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The Internet Changed My Life

January 19, 2022

I’ve seen multiple discussions online as to the negative effects of the internet on society. There’s definitely harmful content online. It makes me sad to see the internet being used as a tool to spread anger and hate, and to further the political divide, but today I’m going to share a personal story about how, in the late 90s and early 2000s, the internet changed my life.

When I was a kid, my mother worked as a journalist. She would often bring me to book launches and events of the sort. I distinctly remember being offered Perrier water to drink and hating it (how could anyone drink this?), and being bored out of my mind. Book launches were one of the worst places you could possibly bring a kid, but she often didn’t have a choice, being a single mom with no father in the picture. She was well connected and had a wide circle of friends. Her income was modest but we were doing alright. We lived in a fairly roomy two bedroom apartment in a co-op smack in the middle of downtown Montreal.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse. My mother started to complain about the neighbors being too loud. Just a little at first, but eventually, it became quite obsessive. My mother was complaining but I never heard any noise. At first, I couldn’t understand what was going on or why she was so upset. It turns out these were just early symptoms of the development of her mental illness. Over the course of two painful years, she lost it all: the job, the connections, the friends, the apartment, the little savings that she had. Even her own sister decided to cut contact with her.

Fast forward to the start of high school, I was 12 years old, and my mother was working as a cook. Unfortunately, even though she was way overqualified for that job, she lost it too, and we ended up on welfare, living in a much smaller apartment with no windows in the living room, and a black mold problem. On a social level, things weren’t going too well for me either. The other kids at school would pick on me and I’d often get into physical fights. I got suspended twice and was nearly kicked out of school. I can’t say for sure why I got into trouble so much more than my peers. Part of it was probably just that I was a nerdy kid, and teenagers are assholes, but another part of the problem is likely the belief system I grew up with. My only parent would repeatedly tell me that the world was full of bad people who are out to get you and can never be trusted. Being raised with that kind of belief system doesn’t exactly help you make friends.

Sometimes, I’d get home from school and my mother seemed to be doing alright that day. I’d settle down, sit at my desk and get started on homework, but then I’d suddenly jump, surprised by a loud shriek. My mother would suddenly become angry, and loudly shout back insults at the voices in her head. She was subject to extreme, unpredictable mood swings. One moment she’d be kind, the next she’d be angry. I tried to explain how disruptive and painful this was for me, but no amount of explaining seemed to help. I couldn’t find peace anywhere. Not at home, not at school, sometimes not even in my sleep. I felt truly alone.

After my first year of high school, the summer came. I had few friends, and the friends I did have were much wealthier than me. I didn’t have an allowance so I couldn’t ever go with them to shop, or to the movie theater or even to eat at a burger joint. I had to wear clothes purchased at the Salvation Army which mostly looked ok but other kids occasionally made fun of. I felt like living in poverty contributed further to my isolation. I spent most of that summer alone. I’d get out of bed and just lie on the couch, feeling bored out of my mind, with no energy to do anything. My mom became worried about how apathetic I’d become and took me to see a doctor. We did some blood tests, and everything came back normal. Looking back on it, I think what I was experiencing was a major depressive episode. I was still just a kid, and I had hit rock bottom.

I was very interested in computers, but our aging 386 PC had just died, which contributed to my feelings of despair. We were poor, but as tortured and dysfunctional as she had become, my mother still deeply cared about me and always did the best that she could to be a good parent. She knew I loved computers, and she knew they were useful for school work, so she took some of the little money that was left in her retirement account and bought us a brand new Pentium computer. We couldn’t afford any software for it, but that was a solvable problem.

Around the same time, my best friend got internet access at home through AOL. He was nice enough to share his access information with me and I started logging in through his account. I was instantly hooked. There was so much content, so much to read, chat rooms with so many people to talk to. Soon enough, I got an angry phone call from my friend. I’d used up his 100 hours of monthly internet access and his access was cut out until the next billing period. Oops.

