Excerpt from IRL, chapter 2
On a sunny Monday afternoon in June 2017, after hours of walking around Minneapolis alone, I paced outside my apartment building. Unwilling to make my way back inside but having nowhere else to go, I walked from one end of the block to the other before heading back to where I started, the punishing heat irritating my already tortured skin.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so alone, but I also didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I pulled my phone out of my pocket and scrolled through my Twitter timeline.
I was one year removed from the end of my longest relationship, and the year that followed my breakup had been a marathon of misery: the unexpected end of the job that was supposed to be my career summit, a traumatizing encounter with bedbugs, the dismal 2016 presidential election cycle, a difficult move across the country undertaken alone with no sense of how I would make a living on the other side, and an all-consuming itch that finally—after months of sleepless nights, puzzled doctors, painful tests, and fruitless biopsies—was identified as a severe scabies infestation.
For those fortunate enough not to know from experience, scabies are microscopic mites that burrow beneath your skin and cause an itch so extraordinary and violent that the Latin root of their name is literally “the itch.” Months later an ex who has worked as a hospital chaplain told me he’d heard scabies was so agonizing that before it became easier to treat, it had driven many to suicide. This didn’t surprise me; the last year had been one of the worst I could remember, but the three days following the diagnosis felt like the lowest point yet. I was defeated and hopeless.
My life falling apart around me, I furiously scrolled Twitter in search of any distraction—flicking anxiously past a cluster of gays posing on an inflatable flamingo at a pool party, a few hot takes about the latest inflammatory opinion piece designed to go rage-viral, and several iterations of the “the floor is . . .” meme (an image of someone contorting their body to avoid touching the floor) that was making the rounds that month. But there was no meme stupidly funny enough to pull me out of my misery.
After pacing back and forth and anxiety-scrolling outside my building until putting my phone away in frustration, I stopped and fished it back out of my pocket. I’m not sure what possessed me to do what I did next; it felt like an unthinking act of muscle memory. After turning my phone over in my right hand a few times, I opened my camera app and took six or seven pictures of myself.
When I was finished, I lowered my phone and appraised the results. I almost didn’t recognize the face looking back at me. I hadn’t shaved in days, my closed-mouth half smile was entirely unconvincing, and my hair was disheveled, but not at all in a good way. My eyes broadcast exhaustion and sadness. I was jarred by this alien person. Gone were the selfie smirk and Instagram angle I defaulted to in the pictures I typically posted for my modest online following (let’s be clear: I’m not Chrissy Teigen). In their place was a portrait of a man who looked like he didn’t want to be alive.
I can be very particular about the photos I share online. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed, either. It’s just the way it is in this age of filters and Facetune—an app for smoothing out blemishes, erasing under-eye bags, and enabling truly wild edits like putting a smile where there wasn’t one or completely reshaping your face’s, well, shape—when half of the people I follow online look like they’ve got a professional photographer trailing them at all times. I sometimes take over a dozen pictures before I get one I deem satisfactory enough to post, and I almost always ask friends if I can review a picture they’ve taken of us before they upload it.
Under normal conditions, the pictures I took that day would never have passed my aesthetic standards. They weren’t just unflattering—I looked exactly as I was: unkempt and unwell. I tried a couple filters. There was no hiding what a mess I was. In those photos I saw the entire year leading up to those moments.
But for reasons as indiscernible as those guiding my decision to take them in the first place, I decided to post one anyway.
Sharing this photo ran counter to the way I had treated social media for years: as a space to share curated career highlights, personal triumphs, carefully considered reflections on challenging situations after they had been resolved, edited selfies, and the occasional self-deprecating but totally safe joke.
I opened Instagram and started typing a draft. “I will not forget this time in my life and the perspective it is giving me,” I wrote, not sure if my words were a cry for help or a declaration of victory. In truth they were neither. I was offering this photo as proof of life, a flare from the wilderness of my misery.
