CONNECTIVITY MAKES ME FEEL FREE
I grew up in the American Midwest, namely Oklahoma. For four decades, I led an average life; I grew up, went to school, got my first car, fell in love, started a career. I spent twenty years working for a major telecommunications corporation as a so-called ‘cubicle dweller.’
Then everything began to change.
First, the economy changed, and my company began to cut back on its expenses. Before my colleagues and I realized it, we were dropping like the proverbial flies, seeing our positions eliminated, finding ourselves replaced by college kids who would work for a third as much money. After a year of struggling, I found other work as a teacher’s assistant at a local high school.
Then one day as I was driving home from work on the Interstate, I glanced up and realized a car was coming at me head-on.
After seven months in a series of four different hospitals, I went home; I was weak, unable to work or even walk; I depended on a wheelchair to get around.
Everyday life as I had once known it was utterly gone. I couldn’t go to the grocery store, the mall or other public places without assistance; travel was ridiculously cumbersome. It was months before I could ride in a car without being thrown into a panic by every approaching vehicle.
Then I discovered two places I could go without feeling as though I was different; two stations of the cross, so to speak, that brought me back to being myself.
The first was a virtual world where I was able to make an “avatar,” a digital representation of myself, a 3D, articulated personage that represented me in this “place.” Some of the other people I “met” there created fantastic creatures; robots, talking dogs, even the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but in my case, I made a representation of myself, the way I wished I was in real life; slim and muscular, with a rock star’s build and a rock star’s hair (I still manage to have the latter!), with purple eyes and the ability to fly.
The thing is, no one knew I was disabled, and I liked it that way. On the Internet, they say, no one knows you’re a dog; in my case, no one knew I was a wheelchair user, and I preferred it that way.
For nearly two years, virtual reality became my escape. Then I met someone within this world who changed my life yet again.
I had placed an ad on this virtual world’s forum site, looking for users to help me create a music video set within the world we shared. I wasn’t the first to have this idea, but I hoped to be one of the first to create a video that would “go viral,” popularizing both my music and the virtual world. (I had been playing music since the age of 11, and the ability to go out and play live was one of the things I missed the most after my accident.)
One of the people who responded was a woman that I had met before, briefly. As we talked, our chat turned into an hours-long conversation, listening to music together, and before long I was struck at her intelligence and how articulate and knowledgeable she was about so many things.
Strangely, I realized I wanted to “see” her again, in a sort of virtual dating relationship.
Now, I didn’t invent that concept, either. I knew that there were several couples who had met in the Virtual and seen their relationships graduate to the Real; I just never thought it would happen to me.
But there we were. After a couple of months, I had recovered enough to be able to drive a vehicle, and I traveled 800 miles to visit her. We had a long distance relationship for about a year, and then we were married in August 2007.
I still visit that virtual world from time to time, although more of my time is spent in the second of the two places; Facebook, where, similarly, no one knows I’m disabled — unless I want them to. Instead, I am known there as an author and editor, a music blogger, and an advocate for Native American rights.
And that makes me feel free to be myself.
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