In my second work-in-progress novel (WIP2) the main protagonist utters the following phrase: “A responsible adult should be taking care of this, not me!” It’s not a good thing when a fictional character speaks with the writer’s voice, but Gareth and me are in 100% agreement over this. Gareth, by the way, is 32. I am 40.

When I was 10 years old, I couldn’t wait to be a Grown Up Man. My mom would buy the most delicious sweets – chocolate-covered marshmallows – and give me one a day. Perhaps two if it was a holiday. (For sake of transparency, that was Communist Poland and getting more sweets wasn’t as simple as popping out to the corner store, but try and explain this to a 10-year-old.) I promised myself that one day when I’d become An Adult I was going to buy myself those marshmallows and eat the whole box in one go. Twenty-five years later, after an exceptionally heavy shift at the forge I opened a brand new box of exactly the same marshmallows, and started eating them mindlessly. I made it through half a box until I began to feel sick. Clear proof that adulthood sucks – as a child I would also have gotten sick, but I would have enjoyed it.

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Business Insider:

Barnes & Noble said that sales of books relating to managing and coping with anxiety are up 26% from a year ago.

The sales data shows that customers are gravitating towards workbooks and toolkits to try and manage the growing stress of “an anxious nation.”

“The Anxiety category has really popped in the last year as book buyers look for practical guides and strategies on how to manage anxiety,” Barnes & Noble’s senior director of merchandising, Liz Harwell, said in a press release.

Nervous reader

I recently finished Matt Haig’s “Notes on a Nervous Planet”. I saw a lot of myself in it. Judging by the fact the book became a #1 bestseller, I am far from the only one to feel so. I nodded as I read about panic attacks, about fights with trolls on social media, the constant influx of bad news, the need to disconnect. On one hand, Internet allows us to get in touch with each other easier than ever before. On the other hand, however, Internet allows us to get in touch with each other easier than ever before.

I come from a generation born before Google existed. Yes. That’s how old I am. In fact, I was born before Internet existed at all. My first computer had 2 KB memory and loaded its tiny programs from tape. (For context: laptop I am typing this on has 8 GB RAM. This is four million times more. It’s not ideal. I hope to replace it with a 16 GB one, so it lasts me a few years.) I started a Facebook account with sole purpose of playing an illegal Scrabble clone with my workmates, and I did so reluctantly. I was among the last ones in the company to get an account. But I just wanted to play Scrabble.

Happiness in 2004, at a political rally. What is this Facebok you speak of?

Back in the day *harumph, get off my lawn* I had a blog called From The Life of Heterosexuals. It was a comedy blog. Sometimes “mainstream” readers would bump into it, and unleash their minuscule fury. I had blogs before then, and every negative comment made me spend sleepless nights, worrying – why don’t they love me? What have I done wrong? It was this blog, with people threatening to beat me up, assuring me they knew where I lived, etc. that made me stop worrying. Because those threats were just so amusingly ridiculous. I couldn’t find it in me to imagine that my blog nickname and posts about how funny it was that women worried their husbands were gay because aforementioned husbands peed sitting down (this was my first post ever) could cause someone to seriously threaten my safety. I was, luckily, right.

Since then I received an actual death threat which sat in my “Other” mailbox on Facebook for almost a year before I read it. And I’m, relatively speaking, a nobody. That old blog used to get into top 30 most read blogs in Poland, but let’s agree that didn’t exactly lead to fame and riches. (I never monetised it, nor did I try to sell anything.) What did, however, happen was that I got anxious about producing The Content. My readers were waiting. I had to come up with something. It had to be funny. It became more and more an unpaid job. I cut the life support a few years ago. Some people still sigh wistfully when they remember the time the blog was active – it was truly loved (and sometimes hated). But I had a burnout from it. I could have plodded on. Lost readers, gained complaints it wasn’t good anymore. I didn’t. I said goodbye, started a very different blog, dropped that one.

Happiness in 2005. Still loving this hat. I mean, I got rid of it, but I wish I hadn’t.

