A couple of days ago a friend in Second Life, who prefers to remain anonymous, asked me to share this true and heartbreaking story on my blog. The image above is my illustration (using a model) of what I imagine is happening to her partner, “Quinn”.
This is a Second Life story and except for details changed for anonymity, it is true. Snippets of chat are excerpted from logs.
Here is a conversation that my SL partner Quinn and I had on Saturday:
Quinn: I will go to system with the adge and my sister.
Me: Darling, does that sentence make sense to you?
Me: I can’t understand. “I will go to system with the adge and my sister” macht kein Sinn. (doesn’t make sense)
Me: I will go ______ with _____ and my sister”?
Quinn: the adge is my sister
Me: What does adge mean?
Quinn: my mum
Me: And where is system?
Quinn: in home od my mum
Me: So, you will go to your mum’s house with your sister?
Quinn and I have been inseparable since the first day we met in Second Life two years ago. It’s one of those relationships that thrives in this space but might never have a chance in the outside world. We live on different continents and have different native languages. I’m a morning person and he’s a night owl. He’s a widower almost 20 years older than me. I’m a woman with an unconventional marriage: my husband also has a long-term relationship in SL that has crossed into RL, and we consider his girlfriend and Quinn to be members of our big happy family.
We talk every morning and every night, seven days a week, usually in SL but sometimes on Skype. Neither of us are easy people; we are abrupt and honest, anti-social and not very sentimental. Yet, we fit. He can guess my moods from my typing speed and style. I know his idiosyncrasies and online mannerisms.
About ten days ago, Quinn made a word choice mistake in conversation. He is the sort who obsessively insists on correcting his typos or errors, even when I understand them easily. This mistake sat there. I waited for him to make a correction but none came, so I shrugged and continued the chat. Two or three more mistakes happened over the next few days. This was uncharacteristic enough that I noticed it but didn’t mention it to him. Maybe he was relaxing a bit about his Typonese, which was fine with me.
Then came last Wednesday night. Our conversation began like this:
Me: Hello there darling.
Quinn: hugs you class… kisses you lag :)))
Me: How are you tonight, dear?
Quinn: how are you?
Quinn: i am tonight … kissss
Me: I think the lag might be eating words of yours, or you’re very tired.
For the next forty minutes, he formed no original sentence constructions. My comments were answered with either “mmmmm”, “hugs you close”, “kisssssss”, or “:)))))”. No matter what I said. When I began to get irritated and said I didn’t want to have a one-sided conversation, he replied insistently:
Me: Scroll back and look at our text, dear. You will see you didn’t talk about anything with me tonight.
Quinn: I am sorry
Me: It makes me wonder if you are ok.
Quinn: it is lush
Me: What do you mean by lush?
Quinn hugs you warm
Me: lush is üppig in English
Me sighs, confused and troubled
Me rests against you softly
Quinn: I don’t be suftly
Me: Darling, that’s another word that isn’t a word. Are you sure you are ok?? Really, I am worried.
Quinn hugs you warm
Me: :((((( Honestly very concerned
Quinn went to bed shortly after that. I went to the web and researched aphasia.
Quinn lives alone and usually works alone, as well. We’re both introverts. In this case, that introversion and isolation meant that nobody was in a position to observe his change except me. I’ve done enough pop science reading to know that communication loss often accompanies a stroke; thank you Oliver Sacks. The resulting impairment can be permanent, it might improve with time, and it might even resolve to near normality again. After a lot of reading, it seemed to me that Quinn had expressive aphasia: I thought he could understand me but not find the words to reply. I’m not a doctor and I don’t know if I’m right.
The following morning, Quinn’s language was again stilted and filled with misused or nonsense words. I tried switching our conversation into German but he kept replying in his new variation on English. I asked him directly if he thought he might have had a mild stroke, a Schlaganfall. He replied honestly that he didn’t know.
Me: Do you feel that you are having a problem with language?
Having a conversation with him was like talking to a bot. Sometimes the reply made sense, sometimes it seemed to be random. Sometimes, the replies were inappropriate. I told him about a terrible fatal accident and his reply was, “:))) that is good.”
Me: I think you should see a doctor, just in case.
Quinn: that is sun. I should know.
Second Life’s visual environment seems to add so much depth to conversations, but when someone loses his expressive vocabulary, it becomes clear that this 3D virtual world is just a pretty chat room. Poseball and AO animations are not the same as body language. There is no way to mime or draw or point. Even comforting hugs and caresses are emoted in text.
