Emotional Support Online

In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream. But someone might just hear you yell for help and respond. While the Internet's been taking it on the chin with reports of pornographers and hatemongerers running rampant, a more compassionate side of the Net has been blooming in the shadows as the number of self-help and support outlets has multiplied faster than Starbucks outlets. Online discussion groups wrestle with everything from the big meanies of AIDS, cancer, abuse, and grief, to the emotional badlands of depression, chemical addiction, and loneliness, all the way back through menopause, shortness, and stuttering to the seeming silliness of alt.help.me.get.out.of.trouble.trouble.trouble-please. It's not exactly an electronic Mayo Clinic or Betty Ford Center, but this burgeoning support contingent unites sufferers with survivors, mixes professionals with newcomers, to deliver up information and caring to the people who come together in these communities. "Hey, don't laugh till you get online and experience it," insists 'Willow,' a 29-year- old graphic artist who sought out online support early this year when she moved cross- country to San Diego for a new job. She was a newly divorced single parent struggling through her first year clean from longtime daily cocaine and prescription- drug use. Unsure where to hook up with peer support, Willow jumped online into a live "recovery" chat on America Online, which led her to investigate the Usenet newsgroups covering recovery and addiction. And a newly made cyberpal helped her find a live group meeting just minutes from her home. "I still log in to discussions cause they give me a boost. You don't get the hugs or the smiles you get face to face, but you get acceptance by people who know the pain. There's stuff you can discuss with anonymous strangers you can't bring up with someone [you know]. Weird, yeah, but true." Mike N. of Nevada surfs the net for new medical literature and camaraderie to do battle with the frustration and isolation he feels as someone who's HIV-positive, while Ricca of Lake Tahoe concentrates on the laughs she shares with Net friends over her personal demon, eating disorders. "OK, maybe it's hard for you to think about giggling over bulimia, but hey, that's what keeps me sane," chuckles Ricca as she shares some truly tasteless, pointed humor on the subject of binging and purging. "Laughing about it gives me perspective." Support resources in the great ether vary enormously. Covering a myriad of human afflictions and addictions, and dependent upon the level of interest and traffic, these resources range from occasional posts in Usenet newsgroups to extensive categories like substance addiction and cancer, for which one can find not only newsgroups, but also live IRC (Internet relay chat), live conferences on commercial providers like CompuServe, gopher information searches, colorful Web sites, and even private mailing lists. Grizzled veterans of this new help medium say it can extend a hand to those who need a lift, but are quick to outline serious shortcomings, too. It's not as personal as face to face, they agree, and it isn't meant to replace therapy or medical treatment, but rather to enhance the "healing" journey. And all is not necessarily what it seems. Myth and misinformation gets posted alongside solid scientific data, both out of ignorance and meanspiritedness. Experienced self-helpers and health-care professionals online try to minimize the damage done, but many agree people tend to believe anything they read if it's phrased with enough force and accompanied by enough "facts." There are snake-oil salesmen here, too, hawking dubious cures and treatments to the folically challenged, the obese, the sexually estranged, or anyone desperate enough to try one more miracle tonic or diet. Newcomers -- of which those needing social support may be a particular vulnerable constituent -- are well advised to exercise caution. "And there are snakes, too!," warns Devra, who vividly remembers how she went online one night to share her own troubled moments with a group discussing childhood sexual abuse. While she feels she learned a lot from the discussion, Devra was enraged to get follow-up E-mail from two lurkers (people who followed the discussion but did not participate), who were there to fulfill a murkier agenda. "These guys actually hit on me because of the information I shared. They obviously got their sick enjoyment out of stories of victimization, and then they expected I was interested in playing some pathetic games with them. You wanted to take a long, hot shower after reading what they wrote! Really sick!" Devra wasn't in the mood to be victimized again, so she complained. The result was that one of the cyberslime got his E-mail account yanked. Newcomers should be cautioned, too, about a rather ironic problem which can develop when seeking out an online support system: one can become addicted to being online. Don't snicker; it happens in this disjointed real world of ours, where a modem connection to distant others can seem to dispel the loneliness. In spite of the snakes and snake oil, many health professionals on and off the Net agree that online support groups can help provide valuable information and nurturing to people in need. They also lend cyberspace some heart. SIDEBAR: The alt.support list Interested in checking them out yourself? Here's just a short list of self-help Usenet groups on the Net (all names begin "alt.support."): abuse-partners, anxiety-panic, asthma, cancer, depression, diabetes.kids, divorce, eating-disord, ex-cult, headaches- migraine, househusbands, loneliness, menopause, obesity, short, shyness, single-parents, stop-smoking, survivors. prozac.

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