Wanting to partake in the act of being alive doesn't come naturally for a depressive like me. Waking up is a chore that feels impossible to complete. My eyelids refuse to open all the way, as if my body were designed only for lethargy, sleep, and eventual death. I fantasize about actually waking up one morning excited about (or at the very least OK with) starting my day.
A day where I make it outside before the sun sets is a good day.
The thing is: I don't want to fucking talk about it. The idea of words exiting my mouth coherently, of having a conversation with another person seems futile. Instead, a shrill whisper bounces around my head: "Why can't you get up? Why are you so lazy? How did you ever do anything at all?"
An IRL interaction is too much. I can barely leave my bed. So I do something that doesn't require the same effort. I tweet. If I tweet, I tell myself, at least I'm writing something. I narrate what's going on with me. I turn the gross inertia of mental illness into a relatable nugget of wisdom, translate my eternal internal chaos into something clean, concise, 140 characters.
I didn't talk about it for a really long time. I didn't say a damn thing, aloud or online. I started to have severe suicidal ideation around age 10. I was bullied really badly, and while those suicidal thoughts feel intrinsic, in a sense, to my psychology, the bullying exacerbated them. I remember researching summer camps and afterschool programs that I could sign up for so I'd have a reason to live. I'd tell myself, "Make it to summer camp. And if you have a really bad time, then you can kill yourself."
I kept all this to myself. I worried that talking about my chronic suicidal ideation would scare my loved ones, but moreover I wasn't sure if what I was experiencing was normal or not. I assumed always wanting to die was part of the human experience. It wasn't until I was 18 and had a conversation with my sister where she expressed her fear of death and I got the impression that she really wanted to be alive that I realized those unrelenting voices in my head were not normal.
LIVE-TWEETING A BREAKDOWN
Discovering drugs around age 15 changed everything for me. I did them as much as I could, and I felt cool and grown up doing so. I'd buy Adderall to focus in school, and I used alcohol, coke, and the occasional painkiller on the weekends. Anything else was a special-occasion thing. Retrospectively, I was self-medicating. Adderall helped with my yet-to-be diagnosed major depression and ADHD, and the downers quelled my yet-to-be diagnosed anxiety disorder.
College only made things worse because I had the freedom to do as many drugs as I wanted. At age 19, after a rough semester where I emptied my savings account on bottles and bottles of Adderall, I finally sought help. I went to my college therapist and psychiatrist, and I told my family I was not well and was going to try taking antidepressants. There is a long journey between getting diagnosed and getting healthy; in fact, I'm still not there. But getting diagnosed legitimized my mental illness for me. Before, I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Afterward, I realized mental illness is a disease and it's not my fault.
After I was diagnosed, I started posting about my depression on social media, effectively live-tweeting the mental breakdown I had during my last two years of college. I was aware of how damaging my mental illness was, but it also made me feel special. It's easy to glamorize mental health issues, and being a broken, fucked-up girl seemed cool to me.
My social media presence circa 2013 — along with my increasingly apparent struggles with addiction, depression, and insane partying — caused incredible strife between my family and me.They felt my posts were embarrassing. I reacted defiantly, posting crazier and crazier content, spending even more time online. The people who like my posts, I surmised, appreciate the real me. Through the safety of Facebook chat, I found old acquaintances and new friends to commiserate with, to talk drugs and partying, who believed in the glamour of a breakdown.
My friends had mixed reactions to what I was doing online: Some thought it was sort of cool and funny, but they also thought it was over the top, so they kept their distance. Others were into it because they saw me going to cool clubs, and they wanted in. Some told me it was crazy and were especially concerned because I participated in a project with an older male performance artist who posted nude photos of me online.
Some friends tried to make me see the permanence of what I was doing and would say things like, "Aren't you worried about getting a job?" I'd retort, "I'd never want to work at a place that would care about that type of stuff." (Potentially the most 19-year-old sentence of all time). I was aware everything you post on the internet exists in one form or another, forever; I just didn't care. The posting was a form of self-harm. The posting made everything worse.
Around the time I graduated college, I began to feel regret about my internet presence, in part because I finally recognized that having unflattering Google results could destroy my chances of getting a good job, but also because I felt calmer. I no longer had the desire to manically post in the midst of a meltdown. A chronic oversharer, I began trying to figure out what feels good to confess to the world and what I want to keep to myself.
According to Cate Desjardins, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist, this feeling is not uncommon, and some of her patients experience "sharing regret": "They generally find that the idea that they had shared such personal information with a wide range of people felt really vulnerable in an unsafe way."
