My decade of seeking and understanding Facebook friendships through the lenses of my mood disorder and personality disorder.
(excerpt from my notebook)
18 August 2018
…In my 27 years before MySpace and Facebook, I may have struggled but I survived. A few things have been hard to learn since.
…I’ve been on Facebook for a little over 10 years now and I’ve finally decided to step away, using it only for Messenger so I don’t lose touch with everyone. I’m just distancing myself from all the shallow posts, the frequent miscommunications and, as a friend kindly pointed out, everyone’s [eager] to have others see their posts but then undeniably [apathetic] toward everyone else’s posts…
“likes” are not real validation
“Facebook friends” are not real friends (at least not most of them)
Facebook (as well as other social media) is no substitute for real, in-person community
“texting” or “messaging” online causes far more misunderstanding than face-to-face or phone conversations
no one is presenting themselves as they really are (we only show the cleaned-up, safe versions of ourselves)
I suppose I’ve held the same idealized view of friendship since childhood when I thought I could be everybody’s friend. Though this isn’t the place to delve into why friendship for me was placed on such a high pedestal so early on, I do know my self-worth was somehow entangled in the need to be liked. So I tried to practice the golden rule with everyone I met and usually this worked. From pre-school to university, moving with my family from Oklahoma to Texas to Arizona and then attending four different universities (one of which was in France) – making new friends, was always part of the adventure and I loved that! while still trying desperately to hang on to old friends with each move.
Before email, we wrote real letters (or passed cleverly folded notes in class). I saved most all of them because, to me, each handwritten piece is priceless. Even when the distance won and we lost touch, I’d always have the letters to remind me that someone saw something worth while about me and, for a time, chose to be my friend.
With time I came to accept the fact that I’d never win everyone’s friendship nor did I really want to. Time is finite and if I paused for every person who made a difference in my life, I’d run out of time to take care of myself. So I hold on to paper memories. I’ve even printed a few memorable emails as handwritten letters became rarer. They are tangible evidence that at one time we were friends and were we to meet again, even if for no more than five minutes, I’d still wouldn’t hesitate to call each one of them “my friend.”
Of course, my perspective on what constitutes a friend has evolved over time. The unexpected onset of my mental illness at age 23 along with that first involuntary psych hospitalization and attached stigma became the first test of who my real friends were. Then came the second test: social media and how, in the context of my now-known mental illness, I’d be effected by it.
I remember first hearing the word “friend” transition from a noun to a verb when I joined MySpace around 2007. (Of course, with this new change came the less appealing verb “to unfriend.” More on that later.)
When the trauma from my first psychotic breakdown lingered far longer than anyone who knew me anticipated ( leading to failed suicide attempts and habitual self-harm), my struggle with mental illness became the ultimate friendship test. At my worst, I desperately needed friends, but I was incapable of being a good friend and the lessons I learned from this experience were heartbreaking. Loneliness became a constant in my life. Even when I met kind, new people who genuinely wanted to befriend me, I’d fear losing them too and self-sabotage by desperately clinging to them and becoming jealous when they excluded me from activities with other friends.
Most of the time I’d become self-aware in the end, and, plagued with guilt, would eventually self-correct. Sadly, this often came too late. The damage had been done and my cycle of self-harm and suicide attempts would recommence as I told myself the same old lies: that this was all my fault and I was a terrible friend. In the darkness I’d convince myself that I didn’t even deserve friends because I was too much of a burden to them.
Shortly before joining MySpace, I’d been struck one of the biggest blows ever from a friend I most dearly loved. In all fairness there was no way she could be honest with me that day and not inflict some sort of wound. She spoke to me over the phone (because we didn’t live in the same city) and told me how the emotional cost inflicted on her by my self-harm and neediness had become too much for her to handle and she needed a break from me. This break would have to be at least a year, she said, and, as I listened her voice, I felt my body tremble in sadness while tears soaked my face. After all, she’d been my most constant friend and a part of my life longer than any other friend. In fact, since high school I’d called her my “best friend.” So that day, her words felt like the ultimate betrayal. And yet I still somehow understood why she had to say what she said and I knew that, as a true friend, I had to trust, respect, and accept her decision. We ended the conversation with hope as both of us said “I love you” to one another (though knowing her decision came from a place of love didn’t take away the pain).
(from an email to my best friend after I was in the psych hospital for self-injury, 8 July 2006)
…I’m at a crossroad in my life. I can either continue down the old path of self-hate and self-destruction, or strive to change and become the person I long to be. I want the latter but it’s not going to happen overnight. Remember, I’m trying to unlearn patterns of thought that have been with me a lifetime. Often times I catch myself too late. The injury has already been done and I have two choices: either to beat myself until I feel I’ve been justly punished or to forgive myself, take heed of the lesson learned, and move on.
Friendships, especially close friendships, are difficult for me. I’ve never thought highly enough of myself to feel worthy of them. I don’t know where such negativity came from. But I do know one thing, I will never succeed in life if I don’t believe I can. I will never be great until I see the greatness in me.
