Behind the Facade
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Behind the Facade

I spent 6 weeks grieving a woman I’ve never met

A heartfelt tribute to YouTuber Lee MacMillan.

TW: this story discusses mental health and mental illness which may be triggering for some. Please take care while reading.

On March 30th, 2021, I did what I always do after work: I curled up on the couch with my computer on my lap, ready to zone out while scrolling through some of the Instagrammers I used to follow. I do this sometimes: “check in” on the people who I followed for so many years; those I felt like I knew as friends, even though we had never met.

I started typing ‘instagram’ into my URL bar and clicked on one of the recommendations that came up, excited to catch up on the photos and stories of one of my old-time favorite wellness influencers whose photos I had missed over the last few months while I was off the platform.

Instead of looking through photos of her cute kids and healthy recipes, I got caught on the first post. The caption started with “[Trigger warning]” and went on to explain how a fellow creative took her own life a few days before. One line in particular stood out: “yoga, green juice and a lot of followers can’t bring you joy — it only comes from within.”

I felt that in my core. I knew this experience first-hand; not on the level it impacted this woman, but in a different way. I also knew how it felt to put on a happy face for an Instagram photo when, in reality, you were anything but happy. The post didn’t mention the woman’s Instagram handle, so I started googling.

Within moments, I was exploring the feed of someone who seemingly had the dream life. She appeared to be happily in love, having recently announced a new relationship in November 2020 after a very public breakup. She made a living on YouTube while traveling the world with her ex-boyfriend. After the split, she started a new YouTube channel, separate from their popular joint account and bought her own van — the first in her name — and was already documenting the entire process of building it into a home on wheels. From her photos, you would think she had it all.

Her captions, though — they were a different story. They weren’t just talking about the good things in life like everything was perfect. She talked about her anxiety and how she was feeling off balance. She showed the “real” side of taking an Instagram photo by explaining that, although the photo looked nice, she was actually covering up a cold sore that was caused by stress. She talked about how difficult it can be to open up and share things with the public, and didn’t apologize for being herself. She also talked about things like goals and dreaming big and making deeper connections. I was instantly captivated.

And then I came across a post from December 2020. It was a 15-minute video titled “My Mental Health Story,” talking about how she suffered from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and how she worked through those feelings. There were a lot of heart-breaking moments, one of which is when she said through tears that she wanted to take her own life but looked into her dog’s eyes (who she was dog-sitting for 6 months) and knew she couldn’t leave them.

There most impactful moment, though, was when she read a journal entry she had written on June 20, 2020:

I feel unable to take care of myself. Basic needs like feeding myself are hard right now. I feel lazy and disgusted with myself for how little I’m able to take care of. I’m unable to focus on anything, really. I feel like I should be doing work. I should be making a LinkedIn profile. I feel sad, lost and lonely. I’m unable to focus. I’m constantly comparing myself. I feel like I need to be productive, meanwhile I’m spending my whole day procrastinating. Now I feel worse that I haven’t accomplished anything. I did go for a bike ride with Dad today. That was nice. I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I do truly want to create a morning routine to look forward to. I want to wake up each day excited to live that day. Right now, living feels like a drag. I have a hard time envisioning my future because I don’t know what I want, yet I’m not focusing on figuring out what it is that I want. I know what I don’t want and that list is long… so how can I be so picky? I always think a new place will solve my issue; new surroundings, new friends — but it’s not that simple. I’m working on becoming better on being me — who I am, where I am — but it’s hard. This is a mental battle that I’m losing miserably right now. I am not appreciating what I have or what’s around me. I speak the words but I don’t feel it.

- Lee MacMillan

When she finished reading, I literally had to pause the video to catch my breath.

For the first time in my life, I felt truly seen.

