on unsticking myself

time doesn’t exist now that we live on the internet

Click here to read this essay on Substack.

I.

The other day I downloaded this app called “Notion” after watching a YouTube video made by this wellness influencer whose life I feel a little too invested in where she gave her viewers a thorough and thoughtful presentation of how the app helped organize her days. “I’ve been in a rut lately,” she said delicately, tucking a perfectly coiled lock behind her ear to reveal impossibly glowing skin. I wiped toast crumbs off my pajamas and nodded along. “It’s just nice to feel more intentional with my time, you know?”

I did know. Since March, I too had fallen deeply into a rut, just like the majority of my family and friends. For months now my days have pretty much consisted of me rotating between my desk and my bed. Part of it is unavoidable: we’re confined indoors, and I work multiple jobs, so what else am I going to do besides watch TV and write? But I also know it’s more than that; at least once a week, a friend will text me a photo of a painting they made, a scarf they knit, or some other token of how they’ve spent their time at home. And though I know it’s not a competition, the images never fail to stress me out, convince me that I’m fucking up quarantine, or not making the most of my days. Which is why when that influencer suggested a way for me to maximize my time––or at least be conscious that it was passing––I grabbed it and held on like a life vest. 

After downloading Notion I eagerly and frantically made several pages to organize my life like a weekly to-do, a reading list, and a habit tracker. “Take a walk,” I wrote. “Read for thirty minutes.” “Drink three bottles of water.” And every day that I completed the habit, I’d get to tick a little box in the chart. Or at least, that’s the idea. But after a few days of using Notion, my eager optimism had quickly evaporated, replaced by an even deeper sense of dread than before. Faced by the reality of how I actually spend my days, by how easily I neglect to do the simple things that are meant to make me happy, it was harder to ignore how little effort I put into any form of self care. I realized I much preferred watching other people develop hobbies or stick to a routine––scrolling through carefully curated plant care threads on Instagram or watching “what i eat in a day at home” YouTube videos from bed––to making or maintaining good habits myself.

This digital confirmation of my failure to literally drink water served as a daily reminder of the deep rut I’d fallen into. “I want to do better, be better, make good choices but it feels like I’m stuck,” I’ve lately told my mom, my sister, any friend who will listen. Like many people, the combination of limited physical mobility, diminished social interaction, and increased internet time has left me feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually trapped: like I have no control over my life trajectory, my daily routines, and my own movements in the long or short term. Instead of spending my days forming good habits, prioritizing my health, or tending to my spirit, I spend all my time engaging with lukewarm takes online, many of them from complete strangers. Yet for some reason, the more I come to terms with how assuredly the internet has trapped me, the tighter I hold on to her grip––because I know once I let go, I’ll have to face my demons alone: both the bleak reality of today and the terrifying potential of tomorrow.

II.

About a week ago I read this thing online, but for the life of me I cannot remember where. Anyway it said: “Before this year we used the internet to escape reality, but in 2020 we use reality to escape the internet.” That simple sentence struck me with its accuracy, its brevity, and its implications. I have spent more time this year online than not––does this mean that I have given up on reality, or that I’m using the internet to form a new one? 

I think the line between the internet and so-called “real life” has been blurring for years, but the coronavirus has stretched the line so thin it’s now impossible to tell one side from the other. To me, knowing I read that sentence online but not being sure where feels almost like drunkenly overhearing gossip at a party, and then waking up the next day somehow certain of a piece of news but having no idea who told you. I suppose in a way Twitter has become the party, our main way of not only communicating with each other but gathering socially or as a large group. I log on every day and see what my friends are up to, what errant thoughts have passed through my former college classmates’ minds. I comment on tweets from my real life friends and mutuals with an abandon that in previous years I had never possessed.

For a while obsessively monitoring my mutuals live updates of their days online, just like watching “quarantine morning routine” videos on YouTube, felt like a way to plug into reality. Oh look, Jenny’s pouring her morning matcha or Anna is smoking her afternoon bowl. Even if my attempts to track my own habits on Notion had failed, I at least could check in on other characters, use my mutual’s routines to gauge the time of day, or even the day of the week. But while doing so, I was often lying in bed listening to one of many “disassociation” Spotify playlists I had curated over the months that was meant to help me leave this dimension, if only for a little while, and imagine I was living in a less fucked up world. Throughout 2020, I’ve found myself torn between two coping mechanisms: being hyper-present, diligently tracking my habits, posting photos of meals cooked, scarves knit, or other brief moments of leisure to convince my audience or myself that I’m maximizing every second, or complete disengagement from reality, listening to The Marias on repeat for hours on end each day. I keep asking myself these questions, again and again: do I make the most of my time or push through it? And how come neither option feels right? 

