*Annie Clarkson is a fictional name that I will use to tell this story for confidentiality purposes. All other information is accurate and is being published here with the subject’s permission.
It’s three o’clock on a Thursday and I am stopped behind a red light next to a busy bus-stop. I look over at a couple of people hunched over on the bench with ear buds plugged into their phones and others who chit-chat in small groups on either side of the seated commuters and those who keep to themselves as they watch the parade of cars stalled at the busy intersection. I notice a woman with a thick head of hair tied up with a faded blue bandanna and dressed in a baggy, black Stevie Wonder tee-shirt and stained jeans. She carries a large brown plastic tote bag and fidgets with a flip-phone before tucking it into her back pocket and setting her bag down beside a trash can. I watch curiously as she removes the lid of the trash and dips her hands inside and begins to rummage through the refuse. When the light changes to green I pull over across the street to observe her. She fishes out two plastic water bottles and stuffs them in her bag. Seconds later I see her pull out a large glass whiskey bottle twist off the cap and places it to her nose. To anyone passerbys, she would appear to be homeless and unkempt, or by the looks of this particular scene, like an alcoholic looking for sips of booze in the trash.
What nobody might suspect, however, is that underneath her blue bandanna and below her skull, there are pieces of bullet in her brain. I know this because I know this woman. I eat lunch with her 3-4 times a week.
Her name is Annie Clarkson* and twenty-four years ago she was herded into a walk-in freezer with nine employees and two customers at a diner where she worked in Los Angeles to be shot execution-style by two armed men.
Annie was one of four who survived the massacre. The others were murdered in cold blood as they stood toward the freezer wall while the shooters emptied every bullet of their guns into their backs. And though Annie walked out alive that night, her life would never be the same. She suffered permanent brain damage from the shots that were fired directly into her head.
Prior to this, Annie, like many in the “city of Angels,” was an aspiring model trying to make ends meet by waiting tables at a popular 24-hour diner as she struggled to fulfill her dreams of glamour and fame. Knowing her story and the injustice committed against her begs the question, what would her life look like today had she not been working the overnight shift that fateful evening in L.A.? Would she have graced the pages of Vogue or the runways of New York’s fashion week or settled down and had a family and a pretty house in the suburbs, maybe modeling on the side to preserve her dream? No one will ever know.
As a result of the bullets she took to the head, Annie required surgery to have a part of her brain removed. For compensation, she was given the option of settling for a large, lump sum of money or lifetime coverage for all medical and rehabilitation expenses. She chose the lifetime coverage. And that is how she came into my life, or rather, how I came into hers.
When I took a job as a case manager for an independent living program for adults with physical and developmental disabilities five years ago, I was introduced to Annie and immediately became fascinated with her story. Her case was given to me three years ago and I have worked closely with her ever since. I spend most of my lunch-breaks with her because the building where I work is where Annie is employed as a janitor – disinfecting toilets and mopping floors and scrubbing bathroom stalls. She’s in her fifties now and doesn’t complain about the work though it is not what she envisioned for her life. At twenty-three years old, the last thing Annie imagined was that her life would be forever changed and derailed to the detriment of her physical and neurological health because of the barrel of a gun that was pointed at and shot into her head. But that’s what happened. And she will live the rest of her life with the consequences.
Obsessive hoarding is one of these consequences. Annie has stacks of phone books and sales ads and magazines that are over a decade old cluttering the corners of her living room and make-up and hair products she’s hoarded since the early 1980′s. It is hard for her to understand why hoarding is not healthy — even at times when she has almost lost her apartment and subsidized housing voucher from the government because of the condition of her home and the fire-hazard of having hundreds of stuffed animals and empty shampoo bottles and containers of clothes in disarray through most of the walkways.
A large part of my work with Annie is centered around helping her manage and control her hoarding and intervening when her injury causes her to make potentially harmful choices. I am Annie’s advocate. I am her case worker and teacher, but many days, I learn more from her than she probably does from me.
