“And everything that has happened to you belongs to you. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Anne Lamott
It started out fine. The relationship, that is. We had just moved in and they were our neighbors across the street. I’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. X.
As soon as our moving van pulled up, Mrs. X came over to introduce herself. She was chatty with a wide smile and the type of conversational cadence that doesn’t leave room for commentary nor waits for replies. Within the first 15 minutes of talking she asked me what church I went to and what school my daughter attended. In the South, these two questions are often asked of perfect strangers and I’ve never gotten used to it. I mumbled something about being a recovering Catholic, to which she replied: That’s just because you need the right church!
She soon brought over her two children, a boy and a girl close in age to my daughter and Mr. X, who was mostly quiet with a lazy eye and an 8th grade sense of humor.
When they learned that, among a growing list of other talents, my husband is a General Contractor, they were most enthusiastic: Oh! We are adding onto our house soon and Mr. X is making a dining room table for us. Do you think your husband could help him?
On the weekends when my husband would open the garage door to head out somewhere or to start working on a project, it was not unusual to have one or both of them appear shortly afterward. It turns out they weren’t kidding. They worked on their house ALL the time and proceeded to take full advantage of my husband’s expertise and tools.
My husband’s generosity knows no end, so when Mrs. X lost her job and chose to reinvent herself as an interior designer, he guided and coached her patiently on just what that meant in the world of building and remodeling. Eventually he agreed to be the general contractor for her clients.
This little tidbit may seem to come out of nowhere, but I assure you it is most relevant to this story: I was soon asked to join our neighborhood Homeowners Association Board. HOA for short. An HOA is like a neighborhood government, there are rules and regulations and procedures that must be followed. Fines and liens can be levied against you if you don’t.
I agreed to join, not fully understanding what I was getting into, but genuinely feeling good about the opportunity to give back to my community in some positive way. Within a year, the other members of the Board voted me President.
Mr. and Mrs. X never attended any of our HOA meetings. They were, however, the ones who most often reported other neighbors for infractions.
Fast forward four years and it’s summer and my family is on vacation. I receive a Board email asking if anyone had approved Mr. and Mrs. X’s request to paint their brick white. We live in a neighborhood with homes that are mostly brick and siding combined and none of our houses have painted brick. The email communication was coming fast and furious, because with each passing moment the brick paint was going higher and higher. When our property manager confirmed there was no request to be found, as is the protocol, we had no choice but to ask Mr. and Mrs. X to cease their work and return their home to its original condition.
My mobile phone rang immediately after this decision was sent via email. It was Mrs. X. Suspecting that she might put me in an awkward position, I let it dump into voicemail. She would later tell my husband that she had been calling for a friend for information about my daughter’s school. (And yes, I thought the same thing you are probably thinking.)
When we got home from vacation, Mr. and Mrs. X asked my husband to come over to talk to them. They skipped the pleasantries and opened with “you need to set your wife straight.” They wanted me to help them get permission from the rest of the Board so that they could paint their brick. “Otherwise,” Mrs. X said, “I’m not going to be able to work with you any more. And I put the food on your table.”
My husband laughed out loud when he repeated the part about setting me straight. The rest left him deeply troubled — from the threats to the special favors they expected, or rather demanded. I teased him and said: “Obviously they just liked us both for your tools!”
That weekend Mr. and Mrs. X rented a high-powered water sprayer to take the paint off their brick. My husband, my daughter (twelve at the time) and I were getting in the car to go to brunch. As we drove by, Mr. and Mrs. X stopped what they were doing to throw us a death stare, Mr. X beating on his chest like a drunk sailor picking a fight in a bar.
And the hate games began.
They both got busy in the neighborhood with a smear campaign against me. Mrs. X went door-to-door asking for votes to get Mr. X on the Board, talking about all of the nefarious ways I was ruining our community as President of the Board: She wants to permit livestock! She’s rewriting the rules to take away our access to common areas! She spends all of our money on projects that benefit only her friends, like the pool area!
Their tactic was gossip and lies, fueled by a steady undercurrent of fear: Our property values are declining! Neighborhood violence is up! They began showing up for things like our annual block party just to spread their dire warnings that the neighborhood was going to hell with me at the helm.
“Gossip is an assassination attempt by a coward.” Oprah
That year’s annual Board meeting was outrageous. Mr. and Mrs. X, emboldened by the company of a few others who apparently were gullible enough to believe their lies — or simply had hate to spare — were disruptive and rude, shouting out their attacks and questions. I felt as if I were in a superhero movie, fending off barbs that were flying as fast as bullets.
I closed the meeting with the Teddy Roosevelt quote that Brené Brown references in her second Ted Talk, after she, too, was the target of people with hate to spare:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Neighbor’s congratulated me afterwards saying I was fierce, that I put the naysayers in their place and maintained order. The next morning, though, I didn’t feel good about any of it. The meeting was unprecedented. Before we had order, kindness, human decency and respect. Now our little neighborhood had shown its ugly side. It made me deeply sad.
Mr. X had succeeded in getting enough votes to earn a place on the Board. Afterwards, the property manager came to us apologizing, saying, “I’m so sorry it took so long to tally up the votes, but we had to verify each one after we found that a bunch of the addresses and names were totally made up.” “Who turned in false proxies?” I asked. “Them,” she replied, as she nodded to Mr. and Mrs. X.
At that moment I knew I had no desire to be a part of the immoral games Mr. X and his partner in crime were clearly capable of playing. I prepared my resignation.
Once I was off the Board, I presumed I’d left the drama of Mr. and Mrs. X behind me. They’d stopped talking to us right after my husband didn’t deliver the results they asked for.
