Scratch that. 2014 was supposed to be a great year. I had been part of a dedicated group of community activists who had made great strides in making positive changes within their community, and we had great things to show for it.
I should have been celebrating. I should have been working towards more great things. I should have been happy and excited and proud.
Instead, I found myself sitting on a couch in my new therapist's office, clutching a wadded up tissue, tears streaming down my face, wondering what the hell went wrong.
Apparently, when you are a part of something great, you become a public figure. Some people might consider you a leader.
Leaders and public figures are targets.
It was never my intention to be a leader or a public figure. I just wanted to put something good out into the world. I wanted to work with other people who wanted to put something good out into the world. And I wanted to do it honestly and with integrity and with respect to those around me.
I really don't know how I'm supposed to act as a public figure. Apparently I'm not good at it.
Early in 2014, I had an interaction with a local business owner that gave me pause. This person had not treated me well and as a result, I did not feel that I could continue having a friendship with them. I told them as much. That we could still work together for the greater good of the community and that maybe someday we could repair our friendship, but at the moment, I did not appreciate the way I was being treated and was going to put some distance between us.
It seemed simple enough. Lots of friendships dissolve, people disagree and people move on. Don't they?
Except when they don't. What I thought was a simple dissolution of friendship was the start of a year long (and still going) attack on my reputation, my character and my business. At first, I laughed it off. How bad could it possibly get?
As it turns out, well respected business people with families and normal lives can actually engage in some pretty horrible behavior.
It seems strange for someone who watches "The Real Housewives" pretty regularly to say, but... I was genuinely surprised. I grew up around bad people - addicts, alcoholics, felons, criminals, etc. I KNEW what bad people looked like. Growing up, I looked to the people who wore nice clothes, drove nice cars, went to church, had 9-5 jobs and thought, "Those people must be good. They have their shit together. Those are the kind of people I want to be like."
Fast forward to 2014 and I feel like a complete idiot. I feel like I just found out that Santa Claus isn't real. "Upstanding citizens" can do terrible things. Wolves in sheep's clothing and all of the other cliches that you can come up with...
painting by Jessica McGhee
It's been little over a year now and it is safe to say that if anyone in this little city that I live in gets in trouble with the city for anything at all, someone will point to me as the cause.
Get in trouble with the health department? I probably turned you in. Problems with the liquor commission? It must be something I said. Code enforcement come after you for anything? It was most definitely me that called. Is your business not zoned properly? You should definitely let everyone know that I turned you in.
That probably doesn't seem like such a big deal until you factor in that the city operates lots of different departments, those departments field lots of complaints, and as a result, lots of businesses are going to get notifications. So imagine that for 13 months, on a regular basis, you are hearing about someone new that got in trouble for something, and that they were told that it was you. Imagine that you address this as soon as you hear about it, and that most people REFUSE to talk to you about it. They just level the accusation to anyone who will listen, and run away...
The thing is, rumors are funny (just kidding. so not funny.). Once a couple get out there (courtesy of my old friend), it's really easy to pile on more. Pretty soon, there are a lot of people who are sure you're terrible. That you're petty and jealous and trying to get businesses closed and get people shut down and stealing money and whatever else it is that terrible people do. Even if they've never met you. Even if they had met you, and you had really tried to help them succeed in the past. Even if you genuinely want everyone to succeed. They just know, because someone told someone who told them and also, assumptions and coincidences and she's difficult and bossy and a know it all and other things.
I couldn't defend myself. I hadn't done what I was being accused of, but it didn't matter. You can't prove a negative. I lost friends. I lost business. I lost weight. I had anxiety. I tried to stay true to who I was, but instead, I fell into a deep depression. My therapist and my doctor suggested Prozac, just to get me through this and back on my feet.
I suffered horrible side effects from the medication. I became even more anxious. Paranoid. I couldn't work. I couldn't leave my house. I spent the first few hours of every morning trying to come up with reasons NOT to kill myself.
painting by Jessica McGhee
If this wouldn't have happened to me, I would not believe it was true. I would not believe that respected members of a business community that I admired so much could so quickly and easily seek to destroy someone, just because they didn't agree. It felt - feels - like junior high. Like something you read about, but that doesn't really happen in real life - not with grown- ups. And it's ongoing. Every time I think it's over, something else comes up. A few weeks ago, some business owners got zoning violation notices ...they all let me know in one way or another that they either thought it was me that turned them in, or that someone had told them it was me. I now have a social media block list that's a mile long, just so I can avoid the cruel comments, the passive aggressive attacks on my business and/or character, and the speculation about all of the horrible things people are so convinced that I did.
Some friends have stood by me. Many have conveniently become "busy." More often than not, people don't want to get involved. Most people think I should just try and blow it off. But see....like everyone else in the world, I have a childhood, and our childhoods shape us in so many ways...
painting by Jessica McGhee
There was a lot of awful in my house growing up, but I think that that event, probably more than any other, is the best example of how my childhood shaped the best and worst parts of me. My parents let me know at a very early age that I would never be good enough, so I have spent my entire life trying to be good enough. My parents let me know at a very early age that fear was something to be mocked, so I try very hard to hide my fear, until I can conquer it into non-existence. My parents let me know at a very early age what it felt like to feel alone in the midst of people, unloved, and to want to die, so I try very hard to love people and to let them know that they are not alone, and that the world needs them.
Up until recently, trying to be good enough, just meant trying to be the best person that I could. Facing my fears was terrifying, but do-able, and worth the effort. Loving people and seeing the best in them felt good.
And now it feels awful. I am terrified of people. I don't know what good looks like. I will never be good enough. I am not worth defending. There is no one who will stand beside me when the world turns ugly.
I am alone.
I am alone, and the world does not need me, and I don't want to be here anymore. I am 8 years old all over again.
This is my current battle. A fear of people that is so strong that when I am around them, I find myself clawing at my own skin, as though I might be able to rip open a seam and hide inside of myself, so that I can still do what I need to do, but no one will be able to see me.
I force myself to get out of bed every day. This is new. For two months, I would not get out of bed except to go to work. If I did go to work, I would leave after a couple of hours. People are terrifying.
I cry when people are kind to me, because I'm so grateful for it, but at the same time, I don't trust it.
I cry because I still want to love people, but I am so very, very afraid of what they can do.
I do not know who to trust. I do not know who is saying things about me. I don't know who hears what is being said. I do not know who believes it, or who will level the next accusation at me. I do not know how much more business we will lose because people believe that I am terrible. I do not know how much more business we will lose because I am so horribly awkward around people now, in a business that demands that I be social.
I am re-wiring myself. I have not lost the part of myself that will fight my fears. I will fight this. I will stay here. I will remind myself that I am indeed loved. I will find my tribe. I will find a way to love people again, and to find those I can trust and stand beside, and those who will stand beside me. But it's a battle, and everyday is different. I can write this today, because today is a good day. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. I will face it when I get there.
painting by Jessica McGhee
So this is my new journey...to let go of the person I was, and to try and find the person I will be. And if you want to come along, and you promise to be kind, I would be grateful for the company.