Online chatrooms are strange places of typed conversation where a person’s true identity can be tweaked to whatever age, gender, culture or lifestyle they choose. The idea of creating your own identity seems like a silly concept that immitates childish games of make-believe and I couldn’t imagine myself as anybody else so I was always happy to be Sue from Australia. You can see a lot from the way people type their conversation. The words people choose and the way they string them together shows many aspects of who they are in terms of their education and financial status, their religious, regional and moral values.
About eight years ago, and twelve months after my divorce, I discovered online chat rooms, where I found people from all over the world, without ever having to leave the house. New mothers who were bored at home with a baby, too exhausted to cook and clean and yearning for the human interaction they used to enjoy at work. Freshly retired men and women who couldn’t fill their cognitive void by meeting friends for a weekly card game. Husbands and wives who annoyed one another to the point where they didn’t want to spend time together at all – the computer was their escape. Here we sat typing words into our computers, sharing jokes, recipes and stories, advising one another on matters of the heart, urging the depressed to seek medical help and learning chatroom ettiquette, which was invented as any new, awkward situation arose.
My first online friend was Cath. She had a small baby who was only weeks old and Cath was climbing the walls with boredom as her baby cycled through the 24 hour sleep, cry, eat; sleep, cry, eat routine. Exhaustion, boredom and loneliness were Cath’s biggest challenges. She had spent all of her adult years working in a very busy office right up until four weeks before her little baby arrived, shortly after her 36th birthday. Cath was always online when I logged on and was still there when I logged off. She said she only moved away from the computer to get the baby or to put her back to bed. My international community of friends heard about Tina’s antics as she grew through sitting up, crawling, toddling, feed herself and learning to talk.
What our little international online community didn’t hear about was Cath’s discreet online love affair with the Englishman whose avatar was named Rad. Although Cath and Rad’s avatars stood in the same room as the rest of us, they used their private messaging feature to have a conversation that nobody else was privvy to. In their private messages they began with complimenting one another, then flirted, which quickly escalated to sexual banter and online sex – if you can call it that. I asked Cath why she wanted to do this because she said she was very happily married. She said her husband wasn’t intimate with her at all; he spent all his time in his man shed, and she was lonely. These few years of Cath’s single-while-married life were filled with laughter, joy, compliments and fun from Rad. Cath and Rad’s online affair filled a temporary void in their lives and after it faded Cath’s marriage returned to the way it was before Tina was born.
One of my dear online friends from Scotland, Lil, died of cancer and her life – full of secrets – touched my heart. Her 12 year old son had passed away from a very rare form of cancer, which they had both been diagnosed with four years earlier. Lil’s husband hated her for giving the rare cancer gene to their son which was, of course, an irrational sort of hatred but he felt that way and he completely ignored her, leaving Lil to suffer in her grief alone. Two years before she passed away she met up with an old school friend, Brett, who confided that he had always loved her but had stupidly married somebody else. Lil and Brett had a very intense, loving and secret affair and he visited her every day – helping her to dress, eat and bathe. He purchased a massage machine to ease her aches and a heating pad to keep her warm in winter. His thoughtfulness and acts of love brought so much happiness to Lil that I didn’t care that they were being unfaithful to their partners. It hurt nobody and it gave them both something to live for. She died in his arms while her husband was at work and his wife was down at the club. Poor Lil was one of the most gentle and loving souls I’ve ever known and she suffered such awful life events that I couldn’t have blamed her if she said, “life is unfair”. Yet she never complained.
Ferris was a 36 year old, single American man from the South. He used phrases like, “y’all” and “over yonder”, which made me feel like I had stepped in to an Oprah Winfrey movie. Ferris had never married and had no children, which was his biggest regret. I encouraged him to get off the computer and go out to find somebody in real life but he was set in his ways and continued socialising from his living room. He worked as a security guard and knew quite a lot about Elvis Presley, which bored me to tears. He often typed lyrics from Elvis songs into the chatroom and I thought he did it to feel like he was Elvis singing to a crowd. Whenever Ferris did this everyone went quiet, private messaging one another about poor Ferris needing to get out more often. He always went quiet after ‘singing’ these lines and then the chatroom conversation went back to its usual flow. It took me a very long time to realise that his Elvis song was actually a seranade to Camille whenever she entered the chatroom. Ferris and Camille had a long love affair, which was kept secret because she was married.
Ferris had been seeing Camille for about 9 months when he messaged me to say Camille told him she was planning to leave her husband so they could be together permanently, but he didn’t react well. He stayed off line – too afraid to go through with meeting Camille – he just couldn’t do it. Days went by and his unexplained absence sent poor Camille into a spin. She spent more and more time online; her avatar stood silently in the chatroom waiting for Ferris… hoping he might come back… too worried to leave in case he arrived when she wasn’t there… wondering if he had been in a car accident or sick in hospital. I sent him a message begging him to come in and talk to Camille so they could discuss his fears and I felt mortified when I read his reply. How on earth could I could tell 33 year old Camille that the 36 year old man she was in love with was actually 72 years old? How could I tell her that the intimate moments they typed to one another was just him enjoying the excitement of young love for one last time because his wife wouldn’t let him into her bed? This was a disaster and the irony of the situation hadn’t gone un-noticed. She was being unfaithful and lying to her husband – her online boyfriend was being unfaithful to her (and his wife) and was even a bigger liar. No matter how innocently it all began – they deserved one another.
