Social media isn’t very healthy for people who suffer from depression.
It’s a minefield of platitudes and rah-rah wrapped in generalizations and self-help wisdom, of superficial relationships that are given the illusion of intimacy by heightened and frequent communication that feels personal, accessible, and real. It’s rife with opportunism and insecurity, the scrabblings of people desperate for friendship and approval and each hoping quietly that the person on the other end is as wise and soulful as they appear. Maybe they are our salvation. Maybe they are our escape from the reality that is ourselves. Maybe they really are different.
And those, then, who are already fragile are too often let down by the shiny trappings of what each of us want the world to observe and believe about us. The facades that we erect. The selective picture we draw about our worlds, our lives, our attitudes and our minds. Myself included.
The reason that depressed people don’t seek help on social media is because of the very nature of our online selves.
We are often unkind. Impatient and self-serving. We are more eager to speak than to hear. We are happy to grant a comment or a smiley face…but that’s the extent to which most of us are willing to go for a person we hardly know. We love stories of struggle, so long as we can read the triumph at the end. We see people who hurt as negative, as needy, as seeking attention. All of which may be perfectly, tragically true.
How many of us have bought a plane tickets before we were asked so that we could be there for a friend who was in obvious distress? Sat awake on the floor of a Facebook friend to be sure they didn’t take all the pills or harm themselves with their razor in the night? Called the parents or the spouse of a stranger we’re familiar with on Twitter because we knew they needed help but didn’t know how to help them ourselves? Watched someone’s string of updates on Reddit somewhere and realized that somehow, we needed to get to them and soon?
The rarity of that is as much about us as it is about the willingness of those affected to ask for help.
We all want to believe we’re the savior, the hero. The one who was there when no one else was. That the connectivity of social media can be our salvation rather than our alienation. The thing that no one tells you is that being The Hero comes with a very real price.
To help someone – well and truly and when they need it most – may mean betraying a deep confidence. It often does, in fact. It means interfering where you’ve never been invited and probably don’t belong. Stepping over countless unwritten lines and betraying even more social contracts in order to “out” someone as hurt, troubled, in danger. and to risk being dreadfully wrong.
Do any of those things and you won’t likely get a “thank you”, or flowers, or a glowing blog post detailing how you saved someone’s life. You might even find yourself having to explain your actions, a fine line between reaching out in someone’s time of need and stalking them in their time of vulnerability. Gratitude and understanding on behalf of the person who is ill is likely long in coming, because they themselves don’t understand – or have perspective – on what’s happening to them. That’s why they don’t ask.
Depressive people hide their illness for many reasons.
For one, these illnesses are terribly misunderstood. People shy away from them as though they’re contagious, as though “mental” illness is even more catching than something like herpes or cancer or scabies and that if we associate with those kinds of people it makes us one of them.
We pronounce loudly our wars with everything from MS to arthritis to autism and wear ribbons and ride bikes, but we whisper our struggles with depression to ourselves, hoping no one hears, wishing that it was okay to share but knowing that “okay” still means that someone is looking at us like a freak, looking at our tattoos and our piercings and thinking how suitable they are for our angst, looking at our children and tsk-tsking that they should have to grow up with a parent who is so “troubled”.
It’s also horribly sensationalized, making it even less a normal and common thing that many reasonable, successful people struggle with and more like the insidious, back alley disease that befalls strung-out addicts chewing their nails and pulling on their hair and needing a shower as much as they need a fix.
When depression is pictured as the affliction of the “person next door”, it must be causal: someone had a death in the family, they just went through trauma or loss, they’re suffering post-pardum depression. It must have a trigger because normal people like that aren’t just depressed for no reason. They have to have a reason. Because otherwise, they have everything to live for. Right? How selfish of them to wallow in so much self-pity.
Social media gives us every possible tool to keep up these assumptions.
These platforms are superficial. Fleeting. Forgettable. Incidental to our daily lives. They’re used to show the world what we want them to see, because both the extremes and the mundane of everyday life aren’t attractive or interesting or the stuff that people retweet. They are driven by attention deficit and fueled by sparks of life and reality seasoned with a good dose of Photoshop. And we love them.
There are exceptions. I’ve met some of the most enduringly important people in my life in the last two or three years. But social media wasn’t the cause, it was the catalyst. Those relationships wouldn’t have survived without the tethers in reality (and many who started that way haven’t made the cut for the long term, for exactly that reason).
I also know that avenues like blogging have helped countless people find a way to talk about their depression or their bi-polar disorder or their anxiety and find lots of supportive, wonderful people who make them feel less alone and less like they’re struggling upstream in an invisible current. They’re there, and they’re wonderful. Then you read the comments sometimes, and you wonder just why in the hell they bother.
This all sounds like a lot of downers, but I’ve been thinking heavily about this as I prepare a very personal talk about my own journeys with depression and anxiety throughout my adult life. And as much as social media has enriched me in some ways, I feel like the responsible thing to do is also understand where it can be a deceiving set of pitfalls, expectations, disappointments and exposure for people who are suffering, who are fragile, and who are afraid. To talk about those things. To understand how communication both fuels understanding, and how it fuels cruelty and intolerance.
The same raw cross-section of humanity that is the internet can both lift someone up, and do them horrendous damage.
I’ve kicked this personal blog around for several years now, posting once in a while when I feel like it and using it more like a personal journal than anything else. But I’ve decided that just isn’t enough for me anymore. This domain will stay personal, but we’ll establish a new blog with this name, Inaccurate Reality. I named it that many years ago, probably not really figuring that anyone would ever “get” what it meant, or why.
I’d like Inaccurate Reality to become my platform to discuss things like depression, anxiety, mental health, and to invite other people to share their stories and struggles. I suppose I realize the irony in that, this being “social media” and all.
But if nothing else, these technologies are by nature agnostic, and are instead shaped by the humans behind them. Our realities are often so inaccurate, so warped and distorted by the lenses we choose to look through and to see.
I have to believe I can do something positive with the voice I have, and give other people a platform where they don’t have to tell the shiny story, where there doesn’t always have to be a happy ending, where they can struggle and rage and show that life with these illnesses is anything but 140 perfectly manicured characters of wisdom and acceptance.
Mental illness is messy. And that’s a side of it that I think more of us need to know and understand — and be willing to see.
The talk I spoke of will be posted here after I give it on November 2, 2012 at TEDXPeachtree. I’m still writing it. For all of our sakes, I hope to hell it doesn’t suck. And I hope it helps more than a few people.
In the meantime, if you’d like to share your story, questions, experiences or thoughts about depression, anxiety, or other types of mental illness here on Inaccurate Reality, email me and let me know. I’d love to help give your perspective and world a voice, if you’re willing.
To all those who have struggled, nearly lost, won, and still battle these demons, fight on.
To those who have lost, we fight for you.