Of pandemics, social media and mental health…

“Marvelous technology is at our disposal and instead of reaching up for new heights, we try to see how far down we can go…how deep into the muck we can immerse ourselves!”
– Eric Bogosian, Talk Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here. I’d thought, initially, that the pandemic would enable me to do some sort of ‘Journal of the Plague Years’ a la Daniel Defoe, but that soon faded when I realised that, when you’re locked down, there are no events to write about. Not for me, anyway. No baking banana bread or learning to crochet here. Just the endless, repetitive routine of being stuck in my tiny Barcelona apartment, with my windowless bedroom, trying as best I could to not interfere with my roommate having to work from home in our tiny living room.

My school, for reasons of a lack of demand, elected not to go to online teaching, so I had no work, and no income other than the (admittedly generous) Spanish ERTE scheme, which gave me 70% of my usual income. Not a massive problem, with so little to spend it on while locked down. But after a while, even that ended, leaving me reliant, once again, on ever-dwindling savings.

I had no TV to watch – with my roommate taking work phone calls in our tiny living room, that wasn’t an option. I could only watch TV in my bedroom – which in keeping with Barcelona norms, is inside, has no windows, and becomes sauna-like in temperature during hot weather.

I read. I read a LOT. The whole of The Expanse novel series and its attendant novellas. Lots of Stephen King. Old Doctor Who Target novels. A 6 volume alternate history series about World War 2 by Harry Turtledove. Endless, endless comics. My only escape to the outside was a daily trip to the nearest supermarket, or trying to read on our equally tiny balcony, before the scorching heat of the sun drove me back inside again.

It’s true that, at least from seeing the rest of the world, the catastrophic decisions taken by various governments, Dominic Cummings’ indefensible lockdown-breaking jaunt, the justifiable anger that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, there were things I could have written about. But by then, I no longer had the motivation.

If you’ve read some of this blog before, or if you actually know me, you’ll know that I have severe mental problems. Clinical ones. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks; the latter of which comes with its own score of physical symptoms that perpetuate it, like chest pains, dizziness, nausea and exhaustion. I’d been managing all that just fine without even needing medication since moving to Barcelona – rebuilding my life after all the sturm und drang of recent years had been going so well that, a lot of the time, I actually had the novel sensation of feeling happy without the aid of SSRIs.

Then the pandemic hove into view and it all fell apart. In the middle of all that, my mum died, and I couldn’t even go to her funeral. I had to read the eulogy I’d written over the phone while my roommate considerately took his lunch hour early for me to do that.

That would take a hell of a toll on anybody’s mental health, even if they didn’t already have problems. Unsurprisingly, my sanity gradually crumbled. I wasn’t the only one either. I could see, on social media, people I’d previously thought fairly stable acting out of character, lashing out in anger, sadness or fear. We were all affected. We all still are.

For me, it’s still getting worse. I have no medication now, nor any means to get any – with Spanish bureaucracy still largely shut down, getting the documentation to register with a doctor is currently well nigh impossible. I’ve been getting through the bad periods by doggedly telling myself I know what this is, it will pass like it always has, and I can cope with it. I have good friends who’ve been a tremendous help.

But with no end to the pandemic in sight, no income, no certainty as to whether schools will reopen in September or if there’ll be enough work for me even if they do, it’s not working so well any more. I can’t concentrate. I find myself lashing out, irrationally, in anger on the internet; though at least I usually confine the targets of my ire to people whose views I genuinely find toxic and offensive. I found myself furiously debating, on a Facebook group dedicated to classic TV of all things, the idiotic idea that Muslims are trying to take over the UK, or that a previously white, English London has been ruined by an invasion of dirty foreigners somehow taking everyone’s jobs while also claiming all the government benefits.

In effect, my depression, my anxiety, have manifested themselves as anger, in a desire to actively seek out arguments with people – sometimes even with people I basically agree with. It’s irrational; I sometimes feel an overwhelming urge to contradict things I see written on the internet, even when, on consideration, they’re the same views as mine.

Social media has been both a blessing and a curse during these fraught times. It’s been lovely to have interactions with good friends, and for us to support each other when times have been tough. But that stupid urge to argue, just for the sake of it, has made me, as much as Katie Hopkins or Donald Trump, part of the problem. I lash out, without thinking. Other people lash out at me. It’s been disastrous for my crumbling mental health. And presumably for that of others.

Which brings me to my reason for breaking my silence. Last weekend, with my depression in the blackest pit of despair it’s been for a while, I also had the worst panic attack I’d had in years. Still shaking, terrified, I stupidly ventured onto Facebook, and expressed an opinion (not a negative one, or at least I didn’t think so) about the whole toxic mess of US racial politics.

