Help Processing Something Which Could have been Much Worse
January 27, 2023 4:36 PM   Subscribe

CW: Medical trauma, near-death experiences. Hi AskMe. I'd appreciate some help processing something which happened a couple days back, or at least advice on how best to do so. Details of the situation inside.

I have a friend I know exclusively online, through collaborative writing and such like. We've spoken off and on for a while now, and I know somewhat of their personal circumstances, good and bad.

I missed hearing from them for a day and a half or so, which was somewhat unusual, and it emerged that they are in hospital with what could have been a fatal stroke--or something similar, I'm not quite certain. They claim to have lost one of the arteries around their neck, near where it enters the skull, and that the other one is held together with stents. They also said they almost died on the table

On one level, I'm profoundly happy that they are still alive and seem to have a relatively positive outcome, as much as such a medical event can have positives. On the other hand, I'm not quite sure how to process this. I appreciate the company and acquaintance a great deal, and am horrified it almost came to such an abrupt end.

I would appreciate any insight or advice you can offer. I realize I'm investing a lot in what is ultimately an online friendship, but I would hope this community would understand the value of such things.
posted by Alensin to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sorry, can I ask...from the language you use, it sounds as if you might have some doubts as to the truthfulness of the account you received. Is that part of your concern?
posted by praemunire at 4:54 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't know if I'm doubtful so much as a little shellshocked, to borrow an old-fashioned phrase. I don't know a lot about the medical details or likelyhood that the situation is as described. My friend volunteered to provide photographic proof but as I'm totally blind that wouldn't be super useful, something she acknowledged.

it's more like the feeling of almost, but not quite, stepping off a cliff, I Guess.
posted by Alensin at 4:59 PM on January 27

First, I have online friendships that are every bit as important and real as in the in person ones. I have been through hard times and they have been through hard times and we've supported each other.

Second, this sounds like bullshit. They almost died and had major surgeries 36 hours ago but they're already healed enough to share tons of specific details? I mean, sure, maybe it's real but it just sounds fake. Sending a message to update once physically and mentally able if this person is an incredibly intimate pal? Sure but it'd probably be vague because I'd be ill. Someone with more medical knowledge can talk about the recovery process and how this is all unlikely. How did they have their phone? Is there a loved one caring for them whom they're talking about?

Another big real flag is their offering photographic proof. Wait, she offered photographic proof when she knows you're blind, which she also acknowledges but offers anyway? Huh?! I would not offer that nor would I ask for that from a friend. I'd be prepared for a request for money or some weird favor. We want to believe and support people but so often if something feels off, it's off. Where is this person? Have you spoken on the phone before? Or videochatted with a friend who was able to see them and verify things? Does their social media seem real? I know you wouldn't see pictures but you could see names and descriptions and comments? Is this someone you have a crush on or who has a crush on you? I don't mean to make you uncomfortable but these are things to consider.

For now, you can simply offer emotional support as you would anyone else. But please be very, very cautious especially if they ask you for anything beyond caring words. That can also be manipulative but at least it's slightly less freaky. I'm sorry this is so scary, both because you care about your friend and also because something feels off.
posted by smorgasbord at 5:34 PM on January 27 [18 favorites]

When someone in my family had a near-fatal stroke caused by an aneurysm, they were unconscious for days, and it took them weeks to recover enough to be able to even attempt to talk. Multiple surgeries later and having a shunt installed permanently, which took months, it then took them 4 months of intensive recovery at SRA to recover the majority of their abilities. The doctors said that 40% of people with that kind of stroke don't even make it to the hospital, and of that 40%, 70% never leave the hospital unless it's to be buried.

If someone had a stroke as serious as you're describing, they may be a medical miracle if they're not only up and walking and talking but typing and posting on the internet a few days later.

The medical issues you're describing are literally life-changing events that do not result in chatting on the internet a day or two later.
posted by erst at 6:00 PM on January 27 [5 favorites]

I’m gonna leave the question of whether it really happened aside, because whether or not it happened in this particular case, it’s something that does happen. Your question will need to be answered sooner or later. Alas, my answers aren’t very good, but I think you should probably not dwell much on the online nature of the friendship. It’s no less shocking than if it happened to an IRL friend. For that matter, looking at the outpouring of grief for people like Kobe Bryant or the Queen. Few people have actually interacted with them, but for the purposes of grief, their personalities were present in our lives. This friend’s personality was present in your life, too; your life would be different if they had died. Take this as a reminder that everyone is mortal and your time with them is limited, and use that reminder to make the most of the time you do have.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:24 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Um, doctor here to provide some general information and speculation that in no way constitutes medical advice. You've received some extremely poorly informed answers thus far. Do people ever text their friends within a day or two of having a stroke? Emphatically yes. The range of outcomes after major stroke include "pretty much back to normal with only subtle changes" and "dead" and everything in between.

