My virtual reality
Tanya lives with dermatomyositis (a rare disease that causes muscle weakness) and although it hasn’t been formally diagnosed, agoraphobia.
It’s mid-morning and while downing a cup of coffee I run through my schedule for the day. It’s a Friday, so it’s set to be a busy one.
At 6pm, I’m off to Channel 5 to watch Neighbours. 6.30 and it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Channel 4 in time for Hollyoaks. At 7 I’ll swing by ITV to catch up with Emmerdale and Corrie and round the evening off with the BBC and EastEnders. You see, I’m only in my 30s, but the closest I get to a social life these days is watching repeats of Friends and panel shows.
As of writing, I last made it past my front door on 12th April 2010. That’s not a typo. I haven’t hit the wrong key. I really haven’t left the house in 9 years. The last time I reached the front gate, Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister and Kate Middleton was more than a year away from becoming Duchess of Cambridge. It’s led to an isolation that I really can’t put into words. Time just stands still.
I live alone. I don’t have much in the way of family and the only friends I have are avatar pictures and words on a screen. I discovered years ago that there’s only so many times you can cancel on people before they just stop bothering.
It wasn’t always this way. In my younger years I travelled, I had a vibrant social life, I moved across the country on a whim. A quiet night in wasn’t a phrase found in my vocabulary. But as my health deteriorated, the time between outings grew longer. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. 9 and a half years to be exact.
Now, I’m in a cage of my own making and some days, the silence can be deafening and even on the rare occasion that someone pops in, I find that after 9 and a half years of hiding in my house, I have absolutely nothing interesting to say.
I’ve learned things about myself though and I’ve learned a lot about the people around me. It was slow at first – a glacial slide towards becoming a social recluse. My more active friends dropped off when I couldn’t keep up. I remember discovering they’d blocked me from seeing photos of their adventures on Facebook and being told it was because they didn’t want me to ‘feel bad’. They obviously meant well but when I began to spend more of my days in bed, I looked on social media as my window to the world, living vicariously through friends who’d shared the same goals as me. Being suddenly shut out of people’s lives was far worse than having to jealously scroll through photos of my friends posing at Chichén Itzá.
Most tips for tackling isolation talk about getting out there, finding groups with similar interests and slowly making friends who can understand and accommodate your circumstances. I have no doubt that works for some, but unless there’s a book club that just happens to regularly congregate on my welcome mat, that’s never going to happen. My ways of coping are much less ambitious and I owe it all to the Internet. You can argue that the internet has done irreparable damage to society, but for me it’s been a lifeline. It’s enabled me to keep in touch with the few friends who stuck around and opened me up to a world of others. I’m part of a few different online communities where I’ve met friends from all walks of life. Some I share interests with (there are fan groups online for just about everything!) Some share my disability, and others are people also stuck at home or facing isolation and loneliness in other ways.
I could never call my situation ideal, but accepting that (for now at least) my support network is ‘virtual’ and that it’s okay to call people I’ve never met in person my friends, has made a huge difference to how isolated I feel. It also means that when I really need to talk, or I’m feeling terribly alone, whatever the time, help is just a few clicks away – and I think that’s pretty great.
Have you found friends online? How often do you find yourself alone? What tips would you give to cope with loneliness and isolation?