Without seeing Quinn’s conversations before this began, you cannot know how much has been lost. So much. Oh, so much! My heart shatters and tears run down my face every time he responds in gibberish. While other couples might twirl around a fantasy ballroom, we would snuggle and debate the warping of Russian history to support aggression in the Ukraine or argue about the limits of religious freedom versus greater social good. That intelligent, witty, sensitive man is no longer able to reach me through this communication barrier. I assume that he is still the same inside, but I don’t know. I don’t know.
I don’t know if he is suffering.
Since language is the only way we can communicate, it is hard to measure what remains. Has he lost some of his intellectual capability? I asked if it was easier for him to talk in German and he (reasonably) replied that he didn’t know. Of course not; he isn’t aware of his mistakes. I asked if he has had any physical changes but he could not give me a reply that made sense. He is reading and understanding the news and keeping to our normal schedule, but I’ve noticed that he doesn’t read upward in our chats anymore. If you chat online, you know how messages sometimes overlap and end up in the wrong order. He no longer notices when that happens. Also, it was always his custom to teleport to a new destination or home, then teleport me to join him. For the first time in years he asked me to go and then send him a teleport offer (“get it and tentain me then” was how he asked, but in context I understood what he meant). I have had to manage all of our teleports since.
Of course, I also had to consider whether Quinn needed emergency help in RL. I live thousands of miles from him, so I couldn’t provide that. Relationships that are primarily online can be tricky; I don’t expect that his friends know about me. “Oh yes, she’s some married American that I’ve spent thousands of hours with in a virtual world, some of them naked,” isn’t the easiest conversation to have. His sister looked at my profile on LinkedIn once, so she must have discovered something about me, but we haven’t talked. Quinn and I are connected on Facebook with our real names. Should I reach out to his sister or other friends/relatives on Facebook?
A nurse friend of mine assured me that if it was a stroke, the damage has already been done. I knew he had plans to see his family soon, so I made the choice not to undermine his independence. However, I was going to do my damnedest to convince him to see a doctor. By Saturday there was enough improvement that we could discuss the problem:
Me: Your language is still very confused.
Quinn: yes… a bit
Me smiles softly
Quinn: it will get better again
Me: I hope so. But I would like you to see a doctor.
Quinn: needs some time
Me: It is not normal health to suddenly lose language skills, dear.
Me: Wednesday and Thursday were very bad. Now, you are maybe at 70% of your language level before. Maybe 75%.
Quinn: 25% is not too bad
Quinn: it will come back again
Me: For me, please see a doctor.
Quinn: it will come back again
Me: You are stubborn.
Quinn: I am not stubborn.
Me: Then, tell me you will see a doctor. 🙂
Quinn: I will go next year
Quinn: next week I hobe so
Me: Next week would be wonderful.
Quinn: I will try.
Quinn: I am not so bad darling
Quinn: only a bittle
Me: You do not see your language mistakes.
Quinn: that is right
We negotiated a little and agreed that when he said something that didn’t make sense, I would politely ask him to explain. I might not get a clarification, but it makes him more aware of the problem. On Sunday the vocabulary problems continued:
Quinn clolgges cloghs
Quinn huggs you knighs
Me smiles softly
Quinn: do you know a nice holyst?
Me: What do you mean by holyst, dear?
Quinn: noce to tuchnisty
Me: You’re using a lot of nonsense words tonight, darling, and I can’t understand you.
Quinn: ummm….. a place to blace
We went to a pretty place where we could cuddle together, but some poses were strange. Or, as Quinn put it, “others are loosh dirence.” Intimacy, physical or emotional, is almost impossible now. We used to be able to intuit each other’s feelings from language and pacing and emotes. I am not sure how much he understands. Through his limited vocabulary, he seems sweet and caring but not as sharp-witted as he used to be. I use simplified and comforting language but try not to talk down to him. What can I do but be loving and supportive and hope for the best?
Quinn’s condition is taking a toll on others. I alternate between almost sleepless nights and those where I collapse insensate for hours. I’m exhausted. My husband does his best to be comforting and in turn, his girlfriend soothes him as my sadness spreads like spilled ink. I’m writing this to stop the story from bashing around inside my brain. Maybe it will touch someone else, but most of all, maybe I can find calm and rest.
This isn’t fiction or history so there’s no neat conclusion. I’m writing this on Monday morning. Our schedules didn’t align today, but Quinn sent email wishing me “a tendy day”. I’ll do my best to have a tendy day indeed.