It sounds like your friend is describing carotid artery occlusion, which can indeed be treated with stenting. "Lost one of the arteries" is a bit misleading—most likely they were told they have a complete occlusion of one of the carotids, which in this context would most likely mean that it has become chronically occluded over a long time period (long enough for collateral circulation—other smaller blood vessels, like detours in a road—to pick up some of the slack). Since the other carotid was not completely occluded but probably had some degree of blockage as well, a stent was placed.

That said, I don't think that any of these intellectual details are helpful for your actual question, which was how to cope with shocking, upsetting bad news of a medical flavor, I just didn't want you to have your totally valid feelings tainted by a bunch of randos on the internet telling you your friend is probably lying.
posted by telegraph at 6:34 PM on January 27 [30 favorites]

I just didn't want you to have your totally valid feelings tainted by a bunch of randos on the internet telling you your friend is probably lying.

Yes, I am a "rando on the internet" telling this poster that their friend is possibly or probably lying. I super appreciate the medical follow up and explanation as I am highly unqualified there. However, while I don't know about medical scenarios, I do know about online friendships and scams involving medical scenarios so I want to offer that perspective too. A lot of us have had experience with that and it's a valid consideration of a different type.

We can have compassion and also caution, which is what we are ALL encouraging.
posted by smorgasbord at 6:38 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I may be misunderstanding the details my friend provided or their may be some confusion on their part, for all I know. The first info provided was that they "blew out a vein in their neck." THey had previously complained of neck pain earlier, for what that's worth.

I definitely appreciate the urging towards caution and will try to exercise some. The medical update is helpful inasmuch as it provides some context I was otherwise missing. THank everyone for thoughts so far.
posted by Alensin at 6:42 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]

More data that might not help - blood vessels can also have dissections, which can happen spontaneously or after trauma.

I don't know what one would photograph from that, though, the stents are all inside. Also like you said, not useful to you in particular. Then again, as someone who had dramatic head stuff last year? I suddenly did want to show off my weird old timey looking head bandages as proof of life to my friends. And I hate cameras normally.
I think it's plausible they had an injury but I also think there's a few or more spoons of drama on the description.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:07 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

I have an ex who I’m not really in touch with, except seeing her Facebook updates. I’m not in her circle of friends. We both married other people, etc. That said, she is still important to me.

One day I saw her post something about having survived the surgery and likely only needing six weeks until she’d be back at work and glad to be alive.

I had no idea what had happened to her. It felt like it would be rude to ask. But most of all, I was just in shock that she could have died and I wouldn’t have known. I didn’t know if anyone in her life now would know to tell me. It was very upsetting.

So I wrote to her to let her know that I was glad she’d made it and was still with us. And I said, please make sure someone knows to let me know if anything happens to you. Because I wouldn’t want to find out six months, or a year later.

It felt embarrassing but also good telling her that, letting her know that she was still important to me.

Anyway, I don’t know if that has any resonance for your situation, of finding that that someone you’re connected to online almost died.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:36 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]

It almost feels like the discussion about whether your friend was truthful or not is a bit of a disrail. If I understand correctly, the facts of the situation are much less important to you than the way it hit you. Which is hard.

A friend having a brush with death is unsettling, for both of you. So, let me ask you a question: Is this something you could process *together*? Is your relationship at a point where doing so would be in keeping with the friendship you've already developed with them? If so, the path forward is clear.

If not, that in itself tells you something about the quality of the relationship vis-a-vis what you have invested in it or expect of it. And if that's the case, it points you in a direction that is equally clear, and no less important.
posted by DrGail at 7:53 PM on January 27

Fwiw - someone I knew very much IRL had something like this happen and was very much texting with me pretty quickly afterwards, even though they were in a touchy place medically for a pretty long while afterwards. Sketchy details and pictures were for sure part of that period of time.

On to your actual question - being confronted with the abruptness of mortality is a lot to take in. It is also a bit disconcerting when you realize that someone who is fairly important to you could just disappear without warning or any follow up that would let you know what happened. Internet friends are REAL and there is something that’s quite unsettling about realizing that if something happened to them you’re not necessarily going to know or be able to get resolution. There’s a real sense of helplessness, for me.

