By Catie L’Heureux
The photograph captures the view from my family’s lake house. Here, my dad sears whitefish on the grill while damp towels rim the peeling wooden deck and Michigan cherries cluster in tin bowls. On the dock we sip wine from stemless glasses and savor the fading sky, anchored in white Adirondack chairs. Here, I am happiest.
Posted to Facebook just before my college graduation, the photo belies my jobless angst: A newspaper internship had been revoked due to budgeting issues, then unexpectedly reinstated. I would soon be squatting in a filthy basement in a Chicago suburb all summer, bemoaning my lack of a real job. After the sunset and a few other shots, that was it: A year has passed since I’ve shared a photo to Facebook. I don’t Instagram. I seldom tweet. I don’t use dating apps.
This post-college aversion to social media was abrupt in the same way adulthood bulldozed me. Living in a house with four girls who had all found full-time work, I grilled chicken and ate bagged salad every night, refusing to meet my eyes in the mirror before bed because I loathed the uncertainty, and I didn’t like myself. I cried a lot. I spent most evenings after the internship sprawled on my mattress scrolling through Facebook, tapping likes on happy photos of the friends I’d stopped meeting. Posting my own status or photo was unimaginable, because those choices were inevitably rooted in insecurities and looming failure (Does that profile picture show my best angle? Why haven’t more than 15 people liked this photo in the past hour? I tagged X in this photo yesterday; why hasn’t he liked it yet?).
“This post-college aversion to social media was abrupt in the same way adulthood bulldozed me.”
These anxieties taxed a mental energy I didn’t possess. So I stopped posting to Facebook, intermittently tweeted (to show prospective media employers an unfortunately tepid social media “savvy”), and wrote 40 cover letters in earnest until a magazine editor asked me to fly to New York for an interview. I got the job, and soon arrived with two suitcases at an all-women boardinghouse in Manhattan to start my new life (an experience I ended up writing about for the magazine).
My withdrawal from social media is inanely average. I didn’t cut myself or contemplate suicide, though I do identify with reports on the mental-health epidemic afflicting college students nationwide. I was fortunate to recover stability so quickly, stumbling into a salaried job that allows me to support myself without my parents’ help. It’s also important to acknowledge that my digital hiatus makes me less of a contributing citizen, for now. I read The New Yorker; I work at a general-interest culture magazine; I listen to NPR; but my absence from social media is ostensibly apathetic.
Here, then, are the things people don’t know. There is the wilting white rose on my desk, purchased after a solo dinner at an upscale restaurant last Saturday night. There is the faux-leather address book on my dresser, in which I thrillingly (nerdily) alphabetize new words with definitions from my phone’s Merriam-Webster app. There are the two museum tickets at my elbow, one of which will next weekend be shared with a guy I met at a bar who forebodingly wears Prada shoes. There is my favorite summer dress hanging in the closet, worn last summer while I indulged in the warm afternoon alone, reading Joan Didion’s essay collection on a bench in Central Park. There are the dear friends who still tag me in Facebook photos, knowing that I may not see or like their posts for weeks. Above all, there is a private solitude I share with no one but myself.
After graduating and moving to New York, I often vacillate between loneliness and aloneness. Friends are scattered throughout the city; I sporadically meet them for drinks and come home to a compact room with pale walls and a silence that can be deafening, or serene. Solitude defined is: a state or situation in which you are alone because you want to be. This idea — an actual desire to be alone — never occurred to me during college. It is now imperative, though still unsettling. Absence from social media engendered this freedom for me, for now. I think of our preciously unfettered 20’s and Susan Glaspell’s "The People" swirls to mind: “This is our little while. This is our chance.”
Catie L’Heureux is an assistant editor at New York magazine’s The Cut.