June 21, 2016

My Battle w/Social Media & Why I'm Leaving the Party (Again)

by , in
I'm known for being not quite up to speed with millennial norms. I got my first smartphone during the summer of 2014 and I held out until December of that same year before I broke down and created an Instagram account. I've tried Twitter, but I honestly just don't get it. And there are several other venues I don't use simply due to ignorance. For the longest time I didn't understand what Instagram was or how to use it. (It was similar to how I currently perceive Snapchat. It seemed like Instagram was the annoying, less mature little brother of Facebook.)

I finally took the plunge the day after an epic ice cream eating extravaganza. I was asked (via Facebook) if anyone Instagrammed our night. So I scrambled to sign up. I quickly posted a picture from the night before and pretended like I knew exactly what I was doing. (In case you didn't know, an Instagram is NOT an Instagram if it isn't instant. If you post a picture after the fact, it becomes a #latergram. Rookie mistake! P.S. I hate that I know that.) At first, Instagram was a harmless tool used to share harmless images with my friends.

Yes, my view of Instagram (and social media in general) sure has changed, but my definition of harmless has changed more. Ice cream and snow shoes to my bare pregnant belly in the locker room to a never-ending feed of Wally baby images neatly fanned out for a bunch of strangers to see. I told myself that the selfies were only because I was pregnant...To think that I was once convinced I wouldn't share any images of my kid on social media for the sake of his privacy. (It sickens me that when I just Googled my name, pictures of Wally were in the results.)

First it was Facebook. Then it was Instagram. And now my phone and apps in general have become utterly detrimental to my mental health and to my experiences. The "reward high" has me obsessively tracking my relationships, my habits, even my water intake. It has me nearly unwilling to let go of my social media "connections," terrified to not have Instagram during a wicked cool family trip for fear of not getting that "you're awesome" high, scared to delete anything permanently, and cringing at the idea of shutting off my phone or leaving it at home.

What did people do before phones? They lived. Which is ironic because we THINK that we can't live without our phones and computers, yet true living happens in the actual experience, not our documentation of it.

What would happen if I didn't allow social media access to our upcoming trip to Alaska? Would the experience suffer or my people pleasing / approval addiction? And what would happen if I removed social media from my relationships? Would my relationships suffer or would I suffer because then I'd be forced to confront my fears? Afraid to not matter. Afraid to be alone. Afraid to miss out.

I only recently learned what FOMO means. Apparently Wally has it. (My response to such an accusation was what on earth did you just say about my child?) Fear of missing out. Wally loves daycare and would rather party than sleep while he's there. In his situation, FOMO is pretty harmless. But in relation to social media, it can lead to addiction. Heck, we're even afraid of not posting and "missing out" on our OWN experiences.

Here's a quick quiz to determine if you're addicted. Do you think of sentences in terms of Facebook statuses and hashtags? Do you live for the Instagrammable moments? Does your heart sink at the thought of losing, breaking, or forgetting your phone?

In a defensive argument I explained to James that I NEED my smartphone. What would I do without it? To which James neatly replied, you'd do what everyone did before smartphones. (I SO admire James here. He doesn't have a smartphone or any social media account.) He didn't need to explain further; I knew what he meant. There were a lot of things we all used to be just FINE at before the world of computers started to convince us otherwise.

Have I really forgotten how to navigate? How to be a friend? And how to drink water?

Excuse the drama, but are computers—the things that supposedly make us superior to other mammals—the crux of our de-evolution? James says that Facebook is phase one of The Matrix and I've gotta say, I'm really starting to believe him.

I feel like my head has been in the sand this whole time, like I've just woken up despite repeated attempts to be free from the death grip of a machine. I feel cheated out of the fullness of my experiences. As I look back on something as significant as the birth of my son, I think about the high I felt when I Instagrammed my pictures. And that's sad. Shouldn't the reward of his birth have been enough. I have to ask, if I was less present on social media during the time, would I have been more present in the joy of my baby?

I never used to post multiple Instagram photos a day. That simple fact led me to recently delete my social media apps, only to reinstall them over the weekend. I guess I was anxious to know what ladies were saying about the bachelorette party (yep, the one I was at). Apparently the experience itself was no longer enough.

An advanced phase of the addiction has to be the complete reversal of priorities, when we begin to seek experience for the sake of social media instead of using social media as a post-experience tool. Addiction: It's when we seek out the experience because of our unstoppable desire to crop, enhance, and filter both words and images.

