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Pain and Gain: The Internet and My Struggle with Mental Illness

For many, the internet is a source of connection and creativity. But for some, the access it provides exacerbates pre-existing mental challenges.

Escrito por Laura Susanne Yochelson

Pain and Gain: The Internet and My Struggle with Mental Illness

01 Laura is a mental health advocate who has battled numerous conditions since childhood. She now writes about her experiences as a means of raising awareness and fighting stigma.

02 Starting at a young age, Laura's engagement with digital spaces made her feel hopeless and self-critical. As she got older, her experiences online morphed into new triggers, such as obsessions with self-care, and later on, a means of fueling her psychosis.

03 As Laura recovered, she found ways to balance her internet usage with real life recovery, and reminds others that they can do so as well with proper boundaries in place.

04 Remember: You have the last word in deciding when and how to use the Internet. Don’t let it eat-up more of your time than it should.

It’s hard to think of any force that plays a more powerful role in people’s lives than the Internet. Most of us have the option of going online 24/7 to communicate, inform, and entertain ourselves. Without that option, we feel disconnected from the world.

But using the Internet can be consequential for better and for worse. As someone in recovery from a long struggle with mental illness, I felt both edges of the sword. The Internet did me great harm for many years — feeding my deepest anxieties and insecurities, convincing me that Western medicine had no value, and exposing my illness to important people in my life. Over time and with support, however, I was able to take advantage of the opportunities that connectivity has to offer. I’m eager to share my story because many others face challenges like mine.

A Trigger of Withdrawal

Growing up in the 1990’s, I experienced the downside of the Internet before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Although I looked like a model child on the outside, I was consumed by fear and self-doubt on the inside. That made me really vulnerable when I went online.

The damage started when a boy in elementary school mocked my appearance and religion in instant messages. Seeing his words on a screen shattered me. I was already under stress to perform in sports and academics. Instead of standing up for myself, I disengaged.

This act of withdrawal was the harbinger of more profound problems. When my family moved from Bethesda, Maryland to San Diego, California in middle school, I succumbed to pressure to be thin. Unable to relate to my peers, I soon developed an eating disorder. Obsessing over my weight and fearing rejection turned me into a loner in need of therapy. 

The Internet did me great harm for many years — feeding my deepest anxieties and insecurities.

Social media made matters worse. My psychoanalyst pressured me to take part in the newly invented Facebook to be like everyone else, but I feared that I’d look fat and ugly. The more I saw everyone else projecting unrealistic images of themselves, the more I lost confidence in myself.   

Hoping to turn things around, I returned to Washington, D.C. to attend American University (AU) for college. When I reached out online to childhood friends for support, however, most of them scorned or ignored me. My never-ending struggle with anxiety and isolation forced me out of a campus dorm at the end of the first semester. I wound up completing my degree living at home.  

A Gateway to Extremes

Despite these social setbacks, I relied heavily on online resources for academics. As a health promotion major, I found a whole new world of research and practice that challenged the conventional Western approach to mental and physical well-being. These ideas resonated because of my serial failures to get help from practitioners of modern medicine. 

My one-track mind took alternative medicine to the extreme. I started limiting my diet to raw vegan foods and taking three hot yoga classes a day. I persuaded myself that I could build a career as an expert of holistic health.  

After graduating, I wrote a thinly veiled autobiography about being sick with the intention of healing myself. Instead of becoming a celebrity author, I found that social media opened me up to ridicule and taunting. I felt so overly exposed and fragile that I obsessively took down my entire online presence.  

Before long I developed psychosis. Much of my illness played out online. I picked up signals that I had magic powers, acting out fantasies about men I barely knew and mastering astrology to find my perfect soulmate.  

A Wild Ride Called Life | Episode 28 with Laura Yochelson

Laura shares her personal mental health story and talks about the importance of advocacy work.

At the same time, the offbeat alternative medicine practices that I cultivated through the Internet kept their hold on me. These included floating in a warm tank with Epsom salts and having my gut cleaned out with water by a machine. Compulsive cleansing prevented me from accepting my parents offer to give mainstream therapy another try.   

A Megaphone for Troubled Thoughts 

My downward spiral led to a near-death experience and a pair of hospitalizations for my eating disorder. Both times, I went off the rails when I arrived – using email to tell everyone I knew that I was being brainwashed by extremists. The messages I sent out could not help but label me as whacko. 