Even trolls evolve

The difference was that ten years ago trolls were basically spotty teenagers living in their moms’ basements. Nowadays they organise. So do cliques. Fan groups. There is increasing pressure both on Living Pretty #soblessed and on “you won’t take away our freedom of speech, you ‘bad’ ‘sick’ people, WRONG!!!”. This attacks us from every direction. One of my job titles back in the day was “social media expert”. But social media was very different eight years ago. The worst fires I had to put out concerned our servers not working as fast as they mostly did. Nowadays it’s possible to get under fire by retweeting something vaguely political. To get hundreds of strangers telling you they will slash your face, cut off your boobs or balls, kill your family. To get doxxed (have your personal data, including home address and credit card number, revealed in public). Those are all things that happen, and not just to celebrities. They happen to a lot of people who dare to speak out about more or less anything. No, I am not Felicia Day or Sarah Jeong. But in 2018 you don’t have to be.

This is only part one.

I’ve long maintained a theory that the increasing rates of depression and anxiety are fuelled by the sheer amount of news, and they are almost always bad news, pouring all over us. Our brains have not evolved as fast as computing did. I first used Internet in 1996. The first website I saw was www.petshopboys.co.uk. I made my own shortly after. No. You can’t see it. (I hope. Internet Archive has everything. Luckily even I can’t remember the URL of that website.) But the amount of news we receive in a day is larger than that a 18th century person would receive in their lifetime. And we have to process all this on top of, you know, having a life. We go to Twitter or Facebook for relief, only to find out about Cambridge Analytica, about how our data is mined and ruthlessly used.

 

I wish I could quit you!

I first quit Facebook a few years ago. My friend list grew to over 400 people, which I realise is very little compared to an average teenager. It began to weigh on my nerves, and create anxiety. Was the photo I posted good enough? It got four likes, but this other one got 25. Should I delete the first one? Do people hate me now? Oh Gosh, Karen posted another 50 photos of her baby drowning in poop, and got 500 likes. I DO NOT HAVE A BABY TO POST. I am over. Everything is over. And that was before certain politicians started making the news twenty times a day.

The first thing I did was pruning my friend list until I got down to 100. This proved not to be enough. Being on Facebook made me anxious. Not being on Facebook made me anxious. The amount of messages I received from strangers through my blog – and those were NICE messages! – made me anxious. I started to spend spoons I didn’t have to help other people until I hit the wall – hard. I requested people to stop asking me for personal help. I felt like a shitty person. I then deleted the account completely and started a new one. I had seven friends. But then people I really liked sent me requests. It was going well, until I found myself in the exact same spot as before, too anxious to even open Facebook. I had a Twitter, and whether I was even looking at it or not it kept on stressing me out as hell. Just by existing, and by me not existing on it enough. I was missing out on important news if I hadn’t checked the news sites at least eight times a day. I could possibly miss one email AND THEN WHAT.

I deleted the second account as well. The last drop was when I uploaded a photo of myself after corrective surgery to a closed group. Ever since then when I wanted to change my avatar picture the first suggestion Facebook made was this photo. I looked like a victim of violent fight on it, which was amusing after the surgery, but less and less amusing when I discovered this photo was impossible to delete. It did not appear in any of my albums. I would have to find the original post I made in the group. It’s a very active group, and I was very active in it. I found some posts with my photos and deleted them, but this one was hidden somewhere deep enough that I couldn’t get rid of it. Every. Single. Time. I tried to change my avatar pic I saw my bruised, battered face. The only way I could get rid of this picture was by deleting the account and starting another one.

Happiness in 2018. I wish I could have stayed in this tub forever.

Somehow in the last year or so I seem to have found a way to use social media and not be consumed by it. I do not use Snapchat or Instagram, because they don’t work for me. There are perhaps two photos of me that I put up, my avatar photo here and that one where I am in a hot tub in Iceland. Alone. Without my phone in my hand. Without Twitter, Huffington Post, CNN, BBC, etc. There are mountains, some snow, the magic of sitting in a hot tub while snow is all around me. I am able to disconnect. But then I get anxious. What if there is something I should know? What if something changed? In the previous centuries most people learned that there was a new king months or even years after the event. Nobody particularly cared which king they are never going to see unless they are sent to battle, unless the king was a particularly nasty person. Today I know about almost everything certain politicians do, despite actively trying to avoid the news.

Writing is my escape. So is, weirdly enough, installing operating systems on computers and fixing software problems. Listening to music (if I can hear it over the noises from the outside). Being in nature. Amsterdam doesn’t have much nature in it, unless you’re willing to brave crowded streets and crowded public transport in order to get to a crowded park.

