Last July, I was in the thick of it. Near-weekly anxiety attacks combined with a bout of impending mononucleosis, which drained all my energy by 10 am. Working three jobs to pay my bills.
The wave of stress and anxiety was mounting when my birthday rolled around on July 28. But of course, I showed up at work. Much to my surprise, my mom sent a massive herd of birthday balloons to the Quartz office. It was cute. I looked cute, because it was my birthday. So I asked my editor to take a photo of me, then posted it on Instagram.
The caption reads: “I am v happy🎈” Lol, nope.
These days, things are much better. Therapy and medication work, and we should talk about that more openly. But if you scrolled through my social media feeds—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter—you would never be able to discern my periods of intense anxiety and depression from the times when I was feeling pretty good.
Instead, you’ll find posts that suggest I’m in an apparently constant state of joy and accomplishment: Photos of fall foliage runs, beach-side bachelorette parties, launching new projects, and making pasta with my mom. Much of this happiness was real. And much of it was totally manufactured. The truth is that what people post on social media often has very little to do with their inner state of mind.
This reality was crystallized by a Twitter thread this week started by Tracy Clayton, host of the BuzzFeed podcast “Another Round.” Clayton asked her followers if they would be comfortable sharing a photo they had posted on social media during a time of personal strife:
im curious. if youre comfortable doing so, post a picture of you that you shared on social media where you were actually having a really tough time in life even tho you look perfectly fine in the picture.
— Tracy Boomeisha-Ann Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) July 11, 2018
Within minutes, the tweet blew up. As of this writing, it has nearly 600 retweets, and over 2,500 likes, with people sharing photos of themselves posing happily and confidently for the camera—with added captions explaining that the shot had been taken shortly after they’d experienced anxiety attacks, while they were worrying over a family member’s health, or just moments after crying in their therapists’ offices.
last halloween i debuted my best costume ever. i had two big anxiety attacks before coming to the point of taking this pic & my chest was tight all night. pic.twitter.com/XEj8nF7IkK
— Tracy Boomeisha-Ann Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) July 11, 2018
This spoke to me. I have the perfect picture…this one. I was literally sitting on my therapist’s couch and we were doing an exercise. If you look closely you can see I was crying right before. It’s not my best photo, but I kept it because it reminds me that I pulled through pic.twitter.com/W42tGVfeay
— Cornbread & Collard Greens (@whatdedesays) July 11, 2018
My author photo. One of my relatives had a cancer scare and the day this photo was taken, I was waiting to hear back about if it was cancer. (It wasn't.) pic.twitter.com/5CmW5j9Bhp
— Morgan Jerkins (@MorganJerkins) July 11, 2018
Clayton says the inspiration for the thread came from an unlikely source: insurance companies.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how insurance companies will sometimes use your social media feeds in their evaluation of your claims,” Clayton told Quartz via email. “That led me to thinking about what a potentially irresponsible and risky thing that is, particularly pertaining to mental illness for several reasons: for one, people rarely post pictures of themselves in the throes of panic and anxiety attacks or grieving at funerals; for two, curating the perfect picture of yourself on social media is kind of the purpose of social media.”
Clayton says she scrolled through her Instagram feed “and counted the pictures where I look happy and well-adjusted but was really struggling. I asked Twitter if they had similar pictures both because I’m nosey and to feel less alone, I guess.”
“People rarely post pictures of themselves in the throes of panic and anxiety attacks or grieving at funerals.” The resulting collection of photos offers a few important reminders. First, far too often, we see other people shining on social media, and we assume that they, and everyone for that matter, are far happier than we are. They have more friends and better relationships. They’re more fulfilled by their jobs and definitely more successful. Their kids never act like insatiable devils, and they actually love their in-laws.
This cycle is exhausting. It’s why studies continuously prove the damaging effects of social media on mental health, especially among young people. This influence is only amplified by the fact that it’s easy (and expected) to post fun, light experiences, but feels overbearing to share your experiences with the darker sides of life. Posting about depression, addiction, or eating disorders in an intellectual, abstract way looks woke. But discussing your personal darkness? Reel it in, girl.
