My anxious search for context over content

This morning I finally deleted all my social media accounts┬╣. Pinterest was the last one to go, and I was really torn because the last few boards I’d considered saving were just collections of beautiful, crafty images that I might one day need for creative inspiration (oh, and great hairstyles to show my hairdresser next time I’m there). But in the end, I decided that Pinterest had to go too, and I will just have to find sources of inspiration when I actually need them.

It was a very scary thing, deleting my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I had over 2000 followers which felt like a lot to little ol’ me, and I was going to lose them all, forever. Then there were the warning messages: “Are you sure you want to permanently delete your account? You will lose all your posts/friends/followers/pins/images etc, etc, and you will never be able to retrieve them, ever!!” But I’ve thought about it long and hard, and I know it’s the right thing to do. And having lived a (great) life pre-social media, I am confident that I can somehow exist without it, even if the price I’ll pay will be feeling ‘left out’.

The main reason I’m in such a hurry to disconnect from social media is that I realise I have anxiety disorder. I didn’t even know that’s what it is until I started reading Matt Haig’s book, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”. In it, he described his experiences of depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, and it was like reading my own autobiography! I have experienced episodes of depression in the past, so during times of chronic stress I am always looking out for symptoms to indicate another depressive episode approaching.  This time it’s snuck up on me so sneakily, so stealthily, I am almost reluctant to admit it because it would signal defeat – I wasn’t paying close enough attention; I didn’t make the right decisions to avoid it. But more than depression, I can now see that it is actually anxiety that consumes me, more than the unshakeable feelings of hopelessness and melancholy that accompanied my experiences of depression in the past. I realise now that I’ve spent the past few months in one giant long panic attack – feeling overwhelmed, unable to breathe deeper than my throat, feeling like my heart is being crushed inside my chest – it hurts all the time – my hands and feet are always cold, my nerves feel raw, I worry about everything that hasn’t actually happened, and decision-making is completely overwhelming (like, should I have a decaf coffee or regular? hurts my brain so much…). I’m sore all the time – sore neck, sore shoulders, sore arms, headaches… and I know it’s psychosomatic but knowing that doesn’t reduce the discomfort.  Haig’s book has inspired me to be open about my own health problems because reading about his experiences has been so helpful to me and so I think that perhaps there’s a chance that someone could read about me and learn something helpful about themselves. But I have been wrestling with my worries, agonising over whether to do this or not, for the very same reasons that I’ve decided to close the door on social media. So I guess that’s what it is I need to write about now.

The first time, and the worst time, I experienced a major depressive episode, it took me a long time to admit it. In fact, I was almost the last one to know (I think my parents were the last).  I remember going to a physiotherapist because my back had seized up and even after I’d recovered from it I would get jolts of pain up my spine when I tried to run. At the time I was an avid runner; I would run for about 45 minutes every day without fail, rain or shine, so this was totally unacceptable behaviour on the part of my back and I was desperately hoping for a quick fix. He had a look, and feel, of my back and spine, asking questions along the way, and then he asked me to please sit. He told me that there was nothing wrong with my back. I was stunned …and then defensive: “You mean, I’m imagining this pain? Umm, I don’t think so!”  He then proceeded to suggest with great delicacy that perhaps my pain might have emotional causes? “No… No….. I feel fine… Everything is great… The pain must be physical.” But he pressed me with more questions, and in the end I folded (to my great surprise). The tears flowed out, unstoppable. I sobbed and sobbed, and even though he looked uncomfortable I couldn’t stop. He suggested I go next door to the GPs clinic so I picked myself up (still crying) and took myself across to see a doctor. And thus began my very long journey through a deep depression that took me about two years to recover from.