The final story I’d like to share is about Yuki, a well-educated woman from Japan, who was married to a violent man. She refused to leave him because she was six months pregnant and leaving him would render Yuki and her unborn baby homeless. This was a difficult situation to sit back and watch because we didn’t know how the Japanese welfare system worked – or if there was one. Does the State support single mothers who leave their violent husbands? Yuki was very quiet and mostly just watched the conversation roll across the screen. We worried about her when we hadn’t seen her for a day for good reasons. In the year we knew her she had healed her broken arm, then it was three broken fingers, the worst was pneumonia when he broke her rib and – in the end – he beat her so badly that she lost the baby. That’s when she left him. Yuki arrived at the chatroom to say a tearful goodbye and explain that she had four hours before he was due to return home from work. We wished her well and never saw her online again.
Quickly taking Yuki’s place in the chatroom was Natasha, who was 8 months pregnant. One day she came to the chatroom flustered because she was in labour and nobody was at home to help. We all typed for her to call 9-1-1 and get help. She kept typing as she waited for the ambulance and I speculated that her labour pains can’t be too bad if she’s able to sit and type. Natasha said staying at the chatroom helped to calm her through the contractions. A day later she came online to say her baby was stillborn. This upset quite a few of the ladies in the chatroom who had been through the same situation and we all talked about what an awful process she was in for, waiting for her breast milk to dry up and going home without her baby. She posted a photograph of her baby, which raised a few eyebrows. The photo she posted was obviously a full-term, jaundiced baby in a humidicrib, which isn’t necessary in the case of stillbirth. Cath put the photo through the Google Image search and found that Natasha had copied it from the Internet. We speculated that there was probably no pregnancy or stillbirth. When we challenged Natasha about her lie she confessed that Yuki’s story had upset her and she invented her stillbirth story so that people would stop talking about Yuki and start talking about her. Yes, this woman was crazy – I mean, if she even was a woman. I was relieved that Yuki wasn’t around to see that fiasco and then found myself wondering if Yuki’s story might also have been a lie? Maybe there was no husband who beat her – or no pregnancy or… worse still, I wondered whether Natasha was Yuki! This was a place where people get what they want through lies and there I was surrounded by liars, learning about hidden aspects of human nature that aren’t normally ever seen in real life.
Mistrust overlapped from online to real life, where people who were having online affairs came to say farewell because their partners had put spyware onto their computer keyboard, recording every keystroke and read for themselves all the sleazy conversations and lies their online partners had been undertaking.
I conversed with so many unusual men and women online who led incredibly diverse lives to mine and I never really had any way of knowing who was telling the truth and who was lying. My tight circle of long-term online friends were beautiful people who supported me through the toughest years of my life and I did the same for them. When I first joined the chatroom I’d been divorced for 12 months, so my story was a little bit of loneliness and sadness, tinged with a little bit of curiosity.
Back in those days I was studying at off-campus university as a mature aged student and raising my daughters by myself. My social life was very limited due to my home situation. Stress was at the forefront of my everyday life as my eldest daughter developed a life-threatening medical condition which required close monitoring and frequent hospital trips, and my youngest began to have health problems too. Our lives had fallen apart and it was extremely difficult to put something resembling a stable, happy family back together again. Besides the usual motherly role, I also became a nurse and nutritionalist, staying close to home/my kids school and remaining emotionally stable and available to my daughters at the drop of a hat. These were the hardest social, emotional and financial years of my life and the escapism of online chatrooms saved me from losing my sanity. I could see for myself that some people’s lives were worse than mine, which gave me a sense of relief.
One day I realised that the extremely unusual and unethical people weren’t just online, the world is full of them. They live amongst us and their lies, quirks and cover-ups are hidden behind masks of happiness and serenity. Many unhappily married men and women lived the lie of a happy marriage every single day. I often found myself looking at strangers realising that I couldn’t tell which women were being beaten by their husbands, which happily married people were cheating on their partners, or who were attention seekers who lied about going through a traumatic event. It was invisible in real life… but visible online.
Most surprising was that the success of online lies relied on the vulnerability of others and there are so many vulnerable people out there. In fact, the disaster of my own life made me one of the vulnerable people and I decided to never log on to the chatroom again.
My online friends slowly left the room, too. We have now known one another for seven years and we haven’t been to the chatroom for a long time but we remain friends who have proven our sincerity and loyalty by keeping one another’s biggest secrets.
Online chatrooms – it was a phase that taught me so much, yet I’m glad it’s passed.
*Note: names have been changed to protect the privacy of others.