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Death and Social Media II: Addendum

Today I published a very controversial post about how we handle unexpected tragedy on social media. I used a specific, relatively recent example, and I used it as a way to show that we need to seriously think about how to include social media in how we discuss death and suicide in high-risk communities.

I’d like to make clear that I did not write and publish this post lightly. I asked other people—people with level heads and strong emotions and lots of experience with death—to read it and give me feedback. I asked when I should post it. I asked for advice. What you see is a post I published after two months of editing and thought.

The responses I got were almost entirely polarized. Some were public, some were private, but almost all were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

According to some, I was entirely without empathy, and I should absolutely not be using this tragic event as a teaching moment.

According to others, I was a beacon of reason and good thinking, and I was thanked profusely for what I wrote.

I think that the truth must be somewhere in the middle.

I do not think I was wrong to write and publish the post; I truly believe that we need to seriously consider how we handle death on social media. As to whether I should have used that particular example…I don’t know. That particular tragedy and how it was handled—and how people reacted to it—was powerful and it is the reason I wrote this post in the first place.

The post was never intended to hurt anybody, but effect always trumps intent, so I own that.

I will not take the post down. I have done a quick edit to try to vague it up as much as I could in this moment, tried to make it more general. I am open to suggestions about how to generalize it further without losing the power and the context of it—because while I am deeply sympathetic to those experiencing their loss and grief, I am also attempting to tell a story from the perspective of people who were anticipating grief and heartbreak with no information as to whether that grief and heartbreak was theirs, this time.

I have been informed, by the way, by the two different poles of this argument, that our feelings did matter and that our feelings, in fact, didn’t. I think that this also falls somewhere in the middle.

So, I would love some input on how to make this a viable, healthy conversation. I’d love to see more blog posts about how social media has changed the landscape of mourning, emotion, loss, and pain. It’s a difficult conversation, and as long as we continue to connect through social media, it’s a necessary one.

When I set out to become a blogger, I thought my blog would be a place for pure humor, Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and pictures of my cat. Increasingly I have posted about those things that are difficult to talk about. Things that we don’t want to address. Things we like to pretend don’t exist until they happen to us. But I want to do it in ways that create discussion, not kill it. I want people to be interested, but not hurt. 

So I humbly request feedback, suggestions, and criticism. I hope to constantly improve my writing, my perspective, this blog, so that it truly is a place where such conversations can happen.

Death and Social Media

Not too long ago, my Facebook feed was suddenly peppered with vague posts about the death of somebody who was part of a broader (but quite small) community of which I am a member. People refused to post the name of the person who died.

I was immediately filled with fear and anxiety that I was out of the loop on the death of somebody I might know and care about. It had happened to me with Sparkly (learned about her on Facebook, by accident), and I had been the person filling in people who were out of the loop on Donovan (learned he was in a coma when I was, without warning, added to a Facebook group to discuss it). And what I learned from both of those tragic events is that:

1. It totally sucks to learn these things via Facebook;
2. Learning these things via Facebook is inevitable;
3. Nobody, nobody should be out of the loop when somebody in a close-knit community is seriously injured, near death, or dead;
4. We need to take a serious look at how we handle tragedy on social media.

In the most recent circumstances, a small but very visible and active group within the larger grieving community seemed to think that not naming names would protect privacy, even as they posted details about his death that were far more invasive than his identity. This group was also inclined to criticize those asking for more information. When my very dear friend Rachel, who has lived through more brutal loss than the vast majority of the people I know, finally demanded that people name names, another friend commented, “If you are frustrated by not being in the in club over grieving with us, consider yourself lucky.”

Now, I understand that grief totally kills our communication skills. And this is why not a single one of us called him out on this comment. However, the essence of that comment should be addressed, because Rachel was not the only person who was essentially accused of being a vulture for asking.

I think we need to start with the assumption that nobody actually wants to be in that club. Nobody. If you really think somebody wants to be in that club, it’s time to do some unfriending and maybe look into a temporary restraining order. Okay? So let’s start with that foundational premise. Nobody wants to be in that club. If people are going to glom on for drama, that will become readily apparent, and they will not be anybody’s problem but their own.

I think we should continue with the general awareness that people die. I know, it’s something nobody really wants to think about, which makes all of these discussions about death much more difficult. Rachel’s response to the accusation of wanting to be in the mourner’s club nailed my reaction to this series of vaguebook posts: “Our community is very high risk, and I have lost more friends than I have digits to suicide, drugs, and motorcycle accidents. I found out in a million different ways. Because of this, fear strikes my heart EVERY TIME I hear ‘motorcycle casualty on the 880′ or any time [people] are posting about some unnamed tragedy.”

