Nick Couldry uses the term ‘presencing’ in his book Media, Society, World to talk about how we go into digital or media spaces to manage our presence over time. It’s a way we cultivate a sense of wider purpose through a public presence. And because of the way suffering and trauma marginalize people, this act of making yourself more visible is even more important.
I was browsing Anne Helen Peterson’s newsletter Culture Study when the above quote hit me over the head. The interview was on the topic of ambiguous grief with a media studies professor Samira Rajabi. While the writing is almost uncomfortably academic it resonated with me immediately. I have been engaging in presenceing for the entire course of my illness. I just never had a name for why I felt like a public presence mattered to me.
While it sounds unbelievable, I never considered that I might be using social media as a way to give myself visibility in the face of the trauma of an extended and chronic illness. I’ve always been a heavy user of social media so I didn’t find it unusual that I spent significantly more time on Twitter and blogging as I went through the diagnosis and recovery process.
I had been used to being visible in my previous life. I was regularly in media for my startups and I had cultivated some amount of public presence on and off since I was in college. But I didn’t really become a Twitter personality that cultivated a presence and interactions and a voice until I got sick. Without knowing it was presencing myself.
In American culture in particular, there is a strong preference for triumphant stories. So we can conceive of suffering if it can be managed and overcome, but rarely do we know what to do with a story of chronic pain and suffering and how relentlessly it reminds a person that they no longer fit into the so-called “normal” world. To me, it becomes even more important for those people to be seen.
I really wanted my story to fit into a narrative when I first got diagnosed. I had all kinds of ambitions of overcoming and healing that were quickly dashed on the reality of my life. I was never going to be normal again. And I hated that. I still find myself overcome with grief at the prospect that there is no triumphant return.
But I want people to see that grief. And see that it’s alright. That life went on. I didn’t lose myself. Even in pain and illness, or perhaps because of it, I’ve gained ground in finding myself. The pain and degradation of illness is ugly and shitty but also powerfully transformative.
I have not given up just because the narrative isn’t clear and the story has no simple arc. Any impression we have that stories have structure is imposed in hindsight. We love our post-hoc rationalization. We love our pattern recognition. But the through line is never clear in the moment. And that’s why presence matters. We all need the visibility of the truth even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the story our culture has given us.