I started doing the leg work of convincing my mom that we should get our own unlimited internet access subscription. The cost was 28 dollars a month, which, out of the $800-900 welfare cheque she was getting, was a lot of money. I told her this would be very useful for school, we’d have access to so much information, and I could play video games online, I’d finally have something to do. It took a lot of convincing, but I think she saw how passionate I was about the whole thing, and she eventually accepted.

In 1998, I got internet access at home, and I feel like this was a genuine turning point in my life. From that point on, my life started to gradually improve. It wasn’t all uphill, there were lots of ups and downs, but I was never bored again. There was always something to read, something to learn. I could play video games online and quickly started making online friends. My feelings of loneliness were alleviated because I always had people to talk to. English was my second language, but I became almost fluent very quickly. As silly as it might sound, through online chats and by making friends online, I also started to develop some much needed social skills and a better idea of what normal, healthy human interactions could look like.

I’m not sure how old I was exactly, but not that long after I got internet access, I decided to do some online searches about mental illness. I found a webpage that described the symptoms my mom had. She was a textbook case of paranoid schizophrenia. She matched the description perfectly. I took it upon myself to have a conversation with her and try to explain, as gently as I could, that she needed to go see a psychiatrist to get some help, for both of our sake. Unfortunately, that conversation went about as poorly as you can imagine. She got extremely angry, screamed at me, and locked herself in her bedroom. In her world, it wasn’t her that was crazy, it was everyone else.

I was at my wits’ end and I thought about reporting myself to child protection services, but a few days later, on the evening news, I heard a story about children in foster homes being molested for years and living in horribly abusive conditions. I made the cold calculation that as painful as my life was, it was probably better than rolling the dice with the child protection services. I had food, shelter, clothing, access to a decent education, and most importantly, internet access. Devil you know, devil you don’t. I realized that the only way forward was stoicism and hard work. I’d need to succeed in life so that I could be independent.

Through the internet, I learned various computer maintenance skills, eventually buying new hardware and upgrading our home computer. I started to learn about programming. I connected with a guy who went by the nickname SteveR, a tech professional who became my friend slash mentor, and answered many of the questions I had about C++ programming and video game development. My passion for computers, technology, and all the things I could learn about and people I could meet online are a big part of what kept me going. I always had something positive to focus on and fill my time with.

Fast forward a few years, around the time I was 15, and I was running a side-hustle of sorts. I’d learned enough IT skills that I was starting to become a competent computer technician. My friend’s parents were paying me $20 an hour to do tasks such as hardware upgrades, installing newer versions of Windows, backups, installing wifi routers and troubleshooting various problems. I didn’t have a car, so they’d either come pick me up or bring their computers to our apartment. I often got to keep the spare parts after computer upgrades, which I’d either use to upgrade my own machine or go trade at the nearby computer store. I bartered my 14” monitor and a graphics card for a 17” monitor. I don’t know how realistic it would be to do that today, you certainly couldn’t barter computer hardware at Best Buy, but I think the store owner had a soft spot for me, he respected the hustle.

As soon as I reached age 16 and was legally old enough to be employed, I decided to look for a part-time job. My mom suggested that I should drop off my CV at the local computer store. I thought that was a bit silly (who would hire a 16 year old for this?), and I felt even more silly when, after dropping off my CV, the owner told me he wasn’t looking to hire anyone. However, a few weeks later, the next time I came by hoping to barter some parts, the owner said that he was now looking to hire someone, and I could have the job if I wanted it. I didn’t have an allowance, but it didn’t matter anymore. I earned my own money, and with that came a little bit of freedom and hope that I could build myself a better future.

We were never able to afford cable TV at home, but eventually, my mom grew tired of the phone line being constantly in use, which gave me good ammunition to argue that we should get high speed internet. We eventually got DSL and with that, I was able to download movies and TV shows. This gave me access to more entertainment, but also helped me become even more fluent in English, which I knew would be important for a career in technology.

