Since Heather Armstrong’s death, friends of the mommy blogger known as Dooce described her in vivid terms.
She was a revolutionary and a pioneer, funny and witty, genuine and sharp, forever ingrained in the fabric of social media and internet culture. But they also recalled a woman who was sometimes beset with personal demons.
On her blog, Armstrong had written frankly about depression and alcohol abuse, and in her final April post she touched on those struggles, describing her dependence on alcohol as an attempt to numb “22 years of agony.”
One friend, Elizabeth, who asked that NBC News refer to her by only her first name to protect her identity so she could openly discuss her own sobriety, noticed their chats becoming more infrequent. They had once talked almost daily about their experiences with sobriety, faith and children. But now their conversations were punctuated by weeks or months.
“I knew that she was going through something really hard,” Elizabeth said. “We were not talking every day, the way we were when she seemed like she was really thriving in recovery.”
Elizabeth said their last conversation happened right after Elizabeth had given birth to her baby, who is now 3 months old. On the day Armstrong died, Elizabeth sent her one final message.
“She was just on my mind a lot the day that she died, and I sent her a message telling her I was thinking about her and I loved her,” Elizabeth said. “And I knew that she was struggling.”
Armstrong’s partner, Pete Ashdown, confirmed to the Associated Press on Wednesday that she had died by suicide.
‘Queen of the Mommy Bloggers’
Armstrong launched Dooce in 2001 and cultivated a devoted following, chronicling painful experiences in bracingly confessional fashion.
In the era of Instagram and TikTok, many “lifestyle influencers” try to sell their followers on an all-smiles, picture-perfect fantasy of modern domesticity. Armstrong, to be sure, lived in material comfort and enjoyed financial success, but she resisted the incentives to smooth over the prickly edges of her life.
She wrote in stark terms about her experiences with postpartum depression, alcoholism and sobriety.
In writing candidly about the darker dimensions of her day-to-day experiences, Armstrong stood in solidarity with other women, embodying a basic truth: the joys of motherhood are often inextricable from the physical pain and emotional struggle that comes with it. The “queen of the mommy bloggers” — an incomplete, vaguely condescending label for her work — saw her calling as wider in scope.
“I want people with depression to feel like they are seen,” Armstrong told Vox in 2019.
Aimee Giese, a fellow blogger, graphic designer and photographer, met Armstrong while attending conventions and conferences, where they struck up a friendship. Giese said the two would attend blogging conferences together in the early days of the internet. When Armstrong would come to Denver, where Giese lived, on a book tour, they would spend time together.
But like many relationships, their friendship lived on thanks to the internet.
Giese described Armstrong as not only a pioneer of parenting blogs but also as a writer with a sharp wit, who was genuinely funny and wrote laugh-out-loud content. After Armstrong’s death, Giese said she and her friends who had been among the original mommy bloggers echoed one phrase over and over again.
“I would not have the career path that I have right now if it wasn’t for Heather Armstrong,” she said.
With the attention came waves of online hate, which in 2015 drove a descent into depression and spurred Armstrong to take a break from blogging, Ashdown told The New York Times this week.
Ashdown did not respond to a request for comment.
At the time of Armstrong’s break from blogging, the online ecosystem had shifted away from blogs and toward new social media platforms that encouraged a different, more fragmented type of storytelling, and Armstrong said she no longer felt at home among her fellow bloggers.
“In beginning, it was all mess,” she told The Cut in 2015. “People were craving honest stories about parenting. I think people are craving that again now, but bloggers are afraid to be that honest. Since blogging is so flush with money, the immediate thought is, is there going to be money in that?”
Armstrong also grappled with drawing boundaries around aspects of her personal life that she didn’t want to share with her audience. She separated from her husband — the father of her two daughters — in 2012. And as her girls grew older, she told The Cut that she became wary of oversharing information about them on the internet.
“Her oldest child and my child are almost exactly the same age, and right at the same time, they both kind of asked us to stop writing about them,” Giese said. “So all of the problems inherent in writing about your children on the internet, you know, we all went through it together.”
The depression returned after Armstrong’s break from blogging. In 2017, she enrolled in an experimental treatment that required 10 rounds of being put into a chemically induced coma. She wrote about this experience in a book titled “The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live,” which was published in 2019.
