Anxious in Amsterdam: how I hid my mental illness with an Instagram aesthetic

*Trigger warning self-harm*

At 18 years old, I wrote the following in my diary:


‘Ok. Ok. You freaked out today. But honestly, you’ve never even been to Amsterdam before. It’s a chaotic and alarming place – unsurprising you’d be at least on edge.

Don’t want to ride bikes. Don’t want to smoke weed when I’m like this. I’m already paranoid, everyone on the street seems dangerous or like they’re laughing at me. Borderline unbearable. Prospect of uni currently makes me want to cry.

God damn it.

I want to stop hurting myself. Did it with my locker key in the toilets of the Van Gogh museum.’

This was 2016. I was in secondary school, and in the thralls of the worst anxiety I have ever felt in my life: I was in an almost constant state of paranoia, worry, doubt, self-loathing, and nausea. The nausea was worst of all. It got in the way of everything: enjoying life and food, feeling comfortable and being happy. I was almost perpetually miserable, almost, and every day it felt like my entire body was on red alert.

When I finished sixth form, I went on a 9 day interrailing trip around Europe.

My friend and I went to Prague, Berlin, and Amsterdam. Three amazing, relatively safe cities, full of monuments, architecture and galleries. It lead to some of the most agonising days of my teenage life, and several frantic, illegible scribbles in a diary. Since then, I’ve visited Amsterdam again and loved it: it feels so strange to read what I wrote at 18. Was ‘chaotic and alarming’ the most I could get out of such a friendly city?

Since then, I’ve done a lot to change my tumultuous mental state for the better: I’ve attended therapy, CBT, and have been on medication for about a year now. Anxiety does get better, so long as you work for it.

I know this article will reach many anxious readers: it’s our student paper, read by students, which means that I don’t need access to statistics to know that an unsettling number of readers will have struggled, or are currently struggling, with mental health. It’s acknowledged how unhappy our generation is: like my mother always tells me, there was no sense of mass psychological pain between her peers, when she was a student. At 21, she knew of no 21 year old who had wished to take their own life. But I know them. I know many of them. And whenever I dwell on this epidemic – if you want to call it that – of mental unwellness, I’m always drawn back to those nine agonising days I spent hopping on and off trains, biting my fingernails to ribbons.

This is because, after the trip, i took to Instagram. I posted some of the pictures I took, the Prague square, the Berlin wall, the canals. The intricate, twisting ceilings of cathedrals. In part, I posted them because I thought these things were beautiful, and deserved to be preserved in pixels. After all, isn’t that what Instagram is for?

But behind these pictures, all I see is a deep insincerity. I can’t deny that the trip had some wonderful moments, but it was tainted by a sense of misery and fear that at the time I struggled to comprehend. The idea that my friends and peers might see this thing that was lodged deep within me was unbearable, humiliating. It’s a part of me that isn’t palatable. So I hid it: I posted these beautiful pictures, the part of me that was cool and desirable and likeable because I went to cool places and appreciated art, and could write a funny caption to get likes. And I got those likes: but it was dishonest.

Through pictures and words on a screen, real life is lost. Anyone who looked at these posts would have seen, if you forgive my 18 year old colloquialisms, an edgy gal having an aesthetic time. But this is a slither of reality. A slither I deliberately chose to show: one layer of pixels covering everything else. I vomited on that trip, several times. I got lost in Amsterdam and quietly sobbed into a cigarette in the middle of the street because I was so nervous to get back to the hostel. I self-harmed in the toilets of one of Europe’s most famous art galleries.

We are a generation that loves social media. When we travel, are successful, or want validation, we post. This isn’t wrong: in part, it’s fantastic that we can share these experiences and the beautiful things we see. But it is not full, true life. It is a miniscule facet of a real world in which many of us are struggling, and when we view reality through carefully curated slithers we lose the greater picture of ourselves. We see only the success and the beauty of others, whilst within ourselves we can feel pain. Instagram was a tool through which I not only hid my anxiety disorder but nurtured it: I let it grow through comparison to others, and through my own curation of a sense of self, security, and success that offline felt as if it was tenuous and trembling.

I still occasionally use social media. There are undeniable benefits. But we must remember the realities that it can’t possibly emulate: we must remember to take a step back and think about how it makes us feel, and why it makes us feel that way. We’ve all felt the prick to our self-esteem that our online lives can give us; you cannot see the pain that could be behind holiday snaps and pictures of artisanal coffee. Once social media becomes a crutch for our unhappiness, validation and image seem to outweigh all else. Reality is a much better thing to curate. After limiting my online presence, there is less and less an ideal of myself I must maintain, contrasted to the parts of me which are unpalatable: there’s only me, with my successes and my struggles. This hasn’t cured me, but it has helped me be so much happier.

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October 2021
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