This is the last picture Madison Holleran posted on her Instagram feed. She uploaded it about an hour before jumping off of the 9th floor of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia. It’s beautiful– even ethereal. But it’s filtered.
Kate Fagan wrote a beautiful piece for ESPN about Madison’s death, which you can find here. Much of the article focuses on the shock Madison’s friends and family felt at her death, because the image she curated on social media was that of a successful college athlete: happy and hardworking. Sadly, like the ethereal final picture above, that image was heavily filtered.
Reading Madison’s story got to me, because I have been filtering since before Instagram was a thing. Since I hit puberty and things started to fall apart, I have been choosing what parts of myself to share openly and what parts to leave buried under a forced smile and glib words. Too many nights found me dissolving into tears as I removed my makeup, afraid to look too closely and acknowledge the sadness I covered each morning with mascara and bronzer.
When I started to show symptoms of my illness at around eleven years old, I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I did know, however, that something was desperately wrong. And just as surely as I knew there was a problem, I knew that it must be hidden. I didn’t want my family or friends to worry about me. I didn’t want to seem morose, or ungrateful for all that life had offered me. I didn’t want to seem different. From the article:
Yes, people filter their photos to make them prettier. People are also often encouraged to put filters on their sadness, to brighten their reality so as not to “drag down” those around them. The myth still exists that happiness is a choice, which perpetuates the notion of depression as weakness. Life must be Instagrammed — in more ways than one.
As an adult armed with an official diagnosis, I began to really notice for the first time just how much filtering I’d been doing my whole life, and that realization was scary. I had been filtering so successfully for so long that it had become second nature– and I wasn’t the only one.
So much stigma exists around mental health issues that for many people, taking that vital first step to ask for help feels like stepping alone onto a ledge. So many of our most vulnerable find themselves unable to take that step for fear of falling (or being pushed) off that ledge, and who can blame them?
I know what it feels like to be judged as “less than” because of my illness. My ex-husband, in a very public forum, once called me “one huge character flaw,” because he couldn’t see past the symptoms.* In such an environment, I wasn’t safe to express my true feelings; how could I help but filter?
And yet, when I realized how much misinformation was out there, and how many people like me were afraid to ask for the help they needed, I knew I had to try to break apart the stigmas and the filters and tell the whole ugly truth. I’m fortunate, you see. I am an intelligent, educated woman. I have a supportive family and group of friends, and good doctors. I find strength in my faith. I feel as though I bear a personal responsibility to tear down as much of the stigma as I can reach with my two hands and my voice, because I have been so blessed in other aspects of my life.
And so, I began to speak openly. I blogged. I posted honest status updates on Facebook. I spoke out in public forums, inviting sincere questions. I even tried– and this was the hardest part– to speak up for myself when individuals who were closest to me smelled blood in the water. And I saw results. Friends began to share their own stories. Honest questions poured in. My relationships with close family members deepened, and I began to feel like a whole person again.
It felt good to be open publically about my illness, and I was seeing positive results, but the temptation lingers. Honesty comes at a cost– and believe me, I have paid mine. I have lost romances, job opportunities, and friendships because some people (maybe even most people) prefer the filtered image to the ugly truth.
After my original experiment in total honesty, I now find myself walking a line. I push myself to be authentic and open, but I also fear the repercussions that come with the unfiltered lifestyle. I’m currently job-hunting. How open can I really afford to be about my illness? The truthful answer: not very. On the other hand, I’m dating a wonderful man who knows the truth about me– even the ugly parts– and loves me anyway. My relationships with close family members have never been so solid, but my mom is a worrier. Do I tell her, in one of our long-distance chats, if I’m feeling suicidal? Is that productive? Or does it just spread the pain? I struggle with these questions every time I wake up feeling less than great. I have yet to come to any satisfying conclusions.
I still find myself filtering on a daily basis. Sometimes, I censor myself to shelter those I love. Sometimes, I’m trying to shield myself from too much introspection. Sometimes it’s just easier. I’m much more open than I used to be, and much more authentic in how I present myself to the world, but too often, like Madison, I hide an ugly plea for help behind a twinkly picture and hope no one will notice my inconsistencies. It takes bravery to post my ugly truth up there with no filter, and when I have only 140 characters to tell my story, the filtered version often wins.
Next time I’ll come clean about the lies I tell when my filter is on. In the meantime, it’s your turn to weigh in: How much of what you share with the world is filtered? Why do you think we feel the need to hide that way?
*I hesitated to include this, but did so because I felt it made an important point. It is hard to love ourselves when those closest to us can’t seem to. However, dear readers, we don’t hate my ex-husband. Loving someone with a mental illness is excruciating, and his suffering was as real as mine. He spoke harshly, but he spoke from pain. Some of you know my ex-husband, but none of you can know just how much our relationship cost him.