This, to my shame, was not on my own page, but in a comment on an American friend’s post. I thought (and still do, actually) that it was a fairly innocuous comment, not pejorative or condemnatory, on linguistics and the evolution of the English language in the context of US racial culture.

My friend’s friends didn’t agree. Two of them, African American women, immediately piled in with accusations that I was a racist.

This made me very upset – I’ve spent most of my life condemning and fighting against prejudice, racial or otherwise. I also think that there was a fundamental gulf in understanding; the UK and the US are far more different culturally than people often think, and I possibly put my foot in it without knowing.

I tried to explain this, but it cut no ice with them. The memes kept coming and coming, condemning me as a stupid white man unaware of my privilege. To be fair, there may be the germ of a point there – though I try to be self-aware enough to learn from my mistakes. Unfortunately, my head was in the worst possible place by that point. In tears by now and feeling suicidal, I started plaintively, hysterically, asking them if I should kill myself.

Thankfully I got my head together enough eventually to ask my friend to delete the comment and its replies, rather than making the situation worse. He did, but the story doesn’t have a happy ending. He’s now deleted himself from Facebook (which, to be fair, may be for a variety of reasons), and his wife has unfriended me; hardly surprising given my hysteria at the time.

Which all points to the basic problem with social media; the reason why I long ago abandoned Twitter, and until recently have only been using Facebook. People make snap judgements about each other based on the tiniest of things. My friend’s friends didn’t know about my parlous mental state; equally, there were probably things I didn’t know about them when replying. We said what we said, based on the flimsiest of evidence, regardless of the damage we might potentially have been doing to each other. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause permanent damage.

It’s not quite the final straw for me and Facebook, but I suspect I’ll be cowed into posting things far less frequently for fear of recreating that situation, upsetting people unintentionally and damaging my mental health. And that’s actually a bit sad, Facebook has the potential to be a great connector. But when even the people whose side you’re on think you’re worthless, and you’re gripped by chronic, long lasting depression, the question presents itself – why am I even bothering?

For the record, I don’t think I’m a racist, but I am aware that as a white man I can’t have the same grasp of the situation as somebody actually suffering that injustice – and there’s plenty of it, wherever in the world you are. I’m acutely aware that I’m shielded from racism and misogyny by my privilege as a white male.

But I’m not a STRAIGHT white male. Gay people have been imprisoned, tortured, and executed for their sexuality for centuries – in many countries, they still are. In the 1940s, we were marched by the thousands into Nazi gas chambers, and unlike other Holocaust victims, there’s still no count as to exactly how many. My own country legally prohibits me from donating blood because it might be contaminated.

For myself, I’ve been abused and spat at on the street for holding hands with my partner. I’ve been beaten up for being in gay bars. This is not ancient history; the last time I was beaten up was in 2014, and the last time I had to run from a homophobic mob was 2019. In Barcelona, one of the most liberal cities in Western Europe. In the street where I actually live.

And the worst thing about all that? You get used to it. You just treat it as a normal hazard of everyday life, like being careful when you cross the road. I may have privilege in some ways, but anyone who thinks I haven’t been on the receiving end of prejudice and bigotry is very wrong.

In the racial debate, I may well get things wrong; but be assured, it’s out of ignorance rather than malice. I can’t know the motivations of my friend’s friends, but I’m basically on their side. If they’d tried to educate me, rather than rage at me, we might have got somewhere. Instead of a situation where they were furious at me, and I was in tears contemplating the end of my life. All because we all made assumptions about each other based on the tiniest amount of information.

I’m wondering even now whether I’m returning to that urge to argue; to have the final word in a debate that, thankfully, has been removed. I didn’t cover myself in glory. After the trauma of a virtual breakdown last week, I think I may be on the road to some sort of normality again, whatever that is for me now. But I do think I’ve learned a lesson, about social media and about myself. None of us, me included, should be trying to hurt others without sufficient information to make a judgement. It’s ruinous to everyone’s mental health, especially now.

And if we do hurt somebody else unintentionally, maybe we should listen to why that happened, and make an informed decision about whether to apologise. I’m not saying I’m going to apologise for hurting the feelings of racists, or homophobes, or misogynists. But that I really should be sure that’s what they are before my instinct to lash out causes damage.

For now, all of this has made me very thoughtful about social media. I’ve barely looked at Facebook in days, a far cry from recently being on there several times an hour. It’s been bad for my mental health in all sorts of ways. The tragedy is that it has the potential to be good for it – and for that of others – if only we stop and think about what we’re saying once in a while. And that includes me.

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