Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.
I deleted Twitter and Facebook. To 99.9999999% of the world’s population, my absence is irrelevant. To a small pocket of the feminist movement, my absence holds some level of significance. My mum was a bit surprised, because there were times when the only way I could have spent longer with my phone was if it had been surgically attached to my hand, but she was also pleased for exactly that reason. So other than a few feminists and my mum it’s unlikely that many people are really bothered. Still, there have been quite a few messages asking a) where I went b) if I’m well c) when I’m coming back – enough that I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the matter.
The first point to make is that I have a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. I’m sick. Mental illness continuously shapes how I move through the world. That doesn’t always filter through the bright and shiny lens of social media where, even if we consciously attempt to resist building an idealised narrative around ourselves, only the good parts of our lives are consistently visible to others. On Twitter I tried to communicate some of the realities of how mental illness impacts my life without undermining my own privacy. It’s hard to gauge how successful that was. But I stopped performing wellness, because making mental illness invisible contributes to a culture of shame – it’s what leads people to conceal their problems rather than seeking help. But something shifted. My mental health declined. Twitter is all about communication, sharing thoughts and ideas. And there were nights when all I could think of, the only idea that presented itself, was suicide. Which, even in that state, I realised Tweeting about probably wasn’t the best plan. I’d retweet the @SoSadToday Twitter account in the hope of conveying no more than a socially acceptable level of despair.
Social media isn’t a great environment when you’re feeling fragile. Too many engagements become more about confrontation than a meeting of the minds, more about likes and petty point-scoring than genuine connection. There is an abundance of cruelty in digital spaces – even the feminist ones, which is an ongoing source of dismay. How women choose to interact with women who hold less power than they do – that is the ultimate indicator of how strong their feminist politics hold. Altogether too often, the women on the margins of the feminist movement are considered unworthy recipients of kindness by the women at the centre of the feminist movement. This hurts to witness, and it hurts to be subject to. No feminist should be kind only to the women who have something to offer her, or the women with whom associating may prove advantageous. Maybe more women should start thinking about kindness as a form of feminist praxis.
Choose to be kind friends, choose to be kind:
Not duplicitous, not two-faced,
Not passive-aggressive, not dishonest,
Not spiteful, not cowardly anonymous.
Have good grace, bring out the best, don’t stress.
When faced with a choice, choose kindness.
– Jackie Kay, Kinder
So often women of colour contact me because they feel overwhelmed by the cruelty white women direct towards them in feminist spaces, the casualness with which racism is weaponised against them. And I try to be supportive, try to listen to their truths that have been wilfully ignored elsewhere, try to give practical advice when possible. But it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry. That anger isn’t abstract – I feel a deep rage that women of colour are treated as expendable in a movement to which we are essential. I hate that our pain is brushed off as a mild inconvenience by the very women who cause it.
Being stuck between men of colour and white women is like being trapped between a rock and a hard place – women of colour are encouraged to accept misogyny or racism as our lot in life and liberation politics, depending upon which group we’re aligned with. Men of colour are quick to assure us that whatever misogyny they subject us to is small fry in comparison to the harms white supremacy acts upon women of colour. White women fall over themselves in the rush to claim that racism is a minor issue compared to the real threat of patriarchy.
I am tentatively prepared to reach out and build solidarity with both groups, but it is a sad irony that men of colour and white women fail to grasp that they each give women of colour as little reason to trust them as the other. Both groups represent a risk as well as the potential reward of coalition building within liberation politics. It would almost be amusing that men of colour and white women both use one another as a foil to convince women of colour that they are the less bad option, were the consequences not so devastating.
The idea of a digital detox came one afternoon when I was looking at my computer screen thinking I’d rather kill myself than keep looking at social media. It felt like death would be better than get suckered back into the cesspit of cruelty that white middle class feminists enact to avoid being held accountable for their racism or classism. Which is probably a disproportionate response but, as we have established, mental illness manifests in messy ways. And then I realised there was a third way: I didn’t have to kill myself, and I didn’t have to absorb any more of the toxic practices masquerading as feminism either. I could just delete social media, distance myself from that deluge of cruelty, and spend time doing things that make life feel worthwhile. Which is exactly what I have done.
I didn’t technically go anywhere – or rather, I went to all the same places I usually do, but without posting on social media. Mostly, I’ve been in my house. I’ve knitted one and a half scarves and crocheted just under half of a blanket. One week I went walking in the highlands, which was beautiful. Periodically I visit the local library for more books. Most days I try to fit in a walk by the river, because the writer’s lifestyle runs the risk of being sedentary. I’ve also been cooking proper meals as a form of self-care, trying to look after my body and mind both. And I’ve been present in all of those things, giving them my full focus.
Our lives have become very small, limited by the tiny size of the screens we peer down at. Sometimes the whole world and everything that’s important to us seems to be completely contained within the tiny square of glass lying in our hands.
