when you can’t be the person the internet wants you to be

Photo Credit: Jacqui Miller

 

I hate the word “trainwreck”. People take comfort in their own moral compass, and in doing so find themselves passing judgment. They think: I’m definitely not like that; I would never do that; How could she be dumb enough to put herself in that situation because I would never. And if you should find yourself in said situation, you might say, I handled it this way, so, in fact, it’s the right way–and why doesn’t she just do that? It’s easy to judge a situation without context, without actually standing in someone else’s life. It’s easy to deliver sideline commentary without actually being in the game. Watching others in varying states of undress gives people a convenient remove, an emotional distance because what they’re viewing is a performance delivered by a stranger, someone they know only slightly, because they’ve been admitted entry into a particular aspect of a someone’s life not realizing that the whole of that life lies behind a curtain. Some of those performances are done for effect (think reality television) and some of them are real and uncomfortable to watch. Instead of practicing empathy, we grab our popcorn; we mouse click, prod, poke fun and shame people into silence. We admonish them for the mess they’ve made and their inability to quietly (and quickly) clean it up.

Nearly a year ago an old coworker of mine sent me a text about a mutual friend. This coworker and I weren’t friends, per se, but we cared enough about this mutual friend to get on the phone and deal with the uncomfortable conversation we were about to have. This former coworker asked if I had noticed our mutual friend’s disturbing rants on social media. I admitted that I hadn’t because I was commuting nearly five hours a day to Princeton, New Jersey for a work project, and by the time I got home I was ready to collapse into bed. While on the phone, I scrolled through our mutual friend’s social feeds and winced. The words were painful to read and I remembered another friend making an offhand joke about this person, about how dramatic this person was–that this person was always kind of a trainwreck. I thought about that flippant comment while on the phone with my former coworker, who wondered aloud what we should do. Would it be okay to ask our mutual friend if something was wrong? Was it our place? Should we say aloud the two words we were thinking: mental illness? And why is it that those two words are ones that are routinely whispered?

Fifteen minutes later I chatted with the mutual friend and asked this person if everything was okay. I could be off-base but I’m concerned about what you’re writing online and I’m here to listen or help, I remember saying. Or not, if that’s what you want too. I ended up connecting the mutual friend to a psychiatrist, and in that moment, I felt ashamed for not standing up to that flippant comment. For saying, maybe instead of rolling your eyes maybe be a friend. Even with the people we think we know, we don’t know the whole of their life–only what they choose to share with us. When I was young I remember kids laughing at someone when they tripped and fell. I never really saw the humor in someone falling as my first inclination was to ask if the person was hurt. Are you okay? But as the years moved on, I programmed myself to laugh, albeit uncomfortably, when someone stumbled. Because I guess it’s easier to ridicule instead of making yourself vulnerable.

It can sometimes feel like everyone on the internet is obsessed with positivity and inspiration and motivation. There are so many graphics and Instagram posts and listacles about how positive energy will change your life, and you have to ignore the haters. The advice claims that you have to believe you’re going to win, you can’t worry about your problems, you need to stop stressing. As though a positive mind set really will make every aspect of your life better and solve your crushing problems. –From Jon Westenberg’s “Blind Positivity Sucks”

Online, you can’t be a trainwreck but you can’t project perfection either–lest you be deemed inauthentic, a “fake”. You can’t be too sad or too happy. You can reveal a little about your personal life but not too much, and know that people like the comeback story rather than watching you wade helplessly through the dark. They want your dark in past tense because no one wants to deal with your present or future tense sadness. They want that storyline to be played out behind the scenes, but they’ll stick around for the post-mortem. Over the past few months, a few friends have reached out to me privately to acknowledge that their sadness has also been shamed into silence–that the internet doesn’t have the patience for unhappiness. This puts me to thinking about what the poet Jenny Zhang wrote:

Darkness is acceptable and even attractive so long as there is a threshold that is not crossed. But most people I know who suffer, suffer 
relentlessly and unendingly no matter what sort of future is proposed (“it’ll get better/it won’t always be this like/you will start to heal/
I know it’s such a cliché but you really will come out of this stronger in the end”). –From “How It Feels”

