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Breaking free from a virtual world isnt an easy task.

I'll let you in on a little secret: The fact that you're reading this right now sort of terrifies me. I still can't pick up this paper and read my own writing, knowing that someone else has or will.

I used to hate talking to people and avoided one-to-one chats from anyone but friends. Conferences with teachers, for example, were brutal. I struggled to deliver my words in proper order without tripping over themselves; my brain seemed to process things at half-speed; and often my ears would wander beyond the conversation at hand, constantly forcing me into an awkward, “Sorry, could you say that again... again?” Eye contact guillotined my breath, while ordering food over a counter or checking out items with a cashier required accompaniment. Talking on the phone? A nightmare.

Needless to say, the online world was my escape and has been, until recently, what I considered to be the most ideal mode of communication. Text was so much more manageable, conversation much more tactile. Words could be said then a moment later retracted. There was less pressure to reply instantly and my half-speed brain actually had leeway when it came to responses. Best of all, no eye contact. With a computer in my home at all times, I think it's safe to assume I cultivated my social anxieties at an early age without realizing. And grow them I did, as it was only a few months ago that I made my first phone call — by my own will — in years. (It literally required a pep talk and a concentrated, cross-legged position in the silence of my mother's walk-in closet, I kid you not.)

Years passed before I realized my tendency to gravitate to the virtual worlds, as I hid my social ineptitude well from even myself. With situations that I knew were typically prone to evoking social anxiety, such as presentations and performances, I seemed to do fine and rarely was nervous — so I clearly had no problem! I joined in school clubs, too — it's not like I was willingly a recluse! I convinced myself. But these feats of socialization were all done with the assistance of others (class presentations were in groups, drama performances depended on several actors, I never soloed in band) and in the familiar environment of school. Ordering pizza by myself? Well, that was a separate sea to sail.

Most disappointing in those times of need was the lack of receptivity from those around me, a problem I've only realized after recognizing these issues as requiring concrete solutions. My friends were fine with online relationships, as most of my generation and beyond seem to prefer, so they took no notice. My parents were of no help and simply pegged my not wanting to go out as laziness. For a while in Grade 10, I had a Child and Youth counsellor; she met with me for a few weeks because my science teacher couldn't get me to make eye contact. My problems weren't really addressed with the counsellor, though: I tried expressing to her that everyone seemed to have a manual for life, and that I was clueless in comparison, only for her to reply, “Everyone feels that way.” The only thing we established was that I “give a pretty good death stare.”

Oddly enough, it was that (dubious) compliment that allowed me to break my bad habits. It wasn't until I started routinely forcing myself into really uncomfortable situations through attending and hosting parties, or going out to eat by myself for no particular reason, or using my “death stare” as an ad hoc social interaction tool that I began to improve. It was my own makeshift therapy. Only after biding through so many tedious, online rows with friends — friends with whom I was more than jolly in person — did I realize how ineffective virtual communication is. Only after accepting my problems did I get better. Because it was an illness, still is an illness that lingers as I tell you I haven't read over a single published article I've written for this paper. But this will be the first one I'll read.

The problem is that there is no problem, as far as the louder voices of society will have you believe, as far as I was led to believe. It's one thing to be glued to a computer screen all day by choice; it's another to cling to a machine for fear of what lies beyond, and that's exactly what I did. This is a problem, and it will continue to be a problem, as endless waves of developed-country kids grow up with and become increasingly reliant on their Internet-enabled third parent. I don't think there is or will be a perfect solution for the technological ocean in which we unconsciously drown deeper, every new smartphone a wave pushing us farther down. I do know that shutting the issue away, pretending it doesn't exist, suffocating the elephant in the room is far from helpful or healthy.

In order to address the impending Age of Antisocial, we must first accept mental health and by extension mental illness. Social anxiety, depression, and phobias are just as valid as cancers, broken bones or the flu. I'd even argue they're more dangerous because they can remain undetected by even the patient. These illnesses, too, require medicine, healing, therapy. But dedicated recovery is preceded by acknowledgement. Mental health resides in the brain, which is part of your body as much as your heart and your lungs, so mental health is ultimately physical health. It's real. So if between clogged arteries and deep-rooted insecurity you're still imagining a great divisive fence, I think it's time you just get over it.