Tweeting From Inside The Bell Jar
Grappling with social media’s dual nature as both an outlet and a trigger for depression.
Trigger warning: Discussion of self-harm and suicide
I’m Andrea. I’m 23. And for the past 12 years, I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety.
In August 2013, I began to take 50mg of Zoloft a day. But before I started taking meds, I had no formal way to tend to my mental illness, and was unable to go to therapy for a number of reasons — the biggest one being the stigma of being clinically diagnosed with depression.
So for years I had no therapy. I had no meds. What did I have?
I had my writing. I had my Marilyn Manson CD. And, when I created my Facebook profile in 2007, I had social media.
Social Media As Catharsis
CC-BY Nomadic Lass, filtered.
It sounds corny. It sounds emo. But laugh all you might, Facebook gave me the space to vent. It was a space where I could post angsty Slipknot and Korn song lyrics when I felt the urge to cut myself. Those lyrics were the only way I could hint at the cognitive dissonance I felt in both loving parts of my life and wanting to end it. It was a space where I could gripe about my mother, my father, their overprotectiveness. A space where I could write how “blah” I was feeling without having to be eloquent about it.
What mattered was that I could see my words glare back at me from the walls of cyberspace. And the fact they were there, the fact that they existed, was validation alone that these were my feelings, and suicidal or harmful as they were, it was okay for them to exist. It was the closest thing I had to therapy.
In February 2011, I created my Twitter. I didn’t use it regularly, until around the time that #NotYourAsianSidekick went viral and I began interacting with Twitter users online who cared for social justice and wanted to destroy systems of inequality.
That’s when social media really became my outlet for self-care. That is where I found my community of individuals who would help me grapple through the toughest issues I was facing that were impacting my mental health: my love-hate relationship with my body, my sexual orientation, my gender performance, the shame I used to feel when I checked off “Latino/a” on application forms. While I did post thinkpieces and occasionally vent on Facebook, Twitter was a community like no other.
In the Feb 3 issue of Model View Culture, Suey Park and David J. Leonard penned “In Defense of Twitter Feminism.” The two argued that Twitter was much like a cluster of neighborhoods in which marginalized communities found their homes, calling the social media outlet “one of the few spaces that allows for counternarratives and resistance.”
And they are absolutely right. I can have my daily rants about white supremacy, privilege, homophobia, and microaggressions. I can expect empathy from other individuals who have gone through the same daily struggles or who can at least provide the emotional support — no dissecting, no stigma. I could engage in the counternarratives, many of which included people who were neuroatypical. When I wasn’t tweeting, I was listening — to the thought leaders who made my anxiety over my identity, over my mental illness much less stressful. That solidarity cut through the numbness of my depression.
Even though I’d been 3 months strong on Zoloft by the time that I started finding my community on Twitter, meds had nothing on people who would actually lend an ear.
Social Media As Trigger
CC-BY mkhmarketing, filtered.
Here’s the thing about Twitter: It can be a space for my self-care but I never know when I’ll come across a link, a Tweet, that just sets me off. One time, person I followed tweeted out a graphic picture that was allegedly of two female rape victims who were hung and murdered. No trigger warning, no heads-up, it stumbled across into my timeline.
But then there’s the people who do aim to do harm. Twitter users who tweet about social justice attract trolls with rape or death threats, people who derail, people who whitesplain, who mansplain, who slut-shame, who drop queerphobic and anti-Latino Tweets aimed at me.
The number of times I’ve faced some of the following insults on Twitter:
“You look like the lesbian retarded version of Selena Gomez.”
“Bitch, fuck off.”
As someone who struggles with depression and who has considered suicide multiple times, being told to “go die” strikes a particularly awful nerve with me. While I have to continue telling myself, “They’re just trolls,” “They’re just trying to aggravate you,” there’s always that deeply insecure part inside who wonders if she really does deserve to die.
That’s tough on a person. Especially if they’re suffering from mental illness.
On Facebook, I’ve seen much less abuse than on Twitter, very likely because the social media website is much more private. Still, while there’s very little outright abuse, I can always expect some good old-fashioned “‘splaining” from people: Facebook is a space where the nourishing thinkpieces I share on racism, sexism, sexual assault, and homophobia can, unexpectedly, suddenly became clusterfucks of intellectual debate from people who had the ability to turn the pain of marginalized people’s life experiences into a “mental exercise.” It is a space where, when I posted an article on rape culture with a trigger warning, a former Facebook friend derailed the thread by denouncing the use of the trigger warning and wondering about the “cost-benefits” of it. A space where articles on racism and white privilege may sometimes elicit comments by people wondering about “political correctness” and “hypersensitivity.”
