Recovery Room: Like Me, Like Me, Like Me (Confessions of a Social Media Addict)

Welcome to the Recovery Room. On the occasional Thursday, I invite guest writers, pastors, therapists, and practitioners to step in and discuss their process of recovery--recovery from any old thing.

Today, welcome Tanya Marlow, theologian, writer, and colourful Brit (hence the across-the-pond spellings below). Tanya is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and get her book for FREE here.

Follow her. You'll thank me.

And now, without further introduction, welcome Tanya to the Recovery Room.

*****

It began as a lifeline at a moment of crisis.

I gave birth, and woke up the next day unable to walk more than a few metres. I have an autoimmune illness, and going through labour was too much for my body. As a new mother, I was also newly disabled, needing to rest in bed for 22 hours a day.

For the first eighteen months, I was excruciatingly lonely. I had no activity, no achievements, and very little contact with friends.

My concentration was drastically limited. No extended chatting time. No books. The magazine-style feed of Facebook was the only thing I could do to fill the beige hours. Lying in bed, desperate for some sort of interaction, I would refresh my Facebook feed every few seconds.

When crisis hits, you grab whatever lifeline you can in order to survive. Facebook and Twitter saved me from loneliness at the most difficult time of my life.

But if you’re not careful, the rope that once saved you can become a noose around your neck.

***

Four years on, and my relationship with social media is not straightforward.

I am still ill. I am still housebound. I can see friends, but only in tiny rations--four friends per week, for 2 hours each time. That’s the limit of my socialising. I’m an extrovert; it never feels enough.

When I am tired, I ought to be resting, doing nothing, but then I am back there, in those early days after the birth, staring at the ceiling, wondering if I will ever be well enough to leave the house again.

So I reach for my iPhone, and pretend it’s like resting. Social media is an escape from the excruciating pain of loneliness, and the tyranny of boredom. What I really want is to be healthy, and to be back in my ministry job or hanging out with friends in a coffee shop. But I can’t have that, so social media is my displacement activity of choice.

Scroll, like, scroll, like, scroll, like.

***

[tweetherder text="They say that 5-10% of people can’t control their social media usage. Why is it so addictive?"]They say that 5-10% of people can’t control their social media usage.[/tweetherder] Why is it so addictive? Dopamine - the more-more-more brain chemical, is triggered by the ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ system of social media. Dopamine makes us feel good, but it also makes us crave more.

When I have more energy, my approach to social media is healthier: I love to read and celebrate other people’s blog posts, or cheer on others’ campaigns for social justice, or catch up with friends’ news.

When I am feeling tired, lonely or powerless, it’s another story.

Suddenly, I hate every other writer in the planet, because they are more successful, more talented, more photogenic, or, at the very least, more prolific than me. I invent magnificent, outraged speeches to anyone who disagrees with me on Twitter. I want to delete every cute, super-hilarious cat video in the universe and put them into an everlasting internet bonfire where the flame is never quenched.

Ironically, when I am tired is when I most need to step away from social media, but that’s also the time I feel its pull most strongly.

Scroll, like, scroll, like, scroll, like.

***

There are some who want to decry all social media as a modern evil, but I think that is to miss the point. It’s about using it well.

More than most people, I have to constantly examine how (and why) I am using social media. Because I am still housebound and severely ill, social media is necessarily my gateway to the wider world - it’s all my limited concentration can cope with. Unlike most people, I don’t have the option of going for a walk or having a coffee with a friend if I’m feeling lonely or vulnerable.

My compulsion for social media is more like binge-eating than a drug addiction. A drug addict has to abstain from all drugs. A binge-eater can’t abstain from food - they need to learn to eat in a healthy way.

I can’t avoid it, so I need to control it.

I watch my motives.

If you’re feeling powerless, angry, or lonely, it’s always going to be a bad idea to scroll through your Twitter feed – but you can use Facebook for the healthier option of contacting a friend. It is an amazing gift of God that I can write, ‘I’m feeling sad today,’ on a Facebook message to someone on the other side of the world, and I can get a truth-telling reply in minutes that can help me refocus.

So here’s three questions I ask myself to test whether I am using social media in a healthy way:

1. Am I interacting, or am I consuming? Scrolling through feeds at speed is like stuffing your face with fries till you puke. We tell ourselves we’re productive, but actually we’re bingeing, and it’s no wonder we emerge from an hour of Twitter feeling slightly sick. Better to read a few updates of interest than to try and eat the whole internet before 8am.

2. Is this interaction serving to deepen this relationship? I can choose to see the stranger on Twitter as a whiteboard to write my opinions upon, or I can see them as a potential friend I am conversing and connecting with. The two attitudes produce very different behaviours.