I’m having the worst year of my life. There, I said it. My mother died, and there was a lot of private drama that circled that event. I made a huge move across the country and although I love Los Angeles and it feels like home, I’m lonely. My father and I fight often–via text, as that’s his preferred method of communication–and the people with whom I used to feel close now seem like strangers. I relapsed, again. I started seeing a psychiatrist after feeling some harrowing feelings of depression and suicide and I had to stop seeing him because I can no longer afford it. I spend six hours a day looking for work and I haven’t landed anything substantial yet. I spend most of my time at home, alone, because sometimes daylight feels unbearable. Every day I worry about losing my home (even though my best friend has generously and kindly offered hers as a temporary salve), and I live on a clock. I have literally enough money to last me until April 1, and then I default on all my debt and lose my apartment, and this reality is one I deal with daily. It’s one I deal with when I go on job interviews and present my best self. When I text friends, who are so amazing and beautiful and kind and they tell me they feel helpless about my situation and ask what they can do and I tell them, in response, you’re doing it. Keep sending me those cat pictures because sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all this sadness. I ask about their day because I care and because it’s a needed and desired distraction. My best friend calls me on her drive home from work and asks me how I’m doing, really doing, and I tell her, and then I ask about her kids, her brother who just got married, and I cry a little when I tell her that I remember when he was a sixteen-year-old kid drinking beers with us when my best friend and I were freshmen in college.

We’re old, we joke constantly–but the joke is not out of regret, it comes from a place of comfort for having endured what we have. Our years.

I spend most of my days oscillating between two faces–the presentable, together one, and the one behind who lives in abject terror. Patiently I wait for the next project or job offer so I can pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with my doctor because I want to get better. I want to get back to this place. I want to stop thinking and start doing.

Why is that in a maelstrom of kindness we fall prey to that one cruel remark? How is it that we’re so easily wounded by an off-hand comment or swipe? A stranger writes and tells me not to talk about anything that’s happened to me this year because future employers will consider me “unstable”. I don’t know how to respond so I don’t. I spent the better part of my life behind a mask, suffocating from it, and if someone can’t respect a person trying to get through a tough time, that someone is human, this is probably not a person with whom I want to work. Friends with whom I thought I was close maintain a safe distance, and part of me wonders if they think this is what I want, perhaps they’re trying to be respectful, but then I think of my other friends who text, Facetime, and come by my home and drag me to the beach and pay for my lunch or donuts because I can’t really eat out anymore. These friends don’t act like a therapist and I don’t expect them to. Sometimes I just want a donut or a cat photo or a friend like my dear Amber who will Facetime me and ask me, no, really, how the fuck are you? And she’ll sit there and listen while I talk about really uncomfortable things and Amber does exactly what I need a friend to do–listen without making me feel ashamed for not snapping out of my sadness.

There are people who don’t like me, who are reveling in the fact that I’m having the worst year of my life, and while I’d like to say that this doesn’t bother me I’d be lying. Because we innately want to be liked by everyone even if this isn’t a reality. I think about a few random comments and I think about others–strangers and friends and casual acquaintances who cloak me with their compassion and kindness, and both disparate experiences made me realize the weight we place on what we hear and experience in the world. I can’t change who I am or what I’ve done, only the way I come to and manage my experiences, moving forward. What’s important for me right now is to surround myself with people who care and give me honest feedback when I need and deserve it simply because they want me to get better, do better, feel better. What matters right now is that I do whatever I can to get better. That I keep moving forward. That I sit in my sadness when I need to and lean on others when the sadness becomes entirely too palpable to bear.

I don’t know how often I will come back to this space, honestly. I don’t have recipes to share and I’m reading books at a slower pace, and I’m not entirely too comfortable documenting, in detail, my journey back because there’s much to be said for doing a lot of work offline. However, I’m really fucking tired of feeling ashamed for going through tragedy, of feeling depressed. I’m tired of managing everyone’s discomfort, their uncomfortable silence and unsolicited feedback. Friends put in the work. If I’m putting in the work to get better and be better, put in the work of learning how to deal with someone going through a tenuous time. Practice empathy and compassion. Don’t laugh when someone falls down because it’s gossip, because it’s what you’ve been conditioned to do. It’s easy to be an asshole. It’s hard to be patient and kind.

