Written by Krista White , cover art Mickalene Thomas
I grew up an (undiagnosed) mentally ill and (closeted) queer black girl in predominately white communities. It took years for me to realize that my shyness could be attributed to social anxiety or that the feeling of being an outsider looking in may have been because every aspect of my being ran counter to the status quo. It would have been even more difficult to name and explore what I was dealing with if I hadn’t had the internet. The internet has given us normalization for the stigmatized, representation for the invisible, and community for the isolated.
Two weeks ago I had a panic attack at work for the first time. After sinking into a period of depression in the fall of 2019, I’ve been in an upswing lately – my mood is stable, my romantic relationship is a constant source of joy, and my finances are the best they’ve ever been. So I was baffled and frustrated when I found myself shaking and crying uncontrollably towards the end of a stressful but routine catering shift.
While I often feel triggered in high-pressure and crowded situations, the tools I’ve learned in therapy have given me the ability to calm myself down and make it through. But during the aforementioned incident, I was completely incapacitated and had to ask to go home early. I felt humiliated and disappointed. What is wrong with me? I wondered. That feeling – of being out of control, of having your life interrupted, and of wondering what is wrong with me is a familiar occurrence for people living with mental illnesses. It can be frightening and incredibly lonely.
Anyone living with one or more marginalizations can be especially susceptible to loneliness and feelings of isolation. Systems of oppression such as racism, ableism, and transphobia are huge risk factors for depression and anxiety. There are also the challenges and stigmas of mental illness coupled with other marginalizations – it becomes a feedback loop. So many of us have and continue to suffer in silence.
With the advent of social media, forums, and other community sharing sites, black, queer, and otherwise marginalized people have the opportunity to find a safe haven and treasure trove of mental health resources that they otherwise would not have had access to.
When I was 19 and very sad, too sad, I went on Tumblr to find out if I was normal.
When I created my little blog, Theatre.Shoes.Love, I soon discovered that there were a lot of people feeling like I did: unmoored, unfocused, and sinking ever deeper into a pit of despair. I also learned a ton. I owe so much of my feminism to the Tumblr scholars, who like the Twitter scholars that came after them, did an immeasurable amount of unpaid labor educating the unwashed masses of the internet. I found great comfort in fandom Tumblr and aesthetic Tumblr, in black girl Tumblr and SJW Tumblr. At that time, there was nowhere else to find content that spanned #Olitz shipping, global anti-blackness, and inspirational quotes in the span of a few posts.
The constant slew of pretty photos and dramatic text posts served as solace and distraction, but it wasn’t until my mother dragged me kicking and screaming into therapy that I began to climb out of the abyss.
Going to therapy is like shining a magnifying glass on your brain. Everything that had been obfuscated suddenly became glaringly, and at times painfully, obvious. The hours I spent obsessively scouring College Confidential in high school? Anxiety and perfectionism personified. The nights I imagined how much better the world would be without me? Congratulations, you have chronic depression. The details of my first round of therapy are hazy, lost to time and some unconscious defense mechanism. But with weekly sessions, supportive parents, and medication, I was able to graduate college in four years. Shortly after college, I completely abandoned Tumblr.
Until the summer of 2017.
When I was around 25, I happened to make friends with more queer people and started to fully accept that all those “girl crushes” I’d had throughout my life were just…crushes. Turns out most straight girls don’t usually read that much femslash fanfiction.
I was so afraid of what my queerness would mean to my friends and family. Would I be ostracized? And could I handle that? Imposter syndrome thoughts also cropped up. How would I be perceived in the LGBT community? I had only dated cis men at that point and was afraid of not being queer enough. What if I was a fraud? I still have this fear sometimes, two and a half years after coming out and one year into a relationship with a woman.
These are all fears experienced by many people in the LGBTQIA+ community, and finding support online was one of the ways I was able to learn and find words for my feelings and build the confidence to come out. (Another confidence booster? Fictional bisexual black girl Kat Edison, who came out the same summer I did).
Bisexual people and other non-monosexual people are at a particularly high risk of anxiety and isolation. We feel pressure from both monosexual queer folks and straight people alike to “pick a side.” There are lesbians who fear we will “go back” to men. Many cis men see bi women as nothing but an opportunity to satisfy their sexual bucket list. Even two of my very best friends, who are both queer black people, once posed the question of whether bisexuality was real. I don’t think they remember that conversation. But I do.
In addition to my return to Tumblr, I also started joining LGBT Facebook groups. Kit*, who admins one such meme/support hybrid group, told me that while they like the way the internet connects people, “there are so many people out there showing their true colors online, and it’s exhausting.” Kit, who is autistic, and has ADHD and “some flavor of depression,” is one of the moderators who work to make the group a safe place for nonbinary people. Trans, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people are at the highest risk of depression and violence of all LGBT people. They paved the way for our rights, but remain marginalized even within our communities. Folks like Kit have been instrumental to my evolution as an empathetic, passionate person, akin to the Tumblr feminists I followed in college.
Much like my college experiences battling depression, the internet provided me the comfort and commiseration I needed to bring myself into the real world. I went to a Pride party solo to celebrate my birthday, and seeing queer joy looked like live in the flesh, I sobbed. It was then that I truly knew. I told my friends and family a couple of weeks later.
I would be remiss, however, to ignore the powerful darkness that also lurks on the internet. For every pro-black Twitter thread, there is a white supremacist troll ready with abusive vitriol. Much of my life and livelihood are owed to the internet, but I have also been driven to panic, despair, and rage. Christine E. Soriano, LCSW, told me that she’s seen the effects of both extremes on her clients. “Using the internet as a resource comes up in every therapy session. The helpfulness of it can oscillate between extremes. It can quickly go to the other end where you’re self-diagnosing yourself…it can just really mess with [your] head.”
She used the example of the #MeToo movement. It both brought abusers to light and was extremely triggering for many survivors.
Her suggestions to use the internet more mindfully? Do your research and be aware of your sources. “Is it just some random person sitting in their basement? Or is it the American Psychological Association?”
Another way to take control of your experience on the internet is to simply connect with your own body.
Soriano added,“I don’t think people often check in with themselves to see how they feel. Do you have a knot in your stomach? Are your fists clenching? Do you have tension in your shoulders? Is your heart racing? Are your cheeks getting hot?”
The world is so fast-paced that we feel pressure to stay connected at all times. But if you can take a step back to look inwards, it can make a world of difference. You don’t always have to be available. The world will go on.
Don’t forget to make time for the joyful side of the internet. When thinking about what they love about the Facebook group they admin, Kit told me, “Honestly, just a space to share memes, experiences and just joke around with people with similar experiences. I don’t think it needs to be more serious than that.
Within the past couple of years of therapy and personal development, I’ve been able to develop a stronger “bounce back” time. I still have spirals, panic attacks, and depressive periods, but my ability to course-correct has vastly improved.
Mindful digital connection has helped lead me down a path of fulfillment. May you find yours.
If you are seeking mental health resources, here are a few places to start:
Krista White is a writer, actor, and amateur baker who tries to center joy and play in every aspect of her life. Find her on social at @thekristawhite.