Deep Dive - Depression, Anxiety and Melancholy in the Internet Age
As a lot of you probably know, I'm on a year abroad at the moment, off studying in the crazy world that is Florida. It's very exciting and everything, all these new experiences, but there's a side of it that has acted as a really profound entry point into another side of myself that has seemingly always been there; it can be really, really fucking isolating. Of course, I'm only about two months into it and at this point in my first year of Uni back in Exeter, I was feeling similarly alone, but there is a difference, in that I'm so far away from all I know and completely separated from alcohol, something that allows me to ignore these feelings for a little while. With all that time that sobriety has given me, I've had plenty of time for thinking and self-reflection and while I worry that this post is just going to come across as a narcissistic excuse for free therapy, it isn't that. This is an honest attempt to try and explore what it is I'm feeling and have felt for years now, in a place that I hope is safe.
If what I'm saying does happen to strike a chord with you though, I would love for you to message me and talk about it.
So I guess, let me lay out my mission statement here, what I want to explore and what I am simply unequipped to. I believe that many of the depressive, melancholic and anxious feelings I have are as a result of having grown up surrounded by the Internet and social media. It doesn't mean I wouldn't feel these things if I was born 50 years earlier, I just believe that the Internet has exacerbated it. Equally, I am not an expert on any of the things I'm talking about. I studied Psychology for the briefest of moments at sixth form, nowhere near in depth enough to claim I know what's what in the field and I have also not been diagnosed with depression or anxiety in any form. Maybe I have them, maybe they are things in me that will fade with time, but I have not been to someone who could diagnose these things in me. With that said, I really hope that anyone reading this who has been diagnosed with any of the conditions I'm discussing doesn't take offence if I misrepresent something. I'll do bits of research for this but I feel like by focusing on the way growing up surrounded by the internet affected me specfically, I can stick to what I know and avoid generalisations. If what I'm saying does happen to strike a chord with you though, I would love for you to message me and talk about it. It isn't easy out there but I hope that in coming out here and speaking my truth, I can convince you to open up about yours. Now then, let us begin this deep dive together. It may take us into a dark place but I hope that when we both come out the other side, we feel better for having done it.
One thing to instantly clear up is why I've labelled this section "Depression/Melancholy" and not one or the other, Mainly, it comes from the fact that there is a very thin line between these two things. The definition of depression is "feelings of severe despondency and dejection" as opposed to melancholy, which is defined as "a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause". Generally, the divide comes down to melancholy being an emotion whereas depression is a mood disorder and that's the divide I'm going to use. The point still stands though, something I describe as a symptom of depression could be interpreted as one of melancholy and vice versa. The other thing I want you to have at the forefront of your mind while reading this is a quote from Bo Burnham, director of Eighth Grade. In describing the teenagers whose story his film tells as "mischaracterised as self-obsessed, narcissistic, shallow" and "self-conscious, they have been forced by a culture they did not create to be conscious of themselves at every moment", he perfectly sums up what life as Generation Z is like.
A generation "mischaracterised as self-obsessed, narcissistic, shallow" and "self-conscious, they have been forced by a culture they did not create to be conscious of themselves at every moment".Everyone always speaks about how lucky our generation is to have the internet at such a young age, to be able to connect freely, access more content than they can even comprehend consuming and put yourself out there. The internet and growing up connected to it have had its positives, sure, but such a large part of it has been an implied pressure to put ourselves out there and show how brilliant our lives are. Your life is up there to be compared to someone else's brilliant life and the loser gets ignored, treated like dirt. Hell, it's what I do with this blog, I talk about films through the lens of my life, baring myself and praying for an easy judgement from a bored jury. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, they're all platforms that are about showing everyone how brilliantly your life is going and putting yourself onto those at an age when you're not even half formed has broken us.
Bo Burnham has so much that explores all of this further though, with his stand-up specials managing to exquisitely ride the line between laughs played for simple laughs and using comedy as a barrier to deep emotional truths. That is something that has only risen with the dominance of the internet, the amount of postmodern power placed on depression, masked as a joke, masked as depression. In his special Make Happy, Burnham delivers a line in his final song that is almost impossible to determine as either joke or cry for help, as he sings "Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining metal health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself". It's a funny line, full of knowing self-depreciation, but threatening to boil over into something more, as Burnham (or the persona of Burnham) self-flagellates for our entertainment. It feels like a joke but equally, it would not be hard to see how it is a very sincere truth.
