Considering that I am a stay-at-home-mother and currently unable to work because of my depression, it is probably, therefore, unsurprising that I spend an awful lot of time online, and most of it is in some form of communication with others. After all, whilst I’m at home with a toddler all day, I do need more stimulating topics of conversation than what the Octonauts are currently doing, or the contents of a nappy. But this dependence on the internet for social interaction actually began 2 years BC (Before Child). I fell hard into the worst depression of my life and had to stop work before I did something stupid, or scarily permanent. I went from a workforce of around 30 people, with constant interaction and never, ever being alone, even in the loos, to spending most of the day totally isolated in my house. I was alone for great empty swathes of the day, wrapped in the silence of my condition, the lack of speech emphasising how lonely I really was. I didn’t speak out loud to myself, although a lack of internet would have probably led to that! I was trapped in my own mind.
I joined the social media revolution very late – as a generation X-er rather than a millennial, I grew up with only the landline or ‘snail mail’ as a way of contacting my friends. Email arrived whilst I was in university and broadband speeds were low until the mid noughties. I finally joined facebook in 2008, missing out on the myspace fad entirely. Since 2012 I have joined 3 different support forums, two of which I am still on daily. I spend at least an hour (cumulatively) on facebook every day, managing 2 other pages besides my own personal feed. I have a youtube account and I recently joined Instagram and now, here I am blogging as well. And then there’s emails, phone calls, texts… it’s a wonder I have any time left to be a mum, wife and friend ‘IRL’! I keep forgetting my Dad doesn’t understand forum abbreviations and which people I know from where. But I never feel alone.
This is obviously the main ‘pro’ for having a social life online, as long as it is not in exclusion to actual life. It may seem so important and immediate, but it’s really a carefully crafted façade, designed to present ourselves to the world in the best possible light. So I’ll begin with the reigning king of social media – facebook! The pros and cons of facebook as a platform have been well documented, but I’ll try and explain them from the filter of depression, starting with the idea that facebook is an easy way to keep people updated about your life. Simply say how you are or what you’ve been doing that day; maybe add some pictures or comment on world events. Hmmm. But what if you’re having an Impossible Day?
What if the only thing you want to say is “God, I wish today was over” or “I’ve just spent the entire day crying because I can’t find the energy to go to the shop to get food.” Nobody wants to read those sorts of posts because they tend to make them feel bad too, or helpless to make things better and guilty that that’s the case. Oh dear, they’re having a really bad day, but I can’t do anything about it so I won’t reply… I hope they’re ok… So I end up not posting anything about how I feel on impossible days because I don’t want to make others feel bad, further isolating myself and hiding my problems and therefore not getting any support. Also it opens up the possibility of getting a well-meant reply asking what’s wrong and it can be very difficult to answer that question. It all boils down to an equation:
Ability to reply = [ (available energy + need for support – willingness to open up) Social anxiety] / severity of depression
Sometimes you simply can’t formulate a reply or even explain the reason why you feel the way you do even if you could respond. Nothing is ‘wrong’ except the chemicals in your brain, so how can you explain that without seeming snappish.
My suggestion to those who might see those types of posts is two-fold. If they are a close or ‘best’ friend then go round and see them face to face. Let them know you’re coming first and expect to be confronted with a mess. Offer to make a drink / feed the cat / go to the shop for them. Don’t ask what’s wrong! If there is something, they’ll tell you, in their own time. If you’re not a close friend, then a short, sweet show of support is all that’s needed. Send a cyber hug or a seemingly twee platitude – it actually means a lot. It shows that we’ve reached someone and that they care, and that is often enough. Never tell anyone to ‘buck up’ or ‘just get on with it’, you’ll likely be unfriended.
Then there is the well documented phenomenon of facebook envy – the perceived belief that everyone else’s life is better, more interesting, more exciting, more beautiful and more successful than your own. To a depressed person, this isn’t difficult to achieve; it’s pretty much evident every time we wake up in the morning. I find that sometimes it’s just better to stay away altogether. Don’t get taken in by the click-bait of holidays you can’t afford or reunions you didn’t attend because of your illness. Save them for when you’re feeling stronger, if at all. Don’t forget that facebook is a podium for the ego (as a friend recently remarked). Facebook has become less about keeping in contact with people and more about showing every one about the wonderful you. We chose the photos that show us off best, the events that are most interesting within our day, and hide the fact that most of the day was actually spent buried under a pile of paperwork or fixing someone’s bathroom plumbing. Facebook is now more about self promotion than connectivity. Likes mean social approval and we want more, more, more.
Just because you are distanced from people by a screen, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply the original social rules: never discuss politics or religion with friends. a-HA HA HA HA HA!!!! With all social media now awash with everyone’s opinions on everything, I have found out the hard way to just not get involved. This means that you won’t see me change my profile pic with a flag filter to support gay pride. You won’t see me espousing every political thought I happen to agree with, and you won’t see me sharing videos of dead Syrian children on beaches (as horrific as that was) to ‘raise awareness’. Believe me, all my friends would already have been aware anyway and reposting a video is not going to stop it from happening. The continual saturation of FB with causes and politics, often hyper-emotionalised, has left me switching off and disengaging. Then I start worrying that it makes me seem uncaring or that I don’t agree, when in reality, I just can’t cope with the added negativity. And there’s always the danger of Facebook becoming Fightbook. That barrier of the screen means we can say things we might not dare to face-to-face and written words can always be misconstrued, emotions becoming lost with the lack of inflection. I almost lost a good friend during the 2015 general election when we found ourselves on opposing ‘sides’. Arguments got increasingly personal, dragging dirty laundry out into the open. Thankfully we were able to get past it and are still friends. I learnt my lesson and applied it to the recent referendum, letting other scrap it out whilst I kept well back, keeping my friendships and sanity intact.
My final word of advice is a small thing, directed at other depressed people. Whilst it’s important to keep awareness of mental health issues high, please don’t flood your feed with quotes and pictures throughout the day. It screams neediness and attention seeking and ends up diluting the required effect. (If you are looking for a particular bookstall in the market, it’s much easier to see if it’s not surrounded by other bookstalls!) One well placed and relevant meme has far more impact than 10 general ones in a row.
Therefore, my summarised guide to surviving facebook:
For Depressed People
- If you can, avoid vague, passive-aggressive ‘depressed’ posts
- Don’t be afraid to ask directly for support
- Know when to stay away and what you’re capable of dealing with at any one time
- Arguments are exhausting and you may not have the mental strength; keeping opinions to oneself is sometimes safer and wiser
- Try not to be pressured or emotionally blackmailed by the ’cause-of-the-day’, keep your focus on you until you’re stronger
For Friends of Depressed People
- A simple acknowledgement of a post is often better than a well meant question.
- Don’t be surprised if people disappear for a while – they’ll be back when they’re ready
- Don’t pressure people to tell you what’s wrong ‘in the open’. PMs or face-to-face is always better for those conversations
- If you’re really worried about someone, then go round and see them personally. You never know, your help or intervention could make all the difference to someone in need.