Deleting Delusions

Why I finally quit social media

Taylor Herring (Flickr/taylorherringpr)
Taylor Herring (Flickr/taylorherringpr)

I once tried to jump out of a plane. High above the Atlantic Ocean, on a commercial airliner headed to Germany in 1999, I made my way to the back exit and attempted to open the door. A flight attendant swiftly intercepted me, grabbing my hand and asking what I was doing.

“I just need to get out,” I told her.

Within seconds, I was on the floor and heard an announcement requesting a physician on board. Within minutes, I was injected with valium. Within hours, I was in an ambulance.

Mercifully, this was before 9/11, so I wasn’t immediately pegged as a prospective terrorist. Just an ethnically ambiguous madwoman in need of help. Years later, airport security would pull me aside absent any such commotion. All to ask where I was born, where my parents were born, where their parents were born, as well as their names and the names of all my grandfathers back five generations. Seething inside, I would respond softly: Chicago, Tehran, Shiraz, Jazbi, Ahmad, Muhammad, Ali, and, I don’t know, probably a lot more Muhammads and Alis before that.

But 1999 was a different millennium. So instead of being questioned, arrested, or detained, I was simply taken to the nearest emergency room after landing.

“Panic attack,” the doctor in Düsseldorf told me and my boyfriend. Being young, in a rush, and wildly in love, we required no further explanation before returning to the airport and continuing on to Rome. By some miracle of Allah or Aesculapius, the rest of our trip went off without a hitch. And to this day, I remember it fondly.

Only years later, after a bipolar diagnosis and florid psychosis, was I able to identify that alleged “panic attack” as my first serious break from reality. Because it wasn’t panic that led me to the back of that aircraft; it was delusion. I truly believed that there was nothing remotely odd about my opening an exit door midflight. I truly believed that doing so would have zero negative consequences for anyone aboard. And I truly believed that I could float out effortlessly into the ether, catch a bit of fresh air, and easily reboard without incident.

That was how delusion first eclipsed reality for me, turning an average I-just-need-to-get-out sensation into an alarming just-a-slight-pinch-now injection. Like a pebble striking a windshield, that brief delusion left an imperceptible crack. For more than a decade, it spread silently across every inch of my psyche, bit by bit, and then all at once, shattering my entire sense of self and truth. Like its milder prelude at 30,000 feet, this break also began up in the air: 20 stories high. Yet again, I was convinced I could fly. But this time, the delusion morphed and multiplied into full-blown psychosis, persuading me not only that I could float off a 20th-floor balcony, but also that I was a prophet, that my death was imminent, and that I’d just won the lottery despite never having purchased a ticket.

Tranquilizers and tiramisu couldn’t fix this. I needed Haldol and a hospital. Lucky for me, I got both—and luckier still, they worked. Or more precisely, they helped, rendering me eternally grateful. For though no cure exists for bipolar disorder at present, there are effective medications and therapies without which I’d be dead by now. That said, I’m equally grateful that my delusions have left me with a hard-won insight in their wake: reality is a gift—and it’s highly underrated.

When I say this out loud, however, I often face backlash via some version of the following: “The world is full of death, poverty, hatred, disease, and disaster. Reality is depressing and hopeless. How could you even think, let alone say, such a thing?”

My reply is consistent: “How could I not?” I know where delusion can lead us, and I promise, it’s not a place we want to go. For this terrain is toxic. The waterways are pure poison. And the air is polluted with lethal lies, divisions, and conspiracy theories. In other words, this entire ecosystem is essentially uninhabitable—and yes, it is our present day.

We are already living in a post-reality world, full of alternative facts and virtual traps. Indeed, delusion is now so rampant that many of us have unwittingly confused it for reality. Not because of clinical psychosis, but because of cyber hypnosis.

With more than four billion people now active on social media platforms, our virtual lives are beginning to devour our actual ones. As we grow more attached to corporately constructed online realities over scientifically substantiated actual ones, the truths that once united us are morphing into delusions that keep dividing us. In effect, we’re all crazy now—and we’re getting crazier.

