Thursday 17 August 2017

Selfie Destruction: Why Stefanie Preissner killed her online self

When a crippling panic attack forced her to abandon an Australian tour, actor and screenwriter Stefanie Preissner found herself living a lie on social media. As her online deception caught up with her while she hid in her bed in Dublin, she knew what she had to do to face her demons

Top, Topshop. Trousers, Isabel Marant, Brown Thomas. Necklace; bracelet, both The Collection by Amy Huberman, Newbridge Silverware. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Top, Topshop. Trousers, Isabel Marant, Brown Thomas. Necklace; bracelet, both The Collection by Amy Huberman, Newbridge Silverware. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Dress, Self-Portrait, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll.

In February of 2014, I was on tour in Australia. If you looked at it from the outside, I had a hit one-woman show; I was in a different hemisphere; I was getting good-to-great reviews; I was in high demand and tanning beautifully. It was every actor's dream. Or, at least, it seemed that way, from how I was reporting it on social media.

For a while on this trip, the reality and the online version were the same. I was uploading as I went. People from home were texting me: "OMG it looks so fab, you're having a ball"; "So jealous of your tan. Congrats on the reviews".

But then something happened. I had a panic attack in the dressing room one day. I'm not sure exactly why it happened, and it hasn't happened since, but, at the time, it was crippling. My chest felt like it was corrugated iron, all crumpled up in spasm, and I couldn't get air into my lungs. I had it seen to, spoke to my producers and decided the best option was to come home. I felt so embarrassed, ashamed, weak; like I had failed. Remember that game show, The Crystal Maze, where you get locked into the game when you fail, and all your friends watch you for a minute and then leave you there on your own? That's what I felt was going to happen.

I made a decision at Brisbane airport not to tell anyone that I was coming home. I ran to an airport shop and took photos of some postcards to make it look like I was visiting all of Australia's landmarks. I saved them on my phone.

When I arrived in Singapore after the first leg of my flight, I uploaded the first lie. I tagged myself at Ayers Rock and uploaded the photo of the postcard. Straight away, I got a response. "That looks like magic. You're so lucky. #jealous." I calmed immediately. It was working.

By the time I got to my house in Dublin, I had visited - virtually - the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour Bridge and some island I can't guarantee isn't New Zealand.

Each post was fooling my 800 friends into believing that I was happy, joyous and free, navigating the Australian outback like Bear Grylls, turning a gorgeous shade of leather and eating witchetty grubs for sustenance. The reality was that I was in bed, crying and alone, with no prospect of any visitors, because to call for company and support would betray the lie and ruin the illusion. I stayed like that for a week.

After a week, the jet lag had worn off and my original flight to Ireland was about to land. As the wheels touched down in Dublin Airport I pulled my duvet over my head and took two painkillers. How was I meant to deal with everyone asking me about all of the places I had visited, all of the things I had apparently seen?

I uploaded a picture of a hand holding a dripping ice-cream next to the entrance sign of Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo. What if people asked? I hadn't been anywhere near that zoo. I had, however, watched the entire series of Planet Earth and eaten about 50 litres of ice cream. I felt a massive pressure to project only my best - albeit unrealistic - self, in a modern way of virtually keeping up with the Joneses.

Social suicide

I hadn't thought this through. In trying to keep up a false narrative of my life, I had inadvertently created something that was unsustainable, aspirational and like nothing I could ever live up to in real life.

The comments were coming in - people "dying to catch up and hear all about it". I couldn't cope. I couldn't do it. Lying online was easy, but I couldn't keep it up face to face. I needed to escape from it all, to run away, to disappear. I wasn't desperate enough to do any of those things in real life, so instead I committed social suicide. I killed my online self. I deleted my Facebook page.

In the beginning, Facebook was everything I love in one place. A way to keep tabs on people, compare yourself to them, see who's going out with whom; monitor where tensions are building and look at the various heart-shaped designs on cappuccino froth. But slowly, inexorably, social media started to suck the joy out of my life. It didn't have to suck too hard, mind you, because I just uploaded my joy directly on to the site and left nothing for myself. I was constantly comparing my whole life to the best bits of everyone else's, and it had become draining.

The withdrawals from quitting Facebook were intense. The feeling of validation and being alive you get by constantly comparing yourself to other humans is a powerful thing. Without it, initially, you do start to question your own real-ness. 'If I don't upload this photo of me in the gym, was I even really at the gym?' It made me acutely aware of a tacit motto of my generation: a calorie shared is a calorie halved. Or a problem shared is, hopefully, a problem retweeted. The little joys in life are amplified by sharing them with your 800 nearest and dearest.