Marisa filled it out: “I’ve known too many quick-and-deads to ever, ever think that ‘if I knew them, I would know.’ I found out last week about a dear friend…via Facebook. But at least names were named. [...]Creating this kind of stress and anxiety in this incredibly high risk group is rude. It’s not telling anyone how to grieve; it’s asking for basic consideration.”

I’m not sure I know more than a tiny handful of people who have not been affected by tragedy and/or sudden death. Hell, just in case you think I am being insensitive, I have been struggling with depression and suicide ideation since I was a child. To top that off, I ride a motorcycle. In reality I–or any of us–could die any day. Every day. So many of my friends are similar: they suffer from extreme depression, are risk takers, get into accidents, and some of them have died. We are high-risk. With regard to the death of loved ones, I have not always been in the immediate loop. Nor would I expect even my closest friends to be in the event of my injury or death. Too many breaks in communication can happen. So assuming:

A. that everybody who should know does know is wrong.

B. that not naming names has no effect on those who didn’t know the individual is wrong.

C. that people who ask for the identity of the deceased are just social media vultures is—you guessed it—wrong.

I think we also need to think about how we handle information. Talking about a death in the community, not naming names, but offering other extremely private details is kinda like creating a really screwed up guessing game and it protects nobody’s privacy, ultimately.

For the record, when people understandably don’t want to guess, calling them vultures for asking for information is going to result in some ruffled feathers, especially when you have given just enough information to create the need to ask for more. You are hurting. I get it, and I have been there. I am so very, very sorry for your loss. But freaking out a bunch of your friends and then slapping them down when they ask for information is not the way to handle it. As my friend Normal pointed out in an analog example, “I don’t go to Lucky 13 and yell ‘one of us died and I feel sad!’ and then walk off to the bathroom without expecting a lot of follow-up upsetness.”

fat amyNorm gets a gif for that, because she nailed it.

We have all lost people. We are extremely aware of how truly fragile are the lives of our friends, family, and loved ones. And when somebody in a close-knit community feels the need to say that somebody who was a part of the community died, but not who it was, it does far more harm than good.

If you are going to withhold information out of respect to families and partners, consider withholding all of it and finding a more private forum for your initial response. In examples I have seen and heard of, some folks refused to name names publicly but explicitly offered to if contacted privately. It turns out I didn’t know the deceased, and I had the amazing and unfortunate privilege of getting to struggle with a feeling of intense relief even as I watched people I care about grieve.

I have read everything his friends have posted about him, and I have let those posts give substance to the person my friends have lost. This post is not about the fact that I don’t care; I do. This post is about the fact that people need to know, even if just to learn that their hearts won’t be breaking, this time. 

A Checkered Year

I suppose it’s time for my increasingly traditional annual retrospective. 

If 2013 were a cartoon animal, it would be the Cat in the Hat, balancing too much shit and ultimately failing. Oh, don’t get me wrong, many, many good things happened in 2013. 

  • I went to Puerto Vallarta, my first vacation in six years.
  • My friends generously helped me get Iago, my beloved motorcycle back on the road.
  • With some overlap, my friends also helped me raise significant funds for the organization for which I work.
  • I moved into a fantastic apartment in SF (with laundry AND a dishwasher AND hardwood floors AND natural light AND off-street parking).
  • I met Allie Brosh.
  • I got three raises (which add up to, in just a little over a year, a 29% raise from my first salary here).
  • Luke and Marisa got married.
  • Jay and Jenneviere got married.
  • What I am hoping is becoming a Christmas tradition of spending one of the most annoying days of the year with my friends Lisa, Matt, and Elaine.
  • I have met some new people and made some new friends, at least two of whom are definitely keepers (and one I just fucking love so much I gave her, as somebody pointed out when I mentioned the book signing, an original Allie Brosh drawing).
  • I beat my all time best bowling score. Which isn’t amazing, but I’m still pretty pleased with myself. (Current best: 157.)
  • I learned some new things about who I am and how my brain works that explains A LOT about me and is helping me to make sense of my life and who I am.

But 2013 also slipped on a gigantic pile of shit, twisted its ankle, and landed on its face in yet another gigantic pile of shit with its mouth wide fucking open, for me and for people I love.

Losing Sparkly Devil broke more hearts than mine, and I think some part of me is always going to be wondering when we are going to go get our next cocktail and talk about everything. I still make notes in my head for things I want to chat with her about. Apparently it’s going to be a while, so I should start writing them down.

  • I have watched my friends lose people, family members, partners to death, relationship failure, and drama. Broken hearts everywhere.
  • There are friends who have been too far away for me to give them the kind of support I wanted to give.
  • I am having to face the fact that my beloved constant companion, my purrbucket, my cuddly, affectionate, loving, and deeply annoying cat Thumper is officially old. He still looks great in a bowtie, though.

I don’t do the resolution thing, really. I know what I want to accomplish in the next year. I don’t know how I am going to do all of it, yet, but I’ll figure it out. 