Yes, Matt. Yes, Barnes & Noble. We are living on an anxious planet. We created it ourselves. We created the need that people feel to get plastic surgery so they look like filtered Snapchat photos. For someone born in 1977 this is a sort of anxiety I am very unlikely to ever feel. But, really…who knows? in 1996 I didn’t expect to ever find out Facebook was downloaded a billion times from Play Store, or that I would constantly see a photo of my bruised face without being able to delete it. I never expected people to willingly pay for devices that constantly listen to them. The article I linked to at the beginning of this post mentions fantasy books’ sales are going up as well. I can really understand why.

Main photo: ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ by Matt Haig. 5/5, recommended.

Picture above: 2004

I am a proud owner of not one, but TWO mirrors.

When I look in the first, I generally think, “daaaamn bae, not bad at all”. Sometimes I think “daaamn bae, you’re greying” or “daaamn bae that is a VERY impressive zit”. But that mirror tends to bump my self-esteem even if it’s because the zit is truly of galactic proportions. The second mirror, on the other hand, always makes me look grey-skinned and tired. It underlines all the wrinkles, makes my black beard look like it’s greying even in spots where it isn’t actually doing it.

The interesting thing is that two mirrors both hang in the bathroom, approximately three meters apart. The only difference is that the lamp hangs closer to the first one.

As shallow as this sounds, the “choice” of first mirror I will look at on the day can affect my self-esteem for the entire day. The “worse” one, unfortunately, hangs over the sink where I brush my teeth and put on my lenses. The “better” one is the medicine cabinet. I do not organise my day about looking in mirrors in correct order, but perhaps I should.

(also 2004)

I hope you are not surprised to hear that those mirrors are actually a metaphor. Because what I actually want to talk about is how we see our mirror images in others’ eyes. There are people whose gaze is going to make me feel better and happier. There are people who just need to look at me once for a second to make me feel like I am Quasimodo with the most impressive zits ever. If those people are strangers, I generally don’t notice their existence, since I am the type of person who gets so lost in the music in my headphones that I miss the fact I’m standing next to a dear friend who’s trying to attract my attention by performing an interpretative dance in the nude. But sometimes the mirror people feel the need to tap me on the shoulder and ensure I know their negative opinion about them. A bit like Rebecca here (read the thread):

*

A good friend of mine wrote:

Only recently I realised that if I decided to talk about [thing], a lot of people would decide I am simply trying to flaunt how disgusting I am and that I should keep my thoughts to myself.

This is the kind of mirror I don’t want in my house. Or life. The mirror that not only gives you a better view of your zit and wrinkles, it actually huffs “if you could PLEASE not reflect in me, because it makes me sick, people with faces like yours belong in dark spaces with paper bags on their heads”. And then you turn around and the mirror is like “I STILL SEE YOU”, and you’re like, well fuck you mirror, and the mirror says “You are SO rude and impolite, I am just being nice and helpful, not only are you ugly but also rude AND a snowflake!”.

(I believe it was John Cleese who correctly pointed out people who call me a “snowflake” are actually saying “you’re not a sociopath, you have those ew, ew, feelings, and that is a bad thing”.)

(2010)

There is no objective way to tell whether I am a good-looking, funny, smart, well informed, interesting person, or perhaps disgusting, evil, gross. There are no objective rules for that. There actually are people who still insist Hitler was a very nice person and a misunderstood artist. (Those same people often insist Holocaust was faked, then move on to saying “but we should stage another one for everyone who isn’t like us”.) Those people are unlikely to become my BFFs. Some things can be perfectly fine inside a church, but NOT at my house – and, of course, vice versa. Even various sub-religions of Christianity can disagree on what is wrong or right. Hell, a friend of mine goes to a church where the vicar finds her perfectly…suitable, but SOME other churchgoers demand her to leave and never return. My friend, you see, is a lady of faith, she takes part in a lot of church activities, but she is also a lesbian. Another one went to her priest and asked if he found contraception to be a horrible sin. The priest was like “of course not, duh”. She mentioned this to a friend, who huffed saying “it’s the WORST of sins”. When she mentioned the priest’s opinion, the “friend” answered “well, then he is wrong”.

I don’t have friends like this. Not anymore.

