It’s been a hell of a year.
My family and I spent Holy Week of last year in the hospital, waiting. Easter came, and with it a definitive diagnosis: our five-year-old daughter has a rare form of childhood cancer called biphenotypic acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
All during that vague fog of a week, while the doctors tested and re-tested J’s blood and trod the careful path of differential diagnosis, with clutching hands, we held each other, we smoothed J’s hair, we rubbed our eyes…
We grasped our smartphones.
In the aimless unknown, our phone screens linked us to information about prognosis, treatment, side effects – all the hard truths that felt more terrifying as vague shapes scrabbling against the corners of our minds than stark black type on a white screen. Our phone screens were a social media gathering place where we could tell our families and friends the latest news, and where they could share that news with a huge network of prayerful friends. We looked to our phone screens for loving texts from home, for basic facts about negotiating the city-sized hospital that was our temporary home, for logistical and financial planning with the support network that felt so far away.
And we used the media on our phones to distract us from what was real.
Roughly a month before J bottomed out in her preschool gym class, leading to the appointment with her pediatrician that eventually led to a frantic rush to the hospital and an immediate blood transfusion, my first poetry manuscript had been accepted for publication by a small press.
A couple of months before that acceptance, I had joined an online community of writers whose bylines dictated a certainly ideology with which I was uncomfortable. Though I disagreed with that ideology, I found connections there that made the group hard to refuse as a networking tool. As a matter of fact, it was through a special submissions call aimed at that group that I found the publisher who first accepted my manuscript.
So there I was, as J was tested and diagnosed, as she slept in the first of many, many hospital beds, coping with the fear of losing her by engaging with people I’ve never seen, touched, heard in the physical world.
I put everything that was in me out into the digital world. And most of it was ugly.
I was confrontational because I was angry that my daughter had to miss Kindergarten to struggle with cancer. I was mean because I was terrified that she would miss Kindergarten forever. I was sarcastic because I needed to laugh, even if it was at somebody else’s expense. I was loud because I needed to feel right, and powerful, and strong somewhere. When I couldn’t take the overwhelming feelings in my home, I made a home for the worst of them online.
And for the first time in my life, I started drinking to excess.
Everything blew up. It wasn’t just me, but some of it was me, and that’s the only part for which I bear responsibility. I was booted from the group and continually harassed online by people who I had believed were going to be supportive, and some of them worked to get my publisher to cancel my book.
I was livid, and terrified, and my online presence became more and more negative as I fought what I felt was a righteous battle against censorship of my art.
As my daughter fought for her real-world life.
I was a coward, in that sense. I spent days and nights sitting next to her in hospital rooms, holding her through spinal taps, and learning everything I could about every poisonous drug she had to take. But more and more often, I ran away to my little online world, with its drama that never really mattered as much.
Just before the election of Donald Trump, when J had been sick for eight months and I had been dealing with the continued online harassment of the most dogged of my detractors, I wrote a poem in response to a lighthearted Facebook thread. It was published in Rattle’s Poets Respond feature, and it was about how I felt.
It was called, “How I Am Like Donald Trump.”
Online anger is nothing new, as the outrage of “call-out culture” rushes around us like a daily flood, threatening to drown even the most measured voices beneath its raging waves. The rhetoric around 2016’s presidential election reached a level of vitriol arguably new in its constancy and its ability to instantly reach a global audience of people escaping the fear of the “real world.”
Nothing could prepare me, though, for the level of hatred I received for that poem.
I was home alone when the replies began to roll in, on Rattle’s website, in my private messages, by screenshot and Twitter and Facebook, my phone buzzing constantly with notifications. J was in one of the hardest phases of chemo, and was in the middle of one of her hardest hospital stays. My partner, D, was with her.
In the real world, it was a rare moment alone.
So I dove into my online world with all the ferocity and anger and madness that had been building inside me. I rolled up my sleeves and waded in, aching to fight. At least this, I could fight. Online, I had meanness and hatred and words like knives.
Here, at home, I had nothing cancer feared.
In high school, I was a bully. My anger was born of fear then, too; a severe panic disorder has limited my ability to engage the world since I was eight years old. After my first inpatient hospitalization at the age of 13, I decided anger felt stronger and safer than fear. So I felt anger, and I took it out on others.
Then, in my junior year, I felt God calling me gently, insistently back to Him and His church. I was re-baptised into the church I grew up in.
Today, I am writing for the same reason I spoke to my victims then. God is calling me.
My online persona has spiraled down into a deep chasm of bitterness. I have offered all my helplessness to the false promise of anger, to the illusion of its strength. And many people would be forgiven for thinking that’s the totality of who I am. In the current climate, it sadly hasn’t seemed to stand out that much.
But God is calling me.
God has been saying, quietly, calmly, “My dear, dear Rachel, you have been wrong, you have been running away from me, you have not trusted in My plan.” He is saying, “How are you showing Me to your online friends?” Saying, “What you are there you will become here.”
And I’m trying to listen. I’m trying to come back.
You’re all right to condemn me. I have been sorely wrong, even when I fought what I thought was a righteous fight. I have added to the anger and darkness in the world. As a Christian, that is not what I am called to do.
My daughter is in remission. We are hopeful that she is coming out the end of the tunnel to the other side. I have decided it is time for me to emerge into the light, as well.
Please forgive me, my friends. I have been wrong.
I won’t magically be another person. I’m still angry and scared. My daughter still fights for her life. But please, friends, hear this: I am going to make a concerted effort to carry light into the dark cave to which I have been escaping online. I am going to try to love fiercely online, to show myself as a follower of Christ.
Hopefully, with the help of friends, I will eventually make this a beautiful place to visit, and a place from which I bring love and strength back home.
During this hard time, at the absolute worst of it, I have been blessed beyond measure with people who have worked past my prickliness and befriended and supported me through everything.
You all are the reason for this post, for you are the lights that continually lead me back.
Thank you for valuing me, and for your fierce and constant support.