“Why do you hate me?”
The question stopped me dead.
It was in the middle of a phone call I’d made, early in my career as a journalist, as part of a story I was writing about a community centre and allegations of fraud.
I was part way through asking what I thought were some pretty reasonable, rational questions, when it became clear that the person I was interviewing was distraught. The question, “why do you hate me?” was a splash of cold water to the face.
Was I really one of those horrible journalists that I hated, that pestered people and ruined lives in pursuit of a story? Had I lost sight of my own humanity because I just had a job to do that day?
I had quite a bit of time to think about it, because the phone was hung up in my ear a few seconds later. I think I tried to garble some kind of response that would convince the interviewee that I wasn’t a monster, but it wasn’t until years later that I realised it wouldn’t have mattered what I said at that point – that person was not in a space to hear it.
Since starting this blog, I’ve corresponded with hundreds of people online, both publically and privately. Very often, I hear stories from people who are in distress. On a handful of occasions, I have heard from people who are distressed, and choose to use me as their punching bag.
In one case, the harassment carried on for months, across multiple communication channels.
This is when I started to think about the times when I’ve lashed out at others, particularly those close to me. These are the people who often don’t have the choice of simply blocking your emails or transporting you and your words to the recycle bin of their brain.
One of the first things I was taught to recite in response to teasing was the old chestnut, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
I’ve come full circle on this one. I used to recite it in the way that a hapless victim in a vampire movie wields a wooden crucifix. Then, I decided it was bullshit – words do hurt.
Recently I have come to re-appraise the statement again. Words can and do hurt, certainly, that much is true, but the old saying is right to make a distinction between blows that are struck physically and those are rendered mentally.
Punch me in the face, and there will be bruising. It will hurt. There might be blood. You may possibly break my nose. These are simple facts of physics. If you want to hurt me, you can be 100% guaranteed that you will do so by punching me in the face.
What if you decide to unleash a string of sentences at me, though? The hit rate is much less certain.
“Stupid bumface” is juvenile. “Fucking arsehole” is an obscenity. “You’re an [adjective] person who is just out to [verb]” is more direct. It connects, or has the ability to, in the same way as a punch to the face.
For words to hurt, a person has to hit your triggers, either knowingly or unknowingly.
This is where the beauty of self-awareness comes in. Once you are fully aware of the origins of a hurtful outburst, it’s the difference between receiving a punch from someone who deliberately aims to break your nose and being hit in the face by someone in the throes of a seizure.
It still hurts, but it’s nothing to do with you.
This is how partners and friends can learn to survive long-term with someone who experiences mental illness, and as part of their behaviour may sometimes lash out. Please note this is not a licence for you to accept this behaviour or fail to challenge it.
Some words and sentences are hard-wired to emotional triggers in our brain and the hurt will remain.
But if you’re able to have the strength to forgive, understand, and continue a rational dialogue (perhaps after a time out), you will be helping the person in distress get that much closer to changing, or at least managing, their own behaviour.