“I lost my reputation. I was publicly identified as someone I didn’t recognize. And I lost my sense of self.”
Those are the words of Monica Lewinsky spoken last October at a Forbes conference. She was speaking out for the first time on cyber bullying.
I know something about this and these could be my words, too. Je suis Monica.
I wouldn’t blame you if that made you giggle. Lord knows I had many laughs at Monica Lewinsky’s expense and I feel rather ashamed about that now. She was a 22-year-old woman who made a mistake almost all of us have made at least once – getting involved with the wrong person. The difference is that most of us are not shamed and humiliated about our mistakes on a global stage.
I paid a heavy price for some wrong choices, too.
Several years ago, I went through a private breakup that became very public for reasons that I’m certain that I will never completely understand. It’s a long story, as they usually are, and the particulars aren’t really important now but the plot is very simple. Someone made up some awful things about me, got a few other folks to believe them and set off a wildfire that scorched every inch of my life – my family, my friends, my work, and my soul.
It was the worst time of my life and that includes a seven month period when I watched both of my parents take their last breath. In short, it almost killed me.
I learned how quickly perception can become reality, particularly on Facebook. And I learned that trying to stop it – the sheer force of a cyber beat down – is like trying to mop up a tsunami with a dish towel.
I would tremble when I logged on to Facebook – fearful for what I might see. I was the butt of running jokes online, jokes made by people I had considered friends – people I had hosted for dinner in my home. I was called everything from crazy to cunt. Yes, that word. I can remember seeing it attached to my name and feeling the color drain out of my face while my heart pounded like a bass drum.
Lewinsky says that we are living in a world where “humiliation has become a commodity.” I guess that makes the Internet the Dow Jones.
You’re probably wondering why I just didn’t abandon Facebook, the source of so much of my torment. There are two very disparate reasons. One, I felt like I needed to protect myself – to know what was going on as best I could so that there would be no surprises. You see, I learned early on during my ordeal that what you don’t know can indeed hurt you. The other reason will strike you as ironic – I desperately needed the connection to people and community not caught up in the storm.
There were surprising connections, too, from folks that I had never considered close friends. David was foremost among those. He lives in another city but always seemed to know when I was starving for an ounce of compassion. He would send a brief in-box message that was perhaps most beautiful simply because in that moment of utter aloneness , I knew that someone was thinking about me.
I began to write some very personal essays during this time. I was lost but was finding my voice again through my writing. I had a column in my local newspaper and strangers began emailing me to tell me how they connected with my stories. They felt heard through my writing and that was such a balm for my own healing.
Hemingway famously wrote that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This has been true for me. I did get stronger and over time, the din of the bullying eventually ceased. It wasn’t dramatic, more like the end of a candle when the melting wax eventually extinguishes the flame. It put itself out.
The memory of it can still startle me at times. As Lewinsky said in a New York Times feature a few weeks ago, “It lives as an echo in your life. But over time the echo becomes softer and softer.”
I’m in a very good place these days. I have a wonderful wife who loves and celebrates me every day, an abundance of good and genuine friends, and work that inspires me. Maybe that’s why I can finally write about what happened to me.
I believe in resurrection and I believe in myself.
Lewinsky ended her recent TED talk by saying, “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”
I’m grateful I could write mine.