Too worn out to pretend to be okay, I wasn’t thinking about impressing anyone or garnering sympathy. I didn’t have it in me to consider how my post would be received. It was simply a dispatch from the brink. After years of careful, self-conscious posting, here, in its muscle memory and immediacy, was something that felt a little more real.
This digital comprehensiveness makes the fact that entire swaths of my life—significant struggles and fears, projects and celebrations—remain undocumented and unshared all the more glaring. It’s almost as though those things never happened.
If you were viewing my life solely through the lens of my Instagram footprint, I’d only be a few years old. Thinking my lack of Instagram presence somehow signaled that I wasn’t truly glued to social media, I resisted joining for years but finally signed up a few months after my relationship ended. Posting on Instagram quickly became a way of saying EVERYTHING IS FINE, even though it very obviously wasn’t; my feed was all pictures of me smiling, carefully posed photos of food I was eating (why do so many of us do this?), and cute shots of Tuna, my dog. I was trying to prove to myself that I was okay, that my life still had happiness in it, by showing it to the world. But it wasn’t really about the world; it was about me, and for me.
Since my adolescence the social internet has been a space where I’ve shared some of my greatest hopes and fears, reached out for help and consolation, and gone to get information and process evolving thoughts. Once on the edge of my life, over time it moved ever closer to the center. Eventually it was no longer just a place where I sometimes shared things that happened elsewhere in my life. It became a place where life happened.
By and large, though, our “real world” norms haven’t caught up with how we behave on social media. Some of us tweet about things we couldn’t imagine sharing with our parents or have “alt” accounts where we disclose secrets we can’t even bring ourselves to tell our therapists. Conversely, as demonstrated by how many “Wait, you have a boyfriend?” comments I see gays tweet at one another each year in response to Valentine’s Day posts, we often leave big and important parts of our lives out of what we share online.
This isn’t a totally new phenomenon. In so many other areas of our lives, we fear being perceived as incompetent or unsuccessful or unkind, and we strive to present a more polished version of ourselves. This takes many forms—like not mentioning your seasonal depression to coworkers because you don’t want to be judged or telling a first date about your track-and-field trophies but leaving out your student loan debt.
But even if it isn’t exclusive to the internet, the pressure to perform and calibrate—to make your life look more appealing or put together—feels especially acute online. Because of the seduction of editing, depending on the day and who appears at the top of our newsfeed, social media can sometimes seem like a culture of extremes: the highly curated and overly safe “personal brands” that feel so pristine they’re sterile, the joke or “irony” accounts that traffic in memes and sarcasm, and the compulsively performative oversharers in search of constant validation. Many have come to regard all of these types as equally fake, and, because of this, social media is often castigated as an authenticity-killer.
As a result, we often look for our suspicions to be confirmed: we hunger for the latest person to contradict their own online identity and prove themselves fraudulent or insincere while simultaneously living in fear that we might be next to slip up. Put another way, we are waiting for everyone to become exposed. Which is why, pushed to what felt like a breaking point, I decided it was time to stop worrying so much and expose some of my struggles myself.
Now in my thirties, on the other side of those difficult few years, I’m still Pretty Online. Gaps remain, to be sure; I don’t fully understand what’s up with WhatsApp, and the only TikTok I acknowledge is Kesha’s. (Just kidding. Somehow, over the course of writing this book, we all decided some TikToks are pretty funny.) But I continue to tweet most days, and the pink circle alerting users that there’s content on my Instagram story—where temporary photos and videos are stored for twenty-four hours, so basically it’s Snapchat but embedded in your Instagram—is generally active, pointing the way to videos of Tuna stretching and screenshots of what I’m listening to on Spotify. (Just the cool stuff, of course. Relient K, the Christian pop-punk band I loved as a teenager and still secretly listen to, doesn’t make the story.)
