About once a day, I wonder about the ways I've probably broken my brain. Something happens after you pass age 25 that makes every hangover feel like a threat, like your head feels physically lighter from the brain cells you've just willfully and joyfully thrown away. And lately, I have this recurring nightmare where the only phrases I can speak are things I've read on Instagram. "TFW IT'S MONDAY!!! YOU ABSOLUTELY HATE TO SEE IT!!!" my brain will screech at me when I see someone bump into a subway turnstile without swiping first.
But at the end of May, a friend let me in on the secret cure she'd discovered to help fix her own, similarly broken brain: She deleted Instagram. She said it hadn't been easy—six months in, she still tapped the phantom spot on her phone where the app's icon once sat—but she was much happier. Without the constant stimulation of Instagram's overblown colors and snappy captions, her mind felt clearer, less crowded. I was jealous of her elevated state of being—I wanted to feel less fried, too. So I decided to do the same thing.[instagram]https://www.instagram.com/p/ByInc0hDuaX/[/instagram]
I set parameters: I'd delete the app from my phone for at least two months, from June 1-August 1. To keep me honest, I gave my password to a friend and told her to change it and keep me logged out. I wasn't just interested in breaking my incessant scroll habit, but in purging my mind of meme-speak and giving my thoughts some more longevity. Instead of throwing away every passing feeling I have—and I have so many feelings—on posts that only live for 24 hours, I wanted to try something bold: I wanted to actually think about things, maybe journal a little, and, in short, clear out some of the noise in my head.
I'm not the only person who feels burnt out by IG, by the way. In July, midway through my own hellish experiment, a New York Times story documented the misery others were enduring in an effort to curb their app addictions. "I suspected that I wasn’t the only person spending a lot of time scrolling around in this queasy, impotent shame-zone, so I started asking around," John Herrman, the Times reporter, wrote. "In short: We are not well."
As my own Instagram hiatus revealed, I am not well either. Here, chronicled by the week, is what two months without IG looks like.
Week 1: What am I going to do with all these photos?
My first day sans 'gram was June 1, the same weekend two friends from Texas came to visit me in the city. These two friends are particularly beautiful and photogenic, so when they did New York-y things—like bite into a bagel on a sunny patch of grass or sip wine on my fire escape—I went into a fugue state, blacked out, and then blacked back in with approximately 75,000 new pictures in my camera roll.Normally I would've posted these on my story and/or grid with some sort of caption about how chilled wine and New York City sunsets are great, but good friends are greater!!!!! But in this hell of my own making, I had no honest idea about what to do with the art I created. Should I...print them out and hang them on my wall? I wondered. If a beautiful image sits in your camera roll but never makes it to Instagram, does it even exist? I booked an appointment with a new therapist midway through the first week, but I swear it was a coincidence.
Week 2: "Oh, I wouldn't know, I'm off Instagram."
The first rule of Fight Club is "do not talk about Fight Club," and the opposite is true of taking a break from Instagram. One week in, feeling mysterious and cool, I was positively horny to talk about my new lifestyle.
I do not mean I brought up my summer break only when opportunity struck; I mean that I actively sought out chances to talk about it, like a college junior searching for reasons to bring up the transformative acid trip they had in Amsterdam over the summer. When friends referenced a recent flurry of Instagram Story activity, I put a megaphone to my mouth, cleared my throat, clinked a glass, and yelled, "SORRY, I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT, AS I AM NOT CURRENTLY ON THE IPHONE APP INSTAGRAM!!!!"
Boasting about it was almost certainly a way to placate the IG-shaped hole in my life. Were my friends annoyed? Absolutely! Did they roll their eyes? Constantly. Did I care? No!!!
Week 3: Was my commute always this long???
In my life circa 1 B.I.B. (Before Instagram Break), the biggest black hole for scrolling, tapping, and refreshing was during my commute. This hellish process, repeated eight times as my train pulled into each stop, was how I previously blitzed through my 20-minute commute. Without Instagram, the same train ride stretched out to infinity, and I started passing the time with my least favourite phone chore: cleaning out my camera roll. This will take weeks, I thought, scrolling through 7,000 mirror selfies, memes, and blurry food photos.
It took me 1.5 commute days and I once again descended into boredom.
Week 4: Instagram, who?
