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My inbox is not a trash bin: stop trauma dumping online

Audio: Read by the author.

Content notes: medical trauma, mention of suicide. 

I share a lot of myself on the internet, more than I do in real life. I live with multiple chronic illnesses and have a tendency to overshare, although I am not sure I agree with the sentiment of that phrase entirely. I often share in real-time – visits to A and E, my fight to get vaccinated, and the reality of wheelchair use. I do so as a means of education, to show the majority of people who follow me that are healthy and non-disabled what it’s like to move through the world with a body that doesn’t function as most others do. As we all know by now, social media is a highlight reel, so in the moment oversharing feels like a small way of contributing something real to the space we exist in online. Through this ‘oversharing’, I have cultivated a small platform of fellow disabled people who talk to me and each other about their health experiences and disabled life, and exchange niche memes expressing what it feels like when a healthy person asks if you’ve tried yoga for your incurable health issue.

However, having even a small following online and being open about my journey through illness has often led to near strangers’ personal and traumatic health incidents landing in my inbox with no prior warning. Psychologists have defined trauma dumping as an act of offloading issues or events of trauma to another, without prior warning, consent or recognition of accountability, which differs from a venting approach, that uses predetermined consent, focuses on one individual occurrence and is exchanged with a trusted person. You can trauma dump on your partner, your best friend or, in the internet’s case, someone you have never met. The key facet of trauma dumping that distinguishes it from just venting, is the lack of consent from the person receiving the messages. It’s important to recognise such circumstances can be related to a cognitive disability or trait of neurodiversity, and most likely not an act of malice. In a parasocial setting, it is the unequal relationship between the dumper and the dumpee that causes concern.

There can be a false sense of intimacy with people who you watch or read online, particularly when there is a mutual struggle that ties you to said person. In past months, I have felt I have some responsibility in inviting such ‘dumps’ into my inbox, as it seems when I offer up personal medical information in my stories or videos, I notice an uptick in responses that are difficult to read. There is a sense of trust developed between the person who maintains an online community, and those who follow it. In the case of chronic illness, we rely on each other for recommendations, new treatments to try, or advice on how to interact with an ableist doctor. Those collective moments of community support are one of the reasons I started talking about illness online. It is also the responsibility of a person creating content to assert clear boundaries that protect a person’s emotional capacity, however, if those are not abided by, we can find ourselves in harmful situations.

Interactions that can begin as the sharing of ideas and humour can become burdensome for an individual when they are left to cope with a number of people’s darkest fears, alone. The ‘influencer’ (used here to describe a person who has an online community that is much larger than a person’s normal social circle) to watcher dynamic, lacks a symbiosis that 1:1 friendships have. Simon, who talks mostly books on his online spaces, said many years ago when he shared about a suicide attempt he opened his messages to a bombardment of others declaring their own attempts. Although he feels there is a sense of responsibility when posting personal information publicly, there is a distinction between the acknowledgement of solidarity, and an offloading of a detailed situation that can be triggering for the person receiving it. It seems that there is often no two way street with a shared sense of trust, which leaves one person carrying the burden for many.

I spoke to author Lizzie Huxley Jones on their experiences with trauma dumping, as a person who talks about Autism online. They noted a distinct difference in the emotional output required to give advice, for example, on navigating a diagnostic process, to providing a comforting response to someone who is relaying extremely detailed accounts of a traumatic incident that happened to them. Lizzie is sympathetic to the reasons why someone might decide that their inbox is the place to share personal information if they are unable to access the care they need in real life and are struggling to find support. Truly, that is the crux of trauma dumping in disabled spaces. We lean towards relying on near-strangers online because medical systems and indeed, society at large, has often disregarded our physical and mental pain, and we look for alternative support networks.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to interacting with each other online. It is a relatively new social space many of us are navigating as it evolves around us, and it is easy to forget that what seems like a benign interaction to one person, can be deeply affecting for another. Striving to engage online, in the ways I do offline seems to have kept me grounded so far. I don’t text a new acquaintance out of the blue, in the middle of the night, recalling my worst trip to hospital, so I won’t put that in a DM to a person running an endometriosis support page either. Solidarity is the strongest tool we have as a collective group of disabled people, and with that comes acknowledging and respecting each other’s boundaries, and an understanding that a content creator is another individual, likely not trainedprofessionally in mental health support. Working with each other to build a community that has circular communication at its heart will be essential in protecting the mental health of those who share personal stories of illness online.  

About Author

Hannah Turner (she/her) is 25 and living in the Netherlands. Hannah's time is mostly spent in bed, or within the 4 walls of her flat, not just during COVID, but since she fell ill 4 years ago. Illness takes up most of Hannah's time and energy, but when she has a little leftover, reading and swimming are her activities of choice.

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