By Jen Woltemade
A year ago, I quit social media and email for six months. Facebook was easy, I’d resisted it for nearly ten years. I’d only just started with Instagram, so no big deal. Twitter has been my everything since 2009, so that took adjusting to, but I’d often gone without tweeting for a month or two, so barely anyone took notice.
My hiatus was glorious, unfortunately scared some friends as my intended two week break (which would have gone largely unnoticed) spanned half a year, but it was simply too enjoyable to re-engage. I was able to free myself from my phone/iPad, got an analog watch, phoned people from our landline, and basically lived as though it were the mid-nineties again (without the pager).
I moved from Ottawa to tiny Bad Soden, Germany five years ago. When I got engaged to my husband André in 2010, I said yes provided he move to Canada, as I’d just started a very meaningful job and didn’t want to leave. André transferred to Toronto, and although I don’t have much love for the city, I have a great number of people there I miss terribly, so if I were to move back to join him down the road, I’d make out fine.
Mental illness runs in both sides of my family the way cancer does in others. Manic depression, suicide, what we would now classify as various narcissistic personality disorders, drug and alcohol abuse. I’m much more comfortable around people affected with these diseases than physical ones, as there’s so many of us in my circles. I’d believed I was largely spared until 2003, when the burden of underemployment, neighbours from hell, a brief relationship with a con man, and failing to get help while pretending everything was ok culminated in my walking out the door to work a video shoot and losing myself in a dissociative fugue state for four days. I have various theories about why my brain and body shut down for that length of time, but they remain theories because I’ve no memory from that period. Once I was found at a movie theatre downtown where a friend had dropped off a missing poster, I experienced a period of amnesia that spanned several months.
Looking back at my twenties, I’d had hypo-mania and -depressive episodes that another person might have considered more serious and deserving of professional care, but I always had work, friends, and family to support me, so I just ‘got over’ those phases and didn’t look back. I am also of the belief that it’s hard to recognize patterns, positive or negative, in our lives until we reach our forties. I’d lived quite a nomadic life, so people close to me that might have flagged behaviours and suggested I get help if I’d stayed put in one place were not aware of my day-to-day situation. And we had no Internet.
I feel lucky to have bridged the Internet generation; that is to say that I grew up without it until I was well into my twenties, and then have reaped its benefits over the last twenty years. For many years, I kept quiet about my dissociative fugue and amnesic period, for I was scared being labelled as crazy would keep me from getting jobs and forging meaningful relationships. It bothered me that I couldn’t be honest and open when meeting new people, but was also appreciative that a Google search of my name didn’t bring up all sorts of information about me that I preferred to keep private at the time.
Were the same situation to happen today, I believe there’s no way I’d have been able to disappear in Toronto for four days. Facebook would have been engaged within a few hours, and I likely would have been found within a day by any one of hundreds of people who would have immediately seen and shared the missing post. Although that would have been much better for my loved ones who went through hell, I’m of the belief that I needed to take a break from my life and brain, so I’m selfishly quite happy to have been able to go ‘walkabout’.
I experienced this selfish feeling again last year when I enjoyed six months Internet-free. I’d experimented with various tame methods of unplugging, limiting my social media to weekends, or taking every third day off, or not taking my chargers with me on holiday. Those efforts were as painful as trying to wean off smoking through similar steps – I’m an all-or-nothing addict.
I wish I were able to replicate my hiatus again this year, however travel, the possibility of work, and certain relationships will force me to be online pretty much constantly. My goal is to get to the point where I can at least drop FB and IG for several weeks or months at a time, if not for good. We’ll see about Twitter, as I’d mentioned, I’m an all-or-nothing addict, and enjoy it way better than smoking.
Since writing my piece for the anthology, there have been ups and downs regarding both my mental health and online use. We spontaneously rescued a dog, Spencer, from Andalusia. He’s my first pet since being on social media, and his antics are simply too hilarious not to share! Having him with us has done wonders for my mental health, I consider him a therapy dog.