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Mental Disharmony and the Instagram Mask

A dim, rainy afternoon in August. This summer was not meant to be warm. We didn’t get a chance to shake our wintered souls. We lived in a sort of trapped heat, a fishbowl that had the skin of an overcast sky, blocking any escape for humidity. Sweating in the rain underneath a puffa jacket and thin t-shirt became commonplace.

I’d like to relieve myself from the thought that my entire mood can be dictated by the weather. Perhaps I need the special lightbulbs for people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Four personalities, that’s not too many.

It’s especially difficult in Ireland to live in the aftermath of what were ‘ground-breaking!’ temperatures the previous year. This was the grieving period. I talked about it to a man who takes the shuttle bus with me to work. The one who makes a point of giving parking instructions to the driver. On this day, he got on late and squeezed into the back next to me.

‘See, we had a scorcher last year. It’s only ever one in four.’

‘But it’s getting hotter everywhere in the world.’

‘Not at all. Climate change? I’d like to see us getting one of them heatwaves.’

Everyone was talking about it. I eavesdropped in lifts, coffee queues, phone calls. Mournful confessions of changing weekend plans, tensed shoulders that held bags of beach towels and sun lotion, capri shorts that had been soaked on the way to the office. The weather is not small talk for us. It is of genuine concern.

Even still, I like the soul of a wet summer. It gave me time to consider my reality and not get high off heated daydreams. For the most part, the past three months felt like an infected sleep. As I began to nod off, something would interrupt R.E.M – my cat climbing in from the window with a drunken stumble, the yawn of a midnight aeroplane, the scrapings of the mice that live underneath the floorboards, smelling the return of the cat.

‘I thought I’d feel happier in a couple’

Each day, I would wake with a heavy, unrested head and eyes that couldn’t hide from the hospital yellow of corporate lighting. Living in the city, cushioned by the recent shoot up of tech companies, meant that I was never in perfect, solitary darkness. Except for inside my mind, which is not exactly the same thing as getting blackout blinds.

Depressive moods are painfully boring for all involved. The after-dinner crying and mood swings did not attract sympathy. They were a burden. I was a burden. I don’t know who came up with the vapid phrase ‘It’s OK not to be OK,’ but it’s been circling social media like a growing tumour. It is definitely not OK not to be OK. And Instagram bloggers writing ‘You can DM me anytime!’ underneath a copy-and-paste list of helpline phone numbers will not make it any more OK.

What’s the in-between phase? The ‘I haven’t been diagnosed and I don’t support self-diagnosis but there are depressive signs and panic attacks that erupt from some type of unnamed trauma.’ That’s where I was. It’s less dark than the darkest place. But at times, it felt pretty close. There was no fixed reason for the crying. And going through it all while someone was watching meant I had to keep making up reasons.

‘I’ve switched birth control, my hormones are adjusting.’

‘Work has been hectic. It’s sucking all the energy away for the things I want to do.’

‘I’m not sure if living in Dublin is best for me, what with the rent crisis, and how they treat the homeless. It’s hard to see that. Are we supposed to just step over them? Is that what this government wants?’

I thought I’d feel happier in a couple, as a pair. There has always been two of me. One therapist mused that my feelings of incompleteness comes from my twin sister exiting the womb first.

‘She left you behind.’

It’s an interesting theory. I think it was simpler than that, this time around. I wasn’t protecting my vocation. Everybody has one. Some have many. Mine is currently tied up in a book. Is it possible, I wonder, for me to become mentally sick by not maintaining a writing schedule? It can be scary to think of how much it means. How much it fills. It might be the only thing I am sure about. And I’m not even that sure.

A billion monthly active users

The same therapist asked what it would feel like if I changed my Instagram page from selfies to updates on the novel. Pictures of quaint cafés and abandoned cups of coffee, vlogs of chapter progress, inspirational quotes. Well, that would be all well and good if courting still existed in real life. But nowadays, the only way for people to know that you are single is through your social media profile. My friends thought I should announce my updated status like it was a news report.

‘It needs to be a little cryptic. Poke fun at yourself. Take a picture of a Marks and Spencer’s meal deal for one with a crying-lauging emoji. Something like wild night in.’

‘Seems morbid. I’m not getting divorced.’

‘No no, it’s endearing, it’s cute! Or you could screenshot those headphones that say Single Use Only. Underline the single part.’

I took neither suggestion. I haven’t downloaded any dating apps: first, because I don’t want to date and secondly, because there’s no need. The last few times I’ve spoken to guys on a night out, they asked for my profile name instead of a number.

Only recently did it occur to me that I labour under a dangerous misconception: that I have control over how people see me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this fantasy. Instagram has fuelled one billion of their monthly users to think the same – why else would we put so much effort and value into what we post?