Scrolling back through my 2013 posts, I began to sweat with shame, my shoulders tensed and my stomach heavy with that familiar feeling of self-loathing. My first thought: I was gross in 2013. Remembering my therapist's advice, to exhibit compassion for my former self, I tried to reconfigure my thinking: I was in so much pain in 2013.
I had also cut back on my drug use and was done with my partying phase. (God bless.) I deleted and untagged all scandalous photos from that era, deleted my Twitter account, made my Instagram private. I have a big personality, and it's magnified the most online. Upon graduating, I aimed to be as small as possible.
But I'm not small. And moreover, I like social media and I always have. When I wasn't publicly breaking down, I'd post jokes and photos, have fun conversations with strangers and make memes. So I made a new Twitter account in August 2014, had almost no followers, and rarely posted. That September, I went on a two-month trip alone to Europe, impulsively going off my meds beforehand, and felt next-level depressed throughout the whole trip. I tweeted maybe three bad jokes throughout the trip, never mentioning my depression.
I stopped laying low on Twitter when I started writing professionally and discovered that cultivating an online presence is a big part of the job. Even though I wasn't shy when it came to writing essays about my struggles with mental illness, I didn't post much about it on social media. I was, to an extent, afraid of repeating my past mistakes. But I also wasn't tweeting much about it because I wasn't in an intensely depressive period.
In December 2015, a writer named Sammy Nickalls created the hashtag #TalkingAboutIt when she was at an all-time low. Crippled with anxiety and unable to get out of bed, she spent an inordinate amount of time on Twitter. Scrolling through her feed often made her feel worse. "I saw hundreds of people accomplishing, writing, doing amazing things," she wrote to me an email. "And I wasn't even able to get up."
After seeing a friend tweet about having a cold, Sammy was inspired to tweet about her mental health problems. "It suddenly hit me," she explained. "Why is it OK for her to open up about her physical health, but I feel so terrified to tell any of my loved ones, let alone all of Twitter, about my anxiety?" And thus, #TalkingAboutIt was born. Hundreds of people have used the hashtag to discuss their mental health issues, their tweets reaching over 500,000 people.
I was in a similar position last December. I was a full-time freelance writer, which meant I had no reason to get out of bed since I worked from home. My depression made me so lethargic, I had trouble meeting my deadlines or doing much of anything at all. I would find myself feeling half-dead, glued to my bed, my eyes glazing over as I infinitely refreshed my Twitter feed. I don't remember when Sammy and I had followed each other — I follow mostly other writers and comedians on Twitter — but shortly after she posted her first #TalkingAboutIt tweet, I came across it in my feed and instantly thought, This is something I need to do.
It wasn't the same as when I posted about my mental illness in 2013. Back then, I was displaying my symptoms to the world and sometimes commenting on them. This time, I tried to restrict myself to only making commentary. This time, posting about my depression made me feel less alone. The more #TalkingAboutIt tweets I would post, the more people I would find with similar experiences.
It felt good to get a positive response when I tweeted about how I was going grocery shopping after being too depressed and anxious to do so for a month. The people who responded got it, understood that the simplest tasks can be impossible to complete when you're depressed.
Moreover, #TalkingAboutIt has spawned a small community that transcends Twitter. After I corresponded about medication and mental illness with some other New York-based writers who used the hashtag, we became friends IRL.
"Posting online at the height of emotional vulnerability or crisis will more likely than not give them the wrong answers and wrong type of support that they need," Jaime Gleicher, a licensed social worker and therapist, explains about people who struggle with mental illness. "Posting their experiences afterward to connect, and find community and support in their struggles can be positive and liberating."
This is not to say I now exclusively post measured and wise things about my mental health. I'm human and I'm learning. In January, I was incredibly depressed and going through a breakup, and I ended up tweeting some personal things about the breakup and minor breakdown I was having as a result of that.
I now feel that sharing regret, not only because it was disrespectful to my ex, but because it showed me at my most raw and vulnerable. I learned an important lesson then, which is that I am still capable of falling back into bad habits, even though I'm not the same person I was in 2013.
"The best advice I can give to my clients is to think it through before posting anything," Gleicher tells me. That's something I'm working on.
Posting about my mental illness doesn't solve any of my problems, nor is it a replacement for medication and therapy. But I've found it can soothe me and act as a release; it's nice to get that empathy, to feel like you are part of a community of people who get you. Tweeting about my depression allows me to better understand and own my mental illness as something that's a part of who I am. I can't necessarily control my depression, but I can work through the ways in which it affects me through writing, tweeting, and connecting with others who have similar experiences.
One thing I've learned about myself through communicating with other people about mental illness is that when I'm at my lowest lows, engaging with someone, anyone, makes me feel immediately better. Just talking gets me out of the miserable, lonely prison of depression. On those days when I can't even leave my bed, Twitter puts me in touch with the world.
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