The middle class is a weird place to be: too poor to be rich, too privileged to be poor.
Your entire existence seems to be a series of private struggles and plenty of compromise. You learn how to keep up appearances while barely getting by because well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. No matter how miserable you may be – valid or not – misery is shameful to most of us; it’s an emotion we tuck into obscure Tumblr poems that end too quickly and witty posts laced with humour about how much we’re suffering inside. It’s a thing with which we titillate the public; when you have depression, it’s usually a thing you hide in plain sight.
Sometime after high school, I began to lose interest in life. I wasn’t quite suicidal yet, but my interest in life was ebbing away and I couldn’t tell whether it was due to me trying to be an angst-ridden creative or whether I really wasn’t coping. So I did what every normal confused teenager does, I drank.
There was an urgency with which we confided in each other when we were drunk that everyone was too proud to indulge in when we were sober.
My friends and I would pool together our resources and spend thousands of Pula in a week on alcohol, cigarettes, weed and the odd meal. None of us saw it as strange in the least; we were, as they say, young, wild and free. But I began to notice that there was an urgency with which we confided in each other when we were drunk that everyone was too proud to indulge in when we were sober.
Everyone had their own issues but we either didn’t trust each other enough or were too proud to truly talk about things, so we self-medicated in unison and sometimes let things slip: my friend’s fear of never being good enough, my other friend’s resentment towards her neglectful mother and my general disinterest in life and inability to cope.
One of the first things I learned how to do from a very young age was pretend. How to pretend my family was happy; how to pretend I was taken care of; how to pretend I was in control. I knew what I had to present to the world and I did so flawlessly. As I used to tell everyone back then ‘You won’t know anything I don’t want you to know’ but inside, my mental health was failing. I was slipping deeper and deeper into a depression I couldn’t explain to my African parents at 17 because I knew it would either be put down to my drinking or evil spirits. I could not tell my friends because they were usually too high to hear or understand me. I could not afford a psychiatrist.
As I mentioned before, the middle class is a weird place to be. Some might know they need professional help and have dealt with whatever internal stigma they have about mental health issues, but still not be able to afford the care they need and think they’re too good for free help lines.
I was one such person.
I’d gone to enough school counsellors to know they would look at my young, articulate and fairly self-aware self as an anomaly rather than a patient. I wanted no more of it. No more of prayer suggestions and realising I knew more than them, of the awkward silence that came every time I looked to them for advice and all they could say was ‘Should we call your mother and speak to her?’
So I went where my mother, or anyone in my family would never go: the internet. Facebook was saturated with people I knew and even those I didn’t – Hell, I found my half brother on Facebook, but that’s another story for another day – so I decided to join a rarely used platform by my peers back in 2010 – Twitter.
I wasn’t the only one struggling to get out of bed, I wasn’t the only one who was scared, I wasn’t the only young African who didn’t know how to live.
Now Twitter, like any other social meeting place, URL or IRL, has people that gravitate towards each other and form cliques. Five years ago, I was sixteen and still very much a patriarchal princess with a potty mouth. I’m pretty certain every other tweet to my 200-strong followers back them was about some ‘bitch’ or the other, but the more time I spent on it the more I began to actually tell the truth about what I was feeling, and steer away from being the belligerent woman/child everyone had come to know. My tweets became so long I was inspired to start a blog – more for me than the hundreds of strangers who’d visit it, to be honest, and a few months later I had over a thousand followers, some of whom became my friends and others a bit more. Before I knew it, my online life had become very, very real. These avatars were my friends, some foes, some lovers, and a fair number of them, a support system.
I wasn’t the only one struggling to get out of bed, I wasn’t the only one who was scared, I wasn’t the only young African who seemingly didn’t know how to live. Those who could relate allowed me the freedom to speak in a manner I’d been scared to before; they allowed me simply to say ‘I don’t want to do this today’ without fear of judgement. Someone somewhere also felt the same way.
I met people online who kept me alive during some very low moments and who I did the same for, to the best of my abilities and as I learned to curate my timeline, I created a safe haven – where we could share knowledge, comfort each other and grow together. And we did; on my worst days I knew there was a stranger in Joburg or Cape Town or Nigeria who didn’t know me but who cared, and sometimes that was enough to carry me through to the next day.
I had to walk away from Twitter because scrolling down my timeline would give me panic attacks.
But of course, it was no utopia. No matter how hard I tried to curate my timeline, and not engage the trolls, I had valued followers who WOULD retweet rape apologists on my timeline, or racists, generally ignorant assholes, or unbeknownst to them, people who had caused me some sort of my trauma in my personal life, and no amount of muting could really keep them off my timeline. Sometimes all it takes is a phrase, a name or even, I’ve come to find, a handle, to induce a panic attack.
The constant twars (Twitter Wars) where everyone would go out of their way to drag and expose the next person gradually began to decrease the amount of trust I’d thought I’d had with the people on my timeline. Although I was never a part of any of it, I saw people who I considered close friends instigate or fall victim to the rabid victim mentality that made everyone seem to want to expose the next person for one reason or another.
And just like that, Twitter wasn’t my safe place any more. Really, I felt that way of the whole internet. I shut my website down, left Facebook and recently had to walk away from Twitter because scrolling down my timeline would give me panic attacks. It was the sheer negativity of the tweets, the anger – valid or otherwise – and the backstabbing nature of an environment, which I eventually had to remind myself was created on a virtual reality with a bunch of strangers.
Recently, while sobbing in the middle of the night and questioning any and everything about myself and my life, I realised I need to regroup and change some things – social media being one of them. There was no one I could honestly say I needed on any of the platforms I’d been clinging to, and so I let go.
Because, whether I’d like to admit it or not, I am fragile, and the internet is no place for the weak.
The world carried on. world didn’t end. In fact, I finally forced myself to seek the help I need and go to a therapist. Now, I’m working on getting out of the rut I feel like I’ve been in for most of my adult life.
There are many experiences I couldn’t have dealt with had I not been able to share them online, whether via tweets or blog posts. But at some point, it did me more good to stop and face myself, carry myself, and establish who I am, without my avatar and Twitter persona and brand, and what I need and who needs and wants me. Because, whether I’d like to admit it or not, I am fragile, and the internet is no place for the weak – and therefore no place for me right now. I’m learning to face myself instead of strangers who reflect some aspects of me. The peace of mind this will bring, I believe, will be worth more than the retweets and favourites I used to gauge the weight of my words by.
I’ve learned a lot from the people on the internet, but now, and this is probably more important, I’m learning myself through my eyes and not the reflections on my screen.