As I progressed through high school, my mental state improved, but I still felt very lonely. What I lacked in terms of real-world interaction, I tried to make up for with online friendships. I spent some time hanging out on various IRC channels. One of the channels I hung out in was simply called #montreal. It was mostly an endless torrent of stupid jokes and shitposting, but one night, I noticed something strange. Among all the stupid comments, one message stood out. A woman had written “I’m about to kill myself and I’d like to talk to someone before I go, message me”. The other IRC users ignored her, and she repeated her message one more time. I messaged her. She explained how she felt lonely, alone and unloved. I told her that I very much could relate, and that whatever she wanted to say, I was there to listen. I tried to say nice things to her, to explain that things were probably not as hopeless as she thought, but it was no use. She said she had just swallowed a bunch of pills, and she quickly logged off.

It was a distress call, but she didn’t really want to hang around and talk. I didn’t have any information about her, not her name or her phone number or address, but when she had logged into the chat, the IRC server displayed her IP address. I felt very awkward and was afraid of not being taken seriously, but I dialled 911 and explained the situation to them. I gave them her IP address (which I had them repeat back to me), the name of her internet service provider and the time when she was logged on. I told them that if they called the ISP and they gave them the IP address and the time, the ISP would know her home address. The woman on the phone said that they would take it from there.

The next day, I had the TV on in the background and the evening news program was just starting. At the start of the bulletin, they gave a quick outline of the stories they were going to cover. Among those stories, the news anchor read something to the lines of “an internet user saves the life of a young woman in distress”. Then they cut for an ad break. I was very excited to hear the actual news story, but suddenly, my mother called out “dinner is ready!” and insisted that I come and sit down to eat. I got distracted, and I never did hear the full news story (ha!). Where is that woman now? How is she doing? Is she still alive? I’ll never know, but in that moment, I was able to be present, and to do something to help somebody else, and I felt proud of that. It gave me hope that I could make a positive difference in the world.

In high school, I was a B+ student at best. I was never particularly motivated, and most probably too (di)stressed to thrive, but by the time I made it to university, I’d been programming in C++ for three years and had a huge head start on everybody. I had gotten accepted into a computer science program at a local university, and I decided that since computers were my turf, I was going to show everyone what I could do by getting the best grades. I was going to beat everyone without getting into a fight. I completed my undergraduate degree with a 3.97/4.00 GPA. Out of 30 courses, I received 27 As and 3 A-minus grades.

I don’t want this to read like a story about how I overcame every obstacle alone and pulled myself up by bootstraps with no outside help. I struggled a lot along the way but the reality is that as challenging as my life situation was, as lonely and misunderstood as I felt at times, there was luck in my misfortune, and I did receive help. My mom was mentally ill, but despite this, she didn’t suffer from alcoholism or any other addiction. She was always able to cook, pay the bills, and perform the most basic functions a parent needs to do. The situation in my home was often very tense, but there was never physical violence. My mother, being university educated herself, cared about my education and genuinely wanted me to succeed. She invited me to keep living with her during my university studies to save money. I sure wanted to get the hell out of there, but it made financial sense to stay a little bit longer.

Right around the time that I was starting university, after a few years on a waiting list, we got access to a subsidized apartment with more sunlight and no mold. This apartment was a 30-minute walk away from the university which allowed me to get some exercise every day. Thanks to Canada’s low tuition costs, I was able to earn enough from summer jobs to pay for tuition and not have to work during the school year, which allowed me to better concentrate on my studies. The classmates I had who were forced to work during the school year understandably struggled with the heavy computer science curriculum.

On the internet, I was able to access resources about psychology and how to cope with trauma, which I also found helpful. YouTube became available in 2006, and through YouTube, I’ve watched many lectures from leading psychologists about depression, PTSD, meditation and many other interesting topics. I opened up about my suffering and received support and valuable advice from friends I’d met online. I’m not going to pretend that being your own DIY therapist is the key to better mental health. I was lucky, through my university, to get access to professional therapists at discounted rates, which helped me begin my own healing process.

This is part of the story of how the internet changed my life for the better. I’m an early millennial and I was raised online. Through the internet, I found friends, support, and the human connection that I was lacking in real life. I also found valuable information that helped me help myself and sometimes help others. The key with information is always to effectively filter the good from the bad, which is a genuine life skill unto itself. My life today isn’t perfect, but it’s better than it’s ever been. My message to all the people out there who are struggling is to believe in yourself. If you help yourself and you let others help you, things are never hopeless.

