My #BeReal guest today is Justine Perry. (@justine_perry)
How Twitter Destroyed My Life… And How I’m Rebuilding My Confidence.
I promised myself I would never feel worthless again. As a teenager, I made this my life’s mission. I failed. Last October I felt completely broken, the last of my spirit had shattered and my mental health was at its worst. Those who on paper were most likely to hurt me, potential boyfriends for example – they never got through the door. Unexpectedly, it was talking to my favorite celebrity on Twitter that caused my downfall. I’ll never say Twitter ruined my life (if I’ve ever said that before I take it back) but it destroyed my life, and has certainly changed my life and set me on a different path. Here’s how…
From left to right: my sister, me, my late granddad, my cousin and my aunt.
I am very close to my family and they give me a lot of happiness, but my troubles online weren’t the start of my mental health problems. I had a tough childhood with a step-mother (or some would say bully) and this caused me immense misery for many years, and caused my first feelings of complete emptiness and worthlessness. Fortunately, her relationship with my dad broke down, and by the time I left university I had recovered from the pain she had caused me. I was confident and excited about the future.
I moved to Leeds (a big city in the UK) straight after university and endeavored to start my own music tutoring business. However, at that time I didn’t have the confidence to do this and I quickly ran out of money. When the financial pressure really hit, I turned to a friend who had been a father figure to me, I’ll call him Hugh. I didn’t want money from him; I had already spoken to a debt advisor and my generous saint of a Nan. I was upset by some of the measures the debt advisor suggested I take because of the affect a bad credit rating would have on my future, so I needed a shoulder to cry on. Hugh turned on me, saying I should have gotten a ‘normal’ job. He made me feel awful about myself for ending up in financial jeopardy. We argued and our friendship was severed. (Ironically, in the end I didn’t go through with the debt advisor’s plan and my credit rating is still reasonably good. Even more ironically, a few weeks earlier Hugh told me NOT to get a job as a waitress!)
Overnight I went from somebody who got up early (if you can call 9am early) to someone who slept through every single day and arose from bed when it was dark outside. I became completely nocturnal because I couldn’t cope with the unbearable sense of loss. Hugh was someone who had helped me a lot without being asked. For example, he did my washing up when I was doing a charity bake sale and moving house all in the same day. These small acts of kindness meant a huge amount to me. I had never thought our friendship would break down. At night I would read or watch TV to distract myself from the pain. Whenever I tried to clean the house, or sit to do some work, the memory of the argument would engulf my thoughts. I couldn’t escape. It left me completely unable to function. At the time I had no idea what was happening to me. I assumed it was just the way I was and nothing could be done. I now know I was experiencing depression, and help is available. One of the reasons I’m writing this article is because I want other people who are suffering to know they are not alone in feeling this way, and support is available.
The other reason I’m writing this article is because many people think unless you experience a tragedy as a result of online difficulties, online upset doesn’t matter and isn’t damaging. My friends often say, “Can’t you just block them?” Yes, you can. But if the situation involves somebody online you befriended and confided in, or a troll whose words have already caused you pain, blocking doesn’t erase the damage already done.
I never used social media at school or university. It didn’t interest me. I joined Facebook and Twitter after graduating, solely for the purpose of promoting my work. I am a copywriter, lyricist and novelist. If I weren’t self-employed I wouldn’t have joined Twitter in the first place, let alone still be using it today.
The negativity began when I started tweeting a celebrity I liked. I won’t identify him; let’s call him Ray. I had a crush on him. In hindsight some of my tweets were possibly too flirtatious, but to clarify I had no illusions of anything ever happening between us, and as he had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have wanted any involvement with him, even if it did become a possibly (which it never did.) Anything I said was just for fun. I also respected him for his work. He was somebody I looked up to and aspired towards.
I’m unsure whether it was the flirtatious nature of my tweets, or the fact he often interacted with me (by liking, re-tweeting or commenting) but whatever the reason, many of his fans were annoyed by me. Over the course of nearly two years, I received nasty messages from people via DM (private messages not visible to the public.) Often his fans started by pretending to be my friend, or said they were ‘preventing me from making a fool of myself.’ I should have unfollowed so they could no longer DM me, but I had recently moved to a new city again (this time to Brighton) and I felt quite lonely as I didn’t know many people. Talking online provided the sense of companionship I was lacking. Because these people alternated between being kind and cruel, it was difficult and distressing because I didn’t know whether they were friends, or whether they were trying to manipulate and hurt me.
