By Jeri Burtchell
I’ve never been very outgoing. In my younger days, I was the one off in the corner at the party quietly taking it all in. Casual conversation terrified me.
So it should come as no surprise that, in real life, I only have a handful of friends and most of them are relatives. But when I was diagnosed with MS in 1999, my microscopic social world seemed to get even smaller. I’d never really taken into account that George, who faithfully bags my groceries, or Shirley, who has cut my hair for years, were friends, too.
During my first MS attack my legs became weak and totally numb. I was suddenly unable to drive. My car – and the mundane socialization of everyday interactions – came to a complete standstill. That’s when I realized how much I depended on the Georges and Shirleys of the world to keep me connected.
When I was first diagnosed, I was trying to care for my infant son while grappling with symptoms that made every diaper change seem like an Olympic event. The combination of raging MS and motherhood left me physically and emotionally exhausted. I kept that to myself most of the time, not wanting to burden my family and friends for fear of driving them away. I didn’t realize at the time just how toxic fear and loneliness can be.
It wasn’t until I got a computer and the blazing speed of dial up internet that my world opened up. The gray clouds had parted and the rays of friendship – or at least camaraderie – were beaming in. I found people online I could relate to. Others with MS who understood exactly what I was going through both physically and mentally because of this disease. I had only ever met one person with my condition prior to passing through this portal to a whole new world.
That was back when online forums and chat rooms were about as social as it got. But I learned a lot about my disease from the internet, and even more about symptom management and treatment options from others like myself. People in search of friendship and a way out of the isolation that chronic illness so often imposes on people.
Then came Facebook and Twitter, two platforms that have exploded in popularity, giving us access to the world and each other in real time. Empowering people living with chronic illness to find each other and share information, experiences, and photos of our cats. Facebook groups are where I go to learn the latest news of cutting-edge science in MS. Hashtags on Twitter give me an easy way to join conversations about health activism or to follow my passion – raising awareness about the importance of clinical trials.
It was through one hashtag, #whyclinicaltrialsmatter, that I met my new friend Janelle, who lives in Australia. Despite a 14 hour time difference, we Skype on Sundays now, brainstorming how together we might make an impact on the world.
If MS is the worst thing that has happened to me, the internet and social media have been among the best. My computer has enabled me to travel the world from my living room, learning, growing, and making new friends. Social media was the conduit, turning me from a frightened and lonely introvert into a health activist championing for change. I’m not saying that’s how it would – or should – work for everyone. Social media is a tool. With it, you can build whatever connections you like that fulfill you and add to your happiness and wellbeing.
I may not be close to everyone I know through Facebook or Twitter, but they all bring value to my life. They enrich me, they educate me, and they shine light into dark places when I begin to feel like my world is closing in. So while my small circle of family and friends in real life are my go-to connections, I appreciate what the Georges and Shirleys of this world mean to my social health. And I cherish my online friends who are never out of reach. They’re always just an app away.
*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.