Three weeks ago, I was sitting in the cinema with my girlfriend, waiting for the half-hour of advertorials to roll on. With the brightness on my screen turned down so as not to distract other cinemagoers from the beer commercial, I opened my WordPress account on my mobile phone to check if any of my readers had tried my new ‘moonshine mash’ recipe yet. The words “HAVE THE BITCH RAPED TO DEATH” screamed out at me from my screen. I turned it over so my other half didn’t see it, and quietly went to the bathroom. “FILTHY RETARDED NIGGER WHORE” “THE BITCH HAS AIDS” “KILL HER NOW”.
These comments were left on a recipe for mashed potato. That’s what I do, for a living, I write cheap recipes, mostly from tinned foods, and teach people on very low budgets how to cook well for themselves while living paycheck to paycheck, or if their benefits are delayed or messed up. I have devoted my working life to giving people the means to survive. I advocate for benefit claimants, campaign and petition for living wages and to end austerity, and similar. I get death threats, for writing about mashed potato. It would be laughable, if only it weren’t so regular. If only I didn’t have a custom stab vest under my stairs. If only I didn’t have such severe anxiety that I have panic attacks in crowds. If only it hadn’t cost me thousands of pounds in lost earnings with cancelled talks and events. The digital equivalent of green ink letters, and it just isn’t funny at all.
I came back from the bathroom, and half-watched the film. I needed out of this world of immediate rhetorical violence. I needed an escape. It seeped into my kids bedtime, into my every waking hour, a person can write the most vile, abhorrent, abusive words, and in a nanosecond they are in my face, chipping away at my self esteem, raising my hackles, pounding my heart, the sweat on the small of my back, the clench in my shoulders. I needed to take the power to control me, through fear and loathing, away from anonymous cowards cowering in their parents basements.
And so, a few days later, I walked into my local mobile phone shop, and bought a Nokia 3310. A sunny yellow colour, it looked like a toy, yet still a marked improvement on the original model I hid under my pillow in my errant youth. I nicknamed the Samsung S6 ‘twatphone’ and the yellow one ‘batphone’. I placed the smartphone on my desk, to use as a modem for my laptop, and tapped a dozen mobile numbers into the Nokia. Mum, Dad, my girlfriend, my son, his father, a couple of very close friends. No work colleagues. No press contacts. No media luvvies. Just the people I would want a paramedic to call if I’d been hit by a bus, I thought. And I sat on the beach with my boy, and played Snake, giggling with glee at the possibility of leaving the world behind.
Three weeks later seems long enough to start to review the profound – and I mean profound – impact that this tiny yellow phone has had on my life. An insomniac for years, I find myself getting 7 or 8 hours sleep a night now that I am not kept on high alert by artificial blue light, nor the temptation to keep on scrolling through news cycles and crap quizzes about when I’m going to get married based on what I have on my pizza, or who my soul mate is judged by my favourite Disney prince. The answers to those questions lie not in clickbait cartoon pop quizzes, but in lived experiences and honest conversations.
I had to learn to be in the world again. To be bored. To be alone with my thoughts. Off facebook, and only allowing myself 3 x 5 minute bursts on Twitter (spoiler – I am now generally on the loo when I tweet, so if you’re sending me abusive crap, I’m probably having a steaming great dump while I read it), I feared that my relationships with my friends would wane. I panicked, surely we need these social networks in order to keep up with one another? I know for some of my elderly friends, or housebound and disabled friends, social media is a lifeline, and I don’t outright decry it for that reason. But I am neither infirm nor housebound, and so I walked away.
I found that the dozen numbers in my phone book became people I talked to daily – partly at first out of boredom, because there was nothing happening on that little yellow phone and so I had to start the conversations myself – but now out of habit. I check in with people. I ask how they are. I make phone calls. I make effort. I used to despair that I had no time to talk to my friends, but of course I did. I was just spending it doing Buzzfeed quizzes instead.
Part of my work is political commentary and analysis, and I am often called by journalists and television researchers to give a comment on a breaking news story. I clung to Twitter, using this as an excuse for endless scrolling, ‘I just have to keep on top of the news’. Tosh. I subscribed to the BBC Breaking News app, and the Sky one for balance, and kept Flipboard. On Twitter, I subscribed to four very different but very proactive and respected journalists tweets. I check these before breakfast, and after lunch and dinner, and get a roundup of news in 2 minutes flat each time. I’ve missed the odd celebrity titbit, but I don’t miss it.
I am more patient, less irritable, and feel better about myself. It may be a coincidence, but with my exodus from Facebook and turning my back on hundreds of negative jibes a week, I no longer plaster myself in 20 different makeup products just to leave the house. I wore my concealer, foundation, strobe cream, contouring as an armour, a brave face atop the gibbering, broken mess I felt inside.
I drink a lot less than I have been. Sometimes the nastiness would strike me at my core, the capital letters screaming again and again and again at me as I lay in bed at night. I would wake up screaming. I would have a bottle of whisky beside my bed, swigging from it to get back to sleep. That bottle has been replaced by a pot of chamomile tea, now. I no longer feel the urge to get plastered just to forget about the micro-horrors of my day.
I am producing more work than I have done in the last two years. I take my laptop to my huge, beautiful local library, and disappear beneath piles of books on a Monday. On a Tuesday I travel to the big smoke and squeeze in all the meetings I need to. Wednesdays are admin days. Thursdays and Fridays are in the kitchen. Saturdays and Sundays are creative, and on Monday, I head to the library again to write it all up. My blog, which has been mostly redundant, has whirred back into life. My community is coming back together. My creative brain is a whirligig again, as though a dank and suffocating fog has cleared. I am writing poetry again. I woke up at 1am the other morning to jot down a song that had drifted into my head in a dream. My food photography is better than it ever has been. I have filled a Filofax of recipe ideas in under two weeks. I feel awake, alive, heel-kicking umbrella-swinging Broadway-musical good.
Now I know how this makes me sound. Another Guardian columnist espousing the very-middle-class pursuit of mindfulness, but it’s more than that. For a start, I’m proudly working class and always will be. I wasn’t allowed a mobile phone until I was 16 years old, and it was a 3310 back then too.
I won a landmark court case in March this year, after 18 months of bitter battling, against MailOnline columnist Katie Hopkins for libelling me on Twitter. It wasn’t just the two tweets that condemned her, however, it was the months of vile abuse and death threats from her minions and acolytes that followed. I have written before about how online abuse has driven me to the brink of suicide. I have stood on train platforms, rocking on my heels, daring myself to go over the edge. There is a bridge in my hometown that I cannot walk across any more, having spent many an evening clutching the handrail, desperately wishing myself to clamber up and off it. I cancelled a Glastonbury appearance after online threats, for Gods sake. I have lost some of the best days of my life, to a tiny little mind bashing out tiny little words on my tiny little screen, and for my own sanity, it had to stop.
There is a place, in this world, for connectivity and technology. It can be empowering, we can build communities, we can find common ground and causes. We can connect, discover, respond. We can raise one anothers voices, link arms across the world wide web, find kith and kin in a hashtag. But until Twitter, and internet service providers, commit to properly tackling violence and abuse on their platforms, we must treat them with caution, and moderation, and ourselves with self-care and the respect to know when to walk away. My relationship with social media is an inherently abusive one, and for now, I am seeking refuge from it.
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