Big surprise: I was also depressed. I was living in social isolation, taking antidepressants, and seeing a therapist to deal with some issues that would ultimately lead to my sort of divorcing myself from my family. Emailing with this little group of haters was one of my few sources of social interaction, and it bolstered my increasing belief that life had dealt me a raw deal. I felt less alone in the company of people who also believed that they deserved a better life than the one they were living, because there is no way I would have been able to deal with a friend who was successful at that point in time. I couldn’t have been a good friend to anyone back then—I was so wrapped up in being a victim that I saw every success someone else had as a personal affront, as if there were only a certain amount of success available in the world and I had missed out on my allotment. I felt terrible about my life, terrible about other people who seemed to be getting ahead, and terrible about what an absolute jerk I was turning into.
Something about being in therapy made me not want to turn into that jerk. I wanted to feel better about my life, and about who I was. I wasn’t just going to therapy; I was putting in the work of DOING therapy—not just sitting in the chair passively for my hour session every week, but actually asking my therapist questions about what steps I could take to not only feel better, but BE better, which included weighing the pros and cons of my actions. I had been seeing my therapist for about six months when I started telling her how much time I spent capping on people online, and how it was starting to make me feel terrible. It started when I was about to make fun of this one blogger one day for posting something about her kid. All of a sudden it hit me that these were ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS I was talking about, and even though they would likely never see the vitriol I was regularly spewing about them, I didn’t like what I was doing when I actually took a step back and looked at it. This woman was a parent, using the internet to connect with people who made her feel less alone. I didn’t have a kid, but we were basically using the internet in the same way—the only difference was that she was focusing on positive things, building a community around things she cared about, and bravely developing her writing style in public, while I was wallowing in negativity. When I caught myself about to attack her just to entertain myself and my friends, I felt horrible. I felt childish. I hated myself.
I talked to my therapist about all of this, and I did these little workbooks she gave me that made me answer questions about what I wanted in life (they were kinda like What Color Is Your Parachute? or The Artist’s Way, if you’ve seen either of those—motivational books for people who feel adrift). What is totally obvious to you right now, having only heard me describe what I was up to, was totally shocking for me, who was living it, to learn: Under my veneer of bitterness and hatred were some legitimate goals and desires. I wanted a better life and to be a better person, and (this was even more surprising) I was willing to work for it.
This newly discovered desire for happiness didn’t bode well for some of my friendships, as you can imagine. I stopped contributing as often to the Round Robin of Hate emails. I found myself deleting a lot of them, unread. And over time I stopped being cc’ed on them. I didn’t think ill of those friends, but once I figured out how terrible all that negativity was making me feel about myself, I just couldn’t take part anymore. Friendships built on desperation are symbiotic: One of you has to always need the other in order for it to work. When I became too busy with the things that were positively impacting my life to be online all day (going back to school, starting new jobs, moving to a new state, starting to date the guy I would eventually marry), it was even easier to realize how much effort I had wasted on resenting other people’s successes.
I define success very loosely (no one is trying to be Jay-Z over here), but I think I’ve been very successful on my own terms. I’ve published a book that is selling well, and I not only write for a living but have found a way to combine everything I love (women’s rights, helping girls have some hope about their own lives, working with unbelievably stellar and creative people, and writing) into a DREAM JOB as an editor here at Rookie. I have wonderful friends to share my success with and don’t have to worry that any of them are secretly calling me names behind my back, and I married the person who makes me laugh more and feel loved more than anyone else on the planet. I figured out how useful a college degree could be for me, and then I totally killed it, earning awards, grants, and fellowships at every stage, forming great relationships with students and instructors that fulfill my intellectual curiosity and validate my intelligence, and following their advice and support all the way to a Ph.D. I feel love and joy every single day of my life.
I hadn’t talked to my hater friends in a while. (I was busy; see above.) Then I got a couple of emails from someone I used to consider a friend, making snide remarks about me. I was on the other side now, a target instead of a comrade—in groups like this, you’re either one or the other; there is no neutral space. Real friends are happy for you when you accomplish something—it’s one of the most basic tenets of friendship, something most of us learn in kindergarten. But friendships built on resentment over other peoples’ success have little chance of survival when one of you becomes successful. None of my old email buds has reached out to me in recent years, and I haven’t reached out to them. I don’t miss anything about those friendships, and I don’t know what they’re up to, but I hope they were able to go for what they wanted the same way I did.
I have remorse when I think about how easy it was for me to be a follower. I am ashamed of how eager I was to see other people fail. But I don’t regret those years or those friendships—I needed to have that experience to see how bad things can really get, to reinforce the good decisions I make about my life now. Having spent even a little bit of time (a couple of years overall) in such a negative place, I realize the importance of doing something every day to work toward my own goals, and of recognizing goodness in my own life. I rarely use this word, but the whole thing made me much more mindful.
It took a lot of work to figure out how to be happy on my own terms. A blog I started in 2011 got a lot of recognition very quickly, and I got shitty comments from people online who thought I hadn’t “earned” the attention, who told me that my idea was stupid and that they were better writers than me. I didn’t take it personally, though. I wasn’t even mad. I totally know where these haters are coming from. I recognize that part of them that needs to invalidate me in order to validate their own experience. I empathize with them, even if they don’t know it. If slagging me off motivates them to step back and see what they really want, they can have at it. And I’ll be here, on the other side, cheering them on. ♦