From → Psychology

33 Comments
  1. Mike S. permalink

    For what it’s worth, I’m sorry your childhood was so rough and glad everything has worked out so well for you. That’s wonderful.

    I couldn’t program anything when I got to college. I passed my earlier computer science classes because some classmates helped me. But that was more than twenty years ago, and I’ve learned a thing or two since then.

    I don’t want to hijack your posts or the comments and turn it into a political or religious discussion. But my sister, my brothers, and I were raised in a fanatically religious family, and the friends we made from around the country and around the world helped all of us leave that behind. I’m eternally grateful for the internet for that reason. I know often the internet seems to breed extremism and push people away from the broader world and further into their own closed communities. For us, though, it didn’t.

    • Your comment is welcome here. I’m happy to hear the internet also helped you find friends outside the circle of influence of your immediate family when you needed friends. I think that what a lot of kids who are suffering need to hear, as a message of hope, is that they are not alone, and it doesn’t need to be like that.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. My challenges growing up were different, but the Internet helped me with them too. I had a stable home — in a religious cult. The Internet helped me learn that the religion wasn’t true, helped me get a career, and helped me find like-minded people.

  3. What a courageous story! Thank you for sharing.

  4. I went to college at 39, with no typing or computer skills. I graduated 3 years later with an Associate Degree (2 year), and enough skills to be the person my friends and family called when things were going wrong. I’m not a “mechanic” so much as a nearly expert “driver” for most user usage (word processing, spreadsheets, graphic editing, etc).

    For me, the internet provided so many views of life that were stable outside of my own life where things didn’t go well. I had 8 parents, two by birth, they divorced, remarried other folks, and everyone is dysfunctional, so I got foster parents – twice. I was one of the lucky foster kids who had more positive experiences than negative ones. So, like you, I felt that the internet provided more good health than real life could.

    I loved your statement: ” The key with information is always to effectively filter the good from the bad, which is a genuine life skill unto itself.” It’s just how we need to work with the younger folks today, and help them to see texting and social media for what it is: unhealthy only if you let it be unhealthy – and it’s unhealthy in more contexts than the cyber world.

    I found your post very insightful, and I was very encouraged by it. Proud of you!

  5. This is the Internet I grew up with and the Internet I remember. I guess in many ways the Internet that made me who I am, despite the surrounding circumstances being not that dissimilar to yours. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Amrit permalink

    An inspirational and moving read. Thank you so much for sharing your story, I’m so glad you were able to overcome what you had to go through. Brief stints of coding as a kid gave me comfort and relief when having to endure a toxic family at home. Now in my twenties I’m finally learning to become a developer and switch careers… your story has most definitely inspired me to push myself and succeed. Hopefully my younger self would be happy I’m finally doing it for real. Thank you again.

  7. Alex permalink

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post. I really appreciate it.

    Those three paragraphs (4,5, 6) describe exactly my life with a little difference that my father’s schizophrenia made him abusive towards me and my mother.

    I really believe that if i hadn’t discovered the internet i would be dead by now. I wouldn’t had anything. I learned English by watching movies and wanting to play raids on World of Warcraft.

    I’m younger, 23, but from a very early age i realized that i will always be alone in terms of support if i can’t rely on my own and find my own support. But sadly the abused that i suffered growing up broke me and my self-confidence. Built up fear and avoidance, pessimism and catastrophic ruminations.

    After a lot of fight on my part i convinced them to pay for my therapy. That lasted 7 months. The first therapist was a dickhead and lasted 5 sessions, the second therapist wasn’t right for me but diagnosed me with Severe depression and anxiety after 7 months and now i’m on anti-depressed which i chose to start.

    Years of fighting, denying to give up, multiple failures and pain, mental health, dyslexia, etc, i got into a CS school in Greece and last week i was picked to move in room accommodations. I left that house but i don’t know how much time i still have to fix my failures and mistakes. I hope this is a new start but i don’t know how to start from the beginning. Even if this is a new start our previous traumas don’t go away. We have to live with them while trying to go forward.