Of course we can control how little or how much we post, who sees what and who can message us privately. But there are many uncontrollables too. We have no say over what gets attention or the most likes, or what type of people follow us or what they are expecting. And we can’t decide who watches our weekly, hourly, half-hourly live updates. This last is the most frustrating. I currently have two thousand people watching my stories. The last time I liked someone, I caught myself scrolling those two thousand mini profile names, searching for the name I wanted. One day, I counted the lot eight times. One thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine Insta handles just to place my thumb over the one that mattered. That’s a lot of scrolling.

‘Orbiting’

The best advice I have received has been from my sister, who said: ‘If someone ghosts you, don’t make it mean anything when they still watch your stories. It means absolutely nothing.’

This was both a relief and a let-down. In case you are unaware of the term ‘ghosting’ the Merriam Webster defines it as: ‘Informal: the practice of suddenly ending all contact with a person without explanation, especially in a romantic relationship.’

Perhaps this phenomenon has always existed. But in a dual-lens reality, where our lives are being self-documented on this billion-user app, ghosting is taking over the dating scene.

Instagram seems to have exacerbated the ghosting epidemic by adding the option of ‘orbiting’ after ghosting. Orbiting can be explained by giving zero contact back to a person, usually in the middle of a dating spell, and then continuing to follow, watch, and ‘orbit’ over their profile. Take for example this story of a friend of mine, who was having, she fervently insists, great sex with a guy for a couple of weeks. He ghosted her in the middle of a text conversation about what film they should go and see together. He then unfollowed her but continued to watch all her stories.

‘So, he is searching for my name and going onto my profile just to see what I’m up to. That means something!’

It didn’t. He was back with his ex three weeks later. He continues to orbit happily.

‘It seems the more you give, the less you get back’

Let’s add another important phrase: ‘the thirst trap’. A how-to dating article from the New York Times[1] told me that I will be able to see if someone is interested in me by putting out a thirst trap – a suggestive photo, one where you look attractive or pose at an angle such that your legs appear longer than they really are; or you turn up the saturation on the image to give the illusion of a sun-kissed body. If the person takes the bait – likes it, comments, or the ultimate goal, DM’s you – then you have the answer you want.

I think I was unknowingly sending out thirst traps the weeks before my relationship broke down. It seemed to get more likes the less clothes I wear. I don’t resent that. I’m not blaming society or anything. But I’ve learned that a couple of hundred likes for a bikini picture will not make me feel better. Any positive comments and ‘Yaaas queen’s’ are usually silenced by the fear of coming across as vacuous and self-obsessed.

Women’s bodies have been sexualised for decades with little control or choice; it’s ironic that now that we are starting to take ownership of that sexuality on a platform that in many ways is an empowering marketplace for us, we get judged for doing so.

Times where I was posting the thirstiest traps were also times where I felt the most depressed. The itch in me to keep up with this dual setting of virtual and real: the first where I have well-placed make-up, regularly sea swim and make vegan lasagne with homemade garlic bread, was never satisfied. It seems the more you give, the less you get back in real life. I think it’s important to question what we lose when we give so much to something that ultimately thrives off ego expression.

Recently I posted a selfie in good lighting with the caption ‘getting that Vitamin D.’ On the same day I had to take two Xanax after an hour-long panic attack that caused me to hyperventilate and bang my head against a glass table until it swelled. It’s harder to see the hypocrisy in the moment. It’s harder still when the only person who can see the hypocrisy is yourself. Instagram allowed me to maintain an existence when I didn’t want to exist.

‘I go swimming without filming it’

One of my favourite bands CocoRosie have a song called ‘The Sea is Calm’. This is how the last couple of weeks have sounded. If the Amazon forest is the earth’s lungs, then the sea is our blood. Washing us clean, restoring, renewing again. I’m out of the darkness, looking back on it like an estranged friend whose name escapes me. Hearing the soft patter of my mother’s slippers on the wooden floorboards and being coated in the damp air of salt and bamboo leaves. This saved me.

Back at home in our lilac beachtown, I’ve found renewed love for my sisters. I didn’t think it was possible for that love to strengthen. There’s always been so much of it. I see the babies every other day, feeding their sleepy eyes with berries for breakfast; filling their cups with chocolate milk and kisses. I go swimming without filming it. The grip of Instagram has weakened.

There was no revenge picture. I’ve stopped looking at story views. I’ve been shit at putting up pictures, just blurry videos of being stoned with my forever friends surrounded by someone’s pet cat. I am rich in love. I feel thankful for the rainy summer. Sitting inside, feeling trapped, facing darkness and finding release, that probably would never have happened if we’d had a Climate Change heatwave.

And only two more years of shitty summers to go, then we’re onto the magical fourth.

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[1] Valeria Safronova, ‘Instagram Is Now a Dating Platform, Too. Here’s How It Works.’, The New York Times, December 21st, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/21/style/instagram-thirst-traps-dating-breakups.html.

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