There’s something about a “secret” Facebook group that feels secure. It seems like it would keep secrets and challenges hidden safely away, just as I relied on the safety of the secretive, no-address private shelter where I was living and the post office box I used as my mailing address.
But somehow, something I had said in this “secret” Facebook group had been made known. And now, at almost midnight, a cop was banging at the door of the lady who had been keeping me safe in a secret place. My safekeeper was startled, anxious, not feeling safe herself. Neither was I.
How did a “secret” Facebook conversation bring the cops to an address I didn’t have to perform a suicide prevention “welfare check”?
Did Facebook send the cops to my shelter? And if so, how did they find me?
Most nights at quarter to midnight, I’d be sound asleep. That’s part of what it means to live successfully with bipolar disorder. You know that left to their own devices, your brain or those voices or that wild energy will disorder your life. You grab a sledgehammer and some 4x8s and start constructing a scaffolding that, on most days, can hold the chaos in check and create a shape for living. Part of my usual scaffolding is a regular sleep schedule. And I’d been good at managing my sleep for most of 30-some years.
This was not among my successful times. For several months, I’d been living in a friend’s basement, previously her husband’s music teaching and recording studio, now an apartment. The day I arrived, she was signing the divorce papers he sent. He’d gotten her best friend pregnant and was planning a wedding. Good for the immigrant girlfriend. Pretty tough on my friend.
In the weeks and months prior, we had bonded deeply over her husband’s betrayal. Like her, I was also the wife of a musician who relied on me for financial support and household management. Like her, I came from a family whose traditions made the idea of divorcing my husband unthinkable. And also like her, I felt betrayed.
My husband of nearly two decades had recently informed me that he was a woman in a man’s body. I’d found his leopard-print bras and long blonde wig in what was once his underwear drawer; the cat had made toys of the size 12EEEE high heels stashed under his bureau. I had migrated from our bedroom to our guest room, then, after “conversation” became a one-sided expression of his shouts and tears, put a lock on the guest room door.
Even before my husband’s announcement, I was living through difficult times. I was about 18 months out of work, trying to patch together an income from short-term contracts and a new home-based care business. My mother had just died. My father, who lived 900 miles from us, was sick. And this new challenge my husband had tossed into our life like a grenade: it was to be our secret alone. No family could know. No friends could be told. He especially needed me to keep it secret from friends at the conservative church we attended and where he worked two part-time jobs. The church would have fired him in an instant if they knew.
I tried scheduling conversations with him at coffee shops… people at nearby tables would move away from the evident hostility. I attended a different church for a year, just to be free to talk and pray with someone about what was happening. I discovered, almost by accident, that while my husband had kept me silent among our circle, he’d been seeking support from mutual friends at church.
That’s when I availed myself of the offered apartment. My friend had been running an under-the-radar shelter for women over a number of years, starting with a Muslim immigrant woman whose husband beat her. I would be the third woman to occupy her guest rooms that year.
These kinds of changes demand every trick in the bipolar stability book. No one sleeps well under these circumstances, but to sleep badly would destroy me. I carefully managed caffeine and sugar. I kept extremely regular hours. I let my audio Bible play all night to steer my racing thoughts onto a more comforting track. I ran a fan for white noise. I took to leaving a light on in an adjacent room, so I was never in the dark. I even slept on a sofa instead of a bed, to fool myself into believing I was just lying down for a quick nap.
But this night, I was up late. It was a bad night. I don’t even know why. I’m not sure that during these kinds of life experiences there often is a clear “reason why” one night is worse than another. It was a bad night because on that particular night, all the waves of my undesired transition were crashing onto me. My mother had died, my husband was a woman, and under our state’s common-property no-fault divorce law, he would get half of our shared possessions — including our almost-paid-for house and a quarter of the IRA my job had allowed me to amass toward our retirement.
So this night, I’d been online for a couple hours texting into an online support group of women dealing with separation and divorce. The group had been a great blessing to me. It was a place where people understood what I was experiencing and were able to sit with it. No facile words about the good that would come.