Having lost touch with reality on several occasions, I know better than to romanticize madness. And though I acknowledge the difference between virtual reality and actual insanity, I suspect that the more time we spend in the former, the closer we’ll find ourselves to the latter. For in the absence of a shared reality, we all begin to fall apart. Physically, mentally, and spiritually, we distance ourselves from one another as we commit ever more deeply to our own varied virtual worlds. Yet being human, we still crave community. So we turn to social media because it’s easy and popular, like junk food that satiates without nourishing us.

Though not as quick or automatic, there is a healthier alternative: a shared reality too vast and sacred to fit on any screen. Just follow the soft hum of a bumblebee or the sweet pull of an ocean breeze, and you will find it. Keep going, and it will lead you to the most pristine places on our planet. Places that can inspire, heal, and resurrect us despite our hellbent impulse to destroy them. Places like northwestern Montana, where I spent a summer two decades ago, soaking in the most spectacular wilderness I’ve ever beheld. Even after a spate of devastating recent wildfires, its majestic mountains persist, propping up dazzling, albeit dwindling, glaciers that still melt into stunning waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and streams.

This is where reality can take us. To stay, however, we must resist the modern instinct to pull out our phones, to snap five or 50 photos, to crop and filter them, and to share them on Instagram. Because the minute we enter that screen, caught up in the need to project the perfect image of ourselves online, we lose track of what’s around us, and delusions can quickly creep back in. Don’t believe me? Worldwide, roughly one person a week now dies by selfie. Add distracted driving, online bullying, mass marketing, and suicide into the mix, and it’s clear that selfie-induced deaths are only the beginning.

But there’s a larger issue at play here, one that threatens entire families, communities, and even countries. When we dissolve en masse into our screens, detaching from the world around us, we don’t just endanger life and limb. We also endanger the same essential instinct that led us to social media in the first place: the human longing to connect—with one another, with nature, with love. Often, in our well-meaning attempts to casually connect with acquaintances online, we end up failing to connect with the people, places, and pursuits we cherish most. Surely, plenty of positive connections exist on social media. But deeper connection requires focused time, presence, and attention—all of which such platforms tend to disrupt.

That said, many of us have legitimate reasons to stay on social media, which allows people to easily keep up with faraway friends and family, maintain professional networks and get jobs, find lost pets, connect with blood and organ donors, stay informed about local events, and much more. I, however, have no good reasons left to stay, which is why—after more than 15 years on these platforms, carefully cultivating digital avatars I thought mattered and could help me make a difference in the world—I finally deleted all of my social media accounts at the end of last year. Not for a week or a month or a year, but for good.

In the end, I scrapped these services because they no longer served me. Although, looking back, I’m not sure they ever did. The only reason I stuck with them for so long was because I truly believed that the benefits outweighed the harms. I was wrong in so many ways.

First and foremost, I naïvely believed that social media could facilitate the functioning of global democracy. Hence, my use of it—Twitter especially—skyrocketed during Iran’s 2009 Green Movement and the ensuing Arab Spring. As an Iranian, a Muslim, a woman, an activist, and a resident of this planet, I had high hopes for those movements. But few panned out. Still, I kept faith in the positive power of social media.

So when the massive, women-led protests in Iran began last September—sparked by the death of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Zhina Amini, while in police custody for allegedly wearing her hijab “improperly”—I again turned to social media. Not just to follow and shine a light on events in Iran, but also to show support for Iranians on the ground.

Nevertheless, the regime has continued to beat, detain, rape, torture, and execute its own citizens simply for demanding their basic human rights. Certainly, social media can be a powerful tool in helping dissidents disseminate facts and footage from the ground, assuming Internet access even exists. Still, these corporate platforms are not replacements for skilled journalism, as they carry an unconscionably high risk (and documented history) of misinformation and disinformation alike. Worse yet, their profit-driven business models tend to prioritize engagement over decency.

Facebook’s own leaked internal research, from a 2018 presentation, found that the its algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” and warned that “unchecked,” they would promote “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” This has serious consequences for a world increasingly susceptible to polarization and nationalization. Considering the devastating contemporary conflicts in the United States, Myanmar, India, the Central African Republic, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and beyond, it seems that social media companies are tearing us apart at least as much as they’re bringing us together.

