Is there any escape from your online past? Content warning: sexual assault
In March of this year I completed an Outward Bound course in Anakiwa. The three weeks away from any sort of social media was a welcome reprieve, it felt like a constant presence had been removed from my periphery. Anyone who wanted to contact me had to do so by written letter. Though I was definitely the least fit of my watch of 14 (not a self-judgment, somebody has to be), the hardest part of the course wasn’t the 6am runs or the several day-long tramps, it was being in a space with people I didn’t know. My best friend would attribute my all-or-nothing approach to friendships and my lack of trust to the fact that I’m Scorpio but really, at 19, I experienced a deep and burning betrayal by those I trusted the most. According to my most recent psychiatrist appointment, my PTSD developed into cPTSD in the sustained distress caused my ex-schoolmates’ response to my sexual assault. This clarification helped me to better understand my episodes of extreme emotional dysregulation and newfound inability to make friends.
When I got off the plane in Wellington and turned my data back on, I could see that my watchmates had organised a Snapchat group. After I was assaulted, I deleted all of my social media accounts and had only recently created a new Facebook profile. While I tried to find my accommodation for the night, I downloaded the app (of course, picking my usual handle @milfs4minecraft). I almost immediately received a notification that my best friend had added me. That’s weird, I thought. “How did you know I had created an account?” I texted her. “It came up as a notification on my phone!” she replied. I felt sick. A quick look at the suggested friends list confirmed what I had feared, Snapchat had sent a similar notification to others I ‘might know’: the people from high school who didn’t believe that I had been assaulted and even the person who had assaulted me.
With shaking hands, I went about blocking the names of those I knew from high school. My rapist blocked me before I could block him. I was visible in a way that made me feel incredibly unsafe. I was being looked at. I was not in control. In that moment, I had popped up on the phones of those who very nearly ruined my life. I wondered if they would message each other and what they would say. I deleted my Snapchat. It took 30 days for the deletion to finalise. I remain one of the only watchmates not part of the Snapchat group. Not only do I find it hard to make new friendships, I find it hard to maintain them in the visible/invisible tension created by social media.
Last month, for the first time in years, I created an Instagram account. I have a recently released collection of poetry and I want to be able to share it with as many people as possible. It is something I feel proud of. The process of creating my account involved the following steps:
- Create account under false name, so if you show up on somebody’s recommended they do not know who you are
- Do not link your phone number
- Do not link your main email account
- Disable similar account suggestions
- Block all of the main offenders, those that, if they were to pop up on your explore or in your suggested friends, would leave you reeling for days
- Keep your account private
The pre-emptive blocking stage sucks. It is a window of vulnerability. It involves an intense amount of restraint not to pick at your trauma scab. Not to see how their lives have moved on, how they’ve retained what you’ve lost. Even when you do succeed in your refraint, when entering their name, a little version of the profile picture pops up (is this who you were meaning?). There they are, smiling away. There they are partying. There they are with their arms out on a beach. You don’t know whether it would suck more to know they sometimes think of you or to know that they didn’t at all.
When other people share their Facebook memories from 2012, I feel a bit jealous. I no longer have access to my old profiles. I know it’s for the best, but I feel a bit of grief at the sheer amount of data I have lost. I compare how many likes my posts get compared to how many they got throughout high school. Back then I tried to give everyone the time of day and enjoyed being a part of too many extracurricular groups. I was head girl. I realise that in bringing this up I risk coming across as entitled or self-obsessed (I am definitely bragging at least a little) but my circle of friends and acquaintances were a huge part of how I built my identity and self-worth as an anxious and people-pleasing young person. Now I am unable to look back at my high school life with pride, only with shame. Whenever a family member mentions my life at high school, I can’t help but physically cringe. If I had been less visible then, maybe the hurt and shame wouldn’t be so great now. It might seem superficial or petty but it in many ways my smaller friend and follower list symbolises the newfound difficulty I feel connecting with others and the ever-present sensation of isolation in my grief.
