Saturday, June 10, 2023

Heather Armstrong Was the Original Influencer

Stabilized on new medication, in 2010 Armstrong wrote a best-selling book about her breakdown, “It Sucked and Then I Cried,” had another baby, Marlo, and got divorced. Readers followed along, and many came to think of her as a friend, one they often worried about, someone who encouraged them to tell their own stories online. As word spread on Wednesday that she had died by suicide, at age 47, thousands of those women mourned her online.

Rebecca Woolf, a writer who started her own successful blog, “Girl’s Gone Child,” in 2005, said Armstrong inspired her. “She shaped the internet as we know it today — and launched a million storytellers with her willingness to write boldly and unapologetically about the struggles of being human,” Woolf wrote.

Ree Drummond, who grew her blog, “The Pioneer Woman,” into a TV show and a retail empire while Armstrong was at the height of her fame, wrote simply: “My heart is breaking.”

But just as Armstrong created possibility for women on the internet, she collided early with its dark side. When hers became one of the first personal websites to accept display advertising, she faced vitriol from readers. An online group known as GOMI (Get Off My Internets) predated Reddit as a place to bully bloggers. Anonymous members of the site criticized Armstrong about her parenting, hairstyles and weight loss. They mocked her mental health struggles, and more recently, her relationship with Pete Ashdown, a successful Utah businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate, with whom she shared a home from August 2018 until her death this week.

In an interview yesterday, Ashdown said he blamed the hatred and a sea change in the blogging landscape for Armstrong’s descent into depression in 2015. She took a break from the blog because, as she said at the time, she was tired of the harsh comments and of the need to create artificial situations in which her children could highlight sponsors’ products. She was also increasingly depressed, and when she did post, the depth of her pain alarmed many of her longtime followers.

She did not want to kill herself back then, she told me during an interview for Yahoo News in 2019, because she would not do that to her children. “But I wanted to be dead. I thought how amazing would it be to not feel what I’m feeling ever again. And the only way to accomplish that would be if I were dead.”

She was diagnosed with drug resistant depression and in 2017 enrolled in a small early drug trial that used propofol, an anesthetic and sedative, to suppress nearly all brain activity. She underwent the procedure 10 times in the course of a month. To Armstrong it felt like a series of deaths, and then, miraculous rebirths.

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