I resisted joining Instagram for a long time. I was firmly entrenched on Twitter, barely active on Facebook (you may have noticed), and eventually I found myself wanting an escape, somewhere I go to scroll and take in beauty and cute photos, things that inspire me. It’s a luxury and a privilege to expect such a place, and I haven’t been able to maintain it in the way I’d hoped.
My first posts were what I considered to be artistic: a section of my favorite dress, a plate on display in the house where I was babysitting, the light falling across the floor. In time I shared pictures of my roommate’s dog. Eventually I seemed to only be sharing photos and short videos of my cat. And they made me happy. Twitter felt chaotic and every time I logged on I was confronted with important but deeply painful videos and news. So I spent my “wind down” time on IG. I followed artists and crocheters and bakeries. I shared others’ art occasionally. I started having more conversations with people in their DM’s about what they’d posted. Again, the subjects were usually cat photos, and this place remained safe and uncomplicated for me.
Someone followed me on IG who I had had a conflict with. His wife and I worked it out by phone, but she’d let slip that at some point her husband had felt some kind of attraction toward me, which is why he’d reacted the way he had, and why these new rules for communication they were implementing only applied to me. Despite several attempts, I was never comfortable around him again, and my husband and I decided to withdraw from him, and necessarily from his wife too. I didn’t respond when he would message me on Facebook or comment on my Instagram posts, which for a while was weekly. One day, he commented on a picture of my cat on Instagram, asking whose side of the bed the cat was laying on. From anyone else, that question would have been weird, and I probably wouldn’t have answered it, but from him it made me very uncomfortable.
I shared a screen shot of it with Tyler, and he also found it very weird, which confirmed that I wasn’t just extra sensitive because this person was the one asking. But it was this person, and I was no longer comfortable simply ignoring him. I was no longer comfortable knowing he could see what I posted—anything that I posted. This was my platform, and I had the right to use it as I wished and to try to keep myself safe on it. So I used security features to limit what he could see of my IG posts and made him unable to contact me through that app. I set a reminder for myself, and two weeks later I unfriended him on Facebook and blocked him on Instagram altogether. I didn’t want it to look like I was responding to that comment, but I was. I didn’t want him to notice when I cut all contact with him. I dreaded getting a new message or text from him or his wife. But I didn’t. In time, I felt comfortable there again.
Eventually, I became freer about the number of cat videos, and also the depth in which I engaged on IG. There were also lots of cats to discuss. An old friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years commented on a photo of a book cover, thanking me for the recommendation. An acquaintance from years ago started liking my posts regularly and checked in with me when the pandemic reached the US. It’s one of the ways I checked in with friends, too, especially those who live alone in other cities. Recently, I started sharing social justice resources and quotes in my stories.
On Blackout Tuesday, a friend responded to a Black author’s post, which I’d shared on my IG stories. She wasn’t the only one who contacted me about that post, but this conversation became the only conversation. Over the course of the next several days, it grew dicey, strained, accusatory. I felt dumped upon and judged. I felt taken advantage of. I felt confused and bewildered by her accusations and insistence that she has another opinion without actually telling me what that opinion is. I listened to her share those opinions in a bewildering and draining 3-hour-long phone call. Scrolling through Instagram afterward, I was now aware that this person was watching me, watching what I posted, and my safe place no longer felt safe.
I continued to post about social justice in the way I had before, interspersed with quite a few cat pictures and videos. I was reading more than usual, news was more pervasive and insidious, so there was an uptick in the heavy content I was sharing. But before I posted anything, I analyzed why I was doing it. Was I trying to share my feelings, to put knowledge and my emotions about it out in the world, or was I hoping one person in particular would see it? I felt her presence on all my social media, since she follows me everywhere, but I told myself I was overreacting. She wasn’t paying special attention. It was silly and paranoid and maybe self-centered of me to think so. I was careful to carry on with clear motives, not to direct anything at her. I figured everything would be weird for a while, but eventually it’d relax some. And maybe once it was safe to meet up, we could have an actual conversation about this.
Late one night, I posted photos of several pages from Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi, including two about the racist “Southern strategy” that helped elect Nixon. I highlighted sections of the page. In the same color I’d used to highlight about Nixon, I wrote “Bastards.” I questioned for a moment whether I should include the s. I didn’t want to call everyone who voted for him a bastard. The campaign had used decades of prejudice and racism to fool many voters. This strategy is employed now as well, and I know I was fooled by it while growing up and in my early twenties. Seeing it explained on that page filled me with anger and embarrassment. I’d believed an old lie, engineered to fool me, and it had worked. Lots of people were responsible for that, and for the election of Nixon and Reagan and the racist policies they enacted. The s on bastards felt appropriate. To a lesser degree, I was calling myself that too.