And I think it’s made harder by the fact that it feels weird to seek support for something happening to someone you only know virtually, no matter how much you care for them. I will feel very weird when something happens to a few people I have known online for decades. It’s going to be unsettling on top of the grief. It’s a weird kind of liminal relationship.

I think processing can involve naming all of the separate pieces of what you are feeling. Aloud with someone or to yourself, or however is useful. But just naming all the ways it makes you feel.
posted by Bottlecap at 11:42 PM on January 27 [6 favorites]

I have several significant relationships that have started online, including my husband of 28 years of course. But also my girlfriend, who lives across the continent. We connect basically daily, FaceTime with each other’s kids, all of us (including my husband and hers) challenge each other on Fitbit, etc.

Going from less close to more close is inherently awkward. In person we kind of navigate it geographically- if I meet you in an art class, then we get coffee, then you come to my house and naturally meet my spouse there, etc., it grows like a web. But it’s still awkward. Online there’s this additional barrier.

Anyways, when I read your question I didn’t think oh you must be deceived. I thought it’s a nice chance, in a few weeks when they have more recovery under them, to talk to your friend about it and say it’s made you realize the value of their friendship. It could get awkward but I suspect it won’t, since they contacted you from their hospital bed! And then you could talk to them about ways to show up for each other.

You can also take this as an opportunity to mention this friend to your own RL friends or family…because that’s your life and you’re going through this.

Because I’ve had online friends since I was 20, I’ve had a lot of these discussions. I have a “notification list” for my spouse and I keep meaning to stick it with my Will. I have friends I meet up with in other countries, friends I have their family’s contact info for, and friends I don’t. It’s a rich tapestry. And yeah, I grieve things too and get scared for them…of course. We’re human. It’s okay to be human. I’d lightly bring it up and see if your friend feels the same.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:46 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]

I think warriorqueen explains it so well: talk about this friend to your family members and in-person friends!! You don't need to prove to anyone that your feelings or concerns are valid just because the person is someone you met online. For example, "A friend who lives in New Zealand/New Dehli/New Jersey just had a stroke and could have died. I'm glad they're OK but I'm worried and sad to have almost lost them!!" It took me awhile to get comfortable doing this but now the long distance friendships, online friendships and in-person life all feel much more integrated. Most people have at least one friend they met online, be it gaming or on Instagram or Metafilter or whatever, and I think the more we open up, the more others will open up too! Also, having connections between those worlds makes it all safer and more real: we often talk about our in-person friends and family with online people so why not do vice versa?!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:35 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]

There's no magic processing pill or ritual or dance you can do and get it all over with at once; it is fine and normal to be shocked and need a bit of time to return to more or less normal equilibrium.

Or, at least, a new normal. Because these events do change us, and it doesn't really matter how we know those involved. It's an intrusion into our tendency to believe it won't happen to us and the people we care about. This is one of the shittier things about being alive and getting older and wiser, is that the wisdom comes with a cost.

And it has always been thus, long before the internet. Have you never been stuck in older relatives' conversations about Janice from church, you remember she had to have that leg operation, well now she's having another one etc etc gruesome details etc? That's the same phenomenon of being shocked at the vulnerability/mortality of someone vaguely near to us, when it could have been us, and needing to both process it and somehow share the shock with others.

It Could Happen To You, as the lurid magazine headlines used to say.

Traditional processing comes down to talking about it. You've written about it here, you can also journal more about it if you want to dig more into the questions and reflections that come to you as a result of this experience. Verbal processing matters, and if you have someone who's okay with hearing the story you can talk to them about it. Some people do art about it, some walk or run, some smash tennis balls. Completing the stress cycle, when you find your anxiety running especially high about all this, is important to letting your body get all the way through the feelings.

It is normal and human to feel the way you do right now. You will feel better than you do right now, and it tends to happen pretty fast when you're not actively involved in the situation.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:14 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]

Maybe part of why it's so jarring is that you don't have a physical presence to attach to this person, though online persona is pretty strong. Your feelings are reasonable.
posted by theora55 at 3:14 PM on January 29

Hey Alensin, I just wanted to check in on you! How are you and how is your friend doing? I know we are all hoping she is doing better and that you are feeling better too. There's no pressure to reply but I have been thinking of you both!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:07 PM on February 4

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