All too often I’ll find myself scrolling through apps such as Instagram or Twitter – and it’s like looking through a window into an impenetrable, digital Eden. A glimpse at Insta reveals the rich and famous on yachts and holidays, my family share posts about being together, but are so very far away from me, and strangers with come-to-bed-eyes lure me in with sculpted bodies that would put Michalangelo’s David to shame. Before me is garnished and served; a never-ending smorgasbord of sexy, happy, successful folks, doing sexy, happy and successful things; every one gently whispering through my iPhone’s glass to ‘Like’ them. And I do. 👍
But once I put my phone down and those images boil away, my mind tries to empty the cache of photographic distraction and I’m unlikely to recall any of those specific images in my conscious thoughts. But the latency of those images stains my mind. When I jump in the shower and catch my reflection in the mirror, my eyes are drawn to the flesh on my stomach where a six-pack should apparently be – I’m disappointed (even though the idea of going to the gym is as appealing to me as wearing contact lenses that have been in a thick Tabasco sauce marinade). I acknowledge that there are prettier people out there. I brush it off and go about my day. But I’ve started it with a judgement of myself. I never used to do this.
I’ll nip to my lounge and walk past the many posters that cover my hallway of my happiest, successful, theatre productions. I’ll recall a moment from the rehearsal room and enjoy a few seconds of happy nostalgia, the first I see is Marina Sirtis in Dark Sublime. I hear her voice and smile. But then my eyes are drawn to the dates of the production and I start adding up how many months it’s been since I’ve last worked. I’m disappointed again. I then think of the younger, sexier director who tweeted earlier that he’s about to do another play on Broadway. I wonder if I’ll work again.
And as the weekend gets closer and closer, I wait for a text message to be invited to a party with gorgeous people, in a gorgeous club, so that I will hopefully end up doing something gorgeous with a gorgeous person… The invite doesn’t come.
Instead, I curl up with my cat and before falling asleep, I aggravate this nagging, daily disappointment by taking a trip back to Insta-ville to see the gorgeous people, in the gorgeous club. They’re all there. I mean, they’re literally all doing exactly what I’m telling myself I want. Perhaps it’s a longing for how things were when I was in my twenties, painting the town pink in any bar or club that would have me and my friends. But, I don’t know any of these people really. Sure they might ‘like’ my tweets or perhaps I’ve met them once or twice, but the cool kids are all doing what I once used to do. And They seem so happy. I want to be in the photo with them, doing shots at the bar and falling into a cab with someone later. Instead, I fall asleep with a sense of self loathing, an undistracted loneliness consumes me and I ask myself, why is my life so terrible? Does no-one want me?
But my life isn’t terrible.
This week I was taken to hospital in an ambulance before the weekend due to a very nasty virus that resulted in my collapsing at home because I couldn’t breathe. Today, as I recover in bed – my cat spent the day by my side – as if guarding me from harm – like he knew his world (me) needed him. My best friend Josh Wichard WhatsApp’d me to ask me what my favourite fruit was. I told him, only to hear my doorbell ding-dong to see him stood in front of me with a hamper in his hands, filled with a luxury bath kit, tissue paper, pineapple, grapes and a card with words that I will cherish forever. After he left, I was overwhelmed. He was there when I needed him. In reality. Of course, I posted a picture of the hamper he gave to me on Instagram. It got 20 or so likes. But each and every one of those ‘likes’ were worth a penny to the richness that I felt for his priceless gesture.
My mum and sister phoned to make sure I was alright, both being nurses the only picture they wanted to see was a shot of the box of medication I had been given to make sure I was taking it correctly. And to hear my voice and know I was safe. My mum also told me she was going to send me some money because she knew I had been struggling with my tax bill. I didn’t ask her for help, but she had been secretly saving and wanted it to be a surprise to help me – her son. She must have been thinking about me every day to get some money together, working every hour she could, and yet days before I had been unhappy, because some bloke I met in the Groucho ages ago didn’t return my texts. Why on earth did I feel crushed not to hear from him, when instead I could be speaking to my old mum, or even better, getting on a train to see her one weekend?
My mentor, and indeed my favourite playwright who was my greatest inspiration growing up as a lost gay boy, text me with advice about how to sleep when you have a terrible cough (the secret is lots of pillows stacked high and sitting as upright as possible). My actual hero is in my phone. I could be seeing the very person who inspired me to come out as a child, who wrote what I think is the greatest gay play ever written, but my head tells me I should be more concerned about the potentially influential strangers who don’t follow me back on Twitter yet. This is ludicrous.