I remember the first time I changed my Facebook relationship status to 'in a relationship'. Being able to publicly announce it was more important to me at that time than being in the relationship itself. I was more concerned about how my friends felt about the man I was with, than whether or not I even liked him. I would have gone out with Kermit the Frog if it meant the gushing approval of my friends.

Then the moment came when we broke up. There's shame. I imagine it's like how women felt after getting a divorce in the few years after it was made legal here. The excited comments and giddy emojis that the relationship had provoked online, disappeared. People are far less quick to comment on a sad status. So instead of reaching out after a break-up, instead of gathering my friends around me by telling them how badly I was feeling, I quietly hid my relationship status from my profile so that no one would notice. Or if they did, they could easily pretend they hadn't and wouldn't be forced to comfort me.

Once I deleted my page completely, I felt like everyone I knew was hanging out without me. The isolation and Fomo (fear of missing out) were all-consuming. I felt like I was missing out on life. Not just other people's lives, but my own life, too, because so much of my life had become about the instant gratification of 'likes'. I used to upload a funny status, having slaved over it for minutes, and when it got the attention I was aiming for, it was like millennial heroin.

Being labelled an 'attention seeker' on Facebook is akin to being labelled a witch in Salem back in the day. I noticed, when I was on Facebook, that a funny, relatable post such as: "When you're dying to pee but it's too cold to get out of bed" would get significantly more positive attention than a post where I was being honest and open and real. In general, people who upload things such as "I'm having the worst day ever and I'm really struggling" get a response from a friend they haven't seen since third class, asking "you OK, hun?", and this helps very little. When someone reaches out on Facebook, they don't want just anyone to respond. The people they do want to pay attention have more than likely taken a screenshot of the pathetic post and sent it to a WhatsApp group, along with an eye-roll emoji.

Distorted lens

But what if you are looking for attention? When did that become such a bad thing? Sometimes we need attention. Sometimes loneliness and being overwhelmed can be terminal if it's not given the right attention. If your Facebook profile is a digital extension of your life, then it's extremely dangerous to only upload the best parts. It's the equivalent of those poor babies in the orphanages who don't cry any more because they know if they do, no one will come. They end up emotionally stunted and with massive mental-health problems.

Social media puts a distorted lens on how we project ourselves to the world. For obvious reasons, people do not advertise their negative traits on their social profiles or post pictures that are unflattering. How many times have you asked, or been asked, not to put a photo up on Facebook?

Because of this strict control of the way we are viewed, we are often fooled into believing other people's lives are much better than our own. That people are prettier or more successful than us. What is essential to remember is: they, too, wear masks the way I do; the way everyone does.

I'm not here to advise anyone to delete their Facebook page. If it enhances your life and you enjoy it, then that is valid and great. For me, the cons outweighed the pros. But sometimes I try to figure out if maybe I am missing out on stuff by abstaining from Facebook. My friendships definitely need that extra bit of effort, because no communication is by chance. It puts a lot of pressure on 'catch-ups' over coffee when I have to update someone on everything that has happened since I last saw them and vice versa. If I were on Facebook, I'd already know their basic news, so I'd be able to decide where I wanted more info and which stories I'd rather avoid.

I very much miss one aspect - the ability to structure a conversation with a friend based on things you know about them from Facebook, so you can avoid putting your foot in it:

"How's John getting on?"

"He's dead, Stefanie."

Awkward encounters like this are inevitable when you erase Mark Zuckerberg from your life, but I just can't bring myself to go back. So now, I experience Jomo - the joy of missing out. I see things on Instagram or Twitter, and I get this ecstatic wave of relief that I am not attending the damp, muddy festival du jour.

I also feel #privileged not to have Facebook dredging up the past at me every day. It goes back through your page like an archaeological dig to tell you what you were doing this time five years ago. So you realise you were happier/skinnier/less single/more tanned/more free than you are now or, even worse, you might realise you are exactly the same.

I do not miss my Facebook page. I engage with Twitter and Instagram to a certain extent, but in a very careful and curated way. I am aware of how my dopamine levels spiked on the day I saw my blue tick on Twitter. The blue tick is a little emblem that appears next to your name when Twitter decides that you are more than an average Joe and deserve to be segregated from the rabble. I think it's there so no one can set up another account in your name and pretend to be the 'real' you.