3. Am I looking to social media to tell me I’m significant, loved? Whenever I find myself incessantly refreshing the page, hoping for more Facebook likes, that’s when I know it’s time to step back.

[tweetherder text="'Social media is the fast-food outlet of the communications world.' @Tanya_Marlow //"]Social media is the fast-food outlet of the communications world.[/tweetherder] To look to social media to affirm us in our achievements and our popularity is to look to Big Macs to provide our nutritional needs.

I am significant because God says I matter. I am loved because God loves me. It’s wholegrain truth, and it’s healthier. Sometimes that feels like enough. (Sometimes, however much you want it to, it doesn’t feel like enough, and you crave some easy affirmation. At such times, I recommend posting a hilarious cat video).

Over to you:

-What are the motives (good and bad) that govern your interaction with social media?

-When are the times in your life that you find yourself compulsively drawn to social media? Is there a pattern?

-Interaction versus consumption - to what extent does this distinction help determine a healthy use of social media?

 

 

*****

Tanya's Bio:

TM.HeadshotTanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She loves singing opera arias, eating dark chocolate and laughing at her own jokes. (Not at the same time). She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and get her book for FREE here.

***TINY LETTER***

Cover.FrancisThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. In my most recent edition, I'm discussing the discovery of "The Quiet Sober." Sign up and receive access to my serial eBook, Dear Little Brothers.

On Infighting, Social Media, and Weedy Noise

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.” ― Henri J.M. NouwenOut of Solitude

1.

If home is where the heart is, we moved our hearts to a tiny green house on the outskirts of town.  When I say "tiny house," think less of the stuff of Netflix documentaries; think less of a 500 square foot dwelling built on the back of a truck trailer. When I say "tiny house," consider more a house that provides a tight fit for a family of 6 with a tiny dog.

 

The tiny green house is situated on the outskirts of Fayetteville, just across the White River Bridge in what was once the tiny community of Baldwin before it's annexation into the city limits. Next door sits a tiny Church of Christ, and its members, our neighbors, have welcomed us well. There are certain things that make for a happy home, they say. First among those things is a happy wife. Second among those things is a good relationship with your neighbors. By all accounts, we're off to a good start.

The tiny green house boasts a lovely English garden on both sides of the tiny walkway to the front entrance. And when I say "English garden," think less of a well-manicured green space in which one might choose to sit for tea. Instead, imagine two deep beds of perennials overgrown by a serendipitous mix of well-intentioned herbs, wildflowers, and a mess of greenery most would consider "weeds." There is a morning glory that has vined up from the ground, and it grows every which way, strikes out in all directions like the snakes on Medusa's head.

In the garden of the tiny green house, there is a particularly invasive weed that stands on a 2 foot stalk. It has spread into every corner of the garden, has swallowed up every spare inch of available soil. It has become a veritable redwood forest to the colony of ants that carry out their tiny work in the weed shade. Last weekend, as I was considering how to best attack this herbaceous infestation, I noticed a hint of pink peeking up from under the weed canopy. I pulled back the stalks and unwrapped a beautiful peony flower like a late summer present. The peony is my favorite flower, in part because it reminds me of the old rock house inhabited by 4 generations of Haines, and in part because it is the flower of the tattoo emblazoned on my wife's right shoulder. The peony reminds me of the rooted work of home, and of love. It reminds me that even the tiniest seeds can grow into bold and beautiful flowers.

2.

This is not piece about tiny houses, English gardens, or peonies. This is not a piece about sexy tattoos or neighborhood churches, either. This is a piece about weeds and noise.

Weeds hide the ants marching, the tiny but necessary work of surviving under the shade. The green noise of weedy foliage obscures the beauty of the peony bud, the way it pushes up from the ground in rooted glory. Weeds beat back the true prizes of the garden. Weeds, a metaphor in-and-of themselves, distract from every other good garden metaphor.

Consider the weeds and the noise of the day. There are people marching at home and abroad; there is work being done, and work left to do. And yet, the noise from the 24 hour news cycle and social media consumes every spare corner of thought and silence, distracts us from the boots on the ground. The infighting is at a fever pitch--the war of words is louder than ever--and if you listened, you might think that reconciliation is a pipe dream.

I wonder, "where is the beauty of rooted work?" And then I remember; it is hidden somewhere under all these distracting, noisy weeds.

Just a few Questions

1.

A church matron, a Baptist-born, by-God saint once told me that every time a woman has sex before marriage, she gives away a tiny piece of herself. I note that she made no mention of men, but that aside, she expounded, said that if a girl gives away too many tiny pieces, she'll find herself incomplete.  I was sixteen when she said this. I am thirty-six now. I do not believe her. Is the complete self of a woman (or man) reduced to sexuality? Are we summed up by the sins of our past?