Though I’m acutely aware that a simple e-mail cannot make everything better, I have to write. This roller-coaster ride we’ve been on has been far from pleasant. And again, I don’t want mental illness to be my crutch. At the same time it’s given me enough of a justification to not spend every night crying in my room over the things I’ve done to myself and others. It has also made me afraid that, no matter who approaches me, I will be a burden.
Because none of my friends contacted me in the hospital save one, I thought perhaps maybe I had crossed the line and that everyone was mad at me. And though I did want to help myself, I did what I did in large part because I don’t want to hurt my friends and I thought the hospital would help me change. I want to be the kind of friend to my friends that I expect them to be to me. After all, there is no eternal vow that binds us together. We could go our separate at any given moment. There is also no guarantee that the road will be pleasant or that we’ll always get along. But I hope to see you again, when you’re ready, when we’re both ready….
MySpace felt like the right place to be back then. There I caught up with old friends from high school and university who knew me before I donned the label “mentally ill.” There was even a space for long-form communication. I could write essays to my friends about how I felt and they’d actually read them and respond! Once I even wrote a bold piece about why I cut and discovered for the first time that I wasn’t the only one who’d struggled with that.
But there were downsides to the network as well. When I first joined, for example, I saw the option for displaying “top friends” and it bothered me. For one thing, I didn’t want to rank my friends in any way. Even if I clearly cared for some more than others, there was no way I wanted to share that with the world and make the ones I cared less about feel bad! I also feared that none of the friends who would be on my “top friends” list would also have me on their “top friends” lists. Even if there was a hint of truth to that belief, I didn’t want to know. I felt worthless enough without knowing. Thankfully MySpace also gave the option of “randomizing” the “top friends” list and I unburdened myself a little in leaving it up to someone else’s algorithm
For most of my time on MySpace, I lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment. Sometimes I actually loved the solitude but more often than not I craved meaningful conversation and I’d reach out to friends who were already walking on eggshells around me. Many times I’d go down my phone list and call every friend on it. Most of the time not a single person would answer my call, leaving my imagination to wander into the darkest place. There I’d convince myself that my friends were screening their calls, ignoring me on purpose because they hated me. Who didn’t have caller ID by then, anyway? Besides, it wasn’t like I’d never screened calls before. In fact, I’d become pretty good at ignoring calls from my family. But my friends were supposed to be different. We’d chosen each other and it killed me to think they didn’t want me in their lives anymore.
That was the also the year when, if a self-injury required stitches (and possibly another psych evaluation), I usually drove myself to the ER because none of my friends were ever available to accompany me. It got to the point where I stopped bothering to ask anyone for help and always took myself to the ER when necessary. Even now I long to have a friend as an emergency contact, but I’m afraid to ask anyone. I’m afraid they’ll say something like, “but that’s your family’s responsibility.” It wouldn’t be the first time and my family is my emergency contact for now. But the thing is, when my mind is broken, my family (even though I love them) are usually the last people I want to see.
The other dark side to social media that I perceived immediately was the ability to “unfriend” someone. I still remember when it happened to me for the first time. It wasn’t even someone I knew well but because that “friend” remained “friends” with a mutual friend, I felt the blade in my back twist all the more. I remember crying in the presence of our mutual friend, a man I’d been in a brief, romantic fling with who remains a good friend. I cried as I wondered out loud what I’d done wrong. After all, this wasn’t someone I’d met on the internet. Like all my MySpace friends (except Tom), he was someone I’d met in person first. He was someone I’d spent time with; someone I really liked and wanted to be friends with. The friend who was present with me as I shared those thoughts seemed a little baffled by my emotional reaction, but comforted me all the same. In weeks to come, I’d habitually sift through my “friends” whenever the friend count went down to see who unfriended me and then speculate as to why. This new ritual was far from beneficial to my mental health.
My perspective on friendship would, with time and experience, become more realistic. Part of my transformation in that area I attribute to the friends who actually set healthy boundaries with me. My best friend and I eventually reconnected and, although we’d still have some rough patches in our friendship in years to come, she’s remained an encouragement and an inspiration to me. This wouldn’t have been possible had I not finally realized that my friends are not often equipped to help me in the ways I need help. Eventually I had to get professional help. I had to change or die and, since I’d tried and failed to die, change it was. I’ve since been taking mood stabilizers and antidepressants on a regular basis. I’ve also learned better coping mechanisms and how to set my own boundaries. All of this has taken me many years to learn and I’ve made huge strides. For instance, I haven’t self-harmed in over a decade and I actually hope to live longer because there’s just so much I want to do before I die! But I’ve still got a lot to learn.
I was satisfied with MySpace when I had it and all my friends were there too. Then the social media wars began and Facebook won. It was then I knew that, if I wanted to stay connected with my friends, I’d have make the switch.
In 2008, I signed on to Facebook for the first time. In those days, the status updates were short and mostly written in third person, completing a sentence that began with our name followed by the present tense form of the verb “to be.” My very first entry was, “Clara Tenny is writing a novel.” (9 July 2008).
I continued to post on Facebook for a little more than 10 years. Then, on August 17, 2018, I posted my final status update: “I’m trying something, so if you don’t see posts or comments from me for awhile, don’t worry. I’m not dead. I’m just somewhere else and you can still reach me through FB messenger.”