The solution, however, isn’t necessarily to cut back on all those smiling photos. The dissonance between the way we feel and the way we present ourselves to the outside world can be confusing, but we’re not liars, nor do we deserve to be shamed. As Harvard graduate student Holly Ellmore explains in Quartz, faking happiness on social media, while often detrimental, can also be an effective means of fighting mental illness.
“Depression devastates your self-esteem. I often stayed in my apartment for days at a time because I was afraid that people outside would see that I had been crying and judge me,” writes Ellmore. “But Facebook offered me a platform on which I could ensure an acceptable appearance. If I hadn’t had it, I think I would have withdrawn socially even more than I did, which in turn would have made my depression even worse.” I experienced the same effect. Wretched as I felt inside, receiving “likes” and positive comments, trite as they may seem, reminded me that I was seen, and mattered.
What’s more, Ellmore says that her Facebook feed was actually a more accurate record of her life than her depression-tinged perception.
“Depression negatively affects your memory in a number of ways, including making it difficult to recall happy memories in general and especially positive memories about yourself,” she writes. So even if you’re in the midst of a painful period in life, there’s nothing wrong with taking a photo of yourself at dinner with friends or having fun on your honeymoon. You can be unhappy and a little bit happy, too.
When we’re at a personal low, there’s nothing more important than mustering up the will to see ourselves in a kinder light. The striking thing about the posts sparked by Clayton’s Twitter question is that they reveal not only the universality of pain, but also the overwhelming fear that we have of being seen at our worst. Even more profoundly, they reveal the beauty of a person who is unwell, but wants to be able to imagine themselves as better. One who is trying, in their way, to heal. When we’re at a personal low, there’s nothing more important than mustering up the will to see ourselves in a kinder light—even if that comes in the form of a Snapchat filter.
While I encourage you to sit down with Clayton’s thread yourself, here are some of the posts that spoke to me, across a range of personal difficulties. I know I’ll return to this thread when new challenges arise, and I hope you bookmark it too.
this is a really good prompt — was having the worst and most sustained anxiety of my life up until that point, but on that day managed to drag my stupid body out of the house (and knit, duh). it's weird look at this bc i remember such an itchy feeling of dread but you can't tell pic.twitter.com/QuMxWpsIhL
— Alanna Okun (@alanna) July 11, 2018
mid 2016: I was anxious about grad school, unemployed, living in a place I hated, going through grief, drinking too often, sleep deprived, barely left the house. I just happened to have great natural light in my room, so I posted this to feel good about myself. pic.twitter.com/S54coCuC5t
— carol (@carolinahramos) July 11, 2018
Took this on a solo road trip, during one of the more major depressive episodes of my adult life. It was a relatively good trip, during which I spent a lot of time crying alone in my car/motel room. pic.twitter.com/BqyxKdo2Mb
— Jennifer Marmor (@jmarms) July 11, 2018
hiking with my dad, who'd flown out to cali because i was deeply depressed, and he and the rest of my family were worried about me. during this trip he cried for the first time i'd ever seen, because i couldn't stop crying in front of him and he didn't know what to do to help. pic.twitter.com/OM1lNM0mW6
— EricaJoy (@EricaJoy) July 12, 2018
I had thrown up twice that morning. pic.twitter.com/mSJyuTzYOs
— Candice (@candicehelfandr) July 11, 2018
From my freshman year of college, after having lost 20+ pounds while suffering from an eating disorder. pic.twitter.com/XM5WOiH7Je
— Lauren Caruba (@LaurenCaruba) July 11, 2018
Friend’s wedding. Both those smiles are fake because we’d been fighting. I still cringe seeing my body language in the photo. I remember feeling guilty that our other friends would know and that we’d be a distraction from a happy and important day. pic.twitter.com/mFsni7ZZAI
— Whitney Adkins (@littlewhits) July 11, 2018
My boyfriend broke up with me 30 minutes before this picture was taken. I cried all the way to the shoot. Even had to pull over a few times. pic.twitter.com/HOUmvAK57Z
— Dannae (@PrincessDannae) July 11, 2018
Giving a speech three weeks after a miscarriage and two days after my “partner” broke up with me for interrupting his speech in grief counseling regarding my co-parent/ing duties. pic.twitter.com/WLuZaMNr0z
— yamani yansà (@yamyan) July 12, 2018
Postpartum depression and anxiety
I was in the midst of horrible, untreated post-partum depression. My marriage was falling apart. I wanted to die every day, thought about driving my car off a cliff or into the back of a semi or something every time I was in the car pic.twitter.com/SKMHSGHPFx
— Ali, RN (@umDoWhatNow) July 12, 2018
This is a fabulous prompt.