In all of the time I have known Annie she has never once complained about her brain injury. Or her job. Or her quality of life. This humbles me, to say the least. For even on my worst days, I have so much more than Annie ever will in the ways of independence, health, and ability. And while I sometimes complain about early morning meetings or congested traffic and frustrating commutes, Annie’s day begins every morning at 5 a.m. when she wakes up to catch the bus to work – a commute that by car would take around thirty minutes but by city bus can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. Her workday starts at 8:30 a.m. as she loads chemicals and cleaning supplies into her janitor’s cart and wraps a protective plastic apron over her body. She works for six hours and then catches the 2:45 p.m. bus home which can take up to two hours depending on how busy the buses are on any given day. I can not imagine having to take public transportation to and from work five days a week, or working as a janitor, knowing that the dreams of my youth were taken unfairly from me and there’s nothing I can do about it. But Annie doesn’t walk around with a scowl on her face. In fact, most days she is happy and wears a big, bright smile behind her janitor’s cart. Another thing about her that inspires me – Annie is one of the funniest people I know.
If I forget or misplace something around her, I can almost always bank on her to say something along the lines of: “you’re losing your mind Jamie, and you don’t even have a brain injury like me!” or “you sure you don’t have a bullet in your head too, Jamie?”
It makes me laugh every time.
I have seen Annie’s modeling head-shots from decades ago and they are stunning. And though the pull of age and the daily plight of living with a traumatic brain injury has worn on her over the years, the profile of the twenty-three year old waitress and aspiring model can still be seen in the soft lines of her face and in her big, sparkly, coffee-bean brown eyes.
“Okay, Ms. Annie what do we need to do today?” I ask her one afternoon as she sits down across from my desk with a ham and cheese sandwich.
“We gotta pay my electric bill ’cause it’s due tomorrow, remember?” Annie reminds me.
“Oh yeah, we talked about that yesterday didn’t we?” I reply.
“We sure did. You forgot? Looks like you’ve been hanging around me too much,” Annie laughs.
“I guess you’re rubbing off on me, aren’t you?” I chuckle.
I lift up a burrito to my lips and take a bite while Annie tells me about her day. I watch her talk and remind myself, as I often do, that this is a woman who was born into the world with a healthy body and brain, and hopes and dreams for her future who took a job as a waitress to make rent while chasing her passion in a big, bustling city full of spotlights and promise, only to have the actions of someone else derail and nearly destroy her life. Yet here she sits, munching on a ham and cheese sandwich with a smile bigger than any other smile I’ve seen on this day, and not a care in the world.
Annie’s story is a reminder that there is life after trauma, and hope and happiness, too. I’ve never endured a bullet to the brain but I have endured the trauma of childhood abuse and losing a parent. Some days I wonder “why me?” and resent the fact that someone else is responsible for the way my brain is wired now as an adult. But then I talk with Annie and she makes me laugh and I am reminded that while we can’t control what happens to us in life, we can control how we choose to live it. And for Annie, that means working hard, staying positive, and always looking for a good punchline. These are the things most people can’t tell from her appearance when she’s rummaging through trash at the bus stop. But they are the things that will always be there in the soft lines of her face and chocolate-colored eyes that tell the story of a budding, young model in L.A. who almost lost her life in a restaurant freezer over two decades ago, but came out on the other side of it. Her story proves there is life after trauma. And that how we choose to live this one and only life we’ve been given matters more than the events that occur and the scars they leave behind.
This past Friday night I decided to buy a bottle of vodka. I was in the mood to enjoy a drink while watching a spooky movie in the spirit of Halloween. Friday the 13th was the film of choice, and for me, horror movies are more fun for me with a drink in hand.
I do not like to buy booze at the grocery store, though. The whole process frustrates me because some small, stupid detail always goes wrong during the purchase like when I forget my I.D. and feel like a college freshman caught in the process of trying to be cool while I dig through my purse for my license and simultaneously explaining/ begging that “I know it’s here, it’s buried at the bottom, can I just tell you my birthday?” Or when I remember I have nothing to mix the liquor with when the cashier tells me my total and I either have to hold up a line of people to run and grab a 2-liter of Sprite or cancel my order to save holding the line up and start all over again. Plus, I’m not a big drinker. I do happen to enjoy the occasional weeknight cocktail like many hard-working adults, however.
