Cyberbullying: How Internet Vitriol is Damaging All of Us

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It’s no news to you that I deal with a lot of cyberbullying and vitriol by running this blog. In fact, something I haven’t talked about at all is the amount of damage it did to me emotionally in the past two years. That’s why I’ve been running away from this blog, distancing myself on Facebook. The pain I already experienced in the cult just kept being repeated over and over with each bullying email or comment.

I’ve been in therapy for a few months now. I sat down on the couch at the therapist’s office and just started crying. “How could people be so mean?” I said. “Why can’t people just accept me for who I am instead of trying to change me?” But it wasn’t just that. Those were sort of the cursory issues–the deeper issue was the constant barrage of vitriol that came in day after day on every social media outlet I was on and every email account I owned. You can run, but we will find you, it seemed like they were saying.

And the one that really scared me was this bug-eyed man from Texas who started harassing me. I had every right to fear him and it wasn’t because he was just there, on the internet. No, it was because when I told him no to a request he had, he went ballistic. He attacked me every single day, anonymously sometimes, but from the same IP address, on every medium he could. A few months after I blocked him, the harassment was still going on. I noticed a Facebook “friend” profile who emailed me and asked where I worked. I went to look at her profile pictures and started to wonder if it were really the bug-eyed man impersonating a woman in order to find out my location. There were photos of women on fire, creepy pictures of women getting tortured and even a kitten with a gun pointed at it (I love cats).

It was around this time that I stopped blogging and I deleted hundreds of Facebook friends. I cut my friends list down to only people I knew online, even though most of the people I’d met online were kind and harmless. I was so scared, though, and I needed to feel safe. (As an aside: If I deleted you during that time, trust me when I say it was nothing personal. I now have a page instead of a profile and you can find it here.)

I scrubbed my Facebook of anything that would give away my location or the location of my family. I started taking extended breaks from social media and email. I went to the beach more. I went back to writing traditionally, with space and time away from the text before I hit “publish.” Maybe I’ll start blogging about something benign like babies or food, I thought. Certainly no one would bother me then. I wasn’t so sure, but I knew one thing: I missed blogging with all my heart and more than that, I missed the connections I’d made with so many wonderful people.

And then at the beginning of the summer I started interviewing therapists. I’d tried a few different things to get rid of the fear, but none of them seemed to work. When I met my therapist I knew right away that I’d feel very comfortable doing something I hadn’t done in years: tell someone how I really felt, deep down inside. I hadn’t shared anything that intimate with anyone in awhile.

It was immediately easier and easier to live without fear, and a few weeks into therapy, I let it all go. I told her how much I’d been dealing with, how I’d stopped trusting people, started hiding, and worse yet, I felt my opportunities were just passing me by because I kept hiding. I was too afraid to be in public after being harassed, so I missed out on speaking engagements and meeting new people. I was afraid I was going to be too terrified to publish my book; after all, it was fear that was holding me back from publishing my memoir even though I’d had interest from so many people. I couldn’t even write a page without being overcome with fear. I wrote and rewrote gibberish.

One afternoon I sat in therapy and recited a recent email I’d received from a pastor. The pastor had no idea the email had brought me to tears, but it had. It hurt me deeply and it also scared me. It was another reminder of how many friends I’d lost by coming out as an atheist and a reminder that even my family had attacked me and made me feel like they couldn’t love me because I’d lost my faith.

When I brought it up to anyone, the main question people asked was, “Why is this bothering you so much?” They didn’t get it.

My therapist did.

“It’s very hateful and judgemental,” she explained. “Everything you experienced in the cult–people pushing you to believe and act a certain way–that’s how these people are treating you.” She raised her eyebrows as I told her story after story of the hate people had shown me.

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Of course the irony is that most of the people who harass me or who won’t accept me are ministers or religious, but Melissa Ford writes about this problem as an issue the whole internet is facing. In her post on BlogHer, Melissa explains what happened to a mommy blogger who’s come under fire for writing about another woman harassing her daughter in WalMart over a pink headband. The internet has gone crazy accusing this blogger of lying. Regardless of whether she’s telling the truth or not, she was on the verge of suicide because of the public scrutiny. Melissa writes:

According to the Orlando Sentinel in an August 6 story, [Katie] Carpenter told police that she received 11,000 emails and harassing phone calls after the post went live. Invoking the Baker Act, Polk County officials placed her into protective custody when she voiced thoughts of suicide to police. From the Sentinel story:

Carpenter told deputies, according to the report, “that the attention obtained by her story and the negative comments and communications to her had become too much stress and she could not handle the situation…anymore,” and was thinking of killing herself.

Somehow, in all the coverage online and in the media, people are overlooking that there is a very real person in pain. Or, at the very least, no one is behaving as we would if we were face-to-face with someone in emotional pain. While we know better than to jeer at someone having a breakdown in front of us, we tend to forget that when we can hide behind the screen. (Emphasis my own.)

I’ve learned a lot by being attacked online and I’ve changed the way I interact with people on the internet. I try to remind myself that they don’t deserve an ounce of my energy or time or even a response. When I disagree with a friend online, I remind myself to treat them as if we were face-to-face–even if it’s over politics or religion. I remind myself that I’m a professional writer who has an audience that is also very, very kind to me.

In many ways, these lessons have been good for me as a writer and more importantly, as a person. They’ve helped me to think twice before I write about anyone, even a public figure. They’ve made me realize that no amount of right or wrong or passion excuses being cruel to someone over politics or religious differences. I’ve realized that my friendships and my relationships with family members mean far more to me than whether my candidate-of-choice wins an election.

A photo I took on a recent trip to the beach.

Most of all, I’ve started writing again and I’m reminding myself that my voice can be useful in helping shift the conversation to a smarter, more collaborative conversation; instead of a hate-filled bash session. I’ve started developing a new blog. In the summer I wrote the first draft of my novel and really feel like I’ve found what I’m supposed to write. I shelved my memoir for now and as Julia Scheeres told me the other day, “Only write what you want to write. That’s my best advice. You can always come back to the cult story.”

It’s funny, really, after I started working through my fear, I was asked to speak at two different events and other TV opportunities (with really great companies) were in discussion. My creative energy started coming back and I started reaching out to people more and more.

The internet is still a bit scary for me, but I’m diving in again and am going to kick ass. I’m trying to change my perspective some, and in doing so, I feel like I’ve found my momentum again. Whatever I lost in the past two years by hiding is slowly coming back. I’m excited to see where things go in the next few years and what new things I write. After all, I’m blogging because I love to write and I love to hit publish and I love to connect with people.

If you’d like to help make the internet a better place and educate people about the damage cyberbullying does to all of us, share this post and the post from Melissa Ford. Let’s make the internet fun again!

2 thoughts on “Cyberbullying: How Internet Vitriol is Damaging All of Us”

  1. I am glad you are blogging again.
    I appreciate your strength, courage and resilience.
    I think a few days unplugged are a great way to help get you through the tough days.
    Thank you.

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