The internet is a wonderful place; it offered me a world of possibility when I felt like my own world was closing in around me. When I first became ill, social media provided a way to connect with people who were living in the new world I had been relocated to without my consent; reassuring me that there was life on the other side of my diagnosis.
But, for all the wonderful opportunities and incredible people that the internet has brought into my life, there was a time when it felt so heavy that I thought I would crumble under its weight. In fact, for a while, I did.
Over the course of 2012 my world had shrunk to the four walls of my bedroom: I had completed aggressive treatment for ovarian cancer, which in turn led to my immune system going haywire and attacking my spinal cord, leading to a neurological condition called transverse myelitis. I had been paralysed and, although I was gradually regaining feeling and movement in my legs, fatigue made even the smallest of things – such as going to the bathroom – a mammoth task, after which I would pass out, exhausted.
There, living trapped inside those four walls, I browsed through social media in an attempt to feel connected to those living outside; to make me feel like I was still a part of my friend’s lives even when I was unable to actively participate in them. In hindsight, this was hugely detrimental; not only to my own emotional and mental state, but – devastatingly – to my friendships and relationships with those around me. The best thing would have been to step away for a time, to put down my phone, but hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it?
So I would scroll through Facebook and see photographs of my friends – the people I loved – living the life I had been part of only a few month’s before. And my confession is this: I spiralled. I spiralled downwards until I became someone I don’t want to admit to being: I fell, changing at a frightening pace, with a disturbing ease, into a bitter, twisted, bitch. I became jealous of other people’s happiness, of their place in the joyous circles I had once been a part of.
In my logical mind I knew how social media worked; I knew that the pictures that we see on Facebook are mere snapshots of someone’s life – edited highlights of the image they want to portray to the world. But, at that point in my life, my vision was so clouded with the resentment of my life inside those four walls, that I could not see what I knew was there just beneath the surface.
I could not see that the woman – a good friend smiling from my screen – was going through heartbreak. I could not see that, bubbling under the radiant skin of another, was the pain of loss. I was so blinded, so caught up in my own grief for the life I loved but could see no way back to, that my gut would twist every time I saw another friend’s smile beaming back at whomever was taking the photograph.
Despite knowing that all these #goalsworthy photos were not only a brief moment of someone’s life, but also an example of their best moments, those #goals that had once been at my feet now seemed so far away they may as well have been positioned on Jupiter: I felt so removed from that life that I may as well have been positioned on Jupiter.
At this point in time, I just wanted my old life back. I wanted the ‘laughing-until-our-sides-ached’ Friday nights with friends. I wanted everything I was seeing in those photos so much that I couldn’t see anything else.
My heart hurt and became hardened by the pain. Heck, I hurt and became hardened by the pain. And that pain, that longing for the #goals I had fixated on in my head made me lose far more than the tableaux of happiness that I craved: I lost some wonderful friends. I lost myself.
It was the ultimate own goal. In mourning the loss of those #goals – the ones we see posted on social media, the ones we post ourselves – I lost something far more valuable.
Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, and, in those moments, it absolutely was. Only, in this case, comparison stole far more than joy; it stole my friends, and stole people I loved. And it did so because I let it. In fact, I not only let it, I opened myself up to it and invited it in. The onus of that falls firmly on my shoulders; I wasn’t dealing with my shit and so projected it onto those around me. It was a pit I couldn’t even see that I was in, let alone begin to climb out of.
I’d like to say there was a lightbulb moment; a distinct point where I recognised the person I had become and set about changing her. Only that wasn’t how it happened. It was a process, and – if I’m honest – one that I am still working through. But, like so much in my experience of learning to live with chronic illness, it started with acceptance.
Slowly, I began to realise that my #goals were not only different to those of many people I followed on social media, to those of my friends, but – more importantly – that they were different to those I had previously aimed for. My priorities had changed: the things I considered to be wins in my life had drastically shifted. In 2010 I had considered running a half-marathon as a win; two years later and taking a single step elicited an even greater sense of joy and achievement within me.
I was no longer aiming for Friday night wine nights, but for snatched moments of joy with the people I loved: a cup of tea in bed with a friend, a board game played with my boys. I was no longer aiming for a night away with the girls, perhaps punctuated with a club night and ending with a hangover – instead I was aiming for a shower, replying to messages from my ever patient friends, reading a book. Those were my #goals.
This re-adjustment of my own idea of #goals, steadily removed the resentment-tinted spectacles that I had been using to view the images my friends put out on social media. Slowly, I began to feel a tickle of happiness in my heart as I saw their moments of joy. I would smile at their smiles, and send messages to make sure that, behind the edited images they posted, they really were doing OK.
Even now my goalposts are constantly shifting; some days elation will come from managing to collect my boys from school, others it will come from making it downstairs to make my own cup of tea. But – perhaps most importantly – unlike that girl in 2012, I elicit the most joy from my friend’s wins; I celebrate their goals as if they were my own. Which is perhaps the biggest win of all.