Opening up about depression, one Instagram post at a time
As we spend our days consuming an endless stream of internet posts, it can be almost impossible for to remember one key truth: Social media is not realistic. While one’s Instagram page may be a reflection of who they are, it’s just that, a reflection. And more often than not, it’s the most flattering reflection possible. We put into the world what we want others to see, and we absorb the curated versions of the self that those we follow make available to us. Sifting through that daily barrage of filtered perfection, it can forget that your friends and followers do live perfectly imperfect human lives filled with bad days, rejection, and obstacles. It’s not all #blessed sunsets, and #squadgoals.
Enter Jamie Lauren Keiles, a writer who has coped with depression. She understands this social media “reality” better than anyone. “For two years I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, outpatient programs, therapist appointments, and fits of despair, but nothing could stop me from doing what mattered most — getting faves,” she writes in a stirring essay on Medium.
“Today, as I scroll the main feed of Instagram from out in the light of the living, I see attractive sandwich, beautiful leather craft, black and white architecture, sponsored content for puppy-related startup, fresh tattoo, cranberry bagel, iced tea selfie, new car. The Instagram economy trades heavily in FOMO and YOLO. Instagram is a platform for people who, if not actively happy, are at least moderately invested in aggregating the happier moments of life. It is not an intuitive place for depressed people — people like me who had long accepted missing out, and instead were just hoping to die.”
To virtually speak her truth – even in the midst of claimed happiness, sandwiches, and puppy ads – Keiles began creating depressiongrams: Photos that display exactly what happens when you’re living with depression. The results are stirring.
“When I was sad, this all felt important,” the writer reveals. “When you are depressed, people who have never been depressed are positively horny to offer advice and assessments of your situation. They say, Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and Fake it ‘til you make it and It can’t be that bad. America contends with depression out of both sides of its mouth, treating it with medication like a valid clinical pathology, but blaming its sufferers for shortcomings of character and will. The reality is, depression weaves around and between these two categorizations in an unpredictable way — something that seems irrational and even impossible to someone who has never experienced it. There is plenty of space in the cultural conversation for stories about what it was like to have been depressed, but there isn’t much space or tolerance for narrating the experience in live time.”
This Instagram project also allowed Keiles to chronicle her own story, to feel creatively accomplished even in the midst of darkness. Her images often take on a consistent aesthetic, one that’s similar to those who use a standard Instagram filter or arrange their brunch a certain way all across their feed. For this writer, her snapshots became a visual symbol of depression. Dark, grainy, and “as thick and impenetrable as depression makes life feel.”
As with most journeys in life, Keiles’ social media saga was no different in that it allowed her to learn about herself:
“In the throes of depression, my role models weren’t people who recovered, but artists who eventually killed themselves. My friends, who I now recognize were not in an easy position, would offer sordid reassurances like, ‘David Foster Wallace was depressed, and he turned it into books. Why don’t you write again?’ It’s cruel to suggest that a sick person do the labor of a famous working artist, and even more cruel when the suggestion hinges on an artist who hung himself.”
Taking on the social media world from a depressed perspective is no easy feat – especially when your fellow creatives’ accomplishments are all that you see as you scroll and scroll and scroll. Similar to this endless scrolling, depression may seem everlasting. But, over time, these circumstances can be glamorized and compared to the “tortured artist” trope.
“There is nothing romantic about being sick, and I suspect that if Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain ever worked for even a second in the throes of a depressive episode, then their output is an exception, not a rule,” says Keiles. “I remember shooting the depressiongrams with a sense of purpose, like if I couldn’t fulfill my duty to make art from my experience in the moment, then at least I could bank that experience to make future art, should I survive the whole ordeal. Having survived, I resent this logic as grossly romantic, but it’s also a logic that essentially beared out, so I’m not sure what to think. The photos served a practical purpose in the moment, but today they feel like a weird incongruity in the scope of a social media platform that’s often mocked for being too exuberantly full of life.”
Be sure to make time to read her whole essay here.
[Photos via Instagram; h/t Medium]