Happy New Year.

Foster Care

I can’t tell you how old I was when I found myself in foster care. This is something to do with my incredibly stressful and relatively traumatic childhood; at some point, I subconsciously decided it would be best if I just didn’t remember when or how anything happened. So if I seem a little vague about dates, time periods, ages? It’s because I don’t really know. I get flashes, sometimes, though. Snapshots, like the ones I have of the night I was separated from my mother.

  • My mother, high on meth, taking us to the San Diego Marshal’s Office in a haze of drug-induced paranoia.
  • Sitting at a table across from a female officer who clearly did not know what to do with me, but was very kind and gave me one of her colleague’s meals.
  • Being taken out of the room too soon, and seeing my mother thrown up against the wall and handcuffed.
  • Being shown to a bed in a dark room filled with beds in the middle of the night. I would soon learn that I was in the Hillcrest Receiving Home. I didn’t know why I was there.
  • Being introduced to a woman, Mrs. White, and told that I would be going home with her.
  • Not knowing where my mother was, what had happened to her, or if she would know how to find me again.
  • Not knowing if she was gone forever.

There are, on average, between 400,000 and 500,000 kids in foster care in the United States in a given year. Some of them have even less to go on than I had, and many come from far worse situations than I ever did. It’s a very rare foster youth who isn’t suffering from trauma, and on average, foster youth are almost TWICE as likely to suffer from PTSD as US war veterans.

Children in foster care suffer from dramatically higher rates of psychiatric, behavioral, and substance use disorders resulting from the abuse and neglect they have experienced, in addition to the traumas of removal from home and the instability of the foster care system itself. However, only about 10-15% of them receive any mental healthcare at all, and virtually none of them receive long-term therapy. The majority of the therapy they receive is short-term, crisis-based care, which is ultimately more damaging than not.

I work for a nonprofit organization called A Home Within. Now, I’m glad I found this org right when I desperately needed a job, but I wish I’d known about it earlier, because after a lifetime of dealing with depression, anxiety, anger, trauma, and the fear of abandonment—much of which was aggravated or added by my time in foster care, I could have benefited from the services A Home Within provides: pro bono, open-ended therapy.

That’s right. We offer free long-term mental health care to current and former foster youth: One child, one therapist, for as long as it takes.

But finding therapists and reaching foster youth takes time, and it takes funds. We have chapters all over the country with kids waiting for services that we are doing our best to provide, and areas where foster carers and youth have no idea we are here for them. We are going to change that. I’m part of a team trying to raise $2500 for A Home Within. I’m working with Faith Grant, one of our most recent additions to the A Home Within Board of Directors. So I am asking you to help us out by donating today, and to help me and Faith out by choosing either her name or mine (if you already know it) from the drop down menu when you do.

Please, help us make a difference in the lives of foster youth.

The Ultimate Nightmare

I was seven years old when A Nightmare on Elm Street came out in 1984. For some reason my babysitter decided it would be fine for me to see it. Yeah, you should probably check in with the people babysitting your kids.

Two things have been true until tonight:

1. I have been fascinated by and have actively sought out horror movies ever since; and
2. I haven’t watched the original ANOES since (I saw the remake; it wasn’t awful).

Oh, let me clarify. I haven’t watched the original since…until tonight. I’m watching it now. Why not? I thought to myself as I chose how to celebrate my favorite holidayWhy not celebrate with the movie that entirely rewired my wee brain when I was a child? It’s possible that I’ll have the answer to that soon, but the movie is only just a few minutes in.

Let’s share a little history. The effect that this movie had on me, a kid who hadn’t even made it to the first grade yet, was striking. It terrified me. I did not yet have the ridiculously macabre and dark sense of humor I do now. I did not have the ability to recognize the sick sense of humor in the horror before me. I just saw Freddy Krueger.

freddyarms

You know the full story by now, but Freddy was a scary-as-fuck dead guy who could kill you in your dreams, and even preschool Whiskeypants knew that was Fucked. Up. Preschool Whiskeypants knew that waking up was hard sometimes. Preschool Whiskeypants had intense nightmares on a very regular basis and was pretty damn sure that it made absolute sense that your nightmares could kill you. 

I would spend the rest of my childhood trying to figure out how to sleep safely. While it wasn’t only because of ANOES (there was a host of other factors in my childhood that added to this), this movie hardwired me to believe that sleep left a person altogether too vulnerable. In fact, I think it was out of desperation for rest that my brain created its own coping mechanism: it turned Freddy Krueger into an ally. Freddy would show up in my nightmares and show me the way out. It was the only way my subconscious could work through my absolute terror of the character.