Early that evening, I’d acknowledged how desperate I felt. I said that I wanted to die — was even considering suicide — but was absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to take any action for at least four months. Because we lived in a community property state, if I died, my husband would get everything. And after the heartbreak I’d been through with my husband, the last thing I wanted to do was to set him up to inherit all of what I had earned. If I cared about being able to will my own money to the people I loved, I couldn’t die while I was still married to him.
The ladies on the line were quick to judge and condemn. God did not want me to die by suicide. I was rejecting God’s good plan for my life if I ended my own life at my own hands.
They were quick to express their own anger and anxiety. A mother had died by suicide. A brother. A friend. Suicide was the most selfish thing a person could do.
They were slow to listen and hear. I was not going to do anything for months. Four months, minimum. 123 days. Wanting to die was how I felt, and God understood that. God had heard it from better people before me — the apostle Paul and the prophet Elijah, to name just two (Philippians 1, 1 Kings 19). Neither of them took their lives either.
When the knock came at the door just before midnight, my landlady answered, of course. The sight of a police officer was disorienting to her. Had something happened to a family member? No, he said; he’d been sent to check on the welfare of the residents.
I have no idea what went through her head. Checking on our welfare? In the middle of the night? There’s no noise in the house, no noise around the house. Had someone seen a prowler outside? Had her own ex-husband called in a false report to harass her?
I was listening from my rooms and I knew almost immediately what was happening. “He’s looking for me,” I told her, and invited him downstairs to where I was living.
The young officer looked around at the main room. Its walls were cheerful in the sunny yellow Tuscan plaster that was popular at the time. It was arranged to provide a workspace with an oversized cherry desk, bookcases, and files; a small “kitchen” equipped with table, chairs, shelves, and countertop appliances; and a seating area. I settled into a pale green Morris chair next to a cherry hutch and invited him to seat himself on the sage green chenille couch.
“This is a pretty nice place,” he said.
Yes, it was.
So he explained that someone had reported me at risk, and the police had sent him to make sure I was alright.
Yes, I said, I was. And I said that I had never suggested I was in imminent harm. I was very upset that my husband of 17 years had come to the conclusion that he was a woman, and very upset that he was requiring me to keep it secret instead of working through it with people we knew. I was very upset to be out of the home that was nearly paid for, thanks to the high income I had earned. I was upset that my husband had managed to obliterate my social capital among our mutual acquaintances by telling a partial and misleading version of our story and by persuading me to keep my own silence to protect his employment. I was upset that to break silence would make me vulnerable for alimony, in addition to the house, the business I’d started, and 25 percent of my retirement that his attorney was claiming.
And I had said — in a private Facebook group of separated and divorced women — that I felt like killing myself. I had also said I would never consider doing it until the divorce was final, months away. By state law, any divorce was a minimum of four months out. There was plenty of time for the rage and despair to burn out.
But someone had seen the word “suicide” and sent up a flare. Who sent the cops to my no-name, no-public-address-listed shelter?
Was it an overly responsible social work professional in that private Facebook group of divorced women? Some professional people still don’t understand the meaning of “imminent harm.” They’d rather call in the big guns than take a chance that they overlooked a symptom.
Was it one of the group’s public school teachers, someone who’d been through “mental health first aid” training and was more ready to jump the gun on a possible diagnosis than trained to assess real clinical need?
Or was it Facebook’s artificial intelligence?
My main takeaway from that night is that we are rapidly running out of safe places to express despair. Once, we took our despair to faith leaders. There was a time when 4 in 10 people in emotional distress sought out a minister first.
Now clergy are being trained in “mental health first aid.” They are learning that they are “incompetent” to provide comfort and support to a person who has run out of hope, and they are being trained in the “competence” of passing us along to professionals licensed to provide medicines. How wise is it to ask clergy for emotional guidance today? They’re being untrained in the skills of spiritual and emotional support, and they’re being retrained to throw us into the therapeutic-industrial complex.
Likewise scout masters. Even caring neighbors. Everyone who has any inclination to nurture others is being trained to find themselves helpless, and to offer the false hope of a psychiatric intervention instead.