Contrary to what Instagram might suggest, living in the moment is becoming a lost art.

I know a lot of people (including myself) who have at one time or another decided to take a break from social media, only to eventually return, slowly at first but soon sucked all the way back in, sometimes even deeper than before. I hate that so many people, like myself, KNOW that they're addicted and don't understand just how detrimental the addiction is. We're addicted and we aren't motivated enough to do something about it except make excuses about why staying is supposedly a good idea.

I've come up with plenty of reasons why my participation in social media is okay: I like keeping a diary of my pictures. I have friends over seas I want to stay connected with and even my family is on Facebook. I enjoy photography. I like the way my Instagram pictures look at the bottom of my blog...Really self? Use your REAL camera. If altering pictures is fun for you, download a photo editing app. Use your email IF your friends are actual friends. And it's called a photo collage. You can make one yourself with the help of some cool sites! (That string of photos at the bottom of this page isn't an Instagram feed).

An article I read about social media says it bluntly and beautifully: "And even people who don't like the social network use it anyway, because that's where their family, friends and colleagues are—and because of addiction." FOMO here we go again. But these are REAL friends and family we're talking about. Have we forgotten how to actually connect even with the people we love? Seriously, what are we afraid to lose?

Point blank. My reasons for staying SUCK. So maybe "no reason to stay is a good reason to go."

Plus, I could probably think of a few reasons why leaving would be best, like the lack of privacy and maybe people don't deserve to know everything about my life if they aren't family or real friends who are willing to spend actual time with me.

This has all led me to ask myself some very basic questions over the last few days, like am I really willing to trade in my time, experiences, relationships, and self for the sake of fake approval and a temporary high?

I'm planning take Wally to the zoo on Friday. It saddens me to think that my time could be consumed with not just taking, but also modifying pictures and sharing them with people who don't care about Wally nearly as much as I do. It saddens me to think that I could be spending energy typing and texting on my phone, all the while trying to hide it from Wally because I don't want him to have screen time yet and I surely don't want him to see my addiction...

Life is about relationships, yet social media lessens the meaning of the word friend. Life is also about experiences. And in sharing them with social media, the souls of our experiences die a little bit. The obsessive use of social media and technology steals from our experiences. It shifts the focus. It changes what matters in those moments.

There's fine line between inviting others to share in your joy and pimping out your joy.

In other words, social media seems to be less about sharing in each others' joy and more about bragging, approval-seeking, and the illusion of connection. In order to feel present, we engage with something where no one's actually there. Just like alcohol is the illusion of relaxation...social media is all about the illusion of activity, approval, being known, being seen, and being celebrated.

Documenting life is a beautiful thing. But as with all THINGS, we humans have a way of abusing them. Just like alcohol is not bad and coffee is not bad. Food is not bad. Sex is not bad. Pictures and words are not bad. But I think the more beautiful something is, the easier it is to misuse it.

I have a hard time seeing how anyone (including me!) can use social media and be completely healthy about it. It'd be like trying to eat McDonald's in a "healthy" way. Fast food itself just isn't healthy. There's no way to make it healthy by how you eat it, only by how much you eat of it.

"It [love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth" (1 Corinthians 13:5-6). Is it wrong to question social media think about how it often opposes these things?

Even in my seemingly mellow participation in social media I feed the beast. I support that which I'm claiming not to support. My actions contradict my words.

Being part of the millennial generation doesn't meant that I have to adhere to defining myself as a "Digital Native" or as being part of "Generation Me."

Finally, social media robs me of ignorant bliss. I hate that it's been the unwanted thread that strings me to my past. I hate that I've had the option to stalk that never-happened-crush. I hate that I've had the option to know things about high school classmates I wouldn't have known otherwise. I hate that I was friends with my ex who lives on the other side of the world. I hate that my mom learned that we're going to Alaska from her coworker instead of me. The thread, stringing me along.

So I'm attempting to extract the pieces of all of this I find useful and life-giving, like photography, and let go of the rest. I'm peacin' out and leaving Instagram and Facebook. I'm still going to write and blog for the sake of writing, having a family diary, and holding onto the hope that my words might benefit others.