Now, allow me to properly set the scene: the time is about 6:45 p.m. and after coming home from work I throw on a paint-stained pair of old running shorts and a “Dodgers” tee-shirt that I bought on a whim because it was soft and I like blue, not because I like the Dodgers. Or baseball. I wrapped my hair into a bun that didn’t stay put for long before unraveling into a disheveled mess of a ponytail and my mascara was smeared and faded. Basically, I looked like I had just returned from Burning Man and needed a shower. But I was just running to the store so who cares?
Once I neared the alcohol section of the supermarket, I encountered an end-cap stocked with “pumpkin spice” Oreos which, if you know me, I had to try. I snatched up a package and right as I did so, my phone buzzed. It was one of my best friends and they were going on a date and wanted some advice. While we chatted I perused the store to kill a few minutes. And I decided I wanted to buy popcorn and shampoo so, by the time I got back around to the vodka, my arms were semi-full. I knelt down to the bottom shelf where the cheap, off-brand liquor is displayed and wrapped my fingers around the glass neck of a big bottle with a sale price of $5.29.
“I’m buying a handle of vodka for the same price as a foot-long from Subway. I’ve never even heard of the brand. Don’t judge me…” I told my friend.
This was the moment when I should have done the responsible thing and grabbed a cart. But I didn’t because I am one of those shoppers who will carry eight things around the store in my arms until I can’t carry anymore before getting a shopping cart.
With my cell phone propped up to my ear by my right shoulder so I could use both hands, I found a spot in a check-out line behind a middle-aged man. A minute later I heard a child behind me and peeked over my shoulder to find a young mom with beach-y blonde hair with her toddler and son who looked to be around six years old.
The man in front of me took his receipt and bags and I took that as my cue to relieve my hands and load my stuff onto the conveyor belt. My friend was talking about their plans for the night and as I tried to listen, I lifted up the bottle of vodka to place on the belt.
Then it happened.
The black security cap that the cashier has to take off when you buy certain kinds of alcohol snapped and I lost my grip on the glass. I jumped back, unknowingly almost knocking down the six year old behind me and screamed as my heart dropped into my gut and the bottle fell fast and hard onto the hard, scuffed-up floor.
Shards of glass and vodka everywhere. And then I hear “MOMMY HELP!” I turn around and the little boy has vodka on his pants.
“OHMYGOSH I’M SORRY, I’M SO SORRY, PLEASE LET ME HELP YOU, I’M SO SO SORRY!”
The kid’s mother had the look of a woman who was ready to throw a punch. I guess I didn’t totally blame her.
“WHAT ARE YOU STUPID?!” She yelled.
I knelt down and picked up the largest slices of glass and apologized about twelve more times.
The woman rushed away with her kids as I attempted to clean up the mess.
“Uh, miss, I’m getting someone to come clean that up,” the cashier – an old, bitter-looking woman, said dryly.
I used to work in a grocery store and would encounter people who dropped things on accident while in line and I remember feeling like it was a part of my job to calm them and make sure they understood it’s okay and they’re not in trouble and it happens to us all sometimes.
This cashier, however, didn’t bother trying to make me feel like I wasn’t the worst human on the planet.
“Don’t touch the glass and let me ring the rest of your stuff up,” she said.
“Okay, I’m so sorry, I have never had this happen before,” I explained, self-pity and shame dripping from my words.
The cashier looked at me and said nothing.
A teenage boy came up to mop up the vodka.
“You did this!? You’re not allowed to come back ever again!” He laughed as he placed bright yellow “Caution: Wet Floor,” signs around the puddle of liquor and glass.
I took the opportunity for the much-needed comic relief and giggled. The cashier looked at me like I was the village idiot which maybe, wasn’t entirely not the case. But what I needed in that moment wasn’t the grimace of a grumpy check-out clerk, but the vindication of a store employee to make me feel like everything would be okay. The kid mopping up the mess did a better job of that than the woman who handed me my receipt.
“It happens, don’t feel bad,” the boy said with a smile.