– Tanya Goodin
There’s something insidious about how we use scrolling through social media as a way of numbing, distracting from emotions we’d rather not experience. It’s easy to do, but sooner or later we need to pay the debt on everything that’s repressed – with interest. So instead of looking for a diversion in any of the devices I own, I’ve been sitting with those difficult things and trying to resolve or make peace with them. Mostly that’s going well. So, to answer your questions, I’m not exactly alright but I’m doing the things that are necessary to become alright.
Being online has become increasingly difficult as my profile has grown. At first, being heard on Twitter was a revelation – it was the first context where I ever felt properly seen and listened to. When we talk about race or gender politics, there’s a big risk that someone would rather gaslight than have their investment in the status quo called into question. To be brought into a space where looking directly at systems of power becomes unavoidable isn’t easy, and remaining there takes courage – not everyone is brave enough. Early experiences of being dismissed as imagining things when I talked about how racism or sexism manifested made me reluctant to do so, and it was only through developing a radically feminist consciousness that I found the conviction, vocabulary, and inclination to be a dissenting voice. The women within various radical feminist communities on Twitter were vital to that process – and so, even now, I think of Twitter fondly. But my relationship with that space is no longer so positive or straightforward. As my public visibility grows, so does the scale of expectations placed upon me. It’s disconcerting to have knowledge and skill projected onto me at times when washing or feeding myself is a profound challenge.
Recently I’ve fallen in love with Bojack Horseman. I’m currently watching it again for the third time. It’s this zany black comedy about a horse/man (there are anthropomorphised animals living alongside people – don’t ask) who was in the most popular family sitcom of the ‘90s. He skyrocketed to fame. Fast forward to the present day, and it’s immediately clear that hyper-visibility has crushed every functional aspect of Bojack’s life. The series starts with him having been out of work for seventeen years, immobilised by the twin spectres of success and failure. Bojack clings to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which makes for amusing but poignant viewing, in order to escape the pervasive sense of existential dread that follows him everywhere. The opening sequence is mesmerising. It shows us Bojack waking up in his opulent Hollywoo(d) home, moving through the film studio where he works, sliding past a glamorous premiere, reeling through a fancy after party. And with every scene change the panic in Bojack’s eyes grows increasingly more apparent.
In some respects, I find Bojack very relatable – he’s wildly depressed, which he doesn’t always handle well, and struggling to cope with the ramifications of being in the public eye. I’m a moderately popular essayist, a hyper-visible Black woman on the internet. It’s not fame, and neither would I want it to be. But anonymity is gone. I don’t get to blend in and be invisible in certain contexts, and with any degree of power comes responsibility. Margaret Atwood wrote that “a word after a word after a word is power”, which is certainly true. Words have given me power – at least, substantially more power than I had before claiming voice and publishing my work.
I try not to devolve into a performance of myself. I try, for my own sanity, to maintain boundaries between what is public and what is everyday. I try to keep my personal life and my @ClaireShrugged life in harmony, to keep balance between being Claire Heuchan and Sister Outrider, which isn’t always easy in the face of expectation. Social media and the extent to which our lives are now lived online complicates all of those objectives. It was discombobulating, the number of times I’d move from digital to analogue space and back again. Occupying digital space has given me voice, but becoming hyper-visible in digital space has to some extent distorted my sense of self. Marina Diamandis writes about this conflict with real insight:
I can’t remember when I first became conscious of it but I started to feel like there were two parts of me, artist self and private self, and there was nothing in between to link the two anymore. I was one or the other, and neither part of my personality could be present in the same environment….When one part of a personality dominates, other parts shrink and life can take on an unreal, two-dimensional quality. I felt confused as to why I no longer felt like I fit into the world I’d built.
Diamandis also wrote a song called Disconnect about the cycle of anxiety and alienation caused by reliance on social media. Her lyrics, as ever, capture a lot of relevant details about modern life. That song has basically become my anthem. I’ve switched off to look after my health and take a breath. I’m taking the space and time to recalibrate. My goal is to integrate my public/creative self with the person I am when nobody is watching, or at least find a way for the different aspects of me to complement one another. During this digital detox, I’m also trying to evaluate social media’s impact upon my mental health.
I know there’s a correlation between my wellbeing falling apart and internet usage – it’s not the reason I’m depressed or anxious, but both my depression and anxiety are exacerbated by certain elements of digital space. Twenty years from now, there will be a wide array of writing on the impact of living within a digital golden age – in particular, the effects of coming of age in a time when smart technology is omnipresent. There’s a reason Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so many Silicon Valley executives have chosen to raise their children in tech-free environments. Kids using phones for three hours per day are significantly more likely to be suicidal, and there’s no obvious reason to believe it’s any different for adults.