I was 32 when I had this experience. At the time, I was very fit, thin enough to have people comment freely on how I wasn’t eating enough as though it were a compliment, I seemed as healthy as I’ve ever been as an adult (the back pain came from out of nowhere), and I was in my fourth year of teaching. I was incredibly passionate about my job, and my efforts as a teacher were recognised and appreciated by my students and my colleagues. I had bought my own house which I shared with lovely flatmates, and in my spare time I would work on doing it up and gardening. I had a great relationship with my parents, who lived just around the corner, and my best friend in the whole world was my sister. So perhaps you can imagine how it was that me having a nervous breakdown and falling into a deep state of depression came as a total surprise to my family, my friends, and even to myself. I was deeply embarrassed to admit I was so sick, because what on earth did I have to feel sick about? I had everything going for me, the universe was on my side, and yet in one moment I felt like I dropped it all; like a juggler in front of a cheering crowd, suddenly too tired to lift her hands… And because it was me who had dropped all the balls, and not the universe, not the cheering crowd, not even the tent collapsing in on me, I felt like it was all my fault – my misery was my fault alone, and so who was I to complain or feel sorry for myself?

I have carried this feeling of intense guilt in my heart all through my sickness, through my recovery, through my happiness, through another episode (this time post-natal depression), through another recovery, through more happiness, right through to now, almost 10 years later. I feel guilty for ever having felt any negative emotion (sadness, stress, anxiety, despair) because I know very well that there is far greater suffering on this planet than mine; that 99.9% of the world’s population have more cause to feel depressed or anxious than me. My empathy for others makes me feel embarrassed that I can’t maintain a state of near-constant happiness through gratitude. I am aware of how unrealistic this is, and yet I just can’t shake the feeling – it hangs over me like a cloud. Guilt.

And yet now I think to myself, how strange it is that in this quest for a sustainable life I’ve neglected to recognise how unsustainable – impossible – it is to maintain a near-constant state of happiness! It’s like wishing for a life of only days and no nights.  It’s like believing my own Instagram account was really my life. The problem with my Instagram account was that, although I created it with good intentions, ie. wanting to share all my great ideas, successful experiments, happy moments with like-minded people, I ended up creating a photo montage of my life that was completely one-dimensional and totally unreal. I was really proud of my Instagram account; I thought it looked beautiful and that each photo was beautiful in its own way. I tried to create meaningful captions and share honest reflections. But I started to frame my life, always looking for Instagram-worthy moments and trying to capture the perfect shot. My Instagram became a collection of unrealistic expectations, and then when I went scrolling through others’ Instagram accounts I ended up collecting even more, until I felt expectation-overwhelm…

Although I’ve quit Facebook for slightly different reasons, something it has in common with Instagram is that it only allows for short, condensed, or abridged content to be shared – one image, maybe two or even three, a couple of sentences, an emoji, maybe even a whole long paragraph. But that’s it – you need to hyperlink to somewhere else in order to share anything more.  What that means is you end up with a vast amount of content that’s largely without context. And as we know of our own imperfect lives, context is everything. Without context, you end up living a life that’s like the front page of a newspaper: headlines, banners, a single image that captures a thousand words… And extreme sensations that are not tempered by context that is history, experience, multiple points of view, shifting focus, time…

I realise now that the more time I spend on social media, the more likely it is that I will hold on to unrealistic expectations of myself, of others, and of life. I can’t possibly be happy all the time, and I can’t live my life hoping for everyone’s approval, whether I’m in a state of guilt or glory. I can’t even live more than one life (although sometimes I feel like I’m living five), which is why I also quit Pinterest and in doing so let go of all the gazillions of inspiring future-crafty-projects I’d saved. I realised that I’m unlikely to cook most of the healthy, five-star, Paleo, GF-DF-RSF recipes I’d pinned because in my one real life I pretty much cook the same dishes over and over, only ever changing things up by maybe five new recipes in a whole year. Unfortunately, it’s taken me getting sick again to notice that I’ve been spending too much energy on the constructed version of me, at the expense of the real me.  I am now choosing to let go of social media because I don’t believe that I can overcome my panic attacks and anxiety without focusing my attention away from my fears and expectations, and instead honing in on my reality: my breath, my presence, my love, my pain; and somehow learning to accept them all.


┬╣ Whoops, I haven’t deleted my YouTube account, and that’s because I don’t really use it. It’s just a holding pen for instructable videos I’ve made, and I never check it.

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