“I know, this has just never happened to me. I swear I’m not drunk!” I chuckled. The boy laughed but the cashier continued to stare at me, emotionless.
I finally strolled away and elected to not grab another bottle before going home. I was over it.
Half-way to my car, I saw a mini-van pass by and peering from the backseat was the face of the little kid of whom the vodka had splashed onto. He pointed at me and the mother turned her head in the driver’s seat and rolled down her window.
“People like you shouldn’t be allowed in public! You drunk!” She shouted.
What the what? Was this all really happening?
Before I could articulate a response she sped away.
What is the take away here?
This: for every mistake and mishap we make as adults there is typically a ludicrous and humorous side to the story that is worth being remembered. You must find the irony and lunacy in your circumstances and choose to make it comic rather than tragic, despite how great your urge to go home and hide in the dark, curled up in fetal position.
This is a part of adulthood – small, stupid little details in life will turn sour or go badly and you might end up standing in front a small child calling on their mom for help after breaking a bottle of booze in front of them. Moments such as this are not spelled out or forewarned about in an instruction manual for life. We must take them as they come. And try not to beat ourselves up over things we can’t control and maybe try harder to work on what we can. As for me and this incident of the broken vodka bottle, I couldn’t control who was standing behind me or that the plastic security cap would come loose and the cashier would glare at me like a ghoul. But what I can do is make sure the next time I go to the store for alcohol, I get a cart just in case. Even if I swear I am only buying two things — I will get a shopping cart.
And I won’t be on my cell phone in the check-out line while trying to load an armful of stuff onto the conveyor belt.
“What happened? You ok?’ My friend texted me later.
“Yes. Except that I dropped and broke a bottle of vodka in line and a child was involved and I looked like a crazy person,” I replied.
“Lol! What?! Did that really happen?” He asked.
“Yep,” I texted back.
“Your life is like a TV show sometimes, a really funny one…”
I sat back on my couch and popped an Oreo into my mouth.
“I know. Believe me, I know,” I replied.
It is moments such as the one I just described that ultimately do make me thankful that in life even a trip to the grocery store can turn out to be not what we expected. Because being alive would be much less fun and more difficult to laugh about if things always went smoothly and we didn’t, on occasion, piss off a mom at the store by getting vodka on her child’s clothes by accident and then eliciting dirty looks from the cashier and being branded as a drunk.
Take my word for it.
A cautionary tale.
On Columbus Day in 1994 I was in the third grade. We had a substitute teacher for the day – a vicious old lady we called “Mrs. Eleanor.”
I was eight years old and dressed in a frilly pink sundress that my mother wrestled me into that morning as I sat at my desk, eager to learn about Christopher Columbus.
Elementary School was a strange experience for me.
I wasn’t popular or socially aware enough to understand why.
I had a bushy uni-brow and a last name that rhymes with “booby” – two darling traits that damned me from cool kid status.
But I was creative and had a big imagination. And never before did me creativity not woo my teachers and earn me stars by my name on the blackboard. Mrs. Eleanor, however, was the exception.
She was the kind of teacher who wore jumpsuits printed with faces of farm animals and chunky glasses from 1972. Her yellowy-gray poodle perm curled above her ears and she smelled like a dusty old Halloween costume. I didn’t like when she talked real close to my face which she did often.
Our assignment in class that day was to color a picture of Christopher Columbus and his three ships. “Make sure you color inside the lines, this isn’t kindergarten,” Mrs. Eleanor said.
I pulled out a fresh yellow pack of Crayolas from my backpack and considered the artistic conquest at hand.
Katie Hooper, the belle of the third grade ball, sat three desks down from me in her perfect denim jumper and hot pink jelly sandals. She had a tiny Tinkerbell nose and pretty blond eyebrows that I envied because I’m Italian and my mother always told me, “Italian girls have big, beautiful eyebrows and all those girls are just jealous of you.” It took me ten years to forgive my mother for this lie.
Katie was the best in class at coloring and looked like the fourth blonde Tanner sister from Full House. Her pictures were hung with sticky tack over the teacher’s desk and everyone assumed Jesus just loved her more than us.
