Cyberbullying sucks. I know because I’ve been through it.
I’m sharing my story to show that it can happen to anyone, at any age, and that there are things you can do to combat it.
My story begins in February 2010, the spring semester of my second year of law school at Arizona State University. I had a full load of classes and an internship at a large Phoenix law firm. I was also an executive officer on multiple student clubs at the law school. It was because of the connections I made in a leadership position that lead to me receiving an invitation to attend the HRC gala. The invite was written and sent to me in an email that was to my personal email account, not the club’s email address.
One of the other execs, another law student, did not receive such an invitation. She became my bully.
For the following three months, I dreaded seeing the notification that I had new email in my inbox. Every email from her was filled with anger and disrespect. She called me dishonest, unethical, phony, dumb, seedy, a poor leader, and made discriminatory statements about my sexual orientation.
From the beginning, I sensed this could be a heated situation and may not end well. I elicited the help of four of my friends:
- Michael: former assistant dean of the law school who has a wealth of knowledge regarding law students and the ASU system,
- Jeff: my friend who has experience with handling public criticism,
- Andrea: was the president of an LGBT student group at Oregon State University when I was a student there, and
- Julia: my classmate who is a former national speech champion. She is the most articulate person I know, and she’s brilliant at handling difficult people.
Every time I got an email from my bully, I forwarded it to these four. After her first email, I never sent a response without giving myself several hours to let my emotional response subside and to formulate the best response based on the goal of getting the harassment to end.
My bully’s impulsiveness scared me. She reacted to every email with such anger. She responded without taking any time to think through her response. I was pretty sure that she wouldn’t shift from being verbally impulsive to physically impulsive, but I wasn’t completely convinced.
After one particularly cruel email that I forwarded to my support team, I got a one line email response from Michael: “Ruth, you need to stay away from this person.” Michael has counseled thousands of law students in his career. A warning like that from him carried significant weight for me.
I reached out to Gavin de Becker and Associates, a firm that assesses threats in personal relationships and the workplace. De Becker is the author of the bestselling book, The Gift of Fear, a book I recommend everyone read to identify and respond to people who threaten your safety. I explained the situation to an associate, and he responded that I likely had cause for concern.
I was 30 years old, and for the first time in my life, I was afraid to go to school.
Read more about my experience with cyberbullying and how I fought back in Part 2 of I Was Cyberbullied.