A Photo Essay

Jamie Lauren Keiles
The Message


For two years I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, outpatient programs, therapist appointments, and fits of despair, but nothing could stop me from doing what mattered most — getting faves.

Today, as I scroll the main feed of Instagram from out in the light of the living, I see attractive sandwich, beautiful leather craft, black and white architecture, sponsored content for puppy-related startup, fresh tattoo, cranberry bagel, iced tea selfie, new car. The Instagram economy trades heavily in FOMO and YOLO. Instagram is a platform for people who, if not actively happy, are at least moderately invested in aggregating the happier moments of life. It is not an intuitive place for depressed people — people like me who had long accepted missing out, and instead were just hoping to die.

This mismatch didn’t stop me from gramming, multiple times a day. While my broader feed depicted friends livin’ deep and suckin’ the marrow from life, my own photos focused more on me sucking at life itself. If Instagram proper has certain conventions (aerial shots of artisanal food, latte art posed beside print media, selfies depicting compulsive leisure), then depressiongrams too have tropes: the medication tableau, the bed selfie, eerie photographs of screens that reflect too much time spent alone on the internet at night.

It was a sad time, when my Instas seldom darkened the door of an eleventh fave. The ten or fewer faves reflected a roster of distant acquaintances and internet strangers who played along with my depression from home. Were they supportive? Were they sad too? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know. Instagram is largely a platform for unidirectional storytelling and near-passive consumption of other people’s stories. Its infrastructure doesn’t readily facilitate two-way conversation in the same way that Facebook or Twitter might. Instagram exists mostly inside of the phone, and in this way, it feels cozy and private, if only falsely. There is no share function, which makes it difficult for anyone to challenge the narrative you work to construct.

When I was sad, this all felt important. When you are depressed, people who have never been depressed are positively horny to offer advice and assessments of your situation. They say, Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and Fake it ‘til you make it and It can’t be that bad. America contends with depression out of both sides of its mouth, treating it with medication like a valid clinical pathology, but blaming its sufferers for shortcomings of character and will. The reality is, depression weaves around and between these two categorizations in an unpredictable way — something that seems irrational and even impossible to someone who has never experienced it. There is plenty of space in the cultural conversation for stories about what it was like to have been depressed, but there isn’t much space or tolerance for narrating the experience in live time. That behavior, especially online, is called attention-seeking, or oversharing, or desperation. The sole exception to this rule is the cry for help, but the depressed person who isn’t sure which help to cry for is given little clearance to talk at all. On Instagram, I found a corner of the net where I was safe to shit out images of my terrible life in live time, without any imperative to express what I needed or interpret what it meant.

I often think the worst kind of social media post is the kind that offers a complaint without any identifiable object, as in, “I can’t take this anymore,” or “Done putting up with this shit.” This genre of content feels attention-seeking in a non-productive way, but with the benefit of hindsight I recognize such cryptic agitations as efforts to generate a personally satisfying sense of plot. Nothing ever happens when you are depressed. It’s boring. You lie in bed, or pass numbly through life, ruminating circularly on conceptual ideas in hopes of somehow thinking your way out of the hole. Being cryptic and sad on social media was a way of hitching my detachment to some publicly shared reality. I couldn’t have cried for help, for all the available help had been exhausted. It felt good and real to generate things that felt like plot points in a story as I laid in bed, waiting for the winds to change.

There was comfort in finding a place to advocate for the validity of my world, but this is not to say that depressiongrams are somehow rawer or without artifice. Photos, though seemingly objective and documentary, are often just as constructed and deliberate as language. Even a candid Instagram, of any subject, is posed in the sense that a) someone chose to take it, and b) someone chose to post it online for others to consume. Like the sun-flooded Kinfolk-y brunchstagram, the depressiongram has a recognizable aesthetic. I took these photos mostly at night, with a grainy fuzziness that looks as thick and impenetrable as depression makes life feel.

Before I was depressed, I was a writer, and after my depression, I’m a writer again, but during my depression I couldn’t make or do anything. I couldn’t reliably feed myself, or take showers, and yet I felt burdened and plagued by a sinister and common mythology that genius makes madness, and so madness must produce genius or creative output of some measurable sort. In the throes of depression, my role models weren’t people who recovered, but artists who eventually killed themselves. My friends, who I now recognize were not in an easy position, would offer sordid reassurances like, “David Foster Wallace was depressed, and he turned it into books. Why don’t you write again?” It’s cruel to suggest that a sick person do the labor of a famous working artist, and even more cruel when the suggestion hinges on an artist who hung himself. There is nothing romantic about being sick, and I suspect that if Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain ever worked for even a second in the throes of a depressive episode, then their output is an exception, not a rule. I remember shooting the depressiongrams with a sense of purpose, like if I couldn’t fulfill my duty to make art from my experience in the moment, then at least I could bank that experience to make future art, should I survive the whole ordeal. Having survived, I resent this logic as grossly romantic, but it’s also a logic that essentially beared out, so I’m not sure what to think. The photos served a practical purpose in the moment, but today they feel like a weird incongruity in the scope of a social media platform that’s often mocked for being too exuberantly full of life.