There is a book called “Eleanor Oliphant Is Perfectly Fine”. The book has been covered in such thick layer of awards that it’s hard to see the cover anymore. Tons of people told me I will love it. I suffered through first 1/3, cringing internally, feeling that it’s a particularly cruel portrait of a person with mental illness. I tried and tried. People told me it gets better later. I didn’t manage to last that long. I also hear that if I force myself long enough I will start liking goat cheese. I respect this WRONG view, then order pizza with pineapple and people block me on social media.

This has no relation to whether the book is good or not. It means that when I am the mirror, this book has a lot of zits and wrinkles. It’s a matter of taste, world view, possibly even mood I am in. No book is ever going to be good enough to warrant perfect 5.0 average on Goodreads from every single reader. Not even mine. (SHOCK!) This blog is going to piss people off. Every blog is going to do it. People complain about too many kittens on the Internet, as if something like that could even be a thing. I used to write a very popular blog back in Poland. It was called “Scenes From the Life of Heterosexuals”. It was a humour blog, and quite often got linked on the front page of the most popular news portal in Poland. Every time I got that link my visits spiked, and so did the amount of nasty comments. This was the day I realised I can’t possibly satisfy anybody. On one of my previous blogs, where I wrote very openly about my life, I sometimes got one negative comment per 99 positive ones, and I suffered through sleepless nights wondering what I’ve done wrong, and why doesn’t this one person love me. Receiving comments that consisted only of expletives cured me from this. So did reminding myself that 13-year-olds can now post comments on blog posts.

This happened in 3D life as well, of course. Person one would look at me as if I was the eighth wonder of the world. Person two, thirty seconds later, would spit at my shoes. Obviously I would focus on wondering why person two doesn’t love me, and try to change myself, only to find that person two continued to hate me, and person one quickly withdrew from that stranger I suddenly became.

(2011)

The worst mirror is the one inside of me. When depressions strike, in particular, I have a tape in my head telling me over and over and over how useless I am. Attention seeker (this is especially weird when I am alone and nobody can see me “seeking attention” by staying in bed for hours). Lazy. Gross. Awful. Worthless. This is a mirror that hurts, and I can’t even break it or turn away from it. This is when I need other people to remind me those things are not true, and this is why I had to let go of people who reinforced those beliefs. Often as I am writing the editor I work with is the mirror that helps me remember what I am doing has value. I would have probably left the book alone at some point, but the editor put so much work into my book that the mirror she is motivates me every single time she sends me an email. This is how I survived writing the book for nine months, thinking it was ready, then – so far – revising and editing for 9.5 months. There is end in sight. But if it were just me, it would most probably have ended by now. Because when your mirror is your low self-esteem and impostor syndrome, it’s not going to help.

It’s okay to look in the mirror that makes me look better. It’s okay not to put myself down in disguise of being modest and well-behaved. It’s okay not to listen to stupidest advice ever – “if I can do it, so can you”. I know a person with anxiety who “got over it” and told me repeatedly “if I can do it, so can you”. He is very well-meaning and sweet, but he’s also wrong. A person without legs can’t run a marathon despite the fact you can. A person with cancer can’t stop having cancer because you don’t have it. A person with anxiety disorder can’t just decide to stop having it, even though it can be semi-controlled with medication and therapy. An introvert can’t suddenly start organising huge parties and enjoy them. (I’ve read a comment once that the person – I wish I could remember her name! – hated books that began with a person being a hermit introvert, then at the end of the book being soul of every party they went to. This comment shaped a lot of my novel-in-progress.)

(2012)

I may look better in one of my bathroom mirrors, but I still don’t look like Travis Fimmel. This, however, makes me wonder what Travis would think about his reflection in my evil mirror. Perhaps he’d quite Cindy Crawford – “even I, when I get up in the morning, don’t look like Cindy Crawford”. Perhaps he doesn’t need a mirror to confirm his exquisiteness. Perhaps he’d sigh “why can’t I look like Idris Elba”. Even mirrors change depending on who’s looking in them.

I used to Photoshop my pictures to hell and back. I stopped. I am who I am. Sometimes I am a person that looks like a go away, and then on the next picture five seconds later I’m delicious. Even if the same person took the photo. Because that’s how life rolls, baby.

PS. I also don’t look like Idris Elba.

(2013)