Rewatching A Nightmare on Elm Street right now is giving me a new appreciation for the movie, but the fear that 7-year-old Whiskeypants experienced is still there, 29 years later. It’s not a fear of the movie, with its nigh-hilarious special effects (Freddy has fluorescent green blood? Really?), baby Johnny Depp, and fascinating hairdos. It’s still the idea behind it that gets me. That makes me wonder how well I will sleep tonight.

I guess in some ways, 36-year-old Whiskeypants is still 7-year-old Whiskeypants.

Happy Halloween.

One, two...

One, two…

Sexy Halloween

YOU GUYS. Halloween is just around the corner! You know what THAT means: it’s time to scramble to put together the perfect Sexy [Whatever] costume. But what if all your friends are already going as Sexy Nurse, Sexy Nun, Sexy Cop, Sexy Zombie and Sexy Lisa Simpson? DO NOT WORRY. Everything is going to be okay, because my friends and I have pages and pages of ideas for you, courtesy of this lovely comic and an absolutely epic Facebook thread.

Are you ready for this?
If yes, click below (and click again) for embiggenation:

Sexy Halloween

Note: I love Halloween. I mean, really. I LOVE Halloween. The sheer amount of work and creativity that goes into this unholiday is mindblowing and I enjoy it immensely. So even if I didn’t have a host of other issues with the “Sexy [x]” Halloween costume, the sheer consistent laziness of it would irritate me.

Different Lenses

Not too long ago I was in Mexico, at a beautiful hotel with a beautiful view. And I took pictures, and posted various photos and experiences to Facebook. And I was told by more than one person to put my phone away and just enjoy my vacation.

My gut reaction, which I did not share with anybody but my girlfriend, was: “Fuck you for telling me how to enjoy my vacation.”

middle-finger-x-ray_large

I’ve been thinking about it since then. Sure, there are the workaholics who really should try to leave their work at home, who can’t stop themselves from responding to work emails, reading up for the next big meeting, doing final edits on memos, briefs, and other shit nobody should be doing on their vacation (on the other hand, work at a beach > work at an office, so it’s still an improvement). But I wasn’t doing any of that. I was merely doing something I find fun no matter where I am, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how posting pics and articles to Facebook was ruining my vacation.

It didn’t stop me from enjoying poolside cucumber margaritas. It didn’t stop me from spending hours on the balcony hammock, watching sunsets and pirate ships. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the ridiculously tasty food. It didn’t stop me from interacting with and talking to people.

I enjoy the shit out of social media. I love having platforms on which I can be my usual opinionated self and where people can quietly block me if they are tired of my voice. I love having a place where I can share my experiences, thoughts, pictures, blog posts, and found material with my friends. I don’t think of social media as some kind of addiction holding me back from experiencing life. I think of it as a place where I can show people I love what I am experiencing, how I am experiencing it, why I am experiencing it that way, etc. Before social media, and some of the people reading this may remember it, I did this via mass email. Without social media, I’d find another platform to do all these things. It’s just part of who I am, and being able to share what I share, how I share, and when I share it makes me happy and ultimately enhances my experience.

I’m reminded of a complaint that, if memory serves, came from the ridiculously talented Audrey Penven, that people too often tell photographers to stop taking pictures and just experience the moment. I’ve seen such comments before and I have always wondered why people cannot realize that, for some, being behind the camera is experiencing the moment. We all see and share with the world through different lenses, and some of us come equipped with extra.

2013-07-23 20.42.10Yeah. How can I ever appreciate this sunset if I take a second to click a button on my camera?
VACATION RUINED.

Now, here’s the thing: I don’t care what you think about the evils of social media. I don’t care if you think it’s a blemish on society, if you think it’s ruining our children, if you are tired of selfies and pictures of cats. I don’t care if Obama himself appointed you the Sheriff of Phoneville and the Minister of Social Media in one. I don’t care if you are the fucking King of Twitter. I don’t care if you see pictures of people on their phones and heave great big sighs of disappointment that tech has ruined EVERYTHING. I don’t care how many shitty smartphone-related anecdotes you have to share with me. I. Don’t. Fucking. Care.

I don’t care that you would choose to experience your vacation differently. I don’t care that you think vacations should = a lack of online connectivity. I do care if you decide that you are the expert on the Whiskeypants Experience and that you need to tell me what I should be doing to enjoy my life. I do care if you decide that you are the authority on when and how I can use my phone*. Because here’s some fair warning: if you do, I’m going to tell you to shut the fuck up. I’m going to tell you it’s none of your goddamn business. And I’m going to do it on Facebook, with hashtags, in all caps, just to make it even more fun for me.

Got it? Good. Have an A1 day.

*Note: This is about quiet, non-invasive use of phones, not the I’M GONNA TALK REALLY LOUDLY IN THIS PUBLIC SPACE LIKE A COMPLETE ASSHOLE use of phones that is just obnoxious to everybody.

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