Building Relationships Online: Chris Stedman

Join me in kicking off OCD Awareness Week with Chris Stedman, whose book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives comes out October 20! Skim Chris’s bio and you’ll see Yale and Harvard…CNN and PBS…The Atlantic and The Washington Post…I guess what I’m saying is welcome to the big time, Chris.

Seriously, I’m so honored he took the time to share his experience with OCD and talk about his book. If you can’t wait until next week, you can preorder now. And consider ordering from one of Chris’s favorite Twin Cities bookstores, Moon Palace Books, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, or Subtext Books—he’ll be doing virtual book events with each of them!

Let’s talk about the timing of IRL: You’ve been working on it for years and it’s coming out when pretty much the whole world is trying to make meaningful virtual connections with loved ones and new friends alike. Although you didn’t plan for it to be a guidebook to living through a pandemic, what could readers apply during this period of isolation?

It’s so strange for me to be on time for once—though to be fair to myself, if I’m late for something it’s often because I was checking my door a few times to make sure it was locked. Seriously though, I’m grateful this book has arrived when it has. Obviously this year has been a horrible one for me and so many others, which is something I don’t delight in at all. But I’m grateful because I write so that my writing will be useful. Well, I often write just for myself, as a way of making sense of what I think about something—but if I’m publishing something, it’s with the hope that it can help others navigate similar questions. While I’m very unhappy about the circumstances in which this book is arriving, I’m glad it’s coming at a time when it can potentially help people try to make sense of a challenging moment.

I was doing final edits on the book in the early days of the pandemic, and a number of people asked if I was going to make any significant changes as a result. But I felt, or hoped, that the book really speaks to this moment already, maybe even more than I could if I’d tried to make changes to speak to the moment. I really do hope it can be useful for people struggling with the fact that so much of life has had to move online, as so many of us are.

In IRL you say that while OCD itself doesn’t affect everyone, “OCD symptoms are repetitive behaviors used to neutralize or suppress unwanted anxious thoughts, which may sound familiar to anyone active on social media. The regular checking to see if someone we haven’t heard back from has posted on Instagram; the repeated refreshing to see if anyone’s liked the selfie we just posted.” In that same vein, then, can we learn to use social media in a healthier way using some of the principles of OCD treatment?

I think so, yes! The biggest part of managing my OCD—and I think this comes through in the book—is working on my relationship to uncertainty. But whether or not we have OCD, most of us find uncertainty unbearable; we’re wired to resist it, to try to resolve or avoid it. That struggle takes particular, maladaptive forms for people with OCD, of course, but we all experience it. Working to improve our ability to sit in uncertainty—and developing strategies for what to do when the discomfort inevitably rears its head, especially in ways that harm us—is something that all of us can benefit from, online and off.

That said, I do think there’s a specific dynamic at work on the internet that makes OCD treatment particularly instructive. So many of us log on reflexively, not knowing why we’re going online. I’m bored but YouTube will fix that. I’m lonely but I can get a feeling of connection on Twitter. These needs are real, and they can be met in real ways online when we’re being intentional. But when we’re not aware why we’re logging on or what needs we’re trying to meet, then our actions are unreflective. They will be guided by a desire to stamp out the uncertainty that can arise in boredom or loneliness, even when what we actually need is to pay attention to what that uncertainty is telling us. So bringing a bit more intention and self-awareness to our digital lives, and a willingness to embrace uncertainty—things that have been at the heart of learning to manage my OCD—could help us have an experience of the internet that makes us feel more like ourselves, I think. I haven’t always been aware that my OCD behaviors were attempts to address other things, but becoming more aware has helped me become more intentional, and the same has been true of my digital habits.

Having OCD means struggling with uncertainty, feeling an almost desperate need to know the answers, and working on OCD means learning to accept uncertainty. Did going through therapy for OCD prepare you for any of the uncertainty COVID-19 has caused?