The friend I’d been in conflict with commented on that post to my stories the next day, clearly angry. Essentially, she said, “Watch who you’re calling a bastard. Racists are bastards and that’s not me.”
I wasn’t speaking to her in that post. She wasn’t alive to have been in the group specifically mentioned, even if she did identify herself in a way that connected with those groups.
The last I had spoken to her, I had accused her of lying to me for two years about why one of her friendships had ended. I felt sure that these beliefs of hers were the reason, not the theological point she’d claimed. And though it still makes more sense to me than what she says happened, I apologized when she denied it. She pushed, laid on the guilt. I apologized again. She wanted to know why I was reacting this way, poured on the loving phrases, and invited me to open up to her about my vulnerabilities. I accused her emotionally manipulating me. She refused to acknowledge my accusation. I told her I wouldn’t be sharing my feelings with her because it did not feel safe to do so. And here she was in my Instagram DM’s two days later, furious at how I was sharing my feelings on my own platform.
I didn’t intend to hurt her, and so many Black people were hurt by Nixon’s policies that I didn’t think her anger at me was justified. After all, I had not directed this at her. She was making connections I didn’t intend and trying to brow beat me about it.
I was ticked. I wanted to shout in all caps at her. I wanted to call her and curse her out on voicemail. But I needed to slow down, to not simply react. Social justice, which she doesn’t believe in, is a long fight. I didn’t want to react out of my first emotions. I didn’t want to cut myself off from her because we had been good friends for many years. I’m white and talking to a white friend who initiated a conversation with me about racism. I felt it was my responsibility to continue, or at least not to cut myself off. I didn’t want to say something harsh and sever all ties. If I needed to take that step, it should be a sober-minded one.
When she read my angry posts before, she knew they couldn’t be directed at her because she’d hidden her true beliefs from me. She wondered aloud during our phone call if my anger shared on social media would have been tempered had I known about her beliefs. Now she knew the answer to her question was, “No,” and it was difficult for her. She took my posts personally, and she lashed out at me.
After some counsel from my best friend, who knew about the situation, I responded, clarifying who I was calling a bastard, but not apologizing. I assured her that none of my posts are directed at her, but I wouldn’t restrict myself for her comfort either. She demanded to know if I thought she’d been duped by this racist policy if she had ever voted for a Republican. I considered myself a Republican until 2015 or so. I’m slow to change my label; My growth to the person I am now was slow, and the result of many years of listening and learning and questioning myself. So I pointed out that I have voted Republican in the past, and I told her that we should all ask ourselves if we’ve been duped by such a policy. Then I flipped my phone over and didn’t touch it again for an hour.
When I did, I looked only at my text messages. Nothing from my husband, one thing from a friend, but it didn’t require a reply. I flipped my phone back over and when back to work. And when I wanted a break, to mindless scroll for a few minutes, I clicked on the IG app without thinking, saw the DM notification, and exited the app again. I flipped my phone back over on my desk. After another hour, I finally let myself read her response.
She implied my using of “bastards” was un-Christlike, and maybe it is. Would she have objected if I’d said “brood of vipers” instead of a more modern word with the same understanding? She seemed to feel morally superior for not ever calling anyone else names on social media, and she reprimanded me for doing so. I told her I’d consider her words, but that she had no right to chide me, considering no one on her social media actually knows what she thinks. I have been open and honest about my beliefs on my platform. And anyone can mute or unfollow me at any time.
I asked for an apology. She refused to acknowledge my request.
In the weeks of this conflict, I’d gotten into a dark place, obsessing over our discussions, her haphazardly applied logic, her application of extremes only to views she opposed, her terror of words like “Marxism” and distain for words like “intersectionality” without a nuanced understanding of them. And I obsessed over her dishonesty, her deliberately keeping this from me and from everyone for at least 4 years (by her admission).
I recalled times in our friendship, and in that past week, when I’d said “I feel this way because of what you said,” then had her say “If I made you feel that way I’m sorry.” The “if” felt insidious. I questioned her motivations over those years. I questioned why she had told me, again and again, of the ways she’d “wept” and “cried and cried and cried” related to one of our discussions. I questioned if my feelings were valid and reasonable. I questioned what I had let happen to my time and my brain. I questioned her motivations and the truthfulness of every story she’d ever told me and every time she effused honeyed sentiments about how much she loves and cares for me as her friend.
