On Social Media

I don’t know what I would do without my phone – it’s such a fundamental part of my life and, indeed, a fundamental part of helping me cope with my illness. It can keep my occupied, playing chess with anyone in the world, it keeps me organized by reminding me when I have appointments with my doctors or coffee dates with my friends, it keeps me responsible by telling me when it’s time for me to take my pills, it connects me with those who love me by allowing me to communicate with people when I need help, and it keeps me safe by allowing my family to track where I am when I call them and don’t know where I am or how to get home.

This ubiquity of technology is a bit of a double-edged sword however. Technology exists, whether it’s the wheel, the freight train, or the Internet, to make our lives easier; exists to take away some of the strain of every day life and enables us to focus our lives on other things. Technology also serves to connect us with each other. First it was the postal service, then the telegraph, and then the telephone and faxing and emailing. And now we find ourselves at a point in history where we have access to nearly anyone in the world on a device we put into our pockets which is hundreds of more times powerful than the computer they used to land on the moon.

I’m in awe of how far we’ve come. But I’m also a bit hesitant.

With technology like social media and it’s “seamless integration” into our lives, we seem to have lost track of the world around us. We don’t live in-the-moment as much as we used to, we live in the ethereal wonderland brought to us care of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al. This is by no means a new concern. But it’s a concern to me in the context of mental health.

My favorite comic, XKCD1, did a post on this a year or two ago. It cites various newspaper articles, going back as far as 1871, in which the authors decry modern times. Businesses are “always in a hurry” (1884), “Conversation is a lost art” (1890), and (my personal favorite) “intellectual laziness and the hurry of the age have produced a craving for literary nibs” (1891).

I wonder how shocked the authors of these articles would be to experience the age of always-on, always-connected and instantly-gratified. We’re in more of a rush than ever and it’s taken its toll on my mental health. Living with a mental illness like schizoaffective disorder requires me to be grounded in reality, requires me to stay focused on the reality in front of me and social media, with its short focused mentality can be damaging.

A recent meme captures our mentality perfectly:


While the concern isn’t new, it doesn’t make it any less valid. Especially in light of some of the important challenges one experiences with mental illness, and specifically in my experience with schizoaffective disorder.

In my daily life, it’s important for me to be present, to be participating in reality as much as possible. Reality is already hard enough without my smartphone being the crutch I depended on for my connection to the outside world – reminding me I’m alone, reminding me of my limitations, and disconnecting me from reality in a very literal way. While my smartphone is crucial to my ability to successfully deal with my illness, it tempts me to disconnect from the world-around-me and connect to the abstracted sense of interpersonal connection social media provides.

Social media companies tout how magical they are with their ability to connect the whole world together – with their ability to tell us news in-real-time. When the Ferguson riots were happening I watched a live stream I found on Twitter and saw the front lines of the riots as they were happening; a much more intimate look into the events of those nights than my local news station, or even a cable news network would be able to provide.

But is that really being connected? Is it being connected in the sense of how I _need_ to define “connected”?

The word “connected” holds a specific value for me which is perhaps different than the conventional definition. Being connected is a near-sacred state of being. It means I’m fully present in reality, that I’m fully aware of my surroundings, and that I’m not wrapped up in the voices in my head or the hallucinations I’m experiencing. Being connected means I’m able to participate in what’s happening around me – that I’m taking an active role in living-in-that-moment.

My version of connected isn’t the sort of spoon-fed information overload so many folks associate the term with these days. It isn’t being bombarded with news from all over the world: up-to-the-second updates on what my friends are doing or what’s happening with the Ebola outbreak. Being connected for me, and for many other people with mental illness, takes place in a much smaller radius. And, indeed, the conventional, social-media-influenced sort of connected – the obscured kind of world-wide awareness – is dangerous for me.

I had a revelation a number of months ago. I was growing frustrated with a friend who was constantly on their phone while I was hanging out with them. They always seemed to be more concerned with what was happening when their phone lit up than in what I had to say. Our conversations seemed to be constantly interrupted when they picked up their phone to shoot off an email, or a text, or who-knows-what. My experience with hanging out with this person was so frustrating that I often ended up having to call my parents to have them pick me up because I was disconnected from reality, I felt despondent and uncared for. I depend on my friends to ground me, and this person’s constant forays into the ethereal world of always-on, always-connected, and instantly-gratified only served to weaken my link to reality.

Then I realized I was being a hypocrite. I realized I, too was obsessed with my Instagram feed, with reading every post my friends made on Facebook, with every news story that broke on Twitter. I realized how sitting out on the stoop, to take my very essential break from whatever I was doing, wasn’t actually accomplishing what it was supposed to. When I went outside I always pulled out my phone and scrolled through my various social media accounts to see what had been happening in the lives of so many people I’ve barely seen in the past two years.

