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It’s okay never to meet IRL

It’s okay never to meet IRL

#meet #IRL Welcome to InNewCL, here is the new story we have for you today:

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“You haven’t met yet?”

My cheeks flush at that question, and I feel a combination of frustration and shame not dissimilar to when someone asks why I still mask, avoid indoor gatherings, and take other precautions to avoid reinfection.

However, the question is flawed because, of course, Angela M. Vázquez and I met. We first met three years ago when she joined an online Long Covid support group I started on Slack. We met again when she signed up to Google Meet to discuss becoming one of the group’s first presenters, and again when I interviewed her and her partner on Zoom for an article on nursing. We met on video calls and in Google Docs where we wrote guidelines for our online support group. As our friendship blossomed, we caught up on text message threads and over the phone—often offering each other a kind of nurturing that had vanished from my “IRL” life. But no, Angela and I still haven’t met “in person”.

In the mid-1990s, when the internet first went mainstream, some found that it offered safer sex options at a time of high HIV transmission. More recently, cyber intimacy has proven to be a crucial lifeline throughout the pandemic — particularly for immunocompromised and other “high-risk” communities that have become increasingly marginalized from mainstream society in the push to “return to normal”. Providing more opportunities for cyber intimacy can help increase access to intimacy for these communities and help us all appreciate the unique benefits of virtual relationships. Yet relationship apps often push and encourage users to meet in person the idea that virtual connections are always inferior to the connections we forge in each other’s physical presence.

As the pandemic began, many events and offerings became newly accessible, and relationship apps and social media sites exploded with activity. “All of a sudden, people were acting the way I had to behave before the pandemic,” says Liz Weaver, a neuroscientist with interests in interdisciplinary politics, health justice, and science communication who lives with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) and describes herself as having “Home-bound.” For Weaver, 2020 brought her “easiest dating days.” She spent most of the first two years of the pandemic in an entirely virtual romantic relationship with someone she met at a chronic illness support group. The two women used FaceTime and texting to exchange intimacy, but Weaver says social media also played an important role. “When you share … memes and TikToks and other things, it’s a playful intimacy,” she says.

However, the widespread focus on virtual spaces was short-lived. “High-risk” communities have since been left with few options and little support. Our community is experiencing a mental health crisis as we struggle to stay socially connected. “Of all the things I’ve overcome with ME/CFS, the most tragic thing is the loss of connection,” says Weaver.

I cannot stress enough how much joy and meaning I have found in virtual spaces over the past three years. I sometimes describe the experience of entering my long Covid support group as leaving a dark, empty room for a loud party. When I sat back in bed and clicked the little Slack icon at the bottom of my screen, I felt the thrill of waiting outside a best friend’s door. The friends, mentors, and collaborators I met in this room came from all over the world, and as Rasha Abdulhadi, a long-Covid-disabled writer and community technologist, points out, having this ability to move across time zones is what makes it so connect, “make it possible for businesses to cope with chronic insomnia and support other organizers through nightly vigils.”

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