Of the many mantras Oprah, Bruce Springsteen and Louise Hay have taught me, the one I’ve repeated most often, I cooked up all on my own: I don’t deserve this. Those four words loop around my brain like an uninvited earworm, chipping away at hopefulness I’ve felt for everything from personal relationships to my career.
I didn’t always feel so unworthy. This started because, while freelance writing full-time five years ago, I tried to do the right thing. In case my name reminds you only of macaroni or Madonna Ciccone, I wrote that salacious xoJane article about Jian Ghomeshi’s predilection for subverting the personal space and safety of women, years before anyone else came forward publicly about his conduct and a criminal trial that ensued. In the article, I talk about a terrible date I went on with the former radio host, during which he aggressively touched my body without invitation. I wanted to warn other women about him, but after it was published, I was what they call “shamed”—which really felt more like career exile.
Although it was only five years ago, the overall feeling in 2013 was that you deserved what you got for speaking out against powerful men online. No one stood up for you publicly, detractors verbally bullied and threatened you, and the powers that be at social media platforms were even worse than they are now at dealing with online harassment.
What I loved about writing for xoJane—a site started by legendary Sassy founder Jane Pratt and which called itself a place “where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded”—was the idea that women could talk about the things we, at the time, still weren’t really supposed to talk about in public, or at least on mainstream media platforms. There was a freedom to the content that made it exciting, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to write about everything from upper lip hair to past abusive relationships. But that unbridled freedom came at a cost, and when articles blew up in a negative way, writers were often left to deal with the consequences alone. There was no support from my editor, who at the time refused to change both the very long and very bad title given to the Ghomeshi piece and the editing errors within it, and I was attacked from all angles—Canadian media, social media and even within my inner circles. Nowhere felt safe.
Despite their mistreatment, I kept writing for xoJane. Weird, right? Not really. My self-worth had been reduced to 140-character or less insults from Ghomeshi enthusiasts and men’s rights activists. I was doing the only thing I thought myself worthy and capable of. One trusted magazine editor reached out to me—someone I had written for in the past—and told me I ought to be more selective with what I was putting online. She seemed embarrassed for me. After that, I didn’t bother reaching out to editors from other pubs to pitch stories because I was sure no one wanted anything else to do with me. I felt barely worthy of xoJane.
During the backlash, I also started behaving in ways that *would* embarrass most people—drinking often and a lot and getting into situations with men, women and strangers that could have easily turned dangerous. I also gave the universal signal of a lady going through some shit: I cut my hair off and got bad bangs.
“People can sometimes respond to trauma by engaging in reckless or self-destructive behaviour, or by acting paranoid, jumpy, irritable or aggressive,” Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, tells me over the phone while we are discussing the fallout from this period in my life. “You’re trying to manage your feelings of being betrayed or unsafe, so there’s this sense of falling apart or being damaged or broken.”
Before this happened, I had a downright plucky approach to my career. After working an editorial job at a city magazine in Calgary, I moved to Toronto in 2011 and tried my best to hustle my way through the big city and line up media work, without a clue how to do that—or the implications of being a woman trying to do that. But after that encounter with Ghomeshi in the summer of 2012, which I had gone into with networking in mind, I started to doubt the resolute approach that had gotten me where I was.
It takes a lot of willful passivity to protect inexcusable conduct from people in power positions. It seemed to be a laughable open secret in Toronto media that this man regularly violated and hurt women. Even a former friend of mine, who happened to be an equally powerful player in Canadian media, responded to a text about whether he was friends with Ghomeshi with, “Yeah, why did he try to fuck you? Lol.”
After writing the xoJane article and dealing with the resultant online shaming, I went from hungry to hunted, and I barely had the confidence to apply to positions I was more than qualified for, let alone boldly put myself out there. Toronto, in my mind, had become an unsafe place.
“Trauma generalizes,” says Dr. Hendriksen, “Instead of one terrible man and a few untrustworthy people, the entire city becomes evil.” Despite this, my solid experience as a writer and producer landed me a handful of interviews.
