In Defence Of “Internet” Friendship

“So, where did you meet your friend ___?”

“We used to post to the same blindness forum, and–”

“Oh…so not, like, a friend friend.”

“A friend friend?”

“You know, like a…real friend. Someone you actually know.”

Friendships forged through online interaction have gained considerable legitimacy since I was a young teenager first experiencing the internet, but it’s dismaying how often online friends are casually dismissed by people of all ages. Apparently, there was an authoritative friendship conference several years ago that resulted in an unofficial friendship hierarchy, which influences the way friendship is viewed by everyone ranging from seniors to high schoolers.

According to this mystical hierarchy, you can’t measure a friendship in love, but rather in geography. If you only see your childhood friend once a year for a quick coffee and cursory catchup, that still ranks higher than an “internet” friend whom you haven’t met in person but with whom you communicate daily. Friends who live across the street usually carry more weight with people than a friend who lives across the world, regardless of intimacy, frequency of communication, and overall satisfaction derived from the friendship. (This also applies to romantic relationships, as I learned to my immense chagrin while dating men I’d met online.)

Besides the fact that I find this arbitrary standard inflexible and anachronistic, I also feel it comes down heavily on disabled people, who seem to have an especially large number of online friends. Anyone experiencing loneliness, isolation, and/or a lack of typical social opportunities can benefit from online social networks, and reducing internet interactions to something pale and second-rate targets a population that is already marginalized. While many disabled people can and do seek social opportunities within their geographical sphere, the internet is an enticing place where the playing field feels more equal and the supportive communities are numerous.

My isolated childhood is a living advertisement for the value of online friends. I was an introspective soul who struggled to make friends in traditionally-accepted ways, and internet social circles were far easier for me to embrace. Online, I didn’t have to be the awkward, introverted blind girl. I could talk to people who were older and wiser than me, share resources with fellow blind peers, and enjoy a sense of social freedom that couldn’t be found in my small-town ecosystem. I treasured the offline friends I did make, but they didn’t offer the diversity and understanding I found online.

Now, as my life becomes busier and my chronic pain limits my social activities, I appreciate my supportive online network of disabled and non disabled friends more than ever. The love, encouragement, assistance, and companionship they offer are as real and meaningful as anything provided by my equally-adored offline friends. As my heart breaks with the death of an online friend’s husband, and soars with joy at another online friend’s success at work, I do not doubt the gravity and significance of friendships conducted and sustained via the internet.

My internet friends are indeed “real” friends. When they are troubled or grieving or frightened, I comfort them. When I need a friendly ear in the middle of the night, there is always someone to call. My online friends send the best care packages, letters, and virtual (but no less heartfelt) affection. We pay astronomical amounts to visit each other, and make memories we cherish for years. We assist each other financially, emotionally, and spiritually. My online friends may not be able to drive me to an appointment or hold my hand when I’m ill, but they can provide love, advice, compassion, empathy, and laughter.

Never let anyone disparage your online friendships. The internet is a fickle friend, and you may certainly find dangerous, duplicitous people there–people whom you will befriend and later delete from every social network, wondering why you were ever naive enough to trust them. But more often than not, you’ll find people who are excellent friendship material–people who will fuse your happiness with theirs and do everything in their power to enrich your life. Whatever people say, however much they scoff, appreciate and cherish the friends you make online, and always measure your relationships in love and respect, not geography and popularity.

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Dear Sighted Friend…

I’m going to get a bit more personal this week, but my hope is that you will all find a bit of universality in this post, and share it with anyone to whom it might apply.

A few weeks ago, I lost a very dear friend unexpectedly, and her passing brought the value of her friendship into even sharper focus. She was one of those sighted friends who took everything in stride, made mistakes and learned from them, and viewed me as her friend who is blind, not her blind friend. I want to write about her today. I hope you see some of your friends in her. If you do, take a moment to thank them for their friendship. We don’t say these things enough; I know that now.


Thank you for taking the blindness thing in stride so quickly. It took you a little time, but you saw me, not my broken eyes. You supported me while I learned this adulting thing, and hardly considered it “helping”, even when it was. I worried about that dynamic far more than you ever did.
Remember when I would text you with all those blindy emergencies? You made living in a new city, a new neighbourhood, a new building, seem not only bearable, but fun.

Thank you for being unflinchingly honest with me, always. You confessed, early on, that you took me to lunch that first time because you thought I seemed lonely, and felt a bit sorry for me. Once you realized that blind people aren’t hopeless by default, you relaxed into being my friend, not my personal Mother Teresa.
Remember all those times you were blunt about being unsure how to treat me? You were so open and so kind about it, even when it hurt a little at the time.