I'm working on finding ways to still share my experiences with the people I love, like email. I'm trying to let go, even mourn this "community" that I had built up in my mind. And I'm trying to remember how much I can do perfectly fine, without the help of apps. On the other side of all this, I'm finding a lot of freedom and relief from my anxiety. I'm also finding a lot of space to think more seriously about my relationships and what community means to me.

To take it one step further, this all has me thinking a lot about my faith and how I've been giving in just a little bit to just about everything. I care about how I look just a little bit. I fudge the boundaries with what I wear only a little bit. It's not that bad that I obsess over a clean house. There's only one show I watch that I'm not that proud of. I only get a little buzzed when I drink. It's only sometimes that I work out because I'm afraid of the scale. And I'm only bothered by likes and loves here and there. I've become okay with music lyrics and movie plots that aren't that bad.

What I'm okay with seems to be stretching, a water balloon filling up and expanding. But eventually that balloons gonna pop. And I can't scoop up the water that's been spilled out onto the ground. I can't get the purity of my experiences back. I keep thinking about what I read in my Bible study this morning about the defining trait of a testimony: "What mattered most before no longer matters; what did not matter before is now central" (Beth Moore). I hate that I often live like the old stuff still matters. I'm hoping that all this realization is a breeding ground for true change.

UPDATE: After a couple of months of being "off the grid," I decided to create a Facebook account and only involve close friends (actual longstanding friends) and family. I found that I missed seeing pictures from family members. I've found that's I'm basically incapable of being on Facebook and keeping it small, but it's helpful to not have it on my phone.

I dabbled with Instagram again...after I said I wouldn't. It's only reminded me how easy it is to let the line slip and begin idolizing image crafting again, in the fullest sense of the term.

It's like I'm afraid that it I don't capture the moment, I'll lose that moment forever.

I send my REAL friends pictures via text anyway. And just because everyone else is doing it, that doesn't mean I'll be left out. Point blank: There's really no need to continue to engage with something that makes me so uneasy.

My next step: I think my next step is going to be to switch to the Republic Wireless plan @ $15 / month, with unlimited talk and text but no data except via WiFi. This will help me to maintain boundaries and yes, regain my sense of direction.
February 10, 2016

Author Interview

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I recently had the privilege of doing an author interview for OpenBooks.com about My Father's Shadow. I know it hasn't been that long, but it really seems like it has. It was both challenging and beneficial for me to reflect on my past again. Below are my responses to the questions. The full interview can be found here.

Olga Plesinska: You’ve written an extremely bold, honest book. I’m deeply moved by it. What was your core motivation to share your story with the world?

Kara Rodriguez: My motivation to write and share my story was two-fold. There was an intense healing that was brought about by me learning how to articulate my story, reconstruct the timeline, and acknowledge the challenges that I faced. It was therapeutic. In putting my story down on paper, I felt that I no longer needed to carry the burden around with me. I also wrote with the intent that I would share my story with other women. If my pain can help other people, then it isn’t wasted. When I was dealing with the aftermath of abuse, I couldn’t find anyone (in person or on paper) who could provide me with the level of vulnerability that I so desperately needed. I wanted to fill a gap in the literature and provide women with a deeply honest and raw story. I hope that my vulnerability helps other women to know that they’re not alone in their experiences or wrong in any of their emotional responses to what was done to them. I hope that it also provides women with hope that healing is possible.

O.P.: You’re a confident, well-educated, and independent woman. You went a long, hard way to get to this place. Where are you now? How would you describe your current life?

K.R.: My everyday life is a fairly common one for someone in her late 20s. I currently work full-time as an engineer in Minneapolis. I have a cat and dog that I very much enjoy. I’m a runner and I find exercise to be very helpful in managing the anxiety I experience. I’ve been married for about four years and we’re expecting a baby in January! This doesn’t mean that my past has somehow magically disappeared. Rather, it no longer impacts my everyday life on a larger scale. I’m in a healthy relationship. I’m not stuck in the throes of addiction. And I have a community of friends that I can rely on during difficult times.

I would say that I am beyond my past, as much anyone could hope to be given the circumstances. I feel more “normal” now, in that I’ve learned to see pain and difficulty as normal. Many women never experience abuse and that fact is sometime difficult to swallow. But I’ve learned to not compare my story against the stories of others. Every woman experiences some form of hardship at some point in her life. It isn’t right, but it is normal.

I do still struggle with intermittent anxiety, but I go several days without explicitly thinking about my past and I often go weeks without thinking about my father. I never thought I would be able to say that.

