Welcome to HTTP’s and Q’s, where we’ll be answering your most pressing Internet etiquette questions—Internet-iquette, if you will. Have a Web-based moral dilemma that plagues you each time you unlock your home screen? Send your problem to Marisa at email@example.com, and it might be answered in the future. Today’s question is actually one that Marisa has been asking herself.
Question: How much should I share on social media about my mental health? Is it TMI to discuss anxiety and depression with my Internet friends?
I couldn’t tell you what I was so sad about on Sept. 3, but I must have felt bad enough to tweet about it.
hello night twitter I am sad plz send cute gif or bad joke— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) September 3, 2015
Right after I posted that, a friend texted just to say “hi! love u.” And in that moment, it felt good to know that I was loved. Sometimes when you’re depressed, you can forget that—even if you have parents who tell you so constantly.
I also got a whole bunch of cat GIFs that night, and one of Homer Simpson. While a two-second animated image of a fluffy kitten rolling around on the ground may not seem like enough to bring you out of a funk, sometimes that’s all it really takes. And I am certain no one would have sent any of these messages had I not opened myself up this way.
As a person with clinically diagnosed anxiety and depression, my moods vacillate like a slow-moving seesaw. I don’t have aggressive swings, but gradual ebbing and flowing periods of happiness and sadness. It’s during these low points that I’ll reach out to close friends and family. But on the Internet, I’ve made an effort to present an image of someone who has it “together.”
I make a living by writing online and I don’t shy away from publicly sharing my thoughts or beliefs about Donald Trump or ridiculous guys I come across on Tinder. But sharing my depression feels different. I’ve waffled over how much I should express these more personal emotions—my anger, disappointment, outrage, and sadness—on social media.
It’s hard enough to admit mental health struggles to yourself, but putting it in print and sharing it with others is even scarier. The Internet is forever—it’s hard putting the toothpaste back in the tube—and strangers can define what your depression means with their own glossary. They can group you in with other people they’ve known like you. They can label you as “sad,” “broken,” and “miserable,” or whatever else they see fit.
The truth is, sometimes I do feel sad. Sometimes I do feel broken. And for far too many days in my 20s, I have felt miserable. If I openly share when I’m ecstatic—like when I get to spend a day with my family at my favorite place (the beach)—why shouldn’t I do the same when I’m in the kind of mood where all I want to do is curl up, watch The West Wing, and wrap myself so tightly in a blanket that I’m impervious to the world’s ills?
The Centers for Disease Control reports that from 2009 to 2012, 7.6 percent of Americans aged 12 and over had depression—defined as moderate to severe depressive symptoms such as irritable mood, loss of interest in usual activities, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, inability to concentrate and difficulty in making decisions and lack of energy. Panic disorder, which I have a mild form of, affects 6 million people in the U.S. These statistics remind me that I am one of so many.
We’ve all watched enough commercials of a woman sitting in her sepia-toned kitchen while children run through fields of flowers to know that depression and anxiety are widespread. But despite the strength in numbers, when it comes down to admitting our own suffering, it can feel like the ultimate vulnerability. So for many years, I perpetuated the illusion that I wasn’t in pain.
March 2013 was a spectacularly shitty month for me: I lost my job on a Friday, only to be dumped by my boyfriend the following Monday. Heartbroken, I reacted proportionally by hibernating at my parents’ house, eventually emerging without two pieces of my identity that I’d had just days before. But I was determined to put on a good show to anyone who might be watching—my ex, my former boss, and whoever else I imagined was expecting me to completely fall apart. With Instagram as my medium, I shared photos of drinks, friends, and celebrations. I would type out exclamation marks with every bit of emotional strength I had.
But the truth is, I felt gutted.
One photo in particular stands out from the many that I posted during that time. Someone else might see me sandwiched between four friends at a sports bar watching a basketball game on a Saturday afternoon. They might even notice that I was having a good hair day. All I can remember when I look at this photo, though, is having to excuse myself before we ordered because I was suddenly slapped with sadness. “I know that look,” one of my friends, who had also just gone through a breakup, told the others when I abruptly bolted from the table. I know it was a really bad day—but social media tells a different story.
Daily Dot reporter Selena Larson aptly summed it up when writing about the flipside of this issue in an essay for The Kernel:
It’s uncomfortable to be vulnerable in front of thousands of people, some I barely know and most who know only one small piece of what makes me whole.
They only know the part of me that I choose to show them. Unlike the small handful of other friends I can turn to when I’m overwhelmed and about to cry, the boatload of people I tell everything else to through Facebook and Twitter posts must remain in the dark.
Pretending to be happy on the Internet is exhausting.
She’s right: It is exhausting trying to keep up the impossible illusion that you are always happy. That’s why I finally decided that I need to try and stop.
I write about the others’ lives, both the good times and the bad: The young woman who very literally gave the finger to Planned Parenthood detractors; the personal trainer who wrote a musical comedy about her Tinder nightmares; the mother who shared a photo of her miracle baby surrounded by months’-worth of in vitro fertilization syringes. It’s these remarkable, true stories that make the Internet a richer and better resource for those looking to learn about the human condition.
Even Larson bravely opened up recently in a revealing and deeply personal post on Medium about struggling with an eating disorder. Recently, I decided that I, too, wanted to open up more, and stop editing parts of myself. I was struggling—I am struggling—and I wanted the Internet, where so much of my life is lives, to know.
what if i just disappeared inside a chunky knit poncho and popped back up in april?— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) November 11, 2015
a cool and not terribly self-destructive activity is to go back and read your old gchats— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) November 5, 2015
Yes, it is possible to be stressed before 8am— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) November 10, 2015
An amazing thing that happens once you lay this particular card on the table on social media: You realize that you’re not the only one.
To wit, a few weeks back, when I was feeling particularly low, I saw a tweet from the Washington Post’s Heather Schmelzlen that really stuck with me.
it's important to remember that most of the people you think are Cool On The Internet are as awkward and anxiety-filled IRL as you are— heather schmelzlen (@anchorlines) November 3, 2015
The many retweets, favorites, and replies, like “me x 5,” showed that she’d really struck a chord. And Schmelzlen’s sentiment made me consider the self that I put out there: I realized that I didn’t want to be Cool On The Internet. I wanted to be Me—a real person who is struggling with life and love and all the garbage that comes with it.
I am depressed. I am anxious. But I am not my depression and I am not my anxiety: That has been the hardest lesson to learn. I remind myself that I am a daughter, a friend, a writer, a singer, a romantic, an idealist, a wanderer. We are all so many things at once, and it’s unrealistic to think that the cracks won’t show—particularly when you’re constantly expressing yourself via public platforms like Twitter and Instagram. A melancholy filter or a throwaway adjective could be enough to allow the light to come through those cracks, so why not just bust the whole thing open? I think that’s where I’m at right now.
I may not remember why I was sad on Sept. 3. And something that I passionately tweet about tomorrow will likely be a distant memory by next month. Years from now, I may not remember why I decided to spill my guts on the Internet. But I will remember that it made me feel better—if only for a little while.
Image via MCAD Library/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed