You probably already know that my son, William, is severely disabled. He has cerebral palsy (brain damage) caused by a lack of oxygen at some point during the final day of my pregnancy. His condition is severe, and he needs 24/7 care, but he's also the happiest kid you'll ever see (keep an eye on my Instagram stories for regular proof of that!).
So it might surprise you to hear that sharing this cute, funny kid has left me wide open to trolling, and I have been a victim of some of the most horrific online abuse you can imagine.
When he was small, I used Facebook to get support from other families in my situation. This was back in 2009/10 when Facebook was still relatively new (I didn't have a smartphone and had to use a computer to access it!). It was a game changer; I no longer felt like the only one with a disabled kid; I was talking to people around the world and finding out about all sorts of therapies and treatments we could try (newsflash there is no cure for cerebral palsy).
At that time, I was fundraising to pay for the adaptions to our house. We needed over £20k to make up the shortfall to make our house wheelchair accessible. So I started a Facebook page where I ran online auctions, sold cakes and was successful in raising cash in a pretty short space of time.
It was fantastic. But also awful, as it was my first taste of online bullying.
I received messages from people questioning if I was making up William's disability, people shared my posts calling me a scammer, and I was regularly getting comments from people calling my son the R-word and questioning why he needed wheelchair access when he was just a kid.
But being the positive person that I am, I didn't let it get to me. I mostly ignored it. Didn't really mention it to anyone (my husband included) and just got on with it.
My next taste of cyberbullying came when I was doing a lot of campaigning for Changing Places Toilets, as these are the only facilities that William can use when we dare leave the house.
If like me you'd never met a severely disabled person before then I'll forgive you for not realising that disabled toilets aren't in fact suitable for all disabled people! (Changing places toilets have a hoist and an adult-sized changing table in them as well as a loo.)
My campaigning resulted in a lot of press coverage. I was in the local and national press, including The Daily Mail. Let me warn you now if you ever get press coverage shared on Facebook, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS.
People were outraged that I dared to expect my son to be able to go out in public, and they weren't afraid to show their disgust.
We were called benefit scroungers (not sure why we weren't asking for any money and didn't even get benefits!), told that William should just stay at home, so he didn't upset other people and even questioned as to why we felt so privileged that he should get special treatment just because he was disabled – sitting in a clean nappy rather than a dirty one isn't special treatment in my opinion but what do I know.
Comments ranged from people saying I should stop expecting them to pay for “my mistakes'. I should just carry my “spaz kid” to “Put the “r***** in a home, so no-one has to look at him”… and worse.
Again, I mostly ignored it. Although there were times when I bit back, only to get worse replies before realising I was fighting a losing battle. People are just gross.
If you want to read some of my press coverage, click here.
One time I ended up going viral when I tweeted a photo of my friend's daughter on the floor of a John Lewis toilet shortly after they'd spent millions on a Christmas ad. People were more outraged that we'd dare slam John Lewis than the actual issue. This time not only was I on the receiving end of the online abuse but so was the girl's Mum.
But the worst came when I took on Marks & Spencers. My local store is great, it has a massive cafe, and I often went there on a weekend with William because there was so much space to move around with his wheelchair. He loves people watching; I love shopping there; we both love cake.. perfect. But we couldn't stay there very long because if he needed the loo, there was nowhere to go.
Long story short, it was a huge store; I asked them to make adjustments, they said no. I blogged about it.
Someone read it and got very upset.
They were so upset they decided to email me.
They told me that I shouldn't be ‘picking on M&S' because William was ‘a good case for euthanasia at birth' and shouldn't be here anyway. She emailed me several times from her own email account, abusive emails always calling for William to be euthanised. Literally telling me my kid should die.
I googled her. She was a retired GP.
A GP not only felt it was ok to send abusive messages but felt that my son, a human being who also happened to be disabled, should have been killed at birth.
By this time, I thought I had heard everything. Turned out I hadn't. And this was the straw that broke the camel's back.
The reason this particular incident affected me was not so much because she thought that, although that was bad enough. It was that she thought it so much that she’d gone out of her way to find my email address, email me and tell me that was what she thought. And that she was a retired GP.
Had she always thought that? Had those thoughts impacted anyone else in the past? Had she given disabled people the proper medical treatment when they’d needed her help as a GP?
It was too much.
So I called the police.
They were amazing. The emails were classed as a hate crime against a disabled person, and the woman was given a caution.
It didn't stop her. She did it again. This time I was told that she was mentally ill. Like that was an excuse for her behaviour.
She’s probably gone on to do it to other people, she can’t do it to me again because I no longer campaign or blog under the mum on a mission brand. I closed my email down, stopped blogging, and shut my Facebook page and groups; it was too mentally draining dealing with her or the other trolls who would inevitably come creeping out of the woodwork if I continued.
I am not mentally scarred. Maybe because the trauma of being told your baby has brain damage toughened me up and made me immune to anything else? I don't know.
Being on the receiving end of comments like this about your child is horrendous, but being slightly removed allows you to have some perspective and rationality in your responses.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to get trolled personally. To have someone attack you, your looks, your personality, your very soul.
Just the thought of that makes me relieved that William will never have to endure it himself, as he will never be able to access the internet independently.
But it terrifies me that my friend's kids may endure this and worse when they are older. Or worse, might become a troll themselves.
My experiences of cyberbullying, trolls, and keyboard warriors haven’t affected my own mental health. But they have made me determined to do something to help other people who have been affected by cyberbullying, trolling, online harassment etc.
Working in social media, it seems really obvious that we should all be working together to try and do something about the effects of cyberbullying. For our own sake and for our children and our client's children, who will be growing up with social media being the norm.
So I am really pleased that as a business, we were able to donate over £1500 to Cybersmile to pay for 1:1 support for a victim of cyberbullying so that they can get the help they need to ensure they can move on from it.
If you, or anyone you know, is affected by cyberbullying, online harassment, trolling etc., then please contact Cybersmile for support and advice.
If you'd like to support Cybersmile, every little helps – we've set up a JustGiving page where you can donate directly.