Much of the healing has taken place because of the relationship I have with my husband. The deep level of trust that we share works to rewrite my thought processes and my belief system one day at a time. I have learned and continue to learn that men can be different, trust is possible, and I am lovable. The fact that my father abused me will always be my reality. But in gaining new, more positive realities, my past has become less of a focus for me.

On another note, preparing to have a baby helps me to continue to have hope. I now have the opportunity to take what was given to me and change it for the next generation. If I have a son, I will have the opportunity to raise him to respect and honor women. If I have a daughter, I will have the opportunity to teach her about healthy body image and how to respect herself. Either way, my husband and I are going to create a legacy vastly different from the legacy my father left me.

O.P.: Congratulations on the baby! As you’ve said, you’re married. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to create a healthy relationship after being abused, after having so many harsh as well as abusive relationships with men. What’s most important for you in your marriage? What did you need to overcome in order to get involved in such a relationship?

K.R.: Ironically enough, getting married is what pushed me to seriously begin addressing my past. For me, there was no “honeymoon phase.” Immediately after I got married, I realized how difficult it was for me to trust my husband and how deeply insecure I was. First and foremost, I needed to become comfortable with my story and learn how to accept it, so I started writing my story about a month after our wedding.

I didn’t realize this until I got married, but I needed to be able to overcome my deep insecurity in order to have a healthy marriage. I used to believe that my husband had interest in other women, valued me only for my body, and would eventually leave me due to my fading beauty. No relationship can be sustained under such beliefs. I had to overcome these thoughts and learn to be secure with how I look and, more importantly, who I am as a person.

I needed to overcome my trust issues and learn how to trust again. Trust is the most significant factor in our marriage. Being able to trust my husband has grown from two things: Time and me recognizing the character of the man I married. I’ve come to realize that my husband is not like my father and that he is worthy of my trust. That recognition grows deeper with time. This does not mean that that my husband is perfect. It does mean that choose to believe that my husband’s intentions are honorable. I choose to believe that he intends to love and respect me. I have to trust that my husband is different and that, in general, many men are different from my father and the men I’ve dated. To hold onto the idea that all men are the same would be toxic to my marriage.

O.P.: When I was reading your book I had, especially at the beginning, the impression that you acted like an addict. You were psychologically dependent on your father. This dependence affected your whole life, especially with men. It is, as far as I know, a common occurence among people who were abused as children. Could you describe how this mechanism works?

K.R.: An addiction can be characterized by a fixation that is psychologically or physically habit-forming. Familiar addictions include dependencies on drugs, alcohol, and sex. An addict may be compulsive, dependent, and obsessive. I would describe beauty and sex appeal as having been my nicotine, my crack, my cocaine, my alcohol, what I used to ease the pain. I was really after love, but I was convinced that there was only one way to achieve it.

The nature of sexual abuse is absolutely devastating. Sexually abused children are taught early on that their sexuality defines their worth. These children are convinced that they’re dirty and defiled and often become determined to earn their importance through the only means they know how. Sex and sex appeal may be pursued at all costs in attempt to gain or maintain worth. Sex becomes only the means to an end.

These cravings can more appropriately be termed a love addiction, a form of incessant insecurity. Diane Roberts writes a couple of chapters in Pure Desire by Ted Roberts. In her chapter Accept No Substitutes, she presents the definition:

“A person addicted to love is fully absorbed in the pursuit of love, because love is the greatest need. The desire to be loved can push women into perfectionism, sexual promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships. Love is desired, demanded and pursued at all costs. The price many times turns into a compromise of moral values and devaluing of the person who pursues this addiction…”

O.P.: This is rather not common knowledge. Lack of social understanding causes stigmatization of the person, accusations of immorality, insults, etc. But in fact they are symptoms of trauma.

K.R.: That’s true. I believe that promiscuous and addictive behaviors are common among abuse survivors because these women believe that their actions are the means to an end. These women are after worth and love, the greatest needs, and so they become willing to sacrifice their own bodies in order to achieve these needs.

(I’ve expanded upon these ideas in Death by Beauty, available on Amazon.)

O.P.: You write that a symptom of being recovered was dancing alone at home, feeling good about your body, about your soul. You said you were dancing for God. Is it possible for you to imagine that non-religious people do similar things just for themselves? I interpreted this in terms of empowerment, self-love and acceptance. Sexual violence makes you reject your body, disintegrates you internally. In your opinion, could such an act—dancing—be seen as fighting for your integration, for being important for yourself? Would you call it therapeutic?

