Fiona Thomas, 32, Birmingham
"I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012 and I had a nervous breakdown. I had to quit my job and was out of work for a year. I went from being a very outgoing, sociable person in quite a high-stress management job to just being at home, dealing with this mental illness.
Because I didn’t have a job I felt like when I was in conversation with people, I didn’t have anything to offer. People always say 'So, what do you do?' and I just felt that from the get-go I didn’t have anything to say. My confidence took a real hit and I stopped going out socially. I still spoke to a couple of friends but I would never go anywhere where I’d have to meet someone new, so between 2012 and 2016, I didn’t really socialise with anyone other than four or five people.
When I moved to Birmingham for my husband’s work – I’m originally from Glasgow – I suddenly realised that I didn’t have a network of people to rely on anymore and that if I didn’t make the effort to make new friends then I was going to be completely and utterly alone. As an introvert, normally it doesn’t worry me being alone but that kind of hit home. I needed to make an effort to make new friends, otherwise I was just going to be miserable.
I became part of a bloggers' Facebook group in Birmingham and that was really helpful. I don’t know how else I would have spoken to complete strangers. It gave me that excuse, under the guise of being a blogger, to go and meet new people. My whole online identity was based around my mental illness, so I found the internet was a really good place for me to talk about my depression and anxiety because there was nobody talking back. It was my form of therapy.
The most important thing to me was that my blog
and my online identity meant that when I went to meet people [in real life] who I had met online, they already knew my backstory so it made me feel more comfortable. When I eventually went to meet someone, it was almost like the third or fourth meeting.
I was happier for strangers to know [about my mental illness] than my friends and family. To me it was a win-win because I knew that people probably wouldn’t be confident enough to talk to me about it face-to-face, but if they did, they would be armed with the knowledge of what I was going through, so it could only make the conversation easier.
The feedback I’ve had has been extremely positive. I don’t try to give advice, I just try to share my experience and I find that’s the best way to help people. I’ve also written a book
and lots of my friends have read that and said that it’s given them a better understanding of what I was going through.
I’ve made so many real-life friends as well, which to me is the best part: that a lot of people that I’ve met on Instagram, we’ve taken that offline and met in real life. I’ve got friends in Birmingham now – probably about 10 people that I met online, that are now my close, close friends. We all meet up, go out for dinner and support each other. I think that’s a key part that a lot of people don’t follow through with: they think online friends are as effective as real-life connections and I don’t think it’s always the case. It’s always nice to have but if you can, that real-life connection is always going to be much more meaningful."