Fighting Isolation, 280 Characters at a Time
Desperate times call for desperate measures. So I joined Twitter.
Social media, we are relentlessly warned, is detrimental to one’s mental health. A simple cursory search reveals every major news and mental health organization commenting and reporting as much. Indeed, data and research tell us that social media users, especially children and teens, should be cautious of their digital presence, as it creates the risk of increased anxiety, peer pressure, bullying, and countless other issues. All that is true, and yes-situationally-people should use caution. There are millions of cautionary tales and viral mistakes to be found regarding the brave new digital frontier. It is enough to drive a sane person crazy.
But in my case, social media helps me keep the crazy at bay.
I was always one of those people eschewing and hateful towards social media. A private person and somewhat of a homebody even in the best of times, I never felt a pressing need to share every detail of every minute with the world. But in the past 18 months I have been on a strange and unexpected journey in life that changed that. A serious, life-threatening medical issue arose that changed my life forever.
The issue arose from complications of a surgery I had years ago, while on active duty. As it turned out, that surgery had been botched, to use the nicest word I can. Nobody, not even the doctors, knew just how badly until they went in for what was to be a routine surgery - which turned out to be anything but. More issues and complications presented, and this necessitated extended hospital stays, multiple surgeries, rehab, and the end of life as I knew it physically. A complete recalibration of life to the “new normal”, as the health professionals maddeningly keep calling it. The physical demands, such as the 70-pound weight loss and strength erosion, learning to walk again, and complete change in dietary and other day to day needs, was difficult but mostly expected. What was occurring medically was always patiently explained to me by the providers who took amazing care of me.
What I didn’t count on, or expect, was the mental and emotional toll.
I always considered myself tough, both mentally and physically, having accomplished things in my life of which I am very proud, despite setbacks and obstacles. I thought I knew what to expect; after all the surgery from 2010 they were correcting involved several weeks in the hospital and months of rehab and recovery. But that was weeks, and this time it would months. This was vastly different; ventilators, chest tubes, feeding tubes, drains, picc lines, and catheters are blunt instruments of medical science, and not subject to human will and determination. Where I could will myself to finish that long run during PT in the military or ignore pain and sickness to grind out my shift at my civilian job, or choke down fear to push through the mission when deployed, my determination was not going to be enough now. Reality does not negotiate with the will.
Which brings us back to mental health. “Tough” has nothing to do with preventing or dealing with mental health issues, especially trauma; in fact, being resilient frequently makes it worse. When connected to machines, unable to move, unable to do more than stare at the ceiling-or a TV that you grow quickly to detest-contemplation becomes your chief pastime. When sleep does come, it is only in short bursts as there is always something to be done for or to you. You are recovering physically, but you are tired, worn out, and never get any rest. The frustration, pain, and anxiety of it all not only eats at you, but also amplifies any issue you already had.
Once the physical healing started showing progress, I was forced to finally confront long suppressed mental health concerns. I quickly realized, in the new normal version of me, that I was not only less than physically, but less mentally sharp than I had been. A large part had to do with the need to finally confront and seek treatment for my issues, especially my PTSD, which I had resisted for years. The sum of it all was my body was slowly healing while my mind continued to fail.
As is all too common with mental health issues, and PTSD in particular, I rapidly began withdrawing and cutting myself off from the outside world, as well as those around me. Isolation is a common attempt to self-correct mental health issues of almost every kind, but it is also the gateway to the truly dark side of a troubled mind, and the awful places it can lead without intervention and treatment. Sensing this danger and desperate to avoid it, I admitted and confided to my VA mental health provider that I was struggling, frustrated, and withdrawn from the world. Along with setting a long-term plan for individual therapy, other things such as peer support groups and options for learning were made available to me. On a more practical and immediate level, she made a short list of items to challenge and work on with me, to attempt to improve my interactions with others. She encouraged me to come up with one of my own ideas to add to the list. To my own shock, and hers I imagine, I did something out of character, something that felt more like I was watching myself do than experiencing it. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
I joined Twitter.
Understand, at 37 years of age, I had never had any social media account and rather despised the concept. However, my decision was not without sound reasoning. I have always been a follower of current events and politics, and most of the media now is using the medium as a companion to their official writing, reporting, or punditry. Being a historian at heart and a person who still deeply loves his country, it seemed like the appropriate outlet to dabble and engage in areas that interested me, and in a small way participate in the public discourse. The truncated format keeps things brief, and it was a controllable environment; unlike being in a public, crowded, noisy place full of potential triggers, a phone can be put down or turned off. Even as a public platform, a certain degree of anonymity remains as I am a virtual nobody, pun intended.
Mostly, though, I wanted to see if I was still sharp enough mentally to compete in the arena of ideas.
I set some ground rules for myself that have served me well. I do not carry any debate from Twitter over to actual people in my life; I discuss politics, current events, or anything else I engage on twitter with the real people in my life rarely, if at all. I don’t throw bombs or act outrageous just for the attention. I try not to put anything on a tweet I wouldn’t say in person. I don’t insult people on a personal level or based on their looks. I try to be fair; if I’m wrong or mistaken, I say so, and if I’m right, I try to know when to be comfortable enough in that to stop arguing. In other words, many of the principles for good mental well-being in real life also apply to social media. Tweet at someone the same as if you were talking to them is a pretty good rule of thumb. I do not always measure up to my own standards, but they are there, and I am getting better at it all the time.
Often, I must Google a word to make sure I’m spelling or using it correctly. Even trivial things that I should remember come as a struggle sometimes. It can be something of a challenge to make coherent statements out of my jumbled thoughts in 280 characters. It is not unusual for me to delete several drafts of a tweet before sending it out to the world. But even in this frustration there is a healthy struggle that results in refining what I want to say to something coherent and worthy of reading.
When coupled with the improved programs the VA provides me, the results of my little side project of Twitter activity has been wonderful for me. My world stopped contracting and began to expand again. Since starting with Twitter in October, an unexpected side effect was the return of my long dormant habit of writing, another positive mental health development. Dabbling in the digital world has the real-life effect of feeling like I am accomplishing something, even if it is only “liking” something or complimenting what someone said. I try to make a habit to at least say something randomly nice or congratulatory to a few people every day as opportunity presents. I have been able to engage with many, most of whom are decent people. Plenty of vets and other people with mental and physical health issues are to be found, and many will gladly engage with you.
As it turns out, plenty of people use their Twitter as an outlet, and more than a few are a lot like me, using social media as a way of channeling their real world into a manageable space. I quickly connected with people that think similarly to me, and I try to follow and engage as many people as I can with whom I disagree or who live very different lives than I do, so I can hear their version of things as well. I’ve learned to avoid and filter out people that just want trouble, or to troll, or to argue without good faith.
Therapy, medication, and support are the most important tools for mental health patients. Now we can add to that the ability, through technology, for that person to reach a wider world when they are ready to reach outside of their isolation. This is a development that should be praised and explored, as any avenue for piercing the darkness of isolation should be used to reach those that need it. In a nation that is increasingly in crisis with how we care for and address mental health, there are more questions than solutions. The rise and increasing importance of social media, and the parts of our lives that are entrenched in them, will no doubt be researched and debated for some time. But one thing we do know is that social media gives each of us a reach far beyond that which we would otherwise have. And with that reaching out there is always the potential to connect to another person in a positive way, which is good for the health of us all.
More writing by Andrew can be found here
Original writing and photos Copyright © 2018 Andrew Donaldson. All others attributed to source with all rights assumed to be retained to them. No reuse without permission or credit to original.