PPI member Amy writes her take on how avatars have helped her own mental health.
This blog is written from what I have taken away from being a PPI member for AVATAR2. I felt inspired to share my story because working on the AVATAR2 trial made me think of similar ways Avatars are used to improve mental health. I felt as though it mirrored my own experience of using an Avatar as self-help with my personal goals and anxiety.
Do you ever feel like a Moth among butterflies? - Trying to live your best social butterfly life. All the while hoping not to be found out as the secret moth you really are, by pretending and parading around in your best butterfly costume wings, wanting to fit in. Well, that is how I feel when it comes to social media and photographs.
Since the invention of social media, I feel like everyone loves to document every single day of their lives, or maybe that is just my social circle? As much as I complain, groan or sigh about it, I think I may be envious of how much fun it looks like they are having. The mere sight of someone taking out their phone and trying to take a group photo with me in the frame fills me with venom, I just hate photos of myself. I am jealous that I am not comfortable in my skin, which is painfully transparent - or so it feels to me.
I have been this way since my teens. Never wanting to participate in group photos or take selfies. If I could send a proxy to social events my friends invite me to, wouldn’t we both win? Unless my doppelganger is more popular than me, then I guess they’ve gained a new-old friend and I’m left questioning my life choices.
When it comes to taking photos, it always feels like I've got my best Medusa face on. I want to smile and look natural, but I don't think it comes across well and people always seem to freeze when they see my photo and use 1 of 3 words: Scared, anxious or awkward (which is definitely the opposite of encouragement!)
Enter: my best friend in this story. She is the embodiment of awesome, has a beautiful mind and magical mermaid looks with a hint of 'Sabrina the teenage witch' vibes plus is the Unicorn to my Rainbow. She does her best to keep me updated with technology and social media. I think she is living her best 'Jetsons life' and I'm doing the best I can over in Bedrock next to my neighbours The Flintstone's. My best friend, being her usual caring self, tells me about Snapchat and even makes an Avatar that looks just like me! I am a mixture of impressed, happy and super excited that Avatar me actually looks happy in photos! Not scared, anxious or awkward.
To get you up to speed and cut the story short on my lived experience of mental health, think of me like a hummingbird with anxiety, a majestic sloth with depression and a neutral turtle when it comes to walking the line of both moods. 'Turtle mode' is always a default action when teetering on the axis between 'The Shadow Realm' of depression and the blinding, glittering and bewildering sensory overload that is anxiety. The technical (but boring) way to say it is... "Hi, I suffer with severe depression and anxiety”.
Why am I telling you this? Easy, it's hard to 'perform' in front of a camera. I prefer candid shots; however, most people seem to want to pose and look like they are having fun. It’s as though everyone has attended the same class on 'How to look normal, relaxed and like you’re totally having a fun time!', but I was too anxious to show up that day and missed this life skill lesson. I say this because it feels like everyone does the same 'I'm having fun', 'We’re having fun', or my favourite: 'Look at how much fun we’re having!' pose. Yeah… I just do an uncomfortable stare into the camera and 'I'm here, I'm doing this right now' pose or the one I may be best known for: 'Is she happy, pose?' (However, only people in my inner circle can detect my true smile.)
I digressed twice... Focus!!
My best friend was always asking for me to take a photo of my adventures but I never saw the point before; however, since she made a digital, Avatar me, I made it my mission to try and take photos and add Avatar me into them. To be genuinely honest, I still don't understand why people need to see me in photos. I mean, I’m showing you what I’m doing and where I am, is it necessary for me to be in the scene? I am told yes, yes, it is. So, cue Avatar me -Ready to take my place and show the world (My world, my friends, I still have anxiety so let's not get carried away!) my adventures and day to day happenings, such as trying a new cake (I love cake and fully recommend SAID dal 1923 in Soho!).
I was desperate to overcome my social anxiety, so I decided to try my own kickass DIY exposure therapy to help me tolerate being exposed to awkward social situations, without feeling like a piñata filled with lemons and limes, that if touched or spoken to for longer than my word limit of 100 would explode!
"What was your kick ass DIY exposure therapy?" I hear you ask. Simple, Museums and Art galleries. Why? More like, why not!? I live in London where there are so many of them that are really AMAZING (I mustn’t forget to mention, FREE) You don't look weird or awkward if you go to a museum or gallery alone. You’ll be surprised at the number of people that will just come up to you and talk to you about the exhibition because they are also alone. What I have learned, is that people who are passionate or interested in culture tend to really enjoy discussing it with likeminded people.
Enter me, the moth among butterflies. I wanted to show my friend my adventures and the cool new places I was visiting. Avatar me started to feature heavily in documenting my successes in going out and showing my friend. I found myself thinking, "I want Avatar me to have fun. I want to take photos of Avatar me here and doing this to show my friends!". But also, subconsciously it showed me that I could do it and be okay. Before, I would focus on all the things that went wrong which would prove my anxiety monster correct about how scary the world is. If I had to psychoanalyse myself, I would say ‘Avatar me’ was an extension of me. When I was feeling excited about Avatar me having fun and trying new things, really, I was saying that I am having fun and quietly excited to be braving new experiences, but in a safe, abstract and detached way. Personally, I think Freud would be impressed with my amateur psychoanalysis.
Avatar me really helped me communicate how I felt about an activity or just how my day was. Previously, people have just assumed that I am anxious or not having fun because of my inability to naturally smile. Even if I was feeling that way, I have always hated when it’s been pointed out or I felt that it showed. I am so grateful that we live in a digital age with avatars - the potential is limitless. Of course, there are downsides such as a 'Terminator situation'; however, this isn't that kind of blog. The benefits I personally have experienced and can imagine are so positive and definitely far from a Sci-Fi Thriller… said every main character in a Sci-Fi Thriller (kidding!).
Perhaps the future of mental health could involve using an Avatar version of yourself during therapy to provide perspective and demonstrate why something may be helpful or harmful; to aid with communicating your thoughts and emotions. Or for others like me, a software that allows them to see an avatar of themselves at places they want to go - a virtual 'positivity mood board' if you will. I think the use of technology and Avatars in the future is very exciting and I look forward to what the future holds!
The last thing I want to convey is the importance of being seen and voicing the things you care about. I have always struggled with feeling misunderstood or people not really seeing me.. But, I think no matter how you do it, find your voice and be seen, whether that is with or without technology and with or without Avatars. I just happen to feel seen and heard using ‘Avatar me’. It can just always show the emotions I want to express, which for someone who genuinely struggles, oftentimes without people realising or understanding fully, is a really big deal.
So, remember to be seen and heard. Your voice is important and whatever version of yourself you wish to present to the world is valid and beautiful! 🙂
- Amy Grant