The various feeds on my phone weren’t making me feel connected with the rest of the world, weren’t bringing me closer with the friends I hadn’t seen in years. They were leading to feelings of jealousy, loneliness, and bitterness. I would look at pictures of people taken at parties, parties I couldn’t go to because of how negative an experience a party is for me and it just reminded me of how everyone else was having a good time without me. I noticed that, as I scrolled through Facebook and Instagram, I felt increasingly worse – I couldn’t help but feel as though I was alone. I was abandoned. I was worthless.

I started thinking of the friend who frustrated me so much with their constant use of their phone; how I thought they were missing out on so much because of how they were glued to that screen. I thought about how they missed out on all of the interesting things going on around them in the coffee shops we visited.

_I was doing the exact same thing._

I may have been nice enough not to be so blatant about it when hanging out with my friends, but sitting on the stoop, sitting at a sandwich shop waiting for my sandwich to be made, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room; anytime I had a spare moment – I fished my phone out of my pocket and fiddled around on some social network until I’d finished my cigarette, or my sandwich was ready, or the doctor called me into their office. Every spare moment was spent bent over my phone.

It’s perfectly normal for someone to spend time waiting for their coffee to pull out their phone and stare at it until the barista calls out their drink. It’s a sign of our times, of the convenience of being able to talk to friends instead of making idle chit-chat with a stranger. Neither good nor bad. But, for me, or for other people with illnesses that make it hard for them to participate in reality, it can be the precipitant leading to the illness expressing itself.

As a person with a mental illness, I don’t necessarily experience anything that so-called “normal” people don’t. Mental illness just amplifies, intensifies, and complicates everything. Everyone will occasionally see shadows that aren’t there out of the corner of their eye, I just so happen to see full-blown versions of those shadows from time to time. Anyways. A study2 done in August of 2013 demonstrates that I’m not alone in my experience. According to the article:

> “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

A year ago, it was standard protocol for me to call my mom late at night because I wasn’t feeling well, it was typical for me to call her nearly every evening because I didn’t know what to do with myself. Perhaps because I was looking at my phone too much, resulting in a depression I couldn’t shake. A year ago, it wasn’t unusual to be picked up by my parents every week to go and stay with them because _something_ was making me miserable. Something needed to give.

And it remained a mystery until I shared my frustrations about my friend with my therapist. The ensuing conversation gave me insight. Oftentimes we’re most critical of our own flaws found in other people.

And so I gave up social media.

That was in November of 2014 and giving up social media has been met with a significant improvement in my mental health.

It’s important for me, suffering from an illness so eager to remove me from reality, to be as grounded as possible – to be as connected as possible. Not in the sense that I’m being bombarded with information from all over the world; but in the sense that I’m aware of the little circle of reality surrounding me at all times.

When I go out to smoke, I don’t even think about taking my phone out of my pocket anymore. In the morning I’ll take it out to see what kind of email I have and to read through the Bible study in my inbox because I believe it’s important to start my day by focusing on God. Other than that, the phone stays in my pocket and I’m free to observe the world around me.

After several days of doing it, I noticed a kind of schedule on the block I live on. A rhythm to the day I’d never noticed before. There’s a couple who comes out, arm-in-arm, from the office building across the street every morning to go and grab a cup of coffee at Pablo’s. There’s my elderly neighbor who always says “smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em” when I say “hi” to him as he walks slowly up the stairs, returning from his morning walk. There’s a very precise schedule of dogs being walked: the German Shepard/Greyhound mix who walks so elegantly and reminds me of a larger version of Kerrin, the overly-excited Labrador/Corgie mix who pulls his owner around as he sniffs spot after spot, so curious about the world of smells around him. I’ve lived on this block for almost two years, and I’d never noticed any of these things before. I was completely oblivious to the schedule of my block of Cap Hill. All because of my stupid phone. I wish I’d deactivated my social media accounts sooner – not only because I’ve always been curious about just about everything but because it’s led to such an improvement in my mental health.

Life is awash with so many interesting things; _grounding_ things. It seems as though hardly a cigarette break goes by that someone doesn’t talk to me – asking to bum a smoke from me, asking for directions to an art museum or the popular breakfast place nearby, or even just saying “hi” to me as they pass. The rhythm of life in my little circle of reality is comforting – it gets me outside of my head, it gets me interacting with people, and it gets me thinking about things that seem worthwhile.

The number of phone calls to mom and dad have dropped dramatically. I’ve only been picked up maybe once or twice for illness related reasons in the four months since I got rid of social media. Mom actually commented the other night about how she hasn’t received a phone call from a sick-and-terrified me in quite a while. It’s been wonderful, I’ve felt so much more independent, I’ve felt so much happier.

When something becomes ubiquitous, we take it for granted. When we take something for granted, it doesn’t enter into the equation for possible triggers or possible problems in our lives. I imagine social media has bothered me for years, I just assumed it was something I needed to have because everyone else seems to have one. But focusing on the what-if’s of the past isn’t important. I figured it out eventually and that’s certainly enough for me.

  1. http://xkcd.com/1227/
  2. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069841

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