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This story is part of the Internet Time Machine, a collection about life online in the 2010s.
Some people are built to break. Others know how to collect the pieces and rebuild. Often I exist in the space between the two.
Last year, I deleted Facebook. A few weeks ago, I retired my Instagram account. Recently, I deleted my Twitter account, where I had nearly 6,000 followers. Peers are apoplectic because who deletes their social media? Friends wonder how I’ll keep up with them, and more importantly, what will I do without Facebook alerting me of their birthdays? Apparently, these are very important questions. The questions of our time.
A friend tells me I’ve isolated myself—what she doesn’t understand is that the act of removing the social burdens we bear is fucking liberating.
Maybe we should ask ourselves: When did we become lazy in our relationships? When did we start relying on platforms that own our information to do the work of conversation and connection? When did it become abnormal to not have a social media presence?
Honestly, I’ve grown tired of measuring the depth of my connection with the world based on how I was posting carefully curated and edited information about my life. People bemoan the fakeness of social media in pursuit of the real, but they don’t actually want real. More positivity in posts means higher follower counts; people want to follow those who don’t share much negativity, and that’s a fact. Funny how we talk about the plastic nature of social media as if it were a thing removed from us. As if social media were an entity we didn’t actively shape and participate in. As if we aren’t the people perpetuating this false reality—regardless whether we’re conscious of it.
The knowledge that people saw my pain and didn’t seem to care enough to reach out was worse than the actual cause of my anxiety.
Because everyone loves a happy ending, a triumphant comeback story.
I’m good at using language to disguise my wounds. I’ve spent the greater part of 35 years talking about how love and loss are flip sides of the same coin. The line between the two is indecipherable. I published two books about women who lived in a constant state of dressing their wounds. I write essays that are cryptic and poetic and people clap and say, “damn that was pretty,” before they up and leave.
Depression is tricky for someone like me who’s obsessed with control. Once I think I have my illness figured out, it changes form. Often, I exist in the space between being frightened of death and welcoming it. I hate flying on planes and riding in fast cars, but I’ll warm to the weight of 30 or 40 pills in my hand before I slide them back in the bottle.
I saw a post in a hate forum about a friend I know. We are acquaintances who share a certain level of intimacy because we’ve courted death and can speak plainly about it. We trade bad jokes about suicide and laugh because it’s a way of coping, a way of setting down the weight that threatens to swallow us whole. And the people with their anonymous and clever usernames cut into her because of how she handled seeking treatment for her illness. She wasn’t supposed to say anything on social media—she wasn’t supposed to speak at all. She was supposed to disappear and deal with it because that’s how they would have handled it.
People who aren’t sick would have us stay silent if they had their way, and yet out of the other side of their mouths, they’ll prattle on about “breaking the stigma” and wishing that people who suffer would “get the help they need.” Their empathy chorus is hollow and grating because they believe a binary exists—you either want to die or you don’t—and they see only a singular way of handling mental illness. Call the hotlines. Go offline. Seek therapy. Take your meds. Go to yoga. Collect crystals. Go on that juice diet everyone raves about. Or maybe keto? Be humble. Take your medicine. Don’t cry publicly. Don’t humiliate yourself. Tape your mouth shut. Swallow whatever voice you have left. Don’t complain about the people telling you to call the hotlines. Don’t get angry at the people who don’t know what to say, as if any of us should settle for scraps. Don’t let the healthy bear any of the weight of our sickness. Smile and speak in exclamation points! Use appropriate emojis.
Don’t make the healthy feel uncomfortable because god-fucking-forbid.
But here’s the reality: Those of us who are mentally ill are going to act mentally ill because we’re human and we hurt in the worst way. We aren’t going to make the best choices or know how to talk about our illness publicly because we’re human. And we’re forever existing under the burden of being instructed by those who are not ill on how to behave. They keep telling us how to live.
And, oh, do we have to behave.
Not too long ago, I posted a series of stories on my private Instagram. I had just recovered from an anxiety attack, returned from urgent care, and was heavily medicated. I talked about my stress in a series of videos and while hundreds of my “friends” watched them, only three actually reached out. The knowledge that people saw my pain and didn’t seem to care enough to reach out was worse than the actual cause of my anxiety.
A few weeks later, I did the same on Twitter and was immediately ashamed. I knew why I did it—I wanted to open my mouth and scream but it felt as if no sound came out. I didn’t want to die, but the hurt was so palpable and constant. Our bodies are designed to handle only so much pain. What happens with the overflow? Where does the pain go? Are we forced to contain it until we shudder and burst? A few kind friends followed up and I was grateful for their love and friendship. Two reported my posts to Twitter, and I received a form letter about “reaching out” and “getting help” as if people who have depression don’t already know these things. The irony was that I was reaching out, but apparently, my pain was too much for others to witness. That form letter was yet another piece of duct tape affixed to my mouth. Others unfollowed me and didn’t care at all.
I have work to do, but I’ve decided much of it is best done offline.
Friendships are tenuous and their upkeep is hard. I realized that people’s tolerance for anxiety and depression comes with a best-by date.
I’m in a much better place now because I deleted all of my social media and decided to do a lot of work offline. I’m keeping in touch with the people I care about without relying on social media to tell me the goings-on in their lives. Luckily, I don’t need social media for the kind of work I do, with the exception of possibly LinkedIn and my work accounts, all of which I’ll maintain for professional purposes. However, I’m deciding to keep a lot of my personal life offline with the exception of sharing the occasional essay and chatting with my newsletter subscribers.
The act of being vulnerable, laying yourself out, is painful when the collective response is an uncomfortable silence. We all need to be honest with what we tolerate versus what we say we tolerate. Perhaps compassion has its limits. Granted, I have work to do, but I’ve decided much of it is best done offline.
Right now, I’m not in danger. I don’t want to die, but I’ve wanted to not exist. I’ve wanted to fall out of the frame, curl up and recede. I wanted to say those words out loud because my body feels like a container and there’s only so much pain I can take before I burst and break. I want to feel less pain but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m uncapping prescription pills with abandon.
Yet any signs of mental illness and—snap—let’s report those posts so the depressed are greeted by form emails with numbers to call and websites to visit. As if people don’t already fucking know. As if so many of us don’t want to call the numbers just yet, but we just want to be seen and loved and unburdened of our unfathomable sadness. But—snap—let’s set off the five-alarm fires. Snap—let’s treat you like the spectacle you are, the “sick” person. The “crazy” person. Let’s usher out our condescending platitudes and you should reach out if you want help but we’ll shut you down when you reach out because god forbid we feel uncomfortable. God forbid we realize depression is more complicated than Twitter would have us believe.
People with depression and mental illness are not sideshow attractions here for your hair-petting and amusement. If you don’t know how to deal with someone with depression, ask a professional. Open a browser and Google it. Put in some effort.
We’re not here for your condescension. We’re not here to bear the weight of your myopic thinking, platitudes, and binary perception. We are here for your kindness, compassion, and support.
We are here for one simple sentence: I love you, I care about you, and how can I help?
Keep exploring the Internet Time Machine.