Thank you for learning from your mistakes, and helping me learn from mine. You had some false impressions about blindness, and you were eager to clear them up. You didn’t know how to guide properly, but you soon learned. You sometimes said things that cut deep, but when I pointed out why, you focused on healing the harm rather than justifying yourself. Most importantly, you helped me grow by clearing up misconceptions of my own.
Remember when you almost walked us both into traffic, then burst into hysterical laughter because the guiding thing was distracting? You were so glad I wasn’t upset by it. Everybody messes up sometimes; you rarely did.

Thank you for your outstanding sense of humour. You were always cracking jokes, once you knew I was okay with them, and you let me laugh at myself in total comfort and solidarity. You approached everything with a willingness to laugh at hardship, and move on.
Remember when you proclaimed yourself to be my “guide dog?” We named you Scout. You always bugged me about getting a dog of my own (only so you could have “snuggles on demand”) but this was as far as I got. Your “guide dog” gallop was legendary.

Finally, thank you for being so much more than my sighted friend. Thank you for considering me as much like everybody else as any disabled person can be. Thank you for treating me, with a very few exceptions, like Meagan, not like blind Meagan. Thank you for blossoming into everything a sighted friend ought to be.
Remember when I wrote that blog post about friendship, and you took the time to remind me, for the umpteenth time, that I was so much more than your blind friend? I do. I always will.

I hope every disabled person can have someone like you around to make them laugh; to prevent them from taking themselves too seriously; to remind them that they are normal in all the ways that matter; and to help them grow.


I love you, Scout. Rest easy.

Exhibit A: On Getting Past The Novelty Stage

It’s natural to be fascinated by someone new. Our brains love novelty; new things and people tend to seem more interesting and attractive by default. So it’s no surprise that many of my most cherished friendships were founded upon at least a little novelty. People are always curious about the blindness thing: they have questions, concerns, etc. While it’s not the most ideal way to make friends, I don’t mind too much. I might do the same if I made a friend who was deaf, or in a wheelchair; I have no doubt that I would have plenty of questions to ask, and wouldn’t always be successful in curbing my insatiable curiosity. All normal, all healthy, all good. But… (and there’s always a but)…

 

…there are some friendships (and I use the term loosely here) that seem to thrive upon the sheer novelty of disability. People really get into the whole sighted guide adventure. They love coming up with new questions to ask me long after I’ve answered all the usual ones. They want to help me with absolutely everything, just to see how “it all works”. This becomes a little off-putting after awhile, because I’m left wondering whether they’d be my friend at all if not for the blindness. Is that my only selling point? Is that what they’re into? Because if it is, then where exactly does that leave me? What if I eventually lose my intrigue? Will they go off and find some new disability to coo over?

 

I was once invited out for coffee by one of my instructors. I assumed we’d spend the time chatting about the course; I’d done quite well, and had more than a passing interest in it. Instead, it turned out to be an hour’s worth of Q and A. To his credit, once he figured out that there was more to me than spokesperson for all the blindies of the world, our conversations became far more interesting. Still, it was a rather disappointing experience.

 

There are even people who stick around after the novelty wears off because associating with me gives them the warm fuzzies. They think that helping me is the nicest, most Mother Teresa-like thing they could possibly do, and it reassures them that they are good people. (FYI, studies suggest that Mother Teresa was actually a little bit nuts, so maybe find a different role model.) I always appreciate magnanimity, but there’s such a thing as too damn much. People make me into a walking, talking source of validation, if you will. Beyond my need for help, I’m worth very little to them, even if they don’t consciously realize it. The more independent I am, (and I’d like to think I’m reasonably independent as people go), the less I matter to them. If I don’t need something, we don’t see each other, period. My value lies only in what they can do for me; beyond that, I’m not worth their time and energy, because they’re either out with more interesting friends, or busy saving other lost little souls. Invariably, the friendship ends when they become bored, and they move along to the next one. And there is always a next one.

