‘Pathetic’, ‘poison’ and a ‘b**ch’ were all words Sarah Donohue was being branded during a barrage of online abuse. But 44-year-old year Sarah doesn’t fit the typical teenage profile of a cyber bullying victim.
‘When you talk about cyber bullying or just bullying, everyone presumes it’s teenagers and children and I think there are more adults getting bullied than people are aware,’ says Sarah. ‘The reason you don’t know about it is people are too ashamed.
‘I don’t think all these people knew the damage they did to me. They don’t realise that I cried morning, noon and night.’
Sarah found the abuse extra hard to understand as she runs a fitness and beauty contest, the Miss Galaxy Universe Pageant, that seeks to empower its female contestants.
It was through one of the show’s contestants that the online bullying began.
When a winner refused to fulfill her contract obligations, Sarah and her team got in touch to politely point out they couldn’t work with her any more.
A barrage of online abuse led by the former contestant and her mother then appeared on social media with a hit squad joining in, posting hundreds of malicious messages.
‘I was called narcissistic, egotistical, a b**ch, an abuser,’ recalls Sarah.
Most of the people commenting and messaging Sarah hadn’t even met her.
‘With cyber abuse there’s nothing you can do. These people are keyboard warriors. They are in a different town, in a different city.’
Every day Sarah would dread logging onto her computer to see what fresh poison had been injected into her inbox.
‘A lot of people will say, “Oh you can just ignore it,” but you can’t. It’s with you all the time. It’s going to be there on Twitter, it’s going to be there on Facebook and there’s nothing you can do to stop it,’ says Sarah, who was so ashamed she didn’t even tell her parents what was happening to her for over a year, despite living next door to them at the time.
Her eyes red from crying, Sarah would tell her mum she had allergies instead.
Patricia, 72, remembers the moment Sarah finally told her what was really happening.
‘I was devastated when she told me,’ says Patricia. ‘We have always been quite close. She just sat there and told me everything, it was absolutely awful – I didn’t think bullying online could go so far – or that it happened to adults.’
Failing to find any information or support online for adult bullying victims, Sarah called the National Bullying helpline for children and teens.
‘I remember crouching down on the street just in a doorway and calling them. I was so upset, I just needed to talk to someone,’ she explains.
The beauty pageant founder also tried contacting the police but was told they couldn’t intervene because cyber bullying is a civil rather than criminal matter.
‘I thought if the police can’t stop it then what? That’s when I began to lose hope.’
Deciding to seek legal action, Sarah’s lawyers took her on a no-win no-fee basis – a testament to the strength of her case.
The cyber bullying campaign lasted nearly three months, yet it was almost two years before the accused agreed to cover the £57,000 legal costs and pay £15,000 in an out of court settlement.
However, the protracted legal process had devastating consequences to Sarah’s health and wellbeing and she was a shadow of her former bright and outgoing self.
‘I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get dressed during the day. Sometimes I couldn’t even be bothered getting out of bed until the afternoon. I cried all the time,’ she says.
‘I didn’t really go to the gym for two years. I had nothing to give. I couldn’t focus. I’m lucky I don’t put on lots of weight but I didn’t really care what I ate either.’
Feeling unsafe Sarah and then fiance Lee even made the decision to move out of the home they loved so the cyber bullies wouldn’t know where they lived.
‘When you read posts saying they are going to post things through your door, it’s really concerning – I didn’t feel safe.’
The strain caused by the online bullies also forced Sarah and Lee, 40, to postpone their wedding.
Eventually marrying a year later, husband Lee recalls the devastating impact the bullies had on Sarah: ‘I’ve never seen something upset her so much – I have honestly never seen her cry before but she was just waking in the middle of the night laying in the bed next to me crying.’
Over two years since the online attacks occurred, Sarah wants to start a charity to support adult victims of cyber bullying.
‘Once you get cyber bullied nothing is the same again,’ she says. ‘I cried over it for two years, Nowadays I am more angry than upset.’