I had to be very severe and remind myself that this blue tick did not make me any more worthy or valid than I had been without the verified emblem embossed on my profile. The verified emblem that subliminally states to the world - I am important, I am real, I am verified and you . . . you are not.

I am discerning and judicious when it comes to my Instagram and Twitter accounts. I do not follow people whose posts annoy me or irritate me. I follow mainly kickboxing, fitness and parody accounts, for the simple reason that I want social media to be a joy in my life. If I wasn't on Instagram, I know I would have significantly fewer 'lols' in my day, and that's enough of a reason to keep it.

Don't get me wrong. Twitter is not perfect. On Twitter you get to 'follow' strangers - people you have never, and will never, meet. Politicians, singers and every strain of celebrity. The celebrity, however, doesn't have to be subjected to the 'dry January' struggles or the 'squad goals' of the people following them. The lack of mutual consent on Twitter creates a strange paradigm. When you follow your favourite celebrities, it becomes easy to live in vicarious fame. The constant access to the stream of consciousness of Piers Morgan or Kanye West gives the illusion of intimacy, and it's easy to forget the simple truth: as a Twitter follower you are a bum on an electronic seat in a production of Monetise - the musical!

Over the edge

Twitter and Facebook share a common danger with each other. We have all heard about the echo chamber. The notion that on social media we are all shouting at people who share our views and make us feel like the whole world is on our side. The people you choose to be friends with and the people you choose to follow, if they all share your world view, it's easy to feel like you are inherently 'right'. I can't help but think that if people had got off social media, and had not been complaining to people who shared their views, that we may have found ourselves with different results in the major elections of 2016.

In the days leading up to deleting my Facebook account, I paid particular attention to the types of comments that were popping up on my timeline. There is no one particular person or one particular comment that sent me over the edge - it was just the pattern of unhappiness and discontent that was being delivered to me that I felt I could do without.

A typical scroll through my newsfeed revealed people I barely knew any more protesting to like-minded people about things that offended them. Hungry for a fight with people they call friends. About things they probably could fix, but would not put in the effort to change.

Stop stoning women in eastern Iran

Child goes missing after man sees White Van

40-year-old man missing in County Cork

New credit-card fraud pattern hits New York

Save a child with cancer with 4,000 likes

FucK THE DOPES WHO STOLE MY BIKE

Does anyone have an apartment to let?

I can't cope with the rain, my Ugg boots are wet

Please vote for this photo taken by a pal of mine

WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT PALESTINE

When you throw chewing gum, a bird thinks it's bread!

Bombing in Syria, 10,000 dead

Don't stop and give directions to a forlorn stranger

PLEASE SHARE this or your children are in danger

Good morning Facebook, what's the panic du jour?

Cancer makes money, they're hiding the cure

CLICK LIKE if you support gay rights

Does anyone know where I can find cheap flights?

Fight obesity, give kids child-size portions

I HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT ABORTION

My newsfeed filling with angry words from angry heads

written with angry fingers in angry beds

sitting on couches, couched in inertia

sit back and complain that they've all deserted you.

Everyone says 'NO' in Helvetica Bold,

No to Enda, No to Donald, to tax on the household.

To pay cuts and pay increases and property tax

Writing NO on Facebook isn't changing the facts.

They can't do simple maths like long division

but they have the solution to direct provision.

Bondholders are scum and why won't the ministers listen

to my Facebook post I'm writing on my own in my kitchen?

Socialism is brilliant - let's all hold hands.

Quick, there's an ethical issue in Africa - I'M WITH THE BAND.

Don't say no-one's listening to you when they can't even hear, because you're not opening your mouth; your laptop has no ears.

Occupy 'Sesame Street', Big Bird's obese.

Why is my dole getting fucking decreased?

Minister X is a criminal because he gave a raise to his daughter!

LET'S SET FIRE TO THE BASTARDS AT IRISH WATER!

Keep calm, sure it's grand we've a German ATM, spewing money we forget we have to pay back to them.

Money doesn't grow on trees and yet banks have branches,

But they break when you climb trees, there are no more chances.

In his book 1984, George Orwell predicted the major fear in the future would be that Big Brother was watching us. It strikes me now that during my lonely week in Australian-Irish limbo, my biggest fear was that no one was watching me at all.

By creating a false self online, I nearly uploaded myself out of reality. I'm still under the influence of Twitter and Instagram, and I've recently become attached to Snapchat . . . but I'll cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge only when I come to it.

Sunday Independent

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