My post-coma struggle to understand the Internet

On June 14, 2001, I was in a horrible car accident. And then, I had to learn how to use the Internet. 

Mar 1, 2020, 9:13 pm*

Tech

On June 14, 2001, during the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I was hit by a car. Really, it was something of a fluke: I was only in Chicago to accompany a friend who was adamant I join her because she would “be lonely” if I didn’t. The exact location of the accident was especially unremarkable, as it was just an unlined road outside of the building where we were staying. But as I attempted to cross the road, the oncoming Cadillac I fully expected to slow down didn’t. I was struck and induced into a coma that lasted a month.

I had not even considered the car wouldn’t stop. 

Now, it’s ironic to me that, according to witness testimony, the person who hit me was using a cellphone. So technology threw me into isolation, and after it did, I had to relearn how to use it. 

Once I was revived from the coma, I spent a significant amount of time trying to recover the everyday skills I lost; the basics. In addition to numerous broken bones, I also sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). This meant I had to relearn the “ADLs” (activities of daily living). I had to relearn how to feed myself, use the toilet, put on clothes, groom myself, bathe, practice walking, and “transferring,” or moving from a bed to a wheelchair.

From the hospital, where I remained for the rest of that summer, I was relocated to my mother’s apartment. My mother lived in Northern Baltimore City, in a home that already housed her less than pleasant mother (who was jealous of me for all of the attention I was getting).

The apartment had no Internet access. It didn’t even have a computer. I think we can all agree that no matter how much one endures; the real 21st-century tragedy is to not have Internet access!

I, Françoise Marie Gordon, though technically a member of the millennial generation, stripped of my independence and without a Wi-Fi connection, felt completely isolated from this tech-savvy, constantly connected peer group I was supposed to be a part of. Of course my forced isolation wasn’t the only thing that separated me; an unconventional upbringing had also played a part in my lack of connectedness, both technological and real-world. And though I’ve always been pleased to be more self-assured and less affected by what others think, I found myself disappointed at my technological aptitude, or lack thereof.

Like someone who goes to jail for five years, so was I confined to a handicapped life in Baltimore, living between my two parents’ residences from 2001 through early 2006. My only method of mobility came from a wheelchair and then later, a walker, as my license had already been taken away. It was during this time of utter hopelessness and boredom that my technological ignorance really took hold.

I knew what “typing” and “the Internet” were, of course. But when I’d actually learned to “use” these things, I was in college, so if I didn’t remember how to get to a certain website, or how to download a program properly, I could rely on my peers to right my Internet wrongs. And since I had real-life interaction, I had a constant stream of neighbors, teammates, and classmates with whom I could share gossip and news IRL, if you will. After the accident, suddenly I had been consigned to a world in which none of this was possible. Plus, my body was in a new, defunct state altogether. I was embarrassed to be seen publicly, so I ate and I emailed, both to my heart’s content, alone, behind closed doors.

Now I was in a world where I was completely left to my own devices. It was lonely and scary.

And so, naturally, I started emailing renowned Duke basketball player Chris Duhon. I had been given his email address by a friend who, curiously, always seemed to have an “in” with the men’s basketball team. One night, I wrote to him about that evening’s Duke vs. Maryland game. I said something along the lines of “Good luck to you and our Duke team tonight. Too many [University of Maryland] Terp fans around here, that’s for sure. Boo!”

You see, I referenced these Terp fans because I incorrectly assumed that an email showed the recipient my location. Unbeknownst to me, an email didn’t say, “WRITTEN IN MARYLAND,” where the Terrapins live. My technological ignorance was on full display.

But that’s tame, in comparison. It gets much worse.

A few months later I spent a weekend in D.C. with old high school friends. During that weekend I was reintroduced to my friend Sarah’s boyfriend. He was not my favorite person, I remember. I don’t recall why, but I did not like him.

About a month later, I found out Sarah had broken up with this disliked boyfriend. Feeling relief and enthusiasm at the news, I took it upon myself to share in this triumph by sending out a mass email to everyone in my address book. I publicly sent this email to at least 40 people without protecting anyone’s anonymity or privacy because I failed to make use of “Bcc.” I didn’t even know what that was.  

This now-infamous email said something to the effect of, “Yay, Sarah Ellis has finally dumped that douchebag boyfriend. Didn’t you all think he was awful?” But there were no replies; just silence. Everyone else seemed to understand the delicate nature of the email’s contents. I, however, did not.

By the late afternoon of that day I had received an email from Sarah herself asking me if I had sent out a disparaging message about her ex-boyfriend. Of course I said yes and apologized, enthusing about her new boyfriend to cover my tracks a bit. Needless to say, it was an exercise in Internet humiliation… and my apology went unaccepted.

But the worst example of my attempts at Internet relevancy after the accident were in my handling of sensitive court information during the legal trial regarding my accident.

Despite my lawyer having instructed me “not to discuss the court case over email,” I decided to anyway. Not to one friend or a family member, but to all of my friends and acquaintances whose email addresses I had. This meant this information was then available to be read by jurors and opposing counsel alike. I single-handedly sabotaged my own witness testimony, likely costing me millions of dollars.

While I can’t defend the decision as wise, my defense is one that many who use social media now can understand: I wanted to be heard; I wanted to be validated. Prior to the accident, I had been at the best place in my life; I’d lost 30 pounds, I was on the lacrosse team, I had friends. I was the best I’d ever been! I was so happy with myself and for my future.

And then, less than a month later, on June 14, my life came to a halt. Suddenly I was the worst I’d ever been—bruised, battered, brain-injured, and sad. I had been so close to the good life, but now this future “good life” wasn’t going to be possible, and instead of becoming a part of the “real world,” I was going back home to my parents’ homes, living a rather solitary life in recovery.

I didn’t want to feel anonymous, and the transition was so jarring I couldn’t cope.

So while I was writing and sending those emails, I didn’t care about what my lawyer told me. All I wanted was to be remembered, to be thought about. Whatever “in” I had to feel like I was part of something outside my bed—even if it was my medical and legal information, I would use it.

I look back and think about all of the other Internet faux pas I could have committed if the world had been as connected then as it is now. It’s 13 years later and I’m still recovering, but now I am fully invested in the social media world—and actually, it makes me feel as if I were ahead of my time back then. Social media only proves that there’s always been a desire to put everything out there. What I did for years, everyone seems to now just be catching up to. I’m a part of those creative communities that value the ubiquitous nature of social media. The only real difference now is that I’m using the right arena (read: no more massive email blasts) and everyone else is doing the same thing.

And while the Internet was formerly my soap box, from where I made everything public, I now know how to use it to keep things private.

Still, I can’t keep up with all that’s out there. I hear far too many 25-year-olds say they “don’t know anything about technology.” And I think: “They have no idea.” 

Photo via Carissa Rogers/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 18, 2014, 10:00 am