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Facebook in Sobriety

My problem isn’t that I’m addicted to status updates. It’s that I use Facebook as a self-worth monitor—and I’m unwilling to stop.

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By Taylor Ellsworth

06/05/12

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When I was 16, it seemed like the whole world was making the transition from MySpace to Facebook. Facebook was much cooler and the fact that it had originally been exclusive to college students appealed to my desire to be someone other than myself—namely, a grown-up. My friends and I started using it essentially as a means of publicity: we documented every party and dance with hundreds of photos, all posted on Facebook within a day of the event. Never once did I think that I might regret being photographed with eyelids that wouldn’t stay open or a bottle in hand; we were keeping track of the glamorous nights we—well, really, I—wouldn’t remember. If no post-party pictures of me appeared on Facebook within a few days, I would feel anxious and left out. If others looked at the pictures that were posted and noticed that I wasn’t in them, I was sure they would know my secret: deep down, I was terrified that nobody liked me.  

One of the most unshakable elements of my alcoholism has been the struggle to recognize objective reality versus the reality I make up based on my constant fear of what other people think of me. I can’t, for instance, handle AA meetings that include several minutes of silent meditation because, as soon as the room goes silent, I can hear the blood rushing through my veins and my breathing gets so loud that I am convinced everybody else can hear it too and they are wondering why the fuck I am breathing so loud and I am probably the only one with my eyes closed. I’ve learned over time that I have no control over this sort of thought process and that the only thing I can do is try to adjust my reaction to it. It was this perpetual fear that made me loathe my blackouts: the notion that, once I was past the drunken point of no return, I lost complete control over my image. I would say and do things that would make sick when I heard about them, and I couldn’t clean up the mess the next day because I would have no recollection of my missteps. And of course I harbored constant worry that everybody I knew actually hated me.

In the early days of recovery, I would troll my Facebook newsfeed, comparing my Saturday night routine of hitting a meeting and late-night diner to the always cooler experiences everyone else seemed to be having. 

Facebook served as a tool by which to measure my likeability and popularity. If there were lots of pictures posted of me from the last party, I was cool. If someone mentioned an inside joke on my wall, I was interesting. Conversely, if a group of my friends posted pictures of some event that I hadn’t been invited to, I was devastated. In sobriety, I have often heard the phrase, “Don’t measure your insides by another person’s outsides.” This method of comparison, however, was the exact function that Facebook served for me. If I found anything social involving my friends that didn’t include me on Facebook—invitations, pictures, anything really—I would be overwhelmed by a sense of despair. Even if I had gone out both nights of the same weekend, it meant nothing about my relationships unless what appeared on Facebook was aligned with how I wanted to be perceived.

When I look back at those pictures—I am still tagged in almost all of them—it seems like all I did was hang out at parties. The truth is that I spent many nights alone, wallowing in my bedroom, drinking Nyquil and hating myself, but there is no evidence of that on Facebook. In the photos, I look like any other shallow teenage party girl. However, more often than not, I felt like the biggest loser on the planet. And my skewed self-image followed me into sobriety as well.

In the early days of recovery, I would troll my Facebook newsfeed, comparing my Saturday night routine of hitting a meeting and late-night diner to the always cooler experiences everyone else seemed to be having. Most of my friends were off at college for the first time, experiencing the wonders of themed frat parties and day drinking.

Of course, since getting sober, I have learned how to take pride in more than the attractiveness of my public pictures and every once in a while I accomplish something I deem actually Facebook-worthy, like finishing an 18-mile run or getting a raise. In these moments, I perfunctorily write a status update to inform the masses, despite the fact that I’ve already told my real friends. The successive flood of likes and positive comments provides an artificial rush that allows me, for a handful of seconds, to feel superior. However, when I don’t have anything spectacular and like-worthy to tell my “friends,” Facebook only aids me in beating my self-esteem with a two-by-four. For me, there is no space on Facebook in between being the best and the worst.

When I hear alcoholics share in meetings about the newfound confidence and self-worth they got from working the steps, I often don’t relate. I have certainly grown from working the steps as well: I don’t hate myself and want to die today; I don’t have to get a drink in me immediately upon entering a social situation; I never wake up next to anyone besides my boyfriend or my cat; I don’t tear my friends down behind their backs to feel prettier or smarter or more interesting; but despite the drastic turn my life has taken, I still struggle to like myself most days. Maybe my insecurity is the demented child of my alcoholism and bulimia, or maybe it really is an eternal alcoholic affliction that nobody wants to admit.

If I know that my self-esteem is so fragile that a superficial status update can change it dramatically, why, one might wonder, is Facebook still the home page on my browser? Well, partially, anyway, because I’m wiser now. I know that timelines don’t serve as an avatar of the person whose name flanks the top of the page because most people share only their successes and that what I see is a collection of my friends’ and barely-acquaintances wittiest status updates, cutest Instagrammed pictures, and most glamorous check-ins. I get that Facebook simply doesn’t provide an accurate portrayal of anyone’s life. This knowledge is the difference between my relationship with Facebook at a coked-out 17 years old and now. Sometimes, I can recognize that the thought, “Fuck, I should be living in Barcelona right now, with her legs, her hair, opening graduate school acceptance letters, baking organic gluten-free muffins, running eight-minute miles and building houses in Guatemala” is unreasonable and slightly insane. This sort of thought used to be my reality. When it does feel real, I know to call another sober woman because usually just starting a sentence with the words “I saw on Facebook” reminds me of the triviality of my imagined deficiencies.

My sponsor doesn’t have a Facebook page so she can’t understand why I continue to abuse myself by checking mine every day. And I can’t bring myself to delete it. I say it’s because I want to stay connected with friends from afar, or I don’t want to be forgotten from invite lists because of my non-presence on the social network. But it’s also about control. It terrifies me that the world will keep spinning without me. As long as I have a Facebook page, I can monitor everyone else, competing with their broadcasted accomplishments, showing them how far I’ve come since passing out on their bathroom floors. It’s the same delusion of control that I maintained while drinking—that refusal to let go in spite of obvious evidence that it was only hurting me because I was convinced that if I did, I would be destroyed by my feelings. What happened to me after getting sober, however, wasn’t destruction. With sobriety came freedom from the awful bondage of the bottle and baggie. Maybe someday I’ll be willing to find out if deleting Facebook brings similar relief. But I’d like it even more if I could learn to like myself enough that I don’t have to know.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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