K.R.: Self-worth is based on where you believe your identity comes from. If, as an abuse survivor, you believe that your worth is dependent on what happened to you, then you won’t be able to accept yourself. But if you can view your identity in light of something else, then you can learn how to accept and not judge yourself. In the Bible, God calls His followers His children. As a Christian I believe that my identity lies in who I am as a child of God. My identity is dependent on who God is and what He’s done for me and not on what I’ve done or what’s been done to me. Non-Christians can also view themselves in light of greater truths. Perhaps that identity can be based in helping other people or being a part of another type of community.

An act such as dancing can be used to express freedom and self-acceptance. Lacking confidence and feeling shame are two things that would prevent a woman from accepting herself and therefore expressing herself. Dancing can be a way of not only communicating to the world, but also communicating to the self. By “letting go” physically she can realize the “letting go” she’s doing internally. I would definitely say that it’s therapeutic to find a way to physically express self-acceptance, whether it’s through dance, music, or other forms of art. For me, writing was another expressive art form that helped me to convey love and acceptance to myself.

O.P.: Did you participate in a professional help program? What did it give you?

K.R.: I did participate in a therapy program, though it wasn’t until after My Father’s Shadow was published. (As an aside, this goes to show that healing isn't a one-time event. It's an ongoing process, a process that continued for me even after I published my story.) I participated in roughly six months of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is an interactive psychotherapy approach that’s used to treat various types of trauma. It’s most widely known for being used to treat war veterans, but it’s also been proven effective with abuse survivors.

A certain part of the brain is a storehouse for a web of sorts. Let’s call this location my "trauma holder." In this web lies a series of emotional memories. They are intricately entwined, so much so that the recollection of one may lead to a recollection of a whole bunch of them. Perhaps I don't recall them in the most fundamental sense—I may not see flashes of each of these memories all at once. Instead, I may remember them in my emotions and in my body. There's another part of the brain where other types of memories are stored. Let's call this place my "safe place." It's a place where I remember trivial, unemotional things like what I wore to work yesterday. These memories are facts. It isn't that my other memories aren't also facts; they are. But my other memories, the traumatic ones, are all tangled together. They carry with them unpleasant things like lies, fear, shame, depression, and anxiety. In essence, EMDR is the process of teasing out my traumatic memories from my trauma holder one by one and placing them into my safe place. I still remember everything that's happened to me, but I’m now able to recall them without simultaneously recalling the fear, sadness, shame, and feelings of intense "differentness."

Completing the therapy helped to ease some of the trauma associated with my memories. It helped me to become more confident and learn how to accept my whole self. I learned to see my child self as someone who had no control over what happened to her. I learned to have compassion for her. This helped me to reconcile any feelings of guilt or responsibility, grieve the loss of my childhood, and gain back pieces of who I really am.

O.P.: Sexual violence against women, at least in western societies, has its roots in social inequalities and male domination. According to current statistics, 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. You’re expecting a baby. Assume it’s a girl. What would you want to change in common mentality to make you feel that she’s safer outside? In other words—what, in your opinion, is the main problem in relationships between people that causes these horrific statistics of abuse? Do you have any ideas about what, on an institutional level, can help to decrease the amount of sexual assaults on women?

K.R.: That's a tough one! But here's what I can say...We live in a broken world filled with injustices, so I can only speculate as to what causes such horrific things to happen. I do think that historically women have felt as though they cannot speak up about sexual abuse. Beginning to speak up about such issues is only a recent revolution. And even today many women and young girls still feel trapped by what was done to them. They often don’t speak up out of fear of not being heard or believed. Unfortunately, I’m aware of several stories in which a child brought an incident of abuse to the attention of a parent, only to be ignored and not taken seriously. In order to begin to change these statistics, our society first has to commit to giving these women (and even men) the attention and credibility they deserve. Accusations of sexual assault cannot be so easily dismissed. I would assume that because so many sexual assault cases go unaddressed, the men choosing to commit these crimes aren't threatened by the idea of possible punishment. Ensuring that survivors are heard would not wipe out the issue altogether, but it surely would provide a platform for further change.

O.P.: I totally agree with you. Thank you that you’re part of this struggle. I’m very honored to have had the opportunity to have this interview with you.