I buy padded headbands I don’t need. I cancel plans I want to go to. I act like a better person than I am. The algorithms have broken my brain.
I Can’t Even Trust Myself Anymore
by Monica Heisey
In 2010, I moved to London, got off the plane and went straight to a vintage store, where I purchased a fur hat and cape and made these items the cornerstone of my personality. In 2010, I was 21 and thought my landlord was flirting with me because he put Xs at the end of his text messages. In 2010, I received three bad haircuts at once, after a stylist called Sapphire asked, “Can I just … try something?” and I answered, for some reason, “Yes.”
I am grateful every day that it is no longer 2010.
My past decade has been marked, as people’s 20s often are, with the kind of growth that comes only from making many, many mistakes: that haircut for one, plus innumerable social embarrassments and emotional disasters, big risks that didn’t pan out and small-scale blunders that somehow did.
In 2018, I greeted my 30s full of hope: Finally, I would be a real adult, the kind of woman who transitions a look from day to night with the addition or removal of a single blazer. And while it’s fair to say that I now know myself better than I did at the start of the 2010s (for instance: I cannot pull off a blazer), the main thing I’ve learned is that I absolutely cannot trust myself.
For one thing, there are the headbands. On my dresser are three elaborately padded headbands: one black velvet, one burnt orange corduroy, and one covered in rhinestones, like a kind of mad disco halo. I first saw one in an Instagram photo posted by a freckled, sexily pouting elf-woman I do not follow. It looked, to me, objectively stupid, but two weeks later I entered a kind of online fugue state and bought one. It had barely arrived before I’d acquired a second, and then, somehow, a third. I have never worn any of them outside the house. When I see this pile of unused statement accessories I think to myself: You have broken your own brain.
I didn’t break it alone. This was the decade where my relationship with the internet got serious, where most of my life started to take place there — mostly without my noticing. I had come of age in an era that considered the internet something apart from “real life,” a frivolous nonplace where nothing of import occurred. At first, this was more or less true: My internet use was limited to the early version of Facebook, some crappy torrenting sites and tweenage forays into Strongbad videos and LiveJournal.
While the work of figuring out who I was and what I wanted was shaped by big, active (often deeply bad) choices, messing around online seemed relatively harmless. After a few disastrous chapbook submissions I realized I was no poet; after dating enough comedians I stopped doing that. I learned by doing, figuring out what was good or bad for me by trying it out and seeing how it made me feel. But it never occurred to me to keep tabs on my relationship to the internet.
Instead, I mindlessly allowed it to reshape my instincts without so much as installing an ad blocker — until I found myself to be an adult woman capable of simultaneously thinking, “I know what I want and how to get it” and “I should cancel my plans tonight and get working on that horn young people are growing from too much phone use.”
In short, I’ve screwed up very badly. I have maintained my childhood love of reading, but not protected my attention span. I attend therapy for 50 minutes a week but spend at least as much time reading tweets by people I know dislike me. I am unsure whether my newfound interest in cooking is because I enjoy making food or because making food and sharing a little Boomerang of it bubbling on the stove has improved the responses to my Instagram stories. I know too much about my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriends, and there is a part of me that genuinely considers archiving workout videos an important part of staying in shape. When I feel anxious about the climate crisis, I share a few links about How Bad Things Are to an online community that already agrees with me, donate between $12 and $57 to organizations that actually work to solve these problems, and then go back to browsing pictures of women in diaphanous blouses who make me feel bad about myself. Then I buy headbands.
Rather than being the real adult I’d anticipated finally being in 2020, I find myself faced again with some big questions. This time not “Who are you and what do you want?” but “What’s wrong with you?” and “How much time can one woman really spend watching clips of small animals bullying larger ones?”
This is all obviously very embarrassing. My resolution, for the new year and new decade, is to sort it out. So far this has meant putting my phone on airplane mode as often as possible, investing in various apps to block my access to social media at specific times of day and occasionally saying out loud to no one, “Just turn it off and go outside.”
I suspect any strides will be made only after an aggressive rethinking of what the internet is now, how it works and how I want to include it in my life. I’m starting January with a “digital fast.” But I don’t imagine that will be the end of it. After all, I went back to Sapphire three times.
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