I assumed there was magic in her Wonder Bread sandwiches that made her the best at everything like never picking her nose or staining her jumpers with spaghettios.
I took out my crayons and chose Robins Egg Blue for coloring in Columbus’s hat. And for his vest I chose Rusty Red.
If Mrs. Eleanor were a crayon, I imagined, her color would be a moldy apricot orange or pea casserole green.
Katie Hooper would be strawberry cupcake pin, while my crayon color would require a comparison to Harry and the Henderson’s or an Italian meatball.
“How should I color the sky?” I thought. Would it be a bright blue sky with a happy yellow sun like Katie Hooper color? Would it be a dark, stormy sky with rain clouds? I turned my head toward Edward Russo, the quiet kid who sat behind me, who liked to eat Batman fruit snacks and told me once at recess that his uncle was a murderer, and I see, he has already colored his sky dark blue with rain clouds.
I pulled out carnation pink and decided to color a sunset.
I pressed the tip of my crayon to my picture and colored in the white space above the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria. Carnation pink made my sky pretty and Hawaiian-like. But that wasn’t the look I was going for. I swirled a royal purple along the pink for good measure. A purple and pink sunset at sea – Mr. Columbus would like that – I thought.
“Okay class, I’m coming around to pick up your work.” Mrs. Eleanor announced.
I was certain I’d be applauded in front of the class for my especially creative effort.
We were told to finish our reading from the textbook while she graded our work.
“Jamie, please come here,” she called me to her desk.
Meet your competition, Katie Hooper, I thought to myself, as I strutted to the front of the classroom.
“What is this?” Mrs. Eleanor pointed at my pink and purple sky. “That’s a sky,” I answered.
“Look out that window and tell me what color is the sky?” she motioned toward the classroom window.
“Yes, blue, now why did you color your sky pink and purple? This is not preschool. How can you learn about Christopher Columbus when you can’t color a sky correctly?” She held up my picture and glared at me the way my grandma did the time I drew an ugly picture of my brother in my Bible during church.
“It’s a sunset,” I said.
“No Jamie, sunsets are orange. You’ll get one check-mark instead of two. Go sit down.”
Everyone watched as I shuffled back to my desk. The third grade walk of shame: more humiliating than any walk of shame in my four years of college.
I wanted to go sit next to Edward Russo and eat fruit snacks and hear stories about his murderer uncle but I took my seat and pretended as if nothing happened.
Something had shifted in me that day.
I experienced someone with no capacity to feel a pink and purple sunset; someone who attempted to crush the wild bud of creativity in an eight year old kid.
In my naive little girl world where bumble bees sing and crickets talk back, I didn’t know it was possible for someone like that to exist.
But as surely as I would never be the kid to color my sky blue there will be Mrs. Eleanor’s out there to tell me that I should.
“Your teacher will be back tomorrow, you can pack up your stuff now,” class was over.
I looked around to see if anyone was staring at me, waiting for me to cry or run out of the room.
Two minutes before the bell, Mrs. Eleanor tacked Katie Hooper’s picture up over the teacher’s desk. Katie got two check-marks.
She blushed as if it this were the first time.
My ego was bruised but my resolve to never change my colors, remained.
The strawberry cupcake pink Katie Hoopers of the world will test you. They’ll test you in art and in life. You’ll have the option to be just like her, with a spotless blue sky and smiley golden sun. Or you can choose to be true to your pink and purple sunsets and shine in your difference. This, my friends, is where you will find you.
And I bet this you can be found somewhere in your childhood, like it was for me that day in the third grade.
And I have Mr. Columbus to thank for it.
It was the first time I had eaten Velveeta brand “shells and cheese” since I was a kid. I brought a single-serving-sized cup to work for lunch because they were on sale for two for a dollar at the store which prompted me to snag up four of them for easy lunches. And lately, plastic cups of instant pasta with squeezable cheese the color of a traffic cone has been all that I can afford. Being in the throes of a move and every depressing expense that comes with it has required that I momentarily survive on the cheapest food that I can find. And after five days of .39 cent frozen bean and cheese burritos, Velveeta felt like a treat.