You’re either on or off my bus.

 


 

On an unrelated note, I’m proud to share a new short story published in QuarterlyWest

33 thoughts on “when you can’t be the person the internet wants you to be

  1. hang in there, things will take a turn for the better soon. have faith, and hold on to those who care and don’t give a damn for those who don’t. we don’t need that sort of negativity in our lives. I hope you get through soon, the past half year was my worst I felt, I think I’m through it, and so will everyone else, so will you. have faith and don’t give up trying. my condolences about your mom. :/ I may not knw exactly how it feels but I do know the days will go on but the sun will not shine in mine when I lose her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so sorry that you’re having such a hard time. It truly sucks, and I hope things get better and lighter soon. And I hate that you and any of us are made to feel ashamed about what we’re going through. You’ve been dealing with so much loss. That’s nothing to be ashamed about. I appreciate your honesty in writing about it.

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  3. I’m so sorry to hear you are going through this. It must be horribly difficult. As a mental illness sufferer myself, I promise you that this state is temporary, as permanent as it may feel. Don’t fee guilty about taking time to take care of yourself. Do what you have to do and don’t bother with what other people think. I’m on your bus.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I only say this because in reading your byline I recognise so many of the characteristics in my own life and writing your mind sounds like mine. New thing for me….. Lately I figured I think too much, always have, didn’t used to be a problem but now it seems it is. The corollary is that I don’t feel enough and maybe this imbalance is what causes me to think even more. Writing helps but its addictive and satisfies my desire to be doing something after a lifetime of busyness but it’s a kind of thinking too. So I sat down and thought about why I think so much more than I did and worked out that now I have the time and that the time for thought is uppermost because I need to do something positive with what I’ve learned before the lights go out. My problem with thinking too much is that when I meet people, I’m very isolated, I talk too much too. So the crux my goal is finding some way to relax that does not involve goals, expending energy, talking with people. So Meditation here I come.

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  5. I am so glad you posted this. I have missed your presence. You have been in my thoughts a lot since January – even though I only know you through this blog and I am a 50 year old woman living on the other side of the world, and we will probably never meet. I want to say it will get better – I don’t know that. I want to say your mental health will be on an improving trajectory – I don’t know that either. I can sense that you are desperate to get well – for this awful time to be over, and I really know what that is like. All I can say is that I am hoping that with good treatment and support you get well, and that work is forthcoming. And I really hope that you can gather around you people who don’t give a toss if you sit on their couch for four hours saying nothing and doing nothing; that will keep including you in their lives even though you feel like you have nothing to offer and can’t bear being with people most of the time; and that you see and experience small, hopeful moments more and more. best wishes, margaret

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Felicia — You are good, and honest, and strong. And you’re on a tough fucking road, but I’m sending love and respect your way hoping that you’ll feel it. Even if in the tiniest way.
    Hang tight and take care. Love, Jane

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m so sorry to hear of your mothers passing. I’ve read about her in your book and when you took the hiatus I thought it was your mom. I pray for peace and strength and that soon all the little pieces fall back together and you can go out and enjoy California as much as you were when you first moved there. I hope that soon you’re able to land the job you need to pay your bills and continue to move forward. Hug Felix a little tighter.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved reading this! – Someone “daring bravely”, being transparent and honest enough for others to breathe some “OK” into their situations and circumstances that are mirrored here – It’s interesting how many of us feel, fear, giggle at, hope for and dread exactly the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. We want the darkness in past tense … Yes. That’s a good articulation of the pressure society places on us in general (and definitely on the Internet – you’re right).

    I think there’s something sort of terrifying and wonderful about the story in process, though, and the bravery it takes to chronicle it without knowing the ending.

    Thank you for telling your truth. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Like everyone else, I have missed your presence. Though I wish we were physically closer so I could ACTUALLY have a cup of coffee with you and listen to you say all these.

    I believe it’s so easy to judge what others go through without much thought. It is definitely easier to not be a friend and hold accountability to other’s emotions (to afraid to care or be attached to their negativity etc) But when it comes to their turn, they say no one is there to care. Why should people care if you didnt in the first place? The cycle follows.

