When I use the language of recovery to describe my relationship with Facebook, I am not being glib, I’m being honest with myself. I was not just a prolific Facebooker; I was not just a prodigiously time-wasting Facebooker. I had a life-consuming and quite unhealthy relationship with Facebook — one that, not unlike other dangerous but alluring substances, was designed to be unhealthy, at least with me. It is no coincidence, I think, that I also do not use alcohol or drugs (or even caffeine anymore!), because some people can integrate these substances seamlessly into their lives and use them for fun and bonding with others, but I can’t.
Caffeine made me so anxious — and I consumed so much of it for so many years — that I assumed I had a pronounced and acute anxiety disorder that I simply had to live with for the rest of my life. Then when I got a convenient case of pneumonia in 2012, I quit (I had a taste for nothing but toaster waffles and applesauce anyway), and when I emerged on the other side, my anxiety was dramatically, palpably lower. I have only had one panic attack in the two and a half years since I quit full-caf coffee, and that shit was provoked. (I still drink decaf, which contains trace amounts of caffeine, so I can’t be that smug — and no, I don’t drink 900 cups of decaf a day to make up for the deficit!)
Alcohol made me so depressed that, for two or three days after I drank, I would at best be lethargic and unenthusiastic about everything, and at worst spend my time curled up crying. This was especially bad when it coincided with the academic job market. There was one year — I think it was MLA in Seattle — where I schlepped all the way to the conference for a single solitary interview. Hell, it’s been long enough, and there is so little love lost between me and the discipline, that I’ll name names. The interview was with Washington University here in St. Louis, which would have been a tremendous coup (at the time I was on my ACLS postdoc in Columbus but my then-boyfriend and now-husband still lived here). Anyway, for anyone who’s interested, WashU interviews “tribunal style,” in which damn near their entire department — there were a good nine of them in there — flanks you in chairs and asks you a series of intentionally-imposing questions designed not to get to know you, but to defeat you (here’s one I got in all seriousness: “You’re just finishing your first book, and you’re at work on a second [edited volume on Robert Walser; I have since dropped out of that project]. What is your third book going to be about?” My third fucking book, for a beginning tenure-track job. The sad thing is, I already had a publisher interested in that mythical third book, and an idea for it, too).
Anyway, in a tribunal-style interview (as opposed to a conversation-style interview, which all but the elitest of elite departments usually are), presumably if you vanquish everybody, you will be considered for their ranks? I don’t know. I found out from an insider the year after that I blew that interview because of my personality — which, yes, now you might be thinking “Of course she did!” But I assure you I was a spark-free bottle of gravitas and seriousness who did her level best to squelch (or at least obscure) any “unprofessional” vivaciousness or undue enthusiasm. Anyway, those WashU fuckers saw straight through me, and my $1300 trip to Seattle was for no reason, and two days later I found myself down in LA at the premiere party for Season 3 of “Justified” (that was the one with Robert Quarles!) and I drank two glasses of champagne, and then spent the next two days on the road from California back to St. Louis (and then Columbus) bawling my eyes out. I haven’t had a drink since (and I also left the academic job market, though my fourth year on it, which was alcohol-free, was not as devastating).
All right, so. Caffeine gone, alcohol gone, drugs never present in adulthood. Let’s move on to Facebook. There has already been research done to show that Facebook makes people unhappy, so anything I say here will be but a layperson’s bumbling rehash of those conclusions. What I have figured out in my seven days away (and yes, I am counting days and will probably until 90, just like in recovery), is how and why Facebook made me so unhappy (over and above whatever those guys did with the algorithm to experiment on my brain).
The thing about Facebook — not just social networks, but Facebook specifically — is that no matter how nice and kind all of your Friends are (and the vast majority of mine are), every day something otherwise-innocuous about their lives is going to trigger you. And every day, something innocuous about your life is going to trigger them. For example, as someone who has been shut out of academia after many years of dedicating my entire life to getting in (and now, as someone whom many academics regard with open disdain), how do you think I like seeing status updates about “great” conferences, new jobs, or even something as everyday as the start of the school year or paper-grading time? The suck-uppy conference statuses are the only ones in that group that even might be done out of malice or competitiveness, and even that’s a stretch. These are just people posting about their lives, and it’s not their fault those lives trigger me.
Another trigger for me for several months after we lost our first pregnancy were posts about pregnancy, birth, babies and kids. And now I’m on the other side. I’m pregnant and posted often about it, and I can only imagine how painful that must have been for my friends who themselves are suffering silently through a pregnancy loss (since still nobody talks about it in the open), or who have been coping with fertility issues, or who suffered a stillbirth or the death of a child. I’m sure they know I’m not trying to upset them on purpose, but I bet I upset them nonetheless.
And what about all my Friends who are struggling writers, or simply struggling with their jobs period? How do you think they liked me posting links to my articles on Slate twice a fucking week? How obnoxious is that? (Which, by the way, makes me look way more successful than I am. Slate is the best professional thing that has ever happened to me, but I lucked into it, I could lose it, all of it, at any time, and I still must watch my finances very carefully, especially with a baby on the way. Also there is the small issue that no matter what I write, there is a vociferous group of academics who hate me and they will go out of their way to be vicious — probably, again, because those posts triggered them, either about academic realities they’d rather not face, or “mainstream success” that eludes them, or just because I am annoying.)
You might say that being affected emotionally by everyone’s Facebook updates — kid pics, pet pics, food pics, wedding pics, vacation pics, work victories, vaguebooks and the occasional piece of honest self-reflection — is for the weak, and that it is simply my fault for letting things get to me. It’s true that i am an unusually sensitive person, but I think I have the same sensitivities as everyone else, I just wear them closer to the skin. I think whether you realize it or not, Facebook affects everyone this way. I think that the human spirit is simply just not meant to withstand a constant deluge of the heavily-curated minutiae of other people’s lives. We are meant to interact with each other in a more direct and communal way, with words and actions that are actually meant for individuals, and not some nebulous and largely faceless group, some of whom we actually feel quite competitive with, whether we admit it or not.
Again, like I said last week, just because Facebook itself is a toxic substance (like alcohol is, caffeine is, drugs are) doesn’t mean any of you abuse it like I did, or let it abuse you like I did. I am guessing that just as most of you can enjoy a cup of coffee without feeling like the world is going to end, and then a glass of wine without spending the next three days in tears, you can check your Facebook feed intermittently without feeling god-awful about yourself or worrying that you made anyone else feel god-awful.
But I can’t. So I left. And I have to tell you I do not miss it in the least. I miss individual people, but I missed them before. Facebook did not really keep me connected with them on anything other than a surface level, but it provided enough of an oily placebo that I didn’t feel the need to interact deeper, because hell, I already know “everything” about everyone from Facebook, right?
I continue to reach out to friends via email and text — not to mention put more varied and personal things right here on this very blog! — and have had more personal and face-to-face interactions in the last week than I have in months. There are some people in recovery for whom it doesn’t work, who find it hokey, who don’t like the recovery-speak or the relentless self-examination or the interminability of it. But there are others who take to it right away, who like recovery better than using the substance. I am one of those people.