So understandably, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have not freed Iran, and they never will. Only Iranians inside Iran can do that. And they need more than posts or tweets. They need solid reporting, Internet access, and funding to organize and survive. This means that the United States must maintain sanctions on the brutal Iranian regime while ending the convoluted sanctions that effectively make it impossible for many of us in the diaspora and beyond to transfer funds to those on the frontlines of the fight for a free Iran. It also means that Western countries ought to welcome Iranian refugees with the same urgency and empathy they’ve extended to Ukrainian ones.

But social media companies can’t lift sanctions or grant asylum or outlaw discrimination against non-European refugees. Only governments can do that. Americans can help by contacting our representatives directly and respectfully, as well as by running for office ourselves. As cathartic as it may feel, insulting government officials on Twitter isn’t civic engagement. It isn’t activism or even slacktivism. It’s performative outrage, virtue signaling, and a waste of precious time and energy. Yet we keep falling for it. Because social media companies have brilliantly engineered their platforms to deliver addictive, intermittent dopamine hits that allow us to confuse followers for friends, retweets for recognition, and likes for love.

This brings me to the most embarrassing reason I stayed on social media for so long: ego. I genuinely believed that my posts, tweets, likes, and retweets and the blue check mark on my account actually meant something, that all the followers I’d amassed proved that I was worthy and important. I also embraced the delusion that social media was vital to my personal and professional success as a writer and activist. Without it, I was sure I’d miss out on parties, protests, and publishing contracts. Yet an honest accounting forced me to admit that my ability to party, protest, and publish has been far more enfeebled than enabled by social media. In short, I haven’t built my career on posts, tweets, and feeds. I’ve built it on books, essays, and speeches. And I haven’t built my strongest communities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’ve built them on porches, around firepits, and under the stars.

Still, when a publicist at a publishing house pressured me to join Instagram and Pinterest several years ago, I caved. I figured that if she thought it was important, then she must know something I didn’t. But even massive social media followings don’t necessarily translate into book sales. And there’s no clear-cut evidence that social media actually drives them.

Ultimately, my Instagram and Pinterest presence did far less to boost sales of my latest book than a single essay I wrote for The New York Times or a single message I sent out to my mailing list. But my publisher’s marketing and publicity team was so busy ordering interns to craft tiny squares of digital clip art for both platforms that they neither leveraged that mailing list nor helped place that essay. I did both on my own. Because for me, succeeding as a writer has had nothing to do with Instagram or Pinterest and everything to do with, well, writing.

To be fair, surviving has also played a big part, given my brain’s propensity to turn on me. As someone living with a bipolar diagnosis who has spent more than a decade writing and speaking about mental health, I’ve learned firsthand how social media can impair it. And I’m not alone. Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Leuven in Belgium have found that Facebook use predicts diminished subjective well-being among young adults. More recently, economists at MIT, Tel Aviv University, and Bocconi University in Milan found that the introduction of Facebook at 775 American colleges, between 2004 and 2006, resulted in significant detrimental effects on student mental health. In fact, we’ve known about the varied negative health outcomes associated with social media use for years now.

Regardless of our psychological baselines, these platforms are built to mess with our heads. Even so, this emerging evidence, horrifying and compelling as it was, didn’t convince me to quit social media. I’m not nearly that rational. In the end, it took something far less scientific and far more prosaic to come to my senses: a single encounter IRL, sort of.

On a recent transcontinental flight, I sat next to a digital native with whom I exchanged zero words. To my left sat the same man who’d joined me on that foreboding flight to Düsseldorf, my then-boyfriend and now-husband of more than 20 years.

Just after takeoff, he nudged me from the aisle, tilting his head toward our seatmate at the window. “Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock …” he whispered at a frenzied pace as we watched this teenage girl scroll through her TikTok feed faster than our Xennial minds could interpret anything coherent.

She couldn’t have been more than 16, and she spent that entire five-hour flight in a trance. She refused soda and snacks and didn’t once get up or even change position (legs-crossed, head bent over her phone). She certainly didn’t lunge toward the literal exits like I had done nearly a quarter-century before. No doctors were called. No valium was dispensed. No ambulances were summoned.

By all accounts, this child was the modern picture of sanity—and that, it turns out, was the final straw for me. Not the sum total of all of the aforementioned research and realizations, but this total stranger.

