Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

“Wow, uh…you’re very open online.” I still hear this from people every so often.

“Yup,” I say, because I don’t assume it was meant to be a compliment.

And it’s true. On my Facebook–which, by the way, is not public–I’ve posted regularly about depression, anxiety, sexuality, sexual harassment and assault, body image issues, interpersonal problems, and other various struggles, big and small, that make up life. Don’t get me wrong–I also post plenty about food, cute animals, books, and other “appropriate” topics for online discussion, although I’ve noted before that there really is no way to win at social media (including refusing to play at all).

People who don’t know me well probably assume I do it “for attention” (as if there’s anything humans don’t do for some sort of attention, one way or another), or because I’m unaware of social norms (they’re not that different where I come from, trust me), or simply because I have poor impulse control. Actually, I have excellent impulse control. I’m not sure I’ve ever acted on impulse in my entire life, with perhaps the sole exception of snapping at my family members when they get under my skin. I know plenty of people who have destroyed relationships, lost jobs, or gotten hospitalized as a result of their impulses. I get…speaking rudely to someone for badgering me about my weight.

Being open about myself and my life online (and to a certain extent in person) is something I do strategically and intentionally. I have a number of goals that I can accomplish with openness (or, as I’ll shortly reframe it, vulnerability), and so far I think it’s worked out well for me.

A lot of the good things about my life right now–and, yes, some of the bad–can be traced back to a decision I made about five and a half years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had recently been diagnosed with depression and started medication, which was working out great and had me feeling like myself for the first time in years. (Yeah, there were some horrible relapses up ahead, but all the same.)

I wrote a very candid note on Facebook–later a blog post–about my experience and how diagnosis and treatment had helped me. At the time, I did not know anyone else who was diagnosed with a mental illness–not because nobody was, but because nobody had told me so, let alone posted about it publicly online. While I obviously knew on some level that I wasn’t “the only one,” it felt that way. I certainly didn’t think it would be a relevant topic for my friends. Mental illness was something experienced by Other People and by weird, alien me, not by any of the happy, normal people I knew.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In response to my post, tons of friends started coming out of the woodwork–both in private messages and in the comments of my post–and talking about their own experiences with mental illness. An ex-boyfriend texted me and apologized for dumping me years prior for what he now knew was an untreated mental illness. Acquaintances and classmates turned into close friends. Circles of support were formed. I started speaking out more and gradually became recognized as an advocate for mental health on campus, and eventually started a peer counseling service that is still active on campus today, three years after I left. These experiences pushed me away from the clinical psychology path and towards mental health services, leading me to pursue internships, my masters in social work program, and now, what looks to be a promising career as a therapist.

All because of a Facebook post that many would consider “TMI” or “oversharing.”

Well, not all because. I don’t know what path my life would’ve taken if I’d made different choices, not just with coming out as a person with depression but with all kinds of things. Maybe I’d still be here, or somewhere similar. But I can’t possibly know that–what I do know is that the decision to make that Facebook post had very far-reaching and mostly positive effects on my life.

This isn’t a “you should come out” post; I don’t do those. I’m writing about myself and why I’m so open. This experience, and others that followed, shaped my perspective about this. So, here’s why.

1. To be seen.

That’s my most basic reason and the one that comes closest to being impulsive. But basically, I don’t like being seen as someone I’m not. I don’t like it when people think my life is perfect because I only post the good things. It hurts when people assume I have privileges I don’t, and when people think I couldn’t possibly need support or sympathy because everything is fine. If I didn’t post about so-called “personal” things,  people would assume that I’m straight, neurotypical, and monogamous, and the thought of that is just painful.

2. To filter people out.

I don’t expect everyone in my life to support me through hard times or care about my problems. Some people are just here for when I’m being fun and interesting, and that’s only natural. However, posting about personal things on Facebook is a great way to filter out people who not only aren’t interested in supporting me, but who are actually uncomfortable with people being honest about themselves and their lives. Otherwise, it’s going to be really awkward when we meet in person and you ask me how I’m doing and I say, “Eh, been having a rough time lately. How about you?” Because I do say that. Not with any more detail than that if you don’t ask for it, but that’s enough to make some people very twitchy because I didn’t perform my role properly.