    If we were to be friends with those who need help after they fall, we could all be very well live happier lives.

    Sending kittie hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for sharing this, for bearing your soul, for being honest which is incredibly refreshing. It proves your bold and strong, even when you don’t feel it. I struggle with a lot of things you shared more often then I feel comfortable admitting and I really related to you while reading. You’re not alone. The thing humans need most is connection, not judgement but the unaware are hard-wired to judge first. I hope things turn around for you simply because you deserve – just by virtue of being you. I could tell you all the stuff people tell me when I’m down, but I won’t. I’ll just tell you that you’re worth everything you desire so don’t stop wanting, asking, yearning. And be kind and compassionate to yourself because everyday living takes courage and can hard. Sending you lots of love!

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  12. Found this post through my mom (reply above). Unlike her, though, I have no compunction about leaving novellas of comments. Sorry in advance for the length.

    This is what I like to call the Lifetime movie effect. We’ve been conditioned to believe that people who *really* want to persevere will manage it. Which means that anyone who doesn’t is simply suffering from a lack of willpower. Perhaps they just want to be miserable. Perhaps they’re malingering for attention.

    I had a life-threatening neurological illness at 19. When I described it to people, their eyes would widen, and inevitably, they’d spit out, “Butyoureallbetterright?” As though my illness affected them in any way.

    Until I realized that it did. A young person person getting sick for no apparent reason is an affront to their sense of security. It reminds them that they’re in as much danger of disease or death as anyone else. Which is why they need us to triumph, to be the spunky cancer kid who gets better and is grateful for life and never talks about how tired and traumatized he/she is. How there’s no immune system left and the kid gets a cold every time someone in a one-mile radius sneezes.

    I guess I’ve been lucky that I present myself to people as someone who’s a depressive with chronic fatigue (a residual of that illness at 19). People know (more or less) what they’re in for, and if they don’t like it, they don’t stick around.

    Maybe that’s why I don’t really get grief from my readers about a bad attitude. The blog is about personal finance, but from the lens of limitations. They’re clear what they’re signing up for when they read me: frank talks about struggles with depression, fatigue and oh yeah, frugality somewhere in and among that.

    I think you’re on the right track. Depression is one of the only diseases that makes us feel ashamed for having it. Well, that and the disease of stupid, callous friends who make offhand remarks. Luckily, both are treatable. (Incidentally, I don’t know if you have looked into it, but your area may have sliding scale therapy. New grads need a certain number of hours before they can practice on their own. I’ve paid as little as $5.)

    As I said, I think you’re on the right track here. You’re at least owning your sadness on here and with some friends. Blogs are our places to vent and think things through in our writing. Well, mine is anyway. Maybe that’s why it’s not terribly profitable.

    I guess what I’m saying is that, much as it may seem otherwise, the Internet doesn’t want you to be anything in particular. It’s a self-imposed idea because depression makes us remember the bad rather than the good. One troll or stupid friend resounds a thousand times louder in your memory than the several supportive friends who take you out for lunch or donuts or who send you cat pictures.

    Plenty of people on the Internet are relieved when someone else admits to pain and sadness because depression makes us feel not just ashamed, but terribly, terribly alone. And the beauty of the Internet is that you can reach out to people you’d never meet (especially when depression makes it hard to leave the house) and find solace or at least people who know what you’re going through.

    For all of that, and my cavalier attitude, remarks do still wound me. But wounds scab or scar over, and they’re a lot tougher thereafter. I’m not telling you to think positively. I’m not an idiot or asshole (most days, anyway).

    So be depressed on here. Let it out, and you’ll find people grateful for the honesty. And perhaps send out a blanket email to friends, especially the ones who stay silent, and explain what you need. “Please don’t give me space. I don’t need more time alone with my sadness. I need cat videos and ones of Trump superimposed on Game of Thrones. I need someone to get me out into the sunshine because I won’t go by myself. I need you to help me when I can’t help myself — and sometimes even I don’t know what that means, but I need you to try. Oh, and I need you to never, ever tell me to think positively or that it’ll all turn out all right in the end.” (I had to send something similar, minus the online videos suggestion, when I became suicidal several years back. I cried out of humiliation as I typed it and I gritted my teeth to hit send. But friends responded and tried harder to give me what I needed.)

