The Internet saved my life: At 13, I told one person I wanted to kill myself—my best friend, whom I had never met

Nearly 20 years later, I finally ask David how he found the courage to send help from halfway across the country

Published August 13, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

A photo of the author as a girl.
A photo of the author as a girl.

In the spring of 1998, depression hit me for the first time. I was 13 years old. It started with headaches, then fatigue, plus a crushing sadness that kept me up all night and asleep all day. Sometimes I couldn’t stop crying, and other times I couldn’t start. I missed two or three days of school every week, and almost failed 7th grade. My parents took me to a chiropractor and for an MRI for my headaches but no one—not my mother, a clinical psychologist, or any teacher or counselor at school—recognized the symptoms of depression. Late at night, alone in my bedroom, I sawed or snipped the skin at the top of my thighs with a pair of scissors, high enough so that when I changed into shorts for P.E. class, the cuts wouldn’t show.

The only motivation I had for going to school at all was that if I went, my parents let me go online.

My best friend was a boy named David I’d met on a message board for Andrew Lloyd Webber fans. He lived in Las Vegas and we talked almost every day, either online or by phone, long-distance. I paid for the charges with my babysitting money. Sometimes my dad would eavesdrop on our calls because he was suspicious of David’s baritone, but there was nothing dangerous or inappropriate about our relationship. David was exactly who he said he was—a middle schooler, a Mormon, a fan of “Starlight Express” and Peanuts cartoons. We had our own AOL screen names, but no digital cameras, no scanners. Using “Beauty and the Beast” stationery from the Disney Store, David mailed me a letter and a photo of what he looked like: tall, lanky, exceptionally tan. I was supposed to send him my picture in return.

I still have the Polaroid I never mailed him. In it, I’m sitting on the wooden ladder to the backyard playhouse, wearing a teal cotton tank top with a butterfly embroidered near the neckline. My hair is dark and curly. I weigh less than a hundred pounds. (See the photo above.)

When I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan, to collect all the medication in the house and stay home from school and swallow it, David was the person I told. I worked on my goodbye letter for a long time, typing it in gray against a black background in the AOL email window.

But because David had mailed me that letter, he knew my home address. He called the police in my town. The police called my school. My school called my parents. I was put into therapy and medicated. At the time, I wasn’t grateful to David at all. I was embarrassed, and angry with him for bringing in the adults. Our friendship changed, and we drifted apart.

Nearly ten years later, I was living with my abusive boyfriend, waitressing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was seriously depressed again, taking medication in hopes that if I could just “fix” what was inside me, our relationship would also be fixed. One night, I waited on a family of four from out of town. The dad directed a theater company for children and teenagers in Las Vegas. I asked if he knew David. He said of course he did. It was like a gift from the past, this strange connection at a time when I was so isolated, and I went home and friended David on Facebook.

I recently asked David if we could have another phone call, and revisit that time in the nineties when he bravely made a call that likely saved my life. Today David is the director of education at an award-winning theater on the East Coast.

It’s so exciting to talk to you!

I know! It’s been a couple of decades…

Not since we were young teenagers. Do you remember what your screenname was?

I think the standard one was ITWBaker, standing for “Into the Woods” Baker.

Yes. That just brings it all back—you saying that.

And what was yours?

At one point it was Drama Goil, like with a New York accent.

Yes, yes, yes. And so we had the AOL thing going on, and it turned into letters and phone calls occasionally as well. I remember talking to your dad on the phone once. He had to give approval on whether or not I was a creepy stranger from the Internet.

Because you had a deep voice at the time! But talking to you now, to me, you have a very normal tone of voice…but I remember he was suspicious.

Oh, that’s funny.

Looking back at what happened when I was 13, I feel like that was a different person. I can look back on my younger self and be like, oh man that was crazy what happened to that girl… I was so depressed that I decided to end it and I decided to tell you. I remember spending a long time writing an email in AOL to tell you.

You had been hinting for a while to me that you were in something of a dark place. And then there was that final letter saying, this is it. [My childhood friend] Jennifer was a part of things as well.

Yes! I couldn’t remember her name, but I remembered that there was this other friend of yours and I think that she was angry at me.

She was upset about something or other, but I remember calling her when I got the email from you saying this is it, this is the day. I call her and next thing I know, she’s looped in another friend of hers and the three of us are on three-way phone call—which is so Nineties, in retrospect—and we’re saying, “What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?” I can’t remember which one of us says, “We need to call the police,” and I say, “Well, I have her address. I have her phone number.” I remember putting up some hesitancy to call, because I was 13 years old and I didn’t want to get the police involved in my life. I didn’t want to somehow end up being in trouble with my parents, you know? So there was a giant hesitancy to call. But finally, it might have been all three of us actually doing a three-way call to the police, calling in your area and saying, “This is what’s going on.”

Do you remember, when you called the police, having to explain that you knew this friend in Illinois because you met her on AOL? I'm just curious what their reaction was.

I have a very, very vague memory of explaining the AOL connection, but I definitely do remember feeling like the online connection could risk completely delegitimizing the entire phone call.