I spent a lot of time talking to a girl I’ll call Amanda. She was also a huge supporter of Ray’s work. At the start of our friendship we were talking almost all day, every day. Then Ray said something to upset her, I can’t remember what it was, it was possibly a misunderstanding, but I was easily influenced when she turned against him. We both got quite angry with him. Then she got angry with me and blocked me. I wasn’t sure what I had done to upset her. Again it was probably a misunderstanding. I was grieving for my late granddad at this time, and this made my online problems harder to bear. My granddad showed me what it was to belong to a functional family. In a childhood full of divorce and problems with step-families, I know any normality I have achieved as an adult is down to family members like him.
I apologized to Ray and he was forgiving. Amanda later made contact with me and said she realized she shouldn’t have blocked me. We chatted for a while and everything seemed resolved. Then a few days later I noticed Amanda had blocked me again. I didn’t understand why, and because I had confided in her so much over the course of our friendship, it really hurt. To some people a block wouldn’t matter, but to me it felt like a huge rejection. My depression grew in severity over the following weeks, and intensified further when another misunderstanding caused a second online friend to block me. (I think it’s because you can’t see facial expression or hear tone of voice that misinterpretation of online comments in general, and jokes in particular, seems to be commonplace.)
I then had no contact with Amanda for five months, but during this time other Ray fans continued to message me saying Amanda wasn’t who she claimed to be and had a grudge against me. I know both Ray and I had initially suspected she wasn’t who she claimed to be, there was just something about her, but as it happens we were wrong and she is genuine.
I have no idea why those people said Amanda had a grudge against me. I now know they don’t know her and have never spoken to her. However, at the time this caused me great anguish. I became increasing paranoid to the point I was afraid to leave the house. This worsened my depression and my messages to Ray became erratic (please don’t misread this as erotic!) My messages were only strange considering I don’t know him in person. My friends and family weren’t great people to confide at this time because they had become too interested in whether Amanda was who she claimed to be, and tended to launch into monologues on the matter! At this point I didn’t care about that and just needed someone to talk to. I confided in Ray about what happened with Amanda, but because he didn’t follow me, I couldn’t DM and had to do this via public tweeting.
My breakdown prompted Ray’s fans to continue sending me unpleasant messages. In 2014, I was in tears on both my birthday and Christmas Day. I think they wanted to provoke me into sending more embarrassing tweets, and unfortunately I let them to succeed. On one occasion I was even nasty to Ray (but regretted it instantly and apologized within the hour.) I realized I was greatly struggling with my mental health at this point. I was acting out of character so I decided to seek medical help. My Twitter nightmare had a positive effect in that it prompted me to seek the help I had needed for a long time.
It took a long time for me to be assigned a specific treatment. I had many screenings for various therapies only to be told I was too emotionally unstable to cope with the treatment in question. I was seeing a one-to-one practitioner fortnightly. This was someone to support me until the relevant course of therapy was assigned to me. I began to feel happier and less depressed.
While this was going on, in 2015, I met Ray in person at an event where he was speaking. He seemed friendly enough on the night, but I was nervous and over-apologetic about my embarrassing tweets the year before. The next day I tweeted a picture of the two of us, with a comment that I enjoyed the evening. Ray didn’t ‘like’ the tweet. This doesn’t sound like a big deal but considering he always ‘likes’ (or responds in some way) to pictures taken by fans at events, it felt like a deliberate snub. I knew the other Ray fans would’ve noticed this and laughed, so it felt quite humiliating. It was at this point I realized just how badly the meet must have gone. I remember breaking down in tears that night but in the following weeks I was able to put it behind me, as I didn’t really know how to interpret being ignored. I told myself it didn’t necessarily mean Ray had disliked me.
Weirdly, Ray ‘liked’ my tweet two weeks later. If you use Twitter you’ll understand why this is unusual. It turned out Amanda asked him to because she thought I’d be upset. Amanda went from this kind gesture, to tweeting very public and vicious comments about me a few weeks later. A friend saw this and told me. I was so shocked a former friend could be so cruel. If it were somebody I didn’t know I doubt it would have caused me so much upset. As it was, I was in immense emotional turmoil and missed an important deadline for a business loan as a result. I had needed to submit my business plan before the deadline.
This was the only organization prepared to lend to someone in my circumstances, and you can only go through the application process once. My social media turmoil has changed my life as a direct result of losing this opportunity, not necessarily for the worst. I’ve now given up that business (music tutoring) to devote more time to my writing. Although I was very passionate about tutoring, I am confident I have made the right decision and I’m looking forward to my future focused on my lyric writing, copyrighting, and my novel. I’m not bitter about what happened for this reason, but I’m shocked by the impact social media can have. I would be living a different life right now if not for the time lost to depression, and the loss of that funding opportunity. A friend told me she also lost a life-changing opportunity because of a similar situation.