Ashdown told the Times that Armstrong was disappointed the book didn't become a bestseller, and that she drowned those feelings in “drinking and drinking and drinking.”
She got sober in 2021 when Ashdown gave her an ultimatum to quit drinking, he told the Times. But before her death, Armstrong had relapsed.
A recent shift
Giese said in the last year or two of Armstrong’s life, many in the blogging community had begun to notice a change. In recent months, her writing had become erratic and somewhat incoherent.
“She tried really hard to live and try different, sometimes extreme, things to survive," Giese said. "I think the pressure led her down some places that were really dark. And some of us didn’t necessarily recognize her in the last year or two."
She tried really hard to live and try different, sometimes extreme, things to survive.
-Aimee Giese, a fellow blogger who met Armstrong while at conventions and conferences.
Armstrong’s impulse to put her most private feelings on display occasionally forced her readers to reckon with sentiments they might have found troubling. In a lengthy blog post published in August 2022, most notably, she expressed views some deemed transphobic.
The post in which she wrote "Biological gender is scientific" and "we are tossing around these pronouns like goddamn candy" was later removed. But some fans remained disappointed; some said they stopped reading her blog.
Alice Bradley, a writer, posted on Substack about her complicated friendship with Armstrong on Thursday. Bradley explained that she had a falling out with Armstrong but did not specify what led to the end of their friendship. Bradley declined to speak with NBC News and instead directed a request for comment to her Substack.
“Heather made me feel like I was in a sacred inner circle with her. I loved her, and I loved our little group of friends. We had so much fun,” she wrote.
She recalled walking around with Armstrong at conferences as her eyes darted around the room, possibly a symptom of the large amount of hate she attracted online.
“She focused too much on the hate, I thought; I wished she would notice all the love instead. But then I received a smattering of the kind of criticism that was directed her way and to say I didn’t take it well would be an understatement,” Bradley wrote, later noting that online hate and depression were a dangerous pairing.
She said as good as it felt to be Armstrong’s friend, it could feel equally bad to be on the outside of her bubble. Bradley wrote that Armstrong could be “so talented, oh my god, so funny; her writing was so sharp. And yet. And yet. She could be awful.”
After the falling out, “we were civil to each other, we checked in occasionally, but I distanced myself. She turned into someone I didn’t recognize,” Bradley wrote. “I worried from afar. She posted increasingly incoherent rants. I texted with my other blog friends about what was going on, did we need to get her help? Was she safe?” she wondered.
While many friendships evolved out of the mommy blog circuit, some came from Armstrong’s reader base.
Elizabeth had read Armstrong’s blog for years, but it was in April 2021, on a whim, that she decided to reach out. Armstrong had recently revealed that she was sober, and with 10 years of sobriety herself, Elizabeth offered support.
“I said, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve got 10 years under my belt, but it’s a lonely walk right now because of the pandemic, and I have little kids. If you want a sober friend, here’s my number,’ which is something that in recovery people do,” Elizabeth said.
Roughly six weeks later, Armstrong texted Elizabeth. From there, Armstrong and Elizabeth talked nearly every day for the next two years, Elizabeth recalled. Their friendship was “a weird little miracle,” Elizabeth said.
Their conversations often centered on sobriety and spirituality. Elizabeth talked about her Episcopalian faith and Armstrong talked about finding faith after leaving Mormonism behind. They gave each other gifts in the form of playlists, which spoke to Armstrong’s affinity for music. (Giese also recalled exchanging playlists with Armstrong.)
Elizabeth said that for her and the other mothers who read Dooce, Armstrong was the first person to show the more brutally honest side of being a parent. She said Armstrong explored the duality of raising kids while also wanting to go to music festivals, run marathons and take crazy trips. She taught a generation of parents what motherhood could look like, rather than the rigid confines of what motherhood had been, Elizabeth said.
Armstrong’s creative sensibility — raw, sometimes raunchy, abidingly real — inspired others to unapologetically broadcast their lives on the web, a sensibility that is now practically expected of anyone who goes online.
Yet that warts-and-all openness exacted a steep price on Armstrong’s mental health, as she recalled in the interview with Vox. She was vulnerable with her audience — and therefore vulnerable to a wave of hostility.
“The hate was very, very scary and very, very hard to live through,” Armstrong recalled. “It gets inside your head and eats away at your brain. It became untenable.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.