Yesterday, I met up with a friend. After a couple of hours of window shopping (and a little too much actual shopping – sorry bank balance!), we sat down for a drink and the kind of chat I wish were more common: a proper conversation. None of this ‘how are you, I’m fine thanks, how are you’ crap which most of us seem to spend the majority of our time reeling off because that’s what we’re expected to do.
We spoke a lot about all that’s going on in our lives. Both of us have great stuff going on at the moment, but naturally we’re also both dealing with things which aren’t exactly ideal, and we’re managing them alongside jobs, university, and some sort of vague attempt at a social life.
I spoke a lot about Mum; how she is, how the rest of my family are, how our house is, basically lots of cancer related stuff. My friend responded with words I’ve heard so many times in recent weeks: ‘I’d never have known’.
From so many people, for so many reasons, I seem to be hearing this a lot more than normal lately. ‘I’d never have known your mum dying affects how well you’re sleeping’. ‘I’d never have known it affects your studies’. ‘I’d never have guessed that ‘x’ was going on’. Usually accompanied with ‘you’re coping so well with this, I don’t know how you do it’.
If you look at my Twitter and Facebook, they paint a fantastic picture. I look after two lovely boys for four days each week, and you’ll see pictures of their various baking endeavours, their glittery creations and their muddy wellies, usually accompanied with something amusing that one of them came out with. You’ll see photos of volunteering things I’m doing: whether it be a selfie on a train to London, a photo of somewhere pretty I’m sitting, or something else, you can be sure it’ll be as photogenic as I could make it in the moment. And that’s before we get to the various updates about the revision I’ve been tackling, culminating with a photo of all my notes last week before my exam. There will be some jokes on my immediate family’s Facebook walls, conversations with other family on Twitter and every now and then a link to a news article I found thought-provoking.
But the stuff I don’t post on social media are the things that keep me up at night. The discussions I’ve had with Dad about Mum’s health. Worries about whether Mum will make it up the stairs tonight. How exasperated I feel that my family seem to have stopped leaving the house. The crying that comes when it hits me that Mum really is dying. The questions I mull over each day: ‘what will it be like when…’, ‘what about if…’, ‘how do I cope with…’. I certainly never post my fears about whether I’m coping well, if I’m making the right decisions, and what’s going to happen in the future.
The thing is, I’m not the only one. If I did start posting all of that stuff, kinder people would think it was quite odd, and less kind people would probably react with hostility – how would you react if this popped up on your feed: “crying because I just walked past people graduating and Mum probably won’t be around when/if I graduate”?
I have a number of friends going through a lot of tough situations at the moment. Physical health problems, mental health problems, family issues, you name it. I have friends in hospital, friends who’ve recently received difficult test results from their GP, and friends going through family break ups. If you looked at these people’s social media profiles and then they told you about these issues, you’d probably say ‘I’d never have guessed’.
More than any other area of our lives, social media lets us choose exactly how much or how little we say to the wider world about our lives. No-ones social media profile can fully represent that person – after all, how do you capture a human personality in 140 characters, or a well-filtered selfie? And that’s before you get to the unwritten social rules on what you can and can’t post – don’t cry for attention, don’t post anything that could upset or offend anyone, do your best to be funny – that actually restrict the freedoms we’d so dearly to love to have, and make the whole social media thing so much more difficult.
Assuming a friend is fine because they posted a happy Facebook status is like seeing someone wearing makeup and assuming they look the same without it. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram can so easily turn into makeup for your whole life: social mascara, if you like, personal concealer, maybe societal hair straightening. Please don’t ignore hints that they might not be so okay right now, if there are any. Reach out to your friends, drop them the occasional text, start some real conversations. Summer can be an incredibly lonely time, seeming to stretch on forever if things are difficult. Take out your makeup wipes, and find out if your friends really are as ‘okay’ as their internet presence suggests.