Every time someone gets into a Twitter or Facebook conversation in which it is clear they do not “get it” — as in, they do not understand the shit that people of color, trans people, survivors, or other marginalized groups face day to day — I feel that anxiety creep up again. I feel that tingle in my fingers as I type out comments to respond to people for whom these issues — racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other isms — go way over their heads, trying to keep a panic attack down as I try to respond before they follow up with other devaluing comments. I worry about sounding angry and crazy for what I write, and try to maintain an “academic atmosphere.” But how can you when this shit’s too personal?
What do you do when what was once your space brings trigger after trigger after trigger for your anxiety?
CC-BY nik gaffney, filtered.
My mental illness and my social media presence will always be uniquely intertwined: I go on social media for self-care, for support, and to feel alive from the queer communities of color who exist on there.
At the same time, my depression and social anxiety transforms me into a hypervisible subject on social media.
What does this mean? This means that simply because I publicly decide to make an opinion — more precisely, state a reality — that has to do with racism, with queerphobia, or any of the other issues that impact my life, many people publicly expect me to defend my position to the very end. The onus is on me to explain my decision, to explain why “reverse racism” doesn’t exist, to explain why trigger warnings are necessary, to explain why refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns because “it’s bad grammar!” is transphobic.
The gaze is on me — the gaze of people who do not seem to understand what it’s like to be a person of color, to be queer, to be conflicted over my gender identity, to be harassed, to have flashbacks when people drop a rape joke.
Model View Culture’s own Shanley Kane puts it best in her recent article for the Social Media issue, “Internet Famous”: Visibility As Violence On Social Media:
“My experiences of visibility are also worsened and complicated by mental illness (yes, and that invalidates NOTHING), a history of physical and sexual abuse, and other sites of marginalization and trauma that I choose not to share in public spaces.”
This is not to condemn social media or people with connected lifestyles, or people who have found support over social media. With every social media outlet come trolls and people who do not recognize boundaries, or who simply don’t “get it.” But my personal story as someone who has expressed anti-racist, anti-transphobic, feminist views on twitter and experiences mental illness is a complicated one: hypervisibility on social media has been at odds with my wish for self-care.
No matter how well I try to explain my position, I can always expect to be called a number of things: crazy, fascist, politically correct, hyper-sensitive, shitlib, stupid, uneducated. Crazy, crazy, crazy. When you’re already so hypervisible from being a neuroatypical social media user, gaslighting only makes it worse.
The very thing that helps me feel alive and like I’m a normal person — being a social media maven — is the very thing that makes me feel like I’m not just under a bell jar, but as I’m trapped under it, people keep gawking in.
Only recently have I started to learn how to strike a balance between having a social media presence and performing self-care. Sometimes, you just gotta block. Or unfollow. Or unfriend.
On Twitter, blocking is relatively straightforward — most of the time, it’s someone I never met in real life and who sent me a death threat or made a joke about my ethnicity. It’s much, much harder for them to realize I blocked them. I may live in fear that they’ll doxx me or somehow find out my address and send me terrible things, but at the end of the day, that usually doesn’t happen to me. (Though I know many activists and writers who have faced it).
On Facebook, this shit is personal. Blocking and unfriending people who are also in your social circles is taboo. In about 3 occasions, the people I decided to unfriend or block from my personal profile all dallied in the same social circles I did, and a couple of them passive-aggressively made public note of it.
Tell me I’m against “debate.” Tell me I’m shutting down conversation. Tell me I’m hyper-sensitive. Tell me I’m in an echo chamber. I’m past caring — for years and years, I have put what people think of me above my self-care, and I am done with it. If a person’s “friendly academic conversations” with me are making my anxiety worse and making me feel shitty, I hope they understand it’s not personal.
This isn’t me shutting myself in an echo chamber. This is self-preservation.
But even those aren’t perfect solutions. The only way I have been able to find my niche in social media is in the form of a couple of secret Facebook groups. I won’t go much into them to preserve their privacy, but these are Facebook groups dedicated to supporting women and nonbinary people of color. Facebook groups dedicated to supporting those under the LGBTQA spectrum. And — most uplifting to me of all — Facebook groups dedicated to helping neurodiverse people.
That is where I have found my safe spaces in social media. In carefully delineated spaces with mission statements aiming to provide a safe online environment for marginalized identities — and, most importantly, spaces with people who care about social justice, who understand the way our identities impact our daily lives, put us in the way of oppression, impact our emotions. People who have faced trauma, who understand me when I say “I’m feeling a mood swing,” “I’m having a panic attack,” or “I’m having a flashback.”
It seems to easy at first sight to have these spaces. But it’s not. I’m thankful for them, and for how they have helped me in my times of highest anxiety and lowest doldrums, but they’re not the status quo. I look forward to the day when they can be.