I was later emailed a screenshot of offensive comments Ray had written about me after I met him in person. It was part of a private conversation and he never intended for me to see what was written. As humans, almost all of us speak harshly about somebody else in private from time to time, so I don’t hold this against Ray or think badly of him for writing such comments. But unfortunately this doesn’t make it any easier for me to accept that someone I looked up to despises me. Reading these comments made me feel humiliated, more so than I’ve ever felt in my life. Ray had always seemed to like and appreciate my support online, even after the erratic tweets. So to be rejected after meeting in person made me feel like there was something wrong with me in real life.
After all the upset I had already been through, especially at the hands of his fans, I had now been shot down one too many times. It was frustrating that I put up with so much only to end up shattered by Ray himself. I ended up signed off work by my doctor and on medication. All the pain had become too much for me and I fell to my blackest place. Luckily, I was about to start a new therapy designed to help me manage the intensity of my emotions.
I have now finished this treatment and I finally feel like I’m returning to the girl I was when I left university. I still talk to Amanda and Hugh regularly. I have no hard feelings towards Ray but my rapport with him is beyond repair. I still use social media and have experienced further problems. However, the impact on my life has been far less severe.
Last year I confided personal information to an online friend I had been chatting with for a few months. Recently he started sending me cruel messages, using what I had told him to make incorrect assumptions about me. I was up until 4am that night crying, but now two days later I’m not struggling with depression. Instead I’m focused on my writing. With experience, I’m learning how to manage my emotions following these situations, and I will continue to learn, for example I’ll now be more careful what I tell people online about myself. I didn’t tell him anything that isn’t in this article but with this blog, I’m making a conscious decision to share my story and I’m prepared for potential consequences. It was devastating to trust somebody and then be trolled by that person. I hadn’t anticipated this when I confided in him. I think he felt I didn’t respond to his messages quickly enough. I valued his support and gave the time I had. If this wasn’t enough then there’s not much more I can say.
Dealing with Depression
To give some advice to anyone who might be suffering from depression but yet to start treatment, I suggest the following because these things helped me.
• When feeling very upset, step away from the situation and do something to distract you until you feel calmer, for example do a crossword, a puzzle, card game, or colouring. These activities can be done with another person, as long as it’s somebody who is supportive of your emotional intensity and who won’t bring up the troubling incident while you’re distracting yourself.
• Briefly write about what happened when you feel calmer, separating your thoughts and emotions. For example; feeling upset, humiliated, embarrassed or anxious, these are feelings. “I am worthless” is a thought. Acknowledge the negative thoughts, but try to come up with positive thoughts to challenge the negative. My favorite positive thought is, “I can like myself even if others don’t like me.”
• Healthy eating, exercise and making time for leisure activities all contribute to mental well-being. You don’t have to become a hard-core runner or foodie, even minor adjustments can make a difference.
• If you have also experienced problems online but, like me, continue to use social media, set boundaries to protect your well-being. I now never respond to DMs unless I’m answering a specific business inquiry that could lead to paid work. People might feel annoyed I’ve not responded but my mental well-being has to be my priority.
I’ve also been doing an Emotional Management course on the Peak Brain Training app, which my dad and I are slightly obsessed with (and when I say slightly I mean very.) This course costs £3.99 but is worth the fee. I had doubts during the first week, but the second week was full of useful information. There are five weeks in total but I haven’t got that far yet. Here are some points I found useful:
• Acting in anger or upset can intensify your uncontrollable emotions further. This was definitely true for me when I was tweeting Ray erratically. I was doing this because I felt distressed but it only made me more distressed. If I had done a distracting activity, such as a word search, I would have calmed down sooner. The app suggests counting to ten. It sounds basic but apparently works well.
• Close your eyes and visualize yourself viewing the upsetting incident through the eyes of an observer, rather than through your own eyes or those of anyone directly involved. I did this for my face-to-face meeting with Ray. I imagined seeing and hearing my conversation with Ray through the eyes of an onlooker queuing to speak to him. I found it best not to give the onlooker their own thoughts and opinions, have them merely observe. This exercise left me in tears by the end because it reminded me of details I had forgotten, but the next day (and ever since) I have felt detached from the situation, as if it happened to somebody else, so I found it very helpful.
I might always grapple with mental illness, but my old self is back for the first time in years, and I feel confident and resilient for the first time in a long time.
I really hope this article has helped at least one person, please feel free to contact me using the details below. I also hope if you are named in this article (albeit by a pretend name) you don’t mind. I felt this was an important story to tell.
Lyric Writing & Novel: www.justineperry.com
Twitter & Instagram: @justine_perry