Christie Brinkley's recent divorce settlement made me bow to the fickle gods of post-divorce justice. The court appointed an intermediary to "deal with email bullying, verbal and emotional abuse" that Brinkley reportedly had suffered from her ex Peter Cook.
The media has stooped to victim-blaming -- hammering the seemingly ageless supermodel for calling foul on Cook's shenanigans, making her appear to be nothing more than a whiny spotlight-seeker. The story the media is not telling, however, is what it's like to be the recipient of chronic cyber-bullying.
As someone who has endured nine years of cyber harassment from an ex, I'll tell you what it's like. It's degrading, bile-producing, and blood pressure-spiking.
When the thought of opening your ex's e-mail makes you want to vomit, when you suffer intrusive thoughts of the insults your ex has lobbed at you, when the prospect of years of co-parenting with an emotionally abusive ex makes you want to curl into the fetal position -- you feel trapped. Your quality of life tanks. If there were an official Post Divorce Traumatic Stress Disorder, you would be the Poster Ex.
My ex began launching cyber missiles the day we decided to split up. Minor infractions or misunderstandings were twisted into evidence of my "mental illness" and "unfit motherhood." His trademark e-mails were long, single-spaced, and replete with accusations of "psychotic behavior" and lousy mothering. His use of ALL CAPS and lots of exclamation marks (!!!!!!) made the e-mails feel particularly threatening.
The cyber bullying continued, unabated, for seven years. I was told repeatedly that I was an "idiot," "mentally ill" and a "bad mother." I was informed that my son hated me and that in time the world would see the "truth": that I was crazy and the source of all my son's problems.
I did my best to respond reasonably to my ex: stating the facts, appealing to fairness, not reacting in anger. Nothing worked. The cyber tirades continued. Despite my increasing dread of opening his e-mails, I continued to do so, and to write back. I didn't want to appear weak. I wanted to keep the lines of communication open in order to co-parent. I didn't think I had a choice but to continue e-mailing.
I don't remember what the last straw was. Maybe it was the fact that I had to take anti-anxiety medication to sleep. Or maybe it was because my clothes were hanging off me and I had developed ringing in the ears and chronic headaches. Whatever it was, I decided I was going to lose every last one of my marbles if I continued opening his e-mails. So I blocked his account.
Finally, I could check my e-mail without my heart racing. I was calmer than I'd been in years. My ex, however, was incensed at not having access to me. He insisted we use a court-approved e-mail system. I told my attorney I didn't want to use this system because I believed my ex would continue to act out. My attorney advised me that if I didn't consent, a judge would order me to do so. "This will make him calm down," he said.
I was skeptical. And sure enough, it wasn't long before the harassment kicked into high gear -- even on an e-mail program conceived specifically for family court. In less than a year, my ex threatened me with litigation eight different times. He wrote that I owed him thousands of dollars for certain expenses, despite the fact that our custody agreement stated he was solely responsible for paying.
I started coming unglued. Gagging before opening his e-mails. Heart racing when I read the latest threat of litigation. Twenty-four-seven anxiety over how I would come up with money I didn't owe him but for which he threatened to sue me.
After the eighth litigation threat, I'd had enough. I compiled nine years of incendiary e-mails -- a thick stack -- and wrote him a letter. I explained that I would no longer tolerate being abused via e-mail. I stated that I had been hesitant about agreeing to the court-approved system because I did not believe the program would change his communication style -- and, clearly, I was right.
I told my ex I would allow him to contact me through the court e-mail program as long as he addressed topics for which it was intended: scheduling and logistics. If he threatened litigation one more time, or insulted me in any way, I would stop. If he took me to court to get me to reinstate the e-mail program, I would arrive with nine years of documentation of cyber abuse in tow and I would ask the court to put boundaries on our communication.
So far, it's worked. My ex's e-mails have been benign, confined to discussions about doctor's appointments and tutoring. But the likelihood is that he will go off the rails again, and if he does, we may end up in court.
E-mails can be lethal weapons, and family courts need to do a better job setting limits around contact and sanctioning exes who can't stop firing off hate missiles. Perhaps Christie Brinkley's settlement will set a precedent for other exes who are subjected to cyber bullying. No one should be expected to endure relentless psychological abuse, or suffer physical and emotional problems due to a high-conflict ex.
No one should be afraid to check an e-mail, or need a sedative after reading one.