And then [the police] showed up and you were pretty upset with me at the time for doing that, but then… a while later getting some reconciliation between the two of us. But initially, you weren’t very happy that we had intervened in this way. Which I understand, because it probably made some uncomfortable conversations between you and your parents when the police showed up at your door.

They didn’t show up, though.

Oh really?

They didn’t even call my parents. They called my middle school, and then my middle school called my parents. I was so upset with you, but I think I was really embarrassed.

Which is totally justifiable.

It was such a surprise, the way the events unfolded. I wonder if this is just what it’s like being a child: You want your peers to understand, but when they bring in the adults, it’s like, What! You brought in the adults?! It’s a betrayal.

It is. And you know, it’s funny, now as a teacher, [I have a] different spin on it. There are a lot of ethical things going on there behind the scenes that I don’t think any of us were aware of at the time because we were like 12.

It’s different now. I feel like kids have a different kind of awareness of these things now. They get trainings on [mental health awareness] starting in 6th grade, on how to help a friend if they’re in this spot. We didn’t have that in the mid-Nineties.

Some of my students show a certain flippancy toward the issue of teenage suicide now, because they talk about it so much, and [schools] talk about it in such a calculated, PowerPoint way.

They’re so sophisticated they can joke about it.

Right. Because they have regular classroom trainings about it, and it’s never trainings that the teachers have cultivated—it’s always passed down to the teacher from a counselor, so they’re giving this secondhand material dispassionately. I’ve sat in on some of them before and… kudos to the schools for trying to handle these things, but there’s still room to grow in how to do it.

I remember working with a student a couple years ago on a monologue about teenage suicide, and I started to coach her through it and she just cut me off and said, “David, I’ve had five classmates kill themselves this year. This isn’t news to me.” So the conversation is not working. Your PowerPoint is not doing it.

One of the things that haunts me is that you didn’t even know me. We’d never met each other. And yet you were the one who saw me, who believed me. I lived with a licensed therapist [my mom] and she didn’t know any of this. And that’s probably because I didn’t tell her, but I was a child. I never went to school—I went to school two or three days a week and I stayed home the rest of the time. Nobody noticed any signs of anything, but you did, and you didn’t even go to the same school as me.

Or live in the same region of the country… There is an added step of safety in a conversation with somebody who isn’t in your daily life, right? That is why people go to psychiatrists or psychologists, because they’re someone separate.

In high school, the friends that I was emotionally closest with were friends who didn’t go to my school but that I was doing theater with elsewhere. There’s just something about that person who’s not part of the daily life that allows a certain amount of vulnerability, for better or worse. It’s just easier, I think.

We connected over the things that mattered to us at the time: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. And that common interest led to an exciting distant friend who we could talk to at almost any time, online and then by phone and by letter.

I think the intimacy was created in spite of, or maybe because of, the distance. There’s just a vulnerability available in that kind of relationship.

You say that so well. We really bonded over our common interest and so it allowed us to bond on other things that went deeper. I didn’t have any friends at school that wanted to listen to Stephen Sondheim, right? It’s like finding that person who really gets whatever dorky thing you’re really obsessed with.

Right. Which is a cool benefit of Internet nerd culture, because you find like-minded people.

I feel like our story is such a positive example of what can happen on the Internet, because there are so many negative things that happen to people online. And this was like an amazingly good thing… even though at the time, you didn’t know what to do, and I was mad at you.

I remember feeling genuine panic because someone’s life was at stake. Kudos to Jennifer because I do think she was the one who said, “No, you have to call the police,” because I was just terrified of the consequences of doing that: recognizing that I could get in trouble, recognizing that you would not be happy about this. But there were other people to say, “No, you have to do this.” There were layers of support, and I’m obviously really happy it worked out.

I remember you using some terminology that at the time I didn’t understand, and maybe was even flippant about. I remember you attributing things to a “chemical imbalance” and not really understanding what that meant at all, because that was a term I had never heard. Now it’s a commonplace idea, but at the time I’m sure I was flippant and that is a shame.

I remember doing a lot of research, and taking “Are you depressed?” questionnaires, but I don’t know why I didn’t just tell my mom. I just didn’t say, “Hey, I’ve done all this research. I think this is what I have.” For some reason, I was like, this is really dire and I know the solution… the solution is to end things. It was very clear to me that I had figured out the solution myself. But I honestly don’t think I would have gone through with it. I needed to be seen, and you saw me.

Which I think is probably frequently the case. People just want to be heard. And I think at that age, you don’t know what it is. And kudos to you for doing research because I think a lot of kids in that situation say, “Something is wrong inside of me and it’s been that way for a long time and I don’t see it ending.” Probably the kids that end up going through with it most of the time just say, “It’s felt like this forever and I can’t feel this way anymore and I don’t know what it is.”

That’s my memory of the events of gosh, 17, 18 years ago.

Yeah I think it was 1998. It was the spring of 1998, so it was 18 years ago. Final question: Is “Starlight Express” still #1 for you?

I don’t know if I can say it’s still #1, but the sheet music is sitting on the piano at home right now.

By Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein is the author of three books, including the new memoir "Land of Enchantment." Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Allure, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, and Slate. She is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Out of the Binders, and lives outside New York City.

MORE FROM Leigh Stein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Internet Life Stories Mental Health Teenagers