Downtime

A Guide for the Perplexed

Anxiety had me procrastinating away my college experience, until the earnest helpers at WikiHow showed me how to cope.

Illustrations from some of the WikiHow pages mentioned in the article.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by WikiHow.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

During my college orientation, I developed a persistent, supremely inconvenient habit: panic attacks. The first one happened in the middle of a presentation by a motivational speaker whom students later dubbed “the Secret Lesbian.” (Her schtick is that she would give a perfectly fine speech and then at the end declare, “Surprise! I’m a lesbian” to uproarious applause at the historically women’s college I attend.) Despite the Secret Lesbian’s best efforts, I was far from inspired. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely and on the verge of throwing up on my roommate.

After this experience, I holed myself up in my room and, to take my mind off my overwhelming panic, began to explore nearly every inch of the internet. I was looking up all of the winners of Top Chef without having ever seen an episode. I was reading every review of a supposedly haunted hotel. I was watching celebrity lip-syncs dating back five years. In trying to manage my anxiety through clicks, I was procrastinating away my college experience.

What I learned (or reaffirmed) during this period is that the internet is a weird, lawless place. You can spend up to one hour watching a video compilation made up of 6-second Vine videos; you can buy a stick figure cat drawing from a company that competed on the television show Shark Tank. But forget the objectively wacky: Even the ostensibly normal parts of the internet have been permeated by weirdness.

Take the seemingly straightforward website WikiHow. The extensive how-to database hosts a wealth of information, from the expected (How to Fill a Propane Tank) to the highly specific (How to Do a Cartoon Llama in Watercolor) to the laughably useless (How to Calculate Pi by Throwing Frozen Hot Dogs). But these are not the articles that have changed my life. Instead, the loot I’m bringing back from my quest is a subgenre of guide that is wholly unexpected and yet supremely welcome (at least to me). That night during orientation, I stumbled upon the earnest, painfully sincere Wikiworld of how-tos describing basic, everyday human activities.

One unfortunate aspect of panic attacks is that your normal bodily functions are disrupted, which is how I first found myself reading “How to Have a Bowel Movement Away From Home.” Going to the bathroom seems like one of those things that should just be intuitive, but there I was, 18 years old and afraid to take my first college shit.

I fully realize how ridiculous that sounds, and in a way, I expected the WikiHow article I was reading to call me out on my ridiculousness. Why can’t you poo? Weren’t you potty trained?

But it didn’t. The article was thoughtful and considerate. It was separated into three sections with accompanying graphics: Overcoming Anxiety, Having Your Public Bowel Movement, and Covering Your Tracks. “Remind yourself that everyone, even your boss, teacher, and coworkers,” the entry soothed, “have been exactly where you are now.”

One thing I thought you couldn’t get on the internet anymore is earnestness. Sincerity, authenticity, call it what you want. Verboten. Leave a genuine comment on a YouTube video of a baby rhino and expect to see it meme-mocked on shirts at Forever 21 within the month. That’s why, at first, I sat there wondering how many witty tweets I could milk out of this deeply unironic post. But eventually, the necessity to perform a certain bodily function won out, and I pored over the article as if I were learning to read again. Just the content—no subtext, no need to amuse others or myself with commentary. It was amazing. It actually helped. I found myself feeling grateful that someone, somewhere felt secure enough in themselves to write with such honesty and compassion.

After that fateful night in a communal bathroom, I became obsessed with reading earnest WikiHow articles. I had learned how to go to the bathroom. Next, I tackled How to Introduce Yourself (“Your body language should communicate that you are confident and at ease”). Then, I moved on to How to Make Friends (“You can talk to anybody: the clerk at the video store, the person sitting next to you on public transit, or the person in front of you in the lunch line. Don’t be too picky.”); How to Become an Excellent Student (“If you see your friends passing notes, don’t engage. Whatever you have to say can wait until after class.”); How to Get Over the Fear of Driving (“Push your comfort zone a little at a time. For example, you may want to start by sitting in a parked car, getting used to all the controls, before you ever put the key in the ignition.”); and How to Be Brave in Front of a Group of People (“Work your way up to presenting in front of a large group. Try speaking to 1 person and gradually increase how many people you invite to listen.”).

Once I had relearned these basic functions through WikiHow, I began to speed through future milestones. How to Be a Good Wife. Save a Marriage. Announce Your Retirement. Overcome the Fear of Death. These days, WikiHow is answering questions I didn’t know that I had or that I had to ask. And in so doing, it’s come to feel like something of a refuge.

More than advice, these articles give me peace of mind. They seem to say: Other people in the world are struggling. They’re struggling so much they don’t even know where to turn other than this surreal database of basic human how-tos. And in that, I’m reminded of two truths: first, that everyone struggles sometimes. And second, that we created this global computer network to communicate and share information, and sometimes that even means really earnest, cringeworthy information. Reading these WikiHow articles drives home that even the simplest tasks I have to do are hard and complex. Nothing about being human is easy or straightforward. I’m allowed to forgive myself for panicking, for procrastinating, for messing up—and that’s liberating. After all, if something goes wrong, there’s probably a WikiHow out there calmly laying out, step-by-step, just how to fix it.