No one knows this, but I’ve also written a version of this journal entry. It was a few years ago, and I remember the moment so clearly: I was still new to journaling and was sobbing as I put pen to paper. I can’t recall exactly what it said, though I do remember writing pages upon pages of stream of consciousness, calling myself adjectives like lazy, ungrateful and worthless, questioning what I was doing with my life, my relationships and my career. I read the entry back to myself later and told myself that I was being dramatic — that I shouldn’t write such depressing things because I have such a beautiful life that I should be happy with and proud of.

At the same time, I was applauding myself for being truly open about my feelings. I was so used to hiding behind a smile that it felt freeing, in a way, to write it down and let it out. Even if no one saw it, it was the first time, on paper or off, that I really gave myself permission to wholeheartedly feel my feelings.

After hearing Lee read her version, I genuinely felt more connected to anyone than I had ever had before in terms of mental health. Even though I’m surrounded by love, gratitude and success, I spend a lot of time feeling alone. Realizing that someone else not only felt the same way I did but was able to put it into words caused this immense wave of emotion to wash over me. It was so intense, I can’t even begin to explain it.

That night and over the coming weeks, I spent hours reading her content, watching her videos and even listening to a podcast she had recorded a few months prior where she opened up about the bullying she had been receiving on YouTube. In all honesty, I couldn’t finish the podcast; it felt too real, too raw. In everything that I read, watched or listened to, I had this feeling that I could have written it verbatim.

As I explored Lee’s pages and saw the outpouring of love and support in the wake of this tragic news, I learned that she had been a victim of serious cyberbullying in the months leading up to her death. As it turned out, the last photo on her phone was a screenshot of someone who had left a hate comment on one of her YouTube videos. Like Lee, I knew first-hand how much power a comment from a stranger could have — and it’s devastating.

Of course, I realize now that bullying, both online and off, happens on a regular basis, but for many years, I was so caught up in my own story, feeling like I had to carry the burden of shame and regret all by myself, that I honestly didn’t realize that there were thousands of others out there with similar pain and experiences.

After reading so many comments with people sharing their own stories of bullying leading to depression, anxiety, and even attempted suicide, I felt part of a community that I never knew I needed, much less existed. Intertwined with these were hundreds—maybe even thousands—of comments encouraging fellow readers and grievers to reach out to loved ones for support, so I did just that.

In one of these conversations, I told my mom how much being bullied in middle school impacted me, even to that day. We talked about how writing, for me, is better than therapy — and that maybe I should use it as an outlet to let go of the negative memories I had been holding onto for so many years.

She proposed that I write a letter to my middle school bully; whether I sent it to him or not didn’t matter — maybe just writing it down would help. It took me three days to find the words.

Thinking about how powerful it was to read Lee’s and others’ stories about bullying and mental health, I eventually chose to publish it here on Medium.

This wasn’t the first time I had spoken about bullying. A few years ago, I came across a thread full of hate comments about me, each multiple paragraphs long and written by people who had obviously followed my health journey for a while. It was on a site that was known for heavily criticizing lifestyle bloggers. I can’t remember how I found it, but I very clearly remember what it said and how intensely each comment tore me apart, bit by bit until I was metaphorically ripped to shreds.

I wrote a response on Instagram talking about how hurtful it was to read those posts and to see people who I had never met say such personal things that they couldn’t possibly have insight into (e.g. that I wouldn’t be able to afford a house one day if I kept going the way I was going, among other things).

Soon after sharing this post, I happened across another thread on the same site, this one dedicated solely to me. Three out of the first five comments read:

I need this thread to happen. Especially now that she thinks she’s important enough to post a whole thing about how she’s #standinguptobullies after reading here. Come on y’all make my dreams come true. hahaha

I’m here and ready to make this thread happen! LLH is my favorite hate read. Her rant about GOMI just made me want to talk about her even more.

Yes!!! Did you see how many people were boo-hooing with her on her “poor me people are so mean” instagram post?? I think it said like 70 comments. WHAT.