    It’s hard and painful and humiliating and scary. But some people are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all. And after the email or however you announce it, the ones who still stay silent or offer platitudes… they’re the first ones that get cut when friend-culling season arrives. Because it’s not you. It’s them.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. When I had a tragedy in my life and suddenly lost my husband and the father to my young child, I experienced depression/ grief shaming. Years later my husband’s best friend from church told me that he didn’t call or offer to help me because I was too sad. I found this out when he wanted to borrow one of my husbands tools. I also had a family member scold me to stop telling her my problems, because it was too upsetting for her to hear it. Although she is constantly telling me her problems. It IS THEM not you.
    Many of these so called friends did not make the cut into my tomorrow. I am stuck with the family member, but realize this person has serious limitations. I am trying to be more empathetic with her shortcomings as a shallow human being.
    Your sadness, grief, and depression are all part of the human empathy PhD program you didn’t know you signed up for. I don’t know when it will get better. But in your writing, I sense your determination. I wish you strength. I wish you peace. I wish you comfort.

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  14. Sorry to hear that you lost your mom and you are having such a hard personal time. I think these are also very cliche words to say as well, but genuinely wishing you the best as you work through this. I am glad you have good friends amongst this, good company who will look after your well being.

    I want to comment on the word “unstable” used to describe your state/experience. This really ties back to the manageable darkness and image we are expected to project. And you’re right, that the public seems to want to see you coming up and out of things, but doesn’t want to see people in the trenches because it’s too much. Or, as I have observed, people are labeled as whiney and moaners. I hate this attitude because it places such a stigma on mental health. It causes a shut down of the dialogue we could be having about managing and overcoming mental illness. “Trainwreck” and “unstable” are two of the most judgmental and not helpful terms anyone could use to describe someone who just, at the end of the day, may need help from their fellow human being.

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  15. When my own mother faced the loss of an eye because of brain cancer, a “friend” of hers said to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been to see your mom. It just hurts too much to see her that way.” I never have forgotten that comment, and have struggled for years to put a label on it. Was it crass, callous, uncaring, selfish or simply an expression of helplessness? How could the friend’s discomfort trump the tragedy my mom was facing? I understand how difficult it was to see my mother “that way.” It hurt me, too. But there was no way I could have turned my back to her suffering. Judgement, and even sympathy, are easy because they require no self investment. Empathy has a cost; it hurts. It’s supposed to. Real friends understand this.

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    1. My god. Yesterday, a good friend of mine shared a very similar situation with me, and quite honestly this speaks more to someone else’s discomfort and how they are unable to quell that in order to be a decent human. I don’t think we’re looking for people to solve our problems but maybe be there with compassion and empathy because one day they may be a similar, uncomfortable place and wouldn’t they want compassion in return?

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  16. The internet can be a cold, ugly place for those of us who struggle. What helps me the most is knowing that we are a much larger number than we appear; many people struggle off-camera or offline than those who are content with life. Feel your feelings, deal with your stuff, and try to remember that those people who spend their lives calling out “trainwrecks” and scolding us for showing our feelings are actually just as lost, confused, and hurt as we are.

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  17. I lost my mom last year and my dad last week. You have my deepest sympathy for your loss. I know it sounds trite, but it’s also the truth. I don’t know you, but I know how enormous the loss of a loved one feels. I do hope things get better.

    When my mom complained that all her friends were dying, I used to say (not sympathetically enough) that it’s the price one pays for not dying. The business of living is damn hard work. I hope you will get to a place where the sunshine feels good again.

    I second the suggestion about finding a therapist who charges on a sliding scale. I was able to find such a person when I lived in LA, and it was tremendously helpful.

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  18. Really why is mental illness the very first thing everyone thinks first?

    I had no clue how much you are going through and I’m hoping that you have not lost your home by now. If you had, the least I can do is ask ‘really how the fuck are you?’

    Good luck!

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