I have an amazing life. In March 2020 I was named Book Blogger of the Year at the London Book Fair, for my bookish website, Julia’s Bookcase. I have an amazing job, working at a prestigious book publisher as an assistant editor, and loads of wonderful friends, who I love very much. Getting to this place has been a long journey, and as happy and grateful as I am, it hasn’t been easy.
I view my online life as a highlight reel that I curate – something I try to keep upbeat and positive. For years I’ve been receiving messages from my wonderful followers telling me that I have the ‘perfect life’, and they inspired me to start sharing my struggles online, too; to let people in, and show them that while I live a very happy and privileged life, it’s not always as perfect as it might seem.
Let me take you back to the beginning. Aged 19, shortly after starting my first term at university, I experienced my first depressive episode. It was completely overwhelming and disabling; I was often unable to cook for myself, or do any of my uni work. Many of my assignments were completed from bed, simply because I didn’t have the energy to get up. It was around this time that I also began to really struggle with social anxiety disorder, although I didn’t realise it for a while. It’s bizarre, because anyone who I’ve met over the past few years wouldn’t recognise me if they turned back time, and visited me then. I was a different person.
For one thing, I was silent pretty much all of the time. Over the course of three years, I managed to make only a few proper friends, and I spent much of my time on my own. I was heavily involved in the student newspaper, so I had loads of opportunities to make friends, but I was simply unable to form relationships with people. I just could not speak. It was frustrating, as I knew that I had so much more to give, but I could not let it out. I remember describing it as feeling trapped inside my own head, and anxiety truly defined those three years of my life. I was sure that I would never be able to form connections with other people again, but I was completely wrong.
One more depressive episode, and multiple rounds of therapy later, I graduated from university with a 2:1 and a burning ambition to work in book publishing. During that gaping space between graduating and embarking on my career, and in the absence of the student newspaper, I was gasping for a new creative outlet.
Along came Instagram, and one evening I spontaneously created a new account, inspired by the many book-themed accounts that I had been following over the years. I was hooked from the moment that I started Julia’s Bookcase, and four years later I now have more than 20,000 followers, an award-winning website of the same name, and an exciting part-time job where I’m able to be my own boss.
For someone with crippling social anxiety, the ‘bookstagram’ community became a low-pressure place for me to gently exercise my social skills.
Through commenting on other people’s posts, and sending occasional Instagram messages, I was able to tentatively start building up a new network for myself. When I moved to London at the start of 2017, I was able to tap into that community in real life, and actually meet up with friends I’d met online.
Amazingly, I’m pleased to say that I’m now much more confident and no longer struggle with social anxiety. It hasn’t gone away – I still regularly feel anxious after, and during, social interactions – but it doesn’t hold me back any more, and it doesn’t stop me from feeling happy! We often talk about the negative aspects of social media: the bullying, trolls, and endless opportunities for self-comparison. But for me, it was a lifeline.
“We often only talk about the negative aspects of social media: the bullying, trolls, and endless opportunities for self-comparison. But for me, it was a lifeline”
I may have overcome my struggle with social anxiety, but life is still far from perfect. I suffer from depression and, to date, I’ve been through five separate depressive episodes in just six years. It’s exhausting. Fortunately, I’ve had some brilliant support, both from my managers at work and my GP, which has helped me to cope.
At the moment I’m trying to find the right combination of medication and therapy that will stabilise my moods, and allow me to live a normal life. I fight this illness every day, and although it’s likely that I’ll have this condition for the rest of my life, I will never, ever give up.
Looking back on my teenage years, I’m honestly not surprised that I ended up struggling with my mental health. I was bullied throughout secondary school. From my very first day, I found myself at the bottom of the social hierarchy. While I did have a strong group of friends, outside of that, much of my year group seemed to be against me. I’m not totally sure why, but those kids hated me with a passion.
Over the course of five years, I was consistently ridiculed and publicly humiliated – for my red hair, my slightly overweight pubescent body, my face, clothes, and personality. Aged 12, I felt worthless every day. I remember one point where I wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and wake up as a different person, with a different life. I had food thrown at me in the lunch hall, obscenities screamed at me in the street, and songs sung about me in the corridors. One particularly mean-spirited boy would tell me on a weekly basis that I deserved to be shot and, although I’m very much over what happened to me at school, trauma like that never fully leaves you.
Jumping back to the present day, Instagram remains a happy place for me. Life is still difficult, but I’m working through it all the time. If you’re feeling untethered, and in need of a space where you can unapologetically be yourself, then I implore you to carve out a second home online. It’s not even a slight exaggeration: Instagram well and truly changed my life.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) counsellor says:
Julia experienced a lot, from being bullied in school to depressive episodes at university. Social anxiety made it difficult to form relationships that would help her live and build the life that she hoped for. Therapy helped, but the turning point came when she embraced social media, where she found a community she could connect with safely, at her own pace. Paying attention to our own self-care needs can help us find the relationships and communities in which we feel safe, and able to blossom.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss feelings of depression and social anxiety, visit counselling-directory.org.uk