When You Can’t Be the Person The Internet Wants You to Be
I hate the word “trainwreck”. People take comfort in their own moral compass, and in doing so find themselves passing judgment. They think: I’m definitely not like that; I would never do that; How could she be dumb enough to put herself in that situation because I would never. And if you should find yourself in said situation, you might say, I handled it this way, so, in fact, it’s the right way–and why doesn’t she just do that? It’s easy to judge a situation without context, without actually standing in someone else’s life. It’s easy to deliver sideline commentary without actually being in the game. Watching others in varying states of undress gives people a convenient remove, an emotional distance because what they’re viewing is a performance delivered by a stranger, someone they know only slightly, because they’ve been admitted entry into a particular aspect of a someone’s life not realizing that the whole of that life lies behind a curtain. Some of those performances are done for effect (think reality television) and some of them are real and uncomfortable to watch. Instead of practicing empathy, we grab our popcorn; we mouse click, prod, poke fun and shame people into silence. We admonish them for the mess they’ve made and their inability to quietly (and quickly) clean it up.
Nearly a year ago an old coworker of mine sent me a text about a mutual friend. This coworker and I weren’t friends, per se, but we cared enough about this mutual friend to get on the phone and deal with the uncomfortable conversation we were about to have. This former coworker asked if I had noticed our mutual friend’s disturbing rants on social media. I admitted that I hadn’t because I was commuting nearly five hours a day to Princeton, New Jersey for a work project, and by the time I got home I was ready to collapse into bed. While on the phone, I scrolled through our mutual friend’s social feeds and winced. The words were painful to read and I remembered another friend making an offhand joke about this person, about how dramatic this person was–that this person was always kind of a trainwreck. I thought about that flippant comment while on the phone with my former coworker, who wondered aloud what we should do. Would it be okay to ask our mutual friend if something was wrong? Was it our place? Should we say aloud the two words we were thinking: mental illness? And why is it that those two words are ones that are routinely whispered?
Fifteen minutes later I chatted with the mutual friend and asked this person if everything was okay. I could be off-base but I’m concerned about what you’re writing online and I’m here to listen or help, I remember saying. Or not, if that’s what you want too. I ended up connecting the mutual friend to a psychiatrist, and in that moment, I felt ashamed for not standing up to that flippant comment. For saying, maybe instead of rolling your eyes maybe be a friend. Even with the people we think we know, we don’t know the whole of their life–only what they choose to share with us. When I was young I remember kids laughing at someone when they tripped and fell. I never really saw the humor in someone falling as my first inclination was to ask if the person was hurt. Are you okay? But as the years moved on, I programmed myself to laugh, albeit uncomfortably, when someone stumbled. Because I guess it’s easier to ridicule instead of making yourself vulnerable.
It can sometimes feel like everyone on the internet is obsessed with positivity and inspiration and motivation. There are so many graphics and Instagram posts and listacles about how positive energy will change your life, and you have to ignore the haters. The advice claims that you have to believe you’re going to win, you can’t worry about your problems, you need to stop stressing. As though a positive mind set really will make every aspect of your life better and solve your crushing problems. –From Jon Westenberg’s “Blind Positivity Sucks”
Online, you can’t be a trainwreck but you can’t project perfection either–lest you be deemed inauthentic, a “fake”. You can’t be too sad or too happy. You can reveal a little about your personal life but not too much, and know that people like the comeback story rather than watching you wade helplessly through the dark. They want your dark in past tense because no one wants to deal with your present or future tense sadness. They want that storyline to be played out behind the scenes, but they’ll stick around for the post-mortem. Over the past few months, a few friends have reached out to me privately to acknowledge that their sadness has also been shamed into silence–that the internet doesn’t have the patience for unhappiness. This puts me to thinking about what the poet Jenny Zhang wrote:
Darkness is acceptable and even attractive so long as there is a threshold that is not crossed. But most people I know who suffer, suffer relentlessly and unendingly no matter what sort of future is proposed (“it’ll get better/it won’t always be this like/you will start to heal/ I know it’s such a cliché but you really will come out of this stronger in the end”). –From “How It Feels”