“Remember how our parents told us that television would rot our brains?” I asked my husband without waiting for an answer. “This must be a million times worse. How can this not be rotting her brain? I can barely stand to watch for more than a few seconds. How is this entertaining for her?”

“It’s a different generation,” he responded, looking up from his copy of The Three-Body Problem. “Their brains can take it. Our brains didn’t rot on television. Hers won’t rot on TikTok.”

But I wasn’t convinced. I was sure my brain had rotted at least a little on account of all the bad television I’d viewed in my 43 years on earth. And something about what was happening right next to me felt even more insidious. So much so that instead of finishing Judith Grisel’s Never Enough, as I’d anticipated upon boarding, I spent the entire flight pondering what this scene portended for the future of our species. When we landed, I held no answers. I had, however, made a decision: I was done with social media.

When I deleted my Facebook account soon after that flight, I had hundreds of unread messages and unanswered friend requests. They’d been there for years, haunting me daily, because as a vocal mental health advocate, I knew that dozens of those messages were likely from strangers who should’ve been contacting a psychiatrist, not a bipolar memoirist. Nonetheless, I answered a lot of those messages over the years, offering words of support and lists of resources that were readily available—no doubt, in more articulate renderings—within books and essays I’d already published. Because I’m a writer, not a therapist or a professional pen pal. And in the long run, I am most useful to myself and my readers when I am writing for all of us.

What’s more, I’m not serving anyone by reading the countless bigoted missives I’ve grown so accustomed to receiving on social media. No one has ever threatened to rape or kill me in person, or even via phone or snail mail for that matter. But several unscrupulous souls (or bots, for all I know) have readily done so online. In all, I’ve never faced even a tiny fraction of the hostility in real life that I’ve faced on social media simply for being a woman, let alone a Muslim or an Iranian. I don’t think this is because people are kinder IRL than URL; I think it’s because they’re better. Our virtual selves may be the most filtered and photoshopped versions of our physical forms, but let’s face it, they can also reflect the most repugnant and revolting versions of our spiritual ones. So while choosing reality over delusion may make us seem more homely and humdrum, it can also make us more honest and humane. Or at least that’s what I hope.

Whatever the case, reality is still out here, free for everyone to reclaim and enjoy. But we must be willing to part with delusion first. I don’t say this as some luddite or technophobe. Having grown up in the ’80s and ’90s, I belong to the last generation of digital immigrants born before the Internet. Despite lacking access to it as children, we came of age right alongside it. I am still in awe of its power. I still love what it can do for us. I still delight in using it nearly every day. But I refuse to let its social media platforms hijack any more of my time, attention, or sanity.

Given that these apps are designed to be addictive, deleting my accounts felt understandably disconcerting at first—especially as most services made me wait at least 30 days until I could fully abandon them. Meanwhile, they constantly tried to lure me back, even nudging me to log into countless other sites through theirs during these mandatory waiting periods. Of course, if I fell for it, I’d have been forced to start all over, deleting the accounts again and entering a whole new waiting period. If anything, this barrage of enticement just strengthened my resolve to quit by confirming what I suspected all along: I’d been performing free labor for these corporations from the start. Upon realizing this, my initial discomfort and anxiety (dare I say, withdrawal) evolved into a strong sense of relief and serenity. I began to better attend to the needs of myself and the world around me. I took my first extended vacation in three years, engaged more with my friends and family, connected more with members of my community, explored the outdoors more. I walked more, prayed more, rested more, read more, wrote more, loved more, lived more.

If we truly want to thrive in a state of wonder, devotion, and joy, then we must not escape the world. We must reenter and reclaim it for ourselves. Such a mass reunion with reality won’t demand the demise of social media as much as it will require the rise of social awareness.

Because these platforms aren’t just distracting us; they’re dividing us. With outrage, hostility, and polarization driving higher user engagement, retention, and revenue, the attention economy has little incentive to factor humanity into its algorithms.

So it’s up to us to decide how we interact with social media, taking our own values, strengths, and vulnerabilities into account. Personally, I no longer trust my brain under the influence of these algorithms. Steadier minds may do perfectly fine under their spell, easily returning to reality without quitting social media entirely. Just not me. I needed to get out.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Melody Moezzi is an author, attorney, activist, and creative writing professor. Her latest book The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life, won a 2021 Wilbur Award.


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