The response to a picture posted recently on our personal Facebook page got us thinking. It was of our friend Melissa. In the photograph, she is wearing striking yellow designer dress. Her hair was styled by some of the best stylists in the city in what required two visits to the hair salon to create. Her makeup is as flawless as her bright, big smile and perfected “back pose” that showed off the long, flowing dress’s details. A few days before the shot was taken, she had posted on her Facebook page that she was planting flowers for the first time and was curious to see how long they would last. Ten days after the picture was taken, she was found dead. On a beautiful late spring day, she had left work early, come home and taken her life before the sun had gone down.
Melissa’s death shocked Toronto’s community of young people, as word quickly travelled through the grapevine as it does and the city collectively asked, what went wrong? How could this gorgeous woman, who had just celebrated her 28th birthday with girlfriends a few months prior at The Drake Hotel, and whose Facebook was filled with beautiful, smiling pictures of a life seemingly lived to its fullest, possibly want to die? How could such a bright, beautiful smile hide such dark thoughts and pain? How did this happen so close to home? And to her?
When we posted the picture this past June 1st – on the three-year anniversary of her death – the response from friends, many who didn’t even know her, was remarkable. The fact that it was taken just days before she died struck a chord with many and served as a resonating and chilling reminder that there is no typical “face” of suicide, and that any polished and seemingly on top of the world young professional (YP) could be battling tough times and pain – despite how they look to the outside world.
We learned many things in the wake of Melissa’s death; the power of friendship, the strength of family, how painful it is to say goodbye to a lifelong friend, the healing power of music, and how impossible some images – like a grieving mother or the lowering of a casket – are to shake from the mind. Once we were able to assess and reflect upon the situation when the pain wasn’t as fresh and raw, we gained new-found insight into a few other things…
The images we construct for ourselves
In ever-small social circles, reputations are fragile and images matter among young professionals. It seems everyone knows everyone. There is pressure to be “on” all the time, in control and emotionally mature – there is little tolerance for anything else. There is still a huge stigma among our generation surrounding mental health and depression or, sometimes, even in admitting sadness. Many driven and strong-willed YPs may feel that crying is a sign of weakness, that therapy is reserved for troubled teens, and that we should be happy all the time with “all we have going for us.” We construct images in our everyday YP lives; we “fake it until we make it,” act confident when we aren’t, and try to be strong and professionally productive in times of tragedy when we have every right to crumble…all because of how we want others to see us. Some see through it. Others don’t.
The ability of social media to disguise pain
We live in a digital society where we can essentially create the person we would like to be perceived as through social media. It is easy to take the right pictures (or at least post the right shots after you’ve perfected them), say the proper things in status updates, and generally construct an image of how you want the public (or your social media followers and “friends”) to perceive you. Our friends that are parents, for example, would tell us over a glass of wine about how draining, exhausting and unglamourous parenting can be – yet their Facebook pages make it look like the simplest, most effortless and most constantly joyous thing in the world. And we all know (or know of) that smiling couple, holding hands and lovey dovey at the charity event and in social media pictures, who are going through relationship hell behind closed doors. Or that beautiful girl who smiles in photos but who is painfully insecure once you get to know her.
We admit we too might look better on social media than we are in real life. We once went on a date with someone whose knowledge of us was limited to social media and then told us we seemed a lot more “badass” in person than on Facebook. Though we were kind of sorry to disappoint (okay, not really), the guy had a point. We (generalizing society here) tend to only post pictures of ourselves in all our glory – not shots of us at home in our sweats lamenting over life decisions, work stress or relationship issues with our hair in a knot and a now-empty pizza box within reach. Why would we?
The assumptions we make
However aware we are that we constantly construct our own images, more often than not we buy into the images of others in our social media networks. Inevitably, social media has caused us to compare ourselves more to others in terms of career success, social life and life stages, making logging into those sites potentially self-destructive at times when you’re already having a bad day. It is easy to forget that the photos people post are usually their best and they typically rave about their favourite experiences in life – not the dark, bad and ugly. Though many successful urban YPs are obviously living well, not all lives are as perpetually amazing 24/7 we as a collective YP culture may make them out to be.
We are not in high school anymore; an ignorantly blissful time where tragedy and heartbreak are reserved for the movies. You’d be hard-pressed to find a YP who hasn’t experienced something tragic in his or her life to date, whether the pain of dealing with a sick parent, the death of a friend or family member, or hitting a personal low as a result of some other curveball thrown at them. The point is, you never know what anyone is going through and many urban and social YPs have perfected the art of the genuine-looking fake smile, fake enthusiasm, and the shutting off of feelings when we need to. We are all masters of faking it until others believe it.
Sometimes something as seemingly insignificant and forgivable as being short with a co-worker, friend or even your barista can ruin their mood and entire day; perhaps at a time where he or she was already going through something much larger. Don’t assume your friends are good just because they appear so in social media. Take the time to ask how they are, and interact offline rather than with superficial online banter. Everyone battles sad times in life, and if you haven’t yet, you’re one of the lucky ones. But you will at some point. If all lives were as perfect as we present them on Facebook, therapists would all be out of work, musicians would lose inspiration, and nobody would be envious of anyone else because we’d all be “living the dream.”