The past five months have been hard for me. I haven’t done much writing. Now, for someone who lives and breathes writing, this has been troubling. Writing and editing are my main sources of income, so I cannot afford to not write.
But I was too depressed to write.
This depression, I cannot describe it as a clinical depression, because I was not diagnosed by a psychiatrist. I self-diagnosed, like I do with all my other ailments. I had been depressed before, but the depression would go with time. Most times it was caused by anxiety over unpaid bills, the impostor syndrome bug that tends to bite creatives every now and then, getting overwhelmed by work or other obligations, to name a few. This kind of depression usually lasted a few days and it would go by itself.
However, the latest bout seemed to linger longer than I hoped. I thought maybe it was because I was broke, but then some clients paid and I was no longer broke. But the depression persisted. For the first time in my life, I contemplated getting medication for it.
Until one day when I noticed something. My consumption of Facebook increased whenever I was depressed. I am still not sure if increased use of Facebook caused me to get depressed or depression caused me to use Facebook more frequently. It’s one of those causation versus correlation debates that I am yet to crack. This revelation about my Facebook use came at around the same time I was reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In this book, the authors showed that there is a mental health crisis among the iGens, the generation after the Millennials in the US. One of the reasons they give for this is increased smartphone use.
This got me thinking about my history with Facebook. I joined the social media platform at the beginning of 2010 and got my first smartphone in 2014 after being bullied by my friends into joining WhatsApp. I didn’t notice it at the time, but with hindsight, I now realise that my use of Facebook skyrocketed soon after getting my first smartphone. All of a sudden, I no longer needed to be in front of my computer to access Facebook. I could access it anywhere at any time.
Soon, Facebook was the first place I went to on waking up in the morning, and the last place I went to before going to sleep. All my free time got gobbled up by Facebook. Waiting in line at the bank or an office reception, going to town in a taxi, waiting for my meal at the restaurant, going to the bathroom, even waiting for the lift in a mall. All of those were opportunities to check out Facebook.
There was no harm in this, I thought. All my high school friends were on Facebook. Over the years, I had collected a few thousand interesting Facebook “friends,” most of whom I have never met. Because I can get painfully introverted, Facebook became a place to “meet” new people without having to actually meet them. I carefully curated my friends so I could have the most knowledgeable, wise thought leaders I could find. Scrolling through my Facebook became a literary feast of some of the best thought leadership on a number of topics that are close to my heart, and given how addicted I am to learning new things, there was no way I could keep away from Facebook.
And then I started getting opportunities from my Facebook friends. Writing and editing jobs, writing workshops, festivals, book launches. Everything was happening on Facebook. The FOMO bug had bitten me. A day away from Facebook meant that I might miss out on the next big thing.
The people closest to me started telling me that I might be addicted to Facebook. But I laughed them off. People get addicted to alcohol and drugs. Not Facebook. Moreover, I had so many good things happening on Facebook. Facebook had made my career. I literally lived on Facebook. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I was now very lonely. All my friends were online. The ones offline didn’t matter anymore. I got all my updates about what was happening in my friends’ lives on Facebook ― births, deaths, engagements, weddings, graduations, travel, etc. I couldn’t remember the last time I had picked up the phone to call up a friend just to say hi. I no longer knew where my friends lived because we only met on Facebook.
Then I got a job opportunity. Online Editor for a leading African literary organisation. It was like an alcoholic being given the job of beer taster at a brewery. My mental health deteriorated so much that I had to quit the job just two months into it before I could go completely insane.
A few times in the past five months, I have contemplated refunding a ghostwriting client their deposit because I just couldn’t bring myself to work on their project, which is one of the pending projects on my desk.
It was after reading The Coddling of the American Mind that it dawned on me that I was living in denial. I had a Facebook addiction. It had gotten so bad that I dreaded having my phone’s battery die. I was now compulsively using Facebook, checking it even in the middle of meetings. Whenever I’d go out on dates with my wife, I would pretend to be listening to her and contributing to the conversation, but my mind was more taken up by what was happening on Facebook. I would scroll through my newsfeed endlessly, getting drowned by the chatter.