III.

So if I really want to establish good habits and routines, and being on the internet is stopping me from doing that, the logical conclusion would be to log off, right? I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d also be lying if I said that I had seriously considered it. Maybe a month ago, a writer I really admire tweeted that she was going to be taking a long break from Twitter, other than broadcasting her work. “Every minute that I spend on here is time that I don’t spend watering myself,” she wrote. “I’m tired of feeling like I’m behind in life in my thirties.”

I’m only twenty-three, but I really related to what she was saying: I know that every second I spend freaking out about someone’s beautiful plant collection on Instagram is a second I will never get back. And yet, when faced with the easy possibility of deleting my social media and having zero distractions from becoming the habit-forming, routine-loving version of myself I long to be, I still somehow refuse. In fact, because I guess I’m a masochist, I recently created an alternate account instead, forming a smaller, more intimate space to share niche and personal content in an environment more resembling the close friend group I had when we were still allowed to still gather with friends.

Leaving Twitter is easy and also so hard. Every day it seems a mutual of mine tweets out that they are leaving the platform for good. The declarations are always the same: “This space just isn’t good for my mental health.” “If you’ll miss me, follow me on Instagram instead.” Quite often after these definitive goodbyes, the users will eventually return. For writers and freelancers especially, deleting Twitter never feels like a real option, as we’re told we need to use our platforms to gain a following of readers, to flirt with editors, or to build a name for ourselves professionally. While this myth is based in truth, I know a lot of it is also bullshit, an excuse that I and many other journalists use for why we “have” to stay on the platform, no matter how unhealthy it gets. Weirdly, though the group of people I see in real life has shrunk exponentially since March, my online following has grown by the thousands, due in large part, I think, to how much more time I spend online. It’s a vicious cycle, and we are rewarded for our participation in it. Every retweet brings me closer to internet fame and real-life obscurity.

IV.

I’m a Virgo. I fucking love routines. Before the pandemic, I was a college student with an extremely busy schedule and an overflowing Google Calendar. I would schedule lunch with my friend Heather two weeks in advance and she would put it in her calendar and invite me because that’s how much I adored the certainty and reliability of having a plan. So this version of me––the one who can only handle routines in YouTube videos, who spends more time disassociating than she does planted in reality––is new. And part of why this year has felt so hard for me is because I have no fucking clue how to deal with her. 

Being stuck is shitty but it weirdly works both ways. Before this year I remember telling friends that I wanted to stick to other things: “I’m gonna stick to my routine,” I’d say often of an early bedtime or my writing schedule. “I want to make a plan and stick to it.” Though my pre-covid life was a piece of cake comparatively, those habits I was “sticking” to undoubtedly made me miserable, trapped in a chaotic schedule of too little sleep, too much work, and an abundance of anxiety and burnout. Just like my current social media addiction, my previous insistence on “routine” kept me moving too fast and focused on dumb shit that didn’t matter. I was entirely unable to water myself. 

The more I hyper analyze my activity online, the clearer it becomes that I’ve been using my social media as a way of replicating the habits and communities that I had before covid-19. I made a smaller Twitter to stay up to date with friends, I watch “what I eat in a day” YouTube videos and reminisce of a time when I had energy to cook for myself. And it’s not all bad: I can keep up with the homies, I’m plugged into the news. But it’s also a delusion, a way to convince myself that I can relive my senior year of college from my childhood bedroom. And in order to move on, I think I need to realize that not only is it impossible for me to relive my days from March, I also shouldn’t want to.

Between hyper presence and dissociation, I still don’t know which approach is the healthiest to take. When we’re living through fucked up times such as these, I’m not convinced there is an optimal level of presence that will make living through each day feel okay. I deleted Notion this morning because tracking all my habits felt depressing and discouraging, and because I know that, despite the comforting allusion, there is no app that can really keep me on track in the ways that I need. The truth is, what drove me to download Notion and what is making me dissociate for days on end is ultimately the same: an expectation that my life was supposed to go a certain way, but the path that I was meant to take has suddenly disappeared. And now that this year has driven me off course, I feel like I’ve been forced to a standstill. Hyper presence and detachment are both excellent coping mechanisms for the anxiety that is born out of understanding that your future is both unknown and completely out of your control. But what I really need to unstick myself from is not my habit tracker or even my bed; it’s the conviction that this year may have ruined me. I like to think that in time, my days will start passing normally again not because I formed the perfect habits or completely left this plane, but because I’ve come to terms with my reality, and accepted my murky future. So even though I have no proof and even less faith, I repeat this mantra to myself sometimes in the hopes that it’ll help the dust settle: someday soon I will feel normal, someday soon I will feel sane. Because this has to let up sometime. Right?

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xoxo

mary <3