It's like an emotional version of double-think.Now, with Burnham's stand-up, he has acknowledged that most of what he does on-stage is just a persona so there isn't much point reading too much into this, but I mention it because it seems to be applicable to the humour of our own many social media personas. We all create a version of ourselves online, a version that is happy, has less spots, doesn't just lie in bed sometimes and struggle to hold back the tears, but occasionally we weave holes in those personas in the hope that people will look through long enough to see that something is wrong. Covering up the "true" version of ourselves from the internet only allows the darkness to grow like a mould, allowing a deep existential sadness to live a healthy life alongside that smiling public persona. It's like an emotional version of double-think, in which you are existing both as happy person and depressed person at once, without even being allowed to acknowledge the contradiction you live under.
There's another figures work I want to bring into this discussion and that is Lorde. Over my time at Uni, I've become a huge fan of her music and I think it is some of the most emotionally honest work of our generation, up there with other contemporaries like Arcade Fire and the newer stuff from Paramore. She's three years older than I am but has the kind of platform and a level of wisdom I can't even comprehend of, which surely gives her an exaggerated version of what I'm talking about here. It's all there in her poignant lyrics, capturing the moments where youth feels like being alive, before it all feels like wanting to die. Take Perfect Places, the song I take to be her magnum opus. The verses start swinging for the fences, hollering lines like "I'm 19 and I'm on fire" before crashing back down to earth with the bridge of "If they keep telling me where to go, I'll blow my brains out to the radio". The entire song is a rueful scream about getting drunk, having sex and partying enough to find the perfect places that social media holds just out of arms length, ending mournfully on "what the fuck are perfect places anyway?". This entire sentiment feels like the overarching theme of her album Melodrama, an album about wanting to be worthy enough for the Louvre, sullenly watching chaos from the shadows and looking for a cue to leave an existence whose joy is fading. It is a deep, deep issue, burst into life through the facade of exuberance and it touches me deep to my soul. I can think of no better artistic expression of this strange raging feeling inside me.
There is a constantly looming fear of labouring someone with your emotional baggage.All of this is very hard to talk about, even in year of our lord 2019. Emotional openness is not an easy thing to achieve and I know I get closest to it while I'm drunk. It isn't just a way to ignore tricky emotions (and much as we may all use it like that sometimes, it really shouldn't be), it's also a really good way to create a confidence in yourself to open up wide to those around you. With such a hesitance in our society to talk about the times we feel really shitty, especially with men, it's the only way for some people. That's part of why I'm finding writing this so hard, even though I'm finding it so much easier than I would find telling all of this to you in person, face to face. I'm a really sensitive dude, as I hope many of you know, and even though I always strive to be emotionally open, there is a constantly looming fear of labouring someone with your emotional baggage that comes with sober versions of these conversations. At least if we're both drunk, there's the chance you've forgotten the great weight I tried to lift off my chest.
Drunkenness is not a way to deal with the horrific isolation we can all feel as a result of growing up on the internet but fuck man, it makes it much easier sometimes. And I just want this to feel a bit easier sometimes, because I don't want to know what a harder version feels like. Even with that said though, I start to feel bad for feeling bad. I have more privilege than I can even comprehend, what do I have in my life to be sad about when I have never been held back in any way by my race, gender or sexuality? So much misery and suffering happens in the world every day, most of which our 24 hour news cycles hide from us (but some of which it brandishes like a weapon), and I'm here having the fucking nerve to complain about feeling bad sometimes on an internet blog where I say I thought some movie about a clown is overrated. Misery can become weaponised in this way, where a lack of knowledge about some international tragedy only highlights the pointlessness of your misery, but what are you going to do, just stop being sad? This is why I try and stick to writing about entertainment, it's what I'm good at. I'm not good at feeling melancholic because even when I do fall into that pit, I feel like I have no right to be there. Maybe I don't have the right, but it feels like I belong here sometimes.
Anxiety and Self-Loathing
This half of the post is going to be harder for me to do, because I think whatever I feel because of the internet is closer to melancholy than anxiety, despite the fact that an everyday anxiousness is part of my existence. Let's start then with why I put up this poster from Call Me By Your Name. The film is wonderful, any chance to talk about it I will take, but it is also able to summarise the social and romantic anxiety I feel so well. There is a part of the film where the characters are discussing an old fable about courtly love, in which a knight is confronted with the realisation that he loves a princess and is faced with the question that haunts my every waking day; "Is it better to speak or to die?". What is strange about the internet is how it facilitates both sides of that question, allowing me to speak with ease and die with even greater ease
The question that haunts my every waking day; "Is it better to speak or to die?".Perhaps I'll preface this negative stuff with some positivity, in that the only romantic relationship I've ever had has been almost entirely because of the internet. For her sake, I will keep all details out, because anyone close enough to either side of that story knows enough and it would frankly just be scummy to air dirty laundry without her knowledge. What I will say is that having the glowing screen to hide behind allowed me, a chronically shy boy whose shyness cripples an overwhelming desire to be loved, enough separation from what I was saying to not be worried about where my words may take me. Hell, one of my best memories with her was staying up behind those text walls until 5am one night, talking about everything and nothing in a way that I am simply too terrified to do in person with anyone who has not already had those walls broken down. Unfortunately, that is where the positives end, as not only did our virtual connection allow for the relationship to collapse that much easier (and much as I want to place all that blame on her, I can't escape that creeping spectre of guilt on my conscience), I also feel like it has absolutely crippled my social confidence in the real world.