It takes 21 days to break a habit, according to the 1960 pop-psychology book Psycho-Cybernatics and also according to me. And at the dawn of my fourth week without Instagram, I awoke, for the first time, still of thumb and clear of mind. The vague pain in my right wrist was gone. I blew dust off a journal I bought in 2007 and wrote down several sentences, just for fun. I started a newsletter. In a beautiful moment of wine-induced clarity, I called my boyfriend to tell him, "It's amazing, my brain is more powerful now that I'm not throwing every away thought on a sarcasm-laced Instagram Story. I actually find myself considering things!!!"
Darkness fell when I had to re-download the app, just for three days, to use on a work trip (full disclosure: I had to do the same thing again in August). I was worried the sight of square-cropped photos would lure me back in and undo the restraint I'd shown the past month. But mostly I was just bored. Even in the middle of summer, when everyone is living their most visually appealing lives, scrolling down the timeline felt...flat. Like watching a two-hour reality TV show that's mostly just the same five scenes teased over and over again. To prove my disinterest, I started and finished an entire novel, Instagrammed a picture of it, and re-deleted the app.[instagram]https://www.instagram.com/p/BzB1d3ajWlU/[/instagram]
Weeks 5-6: The crossword phase.
Evidence of the crossword phase. Before July 2019, I had never once finished a crossword. But lying in bed one Saturday morning on Week 5, on the brink of death by boredom, I downloaded the New York Times crossword app and ripped through my very first puzzle (it was a Monday, but still).
The high of this experience is without comparison: the glow of the phone screen, the thrill of the words all fitting together like magic, the satisfaction of solving a pun...it was all too much. I spent the next two weeks absolutely obsessed with the crossword, bringing it up in conversation like someone who'd just eaten sugar for the first time at age 26. This only broke my brain in a new way, I realised, because I was now thinking in hints. One night at dinner, a friend mentioned the iconic Payless ShoeSource annual BOGO sale event and I said, out loud, "That would make a great crossword clue."
Week 7: Cheating.
At the beginning of Week 7, the tiny devil on my shoulder whispered into my ear, What if you typed Instagram dot com into your desktop browser? I at first ignored this urge, but the devil reappeared on Tuesday when I was sweating on a subway platform: Hey bitch, he whispered, you know you can just go to Instagram in your internet app, right? Again, I stood firm.
But by the end of the week, the whisper had magnified into a near-constant screech. Finally, I succumbed and asked the friend who had my password to hand it over so I could look at IG in a web browser. This was a terrible decision. There is nothing pleasant about using Instagram in any other format than the app. On my phone, the feed was glitchy and barely worked in a way that feels purposely bad to force people to just download it. And watching Instagram Stories on a desktop is basically comedy, like the equivalent of putting a 98-inch TV in a single-car garage.
But the worst thing is that even this shittier version of the Instagram experience was enough to reel me back in. (I'm not the only quitter who's done this: The New York Times story from July reports that use of "instagram.com" went up nearly 31 percent in the last year.) Steps away from my finish line, I started sneakily visiting instagram.com and binging useless content, like a Bachelor contestant's baby or the location tag for nearby restaurants. I eased my shame by telling myself "using Instagram" doesn't count if I don't go all the way and post content of my own.
Week 8: OK...now what?
August 1 came and I felt nothing. Yeah, fine, I cheated a little. But this was the longest I'd had Instagram off my phone since downloading it for the first cursed time in 2011.
My hiatus didn't help me achieve all of the goals I'd set in May. I didn't read a dozen books, write and shelve my own novel, patent something, or solve a major world crisis. The biggest changes are that my camera roll is much lighter, the early symptoms of carpal tunnel are gone (minus a brief reappearance in the crossword phase of July), and my screen time has gone down by a couple hours.
But I do feel much calmer, and I haven't dreamt that I only say things like "TBT" in weeks. I saw a dead rat curled up on the subway steps this morning, and my brain didn't immediately flood with meme ideas and photo captions, like it would've three months ago. And last night, walking home through downtown Manhattan, I looked up at the pink glow of someone's grow lamp in their windowsill, plant leaves smushed up against the glass, and stopped to admire how pretty it was without interrupting the moment to snap any pictures.
Thinking, it turns out, can be meditative. It's now been nearly three weeks since the end of my forced break period, and I still don't have the app on my phone. I downloaded it for about 24 hours last weekend, put a up a few stories, and posted a pic to my grid of some nice grass near my apartment. The photo only got 55 likes (bad, even for me). The thrill of posting again was nothing compared to how good it felt to walk down the sidewalk in the moments before and after I took the picture, hands empty except for my dripping iced coffee, eyes looking at actual surroundings and not my tiny screen.