As a secondary school teacher in the 1980s and 1990s I was well aware that there were playground bullies. There always have been and probably always will be.
But I have since discovered there is a new sort of bully, an even more cowardly variety – the cyber bully. I discovered this because I needed to know what the actual definition of "bullying" was. I did a search on the internet and this new enhanced form of bullying came to my attention.
In the old days bullies were easily identified. They were present at the bullying event, usually with a few cronies skulking around behind to back them up. But this new type of bully doesn't need real "friends", he or she has an email address to hide behind and a made up persona. They can be whoever they want to be.
When I looked through the internet I found a lot of advice and help for young people but virtually nothing for grown-ups. There was little information on how an adult should react to the vicious bombardment of emails from a cyber bully.
But why my sudden interest in this subject? Over the last few months I have been the focus of a vicious and cowardly bully who has tried to use the medium of email to intimidate and frighten me – and what is so extraordinary is that they almost succeeded.
At the end of May 2012 I received, late one evening, a phone call demanding that I did something for the person who was to become "my" bully. As the phone call continued the bully became ever more abusive, eventually threatening that "things would get very bad for me" if I didn't do what she wanted. At this point I put the phone down and assumed our friendship was over and I would never hear from her again. How wrong I was. I decided not to answer her phone calls any more – and so the emails began.
With the first ones I tried the quiet reasoning approach, but this was a waste of time. The person became more and more incensed that I would not do what she wanted. The threats became more personal, she went back years to dissect previous events and details of conversations that she said I had planned purely to ruin her reputation and that dire consequences would be forthcoming if I did.
Many of the email quotes were taken out of context and patched together with other events in an elaborate tapestry of lies. I began to dread opening the email box in the morning and had to steel myself to read her messages. Unfortunately, I worked with this person on a business basis so I had to open the emails to deal with any business within them. What made it worse was that sometimes emails were nice and sometimes nasty. I felt stupid for opening them because it was as though I was inviting her in to abuse me.
In public this individual vowed great allegiance, friendship even, towards me but behind the scenes she was sending – and still sends – terrible emails. Why couldn't I deal with this awful person? I felt pathetic – me, a big strong 55-year-old businesswoman being pushed around. But it was the drip, drip of abuse that wore me down. I felt weak because I knew I should be able to just shrug it off.
Looking back now I can see there was a pattern to the abuse. The first email would be pleasant so I would answer in a civilised and businesslike manner. But she must have seen this as a weakness and would follow with a horrible reply. However, it was the third one that became her signature piece. I came to call it the "and another thing" email. This last one would be particularly vicious and, as a friend said, it was like twisting the knife. The editor of this piece asked me for a few examples to help explain what sort of abusive comments were made. All the emails are in a separate file so I went to it fully intending to sift through them. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I couldn't open the file and look at them. I felt sick. This is the level to which this individual has pushed me.
Thank goodness I had the courage to ask my family and friends for advice and it is they who have helped me cope. I was worried they would see this as just some silly argument, of little consequence, and tell me that I was making a fuss. I needn't have worried, because on seeing the nature of the emails they took immediate action. They were horrified, instantly banning me from opening any more from this individual and blocked her from my computer. Other people now deal with her business enquiries. She cannot bully them – even though she has tried.
So I would urge anyone who feels intimidated and bullied to tell a trusted friend, a professional if necessary. You are not stupid or weak to be upset by horrible emails. Block the sender, don't answer them and eventually, like all bullies, they will get bored and go away.
The most important thing is to know that you are not alone in this.