Being in America right now, I am lucky enough that my inherent foreignness is enough of a conversation starter to have someone not be completely repelled by how I look, but even here, I am struggling to reach out and meet new people. I have my circles, sure, but they form almost by accident, just finding whoever is closest and holding onto them, praying that they won't leave me like I fear everyone will once they really know me. The problem only exacerbates when I enter a new space, like University or sixth form where, both times, I've had to forge new friendships for fear of drowning in my own self loathing. I can just about hold my own in a virtual space, adapting to group chats like a chameleon, trying to be noticed and liked enough to blend in, but face to face can be excruciating. It is hard to work out if the social anxiety was already there and to what degree the virtual world as an alternate possibility hurt my confidence but at an age when meeting new people is a constant experience, having the shield of a virtual world to hide behind doesn't seem to help much, only creating a far worse whiplash when I poke my head out of that defence and into the firing line of reality.
I am [...] just finding whoever is closest and holding onto them, praying that they won't leave me like I fear everyone will eventually.To take a brief detour back to some brilliant representation of anxiety and self-loathing in pop culture, I want to discuss Bojack Horseman and the episode "Stupid Piece of Shit". Like with Bo Burnham earlier, this is a brilliant way of discussing serious mental health issues while hiding under the cloak of comedy. Throughout the episode, our shambles of a lead character spends the day trying to complete menial chores and just make it through the day without collapsing into a pit of self loathing. The entire episode is soundtracked by an inner monologue in which Bojack is constantly tearing into himself, calling himself a stupid piece of shit and belittling every poor decision he makes across the day. Bojack is not a character you want to identify with, having done so many horrible things before and during the series but in the construction of this self-loathing interior, it becomes difficult (at least for me) not to see part of yourself in him. Perhaps to you, looking at me from the outside, I seem to be doing fine, but you don't have to spend as much time with me as I do. I see every flaw, big and small, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no respite. It can become easy to hate yourself when you spend so much time with yourself and when our phones create an echo-chamber in which other people become nothing more than pictures on a screen and the only "real" person you start to experience is yourself. Worst of all, you know this belief to be wrong and yet you still believe it. Honestly, how can any of us be blamed for believing that we are genuinely a stupid piece of shit?
These are all symptoms of the fact that I have what I refer to as comically low self-esteem, particularly in how I look. Maybe the most commonly harped on negative of the internet is the proliferation of images of beautiful people, women with tiny hips and giant curves or men whose ripped abs defy any sense of reality while somehow becoming what is expected. We all love looking at these images because we have been trained so well to consume, rarely stepping back and thinking what these images make us internalise. Again, like male emotional openness, body confidence is something that is on the rise but it just doesn't shine through enough to erase the darkness of self loathing my body and I live in. I look at myself in the mirror and I know (with a sad lack of doubt) that my size, my shape, my slight "offness" is exactly the reason people (and I suppose I largely think of romantic interests with this statement) lack an interest in me. A virtual presence allows me a brief shield because you don't have to think about what I look like when you read my words as opposed to seeing me, but there's that stupid, self loathing part of my brain that just assumes that as soon as people who only know me online realise I'm a chubby loser, they'll just ditch me and move onto someone better. Because that's exactly it, I know I'm not the best (not even close, Christ) and that means that at any point, you could move onto someone better than me. In my mind, I am never far from being left alone with my stupid little thoughts and my hideous fat body. I suppose, in the words of St Vincent, I'm looking for "the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me". I'll at least settle for the only motherfucker in the world who can stand me.
I'm looking for "the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me".
This post has probably also come across a bit as me shouting at society and again, that's not really what it's meant to be. I didn't start this to rally against Boomers and the mess of a world they've left us with, a "Young Man Yells at Cloud" article if you will, but you know, it is that a little bit, I'm allowed a little resentment that isn't targeted towards my own heart. On reflecting on what I've written, this feels like the ending of Lady Bird . You go out there, into the big wild world. It's an exciting world, you've been told, you can finally become yourself. And then you get there and it's a mess. It's scary, it's really hard and you're just kind of expected to deal with this from the word go. So I suppose this has been me, tearfully walking through New York in clothes from last night's mistake and now, I am ringing you up, mascara running down my cheeks, looking for reassurance. The virtual world is not all we were promised and maybe we'll get over that. But maybe we won't, and I don't know if that's okay. Maybe we can work that bit out together. I hope we can.