Meditations on the self-diagnosis.
thought digest, 02.05.2023
I constantly think about self-diagnosis and the Internet.
It’s something that’s been on my mind since the days of LiveJournal and MySpace. I remember thinking there was no way fifth graders needed Lexapro. I remember thinking: there is no way all my friends are clinically depressed. I’ve always been a bit cynical about what the people in my immediate environment self-identify as—it’s a flaw.
But even with that awareness, it always felt like the MO was to be labeled as something and prescribed something. It felt like a rite of passage in a world with few remaining rites.
It felt like every parent but mine bought into it, too.
My parents were big believers that kids didn’t know shit—especially when it came to self-knowledge. In some ways, I was lucky; almost every phase was quashed from the get-go. No momentary lapses into this or that identity, no screaming, “It’s not a phase, mom!” Whatever made it through the Great Filter of My Italian Mother was hard-earned. It was for real.
But back to the topic at hand.
I feel like so many people have forgotten that what MySpace, LiveJournal and their accompanying mass media feedback loops did for self-harm, clinical depression, eating disorders, and bisexuality is what Tumblr did for transgender identity, autism, the always nebulous “chronic illness,” and BPD. And then, years later, what TikTok did for tics and ADHD. What Usenet, Tumblr, and then TikTok again did for Dissociative Identity Disorder (MPD, Multiple Systems).
(Insert the usual disclaimer here about invalidating/validating people’s identities. The #ActuallyAutistic can coexist with people who have an affinity for autism, et al.)
Much of the existing commentary about self-diagnoses is probably right. It’s advertising-driven; it’s Munchausen’s-by-Internet; it’s a way for lost souls, these days more often adults than teenagers, to find an identity to anchor themselves in; it’s a symptom of our culture’s never-ending thirst for new excuses-cum-products to push. See the Great Adderall Mill Epidemic.
But I think there are three other vital aspects of self-diagnosis:
We love labels, and we hate uncertainty. We are constantly searching for explanations—for reasons things are the way they are—for closure.
I believe that astrology, weirdly enough, is an expression of this impulse. There is nothing “mystical” about saying Virgos tend to behave in XYZ ways. It is a tool to make the world more predictable. Not less. Stereotyping (in this case, medicalizing) is a useful tool in our arsenal for this insatiable desire for “sensemaking.” It’s also a tool that we have a complicated relationship with.
We live in a world oversaturated with stereotypes, but we don’t call them that. The word itself is burdened with all sorts of baggage.
But here’s how stereotypes reappear in our lives through the guise of diagnoses:
Your ex-boyfriend hurt you. You’re trying to make sense of it. You start watching videos about NPD. Well, that sounds like him. His behavior looked like lovebombing, the break-up looked like discarding, his new girlfriend is his new “supply.”
Now here’s the shelf with advice on how to manage NPD partners. Here’s the product you need to survive. Here’s the book that will explain everything. Here’s the content creator who’s been through it before and will talk you through it in 3-minute increments.
It is so much easier for your ex-boyfriend to have had NPD than for you to sit with the sadness. For him to have just been bad to you because he was selfish, immature, whatever. For him to not have been lovebombing you, but to have actually felt strongly about you and had a change of heart because that’s how romantic relationships are sometimes. You move on.
If he has NPD, though, there is no uncertainty and less discomfort. There’s no possibility his new GF is just more compatible with him. He’s not a flawed person you had real feelings for; he has a disorder. He’s sick. It changes the frame.
Two, people develop affinities for the aesthetics that surround these disorders. Aesthetics embrace you on the Internet. They are dark forests you can very easily get lost in. You swim in a sea of images long enough, and they feel like their own world, one that’s tempting to escape into.
Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, often has a particular texture: BPD is Lana del Rey. It’s thigh gaps with the saturation turned all the way up. It’s ashy cigarettes against the snow. It’s messy red lipstick. It’s the dark blue background of Tumblr with its infinite scroll. When taken together, these images don’t just make up the pieces of an identity; they feel like a place where you can easily lose yourself.
One that you can shape yourself to become a character in. An entire virtual world.
In some cases, the Internet conditions us to display the symptoms of these disorders. Internet Overexposure Syndrome impacts us all differently.
Broadly, it encourages traits we normally associate with autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, and Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m especially convinced of the latter.
It’s not that people are faking it. They don’t see how their environment impacts them, and a lot of conventional wisdom hasn’t caught up with how technology has changed.
What’s striking is that, as with most Internet-induced behavioral patterns, it’s more easily undone than it appears on the surface. Take away the filter of the Internet, and the behaviors start to melt away.
Lots of requests for what I read/watch/listen to, so I’m trying it out. Let me know what you think in the comments…