But I am, at least in some key ways, differently online. The erosion of many of the things that I thought made me who I am, the stuff I would so often crow about on Twitter, invited me to reassess my relationship with social media—not just how much I use it but how I use it. It’s not that I’d never questioned it before, but mostly I’d been all or nothing about it, feeling like I needed to go all in or recuse myself entirely. But it turns out neither approach is viable for me. I like it too much to quit, and I dislike it too much to let it run my life. If I’m going to be online as much as I am, though, I want to feel more like myself there.
As I’ve reflected these last few years on what keeps me online, despite it being a complicated and fraught space for me, I’ve come to wonder if social media is actually the problem. I now suspect that, rather than being this entirely or even largely destructive force, social media is rather a new tool for expressing ourselves and connecting with others, as susceptible to abuse or misuse as any other. Yes, it presents immense new challenges. But it also offers profound new opportunities to see things about ourselves: chances, in our amateurish attempts to be human online, to learn more about our impulse to broadcast an edited image of ourselves. We can come to better know ourselves by looking at how we use the internet.
After all, social media hasn’t necessarily made us express anything that wasn’t already inside of us and previously expressed in other, offline ways. Sure, our new outlets for connecting with others and expressing ourselves may exacerbate some of our preexisting anxieties, and some new behaviors have emerged as a result. But I’m not sure many of our social media habits reflect brand-new impulses. Before I was ever on social media, I still often felt partitioned into an interior “true” self and an exterior “curated” self. I still compared my life against other people’s and tried to present a more polished version of myself to the world. I still felt pressure to appear charming and accomplished. These aren’t products of the internet; if anything, my social media use has helped me recognize this split between public and private self, and the fears and inclinations that underscore and bolster it, by making it more obvious to me.
That hot summer day when muscle memory kicked in and told me to post a picture, I began to confront the divide between my online and offline selves. In that grimacing selfie—taken in a moment so miserable that even social media, for many years a pretty reliable tool for distracting me from the things I struggled with, couldn’t pull me out of it—I saw reflected back at me not the curated self but an honest depiction of how terrible I felt.
If I’m going to spend as much of my life online as I do—as so many of us increasingly do, for things we would very much consider “real”—I don’t want to continue to feel so split. I’m not always sure how to go about getting more integrated, but I do know that as the internet becomes more ingrained in all aspects of our lives, figuring out how to carve out a bit more space for realness in the venues we use to document our lives, express ourselves, learn more, and build connections with one another feels vital.
When I look back at that photo from three days after my scabies diagnosis, it rustles up old ghosts of how alone I felt at that time, how devastating and hopeless everything seemed. They are ghosts I don’t care to remember. But they are accompanied by lessons I don’t want to forget.
Here was proof that all my efforts were for naught: carefully managing my online identity didn’t prevent my life from falling apart. That photo is a kind of portal or bookmark, a stamp in time that provides a direct line to the recognitions I made during that period.
On some level, I knew that if I didn’t post it, it could eventually seem like it never happened. I didn’t want to scroll back through my Instagram history months later and see an invisible gap between highlights.
On that sleepless night, tormented by undiagnosed scabies just days before my move, I took a break from scrolling through my Twitter feed to read The Velveteen Rabbit. It was my favorite story as a child, the one my mom would read to me when I couldn’t sleep. In the year after my breakup, I found myself returning to it as the life I thought I knew—a life I once thought would go on like that for a long time, if not forever—disintegrated.
In my favorite part, the rabbit asks an old toy horse about realness.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” the horse replies. “It’s a thing that happens to you.”
The rabbit then asks if it’s painful or uncomfortable to become real. Sometimes, the horse explains, but “when you are real you don’t mind being hurt.”
To be more real online—to become worn and ragged, but also soft like velveteen itself—we may have to let go of our desire to be seen as strong and stitched together and let the stuffing spill out. To embrace the discomfort of sharing not just the flattering or neutral parts of our lives but also the seams. To be works in progress, to be wounded, and to be real. At times this will be painful and uncomfortable, but today it feels essential.
Click here to learn more about IRL by Chris Stedman.