A slew of other comments on the first page agreed that I binge-ate, was extremely inconsistent, overtrained, ranted too much, got too much sympathy, was a hypocrite, essentially sold myself out for sponsorships, and, in general, wasn’t healthy like I portrayed on Instagram. Comments like these were front and center:

Other than LLH losing 25 or so pounds doing TIU a few years ago, she’s done nothing aspirational or worth looking up to. Her approach to wellness and health is a joke and it’s clear that she STILL has no idea what she is doing.

She needs to fess up on how she binge eats and smells like a mustard freak.

She’s been my favorite source of reverse motivation for at least a year now.

This girl looks like a hot mess. There is nothing about her that I find inspiring. She looks unkempt and sloppy in all of her pictures.

She annoys the hell out of me and for gods sake get your damn eyebrows waxed girl.

It kind of makes me wonder if she is dealing with some low-grade depression, that she’s convinced herself that sitting in the bathtub so much is a good thing.

…and those were just a selection of the comments from page 1. Out of 5.

Reading these back now (while writing this, I went back to the site to see if the thread was still live, and it is) was hard, but reading them the first time? I can’t explain the hurt, shame and embarrassment that I felt. Reading this thread was the catalyst for a deep depression that, quite frankly, lasted a lot longer than I’ve ever admitted.

Ironically, I found solace in Lee’s comments section, which you probably know is very rare in the online world. In light of her tragic death, people across the world were sharing their own stories of in-person and online bullying and how it led to irrational thoughts, depression and, in some cases, attempted suicide. They shared that, because of Lee’s story, they were getting help; going to therapy, trying meditation, writing, reaching out to loved ones — all the tools Lee had advocated for and encouraged. They said they felt seen and were grieving her loss, just like I was.

I talked about it in another post, but those around me typically don’t talk about mental health; it’s just not a thing in the digital and real-world communities that I’m part of. Maybe it’s my age or the people I surround myself with or society as a whole, but, until recently, I’ve often felt alone in my struggles, especially over the last few years. Part of me assumed that others weren’t okay, but I couldn’t really grasp that thought because it never showed.

For years, I’ve been trying to teach myself that social media is just a facade, a highlight reel, but it wasn’t until I “met” Lee that it truly hit me. Scrolling through her profile, even her last post from February 26th, you would assume that she’s happy. Without reading her captions, you would never know she wasn’t. When people go through hard times, they don’t post the pictures of them wearing the same clothes three days in a row or not being able to get out of bed; instead, they just don’t post. They pretend those moments don’t exist.

I genuinely want to help break that barrier — and if it means putting my own insecurities and vulnerabilities out there for the world to see, so be it. If I can be the friend or support system to even one other person that Lee has been for me, it will be worth it.

While I didn’t know Lee personally, a piece of me will always feel connected to her. I’m not sure if I believe in the afterlife, but I hope that her pain is gone. I hope that, by sharing her struggles, she realizes how much she inspired a movement, giving young people encouragement and permission to speak up about mental health. While we’ll never be able to understand what went through her mind in those final moments, I hope she knew how loved, admired and respected she was.

Selfishly, I wish I had the chance to meet Lee in person because I feel like we would have had an instant connection, but I’m grateful beyond belief to have had the opportunity to get to know her online. This is why I love the Internet so much; not for the grief that comes with losing someone who feels like a friend or the hate comments or the trolls, but for the opportunity to get to “meet” and know someone who you would have otherwise never had the opportunity to connect with.

To Lee, if you’re able to read this: thank you for sharing your journey — the ups and the downs; the highlights and the struggles. You have been sorely missed and will truly never be forgotten. I’m extremely grateful that you gave me the push to reach out to my loved ones and to share my experiences and stories with the world without being afraid. Because of you, I don’t feel alone anymore. With my writing, I hope to continue your advocacy efforts, even if it’s on a small scale. Thank you for sharing your light, energy and experience with us.

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