Once back at my desk with my boiled noodles, I gripped the packet of orange cheese in my palm like a cake decorator funneling icing out of a tube and squeezed out three globs over the soft pasta shells. I tapped my Instagram app on my phone so I could skim through pictures while eating. The Instagram post that popped up first was from someone I know through friends. She had “checked in” at a Bloomingdales in a trendy, upscale city and had just purchased new pumps and perfume which were the subject of her brightly-filtered picture.
My first thought: those heels are beautiful and that’s the perfect perfume for fall.
I scooped a spoonful of cheesy shells from the cup and looked down at my feet as I chewed. I glanced at my shoes and went from feeling good to bad in a matter of four seconds. My thought as I stared at my feet: If anyone knew how long I’ve been wearing these shoes for and that the soles are ripped and dirty, I’d be mortified. I can’t remember the last pair of shoes I bought that weren’t plucked from the clearance section at Target.
In terms of self-talk, it was all downhill from there.
“Must be nice to be a twenty-something who can afford to buy new shoes and perfume from Bloomingdales on a whim. Her life must be pretty fabulous and fun.”
I closed out the Instagram app and struggled not to cry. Yes, cry. I was that upset. Over a picture of a Bloomingdale’s purchase. What was wrong with me? Had I really become so shallow? If ever the hashtag #firstworldproblems applied to me, surely it was in that moment. I have an iPhone and iPad, a nice car, a good job, and many other luxuries that make me grateful for how blessed I am. Particularly compared to so many in the world who would look at my life and be envious of all that I have. Because the truth is, in many ways my life is nicer than some people I know personally. We just tend to focus on those who have it better rather than those who have it worse. I felt guilty for being envious, but that guilt wasn’t strong enough to overshadow my jealousy and self-pity. And the crushing discouragement.
The feeling was nearly identical to what I felt one afternoon at school when I was in fourth grade — a day and experience that I will never forget. Where I went to elementary school we had show and tell every other Friday. I loved show and tell Fridays. The stuff I brought from home to “show” was never anything that set me apart, except in that it likely contributed to my weirdness. (Once I took my Grandmother’s accordion and tried to play it for the class. No one, save the teacher, was remotely impressed.)
One Friday I got the idea to sneak something valuable in my backpack to show — something that was expensive and was not to be removed from a special shelf in my bedroom — a Little Mermaid snow-globe I had gotten for Christmas from Disneyworld. It was special to me and my mom would have been furious if she knew I brought it to school in my backpack. I chose not to tell her.
When show and tell time came, I watched the first round of kids who volunteered to go first in anticipation for my turn. A popular girl in my class who was cool because she had a lot of friends and soft strawberry blonde hair and name brand clothes showed everyone her soccer trophy from her most recent game. Everyone looked impressed. I asked my mom if I could play soccer on a team once and she said it was too expensive. We didn’t have much money growing up, so there were certain things I knew I couldn’t do like the other kids — joining soccer leagues being one of them.
Another girl, equally as popular, stood up next. She showed off her “American Girl” doll which at the time (mid-nineties) were a hot, new toy item that everybody knew only they rich, cool girls would get for their birthdays. My heart started to beat faster when it came close to the time I would stand up with my snow globe. I was so excited — I knew everyone would like it and be jealous and maybe even want me to pass it around. My show and tell track record up until that moment had included my big brother’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure toys, a Babysitter’s Club book-set, and a lizard. Yes, a lizard. I caught one in my backyard and put him in a cage and named him “Charlie.” None of the kids seemed amused except a weird boy who sat in the back and spent most of his time drawing pictures of centaurs and vampire spiders that he once told me were “his friends.”
At last, my turn came to present. I looked in my backpack to check on the snow-globe before the teacher called my name. I reached in to the bottom of my bag and didn’t feel anything. I felt around more and something sharp pricked my finger. With both hands I opened my backpack wide and felt my heart break as soon as I saw the puddle of water my backpack had left next to my chair and that had stained the bottom of my backpack.
