The Dark Side of Social Media

CommentaryHannah DrakeComment

Oy. Social Media. Where do I even begin?

Like most people these days, I absolutely have a love-hate relationship with the apps on my phone that seem to suck up so much of my time and energy. I have a hard time finding balance. I have a hard time unplugging. And sometimes I just want to delete them all.

I haven't because I truly believe social media allows for genuine connections with people who are coming to the table for the same reason. In the last two months alone, I've met two wonderful women in real life that I wouldn't know if it weren't for Instagram. I'm inspired and encouraged by people I follow on social media and I don't want to lose that.

But of course sometimes it's a bad place with a dark side and I think we've all experienced to some extent. At the very least, we have a false sense of community with people we know in real life. We feel that because we see what our friends are up to online, we're caught up in their lives and don't need actually keep in touch very well. I have absolutely fallen victim to this falsehood, and even more so now that I live far away from the vast majority of my Facebook friends.

At the very worst, social media can be incredibly damaging to our mental health, our perspective of our own life, our priorities and aspirations, and our sense of reality. A lot more people are open to talking about this dark side of the apps most of us use on a daily basis and that's really great, but the issues still remain the same and I think it manifests itself the worst on Instagram. 

When you scroll through Instagram, it's really easy to lose sight of reality. Instagram is a photo-focused app that prioritises pretty photos. Unless you're a celebrity, you can't get away with posting blurry, grainy, dark photos if you want all the followers and likes. So people are more inclined to post beautiful photos, which often results in creating a highlight real of life or sometimes just a staged version of real life. It's easy to forget that people are only sharing the beautiful things they have, the exciting things they do, the awesome places they visit, and the wonderful relationships they cultivate, but behind the scenes, they have struggles and pain and insecurities as well. There are people have gone into debt to "keep up with the Joneses" with what they see on social media, especially when it comes to the materialism of fashion bloggers and influencers. There are people who never put their phone down to enjoy the moment because they're too busy trying to capture the perfect shot or live streaming every experience. There are people who portray a picture-perfect relationship and hide mess and the troubles of their real relationship. It's all toxic and it's all hurting us.

In recent months, I've tried to be more real and honest about life and my struggles and insecurities here on my blog and on my social media platforms. Even though it may be accompanied by a pretty picture on Instagram, I'll talk about the mess in my house, the mess in my life, the mess in my heart. And I've seen a lot of people doing that too. I've seen a lot of people gently remind their followers that these are the highlights and their lives are far from perfect. Those are the people who I'm more inclined to follow because I don't need the temptation of someone who portrays a perfect life or who is always showing off new things that I could never afford.

A few years ago, I followed countless fashion bloggers on Instagram who were always posting brand new outfits and convincing me that I too needed new clothes in my closet. I had no idea that some of these people were tucking the tags into their clothes only to return them after they've been photographed or even racking up thousands of dollars in debt to always have new clothes. (Or worse yet, posting from the changing room at Nordstrom and never even taking the clothes they're sharing and linking to out of the store!) Now, when it comes to fashion, I follow far fewer accounts and try to follow people who focus on capsule wardrobes, recycling pieces, rewearing outfits, and live by the idea that less is more. I know myself and I know how easy it is for me to fall into the idea of keeping up with trends and suddenly I've convinced my shirt that I need another, slightly different white shirt or something.

I've tried to be more conscious of who I'm choosing to follow, even though it's taken a while. I've unfollowed a lot of people that I found only added negativity to my life, either directly or indirectly. If I feel jealous and envious of their social media personas, or it's clear they're not being real, I usually unfollow because I don't want to succumb to comparing my lows to someone else's highs. When I'm having a bad day, I don't need to see someone on social media showing off for the purposes of showing off. There are no rules on who you have to follow and even though we all have people who we "probably should" follow, most social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram, allow for you to mute someone to hide them from your feed. It's easier than ever to be empowered to create your own experience online and surround yourself only with people and accounts who inspire you, encourage you, and make you feel good about yourself and your life.

So even though I've cleaned out my feed and tried to create a space that inspires me and brings me positivity, I still struggle, especially with Instagram. It's so easy to compare. It's so easy to think that more followers means more opportunities, more exposure, more security, more happiness, whatever it is. To be completely honest, sometimes I look at people's accounts and think "my photos are better than hers, why does she have 10x the followers?" At the end of the day, the number of my Instagram followers isn't going to be in my obituary, this isn't that one episode of Black Mirror with Bryce Dallas Howard, so it shouldn't matter, but it does. And it's hard to even articulate why it does. One of the girls I follow recently hit 10k followers and she talked honestly about how she didn't wake up feeling any different when she hit 10k. She didn't suddenly have more money, she wasn't happier, it doesn't really change anything. She didn't want people to look at her account and think she was happy and perfect and successful based solely off a number next to your picture. It's just a number and it doesn't define who we are. The hard part is just remembering that.

