What’s black and white and red all over? (Feel free to give your best joke answers in the comments). It could be a newspaper (maybe the oldest version of this?), or a sunburned penguin, or…my Facebook page, in a few key ways. Same as a newspaper, the words are the black and white. The red could be the blood from countless little battles I have on my page–mostly with those who disagree with me, politically or in matters of faith. But it is also “read” all over, and over, and over again, obsessively. I read my damn FB page daily, usually soon after I awaken in the a.m., throughout the day if there is some especially big discussion going on, and at night as I lay there wishing I could just fall asleep.
I’m not going to write today about online addiction, although I guess this is related. It’s more a confession and a question–requiring some vulnerability from both of us. I confess that social media is sorta kinda sometimes my best friend, and I wonder if it is yours? And how does that affect you and your moods? As a widower, it might be easier for me than my partnered-up friends to use Facebook as my best social outlet. I would like to wake up, groggy and wiping the sleep out of my eyes and a little grouchy, but feeling good to be alive next to someone I love. Instead, while I hear my kids’ alarms go off across the hall, I lie there alone thinking about what’s to come that day. I think about what I wrote the night before on this or that FB thread about White Supremacists and Antifa, our current vs. past presidents, the occasional nice convo about someone’s cool vacation or otherwise nice-not provocative post, or my personal favorite little voodoo doll to constantly prick with pins: political and religious hypocrisy.
As a matter of fact, I think about the day to come in terms of what I might say to this or that
dumbf person who responds to my last provocative post. Confession: I want them on my FB wall, I need them on that wall. Otherwise I miss human interaction that I dearly need. Deep down, in places I don’t talk about at parties, I want a good fight and a good pat on the back from my allies when it’s over. It is my sometimes substitute for love–or loving relationship with people IRL.
Don’t pity, and don’t trip here. Me and mine are doing fine, I do in fact have real friends, and ultimately this is less about me and more about illustrating some valuable points. I have my kids, who are always bright lights in my sometimes dark harbor. And my light still burns, too, if dimmer or a little sadder and angrier than in my more carefree 30s (see: widowhood). What I know I need but often fail to access is real people to touch and hug and open myself to and laugh and cry with.
About 2 years back, I was more depressed than I was admitting to others. Some life events had put me very low. I remember taking a road trip from Denver, through Las Vegas where I grew up, to Los Angeles to see old friends, and back again. Somewhere along the way I read (on Facebook, so it’s not all silly arguments!) an intriguing article about a depression study that examined mood and social interactions. It put 2 groups to a different task: the first group had to go into various stores and run errands throughout the day–strictly without social interaction. Just get in, buy your gallon of milk, and get out as if always in a rush, not even making eye contact with the person at checkout. The second group was instructed to make small talk with everyone they ran across–grocery clerks, strangers holding the door for you, whoever crossed their paths.
The first group reported feeling more sad, pessimistic, anxious, and angry with others, and many couldn’t even make it through the whole study acting as instructed–they gave up after day 1 and had to get back to some kind of social interaction, even if just saying “fine, thanks” when a cashier asked how their shopping went. The second group reported feeling happier. More energetic, and more optimistic about their lives than before.
So you maybe see where this is going. I went into a Trader Joe’s in Las Vegas, to get some road snacks with my kids. I had been really dragging ass, depressed but putting on my smile mask, so I decided to look at and talk to more people. I did not like the idea; cheerfulness felt fake and dumb, and I hate inauthenticity. TJ’s is a pretty friendly place. The guy at the checkout counter asked how I was doing.
“Hi! How ya doin’ today?” he asked. He had a big dumb young person-optimistic about life grin on his face, and seemed about 22 years-old, tops. I looked him in the eye for a second longer than usual, and then I
punched him right in his stupid grinning mout said something nice back. Or as nice as I could muster.
“Doing all right I guess,” I said.
“Huh! Just all right?”
I sort of mumbled a “Yeah, I’m gettin’ through…” which is what I say a lot. TBH, it’s shorthand for, “yeah, life is hard as effing hell and sometimes I’m like oh God if you’re even there take me now, but I’m up and moving and trying to have a good day, so let’s just say I’m getting through…”
He goes, “Ahhh, with 2 beautiful children like these? So much to be thankful for, yes??” The bright joy in his voice felt…nice. I actually felt envied for my fun-looking life by this guy.
“I suppose so,” I said and smiled bigger and not fake. We talked about good things in life while he bagged my banana chips and smoky peach salsa. Whatever else we said I forget specifics. We walked out to the car, I took funny pictures of my kids with Trader Joe’s stickers on their faces, and we got on the road to L.A. I felt really good. A little social interaction, a little reminder of my humanity and the little lights. Much better than an argument on Facebook with my friend’s husband’s brother’s cousin on the east coast.
“All the Little Lights” is a good song I come back to fairly often–it’s a sad but to me, hopeful song by Passenger (in case you’re wondering, he’s the guy who sings that also super sad one about how you only need the light when it’s burning low, only know your lover when you let her go…). It makes me think of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, a favorite book that is ultimately about keeping the light alive, or Cormac McCarthy’s recurring theme of carrying the fire in The Road, or No Country For Old Men. The cashier guy had a little light that he shared with me–bless his soul. I highly recommend any of these songs or books–more so I recommend making the effort (if you’re the anxious and/or depressed type who finds it difficult) of talking with real people more during your normal day–and glad to give suggestions for others (and hear suggestions below). Things that help your light burn brighter. The search is hard, the struggle is real.
With social media I have to look for fire carriers, and lights in the harbor. I have some–precious to me, and I like finding more. Like many of us, I have to check myself when I get too caught up in the obsessiveness of social media, and remind myself that it is not everything. I also have to open myself to others IRL, even the littlest hellos and fine thanks, how are yous at the store or pick-up time at my kids’ school, or neighbors at the park walking their dogs. I find that if I don’t, then I’m left itching more for something weaker than the real thing–the release that comes from venting at strangers on FB, the virtual pat on the back I feel when a friend “likes” an eloquent putdown on a comments thread.
So. Hashtag social media, depression, human touch, little things matter, carrying the fire, little lights going out if we’re not careful, Colonel Jessup on that wall, Passenger, Steinbeck, McCarthy, good support from good therapy… I carry the fire still; my light-bearers give me reason and hope. And I search for more, and I take joy in supporting others in the same brave enterprise. One of my favorite things to tell depressed clients in my practice has been, “I see you there. I see you trying, and it hasn’t been working. Your hope is now small, but I will have hope when you don’t. Let’s build it back up together”