This photo is of me and my daughter (now almost 9) as a baby. I hadn’t slept in months and had RAGING postpartum anxiety. I loved her but mostly wanted to run away. I was tired and angry and scared all the time.
Life’s amazing now tho. As is she. pic.twitter.com/HDOAbvXoOY
— Jessica Langer, PhD (@DrJessicaLanger) July 11, 2018
My now husband had just proposed an hour earlier. It was New Year's Eve and he convinced me to leave the house for dinner (and said proposal). I felt tired, sick, depressed & my joints ached. I would find out in the following months that I have lupus. pic.twitter.com/D7svAh7QFI
— kiss my farbissina punim🔥 (@CandaceMQZ) July 11, 2018
I spent my wedding day vomiting due to pain from chronic illness and left early to go to bed pic.twitter.com/HNmAXadE6q
— Shauna Ⓥ (@smhphd) July 11, 2018
this was circa the height of Michael Brown's murder. I was extremely lonely in a pred. white city miles away from my fam and the only POC in my grad school cohort. everyone was oblivious to the current events. and I had like $2 in my account and had been regularly skipping meals. pic.twitter.com/egtkw6e2uN
— Super Eagles Fan Account 🇳🇬 (@tdouble_u) July 12, 2018
Employment and finances
Laid off and a few months single here. I'd just gotten a temp job at a 30% pay cut and fought off a few men who lacked boundaries on dates. May also be when my rent went up pic.twitter.com/CRRQCWEeBl
— Mári 🇵🇷 (I'm Black. This isn't hard.) (@_ItsMarisWorld_) July 11, 2018
I lost my job a week before I had to be a bridesmaid in my best friend from college’s wedding. It was brutal. pic.twitter.com/6PvFdK7AeG
— Katie (@katiepoole912) July 11, 2018
Just a day or two removed from losing my husband last November. I took this selfie of our son and I walking to school trying to proceed with our “normal” routine 😔 pic.twitter.com/EbfIUNJuAS
— Kristin Moore (@KrisMissTime) July 11, 2018
& every social media post since my mom died. pic.twitter.com/gjZlEydV2f
— Best Laker of All Time (@T_Barbs) July 11, 2018
3months post my assault. A whole community blamed me, rejected me. I lost my apartment cause of an abusive boyfriend. Was in hospital following two suicide attempts. My family was falling apart 2 continents away. Still cute tho 😩 pic.twitter.com/62yESJwiEI
— Winner (@ZuluNerd) July 11, 2018
Five days after I was informed I was sexually assaulted on my birthday. pic.twitter.com/hZkmExeAAu
— kendy kane (@kendrogyny) July 12, 2018
I posted this a week and a half after I was sexually assaulted pic.twitter.com/6QfAzVfXvh
— Kyra Haas (@kc_haas) July 12, 2018
I posted about how I loved my friends and family. I think I was subconsciously trying to say goodbye. pic.twitter.com/Rf90ZR3uuS
— I sing sometimes (@thehannahcolvin) July 11, 2018
This past l winter break I didn’t go home for the whole month and i was in my dorm alone I hadn’t left my dorm in a few weeks and was planning on ending it. I decided to do my hair and makeup and just go outside for a bit just to see if i would run into anyone one last time. pic.twitter.com/PgRgYugm8v
— Magnifique💋 (@fatherkhaii) July 11, 2018
Me on the right, a little over four years ago. I was mega suicidal. pic.twitter.com/SKWsBuV7kY
— slut puppy (@kkmcswain) July 11, 2018