    I apologize for writing this extended comment, but this is one of those every few times that i feel not a failure and not alone.

    Can you give few advice’s on studying CS and maybe the life part?

    Again, THANK YOU. Thank you for writing this post.

    • Hey Alex.

      I think that one of the most important things in the process of healing is being able to open up and talk about these things. This is difficult during the pandemic, but finding friends you can trust and open up with is important. Sometimes it’s easier to open up online, because you can do it anonymously and feel safer doing so. I think for dealing with anxiety and rumination it’s worth looking into mindfulness meditation. There are many interesting talks on the topic available on YouTube.

      It seems like a good thing that you were able to get away from home. Regarding CS, I can tell you that when I was an undergrad in CS, the workload was intense and it was very challenging sometimes. What helped is that I didn’t have to work during the school year. I was also fairly antisocial so I didn’t party at all during my studies. I was pretty focused. I had basically zero success in dating so that probably helped, no distractions. If you do date, my advice would be to only date people who are kind to you. Don’t go for super hot, go for the kind hearted, supportive person who will actually listen to you.

      I took assignments seriously. As soon as a teacher would hand out an assignment, I’d look at all the questions and try to assess if I had an idea how to solve each of them. If I didn’t know how to solve a question, I’d go talk to the teacher and try to get some hints (where should I start? which part of the manual should I read?). If you have trouble getting started on an assignment or studying for an exam, remember that the hardest part is just getting started.

      Succeeding in CS means you have to be disciplined and focused. Might sound hard, but remember that you are working for yourself, so that you can succeed and gain more freedom and autonomy as a result. You absolutely can succeed if you put in the work.

      • Alex permalink

        Thank you for replaying!

        I used to have social and activist life in my city but now that i moved here, the city is much smaller and i don’t know anyone. So in the department of dating and social gatherings i’m zero. :P

        > If you have trouble getting started on an assignment or studying for an exam, remember that the hardest part is just getting started.

        My biggest problem with studying is that i took so much of “abuse” during my school years that i developed phobia and avoidance in the form of procrastination. I feel like i will fail. Once i’ll solve it my shoulders will feel a lot lighter and start getting things done.

        Thank you for your recommendation about meditation. I will start to search for good material. If you have a specific video you like let me know!

        • I think that fear of failure is often at the root of procrastination. Why try if you think you’re going to fail? But the thing to understand is that trying is the only way to succeed. If you don’t try then you will fail for sure. So get started, open up that book.

          You could start by watching some of the many TED talks on mindfulness meditation:
          https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mindfulness+meditation+ted

          There’s also interesting talks on YouTube about combatting procrastination.

  8. Random man on the net permalink

    Thanks for the captivating writeup, and no offense, but I did not realize you were a girl until I read your reply to one of the comments on here. Your writing style is very interesting. It is straight to the point, doesn’t beat around the bush, and tells a somewhat sad, yet interesting story, it also shows how some humans like you can overcome adversity and reach a better life. Did you ever consider writing, I think your writing style is quite good. And did your mother ever get help? It was quite fascinating how you found information online and could diagnose your mother. The Internet can really provide a lot of information, and you can really access a lot of info for free, which is great, and which I am sure has spurred creativity and knowledge around the planet.

    How do you find working in IT as a female, do you find that you are respect as a woman, or do you still have people doubt you because of your gender? There are lots of talk about women being discriminated against in the male dominated IT industry, what’s your take on this?

    I was absolutely drawn in by your writing, and I am happy you took the time to write all of that up, you really have pulled yourself up, which is very impressive. But is shows hope and creativity finds a way. I love the enthusiasm you showed as a young girl, repairing peoples computers, and there you can see how biased I (and probably most) are, as I was sure it was a little boy running around fixing those computers.

    Do you still have this enthusiasm, or has it faded? Do you find that working with programming is better or worse than being a support person, I mean with programming, you interact less with people, but perhaps you get the social dosage outside work?

    • > Your writing style is very interesting. It is straight to the point

      Thanks. I think that’s because I’ve been doing a lot of technical writing as a programmer. I try to write in a style that’s easy to understand and unambiguous as much as possible.

