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.
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