My trauma is present in what is absent. My friend list contains very few people I knew before my assault. My reasoning being I have no idea of knowing what they’ve heard, who they know, or their allegiances. Absent, too, are all of the messages, memes, and photos I ever sent or received before 2018. My PTSD makes it difficult to remember, everything before a certain point exists in a sort of haze, but I have lost many of my keys to remembering both positive and negative memories. In some ways, this has allowed me to heal, I cannot pick the scab even if I want to. In other ways, I have lost what might be seen as the modern equivalent of albums of photos or boxes of mementos. I feel sad that much of what I have lost are moments I cannot even remember that I have lost.
In a similar way that there is a tension in my social media data between presence and absence, there is also a tension between visibility and invisibility. I feel angry that I have to hide, that the idea of certain people ‘witnessing’ me is enough to make me fearful. While I am again able to walk down most of the streets in Auckland, there are online ‘streets’ I will never be comfortable walking again, at least not without a certain level of concealment. I will always be looking for the faces in the cars that pass me. I often think about what would come up if someone was to Google my name. Whether they might read my poetry and laugh at who I have become. Being a survivor in a world of social media means being constantly aware of your visibility or resigning yourself to complete invisibility. This is a tension I am aware of every day. In many ways, making it as an artist hinges on being as visible as possible, on having your art as visible as possible. My mother is anxious for me every time I post a piece of writing about being assaulted: “Are you sure you want this to be public?”
This essay came about because my girlfriend realised her Poptropica and Bebo accounts had disappeared. It made me think about how most of my online communications when I was in primary school could be found on Moshi Monsters (now gone) and Neopets. After several years of trying to contact the Neopets support team, I finally got access to my old accounts (holloway__44 and holloway_44, if you want to add me). My friends from South New Brighton Primary School (Ella, Lara, and Cheyenne) and I were a part of a guild called the “hyptnotising charms guild.” We had secret names and giveaways. Our guild photo was an animal Ella took a photo of on a holiday. It felt so cool to be a part of. I don’t have access to any of the NeoMail we exchanged but it felt nice to be able to remember. To have a physical reassurance that I existed before all of this. I also regained access to my RuneScape account and boy did I remember being richer than I actually was.
In the truckshed at Outward Bound, about half-way through our course, we did an exercise where we drew our comfort circles in chalk on the ground and stood within them (comfort circle→stretch zone→panic zone). Though I don’t think my team noticed, I was on the verge of tears for the duration of the task. It was upsetting to think about the way my comfort circle had shrunk so rapidly and in a way that often feels irreversible. I feel really proud of myself for completing the Outward Bound course, mostly because I was put in a position where I had to trust in strangers: to spot me on the high ropes course, to set up tents properly, to be supportive when I was distraught or out of energy. I had to trust that it was okay that I was slow sometimes, and that when I was that it wouldn’t be met with punishment. I don’t know if they know how much it all meant to me. I had arrived repeating the mantra, “I am not here to make friends,” as a way to protect myself from what felt like the inevitable disappointment of remaining on the outside. Shackleton 647, my watch, waited for me at the end of the half-marathon, cheering, and swooped up my sweaty body into a series of big hugs before I went for a celebratory jump into the water off of the Anakiwa wharf.
There are many things I feel an acute sense of loss about. What surprised me about the after-effects of being assaulted was how much of a grieving process it was. I was left so transformed I longed for the person I was before. I longed to be unaffected, to be naive, to grow out of high school friendships under my own steam (you know, in the usual way, after they post something really problematic about the vaccine). “What would you do if you could go back in time?” is a question too luxurious for me to even consider. I know the number of followers or likes you have shouldn’t dictate your self-worth but boy did it cocoon me from the reality of how small I am. If Facebook is to be believed, my data doesn’t exist anymore (at least, in a way that I can access). It’s as mum says, though: nothing on the internet really disappears. It exists as a cold stone in my chest, as every moment of panic about my privacy settings, in every moment I am aware that there is something missing or that somebody might be watching.