It is human nature to reach out to help someone who is flailing. I am writing to suggest that sometimes we should not. Rather than name this flailing person, let’s call her Nora, after my cat. Nora allegedly abused someone’s trust. That person submitted a Virtual Secret to call her out for it. Nora reacted badly. This happened quite a while ago. Nora is still reacting badly.
If you’re unfamiliar with Virtual Secrets, it was originally founded in hopes of soliciting the sort of confessional sharing of experiences and feelings that make Post Secrets such a heart-wrenching and heartwarming window into humanity. It didn’t work out that way.
Second Life is extraordinarily libertarian in its social controls. In the absence of official moral regulators, mores are established by unofficial means such as gossip and shaming. This is likely the reason that Virtual Secrets became more like the back fence, where people gossip about those who transgress by copying, diverting charitable funds, or cheating on friends. No matter its original purpose, it has come to serve as the place where people draw the bounds of acceptable behavior.
When someone is shamed on Secrets, they have a few options:
- Be flattered that someone has given them rent-free space in their heads.
- Proclaim they have made it and surely must now be part of the FIC (Prok’s Feted Inner Circle)
- Refuse it air. Ask their friends not to defend them. Let it die in the emptiness of disregard.
- Defend themselves with facts. Present evidence calmly and without rancor.
And then there is what Nora did. She rushed to explain her actions with dozens of comments, catching the attention of the people who might have scrolled past a rather ordinary secret. She began submitting secrets about other people and herself and posting hundreds of comments on Secrets week after week until she was finally banned. Similar behavior in resulted in similar repercussions. The flailing has continued for months now.
Every day is Festivus and she airs her grievances everywhere. Not just in SL groups, the community forum, her blog, Facebook, and Discord. Everywhere, even sites unrelated to SL like Disney’s forum This has gone on for months and every trouble in her life is blamed on Virtual Secrets and the expanding list of people who have now become her nemeses. By everything, that includes a leaking bathtub and being unable to sleep. There is no point in cataloging the depth and breadth of this because it is based in delusion. She now lives in an altered timeline where her mistreatment has gone on for years and years, repeatedly claiming she’s been abused for years – sometimes over a decade.
So let me tell you about delusion. It feels real.
When my kidneys failed after a surgery I experienced renal psychosis complete with visual and auditory hallucinations. Nothing anyone told me was more persuasive than the delusions I witnessed with my own eyes. When people argued with me, it was so frustrating because I knew what they said was false. After all, I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears a far different truth. To this day, what I remember from those days are the delusions which are all that feels real. I do not remember what actually happened. As the wash of chemicals that flooded my system when my kidneys shut down were flushed away, I returned to reality and recognized the delusions for what they were, but they remain vivid visual “memories.” If that kind of delusion is what drives Nora, there is nothing we can do other than hope she finds a good doctor who will serve her well. We cannot help her.
Some of us are bemused, some are appalled, and some are amused by her ranting. Few take her seriously, but we should. She is not just an avatar. She is a real person. She is suffering, but she is also dangerous. If this were happening in a film or movie, we would recognize the danger. We would know that a persistent obsession that includes nearly daily messages, several threatening violence, is dangerous. Do we discount the danger when it’s a woman doing it?
Nora has threatened people’s lives, has promised to come to their home, has threatened their children, and has made foul and disgusting allegations about people and their children. She harasses people with chronic illnesses. She apologizes and repeats. All of her apologies come with a but.
Nora is in a self-reinforcing cycle of obsession. She enters a new group and begins to rant. People react and she does not understand they are reacting to her behavior, believing those she fears directed them to ban her. Everything is the fault of the people she has given so much power in her life. Illness is not entertainment.
In our virtual world we watch people melt down and behave this way and the crowd laughs. “What a wack, what a crazy” we say. We laugh because she’s powerless…right? She’s just an avatar, right? In fact, the crowd incites her – mocks her rage, mocks her anguished and incoherent rants against wrongs both perceived and real.
She isn’t just an avatar. None of us are. She’s a human and she deserves the same level of respect and regard that anyone else does. This includes respecting that she may be dangerous. This includes understanding that mental illness is likely the primary driver of her behavior. A member of your family in the middle of a psychotic break would evoke concern so you seek a solution to keep them safe and out of harm’s way.
Why then is someone experiencing the same event online seen as a form of entertainment? Why are we not taking Nora’s threats seriously? Why do we indulge her? Why doesn’t Linden Lab lock her out of this game that is inciting her to ever more serious anger and threatening behavior? Why do people bait her? And yes, I realize this may be seen as more of the same though I hope by using my cat’s name, we take this into a less emotional direction and ask what if she were our family or our friend and not this person who has plucked our last nerve.
How about instead of trying to explain how she is the problem we just don’t respond. How about we don’t try to show how we are the special someone who cares. She doesn’t listen to anyone and none of us are that special someone who will finally reach through the layers of delusion to a well person. There is no well person inside there. Many of us see her desperation and want to help but our help makes no sense to her. All it does is convince her of how much larger the conspiracy is. It is cruel to engage. It does not make us look good.
None of us can help Nora, we can only reinforce her delusions. None of us can get her the help she needs or disconnect her from an internet to which she is addicted and ill-served by. It would be good if family stepped in, but since they have not, it is on us to disengage completely. Refuse to respond, do not try to make her see sense, it is not possible.
Having experienced delusions, I can tell you that people telling me I didn’t see what I saw or experience what I experienced was so frustrating and angering. It was also frightening. It made me feel alone and persecuted by liars. You are not helping Nora by telling her she is wrong and perceiving things wrong, you are just frightening her. The best way to help her is to ignore her and hope her family or her county mental health services can do right by her. We cannot.
This opinion essay was written by Gidge and I, but Nora is my cat and I had renal psychosis, something which makes me understand Nora, I think.