Figuring things out and finally leaving Twitter (again)

I quit Twitter a few weeks ago. My friend Ben saw my anxiety publicly flare up in an argument with a Not-All-Man, sent me the “It’s Time to Stop” GIF on Facebook Messenger, and demanded my login information so he could change it all and lock me out. I did not argue or protest. It was time.

Ben is the same friend who managed access to my account during two other key periods: when I figured out Twitter might keep me from completing my master’s thesis, and last summer when I was working on the biggest feature of my life. I had been trying to quit or limit my use of the garbage site for years. Deleting the app on my phone and only using the terrible mobile website. Restrictive browser extensions. Installing tracking apps to tell me how many hours I was spending on it each day. Manually logging out. Hiding my phone. None of it worked.

Over the years, I made so many excuses for why I wouldn’t and couldn’t quit. I needed it for my job. To find other places to work and freelance. For promoting my stories and features. Finding news tips and sources. Networking. Keeping up with what everyone was reading. Direct Messages. I needed the competitive advantage. Didn’t everyone remember how bad the industry statistics were for diversity?

I knew reporter Matt Apuzzo and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates weren’t on Twitter any more, and I heard both articulate why they felt it was no longer helpful to their work. “That’s easy for them to say,” I thought. “They’re Pulitzer and Genius grant winners. Their careers are already set.”

Years of building my voice on the platform made me feel smarter, more interesting, and more funny. I made a lot of incredible friends. I wrote some fun viral tweets and popular Twitter essays. I even met my boyfriend through the platform. For someone who didn’t drink much, Twitter was like the bar where lots of people knew my name.

I still remember the meeting when my coworkers at the Columbia Journalism Review said they were astounded at discovering New York Times’ political reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted, on average, more than 100 times a day, and I just shrugged. After downloading my archive, I learned there were peak months when I had tweeted that often. I was a power user who gained access to the new word count before most of the other people in the office.

I made fun of a future president for a two-year-old tweet and expected like, 10 likes.

It’s easy to focus on the gains and mostly ignore the losses for a long time. But I knew what the real costs were.

My mother and sister had repeatedly told me how much they hated Twitter and how much I used it. I don’t blame them – I was often distracted because I was too focused on what was coming across my feed. I missed stops on buses and subways, slept poorly, annoyed editors, got into too many dumb arguments, and couldn’t unplug from the graphic details of dozens of news stories, especially during the most intensive period of coverage of #MeToo in 2017. My fight-or-flight response was constantly being triggered, to the detriment of my physical and mental health.

After a tough childhood, bullying, several difficult jobs and serious trauma, I thought I had successfully avoided eating disorders, hoarding, or self-harm. I wasn’t addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling, shopping, food or exercise. I had a clean apartment. I eat decently. I have graduated from a prestigious school. I do not look like someone with a serious problem. I told myself, and my therapist, Twitter was how I relaxed, especially since I didn’t really have any other hobbies. But the first time Ben locked me out from the site, I had withdrawal symptoms after only two days.

My therapist helped me realize the trauma had affected me. I had become deeply addicted to Twitter. I was like a young gifted bartender or restauranteur who had lost the “functioning” part of being a functioning alcoholic. And it was time to stop. I was finally tired of feeling tired.

In many ways, the media industry had encouraged and enabled my addiction. But if I was going to survive working in it for the long-term, I needed to be accountable to myself first and listen to my friend Susie Cagle. Like the words from the trailer for the Trainspotting sequel T2, I needed to be addicted to something else. Maybe it would be getting enough sleep, showing up to places 30 minutes early or working out again.

Listen to Susie Cagle.
Susie Cagle is one of the smartest people I know.

Twitter helped me avoid facing many of the discomforts in my life, such as my perpetual feelings of failure, while simultaneously giving me ample space to talk about very personal subjects like my imposter syndrome or dating experiences. On Twitter, I often truly felt like a person who was heard and loved. I didn’t feel lonely there. I wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety until I started seeing my therapist in graduate school at the age of 28 but Twitter made me feel like I was dealing with it and helping reduce the stigma. In reality, reading and responding to Tweets often amplified my negative feelings, reduced my productivity and made my anxiety worse.

I don’t know if I will ever return to the social media site like a normal user. I still read tweets sometimes in Slack channels, when I’m sent them by friends or my boyfriend, or in news stories. The difference now is I don’t feel compelled to check it all the time, spend hours writing threads, read other people’s reactions or click on dozens of links. It helps to remember how so many friends and power users I know also open it with an enormous sense of dread.

I gained a lot of time when I quit. Instead of being on the site, I sleep more, work harder at my freelance work, spend time with people offline, clean my apartment, and catch up on long stories. The feelings that drove me to become addicted in the first place are still things I need to work on. I quickly learned organizing my room according to the KonMari method wasn’t a substitute for going to therapy.

Sometimes, I still think “I wish I could tweet that.” I know Facebook and Instagram have their own problems too. But it turns out there are plenty of other, better options for all the things I thought I needed Twitter for. What I really needed was time to think.

the most asian signoff, truly

—-

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated my blog or sent out a newsletter (which is where this was first published). In that time, I’ve moved to New York, finished graduate school, completed a prestigious fellowship, had a TIME cover story, moved two more times, and secured a work visa that allows me to stay in the US for the next three years. I flew 18 times in 2018, which feels like an absurd number. Last year, I took my mother to Japan for the cherry blossoms and the Canadian Rockies. I did a lot of cool and difficult things. I am slowly learning to kick my ass a little less.

In about two weeks I will be in Halifax to speak to journalism students at the University of King’s. After accidentally losing my driver’s license, essentially kiboshing my ability to go to Peggy’s Cove, I plan on spending an afternoon sitting near the water doing nothing and then eating a large lobster dinner. I will celebrate how far I have travelled in my life. I will continue not to tweet. And then I will keep going.

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