2.

A shopping-mall Santa once said that every time a child says "I don't believe," an elf or fairy dies. Platitudes and leg-pulling aside, this is cruel. [tweetherder]Can doubt be beaten back by fear and shame?[/tweetherder]

3.

Yesterday, I logged onto Facebook and saw the news of the Palestinian children who were murdered while playing on the beach. In the comment thread of one avatar's status update, a war of words ensued. As good Americans (not to say anything of Christians) we must side with Israel to the death! As humanitarian activists (not to say anything of Christians) we must call the Israelies to account! Opinions flew with the rocket's red glare. I wondered; is anyone listening anymore? Are we listening to the children, or are we just engaging in our own ideological wars?

4.

I've been watching social media girations, and the questions that these girations beg are age-old. Are we reduced to the sum of our sexuality, or the sins of our past? Can doubt (in God, politics, the market) be beaten back by fear and shame? Is anyone listening to the children anymore, or are we too wrapped up in our own ideologies?

5.

I once read that St. Francis prayed, "Most High, Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and grant me... a perfect charity." Ah charity. Whatever happened to charity?

See My Giant Pork Belly?

I've been thinking a great deal about this brave new world, this moment in history where our lives are connected by a series of commercial interruptions. We are data points, quippy questions, one hundred and forty characters of insight. We are cropped and contrasted to perfection, always living on the right side of happy. We are becoming the best versions of us, memorializers of the joy of life. And in these euphoric moments of making ourselves known, of broadcasting our brand to the world, the marketers are co-opting it all. "Let them be connected, let them be joyful, and in those moments of happy feelings, we'll squeeze in a little product," they say.

It's pure genius, really.

On my Facebook feed, a friend shares Deidra Riggs' most recent piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman. She writes, "[p]eople weren’t meant to be famous,” which was to say that people weren't made to be bought and sold in the marketplace. It would be a dire warning to the siren song of instant celebrity, to the participants in this reality show called social media. It would be a dire warning, that is, if we ever clicked the link. Below the Facebook snippet, though, is an enticement. It is an app advertisement for Age of War, which promises to be the most addictive game of the year. I consider the bait and switch, how the thieving of a good word for profit constitutes the least grand of all larcenies.

I'm not naive to the ways of business. Every good enterprise needs to turn a buck; I get it. Back in the day, though, we sold wheat, cotton, clean water, pork bellies. We knitted hats and scarves, grew tomatoes for the market. In this brave new world, we have become the commodities; yes? Our lives have become the vehicles for sale. Our desire for connection, to be known, doesn't it have unintended consequences?

See my giant pork belly. It is for sale, just like everything else.

Prayer Like Tweeting

“There is a way between voice and presencewhere information flows. In disciplined silence it opens. With wandering talk it closes.” ~Rumi

 

My phone lit up over the lunch hour yesterday, the Twitter messenger notification popping up again and again. It was a friend, the writer sort who spins sentences about as well as anyone this side of the Mississippi. I had asked her if she planned on writing a book in the near future, and she was working her explanation out in bite size messages typed with two thumbs.

“ALL THE NOISE,” she typed in an all-capped exclamation, and I knew what she meant—so many books, so little time, so much marketing.

An email cut through the direct message conversation. It was another friend asking me about Ethiopia and trying to pin me down on a time to catch up. Before I could respond, a Facebook notification distracted me, informed me that I had been tagged in a post, and as I was reading said post, Amber texted me asking about some item of family business.

Ping. Buzz. Blip. Ding.

We live in an age of uninterrupted interruptions. Divided between here and there, at any given moment we ship parts of ourselves to friends in Texas, the U.K., and the spouse across town. Yesterday, I was at the lunch with all of these people, virtually anyway, and I felt drawn-and-quartered, divided among too many good people.

I wonder whether the human species is evolving yet again, whether we are sitting under some technological personality fission—homo discidium, we are becoming. I wonder whether our DNA is undergoing a culling, the human capacity for singular presence being stripped from its code.

This morning, I sat in my chair, trying to find the rhythm of meditation. Instead, I found myself in popcorn prayer with God, the thousand thought-kernals expanding all at once. It was a distracted, divided prayer with no staying power—be with my kids today; and what about that project that’s due?; and when do I lead worship next at church?; I think Amber has Yoga tonight—and so on, and so forth.

The divided me has learned to pray like a social media interaction. Quick. Bite size. Throw away.

This morning, though, I stopped, took a breath, and centered on an old orthodox prayer a Catholic priest once taught me. In rhythm with my breathing, I prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And then I waited.