Updated January 29th, 2018
Last Friday I opened my email and was barraged with anonymous hatred. Relentlessly, disgusting emails flooded my inbox throughout the day, their numbers increasing each hour. I checked my email in fear, for at each refresh a new batch of insults appeared, attacking my body and being. This continued throughout the day until 7:40 pm when I received the last one. They restarted on Monday morning. It feels like they will never end.
What does it feel like to be completely powerless? There was no way I could stop the emails and no way (or so I thought) that they could be traced. Reading the first email, my face burned with embarrassment. Reading the ones that attacked my body, I nearly threw up. Recovering from an eating disorder, my first thought was, “Oh my god, they know I have gained weight.” Shame. My stomach lurched, and anxiety gripped the back of my throat. Then fear. Earlier in college I had dealt with a stalker, and the terror returned. Was this him? An overwhelming weight sank onto my chest as I swallowed back tears. As each email came in, I felt myself grow smaller and smaller. Who could hate me this much?
Brene Brown writes that shame is fueled by secrecy. My first instinct was to delete the emails and not tell anyone. This instinct to hide was my fight-or-flight stress response taking over. Being that I was unable to fight this anonymous attacker, I wanted to flee from reality and curl into my bed. But then I remembered a chapter I had just read in the book The Upside of Stress, detailing our other stress response, “tend and befriend.” If our body activates this response, instead of fleeing or fighting, we begin to engage in prosocial behavior, reaching out for help and support. Our body helps us do so by producing the prosocial chemical, oxytocin (known as the cuddle hormone). I screenshotted the emails and sent them to my friends, the professors who are advising my thesis, and my academic advisor. My shame became a signal, letting me know that it was time to share, illuminating it so that I didn’t have to carry this darkness alone.
An explosion of light that burst from my micro-moment of courage. One of my friends dropped everything she was doing and came across campus to be with me as I called the offices at the University of Michigan that could help me. My roommate brought me flowers and an incredibly thoughtful card. My professors and advisors called me, left me voicemails, and sent emails to the departments at U of M who could help me. My parents drove 30 minutes and busted into my apartment at 9:40 armed with buckets and mops to help me clean my apartment because I was too sad to go out. A remarkable influx of love, support, and light flooded my world.
I am grateful that this happened. In the darkness of hatred, the bright spots of light burn more brightly. This person was trying to use language to destroy me. A blogger and voracious reader, I have seen the way words can empower and energize, how they can make us come alive. We are the stories that we tell ourselves, and I am so grateful that these words have done nothing but strengthen my sense of self.
I feel compassion for this person who spent an entire day of their lives trying to torment me. Cruelty comes from a place of desperation. Humans in their natural state are rational, altruistic beings that prefer good to bad. In our normal, relaxed state, we are heliotropic, leaning toward the light in our lives. Being social creatures, we have a fundamental need to connect with one another. It is the evolution of our prefrontal cortex, our center for rationalization and logical thinking, that has allowed us to become these complex, sophisticated beings. Our ability to reason and communicate is what makes us human.
Only when we are under attack do we revert to the animalistic tendencies of our ancestors. When our amygdala, our fear center, takes over, we lose the abilities of our wonderful, rational prefrontal cortex, the system that would have told this person, “Hey don’t waste 14 hours of your life tormenting this girl.” When I empathize for this person, I feel so much love for them, because I cannot imagine the desperation they are experiencing that would make them feel that attacking another person is their only option. For some reason that I do not know, this person feels so insecure, attacked, and intimidated that they have reverted to the least evolved version of themselves. Hate requires that we see another person as different than us. This person’s anger has so clouded their rational abilities that they are unable to see that we are all part of the same shared humanity, and that attacking me is really hurting themselves.
While I am not in control of what happens to me, I am in control of how I respond to it. My experienced reality is the story I tell myself about why things are as they are. In between stimuli and perception, there is a space. In this space, we interpret our world. These emails are the stimuli, and the meaning I make of them is completely up to me and story I write explaining them. What a wonderful opportunity to practice writing a story of self-compassion and serenity. May my story be laced together with empathy for this person, and with love for myself and the people who have lifted me up in the past seventy-two hours.
I am grateful for Friday, for it has taught me (and my brain) the beauty of seeking help. When I told people about my shame, they lent me their light and the darkness evaporated from my being. Reinforcing my moment of courage and vulnerability, this experience taught me the importance of self-care and reminded me how one moment of bravery exponentially explodes into an upward spiral of goodness. These emails were written to attack me, but it is my decision on how I write my response. Today, when the police do a reverse IP search and find the person who did it, I am given the wonderful opportunity to practice compassion to this person. This experience reminded me that words are only as powerful as the meaning we make of them. No amount of anonymous emails or hateful harassment can take away my agency. In this ability to construct my reality, I am free.