      > Did you ever consider writing?

      I did. I’ve actually thought about publishing an autobiography someday. I have a lot more stories to tell. Would need to find a good publisher and book deal though, and I don’t know the industry so that project might wait.

      > And did your mother ever get help?

      She did not. I don’t know if it’s pride, or if it’s just a hallmark of the disease, but she can’t ever admit that she’s mentally ill. She lives about as good of a life as she can considering though, and I’m not overly worried.

      > I did not realize you were a girl until I read your reply to one of the comments on here.

      Complicating this story further is that I’m trans (plot twist). I didn’t mention that in the story because I didn’t want to make this a story about growing up trans. I could write that story, but I think the theme here is more general than that: how I and probably many other disadvantaged kids found friends and resources online. During the time period this story covers I was living as a teenage boy. I also found the first transgender resources online, around the time I was 18.

      > How do you find working in IT as a female, do you find that you are respect as a woman, or do you still have people doubt you because of your gender?

      It’s hard to tell without a comparison. I transitioned over a decade ago and lived all of my career as a woman. I don’t always feel respected, but is it because of my gender or is it just because people are assholes? Some people are just inconsiderate and they are assholes to everyone. So far I’m doing well and I don’t feel like I’ve hit a glass ceiling though.

      > Do you still have this enthusiasm, or has it faded?

      Not like when I was a kid, that’s for sure. It’s hard to find the motivation to work on side-projects after a full workday. I do have some side projects I still work on though :)

      > with programming, you interact less with people, but perhaps you get the social dosage outside work?

      Thankfully, in my adult life, I’ve had time to develop social skills. I now have a good circle of real-world friends. With a remote job, I feel it’s extra important to try to have a social life outside of work.

      • Random man on the net permalink

        Maxime,

        thanks for the replies. I’ve bookmarked your blog, and might check it from time to time, if you ever decide to write that book, it will be an interesting read, you could always do it incremental as well. There are many stories in this world, many of them never told.

        I am happy to know you are doing well for yourself, and you seem like a person that is good at adapting and finding your way. Also happy to hear your mum is doing ok, despite the illness. It’s a fascinating subject, I would think mental illness is exactly that, mental illness, and as such, when the interpreter so to speak is broken, it’s impossible to know the brain software is broken. But here anger when this is mentioned to her, might indicate there are mental processes triggered. I would assume, because of the illness, it’s not easy for her to be rational at all. As much as I hate to learn about your mothers troubles, the condition in itself is fascinating. If there is one piece of advice I want to give, it is to be very careful with medical drugs for her condition, and never blindly trust a doctor. Drugs often makes tings worse, so before taking any drugs, please help her to study any side effects, and monitor any possible side effects. I would like to go out on a stretch and say that chemical drugs can often make a situation worse. Which is sad.

        But this situation is what it is, and it seems like you are coping with it in the best possible way. surely there are a lot of assholes around, so what matters is to connect with good people that care for you and give you energy. I wish you the very best in everything going forward.

      • Random man on the net permalink

        I wrote a longer comment, but I think it disappeared. Just want to say thanks for responding, and I wish you all the best going forward!

      • Alex permalink

        > Thankfully, in my adult life, I’ve had time to develop social skills. I now have a good circle of real-world friends. With a remote job, I feel it’s extra important to try to have a social life outside of work.

        Can you write a bit about what you did to develop social skills? I really need to improve/develop mine as well…

        • I think mostly just practice. At some point in my early 20s I realized that I was missing out because I didn’t really have a circle of friends. I decided to make a conscious effort to try to build some relationships.

          I would say, it takes a conscious effort to maintain your friendships. If you’re missing a specific friend and wish they would invite you to hang out… Don’t wait for them to invite you, you invite them over for dinner or a coffee or something, play video games, watch a movie. You can also go for a walk or do some activity together.

          If you don’t have friends you’re close enough to want to invite to do something, I’d suggest joining some clubs, meetups, find people who share similar interests (electronics, math, tech, fishing, biking, hiking, camping, burning man, music, synthesizers, etc.!). Facebook is pretty useful just for the listing of all the local events. I’d recommend having a Facebook account just so you can see all the events happening in your area, even if you don’t actively use Facebook. There’s often local Facebook groups for all kinds of interests. There’s also local subreddits.

