Content warning: the following covers topics of depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as describes acts of personal violence
I was twelve when I first contemplated suicide.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, a steak knife to my neck, wondering if the way my blood left my body would look like it did in the movies. I didn’t think about my mother or my siblings finding me, having to clean up, having to move to a new house because they couldn’t take the image of my dead body every time they brushed their teeth or went to the bathroom. I moved the knife to my wrist, poking just enough to draw a pinprick of blood, watched it bubble up and turn to a small stream, then drip into the sink. I put down the knife, washed my hands and my wrist, applied a bandage and snuck the knife into the top drawer of my dresser, where it stayed until I was home alone and could return it to the kitchen drawer without risking someone seeing it. I went into the hallway and sat down at the computer. I signed into my AOL account and listened for the sounds of doors opening and closing, of people signing off and signing on. A message popped up on screen: hey ;)
This was a common occurrence for me at twelve. I had no real understanding of what suicide was or what it meant. I was a confused, sad kid. I spent my nights on the Internet. Everything clicked for me after Sarah.
Sarah was my best friend at the time. I loved her and I had never even met her. We communicated with each other via text through the Internet on school nights and on weekends. When I found out she had died, after having not talked to her in a year, I didn’t know what to do. I told no one. No one in my family even knew she had existed. How could I tell them? I reached out to my online friends but no one knew her like I did. We grieved. It never felt like it was enough. We had built up a history with her and she was gone; not just gone, but dead. That took me a long time to come to terms with.
To go back and recount my experience with the Internet would take a long time. I think it’d make for a good story. For now, I want to talk about mental health, the Internet and social media.
Social media, at its core, is about communication. It keeps us in constant contact with our loved ones, provides an outlet for our creative pursuits and keeps us clued in to the world around us. We have nearly unlimited access to information about our hobbies and our interests. We can express ourselves publicly, so everyone knows how we feel, and we can rant anonymously, just so we can get things out of our system. We can meet people we could never even dream of, people with wildly different backgrounds, identities, customs and ideas about the world.
Social media can also be an endless void of reinforcement of bad thoughts and feelings. When I first started using the Internet, I used it as an escape from real life: which was growing up in a household dominated by an abusive stepfather. It was a way for me to communicate with people who were just like me: uncomfortable, lost, alone, living day to day with no real understanding of how to do it. Before Facebook, before MySpace, before LiveJournal, we found each other in Internet chatrooms; we were anonymous, opening up to strangers we trusted to be who they said they were. We waited patiently for each other to sign on, then cried as we shared how our days went: he hit me, she screamed at me, they called me names, they ignored me. As adolescents and budding teenagers, we had no idea how we could help each other beyond talking, beyond saying “I love you” and “You’ll be okay” to people we had never met. Sometimes things worked out and we were okay. Sometimes they didn’t and we weren’t. Sometimes, we couldn’t take it anymore.
It was different in the late 90s, compared to now. I would wait anxiously for the familiar ding of a friend signing on. When it didn’t happen in a night, I would grow concerned. If I skipped a night, I’d be greeted with a flurry of messages the next time I signed on.
I remember being grounded from using the computer and being absolutely devastated. At school, I had few friends, and they all lived further than any walk or bike ride I could make in an afternoon. Online, I had friends that were just a few keystrokes away. Being deprived of them was like being deprived of oxygen. Every day away from the Internet sucked more life out of me. It affected my online friendships, too. After a week of being gone, the messages were less concern and more anger: “I missed you” became “How could you leave me?” “I thought about you a lot” became “You didn’t think about me, did you?” Sometimes, that week of being gone becomes a month, two months, a year.
After a year of Sarah’s name being dimmed out in my buddy list, I checked my list of online friends after hearing that wonderful ding and saw her name, bold and bright on the screen. I immediately sent her a message, frantic and full of joy: “SARAH are you okay??? where have you been? i’ve missed you!!”
“this is her mother. i’m sorry. she passed away.”
I cried a lot that night, more than I’ve ever cried in my entire life. I had spent months of my life wondering if she was dead or if she simply moved on. We had met casually, talking in a chatroom both of us frequented, and grew to be really close. We talked about calling each other on the phone but never did: she didn’t want her parents to know about her online life. I felt the same way. We knew each other for two years.
I spent a long time asking her mother questions, careful to avoid the truth where it could hurt me or Sarah’s image, and I answered her questions in turn. We met at school. Not entirely false, we were both in school. I lived far away. Southern Illinois was pretty far from West Michigan. We stayed in touch. We talked every day. We were just friends. She wanted to run away together. \
As an adult, I know how I should talk to myself. I’ve learned how to control my anger and calm myself down when I’m having an anxiety attack. The stress I face in my daily life is nothing compared to what I dealt with as a child. And yet, I still use social media as an outlet for these heart-crushing bouts of depression and anxiety.
My friends do too. But none of us are talking to each other.
A tweet: “can someone just end my life, please?”
Some responses: “you’re a good person,” “you’ll make it through this”
Some more responses: “ha ha same,” “yea life is awful,” “take me with you.”
Under the guise of irony, we post these messages in public venues. I know that I’m hoping someone sees it; it’s why I even have a Twitter account in the first place. I’m not exactly sure how common it is to seek a kind, concerned response. I know that every time I turn to the Internet and broadcast my struggles with depression and mental health in 140 characters or less, I’m asking for some level of compassion and concern. That isn’t an easily discernible thing.
The Internet has become so personable, so permanent, and yet some of us just can’t find a way to use it to help ourselves and each other. We need to reach out to each other when we see each other suffering. Sometimes these things are simply thoughts thrown out into the void, not asking for a response but acting as a way of shedding old skin. Sometimes they’re cries for help. The great thing about social media is that it is a little more impersonal, and it allows us to discuss things with a bit more purpose and thought. We don’t need to invite each other to online counseling sessions; we don’t need to lecture each other on the dangers of suicide and drug abuse and self-harm and everything that people with mental illnesses turn to when they don’t know what else to do. We can just talk to each other like people, offer a listening ear, provide a safe outlet for rage and anger and frustration with ourselves or whatever issue might be affecting us on that day. We can be online and present for the people we call friends and acquaintances.
I come up against that same feeling I experienced as a child daily. I struggle with a feeling of such complete and utter hopelessness that death is more attractive than life, that nonexistence and darkness is better than suffering and light. The rational part of me—the part that keeps me alive just as much as it wakes me up for work, pushes me to write, encourages me to seek friendship—is always there, pulling me back from the edge. I like to think that part of me is just Sarah, tugging on my arm.
I’ve spent twenty-nine years with myself, living through child abuse, bullying in school, failed relationships, failed endeavors, and for every mistake I make, I know that I’m making progress toward something beyond myself. I have learned that no matter what happens, there’s always some level of hope to be found. Sarah taught me that, although she’ll never know that she did, and I’ll always wish I could have done for her what she does for me every day of my life. I’m trying hard to be there for people.
I’m trying hard to make sure that what happened to Sarah doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Matty Weaver is a former Michigander living in the Bay Area, where he builds computers as a profession, and writes nonfiction and snaps photos as hobbies. His writing covers topics of childhood, punk rock and coming to grips with failure. You can find samples of his photography and writing at his website, mattyweaver.com.