At present it seems unlikely that I’ll come back to Facebook. I don’t want to be added to any more so-called radical feminist groups where cruelty is currency. Those groups are never as private as women think (I’m not even on Facebook now, yet still I ended up with receipts), and their behaviour is not without consequence – the foremost of which is harm to women with less power than them. I don’t want to watch any more of the bullshit performative dramas that certain feminists (who are mostly white/middle class/straight) wage against other feminists (who are mostly of colour/working class/lesbian). If only a middle class woman weaponising racism and classism against her fellow feminists generated the same outrage as a working class woman using the word cunt in anger… I don’t want Facebook pressuring me to reply to messages on my Sister Outrider page at 11pm, when I’m trying to chill out and knit with my grandmother, in order to maintain an “excellent response rate.” The idea of being permanently publicly available is, frankly, horrifying. Facebook is so much needless stress. Facebook makes me feel tired and unhappy. Facebook is cancelled. The only things I’m going to miss are the depression memes and all the photos of my friends’ adorable brown babies.
I am tired of explaining
And of seeing so much hating
In the very same safe haven
Where I used to just see helping.
– Amanda Palmer, Bigger on the Inside
As for Twitter, I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. There was some joy on that site, and meaning in the connections I made there. There was also a lot of messed up shit. Last year there was a police investigation into the abuse I received following my first article in the Guardian – some of it was Tweets, some of it was comments left on this blog. There is one particular memory that stands out: crying silently as I printed out the abuse at the request of the two officers who visited the house, praying my grandmother wouldn’t come into the room and see any of the words in front of me. I’d put all the relevant screenshots into a file, thinking I could just email it to the police, but apparently their system wasn’t up to that. So I printed them all out, one by one. Not going to lie: that was a traumatic experience. After that day it was impossible to go on deluding myself that the digital and the physical worlds could be kept at a safe distance from one another; that online abuse didn’t seep into my everyday life.
I love Book Twitter, Black Twitter, and Gay Twitter far too much for this goodbye to be final. But my way of being on Twitter will have to change somehow, when the time comes. It can’t absorb so much of me when I have so little to give. There were two instances last year when I could have met with feminist friends from other countries and had to cancel at the last minute because I’d shifted from passively to actively suicidal. Both times I was honest about being ill, if not the exact nature of the problem. Is there a polite shorthand for “sorry to flake on you, but I’m trying really hard not to kill myself and need to remain in a safe, controlled environment until this feeling passes”, or is that wishful thinking? Sometimes literally all of my energy has to go on not self-harming. Last summer I made a series of desperate calls to suicide prevention hotlines. Things got bad. Each time the person on the other end would talk me down, explaining that my family and friends would not, in fact, be better off if I died. At the time I’d thought it was just a natural dip in my mental health, which has been completely destabilised since my grandfather died in 2016, but one factor behind these oscillations is caused by being hyper-visible in digital space.
There are those who probably worry I’m exposing vulnerable parts of myself. And they’re right. Those same women probably think this is unwise in a time when so much hostility is being directed towards those of us who practice a feminism that seeks to dismantle every facet of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. And possibly they’re right about that too. Maybe not, though – I think part of the problem within digital feminist spaces is how quickly some forget (or ignore) the humanity of women whose questions take them to uncomfortable places of critical reflection. There are layers of contradictory meanings, different stories told to different women, levels of duplicity that need to be weeded out and replaced with radical honesty. The only way to enact a lasting, meaningful change is to be part of it, so this is my truth: I’m mentally unstable and heartsick over cruelty.
A number of feminist friends have been in touch since my digital departure. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg tells us, no actual friendship needs Facebook. The comments of one friend in particular (you know her as @Bigoldsupermoon) stayed with me. We were texting one afternoon, slagging off the commercialised idea of wellness that wealthy white women sell – the steamed vaginas and at-home coffee enema kits that make up Gwyneth Paltrow’s unfortunate cultural legacy. And then a notification came through. I’d turned off notifications for every app, save WordPress, and couldn’t help but be curious: the alert showed me that someone had linked to my blog at the words “crazy lesbian”, a description entirely more accurate than the OP realised. He went on to argue that, owing to the Bible and Qur’an, “we can also conclude through divine law that feminism is a Satanic doctrine.” I know I shouldn’t read any of this trash, but it was actually quite nice – I hadn’t felt that comparatively sane for months.
Anyway, Moon suggested that I write about the blesbiarchy – her term for my flavour of
Black lesbian feminism – through the lens of mental illness and self-care. Moon is basically a genius. The idea stayed with me, as all ideas that demand to be written into being do. I’ve put together a little playlist to go with it, songs that I’ve had on loop through this digital detox.
- Disconnect, by Clean Bandit (feat. Marina and the Diamonds)
- Enjoy the Silence, by Depeche Mode
- Bigger on the Inside, by Amanda Palmer
- Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, by Bessie Smith
- Mama Said, by Dusty Springfield
- Uncomfortable, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
- Fatal Gift, by Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton
- Fade Together, by Franz Ferdinand
- Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, by Nina Simone
Marina Diamandis. (2017). It Takes a Long Time to Get Over Yourself
Tanya Goodin. (2017). OFF. Your Digital Detox for a Better Life
Jackie Kay, ed. (2017). Ten Poems of Kindness