The important thing to remember is that everyone has problems, even if they have 1 million followers on Instagram. Everyone struggles with things and everyone feels the pressure to put their best foot forward. Of course no one wants to read about all the bad things in your life all the time (we get that enough from our high school classmates on Facebook, amirite?), but it's okay to be honest with people about what your real life looks like. It's shocking how many people can relate when you are vulnerable about something you're going through on the internet. And it's really encouraging to read that you're not alone. The number of people who follow us on any social media platform doesn't determine if we're good or bad people. It doesn't count what's in your heart. It doesn't know what your dreams are. It doesn't consider the hard work you've put in to get to where you are. It's just a silly number and at the end of the day, it doesn't define you and it doesn't matter.

The internet can be a lot of things. It can be a scary place, a dangerous place. But it can also bring you a lot of amazing opportunities and introduce you to a lot of incredible people. The space you take up online is what you make of it. If you want it to be a positive place that makes you feel good about yourself, you can create that. And when you need a break, take one. Get realigned with what truly matters in life. Step away and take a breath. No one is going to die if you miss a day posting on Instagram or take a break from your blog. It'll all still be there when you come back to it, if you come back to it. And it'll all be okay.

My Struggle with Mental Health

CommentaryHannah Drake8 Comments

Last month was Mental Health Awareness Month, as it has been every May since 1949. 

Last week, two individuals in the public eye died by suicide. Kate Spade, a fashion designer and businesswoman, was found dead in New York on 5 June. Anthony Bourdain, a chef, author, explorer, and television personality, was found dead in France on 8 June. 

A lot of people I know or follow on social media shared the number for the suicide hotline, links to various articles, strategies for dealing with mental health and reaching out to those who might be fighting the battle, and of course their condolences for both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and their families. A number of people also drew attention to the fact that these two people weren't the only two who died by suicide that week--or even that day.

Did you know that each year, nearly 45,000 Americans die by suicide? (via American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)

Did you know that suicide rates are climbing, up 25% since 1999? (via Center for Disease Control)

Did you know that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds and 2nd for 24 to 35-year-olds? (via Do Something)

Did you know that in 2015, 54% of people who died by suicide had no known mental health condition? (via Center for Disease Control)

Did you know that on average, 1 person dies by suicide every 16.2 minutes? (via Do Something)

Did you know that for every 1 suicide, there are 25 attempts? (via American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)

I've had a public online presence since 2009 via blogs and social media and there have been many times when I've considered writing this post and then decided my story doesn't matter and it isn't worth sharing. Today, I've decided that it does and it is.

I was in middle school when I first started having suicidal thoughts. I was completely immersed in a world of cyber bullying and mean girl cliques. And I was on both sides as the victim and the bully. Self worth and self esteem came from what my friends and boys thought of me. And no one is meaner than middle school girls, so it was rough for all of us. I don't remember ever telling anyone what I considered, but the thoughts came and went. The political tides in our social circle were always turning and in a few days, there would be a new target for ridicule and the cycle would continue.

In high school, those thoughts periodically came back. I continued to struggle with friends. I was sometimes bullied, but more often just simply left out, which I often found more hurtful. I still considered my value to be whatever someone decided it would be, whether that was an individual--a friend or a guy--or a group of people. High school, like middle school, was often lonely. Things did get better my junior and senior year when I fell into a really great group of friends, but I over time learned that the group of girls I knew from church weren't immune to drama and even mean girl tactics, even though it wasn't as hard with them.

College was truly the worst of it. I made all new friends and our hobbies were meeting guys and partying. And those two things usually went hand-in-hand. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I dated a guy I had liked most of the year, but our relationship was rocky at best. When he ended things for the second time, it was really difficult for me. That weekend, before I went out to yet another party with my friends, I took a few painkillers for a headache, but then just kept taking them. And I started drinking. They weren't what I would consider serious painkillers, you could find them in any medicine cabinet, but a few hours later, after I don't even know how many pills or drinks, I wasn't feeling well. My friends panicked and called an ambulance to come get me from our dorm. I was taken to the hospital and given activated charcoal to counter the pills and alcohol. I was sent home that night and, while I had to meet with my RA at least once that I can remember, I was back in class on Monday like everything was fine. However, during my stay in the ER, the doctor--whether he was an MD or a psychiatrist, I don't remember--asked me multiple times if I had taken any other painkillers, emphasising that one of them that I might have easy access too (again, found in most medicine cabinets) is particularly dangerous.

