When I first read about Kate Spade’s suicide yesterday afternoon, I slammed my laptop shut and immediately burst into tears. To the public — including me — who has always associated Kate Spade with her happy-go-lucky brand and the persona she kept up alongside it, her suicide came as an immense shock. But for certain family members who knew her well, the news wasn’t quite as surprising.
In an interview with The Kansas City Star, Spade’s sister, Reta Saffo, says that the suicide was “not unexpected,” and revealed that the designer had actually been privately battling “debilitating mental health issues” for the past three or four years. Saffo says that Kate would get “sooo close to packing her bags,” for treatment, “but — in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand [happy-go-lucky Kate Spade] was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out.”
Other members of Spade’s family have denounced these comments. But true or not, for me, they struck a chord. I, too, tend to present a similarly “happy-go-lucky” persona publicly, even when it’s not at all in line with my private reality. And though I’m not a famous designer and nowhere near being a household name like Spade, the level at which I could relate to that discrepancy, which we millennials often cheerily refer to as “Instagram versus reality,” was jarring.
As a freelance lifestyle writer who spent the better part of the past year traveling through Asia, Europe, and South America, my social media feeds have recently become a flurry of beaches, beauty products, and carefully curated selfies that look *nothing* like how I actually look in real life. I know that I’m one of those people who appears, online, to have her life totally together, but the behind-the-scenes reality isn’t nearly as photogenic.
Recently, my Instagram feed — and all of its cool, exotic looking photos — started to make me feel like I was living some weird double life, and it became absolutely exhausting. I tend to be an over-sharer when it comes to what I put online, but I’ve always had a convenient habit of leaving out certain parts of my life that don’t make for a pretty picture or a cute and funny story. There was the happy, shiny amazing version of me that I put on Internet — let’s call her @zoeweinerrr — who travels the world and gets to work poolside every day and tests out beauty treatments as a part of my job. Then, there was the unfiltered version, who was having regular panic attacks, lying awake at night for hours on end, and crying in public almost daily.
Here’s the unfiltered truth: When I came home after a year of travel with the intention of resuming life as usual, my mental health took a turn for the worst. I was experiencing near-debilitating anxiety, working 20+ hours a day in what I later learned was a form of mania, and not sleeping. At all. Plus, my vintage eating disorder began to creep back into my everyday life, which made trying to navigate everything else that was going on even harder. But at the time, you would never, ever know any of that from looking at my feed, which was constantly being replenished with new shots of wine glasses in the sunset and me in a bikini.
Given the image that I’d created for myself online, I was beyond embarrassed to tell anyone what was really going on in my life — even my closest friends. So I continued posting pictures that looked like everything was A-OK. Part of me felt like I’d be letting people down if I let them in on my little secret, but mostly it was because at the time, I liked the Internet version of me a whole lot better than I liked the real-life one.
Considering I used to spend a lot of time scrolling through other people’s “perfect” feeds and feeling like shit, I hated myself for becoming a part of the problem by only showing off what I thought looked good on camera. But sharing the “real” me became harder and harder, because the more perfect my life looked on Instagram, the more unfair it felt for me to be anything but over-the-moon happy all of the time. Because I know that in a lot of ways — or really, in most ways — I am unbelievably lucky. I have a job that I love that allows me to travel the world, and that in itself is enough to make any other issues I may have seem irrelevant. There are many, many parts of my life that I am grateful for, and many of the smiling selfies that I post really are genuine, but that’s simply not the whole story.
I don’t want to flatter myself into thinking people actually care about what does or doesn’t go on behind-the-scenes of my Instagram feed, but I also don’t want to continue to perpetuate the idea that everything is as amazing as it seems. The statistics related to mental health and social media staggering (case in point: the more social networks a person uses, the more likely they are to struggle with depression and anxiety) and the last thing I would ever (EVER) want is for the facade I’ve created about my life to make someone else feel bad about their own… especially when it’s even making me feel bad.
I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy to change my social media persona after coming to this realization, because like I said, I really liked the “happy-go-lucky” Internet version of myself. But as I get more comfortable with talking about my mental health in a public forum, I’ve also tried to take small steps to make my feed more closely resemble my life, like not posting on days when I feel like crap, using fewer filters, and trying my hardest not to care what people think of my photos. I don’t take 35 versions of the same selfie in pursuit of the perfect shot anymore, and I’m learning not to measure my worth by the metrics of “likes” and “followers.”
The biggest takeaway from all of this, and from Kate Spade’s death, especially, is that there is no “one size fits all” appearance for a mental health struggle. Regardless of the sort of public persona someone presents to the world, or how “together” their life may seem, you really have no idea what they’re battling in private. But the more we talk about these things, and the more we try to close the gap between “public” and “private,“ and “Instagram” and “reality,” the less these battles will have to stay hidden behind the scenes. It may not make for as pretty of a picture, but it tells a far, far more important story.