I don’t want anyone in my life who thinks it’s wrong, weak, or pathetic to be open about your struggles. Because of the way I use Facebook, they don’t tend to stay on my friends list for long, and that’s exactly how I want it.

3. To increase awareness of mental illness.

When I post about my experiences with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it’s not just because I want people to know what’s going on with me personally. I also want them to know what mental illness is. When I published that post about depression I mentioned earlier, I didn’t just get “me too” responses–I also got comments from people who said that they’d never had depression and struggled to understand what it’s like, but that my piece helped. Some people took that knowledge and applied it to their relationships with depressed friends, partners, and family members, which I think is great.

It seems weird to write this section now, because so many people in my life have themselves been diagnosed with mental illness or are very knowledgeable about it through supporting others with it. But when I first started being open online about depression, that definitely didn’t describe my social circle, and I’d like to think that my openness is at least part of the reason for the difference.

4. To reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I don’t just want to make people aware of what mental illness is like–I want them to stop thinking of it is a shameful thing that ought to be kept secret. Since I’m fortunate enough to feel safe coming out, I think that’s a powerful action I can take to reduce that stigma. The more people see my posts about depression and anxiety as normal, just like posting about having the flu or going to the doctor, the less they’ll stigmatize mental illness.

Of course, stigma–and the ableism that fuels it–is a broad and systemic problem with intersectional implications that I don’t even pretend to be able to fix with some Facebook posts. But I do what I can.

5. To reduce the stigma of vulnerability, period.

Not everything “personal” that I put online deals with mental illness specifically (although, when you have lifelong depression, everything does tend to come back to that). I write a lot about homesickness, my love for New York (and the pain of leaving it), issues with my family, relationships, daily frustrations and challenges, and so on.

Not everyone wants to share these things with their friends (online or off), but many people do–they’re just afraid that nobody cares, that they’ll be seen as weak, or that there’s no room for this kind of vulnerability within the social norms that we’ve created. That last one may be true, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way.

As Brené Brown notes in her book that I recently read, vulnerability isn’t the same thing as recklessly dumping your personal problems on people. I’ve also written about guidelines for appropriate sharing, and how to deal when someone’s sharing makes you uncomfortable.

The point isn’t to completely disregard all social norms; some of them are there to help interactions go smoothly and make sure people’s implicit boundaries are respected. The point is to design social norms that encourage healthier interactions, and while I’m sure there are some people who can healthily avoid divulging anything personal to their friends, I’m not one of them and my friends aren’t either. So for us, reducing the stigma of vulnerability and encouraging openness about how we feel is healthy.

6. To create the kinds of friendships I value. 

Being open online doesn’t just filter people out–it also filters people in. Folks who appreciate vulnerability read my posts, get to know me better, and share more with me in turn. I’ve developed lots of close friendships through social media, and not all of them are long-distance. In fact, a common pattern for me is that I meet someone at a local event and chat casually and then we add each other on Facebook, at which point we learn things about each other that are way more personal than we ever would’ve shared at a loud bar or party. Then the friendship can actually develop.

I’ve been very lucky to find lots of people who appreciate this type of connection. People who don’t always answer “how are you?” with “good!”, who engage with “negative” social media posts in a supportive and productive way rather than just ignoring them or peppering them with condescending advice or demands to “cheer up!” People who understand that having emotions, even about “silly” things, doesn’t make you weak or immature. People who understand that working through your negative/counterproductive emotions requires first validating and accepting them, not beating yourself up for them or ignoring them.

So, that’s why I’m so open online. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. But I’m not alone in it, and it’s becoming less and less weird. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, I was the only person I knew with depression. Not only do I now know many, but I’m also so much more aware of all sorts of joys and sorrows I haven’t personally experienced–all thanks to my friends’ openness online. For a therapist–hell, for a human being–that’s an invaluable education.