A few months later, my whole world kind of collapsed. I had just started my sophomore year. I was living at home, about 20 minutes from campus and had scheduled my classes so poorly. I didn't have a break all day and my classes were scattered across campus making it difficult to get there in just 10 minutes. But mainly, I was completely abandoned by my friends. There had been a minor incident at the fraternity house where we hung out all the time. If I remember correctly, I think I had slipped on the roof, but wasn't anywhere close to falling. So when my friends and I were getting ready to go to a party at that frat, I got a text from a friend who was both in the frat and dating one of my friends that the new president didn't want me hanging around the house anymore because I was a liability or something. Even though my friends were really kind at first, somehow things got out of control quickly. My friends were forced to choose between their boyfriends and their whole social circle and me. They didn't choose me. And some of them turned on me viciously. I remember being in class quietly sobbing as I got bullied by two different people via text. It was really difficult. And while I have some perspective now, as a 19 year old, my life seemed like it was over.

So I decided to take things into my own hands. A few weeks before, I had fainted at my on-campus job and hit my head, so the doctor suggested I take the painkiller that I had been grilled about in the ER a few months before, even though I had avoided it ever since learning how dangerous it could be. I bought a bottle of that painkiller and took it as the doctor prescribed for a few days. One night, I just didn't stop taking them. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning feeling awful. I stumbled into my mom's bedroom and told her what I had done. She rushed me to the ER and I was told that if I had come in any later, there wouldn't have been much they could do for me. I spent a few days in the hospital before the doctor recommend I be admitted to the psychiatric ward.

There were a handful of other patients there, we had a lot of free time and a lot of counselling. I ordered quesadillas for most of my meals and they always came with a purple tropical flower. I wasn't allowed to have sweat pants or sweat shirts with strings. My family could visit and I think I read a lot and played a lot of Scrabble. I spent a week there and I remember feeling more at peace than I had for a while. When I got discharged, my roommate gave me a Siamese cat that she had made before I got there. I still have that little clay cat and it continues to serve as a reminder of that time of healing.

I feel I need to pause here to say that there were a lot of factors at play that lead to me making the choices that I made. After nearly a decade, it's hard to remember the thoughts I had and the lies I told myself that also contributed to my choices. Maybe that's for the best. What remains now are these monumental shifts and events in my life, particularly my social life, that I can pinpoint as sort of a cause and effect, but that wasn't the whole story in my head at the time. I didn't make these decisions solely because a few people left me out or left me behind. I didn't make these decisions solely because a few (or more than a few) mean things were said to me. I made these decisions because everything piled up and it felt like it was too much to sift through anymore.

I had been in and out of therapy for years. I had been on anti-depressants for a while. And while I'm not doing either of those things anymore and it's been over eight years since that last visit to the hospital, there hasn't been a quick fix for me at all. There have been stretches of time when I could barely get out of bed, when I could barely eat. There have been days when I daydreamed about a time when I was "more courageous" to at least try to take matters into my own hands and wanted to do it again.

Things have been better the last few years. For almost two years before I moved, I had a job I really loved that truly fulfilled me. I've met some really incredible people, particularly through church, in the last few years that have changed my life. I met an incredible man who has agreed to meet me where I'm at--wherever that may be--and has chosen to love me. And even though my professional life isn't where I'd like it to be right now, things are mostly better. But the last year has been difficult as well. I was unemployed for six months and there were days when I didn't want to get off the couch or couldn't change out of my pajamas. There have been days since I moved when I didn't want to make friends here. There have been days since I moved when I felt my life had no purpose.

Yes, it feels like I'm in a much better place most days, but I'm always aware that things could change at any time. I've realised that I have anxiety and that's another thing I need to work on. I'm trying to become habitual in things that make me feel good, but there are still days when I just can't do something that I know will shift my perspective. I'm getting comfortable with my emotions. I check in with the most basic emotions (sadness, anger, fear, excitement, joy, tenderness, shame, peace, hope, gratitude) and track how I'm feeling everyday. I'm proud of the fact that I've learned to recognise them and have more control over them, but I'm at least more accepting of them, even if they're "negative". I try not to let other people determine my worth, but that's an everyday battle. I'm also terrified that if the day ever comes, I'll get severe postpartum depression.

In the last week, a lot of people have been sharing the suicide hotline--and that's not a bad thing to share. In the US, you can call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. But I recently saw a tweet from Chrissy Teigen that I could completely understand.

Sometimes people will seek out help on their own via friends, family, or lifelines. Sometimes people need you to wade into their darkness with them to pull them out.

I want to share the bullet points from an article from HuffPost called How To Talk About Suicide In A Way That's Actually Helpful.

