I got the chance to pick the brain of Fiona Thomas, author of Depression in a Digital Age. This memoir is an extension of her blog, discussing the impact of social media on her career and mental health.
At the beginning of the book, you first describe your obsession with witches and then with the Spice Girls. Why did you think it was important to talk about your love affair with these figures? What did witches and the Spice Girls represent to you then? What do they mean to you now?
I wanted to explore the idea that as a young girl I really felt like anything was possible. I couldn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to be a pop star or a witch as an adult, and I think there’s something inspiring but also a bit heartbreaking about that innocence we all have as children. The Spice Girls represented the idea that women don’t need to fit a certain ideal to be successful, and that really spoke to me because I was a chubby kid and didn’t feel like I fit in with what magazines were telling me I was supposed to look like. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Spice Girls shaped who I am as an adult today. They taught me it’s OK to show your personality and be unladylike if that’s who you really are.
I loved the expression, “take your pencil for a walk,” that your mum (trying not to let my North Americanness show, haha!) used for writing. How did blogging influence your writing style? You allude to writing a book when describing your experience reading Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon. Was this the spark for Depression in a Digital Age? If not, what was? How does the book form change your writing style?
Blogging felt like the first time I was given permission to write about my own life. I think internally I felt like to become a writer I would have to write a novel or work at a newspaper… it was a revelation to realise that I could be creative by just exploring my own experiences and opinions. Writing a blog as opposed to being paid to write for a publication was an amazing exercise in free writing. I didn’t think much about my audience in the beginning (because there wasn’t one) and I actually think that’s a good way to write in general. I wrote for me, under the impression that not many people would ever read it and that was OK. That allowed me to write fearlessly and honestly because it felt more like a therapeutic exercise than a job.
I read Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon and Ctrl, Alt, Delete by Emma Gannon back-to-back. It was those two memoirs that made me realise that I had a story worth telling. Gordon writes with such humour, and that felt like a permission slip to talk about my own mental illness with a dash of laughter and to not feel guilty about that. Gannon’s was the first memoir I’d read that centred around the internet, and that’s where I realised that I too had grown up in the digital age but that I had also done so whilst living with depression and anxiety.
The thing that I had to get to grips with when writing a book was allowing myself to write in more depth about my experience. Writing blog posts and writing to a certain word count for magazines and websites has conditioned me to write very succinctly so I had to learn to explore my ideas a lot more than I had done previously.
Throughout the book, the “Girl Boss” stereotype was tied to your productivity, which directly impacted your self-esteem. I think this relationship is common in a capitalist system that does value your worth based on your production output. How did you change your relationship with your career and productivity to something healthier? How did mental illness affect this relationship?
That’s definitely something I’m still working on, and my mental illness has been the guiding factor in how I run my business and structure my working week. Working as a freelancer has given me much more control over how I work and I’m so grateful for that. It’s not easy, but I’ve got to a place now where I’m not working crazy long hours to make ends meet and it feels good. I’ve been able to structure my week to accommodate my mental health, so now I have Mondays and Fridays to work on creative tasks and marketing, those are my favourite days of the week. I used to think that if I wasn’t working on paid client work then I wasn’t ‘working’. I’ve managed to shift my mindset now, and to me, doing creative things or exercising is just as important to my business as writing. I think when you look at your life as a whole instead of just your working life then it puts productivity into perspective. What’s the benefit in being super productive at work if you’re then too tired in the evenings to see your friends or go out for a walk? It doesn’t make sense.
Makeup often gets a bad rap as it is a ritual many womxn feel required to perform to be perceived as “pretty.” You discuss your relationship with makeup throughout the book, first in regards to your Girl Boss persona and then again regarding the makeup tutorials you enjoyed. What is your current perception of makeup? Do you find it enjoyable? How can womxn create a healthy relationship with makeup? Bonus question: who is your favorite makeup Youtuber now?
I refuse to feel obliged to put make up on. It takes so much time and effort! I spend most of my days make up free, but still enjoy wearing it on the weekends or when I’m going out with friends, but I’m very low maintenance. I’ve leaned on it a lot more than usual since we’ve been in lockdown. I think this is because some of the things that I would normally turn to as self-care (e.g visiting the beach, hanging out with friends, going for coffee) have been unavailable. So I’ve had to try out alternative things to boost my mood. Wearing make up, even when I’m working from home, has really perked up my mood on days when I’m struggling. It’s also helped me feel more ‘together’ when hosting a zoom call or talking to potential clients, so I don’t judge anyone who feels they need to put make up on to get shit done!
You talk about the difference between communicating your struggles to an internet audience versus the difficulty of sharing these same experiences with people in real life. I found this interesting, as it is a sentiment repeated by other content creators, and the biggest hurdle in creating for my own blog. Why do you think it is more difficult to be vulnerable with people in our daily lives versus strangers on the internet? How do those feelings change as you meet internet friends in real life? What are your tips for other content creators who are fearful of opening up online?
Don’t open up online if it doesn’t feel right. It felt good for me at the time because I needed the written word to express myself and organise my thoughts, but its not for everyone. Don’t feel pressured to share all your struggles online. The most important thing is to be truthful with yourself. So in that respect I would say think about starting a journal and writing down your thoughts that way. Then you can think through exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, whether that’s to strangers on the internet, a loved one or a health professional.
Meeting up with people in real life is always kind of scary, even if you’ve known them for a while online. I’ve made some lifelong friends on Instagram but I know its not for everyone. But for me, moving to a new city in my thirties it was great way to find a new circle of friends.
Your blog is clearly quite successful and has opened the doors for a flourishing freelance career. I found your experience with all the blogging advice and “rules” really interesting as that is something I have also struggled with. What is your advice for striking that balance between promoting your work and creating content that is authentic rather than artificially following these rules?
Always start with creating content that you’re proud of. I’ve fallen into the trap of writing content that is clickable, or stuffed with keywords to get more visitors to my site. It didn’t feel good to me. What felt good was putting out content that I am proud of, no matter how many people read it.
Of course, your book was published pre COVID-19, but on a topical note, do you have any advice or encouragement for those struggling with mental illness during this time?
I would say, just accept that things are going to feel weird for a while. You’re going to feel sad and scared at times when you thought you would be happy, and vice versa. We’re living in unprecedented times so your mind is still coming to terms with that. However you feel is valid.
Fiona Thomas is the author of two books, Depression in a Digital Age, a mental health memoir, and Out of Office, a freelancing guide. She runs a mental health blog, and offers content writing services for small businesses.
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