Amazingly, one of my professors at American University tried to help. I had been a top student, and she gave me the opportunity to enroll in AU’s health promotion management master’s degree. Still, as soon as I went off my prescribed anti-psychotic, I self-destructed over the Internet again. I felt angry at my parents and blamed them for my mental illness. Voices told me I was unsafe living at home. I lashed out over e-mail and social media at my family and friends, copying the police, professors, and others. Barricading myself in my room, I refused to communicate except via sticky notes.

A Positive Turn 

Although it’s painful to recall how much damage the Internet did and enabled me to do to myself, my life took a positive turn after I hit rock bottom. My parents hired an interventionist who packed me up in Bethesda and took me to a treatment center in South Florida.

I spent an entire year in phased mental health treatment. At the beginning, all of my communications to the world outside were restricted. I was really unhappy but, the truth is that I couldn’t use the Internet or even my cell phone responsibly. 

Without the Internet, I was forced to start talking more about hearing voices and my anxiety. People around me started to notice my progress and that felt good. I dropped my opposition to meds, connected with my therapists, and interacted with my peers. These changes had to take place for me to use the Internet and use it positively. The treatment center focused on my mental well-being without force-feeding. This holistic approach suited me and I was determined to get my life back.  

Although it’s painful to recall how much damage the Internet did and enabled me to do to myself, my life took a positive turn after I hit rock bottom.

After four or five months of inpatient treatment, I stepped down to partial hospitalization. This gave me unrestricted access to my phone and computer again. Getting re-acclimated to the Internet wasn’t an easy process. With the guidance of my therapist, I began apologizing to people I’d sent inappropriate messages to. Some, like my professors and closest family and friends, were responsive and accepted it. Others ignored and blocked me. It hurt, but I realized their actions said more about them than they did about me.

Helping Myself and Others

In recovery, I began to harness the power of the Internet constructively. Living on my own for the first time in South Florida increased my reliance on e-mail, social media, and video networking. I completed my master’s degree online in May 2019. Doing so opened the door to another first – finding a community that I felt part of. 

The isolation that defined my undergraduate experience at AU gave way to a real sense of belonging. The professor who had thrown me a lifeline when I was sick paved the way for me to learn to trust and accept support. 

At the same time, I found in the Internet a treasure chest of resources to build confidence through self-care. The most important was a simple, inexpensive foam roller patented by a physical therapist in California. I started to use the Smartroller every day to awaken and strengthen my body. I complimented my practice with other stress-reducing exercise and skincare tools that I found online. Taking the time to nurture myself made me look and feel better about myself than I ever had.

To my surprise, I found real interest in my approach to self-care at AU, where the pandemic  caused faculty and staff to rethink how to meet student needs. I was asked to make online presentations and eventually got the opportunity to introduce a new course called Intuitive Fitness as an adjunct instructor.  

Finally, I found my voice as an advocate of mental health over the Internet. I began sharing my story in blogs and webinars not only to support others, but also remind myself of the dark places that I never want to revisit. Magazines, newspapers, and mental health organizations have been welcoming outlets for my writing. As I gained recognition and felt better about myself, I stopped seeing myself as a victim and began to see myself as a contributor to the well-being of others. Today, I never want to lose the privilege of the Internet again. 

Take-Aways

The threats and the opportunities of the Internet are both important, whether you’re struggling with mental illness or not. The difference is that those like me who have suffered are more vulnerable and have to deal with the stigma that affects other people’s views of us.

Based on my experience, here are three guiding principles to avoid setbacks and take advantage of what the Internet has to offer. 

Be vigilant.

The content you post and the material you look at is unfiltered. Strangers or even friends can misrepresent themselves. For the most part, the relationships that matter most are grounded in really knowing and spending time with the other person.

Be self-aware.

It’s critical to know who you are and honor your values. There are consequences to opening up to people that don’t know you or buying into their ideas or products. The more you know who you are, the better decisions you will make in reaching out to others and responding to those who reach out to you. 

Be selective.

You have the last word in deciding when and how to use the Internet. Don’t let it eat-up more of your time than it should. The questions you should always be asking yourself are, “Do I trust this source of information?” and “Have I thought through the consequences of what I share with others?”  When the answers are “yes,” you will be in the right place.

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Nuestra misión es cambiar la manera en que el mundo percibe la salud mental.