By Siobhan Roca Payne
TW: Mention of mental illness, ED, self harm
When we talk about being mentally ill on social media, we’re talking about a lot of things. We’re talking about how we want our sadness / anxiety / trauma to look. How we want to dress it up to help other people understand it and by association, understand us. We’re talking about social media breakdowns, airing out our pain and suffering to every single acquaintance, friend, and extended family member we have.
More than 450 million people suffer from some sort of mental illness worldwide. Of course, this is a number that represents those who have been diagnosed, who have a mental illness prevalent enough to show up in a census. It doesn’t count people who live in countries with no mental health policies or programs who can’t access treatment or tell their stories to therapists, so it’s easier to post about it on Tumblr.
It doesn’t count people who don’t realize that mental illness is a part of their brain chemistry, their every day experience. It doesn’t count people who know that something is wrong, but don’t want to access treatment. I can think of quite a few people I know who aren’t diagnosed or open about suffering from mental health issues, but are clearly going through something. I can tell by what they post. It’s unnerving.
There is a common image of mental illness that is shown to the general population through Buzzfeed videos and widely shared viral posts, a composite that is paraded to try and educate people who think they’ve never felt like this. It exists to show them what it looks like, so they can help the people around them who are hurting.
“It’s like this,” it says. “Imagine a thin white woman. Her hair is a little dirty, and she’s wearing rumpled clothes that are maybe a little loose. She’s laying in her bed, looking up at the ceiling, and there are darkish circles under her eyes. If you were to ask her how she was feeling, she would say—‘I’m tired. I’m tired all the time, but I’m still sleeping too much. I can’t get out of bed, and I don’t want to do the things I usually enjoy. I’m quiet in class, or at work. I feel really sad, all the time, and I don’t know why.’ Now, after talking about how she feels, she bursts into tears and cries into her pillow, her body curling up into a fetal position, communicating: helplessness, fatigue, and fear. She is depressed. That is what it looks like.”
We show this arguably powerful composite image of ourselves to those outliers of mental illness because it's easy, because it's represented in the media, because it’s always better to simplify complex issues if you’re going for basic understanding. It’s logical in its simplicity. `
It’s also dishonest.
While I’m sure that image of mental illness really does exist somewhere, it’s genuinely hurtful to make such sweeping generalizations of such a personal experience. Mental illness manifests differently in all of us, whether we are diagnosed or not.
I feel my depression in my hands most of the time—my hands are what I need to write, to touch my partner, to do my makeup and take care of my body. When I get particularly bad, my hands don’t work. They don’t want to do any of those things I need to do to be myself.
Most of all, they really, really don’t want to write. They feel heavy and clunky, more like prosthetics than the able hands that I am lucky enough to have. This is a much more devastating part of my illnesses than not being able to get out of bed, or being tired—I’m used to that.
I’ve been depressed—probably—my entire life. It’s because of genetics, it’s because of circumstance, it’s because of how my mind processes emotions, interpersonal relationships, and self worth/esteem. It doesn’t matter why. What matters is how I cope. What matters is how much my illnesses stop me from doing the things I need to do. What matters is how seriously I take myself when I say “I want to die.”
It’s silly to think about, but when I am compiling my composite image of my own mental illness, when I decide what aspects of my treatments (or lack thereof) to share with the wider world, it comes with the additional stress of trying to cultivate an image, a brand, a career. I have to think twice before posting, because of my employment affiliations. I have to think twice before posting, because if my online presence is off-putting, magazines won’t want to publish me.
This complicates things, particularly because social media validation is one of my only sources of self worth and self esteem.
I could make a long-winded Facebook post about my recovery, about how I’m getting better, about how I am beating my illnesses.
(Author’s Note: these sorts of posts, from anybody, are usually bullshit. Well-intentioned, but still bullshit.)
To someone reading, that could sound like I’ve done something really amazing with myself, like I’ve officially stopped binge eating forever, or that I threw away my self harm tools, or that I flushed my prescription meds down the drain and took up holistic medicine and meditation.
In reality, all that could mean is that I actually dragged myself to therapy today, or that today I was able to say, loud and clear, “I have an eating disorder,” or that I washed and dried the dishes. Those things are all herculean tasks for me, requiring a lot of strenuous use of coping mechanisms and my beloved prescription medication.
We do what we need to do to get by. Some people need to portray their mental illness always through the lens of recovery, of improvement, of a far off, golden “someday.” Other people choose to live within the harsher and uglier realities, posting at length about their trauma, their poor decisions, and how jaded they are with themselves and everyone else. Some people choose to say nothing at all.
Hey. Existing is difficult. We all get through it in different ways.
I cope with the validation I receive on social media, in the form of likes, shares, favorites, retweets, reblogs, comments, follows, and whatever else they’re calling it now.
One of those things we don’t really talk about when we talk about mental illness is that living with all of this pain can often sap your personal reserves of not only energy, but also self esteem. It’s hard to love yourself when your brain is constantly telling you that you’re so worthless and that you should be dead. It’s hard to say, “I look pretty today,” when the image you see in the mirror is constantly distorting.
But likes on social media are essentially temporary hits of self esteem. It’s another human being saying:
“Yes. I like this, and in this moment, I can see you, I am acknowledging you, and validating your existence.”
Or, even better: “I feel this way, too.”
That sentiment is meaningful. When you struggle every day with the validity of your existence, your place in the world, and whether or not it’s worth it to wake up tomorrow, you’ll take anything that makes you feel better.
I don’t have a real following on the Internet. I don’t even have a modest following on the Internet. It’s mostly just people I know in real life who aren’t immediately put off by nihilism, constant swearing, and self-indulgent wonderings on various pop culture happenings. However, there’s also some people who aren’t afraid to tell me they feel the same way, which is a gift beyond all comprehension.
The people who follow me see me. They’re accepting me into their Internet world, whatever that means to them. And I can point to that and say, “Why, yes. I do exist.”