There was my snow globe, at the bottom of my bag, broken into a bazillion little pieces. The glitter was stuck to all of my stuff. I panicked.
“My toy broke. Can you skip me?” I asked. She nodded and pointed to the next kid for their turn.
As far as I was concerned, my world had been shattered, just like the snow globe that I stupidly forgot to wrap in a towel to protect from breaking. I was mortified and wanted to disappear. My best effort at bringing in something cool and unique to show my class and I screwed it up and ruined my chance and broke one of my cherished possessions in the process.
I felt like a failure.
Now, what does this have to do with the Bloomingdales Instagram post and the break-down that followed my lunch the other day?
A lot, actually.
It has become increasingly more obvious to me since I have owned an iPhone that social media ‘image-sharing’ through platforms like Instagram and Facebook are really nothing more than grown-up versions of show and tell. Except this kind of show and tell gives us more room for fabrication by way of embellishment and filters and photo-staging. It’s less genuine than real-life show and tell. And perhaps that is why many in my generation, myself included, are so addicted. We get to pick and choose what snapshots of our life are worth showing and get to choose what filters we can apply to our world as we want others to see it. It becomes a highlights reel of our life. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not Instagramming pictures of the under-cooked casserole I just pulled out of the oven or the dog poo I just picked up from the yard, or a still of the argument I had with my mom the other day. I am guilty of it too. I cherry-pick the images I want to post and enhance and manipulate them by adjusting their brightness or color saturation and slapping a retro-style filter over them. And I have no doubt that some people who follow me on Instagram envy what I have because I decided to show them off by making them look nice. This is true for all social media platforms, but in my opinion, in terms of the envy it stirs in the user, Instagram takes the cake. And that’s because it is cleaner and less messy and cluttered with ads like Facebook, and easier to navigate visually than Twitter. Instagram is all about show-casing photos. And one meticulously enhanced photo can trigger social comparison, which can cause feelings of inferiority. So while these photos are supposed to give you a glimpse into the person’s life, we must remember that it is a glimpse that has been polished and prettied up to look the very best that it can.
When I post pictures of my pug, it takes at least two filters to hide the redness caused by a skin infection around his nose. Because I want him to look perfect. And as for selfies, I don’t post them often but when I do, it’s only after I’ve altered the image for twenty minutes.
Instagram taps into our natural desire to make our lives look good. Knowing this doesn’t make anyone immune from feeling jealous, however.
I am the perfect example of that. Because while I know that the picture of the heels and perfume from Bloomingdales was just a way of “showing off” status, wealth, or style in an aesthetically impressive way, I was still envious. And it felt a lot like sitting through those show and tell sessions in elementary school when the popular girls had better stuff to show than I did. The difference now is that I can choose to not participate, or at least temper what I expose myself to or share by reminding myself that just because it’s perfect-looking or unique and beautiful, doesn’t mean it captures reality.
And in hindsight, I think accordions and lizards are way cooler than American girl dolls.
Whether in real-life or via social media, show and tell does us no favors in the context of mental health if we can’t remember how “rich” we are to many countries (America included) to even own iPhones. And have jobs and cars and college educations.
The enjoyment of life in the unfiltered, real and honest moment is always better than seeking to enjoy it through edited images. Because real life isn’t about the best-looking snapshots we promote. It’s about experiences and relationships and growth — the good and sometimes messy stuff that can’t be Instagrammed.
Yeah, I shop at target but I also have an expensive curling wand and straightening iron for my hair. Yeah my shoes are old but I also drive a nice SUV. Yeah I eat crappy dinners when money is tight but I also have a Keurig and a vintage Coach purse.
If like me, you sometimes suffer from low self-esteem and comparing your life with others, scrolling through other people’s perfectly curated pictures will not help. Neither will spending time trying to show off your best and most valuable toys, as I learned in the case of the Little Mermaid snow-globe. However, recognizing how lucky we are for the luxuries we do have that others may secretly covet (and likely do), will.
I have more than I deserve. Even on the days when I have to eat instant Velveeta for lunch, orange, traffic-cone colored cheese and all.