And I didn’t know what to do about it.
Then at the beginning of April, I read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Now, I am a huge fan of Cal Newport’s work. It has shaped my career and thought life in many way. So, I took him very seriously when he talked about the effect social media is having on us, and what we can do about it.
Newport defined Digital Minimalism as “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
I realised that this was what I needed to be doing with my life. My life had gotten so out of shape because I was now spending most of my time on social media, pretending to be keeping in touch with people and learning new things, but getting nothing done. My life had screeched to a halt, and now it was going in reverse.
Reading Digital Minimalism showed me exactly what social media really is. I was Facebook’s customer, but at the same time, I was also their product. They needed my attention in order to make money. And the more attention they had, the more money they made. Newport goes on to write, “The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking.”
I didn’t complete reading Digital Minimalism. It was mainly because I had gotten into the habit of not finishing the books I start reading. But it lit a fire within me. Without overthinking it, I decided to delete all social media apps, with the exception of WhatsApp, from my phone, and have a social media detox. The main reason I didn’t leave WhatsApp was because a lot of important communication happens there, especially with colleagues and clients.
The first week of my social media detox was the hardest. I started watching more TV to fill the void left by social media (thankfully, I finally cut back on the TV watching). I kept checking my phone for notifications. Then I started refreshing my email, hoping to at least get some spam I could read. I discovered WhatsApp Status. I’d never really checked out those photos people post on WhatsApp for the public to view. I noticed that they were so much like Facebook. So I went and got myself a dumb Nokia phone that could only do calls and SMS. I subscribed for an SMS bundle because although I was on a social media detox, I can’t be away from my wife and not text her.
I started checking my WhatsApp only in the mornings and evenings. This made me realise that there is rarely any emergency in my life that requires me to respond immediately to the texts coming in. No one has complained about me not responding fast enough to their texts. The people who need me urgently call me (and I can take a week without getting a single phone call from anyone else apart from my wife).
When the one month social media detox ended, I rushed back to Facebook to find out what I had missed. I had 75 notifications, one inbox message, and eight new friend requests. None of them were important. The only Facebook post I had missed was my brother’s Mothers’ Day post. Within a few minutes of browsing through Facebook, I became bored and realised I didn’t really have to subject myself to any more Facebook, at least not for the time being.
Now I am in that place where I don’t know if I want to go back to Facebook or not. Work might necessitate me going back. But I have determined that I am not going to get addicted to Facebook anymore. Life without it is so much better.
In that one month, I have read over six books. I had all these books I wanted to read but seemed not to find the time for them. Suddenly, I had the time, and my mind was clear enough for me to actually enjoy them.
I resumed journaling, a discipline I had found useful and calming a few years back, but that had fallen on the wayside. I also resumed exercising and caring about my health. I get up early in the morning without the need for an alarm clock and I have the energy to get out of bed and face the new day. I am no longer anxious. I still have a lot of pending work on my desk that has piled up because I was too depressed to work, but now I have the energy to do it, little by little, every day.
But most importantly, I have gotten my mind back. I first noticed it one time while in a taxi home. Because I wasn’t glued to my phone, I let my mind wander. And two lines of a poem formed in my mind. It was exhilarating! I last wrote poetry about four years ago and even then, it was because I had lost a friend to a tragic road accident. Suddenly, I realised that filling every boring moment of my life with Facebook had robbed me of the ability to write poetry for over eight years. I even told my friends that I am not a poet because I couldn’t understand why I could no longer write poetry.
This blog is the first writing I have done for which I am not receiving any payment since the year began. I didn’t have to force myself to write it or starve. I am slowly rediscovering the joy of writing. It is no longer a chore that must be endured.
I am remembering what it felt like being filled with wonder at the mundanity of life. I am rediscovering myself. I am not where I used to be before Facebook came into my life, but I am so much better. Hopefully, I will return to Facebook. But for now, I’ve decided that it won’t be any time soon. I need to at least first complete one of the book projects lying in my Google Drive.
Facebook might have fried my brain, but I am reclaiming it, little by little.