Then there are the folks who have any kind of professional caregiving license. Day care workers. School teachers. Social workers and case managers. Support staff in nursing homes and hospitals. Licensing requires them to report any suspicion of abuse, any suspicion of self-harm, any suspicion of the potential for self-harm. And while the social worker or mental health aide might correctly follow protocols in the office (is the danger imminent? is there a plan? have means been procured?), an online conversation seems more fraught. The person with the license has never seen the person who is insisting she would never kill herself in the immediate future. In the office, the licensed professional would probably hear non-imminent harm — a “plan,” as it were, to die no sooner than four months from now.
Online, the licensed professional feels less certain. It can’t hurt to check, right?
Likewise for the people who screen conversations that Facebook has flagged. Better safe than sorry, right?
Except here’s what their “safe” meant to my safety.
I was living with no address, for my security and for the protection of my kind hostess, who loved to care for women in distress but wanted to avoid confrontation with our angry husbands.
Now my name appeared in a police call log, accessible online. It was associated with the address where I had been staying in secret.
I had been using a “secret” Facebook support group as a place to find comfort and compatriots. This secret group was the first place I “met” women who had, like myself, watched their marriage collapse after more than a decade when their husband determined he was gay or transgender. It was a place where I could “talk” with people like me. Except, as it turned out, I couldn’t.
I stopped participating in the group for months. Someone’s attempt to prevent a suicide of which there was no risk prevented me from continuing to use the best support I’d found in several years.
To this day, I have no way of knowing whether an overzealous member of the group flagged me to Facebook or whether Facebook’s own algorithms called me out. Nor do I have any way to know how my non-address became known to the city police after they got the “welfare check” call.
We’ve all read about how Facebook experimented with modifying its users’ emotional states. We’re anxious about new patent filings that would help Facebook identify our moods by observing our faces through our webcams. And for more than five years, Facebook has been trying, one way, then another, to figure out if a user is suicidal and then to stop them from hurting themselves.
Some part of us can understand why good and kind people want to help other people to live.
But a much larger part of me says that these good and kind people are entirely lacking in insight as to the consequences of their actions.
When you send the police to a home in the middle of the night, you add a new challenge to an already difficult moment. Will the landlord decide this tenant is a problem and refuse to renew the lease? Will neighbors suspect “something’s wrong” with “those people” and start to keep their distance? Will a person be hospitalized, whether or not “appropriately” by current standards, and face the professional consequences of having an inpatient psych term on their employment record? Will reasonable anxiety escalate to unreasonable paranoia because the police — in my case, professional partners until that day — have been told to look at them with a wary eye?
We still live in a world where emotional distress is grounds for ostracism and discrimination. “Suicide safety” false alarms are just one more way we create distance among people. We redefine people who are suffering as people who are dangerously ill. We use their suffering as grounds for accusation: they are the most ultimately selfish of all people; their selfishness injures good people like me. We separate their suffering from our own: I deserve to rage and cry; you deserve to be locked up. I deserve free communion with friends on social media; you deserve an “eye in the sky” who can, at any minute, send intruders to damage your life.
My story had a relatively benign ending. I left the online group for months. I felt even more isolated than before… separated from my husband, living out of boxes in someone else’s home, still not attending the church where he worked and we’d been members for seven years, newly uncomfortable in community alliances where I’d volunteered (along with local police).
But I survived. I survived that night’s humiliation. I survived the four months until the earliest possible date of divorce. And I survived the day, a year later, when my husband served divorce papers on me.
There’s one thing I can say for people who want to die. Most of us are survivors. Hardly any of us need to be locked up for our “safety.” Every one of us needs to be embraced as a human who lives the ordinary human experience of suffering.
So whoever it was that sent the cops to my door — whether an algorithm or an overanxious person — think two or three times before you do it again. Because the odds are that the odds are already stacked against me at the moment you find so terrifying. I don’t need the weight of your fear added to my burdens.
Some of us do die. And the more you make us feel “different” and “alone” and isolated, the more often that will happen. If you need me not to die, if you can’t live without me, then live with me — everything that is me. Listen and let me express the pressure of fear and anger and distress that’s built up inside me. Don’t send guardians to “protect” me behind the literal walls of a locked ward and the social walls of stigma and shame.
Three years later, I am using Facebook again. But not nearly so much. And I never share anything important in a “secret” group. Because today I understand that Facebook knows all my secrets and is willing to tell them. I can’t trust Facebook to treat me as a human, with dignity. And I no longer do.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.