          In terms of being liked by people, there’s also a certain unspoken etiquette in terms of how to make good conversation. You should generally listen and give people time to speak, ask them questions, avoid speaking over them. You can probably find some good YouTube videos about that topic. In general, there’s no substitute for practice.

          Again in general, what makes a person likeable is being kind but independent, attentive, reliable (show up and show up on time). Most people have a certain amount of suffering in their life, so they tend to prefer people who can bring some amount of positive energy in their life. I know that’s not always easy to do, but try to focus on the positive. You can also ask yourself: what would I like to find in a friend? What kind of person would I like to be friends with? Try to be that person.

        • Mike S. permalink

          As someone who climbed more or less the same learning curve, I think this advice from Maxime is outstanding.

  9. Tiago permalink

    Amazing story!!

  10. Rob Jones permalink

    It’s good to hear someone echoes the positives that the internet can bring.

    One thing though, how is your mother doing?

    • About as well as one can hope these days. She was never able to admit that she suffers from mental illness, but she has her own apartment that’s comfortable and clean, she’s in good physical health, and our relationship has improved over time. Now that I’m an adult and have been living on my own for a long time, I’m able to set my own boundaries and set the parameters of the relationship, so that helps.

  11. I really enjoyed reading your story. I can relate to it. I grew up in Greenland with an alcoholic mother and no father. We were quite poor and I didn’t get a computer until my schoolmates father gave me an old one. I was 14. That was 17 years ago. Didn’t really believe my own worth or abilities. But now I am an educated data technician. Internet and computers changed my life too. Regards, Eerli

  12. pSY permalink

    The Internet you describe is the one I grew up with as well, which makes me so much sadder about the current state of affairs. I’m happy to have read your story and I’m glad that things worked out well for you, these positive stories seem few and far between.

    • I think, judging from the comments, that there are a lot of disadvantaged kids who found friends, comfort and valuable resources to help themselves online. It’s just that people usually don’t write stories like this, or we’re overly focused on news sites with sensationalist headlines.

      Of course there’s a risk that the opposite could happen, a disadvantage kid becomes radicalized. I still think that’s the minority though, and that the best defence we can give kid is teaching them how to filter our good information from bad. Who is writing that and why? What are their sources? What is their agenda?

      • pSY permalink

        You highlight a good point – giving kids the tools to filter information. I think the generation growing up in the 90s/early 2000s had a better environment in which to experiment. IRC channels had good moderation, there was a lot less objectionable content (as far as I experienced at least in my gaming/modding channels) and people felt a lot more exposed but friendlier as a result.

        “Hi, I’m X from Y. Where are you from?”

        This also created this atmosphere were conversations could be fostered. Communities were smaller and better connected. Playing games at the time was meeting up with people on a forum (a much better long-form environment to interact and communicate). The internet was more welcoming and kinder and exploration was encouraged.

        I don’t think that given the current state of affairs the outcome to your story would be the same. Or my story… or the stories of those of us growing up in that time period. I think the modern day internet fosters obsessive compulsive narcissists which develop more mental health issues as a result of prolonged exposure.

  13. I haven’t even read what you wrote yet, but I can already tell that it will resonate with me and my own story. I think the internet changed many people’s lives, although maybe in more subtle ways for most. One day I want to try to articulate my own story in this same vein.

  14. eastwestnotesblog permalink

    I loved this. I also grew up with a mother with severe mental health problems in the same era. There was some school interventions but mostly people were waiting it out until my father could get custody. My school system was poor and dysfunctional. Having a mother like that often meant I wasn’t dressed or cleaned properly for school, which was awful for making friends with other girls. Through getting into webdesign on Geocities (Sailormoon!) I started making online friends and getting so much of the non-white trash girl advice I needed. I was able to sell my art online for spending money. I dropped some bad habits, started working in retail, taking community college classes during high school, met friends in real life, applied for university, did study abroad in the UK and studied two languages honestly because my online friends did. They came from well off families (I never even heard of Harvard or Oxford until they mentioned them) and this exposure completely changed my life.