I’m having the worst year of my life. There, I said it. My mother died, and there was a lot of private drama that circled that event. I made a huge move across the country and although I love Los Angeles and it feels like home, I’m lonely. My father and I fight often–via text, as that’s his preferred method of communication–and the people with whom I used to feel close now seem like strangers. I relapsed, again. I started seeing a psychiatrist after feeling some harrowing feelings of depression and suicide and I had to stop seeing him because I can no longer afford it. I spend six hours a day looking for work and I haven’t landed anything substantial yet. I spend most of my time at home, alone, because sometimes daylight feels unbearable. Every day I worry about losing my home (even though my best friend has generously and kindly offered hers as a temporary salve), and I live on a clock. I have literally enough money to last me until April 1, and then I default on all my debt and lose my apartment, and this reality is one I deal with daily. It’s one I deal with when I go on job interviews and present my best self. When I text friends, who are so amazing and beautiful and kind, and they tell me they feel helpless about my situation and ask what they can do and I tell them, in response, you’re doing it. Keep sending me those cat pictures because sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all this sadness. I ask about their day because I care, and because it’s a needed and desired distraction. My best friend calls me on her drive home from work and asks me how I’m doing, really doing, and I tell her, and then I ask about her kids, her brother who just got married, and I cry a little when I tell her that I remember when he was a sixteen-year-old kid drinking beers with us when my best friend and I were freshmen in college.
We’re old, we joke constantly–but the joke is not out of regret, it comes from a place of comfort for having endured what we have. Our years.
I spend most of my days oscillating between two faces–the presentable, together one, and the one behind who lives in abject terror. Patiently I wait for the next project or job offer so I can pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with my doctor because I want to get better. I want to get back to this place. I want to stop thinking and start doing.
Why is that in a maelstrom of kindness we fall prey to that one cruel remark? How is it that we’re so easily wounded by an offhand comment or swipe? A stranger writes and tells me not to talk about anything that’s happened to me this year because future employers will consider me “unstable”. I don’t know how to respond so I don’t. I spent the better part of my life behind a mask, suffocating from it, and if someone can’t respect a person trying to get through a tough time, that someone is human, then this is probably not a person with whom I want to work. Friends with whom I thought I was close maintain a safe distance, and part of me wonders if they think this is what I want, perhaps they’re trying to be respectful, but then I think of my other friends who text, Facetime, and come by my home and drag me to the beach and pay for my lunch or donuts because I can’t really eat out anymore. These friends don’t act like a therapist and I don’t expect them to. Sometimes I just want a donut or a cat photo or a friend like my dear Amber who will Facetime me and ask me, no, really, how the fuck are you? And she’ll sit there and listen while I talk about really uncomfortable things and Amber does exactly what I need a friend to do–listen without making me feel ashamed for not snapping out of my sadness.
There are people who don’t like me, who are reveling in the fact that I’m having the worst year of my life, and while I’d like to say that this doesn’t bother me I’d be lying. Because we innately want to be liked by everyone even if this isn’t a reality. I think about a few random comments and I think about others–strangers and friends and casual acquaintances who cloak me with their compassion and kindness, and both disparate experiences made me realize the weight we place on what we hear and experience in the world. I can’t change who I am or what I’ve done, only the way I come to and manage my experiences, moving forward. What’s important for me right now is to surround myself with people who care and give me honest feedback when I need and deserve it simply because they want me to get better, do better, feel better. What matters right now is that I do whatever I can to get better. That I keep moving forward. That I sit in my sadness when I need to and lean on others when the sadness becomes entirely too palpable to bear.
I don’t know how often I will come back to this space, honestly. I don’t have recipes to share and I’m reading books at a slower pace, and I’m not entirely too comfortable documenting, in detail, my journey back because there’s much to be said for doing a lot of work offline. However, I’m really fucking tired of feeling ashamed for going through tragedy, of feeling depressed. I’m tired of managing everyone’s discomfort, their uncomfortable silence and unsolicited feedback. Friends put in the work. If I’m putting in the work to get better and be better, put in the work of learning how to deal with someone going through a tenuous time. Practice empathy and compassion. Don’t laugh when someone falls down because it’s gossip, because it’s what you’ve been conditioned to do. It’s easy to be an asshole. It’s hard to be patient and kind.
You’re either on or off my bus.