Let’s Talk About Trolls
I wished someone had given me this advice before I found my haters.
I’m a storyteller by nature. My children will tell you they are scarred by the ridiculous cautionary tales I made up over the years. Even Christmas trees can come to life and maim children who try to steam the tape off their presents before December 25, just ask them.
I tell you this so that you know I don’t discriminate against cryptozoological creatures, just the cowards that roam the internet simply to stir the pot, shame, and bully strangers. Yes, I’m talking about the non-rainbow toy, non-Grimm penned, hate-filled trolls who feed on the vulnerability of others.
I wish someone had said to me, “Just write and don’t worry about the rest.”
I wish someone had warned me about trolls before I began writing online. I wish someone had said to me, “Just write and don’t worry about the rest.” Journaling as a kid had taught me that writing was a cathartic process. When I first retired for health reasons, I chose writing again to work through my emotional turmoil, but this time I did it publicly.
I wrote many articles for a variety of magazines, e-zines, websites, etc. Most of my work dealt with the guilt, shame, depression, pain, and the myriad of other side effects that come with having a chronic health condition. When I received my very first response from a reader expressing their sincere thanks, I felt validated. It was like a stranger’s comment had made my personal hell mean something. I craved a world where all that had happened to me had some sort of greater purpose than just my misery.
As a mother, writer, wife, daughter, friend, neighbor, volunteer, and all the other hats I wore, the sudden feel of a breeze on my bare head was even worse than the physical pain of my ailment. My lack of routine and purpose felt like a death sentence, so I turned to writing.
When another reader later on down the line wrote me a note saying she was printing out my article to use when she talked to her family about her illness, which none of them understood, it was as if I was given a new direction in my aimless life. Then, just as I crossed that bridge into acceptance, the trolls came out and demanded I turn back.
A few months into my new purpose, one of my articles hit the front page of Yahoo! News. I was elated. A few days later, I went back to see if it was still there and to verify I hadn’t imagined it. The page showed dozen of comments. I patted myself on the back, got all giddy with hope and excitement, sat down with a cup of coffee, and started to read.
I couldn’t even find the words to describe how crestfallen and ashamed I was over what I’d read.
Two hours later, my husband returned home from work to find me in the corner sobbing. I couldn’t even find the words to describe how crestfallen and ashamed I was over what I’d read. After I finally calmed down, I opened my laptop and handed it to him.
“Sweetheart,” he said, after 15 minutes, “half of these comments, if not more than half, are positive.”
He read a few aloud, which I’d already seen, about how this person thought I was strong or that person understood and thanked me for finding the words to describe their struggles, blah, blah, blah. I stood up and pointed a shaky finger at the arrow to expand the other strings of comments further down the line.
“This person clearly has mental illness…”
“This is crazy-person writing…”
“What illness does she have anyway? If she doesn’t say, it’s probably not real…”
“I feel sorry for her family. Get over yourself, b…”
“What a weak and selfish piece of …”
The comments went on and on. Each one cut to the core, calling out my fears and suspicions about myself. I re-read my article several times trying to see it through their eyes.
The entire thing was about trying to find a new normal since my diagnosis, and how it forced everyone in my life to change, not just me. I even discussed the shame and self-hatred that I felt at forcing my own limitations on those that loved me. The takeaway was supposed to be that a chronic illness, regardless of what it is, affects everyone and that the first step in dealing with the emotional fallout is accepting that and forgiving yourself.
It was a very intimate piece. I had forced myself to be very vulnerable to write it because I needed to write it and I was just sure someone else out there needed to hear it. I had looked my demons in the eyes and ripped my chest open to bare my heart.
There were a lot of tears during the creative process, and a lot of back and forth before I hit “send.”
Mind you, I didn’t even use my real name when it was published, mostly because I’d found out the hard way that everyone sees what you do on the internet, even if they’ve only said two words to you in person. There were a lot of tears during the creative process, and a lot of back and forth before I hit “send.” But I did it. And it was published. And then it was read by strangers.
I wished I’d left it alone and just kept writing. Instead, I stopped writing completely and came back and tortured myself re-reading the comments, not just the first day but the next few weeks and months. The trolls had taken my deepest fears and turned them on me, especially one user named “Reign.”
“This chick should do her whole family a favor and kill herself.”
