There is a long story here, so bear with me:
My friend -we'll call her Emily- was someone I had known online for years. You know how online, you have a few groups to which you gravitate, and wherein you form bonds with other members? Well, Em was a long-term member of one of my main groups, a bunch of moms with shared experiences who had bonded over the years. We had several mutual friends; were a tightly-knit group. We interacted almost daily on Facebook. I truly considered her a friend.
Then Emily started to mention not feeling well. She mentioned hospital visits and tests. She was positive and upbeat through it all, but the tests came back with abnormalities. Emily had Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) a "pre-leukemia" She started chemo. Luckily, she had recently married her long-term partner, a physician and he was able to assist in her care.
Emily bravely documented her life on chemo, the good, the bad, the funny and the ironic. The rest of us rallied around as best we could, in a virtual group. We listened, we encouraged, we distracted, we cared.
On the third round of chemo, Em took a turn for the worse. She was admitted to the hospital with an abnormal heartbeat. Her doctor husband took over the updates. Em coded and was brought back. But she was going downhill fast; she was in a coma, ventilated. She showed signs of improvement, then coded again. Dave (the husband) mentioned that if she coded again they would not revive her. Em wouldnt' want to be kept alive by machines.
The rest of my group were beside ourselves. We frantically tried to think of ways we could help. Could we send something to Em's son? Could we travel to the hospital? We realized that in our on-line relationship, we had no real information on Em -indeed for most of us. Some of us had each others home or cell numbers. We texted sometimes. There was the odd few who had exchanged addresses and one or two who lived in proximity. But we realized that in a crisis, one of us could fall off the face of the Earth and not be found.
We all grew closer in our vigil for Em. We checked for updates first thing in the morning and last thing at night. We poured our hearts out to her on her Facebook and Caringbridge pages. We consoled each other. We were facing the permanent loss -very young- of a member and we had a hard time dealing with it.
Then all hell broke loose.
One of Em's other friends, a member of different group, and a person unknown to us, started posting stuff on Em's Facebook page. Pictures that Em has said were hers, had been pulled off the Internet. Em's doctor husband didn't exists. The picture was of a gay porn star, and Em -a medical transcriptionist- was actually operating the account. According to this woman, Em wasn't sick at all, but pulling off some sort of elaborate ruse, looking for attention, sympathy or ...something. All this information was presented in a gleeful, mocking way.
Em's other friends were shocked, crushed ...relieved that maybe our friend wasn't dying- but also very betrayed and confused. Was this true? Would our long-term friend do this to us?
Dr Dave was defensive and outraged. OF COURSE THIS WAS REAL! Yes, he had worked his way through medical school by starring in gay porn (who doesn't?), but that didn't make him any less of a husband or doctor. How dare people accuse his dying wife of faking her illness.
...and it descended.
In the end, "Dave" had a series of massive tantrums and unfriended all of us, and that was that.
I lost a friend
..but not to MDS or complications of Chemotherapy. I lost a friend to Munchausens By Internet. And that friend lost all of us.
Em suddenly resurfaced -alive and well- as "Gina" a few weeks later. When I reached out to Gina, thinking ...well, that a cry for help might merit some help. That maybe we could forgive and help her find a way back into the support group, the account was finally disabled.
Actually, I lost two friends to Munchausen's by Internet, because I got into an argument with another group member about Em-related issues during the turmoil and we fell out. Therefore, between the two of them, it was about 18 years of friendship ...gone.
I miss them both.
I'm going to write more on this, but in the meantime, here is a good article on the subject.