style nuke destroying the entire world. Thankfully, I pulled myself together and channeled my nervous energy into gathering up my “leave the house stuff” because we were going out as soon as they got here.
The world did not explode in a comically awful cartoon style nuclear explosion. She got here and as they drove up we both started waving hysterically to each other (her dad was laughing so hard), and grabbed each other in a hug tighter than we probably should have (due to how easily we both dislocate all-the-things; thankfully we stayed intact). We instantly were talking and laughing like we’d met a million times before and were going on a normal adventure.
We were so busy enjoying spending time together that we didn’t take a ton of photos from the day and half they were here, but we did remember to take a few! On the first day, we had half a day together, so we went to Hammond’s Candy Factory for a free tour and then over to Golden for dinner. Being from Ohio, they don’t have a ton of mountains nearby, so I wanted to take them closer to the mountains to get a more complete Colorado experience. We were all pretty tired, so we decided to call it a night so that we could enjoy the entire day the next day.
The next day we went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and then to Zoo Lights (at the Denver Zoo). Zoo Lights is where we took the majority of our photos. I rented a wheelchair at the zoo, so Kali was in my transfer chair and I was in a regular wheelchair that I could push myself around in. Hills are comically difficult to navigate in a wheelchair when you have no wheelchair muscles! Thankfully, Dan met up with us before we had been there for too long and was able to push me for the rest of the night.
Photos from the museum:
Photos from Zoo Lights:
We did go grab breakfast at their hotel before they had to leave in the morning. Somehow, we both managed not to cry when we said goodbye, but it was close (at least for me). It was amazing getting to finally meet one of my best friends in person, and spend a wonderful day and a half together!
But, to go back to the theme at the beginning, Kali and I didn’t become “real friends” when we finally got a chance to meet in person. We’ve been “friends in real life” since we became friends. Separating internet friends and “real friends” isn’t practical or fair anymore. Sure, separate “followers” and use the term “acquaintances” or explain how you know someone if it’s necessary, otherwise, call them “friends.” Based on how our friendship functions now, I predict that Kali and I will be super close friends for the rest of our lives, and saying she’s an “internet friend” feels like it’s an attempt to dismiss (or minimize) the relationship we have built!
If an opportunity ever presents itself to meet people that you’ve become great friends with, do it! You may get incredibly anxious, and it may not work out every single time, but you’ll never know if you don’t try, and you may kick yourself over not doing it for years to come. Trust me, that anxiety can be a killer, but when it works out it makes all the anxiety worth it!