Cyber-bullying is something we generally associate with kids; an extension of the playground into the perceived safety of the home, giving the victims no escape from their abusers. That is the popular image of cyber-bullying, but the truth is it doesn’t just affect kids and young adults; it can affect anyone; it did, for example, affect me.
Online relationships obviously have a different dynamic from those that exist in “real space”, and while in the online world, it is unlikely that the victim will suffer any physical abuse, the mental and psychological harm is still very real.
For me, the particular relationship started as so many do, via twitter. First we followed each other, then we would reply to each other’s tweets, then thing progressed to the “Saw this and thought of @So_and_So…” kind of thing. Before long we were DMing before ultimately going “off-platform” and carrying out chats on Skype/KiK/WhatsApp/etc. It’s not that uncommon an evolution of these types of relationships.
Things started fairly light, and flirty, but over time grew deeper. We shared confidences, we discussed our lives in greater detail, our hopes, our fears, what made us happy, what made us sad, the highs, the lows and, finally, our darker sides; by which I mean mental health issues.
Now, our particular community seems to have a disproportionate number of participants who are out and open about topics such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolarism, PTSD and a host of other conditions. Maybe it’s because we are so used to talking openly about so many other topics that “polite society” deems off limits that we are more readily able to be open on this one too.
I talked freely about my struggles with depression, and she talked freely about her own battles. And so things continued, on a daily basis, sometimes for hours on end, for a couple of years.
The change, at first, was subtle; so subtle that I can’t actually recall when it happened, it was just something I became increasingly aware of. There were hints of accusations of narcissism; that I used my illness as a means of attracting attention, hoping to garner affirmation of my “pity me” outbursts.
At first I let it pass me by. Yes, like most of us, sometimes I do overshare, but not in the hope of eliciting “oh poor you, that’s awful” responses, but simply as a means of release, that need to “howl at the moon” occasionally which so many of us use twitter and/or our blogs to do when the need takes us.
The comments grew more persistent and increasingly harsh. I was “self-centred”, “self-obsessed”, I always made everything about me, I didn’t actually care how others thought.
She found ways of taking offence at even the most innocuous of comments, and when I tried to “explain” what I had meant, that would just make things worse. I was spending increasing amounts of time apologising for upsetting her. I still enjoyed our chats, but increasingly, they were beginning to upset me more and more.
And then of course, and indeed many of you notice, there are times when my depression would deepen, when I withdrew from the world, both the physical and the online. Initially she was considerate of these phases; she understood, she had them herself, she’d be there if I needed her but respected my need to indulge in “me time”, she’d be there waiting on the other side. I’d said the same thing to her on many occasions. We were, after all, fellow travellers on the same dark path.
Again however, it changed. My silences were less about my own healing and increasingly about not being there for her, I wasn’t showing her the same support she was showing me (or rather, she would have shown me, if only I weren’t ignoring her). It was further evidence of my self-centredness, yet more evidence of how I always put me ahead of anyone else.
Eventually I did decide to put myself first and decided, no more and broke off contact. I’d already closed down my blogs some months before, but this time I went for it. I deleted any social networking app that we had used to communicate, and I effectively put my hairy alter ego into hibernation. It hurt, and I allowed myself time to mourn the passing of a friendship that, if it had ever actually been real, had withered and died long before I’d finally admitted defeat and let it go. I do still miss the “friendship” but that’s the nature of nostalgia.
This current persona was my attempt to rise from the ashes of that former self. Helped, in part, by a forgotten password and my own innate thrawness.
Online bullying is real, the emotional/psychological damage it can do is real, the pain it causes is real. If it can happen to me, a reasonably strong and aware man in my 40s, it can happen to anyone. If you think it may be happening to you or someone you care about, don’t keep it to yourself. Speak out and speak up. Bullying is never acceptable.