My oldest friend from drama school checked in with me too, she’s having a serious operation and I didn’t know about it. I felt like a bad friend and cursed myself for having greater urges to look at social media than reach out and have coffee with her instead. How has social media retrained my brain to reach for an app rather than a person?
The other day a friend and my most recent leading-lady, Marina Sirtis (who is in the poster of the play Dark Sublime that I mentioned earlier), came back to the UK (she lives in LA). Over the past couple of years I’ve seen her go from strength to strength, realising dreams from youth and fulfilling career ambitions that she has always deserved, including making her West End debut with me last year.
Her partner tragically passed away a few weeks before Christmas. The news punched me in the gut harder than a train collision. I try not to get too close to my cast mates, but this extraordinary woman infiltrated my heart the moment I met her – both by her talent and her character. I spent weeks, thinking about her being all by herself and the oceans between us. I opened presents on Christmas Day, often turning to my family and saying that I hoped Marina wasn’t alone. I had the urge to just get on a plane and turn up on her doorstep, but as someone who has lost loved ones, I understand that sometimes the last thing you want is company. I longed to hold her and tell her that everything was going to be alright. I felt helpless. I would regularly see her tweets and send her messages, she would always reply, but the voice that I read was not the person I had said goodbye to on her triumphant final performance. She sounded broken.
A cast member had organised for me and the cast to get together to see her in the brief window she was back. The day came when we would all be reunited; she walked into a a restaurant to discover all of us there for dinner and bottomless Prosecco. She took a couple of steps in her characteristically impossible boots, before her tears fell, and then the laughter followed, we put our arms around her and hours later, she was reminded of our friendship for life. We came together to create a piece of theatre that was beautiful and good. We succeeded. And our reward was a bond that only theatre people will understand when you’ve been in one of those kinds of companies that you only refer to as special.
We posted a picture or two on Instagram before we stumbled into the Soho night. But why did we post a picture? Our heads and hearts are filled with a life-event in our friendship that can never come close to what a picture taken on a smartphone can communicate – and I never want to apply a filter to any of it. Indeed, it is Marina’s distinct lack of filter that makes her so impressive, honest and fine.
One of my heroes, Freddie Mercury said, ‘Someone will always be prettier, someone will always be smarter, someone will always be younger. But they will never be you’.
I know there are plenty of people out there who appear to live perfect digital lives. But recently, when I look at social media, I’m finding myself thinking about what lies beneath the images. I wonder what moments occurred that no-one dare take a picture of. The quiet moments of loneliness and despair that I’ve also been feeling. I can’t be alone in this. Is the guy who only has pictures of himself in his pants truly happy? He might be. But I know I’d be unhappy if that was all I had to show. Are those who only tweet anger and bile really terrible people? Or are they just desperate for anyone to listen to them again. Are the big crowds of smiley young gays taking to the streets of Manchester and Soho really living their best lives? Yes, they have the beauty of youth, but read further down their timelines and their other posts read like children; crying out for a cuddle and gratification. That isn’t a judgment, that is a genuine reference to men in their twenties tweeting publicly that they need a cuddle. I worry for them, indeed, so many of the people in my life who have killed themselves have all been younger than me. Is social media killing us?
Those whom appear to be perfect would have so little in common with the handful of the extraordinary people I’ve mentioned above. I’ve seen them all at their best, but more importantly I’ve also seen them at their worst, the most vulnerable, indeed their so-called ‘ugly sides’. It is their imperfections, trust and dependability that has been the backbone of our friendships. Not washboard stomachs and Twitter banter. And sometimes I think I take them for granted. By peering into the looking glass of social media too frequently, these apps have warped who my mind is telling me I should be longing to be with, but fortunately life isn’t all social media, and events in reality remind my heart of what really matters. And I’m glad I’ve realised that social media is habitually and subversively conditioning me to desire the unattainable, the strange and the worthless. We all must monitor what we feed ourselves each day.
As I recovered from the illness, the day went on and more messages came in from all across the world wishing me a speedy recovery. Most saying literally, or cryptically, that they loved me. And I know that’s better than being liked.
By Andrew Keates.