 

Needless to say, I consider this type of friendship highly undesirable. I am fortunate in that I have had this happen to me only a very few times, but each time, it has hurt deeply. I befriend people because I like them; it’s as simple as that. To know that others befriend me because I’m some fascinating superfreak, or because I can help them feel good about themselves, is insulting, damaging, and depressing as all get-out. Friendship is supposed to be grounded in healthy, mutual interest and respect; I don’t want to be someone’s charity case or pet social experiment. I’m not a novelty object, and I’m not a living breathing pity party. If you want to be my friend, please do so because I make you laugh, or because you enjoy my company, or because I make delicious cookies (and I do), or because you think I’m a genuinely interesting person (you know, beyond the eye stuff). Don’t befriend me because you think it’s the “right” thing to do, or because you think you might be able to write a book about the experience later. You certainly shouldn’t befriend me solely because you want to blog about it; Blogging about my broken eyes is my job, damn it! PSA: Blogging/writing about me will not make you much money unless you’re good at embellishment; I’m not that interesting, just as a heads up.

 

In all seriousness, let me be a bit of a broken record and restate what I’ve been saying all along in these posts: disability in no way negates humanity. Treat us like people, not like objects, or circus freaks, or exhibits. We don’t exist for your personal validation. We love it when you help us, and if you are good friends to us we will adore you forever. Even if you’re not really friends with us, but you’re a naturally helpful person, we will still think you’re awesome. Just make sure that the friendship has a lot more to it than that, because on our end, it will be about way, way more than what you can do for us. If that does not prove true for you, find another friend, because no one deserves to be a walking support system.

 

For anyone who fears that a friendship is edging towards the danger zone, here are a few tips to nudge it back towards a healthier direction. I’ve used these for my own friendships, and I find them to be very effective.

 

Analyze the reasons you hang out with each other. If you find that the majority of your hangout time is devoted to helping your disabled friend, you may want to kill that pattern as quickly as you can. Feel free to be helpful to them, but ensure that you’re socializing with them just for the fun of it more often than not. The last thing you want (and probably the last thing your disabled friend wants), is a friendship built mostly upon your ability to be helpful.

 

Let your friend be of assistance to you in whatever ways they can. Everyone has something to offer; find out what your friend can help you with, so that you can break a potential cycle of mild parasitism. I’m not suggesting that you attempt to make your friend feel useful; I’m merely suggesting that you allow them to do for you what you do for them as a matter of course. Friendships in which one friend is of exponentially greater value to the other are destined for disaster, and can be enormously unfulfilling for both parties. Don’t assume that your disabled friend has nothing to bring to the table. I’ve been known to edit my friends’ essays, play counselor when they have profound issues they need to talk through, and make jokes when they’re sad. (You’ll have to check with them on the efficacy of that last, though.) It can’t be denied that I give fabulous hugs, as well, so there’s that. See? I’m positively brimming with perks!

 

Resist bringing disability into every conversation. It’s okay to be open about it, and if it comes up, then it comes up. However, there is such a thing as making it into something bigger than it needs to be. It shouldn’t be an integral part of everything you discuss, and it shouldn’t be the centre of attention at all times. Chances are, your friend is sick to death of talking about it anyway, and would love to chat about almost anything else. I admit that it can be cathartic to vent about my disability to friends sometimes, but it’s definitely not something I’d want to do every day. As an experiment, try spending a whole day with your friend without mentioning it beyond what necessity might dictate. If it’s hard to find things to talk about, you know you’re in trouble. On the flip side, if you catch yourself completely forgetting that your friend has a disability at all, pat yourself on the back: you’re doing just fine.

 

When introducing your friend to others, don’t dwell on the disability; make sure you mention cool stuff about them, like what they’re really good at, or what they’re interested in. Establish common ground, so that the focus can shift away from the novelty of their existence and toward things they might actually want to be known for. If you set the tone, others will follow your lead.

 

Assess your friend’s attitude towards their disability, particularly in the ways that affect your relationship with them. If you find that they are focused only on what you can help them with, not to mention how utterly tragic their lot is, it’s time to say your farewells. As I mentioned earlier, no one deserves to be regarded as little more than a source of help and comfort. Don’t let yourself be used, no matter how guilty you might feel. The majority of us would never do that to you, so don’t let the few of us who would get away with it.

 

Finally, reassure your friend that you appreciate them for more than their disability. I have actually caught myself making blind jokes because I felt like that was all the other person wanted to hear. I even found myself going out of my way to discuss it, because it was guaranteed to peek their interest in a way that nothing else could. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I felt almost self-exploitative, and was ashamed of both myself and the state of the friendship. Never let things get as bad as that, if you can help it. Even if it feels a bit awkward, make sure they know that you value them for themselves most of all. It may seem obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to them. For all you know, they’ve been spending hours trying to think of a delicate way to bring it up. I know I have..