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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

Living With Depression: Openness

Earlier I decided to write a series of posts about depression beyond the DSM diagnosis. The first post was about trust. Here’s the second.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to two diametrically opposed views on openness–how much people should share with their partners, friends, and acquaintances about themselves.

The first view, which my family taught me and which various traditional views on interpersonal relationships tend to promote, is that people should reveal as little of themselves to others as possible. Openness is at best a sign of naiveté because ultimately people will misuse any personal information you give them if they have the opportunity.

Furthermore, people should not “burden” their friends and partners by telling them about their problems. Until a partner has literally married you, they may leave you at any moment if you talk about your feelings too much, so it’s best to avoid it until you’ve got them safely ensnared in matrimony. If you must tell someone, tell your family.

The other view was the one I discovered among my progressive friends. In this view, openness is a virtue. You don’t merely have the option of being open about your feelings–in fact, you should be.

You should tell your friends when they accidentally do something that hurts you. You should be open with your partner(s) about how they make you feel. You should use “I” statements. You should, as Captain Awkward wisely advises, “use your words.”

Of course, I agree with this second view, not the first one. Or, at least, I agree with it in theory.

The truth is that when you have depression, your feelings don’t fit into the boxes they’re supposed to fit in. Sometimes, with enough patience on your part and enough openmindness on your friend’s part, you can bridge that gap of understanding, but it’s hard. I’ve been able to do it to some extent because I happen to be a great writer. But not everybody is, and neither are we always able to relegate these things to writing. Sometimes you have to have these difficult conversations in person, and in those situations, trust me–I flail and grasp at words just as much as anyone else.

What happens when you try to be open about your feelings, but your feelings are so alien and “wrong” that they don’t make sense to anyone?

Lots of frustration.

When my feelings involve only myself, it’s not so bad. I don’t think my friends truly understand what I mean when I say that seeing pictures of my family frequently makes me extremely upset (not in the trigger-y way, but more in the “fuck, I haven’t seen these people for months but I don’t want to go home and see them I am a terrible person fuck fuck” kind of way? See, it’s hard.). They probably wouldn’t understand if I told them that sometimes I grieve for random old memories as if they were people, even though I didn’t even enjoy those moments at the time, and that sometimes I feel as though I would give up years of my life just to go back in time and relive a single day of high school, even though I hated high school.

But that’s not such a big deal, because ultimately those feelings involve only me, or people that my friends will likely never meet. I can talk about them without feeling like my current relationships hinge on my ability to make myself understood.

Where my feelings involve the people currently in my life is where things get difficult. Sometimes–generally when I’m already having a bad day–something someone says bothers me a lot for no apparent reason. Sometimes I get jealous of things I shouldn’t. Sometimes someone gets a bit snappy with me and rather than assuming that they’re just stressed, I assume that they hate me. Sometimes I get another “sup” IM and I get furious because I’m already so busy and stressed and why can’t people just leave me alone unless they want to have a real conversation. (Welcome to introversion.)

I am aware that the Correct Thing to do in our sort of crowd is to Talk About It and be open about my Needs and all those other cliches. I am quite aware.

If I were a neurotypical person, maybe I would feel like I have that option.

But the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.

Furthermore, the more I talk about Feelings That Don’t Make Sense, the more I make myself sound like, well, a crazy person. Most people aren’t used to the idea that you don’t need to understand something to respect it. (Damn, I link to that article a lot.) They want to know about my feelings, but they also need to understand them. Sometimes I can’t explain them. Sometimes they can’t understand them.

So, more often than not, I choose not to disclose my negative feelings, not even when they involve another person I’m very close to. The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it, even though I feel like I “should” be open about how I feel.

And all of this is very confusing for me, because I obviously do feel that openness in close relationships is a good thing. And maybe someday I’ll discover the magic combination of words that will allow me to be open about how I feel without causing defensiveness, hurt feelings, and confusion.

But for now, living with the remnants of depression ensures that there is a sort of chasm between me and everyone else that can’t really be crossed no matter how open I am.

Living With Depression: Openness