TW: disordered eating, mental illness.
The first time I struggle to breathe, I think it’s my heart — or my lungs, or some leftover scrap of –
I’ve had four bouts of covid.
Of course, the doctor says I’m fine. She hands me a packet of anti-anxiety pills, tells me I’m not going to die. I put them in the press and ignore them, because the side effects say they might make me want to.
It’s not long after that she calls me about the tumor.
My head is so full of noise that I uninstall Instagram. Between my health and my stress and the pictures of other peoples perfection, it is all too much. Besides, Instagram makes me feel terrible. I start deciding how to punish myself based on how my stomach looks when I wake. One less bite or two, I silently spiral.
Knowing the content is curated and fake, strangely enough, doesn’t seem to inoculate me against its effects. Instagram makes me sad.
Offline, I gain weight. I can’t exercise as well with the tumor, but without an endless feed of before and after body transformations it doesn’t bother me as much.
I find myself productive, even with the noise in my head. I write 50,000 words of a novel I’ve been struggling to complete my whole life, I feel relatively calm, and my attention span slowly starts to regrow —
Four months later, sufficiently convinced I don’t in fact have cancer, I load the app up again. Re-energized, I want to plug myself back in.
In the time I’ve been gone someone has created an account impersonating me, and been shut down already. There aren’t many messages from friends. I don’t feel more connected.
An old friend, a popular friend, one who’s feed is full of people, one I’m no longer all that close to, reaches out and asks if I could drive him to the dentist. When I am released from hospital, the tumor finally gone, only one friend calls.
I mention this in passing to another, and they tell me they have read my updates online.
I’m not lonely before the pandemic. I’m recovering from the end of a relationship, one I should have pulled the plug on sooner, but I spend every night with friends for the three months leading up to the shutdown. We watch movies, drink beers, smash back brunches, lay on my bed watching Netflix.
I document it all online. There is no disconnect between me in person and digitally, and we are a perpetual motion machine.
Until there is a freeze. The office is due to shut for a week, and I am stuck in an apartment with a flat mate so stressed she makes me sanitize the table if my laptop touches it. Convinced that covid is sprouting from each and every wall of the building, she begins to vacuum twice a day. The shut down lasts longer than a week. We don’t share a single meal, don’t watch a single film, and find no comfort in each other. She views me as a direct threat.
A friend drops a birthday cake at the door and runs before I can open it, and I slice it up, grateful and alone. My girls have each signed a card, mailed from one house to another, in the most thoughtful act of coordination I’ve ever been on the receiving end of.
Irelands first lockdown is the longest in Europe.
For at least thirty days, before I finally give in and go, I don’t so much as graze the arm of another person. My mother convinces me to visit a friend – I don’t want to break the law, I tell her, but she is scared I am disappearing into nothing.
Months later, a colleague says she hasn’t and won’t catch the virus because her friends aren’t dirty.
When the lockdown lifts, I find myself changed. I try to be social again, but find too much of it overwhelms me. I keep finding reasons. The tumor, work, life, business elsewhere, the shame I feel at the friendships I lost mid pandemic breakdown, my burnout behavior. I wonder if I ever really recovered.
Maybe, just maybe, I am trying to get back to a me that never was, or no longer is, and am chasing a life I no longer want or can maintain.
I am in mourning.
The empty office breaks my heart.
My commute becomes so long that I contribute to the emptiness.
Suddenly, once a week, my breath is gone.
Once I have reinstalled Instagram, I find myself making far too many compromises. 100 words less a night on my novel in exchange for any words written at all. 15 minutes longer scrolling; my energy starts to sap away. I slip into an odd sort of ennui.
But I still work hard, and win a rare mid-year promotion. I facilitate events in the office, manage newsletters, exercise five times a week, socialize at least twice, leave the house every day, make new friends, join a book-club, and yet
every day feels like the same day again and the mornings keep coming faster and faster and I wonder if I am self-medicating with dopamine hits the passing of time to the degree that I am losing it.
Newspapers, journals both Academic and Professional, think pieces: Forbes, Harvard Business Review, the New York Times,…
More and more content creeps up about a new epidemic: loneliness.
I realize that I’m not craving more time with friends, but deeper time. I am lonely not because I am alone, but because my feed shows me all the places I am not. I feel my heart is shouting into some kind of void. As the days start speeding up, I feel a sense of fear settle into my bones: that if I can have children, it will be in the next years, and despite all my accomplishments, I am not yet where I want to be.
I find it impossible to separate the spheres of loneliness and productivity and social media and health. To me, they are become the same.
Productivity. Productivity. Productivity.
I have a therapist tell me I need to stop thinking about the next big thing and celebrate my wins, and a colleague call me out on saying ‘my promotion was ages ago already’ when actually it happened some ninety odd days ago.
After years of flogging my brain to survive, I find it no longer wants to go. Wins don’t feel like wins: they feel like things I had to do or else, and goals I don’t accomplish make me feel like dirt on the bottom of a shoe.
In an effort to find joy, I attempt to redefine what exactly happiness looks like. We have a work exercise — conveniently, the same week I decide something really needs to change — on finding our purpose. I realize after wracking my head that what I really want is to be a safe space for people to come and rest, an open door, a calm sofa. I want to be a refuge in the storm, have weekly dinners, be a person whose door is knocked on, unexpectedly, when I am in my pajamas but don’t mind, and I can pour a second cup of coffee.
My aim then, must be getting to that best version. Not racking up more Instagram followers, battling my way up the corporate ladder, becoming a subscription service people watch from a distance —
In the evenings, I start struggling to eat as the breathlessness has become so bad. Next to my partner I sound like a pig, snuffling and grunting, trying to get food down as my chest gets so tight that any activity beyond gasping for air has become a battle. When I try to unwind with a movie, I find myself more focused on trying to fill my lungs than I do the plot. Writing this post, I gasp for oxygen more than once. In the office, midday, for the first time, I lose my breath in front of a colleague.
It is during exercise that breathing actually works. I have not fainted. I self-diagnose myself with air-hunger as a result of anxiety.
This is interesting. I have had many forms of anxiety in my life, but never anxiety that manifests itself like this. I sleep and I eat and I work and I socialize and I cannot breathe.
So I decide. I delete Instagram again.
I make the decision to journal with blog posts instead of Instagram captions. The experiment is this: heal my brain.
Write. Have dinner once a week with friends. Go on picnics with my partner. Stop worrying about my body. These are the things I must do to be productive, and to survive. I set myself the goal of learning how to breathe again. I write this post.
This is entry number one into a new digital diary.