Hear again: I wondered if I was being reasonable. I wondered if my feelings were valid.
These are symptoms of gaslighting.
I reached out to a close friend, who was alarmed by my questioning of reality. Another assured me that no conversations I had with this friend would change her mind (especially since she’d been reading my social media posts for years), and it was okay to draw new boundaries on our relationship or to reinstate old ones. A third friend read my screenshots of the conversation and called her abusive, then encouraged me to cut all ties. My husband encouraged me not to dismiss my feelings, those of unease as well as those of friendship.
Slowly, I considered how many times in the 8 years of our friendships that this person had emotionally manipulated me, then denied it. How she’d clung to me for support, and how I’d instinctively shied away from sharing my vulnerabilities with her. How the amount of attention or sympathy I gave her was so often not enough to satisfy her. I recalled her dramatic appeals to our friendship and her monologues of love for me, and how they’d all obviously been shared to ensure my compliance. I recounted all the times I ended up apologizing for something she had initiated, and how graciously she accepted those apologies and power from me. I googled “emotional manipulation” and counted the number of signs she had displayed in the last two weeks, and how many more had been true over the course of our friendship.
In bed that night, not sleeping, I considered all the time I’d spent on this topic I don’t believe in. How long I’d spent reading her messages, researching and forming arguments, talking things over with Tyler, and crafting replies. Whatever else was happening with her, I didn’t want to devote that much time to it anymore. I hadn’t wanted to devote that much time to it to start with. I hadn’t felt I had a choice. Not if we were friends. Not when she was putting direct questions to me. Not when she was declaring this a necessary function of our friendship. Not when she was obviously intent on changing my mind despite her insistence that she only wants me to understand her position.
I didn’t feel I had a choice. But I know I do.
I wanted my brain back. I wanted me attention span back. I wanted to get back to writing elected officials and learning about racism and donating to charities. I wanted free time again. I wanted to be able to talk about anything else with my husband. I wanted the constant buzzing in my head to subside and the numbness in my chest and sleeplessness to go away. These are symptoms of depression, and I’ve experienced them before.
For my mental health, I knew I needed to stop obsessing. Which meant I needed distance. So I told her I needed to stop engaging with her about this. I admitted I had been in a dark place and this was best for me. She sent one more message, full of distain. Maybe she read mine that way. But I found it strange that she had no friendly concerns for my mental health now, no effusions of care and love.
I didn’t trust my interpretations, so a few paragraphs in, I handed the phone to Tyler. He read the whole email, and encouraged me to respond in as few words as possible. Once I’d also read the whole email, we talked about the lack of nuanced discussion, her frustrated tone, her lack of expressed concern for my well-being, and her attempt to prove she wasn’t racist because of the actions of her grandfather. I know she’d never say that his salvation could save her by familial association, and I wondered why she didn’t apply that to racism either. I particularly noted her use of the word “loving” to describe her grandfather’s snarky reaction to a racist person. Tyler and I decided on the two most personal and egregious claims, and I responded to those two in the lightest tone I could manage and the fewest words. Then I lay my phone, screen down, on the table. And I didn’t pick it up until morning.
The next few days, I remained jumpy and uncomfortable. I dreaded DM notifications on all my social media. My heart started racing at texts. And none came from her. I questioned again if I was being reasonable.
A few days later, I texted her a photo of my new kitten, trying to indicate that I wasn’t giving up on our friendship for good. I was also testing if she’d respect the boundary I’d put in place. She responded as she might have two months ago, talking about how cute the kitten is. Then I learned she was at a party. During a pandemic.
I didn’t ask any questions about masks or social distancing. It didn’t feel worth it. She’s a libertarian, prides herself on being “counter-cultural,” and bucks at what she thinks is people or the state trying to control people. I only learned about these beliefs few months ago, when Georgia began to reopen. She had insisted to me at that time that people would make good choices for public health once they weren’t being controlled by the government. And she was at a party.
I wondered again if I wanted to stay friends with her.
I ordered the book Emotional Blackmail.
I celebrated Juneteeth with donations and books by Black authors.
I sent another mask to my grandmother.
Now I’m the one hiding things from her. Like this post. And the depth of my distrust.
We are barely speaking, and all my social media feels unsafe to share my honest thoughts. I’m fighting to keep behaving as I want to on my platforms.
I’m fighting to keep this blog safe and mine.
I’m trying to do right by her, and feeling confused as to what that means.
I’m wondering if the only way I won’t feel her shadow is to block her everywhere.
I’m wondering if I’m being reasonable.
I’m still deciding.
I’m still deciding.