  15. Simon permalink

    Very similar story to mine. Probably around the same age. Single mother struggling with alcoholism. Poor. The internet really changed everything for me. A kindred spirit on the other side of Canada. I’m glad that everything worked out for the both of us and we could get through the dark times.

  16. Nathan Spitzer permalink

    I feel you dude –

    My dad was a carpenter with a liver diseased, by the time I was in High school he could work for three months, then have to be off for a couple of weeks to get a stent in his liver replaced, rinse, repeat. Mom had to work at Lowes to keep insurance. One day a microwave fell of a shelf and broke a vertebrate in her back. I was told at one point dad had more Liver stents replaced then anyone else in the world. We were always one missed paycheck from poverty.

    By high school my side hustle was mowing grass – I could make $150 a week in summer mowing grass for 8 or 9 wealthy people and retirees who owned vacation homes in Solomons Island, MD but a bunch of that went to pay the mortgage. The summer I graduated I worked with Dad for 4 months building the NY Ave bridge over North Capital Street in DC making over $17 bucks an hour to be able to afford going to a 2 year tech school to be trained to fix computers and TV’s at the most reputable school around DC. From one of my instructors bought an old Packerd-Bell Pentium 20Mhz PC and started access BBS’s. This was around ’96 eventually I got tired of being limited to when I could connect up to the phone and was working a good-enough job to afford pulling an ISDN line into moms house and an unlimited Erols internet account for Internet.

    I then bought an old 486 Gateway super-sized tower (if you had been around in the late 90’s you know which one I am talking about). I had heard of this Linux thing that all the nerds were talking about so I installed it and then figured out how to run my own DNS server and for a while had a web page at NSpitzer.com running out of that old gateway in moms basement. Using the Internet I taught myself enough to pass the MS tests to get my MCSE+internet and worked my way up from help desk to server admin to network admin to Sr. Network Engineer at a Fortune 100 company.

    When people bring up pulling yourself out of poverty by “raising yourself up by the bootstraps” I call bullshit! It wasn’t by the bootstrap, it was:
    * with the help of family and church who always managed to keep a roof over our head
    * We had two car donated to u by family and church when vehicle issues threatened to pull us under
    * Church and family helped feed us and gave us significant financial help through the years
    * it was understanding people who gave me jobs and understood when I had issue with dads health
    * If I had to point to one person who did the most to help me it was my 9’th grade bus driver who set me up with my first mowing job for her very rich neighbor who had a huge vacation home. I probably made $10 grand through high school working for him alone.
    * I got EXTREMELY lucky with where I lived, neighbors who helped us out and good schools. If I had lived one county north in PG county, if my family hadn’t moved out of WV where I would have had no chance of making money in HS or getting Internet access, If I had a different bus driver, slightly worse schools, etc I would be mired in generational poverty.
    * Not an insignificant amount of innate talent

    Like you the Internet gave me the means to pull myself and in large part my whole family out but there were, and are, large pockets even in the US (I am looking at you, Bureau of Indian Affairs) where kids with the same innate talent aren’t lucky enough to even have the opportunity we had.

    • Nathan Spitzer permalink

      I read some more of the comments so I just want to clear the record – I use/used “Dude” in a sort of gender-neutral manner.. In my book any Nerds/Geeks are “Dudes” – it comes from my High School DnD group where we all used Dude even with the couple of Goth girls and is a habit I have never quite broken.

      Give the gender issues I have seen in IT, especially in the female-short early 2000’s you went up a notch in my book.

    • Mike S. permalink

      I’m glad it worked out for you. My path into a successful software career was way easier. But even though I busted my behind at times, my success is still 95% luck and 5% my hard work.

  17. The suicidal woman wasn’t the only person you helped. ~10 years back you made a series of YouTube videos, I contacted you and you gave me some very good advice thru former YouTube messaging system. Couple years later I had a chance to say thank you in person when you took part in some conference and today I want to repeat that. 🙇🏻‍♀️

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