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Virtually Free: An Interview with a Shut-In

by Rachelle Hinks

Q: To begin with, thank you for letting me in to talk to you, Russell. I know you donít have many visitors.

Russell Norborg: No problem, I am happy to see a human face.

Q: Youíre not a shut in by choice, correct? Can you tell me what brought about your situation?

Russell: Right, I havenít always been shut in my home; I lived a normal life for twenty-eight years before my accident.

Q: What kind of accident?

Russell: I use to drive a racecar, it was my hobby. I was involved in an accident during a race about eight years ago. I suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for four months.

Q: Do you remember anything from the coma?

Russell: No. Comas arenít like on television. I was out and donít know where I was, exactly. When I finally woke up, I couldnít do anything for myself. My mind didnít work right and my body wouldnít respond. I had to relearn everything.

Q: You get around pretty well now. How long did it take you to relearn everything?

Russell: About a year, it took about a year to learn to eat, sit up, and walk. I can only walk with a walker, but itís faster for me to use my wheelchair. So, I am pretty much reliant on my family to take me anywhere. They donít have much time for me, so here I sit, most of the time.

Q: Do you have any friends that visit you since the accident?

Russell: No. All of my friends have moved on without me. I try to keep in touch with them on the phone and with e-mail, but thatís about it. They only look at my disabilities, and forgot that I am still in this body.

Q: Thatís very sad. How do you get past that?

Russell: Donít be sad for me, I donít blame them. I just have to remember how my life has changed and all of my friendsí lives have stayed the same. I understand they donít have time for me now. I canít change whatís happened to me, so I just accept it.

Q: That takes a strong person. I donít think I could get past something like that. What do you do for companionship now?

Russell: Part of my rehab was with a computer, they gave me a laptop to help me communicate back when I couldnít talk yet. I learned about the Internet from there and I now use it to ďget outĒ of the house.

Q: What do you mean by ďget outĒ of the house?

Russell: The Internet has afforded me bits of freedom. I can go online and talk to other people. There are hundreds of chat rooms out there, and I just go in and try to make friends. I can go online any time of the day or night and there are lots of people out there from all over the world for me to talk to. I think if I didnít have the Internet, I would have tried to kill myself by now.

Q: I am glad you found the online world. Do you ever take it further? For example, exchange telephone numbers with someone you meet in a chat room?

Russell: Yes. I have given my number to people I meet. Most of the time, they only call once, and we have a short chat, but usually after they have heard my voice, they donít talk to me anymore.

Q: Not even online?

Russell: No. They tend to ignore my e-mails or instant messages. I think my voice scares them away. They think I am retarded or something.

Q: Do you tell the people you meet online about your disabilities?

Russell: Yes. I tell them that I have been brain injured in a racing accident. I tell them how old I am, and that I walk with a walker now and work part time.

Q: But, Russ, that sounds a bit optimistic, doesnít it?

Russell: Itís the truth, though. Itís very difficult to describe my situation, and besides, I donít feel disabled inside, itís just my body that is messed up.

Q: But, doesnít a brain injury have any affect on your...well, your brain?

Russell: Well, I do have memory problems, and I have a short temper, but I canít see how that is different from other people. I feel the same, so I donít see any problems.

Q: Have you ever met any of the people you meet online? You know, in person?

Russell: Yes, I have had several lunch dates with ladies I meet online. Sometimes they come and pick me up and drive us to the restaurant. Sometimes my mom will drive me, to meet them somewhere. But at times, they donít show up at all, and it becomes harder to find a ride the next time.

Q: Iím sorry to hear that happens. How do your dates react when they finally meet you?

Russell: Fine, they seem fine. We eat and we talk about ourselves, find out more about each other. (getting agitated) I really donít understand what you mean by that question.

Q: I just mean, that you are obviously disabledówouldnít it be in your best interest to be totally honest with people who are relying solely on what you tell them?

Russell: I think I am totally honest with everyone. I donít see it as lying, if thatís what you mean. Itís hard to describe my situation. Usually, if I talk a lot about my accident, people get bored and seem uninterestedóso I just skim over it and get to the real stuff; life and things like that.

Q: Do you keep many friends that way?

Russell: Well, frankly, I can keep friends longer if I stay ďonline friendsĒ with them. That way I donít have to worry about them judging me by my appearance or the sound of my voice. I would much rather have someone in person to do things with or just spend time with, but it hasnít happened yet. My whole social life revolves around the Internet chat rooms now.

Q: Arenít there any other outlets for you? A support group, perhaps?

Russell: There is a support group, but it is over an hour away. I donít ride in the car wellóI get sick. And, I would have to find someone who could take the time to get me there and back. Itís really hard to find someone. Besides, the group is for disabled people.

Q: I see.

Russell: Yeah, I donít want to sit around and talk about how bad I have it now, or relive my accident. I want to move on past it. I donít want to hear other people whine, thatís not what I am about.

Q: Maybe they are not as far along emotionally as you are, and need to get it off their chests. I think thatís what support groups are for.

Russell: I get it, I just donít want to hear it over and over again. I want a normal life again.

Q: I think I understand.

Russell: Youíd be the only one around me that does.

Q: Will you be online after I leave here this afternoon?

Russell: Yes, my friends will be waiting for meÖ. Do you think you can come back to visit me?

Q: Probably not.

Russell: I didnít think so.

Copyright © 2003 Rachelle Hinks.

Rachelle Hinks is an Illinois-based freelance writer and can be reached at