Since Heather Armstrong’s death, friends of the mom blogger known as Dooce have described her in vivid terms.
She was a revolutionary and trailblazer, funny and witty, genuine and sharp, forever entrenched in the fabric of social media and internet culture. But they also remembered a woman who was sometimes plagued by personal demons.
On his blog, Armstrong had written candidly about depression and alcohol abuse, and in his last post in April he referred to those struggles, describing his dependence on alcohol as an attempt to numb «22 years of agony.»
One friend, Elizabeth, who asked NBC News to refer to her only by her first name to protect her identity and to be able to talk openly about her own sobriety, noticed that their conversations were becoming less frequent. They had once talked almost daily about her experiences with sobriety, faith, and children. But now her conversations were marked by weeks or months.
“I knew that I was going through something really difficult,” Elizabeth said. «We didn’t talk every day, like we did when it seemed like he was really thriving in recovery.»
Elizabeth said their last conversation happened just after Elizabeth gave birth to their baby boy, now 3 months old. The day Armstrong died, Elizabeth sent him one last message.
“She was on my mind a lot the day she died, and I texted her that I was thinking of her and that I loved her,” Elizabeth said. «And I knew that she was struggling.»
Armstrong’s partner, Pete Ashdown, confirmed to Associated Press on Wednesday that he had committed suicide.
‘Queen of Blogger Moms’
Armstrong launched Dooce in 2001 and cultivated a devoted following, recounting painful experiences in a comfortingly confessional way.
In the age of Instagram and TikTok, many «lifestyle influencers» try to sell their followers a smile-filled, perfect modern home life fantasy. Armstrong undoubtedly lived in material comfort and enjoyed financial success, but he resisted incentives to smooth over the thorny edges of his life.
She wrote in harsh terms about her experiences with postpartum depression, alcoholism, and sobriety.
Writing candidly about the darker dimensions of her everyday experiences, Armstrong stood in solidarity with other women, embodying a basic truth: the joys of motherhood are often inseparable from the physical pain and emotional struggle that comes with it. The «queen of blogging moms,» a sketchy and vaguely condescending label for her work, saw her calling as more far-reaching.
“I want people with depression to feel seen” Armstrong told Vox in 2019.
Aimee Giese, also a 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 came to Denver, where Giese lived, on a book tour, they spent time together.
But like many relationships, their friendship endured thanks to the Internet.
Giese described Armstrong as not only a pioneer of parenting blogs, but also a writer with a sharp wit, who was genuinely funny and wrote laugh-out-loud content. After Armstrong’s death, Giese said that she and her friends, who had been among the original mom bloggers, would repeat a phrase over and over again.
“I wouldn’t have the career path I have now if it wasn’t for Heather Armstrong,” she said.
long time fights
With the attention came waves of hate online, which in 2015 led to a descent into depression and encouraged Armstrong to take a break from blogging, Ashdown said. The New York Times this week.
Ashdown did not respond to a request for comment.
By the time Armstrong parted ways with blogging, the online ecosystem had moved away from blogging and toward new social media platforms that fostered a different, more fragmented kind of storytelling, and Armstrong said he no longer felt right at home among his fellow bloggers.
“At first, everything was a disaster”, she told The Cut in 2015. “People craved honest stories about parenting. I think people are wanting that again now, but bloggers are afraid to be so honest. Since blogs are so full of money, the immediate thought is, is there money in it?
Armstrong also struggled to draw boundaries around aspects of his personal life that he did not want to share with his audience. She separated from her husband, the father of her two daughters, in 2012. And as her daughters got older, she told The Cut that she was wary of sharing too much information about them online.
“His oldest son and my son are almost exactly the same age, and right at the same time, they both asked us to stop writing about them,” Giese said. «So all the problems inherent in writing about your children on the internet, we all went through together.»
The depression returned after Armstrong’s break from blogging. In 2017, she signed up for an experimental treatment that required 10 rounds of going 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 that the book did not 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 stop drinking, she told the Times. But before her death, Armstrong had relapsed.
a recent change
Giese said that in the last year or two of Armstrong’s life, many in the blogging community had begun to notice a change. In the last few months, his writing had become erratic and somewhat incoherent.
“He tried very hard to live and tried different, sometimes extreme things to survive,” Giese said. “I think the pressure from her took her to places that were really dark. And some of us haven’t necessarily recognized it in the last year or two.»
He tried very hard to live and tried different, sometimes extreme things to survive.
-Aimee Giese, a fellow blogger who met Armstrong at conventions and conferences.
Armstrong’s impulse to show his most private feelings occasionally forced his readers to reckon with feelings they might have found troubling. In a lengthy blog post published in August 2022, notably, she expressed views that some considered transphobic.
The post where he wrote «Biological gender is scientific» and «we’re throwing these pronouns around like fucking candy» was later deleted. But some fans were disappointed; some said They stopped reading your blog.
Alice Bradley, writer, published in substack about his 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 to NBC News, instead directing a request for comment to Substack about him.
“Heather made me feel like I was in a sacred inner circle with her. She loved her, and she loved our little group of friends. We had a lot of fun,” she wrote.
He recalled walking with Armstrong at conferences as their eyes darted around the room, possibly a symptom of the sheer amount of hate he drew online.
“He focused too much on hate, I thought; He wanted her to notice all the love in her place. But then I got a bit of the kind of criticism that was directed at her 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 couple.
She said that as good as it felt to be friends with Armstrong, she could feel just as bad about being out of her bubble. Bradley wrote that Armstrong could be “so talented, oh my gosh, so funny; his writing was so sharp. And yet. And yet. She could be horrible.
After the fight, “we were polite to each other, checked in occasionally, but I distanced myself. He turned into someone I didn’t recognize,” Bradley wrote. “I worried from afar. She posted increasingly incoherent rants. I texted my other blog friends about what was going on, did we need to get her help? Was she safe? she wondered.
While many friendships came from the mommy blogging circuit, some came from within 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 sober, Elizabeth offered her support.
“I told him, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve got 10 years under my belt, but right now it’s a lonely road because of the pandemic, and I have little kids. If you want a sober friend, here’s my number,’ which is something people in recovery do,” Elizabeth said.
About six weeks later, Armstrong sent Elizabeth a text. From there, Armstrong and Elizabeth spoke almost every day for the next two years, Elizabeth recalled. Their friendship was «a weird little miracle,» Elizabeth said.
Their conversations often centered around sobriety and spirituality. Elizabeth talked about her Episcopal faith, and Armstrong talked about finding faith after leaving Mormonism behind. Gifts were given in the form of playlists, which spoke of Armstrong’s affinity for music. (Giese also recalled trading 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 mother. She said Armstrong explored the duality of raising children while she also wanted to go to music festivals, run marathons and go on crazy trips. She taught a generation of parents what motherhood could be like, rather than the rigid confines of what motherhood had been, Elizabeth said.
Armstrong’s raw, sometimes bawdy, enduringly real creative sensibility inspired others to unapologetically broadcast their lives on the web, a sensibility now expected of virtually anyone who goes online.
However, that wart opening and all exacted a heavy price on Armstrong’s mental health, as he recalled in the interview with Vox. He was vulnerable with his audience, and therefore vulnerable to a wave of hostility.
“Hate was very, very scary and very, very hard to live with,” Armstrong recalled. “It gets inside your head and eats away at your brain. It became unsustainable.»
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255text HOME to 741741 or visit TalkingSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.