Unfortunately, more than a few of the people I interviewed with stoked the flames of my career fear. Over the phone, one woman briefly asked me about my background and qualifications, then said, “So was it true? The article. Did that really happen?” She later let me know that she couldn’t see me working at her tech company but thought that the piece was entertaining. Another potential employer had me in for an interview and asked if I planned to use my professional experiences as fodder for more pieces like the xoJane one. He also wanted to know if there was more to the story that I didn’t write—seemingly hoping for hot gossip. A different man in a one-on-one interview asked if I regretted writing the piece, and after I told him no, he patted me on the back and said, “Well, good luck.” No callbacks.
After a series of dead-end interviews and leads in Toronto, I decided to move across the country to Vancouver to write copy for a yoga pants company. It was a contract gig, and I relished the opportunity to write inconsequential words in a place where people didn’t seem to know or care about the xoJane story. When I returned to Toronto in the winter of 2015, it was long after the news broke about Ghomeshi, and the city seemed less threatening than it had before. My job search came to a sardonic pinnacle later that year, when I was invited to interview for a music writer gig at CBC Radio. Ghomeshi was out of the building by then, but CBC—and Q especially—hadn’t fully come to terms with their part in actively supporting Ghomeshi’s problematic behaviour for years.
I made my way to the interview with a strong need to prove that I still had some nerve. CBC’s Toronto HQ, which I was familiar with from working there on a contract three years before, has the tree house from Mr. Dressup on display in one of its hallways. Thoughts of Casey and Finnegan served as a comforting reminder that this company could still be and do good. I would ace this interview, get back on track in my career and everything would be ok. But when I walked through the front doors and saw red chairs in the lobby, I was reminded of Q and promptly began to hyperventilate.
I didn’t get the job—because I had a panic attack and performed terribly—but I did stay in Toronto long enough to watch the Ghomeshi trial unfold. I decided to write an essay for Chatelaine about my experience, marking a return to personal writing after over a year of silence. It was cathartic in some ways and re-traumatizing in others, because of course, I still had a great deal of detractors. Since the comments were left on, many of those detractors got to share their opinions right below my article.
Although it started out as a redemptive opportunity for his victims, the Ghomeshi trial turned out to be a permanent stain on the Canadian legal system that will forever be an example of everything wrong with the way we try sexual assault cases. The star got a slick lawyer and his accusers got the Crown. They were woefully underprepared for what would ensue. It was disorienting and painful to watch these brave women share their experiences and be torn apart for it.
It is scary as hell to call a bad man out on his bad behaviour, especially when others won’t. Before #MeToo created a movement out of believing and supporting women, those who came forward were routinely disbelieved, cast aside, laughed at, harassed and abused. Many of us are still dealing with the impact of that trauma. In fact, a common theme among of those who develop PTSD is that they often get negative reactions from those they initially share their stories with. “Regardless of the kind of trauma you’ve gone through, your first responders can make all the difference,” says Dr. Hendriksen. “If you are believed or not, or supported versus rejected, can really set the course for whether you heal naturally or develop PTSD.”
Since finding out I have PTSD, which to be honest, I genuinely didn’t know I had before I started this essay, I’ve been able to process the impact the past five years has had on my life and career in a much calmer way. I’d been struggling, even at contract gigs, to adjust to office culture—based largely on the fact that I’d been telling myself I wasn’t worthy, likeable or good. Realizing that I wasn’t always this paranoid, and that this behaviour came as a result of going through some shit, has been a relief.
I’m now freelance writing again, and currently in therapy to move on from PTSD and help build my confidence back up, career-wise. Dr. Hendriksen recommends seeking out positive experiences with people in media, to replace the negative ones I’ve had. The editors from various publications that I’m writing for have been incredibly kind and supportive, and they’re helping me shape a new, non-threatening idea of what it means to be a woman working in media. Freelancing comes with its stresses, but I’m now open to the possibility of a thriving career, which was a dream I had all but given up on a few years ago. I’ve stopped telling myself I don’t deserve a good life. It’s also probably time to revisit my beloved mantras. I’ll leave you with one from Oprah: “Self-esteem comes from being able to define the world in your own terms and refusing to abide by the judgments of others.”