Later in the string of comments, someone else agreed. Then, a third person concurred. It was like they knew that in my darkest of days, I wanted to die and wondered if my family would be better off without me. Since I was past the age of after-school stories about cyber-bullying, I didn’t realize the comments for what they were. I took them all personally and, even worse, I feared they were right.
I didn’t write another word for almost a year.
I wrote to Yahoo and asked them to delete the story. They wouldn’t do it. Then, I reached out to the original publication and asked them to kill every story I’d ever written for them. They couldn’t do it as they’d already distributed my work to outlets all over the world. I deleted all of my writer accounts, my Tumblr, my blog, and even closed all my social media accounts, except for Facebook, which I cut from 1,200 friends to 253. I didn’t write another word for almost a year.
Eventually, I started a new blog under a pseudonym. I published my tamest pieces on Facebook for just my friends to read. I wrote a few pieces that were published elsewhere under my maiden name. Then, a fellow writer friend told me about Medium.
“It’s great,” he said, and told me about it in detail.
“But it’s perfect for someone like you, and the kind of things you write.”
He let it go for a while, and my curiosity grew as I read his contributions. Finally, I asked him about it again. Then, I told him my reservations.
“Damn, girl,” he started. “Don’t you get it? You have haters. That’s badass! That means you’ve got readers and you’re making them think and feel.”
Still, I wasn’t convinced. Later that day, I went back and searched for my old article. The internet never dies so, of course, it was still there. And I re-read the comments against my better judgment. This time, though, as I did, my friend’s comment echoed in my head. You have haters. That means you have readers.
I made an account on Medium — under a fake name, of course. I wrote three articles and heard crickets chirping loudly as they sat lonely and unseen. I wrote a few more articles with the same results and then deleted the whole account.
I was done with writing that day, and for good this time.
I went back to the now bookmarked Yahoo! article and read through the troll comments again. I decided they were right. I was crazy. I was pathetic. I wasn’t even a good writer, and nobody wanted to read what I had to say. Maybe my family would be better off if I was just gone. I was done with writing that day, and for good this time.
A few more months passed and I felt that thing that propels us to write gnawing at me. I went back to Yahoo for a dose of self-hatred that would dispel any notion of needing to write.
At the bottom of the page was an article written by a mom that described her life with a severely autistic child. I noticed it had twice the comments of my article so I clicked it. It was well-written and heartbreaking. The comments, like mine, were a mix of good and bad… but some of them were cruel and sadistic.
I began to get angry.
Who the hell are these people, I wondered. I began to get angry. What gave them to right to be so ignorant and vicious in their opinions and words? What kind of monsters would tell people in pain to kill themselves or off their children?
If you don’t like the article, move on. Stop reading. Deal with your own obvious issues. I read several more articles, and then 100 more. It was the same everywhere I looked. If writers had readers, they also had haters.
When I finally got up the courage to re-join Medium, I did it under my own name. I wrote content, which got a few likes here and there. I learned more about the platform, how to format articles, what things attracted readership, and how to increase visibility. I reached out to publications to accept my work.
I began to see my writing gather applause. My confidence grew enough that I even put myself out there by writing about something very vulnerable and controversial. People read it while I waited and held my breath.
No one told me to kill myself. No one mocked me or told me I was mentally disturbed or that my family would be better off without me over something for which I had no control. And while I still didn’t share it with my friends or family, it was another step in a long journey back to me. Me — storyteller, writer, troll-attracter, and real person with thoughts and feelings that I’m allowed to have and express without fear of retribution.
I am still a writer, whether “Reign” thinks so or not. My stories are published, not that it matters, so at least a few editors and my mother value what I have to say. I still get my feelings hurt when no one reads my pieces, and am giddy when readers respond to my work. But now, I am also aware of the trolls, and armored and ready to battle when they cross my path again.
If you’re reading this because you’re new on Medium, or new to writing, just write and don’t worry about the rest.
To make a long story short, here is my advice: If you’re reading this because you’re new on Medium, or new to writing, just write and don’t worry about the rest. If you’re Stephen King and some reviewer has ruined your day with their nasty opinions, just write and don’t worry about the rest. And, Mindi (yes, I’m talking to myself here), when you re-read this and look for those comments from a troll, just write and don’t worry about the rest. Focus on the woodland trolls in your stories, not the cowards lurking in the dark.