What Chronic Pain Has Taught Me About Social Media

Elizabeth Lies — Unsplash

The year 2007 was big for social media…

  • Twitter took off at SXSW with tweets tripling during the conference from 20k to 60k per day.
  • The microblogging platform, Tumblr, was born.
  • Facebook has a growth spurt, with over 1 million new users signing up per week, 200,000 per day.

It was a big year for me, too because 2007 was the year I spent in bed.

After sustaining some injuries while having a baby, part of my spine ripped open. That was when a second offspring came into my life — a shadow of pain etched into my back that has been my constant companion ever since.

At the start of 2007 I found myself unable to work, overwhelmed with an infant I couldn’t physically care for, and facing countless uncomfortable hours to fill. Oh my friends, there was so much time for me to carry in 2007. As you may imagine, it was a long, painful, lonely, depressing and very, very boring year.

There was none of this in my life at that time either… the tweets, the blog posts, the goofy Facebook quizzes, the movies streaming from Netflix, the iPad enabling me be online in whatever position I liked, or you — people whom I know or don’t know, offering to act as an audience for my thoughts. However, it was that year in bed that eventually attracted me to all of those things, once I knew they existed.

I believe it was that year in bed that also led me to a greater understanding of why others are drawn to social media, too.

1. People need distraction from themselves.

You think social media breeds narcissism? Try spending all of your time in pain by yourself, focused on yourself. During my year in bed, I mostly lived in my head and that much self-reflection isn’t necessarily a good thing. Yes, social media exposes us to a lot of people airing and reveling in their personal baggage, but it also serves as a continual reminder that the world is much bigger than we are. I’m inclined to think this is a better concept upon which to meditate all day than the dreary details of how our own lives suck.

2. Epiphanies are more powerful when they can be implemented.

I’ve always been a person who dreams up big ideas, and my year in bed was no exception. However, many of those epiphanies existed inside a vacuum, educated only by daydreams and conjecture. Discovering social media gave me access to a place where I could actually DO things again like connect with people, create art, broadcast information and build communities. It was fertile ground, not just for my ideas to sprout, but also for them to grow — a liberating opportunity when you can’t physically navigate the world the way others do.

3. People want to share.

In 2007, I began a lot of stories with, “Today, on Oprah…,” and my husband, God love him, sat and listened to every last one of them, (yes, I realize now he was likely bored to tears.) Stories are the bedrock of our relationships, the currency we exchange to show people we’re invested in them. Without them, our social interactions feel bankrupt. People are attracted to social media because it gives us a place where we can share our stories. It also offers the promise of an audience of listeners and the hope that someone in that audience will hear our voice and reach out to say, “I hear you…I see you…I understand.”

4. Reality is subjective.

When you spend a lot of time in seclusion, a schism develops between your world and the world out there. The more you feel your world is not “normal,” the more you start to romanticize the lives of everyone else. I’ll admit social media does encourage some of this “grass is greener” behavior. Sometimes I get depressed when I read people’s posts about how AWESOME their lives are and I think, “Why are these people able to live normal, pain-free lives and not me?” However, social media also exposes me to people who are frustrated, confused, hurt, scared, angry or envious. Those voices comfort me and remind me that the reality is everyone’s “normal” is just a little bit messed up, whether they want to admit it to the world, or not.

5. No one wants to be alone.

My greatest fear is someday I’ll have to repeat my year in bed. (It’s a likely bet that I will, for what are our final twilight years, but a series of goodbyes ushered from the comfort of beds?) However, I wonder what that experience would feel like now that I have the gift of conversation at my fingertips. At the least, I think it would probably be less isolating. I think “social media” is simply a term we’re using to label the process of people figuring out online what it means to be human. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with being “social” all the time. It’s about not being so alone.

So, that’s what I learned from my year in bed, (that, and so much more) and my life has been forever changed by the experience…

Today I appreciate each step I take outside my house.

Today I breathe in conversations and community like the air they are.

Today I no longer carry time, but instead stand in front of it, like a child at the entrance to an amusement park, looking over her shoulder to her parents, shouting, “Come, on! We have to go. There is so much to see!”

Interested in this topic? Please follow me on Medium to read more posts about chronic pain and my new book, Chronic Pain Recovery: A Practical Guide to Putting Your Life Back Together After Everything Has Fallen Apart, now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Google Play and Kobo.
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