Worthless. It’s a word I hear almost daily. From a voice I’ve lived with since childhood. It’s not my voice. It’s not coming from anyone around me. It’s not a voice “inside my head”. When I hear voices, I hear them just as I do a friend’s – with their own unique audio signature, and from a distance – outside my head. With one distinct difference: my friends don’t denigrate me.
Voices don’t tell me to hurt people. Only people can tell each other that. Whenever I read an article about someone with a mental disorder being told by “voices” to wreak havoc, I question the integrity of the author. I consider the source. Experience has taught me to be weary of that side of the media. I know better.
When I have felt even the slightest compulsion to protect myself from harm, it has been purely instinctual, as it would be for anyone. In my lifetime, I have been mugged, molested, and left to bleed out. By people who had no history of mental illness. Cruel people with egos too big to contain. People driven by hatred and fear. The voices they heard were their own. All I could do was crumble. The voices I heard told me everything would be all right. Maybe those were the voices of angels. Maybe that’s how I survived the company of devils.
There’s another kind of voice that I’m hearing these days, more monstrous than any disorder could conjure. It is a cancer worming its way into our online community. As people living with mental illnesses we need to recognize these voices for what they are: the sadistic commentary of bullies.
The anonymity of the internet makes it easy for these trolls to practice their craft without the natural response of remorse. Social media affords such cowards a limitless playground of opportunity. What might appear to some to be harmless verbal mischief is in reality a hate crime.
I recently met the mother of a thirteen year old boy, an active kid with a high metabolism, a tiny frame, and a big heart. Lean, lithe, and agile, he might’ve passed for Spiderman, but previous playground taunting made him strive for Captain America. Rather than maintaining a diet appropriate to his exercise regimen, he began restricting calories to increase the results of his workouts. It soon became an obsession, and over time an anorexic compulsion. Mental illnesses do not care about gender. He was diagnosed with an eating disorder.
His parents and the family physician helped him find a nutritionist and a therapist. They worked as a team to help him understand his disorder, to regain his weight, strength, and self esteem, to recognize his triggers and maintain a healthy balance. He was well on his way to a strong recovery when the worst thing that could happen to his fragile inner person did – in the form of online bullying.
He had joined a mental health site where he could chat with boys and girls who were dealing with eating disorders and other diagnoses. They would talk about their recovery and support one another in making good choices.
Bonds were created that would enhance their future lives. All it took was one troll to start a stigma-reinforcing thread about the boy’s physique, and the damage was done. The ‘like’ counter climbed rapidly and comments escalated, one bully after another attempting to be wittier, snarkier, and more demeaning than the last, their personal glee increasing with each insult. Had they lost sight of what might happen? Had they given it any thought? Of course not. Haters gonna hate.
The woman recounted her hospital vigil, the long night spent tracking her son’s monitor, watching his vital signs plummet. Her only child was dying. His internal organs were systematically shutting down. After months of therapy, medication, and exercise, after appealing to his growing self esteem, all it took was the true face of cowardice, one person hiding behind a computer screen, to initiate a hate thread. They tore him down for being different, for being diagnosed with a mental illness, humiliating him in the safe haven of his forum. He fell prey to the words of indifferent monsters – selfish, thoughtless people, entertaining themselves with remarks that would ultimately cost him his life.
I have listened to insults and jeers, derision and worse, from the voices of disembodied entities, but I have never been hurt as deeply by them as I have by their human counterparts. Perhaps you have been, too. But we are not helpless. There is a solution.
We have the power as a community to stand up for ourselves. We can fight back against the stigma and discrimination perpetuated by these miscreants. We can block them from our social media sites. We can report their activity to the appropriate authorities. Ignoring a bully will do nothing more than encourage them. Action must be taken. We can talk with our therapists about the effect these bullies have on us. We can deal with the repercussions of online hate. We don’t have to crumble. We have one another. We have the voice of solidarity. Speak up.