To Be a Writer, Do I Have to Let in All the News and Social Media?

I want to stay relevant, but is it harming my mental health?

My husband won’t talk to me anymore about the coronavirus.

“The news isn’t good for my mental health,” he says. And while that statement reminds me of the media fasts people attempted after Trump got elected — and the privilege involved in that willful ignorance — in this case, he’s not hurting anybody.

We’re under a Stay-at-Home order in Washington State, for another month at least. We’re already fully on board with #StayHome, so why do we need to keep up with case counts and mask efficacy statistics?

“Why stress ourselves out more?” he asks, as I wonder aloud if this crisis will persuade anti-vaxx folks to reconsider vaccines. “There are just too many factors here. No matter how much we learn, we can’t predict the future. It’s unknowable.”

I know he’s right. But, personally, I’m ingesting more news than ever.

I can’t quit listening to NPR or Democracy Now!, can’t quit reading The New York Times’ daily Coronavirus Briefing. I can’t get off Medium, or Twitter, or Facebook. I tell myself it’s my job to keep up, because I’m a writer. Maybe media silence would be good for my mental health, but if I want my writing to reflect the present state of the world, I need to know what’s going on.

I fear if I quit for even a week, I’ll lose sight of the zeitgeist, and my writing — my voice — will cease to be relevant.

I keep rereading an article by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention called Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty:

“Right now, many of us are worried about COVID-19, known as the ‘Coronavirus’. We may feel helpless about what will happen or what we can do to prevent further stress. The uncertainty might also connect to our uncertainty about other aspects of our lives, or remind us of past times when we didn’t feel safe and the immediate future was uncertain.”

Yeah, I feel that.

The article goes on to detail five things we can do to care for our mental health. The first suggestion — “Separate what is in your control from what is not.”includes limiting your consumption of news.

But as I struggle to implement enough self-care tricks to prevent another coronavius-inspired panic attack, I tell myself the no-news advice doesn’t apply to me.

Because a writer’s job is to try to know everything — every single little thing — to swirl reality up in our writerly brains and spit it back out as something better than the sum of its parts. Writers, when we’re doing our job well, turn pain into beauty, chaos into order, confusion into understanding.

So whether it’s wacko conspiracy theories — Did you know people are actually torching cell phone towers because of a baseless idea that coronavirus is somehow linked to 5G mobile networks? — or Netflix shows— #TigerKing — I fear if I quit keeping up with news and trends for even a week, I’ll lose sight of the zeitgeist, and my writing — my voice — will cease to be relevant.

Even if I never specifically write about those things, they’re in my mind, informing my writing. How can I write about my experience getting tested for Covid-19 if I don’t know testing statistics for my county, my country, the world?

The CDC recommends, to cope with stress, “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media.”

But if I want to keep relevant, I have to take part. Social media is the only view into others’ lives I have, outside of my weekly grocery trip, and gazing out the window at the rare neighbor pushing a stroller.

“I was the person reading someone’s text messages over their shoulder on the subway,” Samantha Zabell writes in her Human Parts essay, I Miss Eavesdropping, “or listening to silence through my headphones at a coffee shop so that people at the next table would feel comfortable having their conversation at full volume.”

I miss eavesdropping too.

In lockdown, my favorite way to eavesdrop is the r/insanepeoplefacebook subreddit. Yes, I know personal development gurus will tell you to turn off screens two hours before bed, but I rock myself to sleep each night with the screen-captured ramblings of Reddit users’ racist uncles, posting things like, “If dinosaurs were real, why can’t we trace our ancestry back to them? Seems like AncestryDNA would have already figured that out.”

Then, as I dream, my brain mashes up all the insanity, the truth, the lies, and I wake up to write about how no one’s talking about the Joe Biden rape accusation. And, sure, that story’s only about a dinosaur in the most abstract sense, but it’s all in there; it’s all part of the same story.

A writer’s job is to try to know everything — every single little thing — to swirl reality up in our writerly brains and spit it back out as something better than the sum of its parts.

Our power went out this week. For an hour and a half, I experienced a new level of uncertainty. What if the power never came back on? What if I was in a different dystopian novel than I thought? What if this was the beginning of months of lockdown-by-candlelight?

How would we even know when to emerge? What if I couldn’t share my writing with you, and I couldn’t read your point of view either? Where would that leave us?

I guess I’d go outside and try to start a garden.

That Suicide Prevention piece says to get outside in nature. I’m trying to every day, because when I do, I feel the benefits, but sometimes it’s cold and rainy, and I only make it to the mailbox.

I say I’m keeping up with news and social media despite my mental health, but honestly, the alternative scares me more. Maybe I’m consuming all this media because it helps me hang on to the illusion that this crisis is knowable. It’s a way to cope with the isolation and uncertainty. Right now, I’m just so desperate for any sort of connection to the world outside my home and family.

As Michelle Woo, senior platform editor at Forge, writes “This is why I’m not quitting social media right now. It is the connection to the outside world that I craved, and for me, it deepens the sense that we’re in this together.”

My husband won’t talk to me anymore about the coronavirus, but you will, dear reader. Thank you. Maybe this obsession with trying to know the unknowable is stressing us out, but maybe it’s the only thing keeping us together.

Empathy for the win! Published in Gen, Human Parts, Heated, Tenderly —Feminism, Sexuality, Veganism, Anti-Racism, Parenting. She/They darcyreeder.substack.com

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