This week I was cyber bullied on Facebook.
It happened in the comments section under my latest post, inspired by the #metoo social media movement -- an effort started in 1996 by Tarana Burke to foster understanding and compassion for victims of sexual assault. As Burke recently told CNN, "When you experience trauma and meet other people that have a similar experience, and you show empathy for each other, it creates a bond."
But before I tell you about the bully's comment -- and how it affected me -- let me briefly explain who I am. Because it matters.
Who I Am
I'm a 49-year-old mother. A former teacher. An opinion columnist.
I wear my heart on my sleeve, try to learn something new every day, and find strength in writing about vulnerability and human emotion. I don't hesitate describing experiences that move me deeply, even if those experiences happen to be painful. Writing about the tough stuff is my personal -- and enormously cathartic -- process of survival.
And it was one of these painful, personal experiences I'd just shared to Facebook that brought this bully to the surface.
In high school, I'd been sexually assaulted and never told anyone.
Thirty years later -- in 2016 -- I wrote about the incident. I was unprepared for the response it received. The piece was shared widely and, this year, garnered recognition by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. People say I'm brave to share my story of sexual assault, though to me, it's hardly "brave" to share a truth, especially if it helps someone. From a purely journalistic perspective, I see sharing my experience as "reporting". It's also a huge relief not burying the story for even one more day.
Yet, as writer Lianna Brinded recently explained, many women don't or won't acknowledge such matters: "There are plenty of reasons: Fears of being disbelieved, personally scrutinized, shamed, ridiculed, blackballed, having your name publicly tied forever to an ugly thing that happened to you. There’s the ordeal of having to defend your account against your aggressor’s and having to explain what happened over and over again. And then, of course, there’s not wanting to be the victim. Part of being a liberated, liberal, career-focused, empowered women, is to be tough." -- from "The Unexpected, Paradigm-Shifting Power of #MeToo" (Quartz, Oct 17 '17)
When I finally opened up last year about my sexual assault, in no way did I feel embarrassed, stigmatized or defined by the experience. I felt empowered and unencumbered. I felt strong -- because I know I am.
And so, when I heard about the #metoo social media movement this week -- recently revitalized in response to Harvey Weinstein's alleged incidents of sexual abuse -- I naturally reposted my own piece on Facebook, adding the hashtag "metoo". Like Lupita Nyong'o and others -- processing our memories of unsolicited sexual advances -- I put my truth out there. It is what it is, and this is how some of us do it.
The subsequent comments on my Facebook post included kind words, gratitude, and references to my bravery...and you already know how I feel about the bravery thing...
And then, the cyber bully's comments popped up.
The Bully's Comments
I won't repost them verbatim -- they've since been taken down from my page, thank God -- but let me just tell you: for part of an afternoon, they took me down. I was told, among other things, that I am "annoying", "fucked up", and that I "suck".
As a columnist, I've grown accustomed to media trolls. I've grown a thick enough skin by sharing my opinions publicly -- but these comments? They were ugly, personal, crude and cruel. They were a gut punch, powerful enough to make all the positive comments disappear into the ether. As I read and reread those vicious words, all I could think was, "Why would someone say this?"
This happened while I was in Washington, D.C., researching a former member of Congress for a biography I'm writing. The subject of my book survived tragedy beyond comprehension, and yet, as I stood there in my hotel room, reading and rereading the bully's cowardly comments, nothing seemed as devastating as this handful of mean words. How crazy is that? I felt like a lost child, confused and alone and ill-equipped to process the lashing. It felt like a bad dream. I knew better than to let the bully's comments bother me...but they did.
And nevermind that I've survived plenty worse, like a train accident or coming face to face with an intruder in my house. In the scheme of things, the bully's comments shouldn't have meant a thing, but they somehow felt like a knife to the heart.
First, I tried telling myself all the things I've said to my kids:
Sticks and stones.
Don't let 'em get to you.
You know they're not right.
They're just taking potshots.
This is more about them than you.
Yet none of these phrases helped. In my initial shock, I wondered...
...who this bully was.
...if they were right.
...what I'd done to elicit such a mean and vindictive set of remarks.
...what kind of person takes the time to lash out so intentionally, hurtfully, and publicly.
And then, I cried -- less for myself than for all the young people dealing with cyber bullying on a daily basis.
I knew the bully wasn't right. Bullies never are. And I knew comments like this are always written from a place of personal pain, driven by a hell-bent intention to hurt and crush someone else's spirit as a way to avoid one's own unattended issues.
Still, I cried for kids on social media every day -- on Instagram and Snapchat and similar platforms that give opportunities to lone wolves who can tear a gentle heart wide open.
I won't soon forget those minutes of pacing in my hotel room, or the tears I shed over this coward's onslaught.
I cried for the kids, alone in their bedrooms with tears in their eyes, reading and rereading a bully's stabbing words, lost in the same wonder I had: are they right? who is it? I cried for the kids who feel lost trying to understand what's happening.
And I cried for the interruption of my time, my energy and my positive emotions.
Such a monumental waste.
Through my tears, I reached out to friends, most of whom responded immediately. Here are just some of their responses. Clearly, they didn't hold back:
"Best response is none."
"Plenty of assholes out there."
"Let others reply? They will, I bet." [and they did]
"They live to get a rise out of you."
"This may be the day you've made it. Go look at celebrities reading mean tweets and remember: the crazies are the commenters. Onward. And remember that the comment is way more about them than you."
"That's messed up Karma, man."
"That person's going to have all sorts of shit rain down on them."
"Classy. Can't imagine who would write such a thing."
"There is a special place for people like this..."
"That person doesn't even know you."
"Don't give them another thought...fucking asshole, whoever they are."
"What a fucked up thing to do."
"I saw it. Fuck them. Don't let them wreck you. That's giving a fucking desperate troll too much power."
"Go kick the world in the ass. This is your world..."
"I just saw it. What a stalker. Block that person. Take the comment down."
Turns out, I never had to take the comment down; somehow, the universe (or a friend? or Facebook?) took care of that before I could. Whether someone reported the bully -- or perhaps the individual miraculously grew a conscience after my friends tore into him/her? -- I'll never know.
I do know that the experience, for a brief period, shredded me. More importantly, it reminded me -- once again -- that good conquers hate.
And while the bully's post was still up, I decided not to ruminate.
I put my sunglasses over my puffy eyes and set out for a walk on 15th Street, directly against the flow of late-afternoon D.C. commuters. I figured, I may never know the faceless coward who posted that rant, but I'm not hiding as a result.
I began my walk in the shade, then crossed against traffic to the sunnier side of the street. Within 20 minutes, my glasses were off, my eyes were dry, and I was drafting this post at a coffee shop near my hotel. And I squinted into the sunshine of a day that was -- despite someone's decision to be unkind -- still magnificently beautiful, still full of positivity, and still entirely mine to navigate.
And while my amazing friends thankfully answered my call, it was really during that walk in which I found myself again. The bully may have interrupted my thoughts...my day...my outlook... but I reclaimed them all by doing just one thing: I kept going.
If you find yourself on a similar path -- stumbling to right yourself when someone's rage shows up (on your page, in your space, wherever) -- know that you do not deserve it.
Know that you are better than someone's hatred.
Know that you are solid inside, no matter how shaken you temporarily feel.
You're far better than any attempts to cut you down. And you always will be.
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