  • Realise that self-harm can happen to someone you know.
  • Know that bringing it up isn’t going to make things worse.
  • Talk about the topic of suicide like you would any other health condition.
  • Open up about any difficult experiences you might be going through.
  • Really listen when someone is talking during the discussion.
  • Ask direct, pointed questions.
  • Check any bias at the door.
  • Accept that you will feel uncomfortable — and that’s OK.
  • Don’t downplay the issue.
  • Speak up over staying silent.

If you're surprised to read my story, consider it a valuable lesson. People can put on a face both in public and online. They can hide behind what's really going on in their hearts and in their minds. Pay attention to how people act, to what people post on social media and reach out if something doesn't seem right. Be kind to people you know and strangers you encounter. Practice random acts of kindness whenever you can, no matter how small or big the gesture. Don't discount the kindness and love you spread because you never know what impact it has on someone's life in that moment or going forward. Be a part of the change in how we talk about mental health so people know it's okay to ask for help and they don't need to be ashamed of what they're feeling or afraid of what people will think.

If you've struggled with thoughts of suicide in the past, tell someone you can trust. Let them know that this has been on your mind before and might come up again. Be honest with them about what to look for and tell them how they might help you. Even if you're feeling better right now. I truly hope you'll seek the help you need. That help might look different for everyone, whether it be therapy, medication, or something else. I encourage you to build a routine of things that make you happy into your everyday life--no matter how simple or small or short. I encourage you to hold on to things that are worth fighting for, things that are worth living for. No matter what it is, hold on to it. There was a time when I seriously thought "I cannot die without knowing how Harry Potter ends." I clung to that until I didn't feel like I had to grip so tightly. 

I have decided to donate 50% of the proceeds from my online store, Shop Joy42, to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention from today through 30 June. Creativity has been a fantastic outlet and release for me, as well as being incredibly therapeutic at times. In my INSPIRE collection, I set out to create prints that I would want hanging in my home to serve as an everyday reminder of my worth, my strength, and my capabilities, like the ENOUGH print and the GRACE print. I hope that you'll help my make a difference for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

I heard on a podcast the other day "Living a vibrant and meaningful life is supposed to be messy." (via The Goal Digger Podcast, episode 160) That really resonated with me as I thought about the journey I've been on with my mental health. But I want to leave you with this today:

Your story matters.

And so does mine. It took me a long time to realise that--and some days I still don't even believe it--but it matters. 

Your story matters. You matter.

Why Wasn't I There?

CommentaryHannah DrakeComment

As I mentioned in my first post this month (Okay, Let's Do This), I want to start posting more regularly about things going on in the world. At times it can feel really scary and overwhelming and some days I'm constantly consuming news and politics. I appreciate that so many people want to get away from it, but these are also the realities of our world and we have to deal with it. So instead of turning into a political blog, I want to use this space from time to time to talk about things going on in our society, which sometimes might involve politics.

During my entire hiatus, I couldn't for the life of me think of what I might post about today as I sat down to plan my posts for the month. And then it occurred to me there might be a reason for that: I've been on the sidelines for about a year and a half due to what I now recognise is anxiety. Let me explain.

On 20 January 2017, the first Women's March was held in DC, across the country and across the globe. The closest march was in Denver and even though when rumours first started surfacing, I spoke with some co-workers about going, I didn't. I didn't leave my room that morning, but I did donate to Planned Parenthood from the comfort of my own bed. My friend Taylor did go however and at work on Monday, she described what an incredible experience it had been. I was so jealous that she was a part of history, that she would be able to tell her kids about being a part of it one day. I vowed that I wouldn't miss that opportunity again.

But then there was the Climate Change March and the Tax March and the First Anniversary of the Women's March and then the March of Our Lives. I missed every single one of them, even though every single one of them was about something that's important to me.

Now I realise that sitting them out is a result of anxiety I didn't recognise before. I was terrified that people would use marches for causes that I believe in to attack peaceful protesters and incite fear and chaos. As far as I know, that hasn't happened at any of these protests, and yet I continue to choose to hang out at home, on the sidelines, with my anxiety.

I'm not really sure where to go from here, but I hope that I can overcome that fear and that anxiety to participate in something meaningful in the future. I always come back to a question from David Letterman's interview of President Obama on his new Netflix series. It was something like this: What will I tell my children I did to fight injustice in the world? Why wasn't I there?

I need to come up with an awfully better answer than hiding in my house, avoiding the crowds and afraid of what might happen.

If you're out there peacefully fighting for what you believe in, I appreciate what you're doing and the courage it takes to do that. If you, like me, struggle to take the steps to getting there due to anxiety, it's okay. There are other ways to participate and other ways to make your voice heard. Maybe one day you'll be able to show up at a march, maybe you'll only be able to show up in another way. The important piece is fighting for what you believe in with the tools you have.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King Jr.