It did. As you know, I published an essay on this during the pandemic—about how earlier experiences with scabies and OCD prepared me for this moment. That doesn’t mean this moment has been easy. But one thing I’ve recognized this year is the immense value of working with the same care provider for three years straight, and constantly putting in effort toward managing my OCD. My OCD often focuses on fears of contamination, so just like my experience with scabies, a pandemic is kind of a perfect storm for me. But I’ve been handling it much better than I would have ever expected, in part because of years of work, but also because I spent the last few years thinking a lot about how to make life online feel more connective and more real for me. All the reading, interviewing, and reflecting I did for this book has been really useful for me personally.

I used to think that while meeting someone through social media was okay, the relationship would never truly develop or hold much meaning unless we eventually met in person. What would you have said to Past Alison when she insisted that social media should only be a starting point?

It’s such a common line of thinking because it’s a message we’ve absorbed from the dawn of the internet. Even now, after working on this book for years, I still catch myself thinking that way in moments. It shows up overtly and also very subtly. But all I need to do is look at my own experiences for proof to the contrary. So I don’t think it’s something you can be told; I think it begins by looking at your own experiences honestly and asking yourself if it’s really true that “real” life only occurs offline. I don’t think I know anyone who can really say that truthfully. My hope with IRL is not that it convinces people that I’m right about things, but rather that it gives them an opportunity to reflect on their own digital life, and I think if you do, you will see that it is very much a space where life happens.

That said, life online is different from life offline. It has strengths and creates opportunities that aren’t possible offline, but it also has its own challenges and limitations. I do have relationships that (so far) are online-only, which have offered me things I haven’t found offline. But I also experience kinds of connection and intimacy offline that, at least as of now, aren’t possible online. A lot of it comes down to expectation management, I think. Do we expect our digital relationships to function exactly the same as our offline ones, or can we allow them to be their own kind of relationship, with their own strengths and weaknesses?

One of your most cherished relationships was 100 percent in real life—you had an unbreakable bond with your sweet dog, Tuna, who died unexpectedly in July. You shared her with the world via Twitter, though, so her loss affected more people than you may ever know. What has it been like to grieve online, to receive tributes to Tuna and hear what she meant to people who’d never met her?

I’ve tried to be open with my grief, even when it hasn’t been easy. Early on after she died I decided that, for me, it would feel wrong to keep her death to myself after sharing so much of her life with people online. She wasn’t just my dog; she had a community of people who loved her, online and off. And it’s not purely out of obligation or a sense of what’s right; I’ve also found a lot of comfort in the fact that so many others saw how special she was, too, and have shared in my grief.

You stopped drinking nine years ago, a decision you’ve referred to as a gift you gave yourself. Had you used alcohol as a coping method for OCD, or anxiety or depression? What effect has being sober had on your life, your mental health?

Absolutely I did, but I didn’t know it at the time. After I quit drinking, I began to recognize how much I’d been using it to self-medicate. Even still, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how I was using alcohol to cope with my anxiety, depression, and OCD rather than getting treatment for them. Initially I just thought alcohol had helped me get past my social anxiety or shyness; those larger recognitions came later. As I write in IRL, after being treated for OCD in adolescence, I assumed I’d been “cured” of it when the more obvious behaviors went away, so I wasn’t aware of how it was still manifesting or how I was unconsciously managing it. Drinking was one thing; for years smoking was another. And I’ve used social media to manage my anxiety and OCD, too. Quitting drinking has helped me recognize these things, and recognizing them has helped me manage them more intentionally, which is a big part of why I consider sobriety such a gift.

If you could share just one piece of advice with others who have OCD, what would it be?

I used to have a lot of shame around my OCD, and kept it from people. But as I’ve opened up about it more, I’ve been surprised by how many people are not only accepting, understanding, and happily accommodating, but also by how opening up about it has brought me closer to people. I’m not defined by my OCD, but it’s a significant part of me. Keeping it from people meant they only knew parts of me. I don’t think anyone has to share this piece of themselves with all or any of the people in their lives, but doing so has felt like a weight lifted for me.