Before social media, whenever I would get home from school, I would be all done with socializing for the day. The world was outside my door and all I had to do was lock it for my privacy to be secured – not just physically but mentally. Indoors there was a feeling of safety and comfort. The world was out. I was in. I could relax completely.
In contrast, social media makes me feel that outsiders are with me at all times, even after I lock my door. I essentially am carrying legions of pixelated people around with me on my smart phone – which stays with me all day. When the people who “live inside” my phone talk to me, my phone chirps an audible alert. Someone is talking to you. This is a very big deal. Respond, respond and do it now or…or…
Or what? Or I will be thought rude? Or a mega-ton asteroid will shatter the moon into billions of fragments which will pound, pummel, and obliterate the Earth into space confetti?
It is not just that I sometimes feel like invisible digitized people are milling around in my apartment. I often feel like they are in my head. My mind replays online messages. Often, while reading or writing, I will think of a response to something someone has messaged to me – and feel compelled to message them at once lest I forget what I am going to say.
I am always painfully scrupulous about what I say online because I sometimes have the impression that my online friends are shunning me. In most cases, probably no one is actually mad at me, but for some reason, whenever there is any discrepancy in a pattern of social behavior, my mind zeroes in on one, and only one, conclusion: They are mad at you! What did you do???
As a result I strenuously try to avoid saying anything that could possibly, on any level, be misconstrued as insulting or disagreeable, in order to avoid the maddening questions of “What did I do? Was there a misunderstanding? Did I hurt them in some way? How do I ask them about it without sounding crazy?”
Instead of attempting to mind-read, which is impossible, I should be asking important questions like, “How can I make my stories more interesting?” Or “What do I want my next novel to be about?” Or “What preceded the Big Bang? “Or Why does my cat tear around the house every morning caterwauling like her tail is on fire?”
It is as if social media has staked a claim on my mind. That is a very big deal. My mind is me. It is the most valuable thing I “have.” I depend on it for everything I do, including writing, reading, learning, and trying to understand my cat.
My mind is not meant to be an open house. It is a private island. No one gets to cross to it and enter its hallowed gates without my permission. However, bit by bit I have granted permission while hardly being aware that I was doing it.
It goes beyond the erosion of privacy decried by many magazine articles that denounce social media. It is more than Facebook soliciting personal information about interests and product preferences. It goes deeper. Social media has changed how I think and what I think about. It is maddening how I sometimes catch myself evaluating my every thought for its “tweet-worthiness.”
Social media has also changed how I spend my time. It has created an incessant, neurotic compulsion to check notifications again and again and again.
Last week I found myself scrolling down on my Android phone every few minutes to check them, hoping I would see something, anything to boost my sinking mood. There was nothing interesting, and I had the thought, Every time I scroll down, I die a little more.
What was I hoping for when I scrolled down anyway? A lottery win? First contact with an alien species? A wise message from Obi Wan Kenobi? A Nobel Prize?
I tried to remember how I had dealt with my downward-spiraling moods before social media had become a mood-altering drug, healthier solutions like taking a walk, reading a good book, or even playing a good video game – and of course writing. While those activities still do help, especially writing, too often they are interrupted by the thoughts what if, what if, whatifItweetedthewrongthing, what if I gushed too much when I was thanking someone, what if civilization banishes me to the wilderness to live off berries and grubs, what if, what if, what if…
I hate my brain.
I turned off my notifications and resolved not to check them anymore until later that night. But why did I feel the need to even check them that night? Why not the next day?
I have always felt a responsibility toward social media. in over three years there has rarely been a day that I have not checked Twitter, because I hated to think that someone might be trying to communicate with me and that I would leave them hanging for even a day in a cold vacuum of silence.
But the everyday need to react and respond to the online world has taken a toll. Sometimes I do not want to see what is online. Sometimes I need to shield myself from the pressure to react. It only takes a second for a trollish message to damage my day. A hair-breadth trigger can knock me off an emotional precipice. The compulsion to check, react, and respond gives power over my mood to pixels – blips on a screen.
I believe part of my problem is this: Natural selection did not prepare me for Twitter. My mind has never known exactly what to do with it. The logical part of my brain said, “No. I am not dealing with this. I am meant for higher things.” My artistic side said “Yuck. Hashtags are ugly. I am out of here.” My spiritual side said, “Nope. There is nothing at all for me here.” So at last my exhausted brain said, “Bipolar disorder and OCD, it looks like you are all that is left. You need to get on this pronto.”
Last week I was feeling particularly out of sorts, to the point that for the first time in over three years, I decided not to check my social media notifications for two days. I was amazed at the clarity of my thoughts. During that time I slept better and later. I spent my time doing the things I used to do before social media built a nest in my mind.
I read a novel, played the Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword, becoming immersed in the colorful virtual world with its treasure chests and elaborate dungeons. It was not that I could not do those things before, but while doing them I felt more relaxed, clear-headed, and focused than I had in many months.
Outdoors I noticed things – like how the clouds gathered at the horizon like a chain of billowy, bright white mountains, like if I kept walking I would eventually run into a big plushy wall of them.
I tried to remember exactly what my life had been like before Facebook and Twitter, before I had ceded part of my mind to the online world. My freedom not to react or respond to anything online was a long lost treasure.
I decided to do that more often – seal off the gates to my mind, roll up the drawbridge, and, in true introvert fashion, celebrate the peace and silence of being alone. Aloneness means freedom from the chatter of the crowd – both real and virtual. Mental clarity is essential for writing well and the more of it I have, the better.
As a writer who wants to sell her work, I have resisted the solution of going offline completely
but at the very least, I need to take breaks sometimes. And when I am active on social media, I need to limit the times during the day that I go online, so that I am not constantly scrolling down in a futile and passive search for a mood boost.
There are other, less costly and more active ways to be happy. Freeing myself from the obligation to respond to anything or anyone felt like kittens, chocolate, and rainbows. Mental clarity is sublime; I want to experience it more often. Besides my bipolar disorder and OCD have been working overtime.
They need a break. And so do I.
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