At some point Mr. and Mrs. X put up security cameras all around their house. We didn’t notice the one pointed directly at our home.
Shortly after the new Board took office, the Property Manager let me know that Mr. and Mrs. X were asking them to issue a complaint against us. I couldn’t fathom what they had to complain about and told her so. “Besides, the rest of the Board knows me well. And knows the history and histrionics of Mr. and Mrs. X,” I added. I felt assured that nothing unfounded would get by them.
I was wrong. We were served a violation, one loosely structured around a very ambiguous “nuisance” clause that had never ever been used before. They claimed, falsely, that my husband ran a cabinet making business out of our garage. Mr. and Mrs. X supported this complaint with 16 videos, 150 still photos and 7 audio recordings. Apparently, they had spent over a year documenting us with their security camera. The one pointed directly at our home.
We were astounded. Who puts that much effort into trying to slander a neighbor? Seeing ourselves in so many images, coming and going from our home completely unaware, was unnerving and weird.
It felt, in a word, obsessive.
I’d like to say I handled all of this with grace from the get go, but I did not. I fumbled often. Most especially because despite the beautiful, peaceful indoor environment I created, as soon as we walked outside to our cars we were in a different world. We were being watched and documented by Mr. and Mrs. X, their images twisted into silly vignettes in an attempt to substantiate the stories they made up about us.
I had to work extra hard to counteract all of this negative emotion, so I did extra special things. Like skip to my car. Bend over and stretch with my ass facing them. Whistle loudly. And more than once, flip them off as covertly as I could.
I’m not proud of any of this.
We began to see new demonstrations of our neighbor’s true colors. Mr. X deployed a frequent intimidation practice anytime he spotted me walking my dog or going to my car. I refer to it as peacocking: He would puff out his chest and stare me down with a face full of disdain. Then he was caught taking pictures over our privacy fence. And Mrs. X and Mr. X repeatedly demanded that the HOA Board take action against us, threatening legal action if nothing was done. They consumed, it’s been estimated, the better part of two years of the Board’s time and attention, trying to bring some action — any action — against us.
The Property Manager, in an attempt to make the nuisance violation go away, showed all of their evidence to our community lawyer. “No case here,” he said. Mr. and Mrs. X weren’t dissuaded, they just gathered more evidence.
They began to document the license plates of whomever parked along our property and went after me for the community initiative I started six years ago, where a local farmer was invited to make weekly deliveries to interested neighbors. Mrs. X claimed I was really running an illegal produce business out of my home and lying about it. Whenever we did work on our own home, they claimed we were lying about it. They called us liars a lot.
They doubled down on their efforts and went to the Metro Codes Department, putting all of that evidence to good work with eleven — eleven — different complaints, all dismissed. The codes department told my husband they were trying to get our Metro Councilman involved. A fresh audience, I suppose.
To say we were troubled by all of this would be putting it mildly. We were utterly unnerved by the intrusion of our privacy and our biggest concern was that their security camera — the one they used to create all of their documentation — faced our daughter’s bedroom. We had a long conversation with her to make certain that she felt safe in her home, and safe outside of it. It was difficult to explain, but my sweet daughter seemed to take it in stride: Not everyone’s going to like you, Mom. True that, my beautiful girl. How did you get so wise?
We took the advice and invitation of wonderful friends and consulted with two lawyers who specialized in this sort of thing. We became well versed in the intricacies of how the law looked at things like invasion of privacy and stalking in the state of Tennessee. We had options, and it was good to know our likelihood of a successful case.
In my darkest moments my mind ran away with extreme scenarios because A) I’m a mom, and B) Dateline was my mother’s favorite show and we used to watch it a lot. But there’s more: Mrs. X had just recently had her children taken away from her for months, losing custodial custody. Then Mr. X’s daughter moved out of state to be with her mother. And Mr. X was a gun collector. With a hobby of turning them into rapid shooting something-or-others.
The ugly loop of evil that would play out in my mind in the middle of the night was this: What was up with Mr. and Mrs. X’s intense interest in my family? What do we really know about them? And then: What has to happen to take children away from their mother?
“I’m convinced that the negative has power — and if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over.” Maya Angelou
I didn’t understand why this was happening and I resented the hell out of it. But when I don’t understand something or someone, my process is to conduct some evidence based research and educate myself. I sought out expert information on personality disorders and stories of how others handled similar situations. I read articles on the most recognized traits of narcissism, the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath, and rounded out my education with the book “The Sociopath Next Door.” All of this gave me clarity and a lot of validation, but none of it made me feel better.
So after swirling around in this negative cesspool for awhile, I pulled myself out and took a fresh look at the situation, starting with some hard truths about myself. I am predisposed to a pollyannaish-glass-is-half-full-don’t-you-love-my-rose-colored-glasses-blind-faith-trust. In everyone. I’m the eternal optimist do-gooder who often has to be slapped in the face before I can see your demons. My husband is the same way. The only difference between us is that I tend to believe you the first time. My dear husband will give you another chance.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Maya Angelou
While stronger boundaries felt like a small piece of a solution, I was still very confused as to why I was having to deal with their drama. Then I read the words below by Eckhart Tolle and I finally got it: This wasn’t something that was happening to me. It was happening for me.
“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know that this is the experience that you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” Eckhart Tolle
That single bit of simple truth blew my mind wide open and let the rest of the lessons that would follow take root and grow.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” Eckhart Tolle
A prosecutor friend familiar with Mr. and Mrs. X’s attacks gave me the audio version of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. It would prove to be the most seminal, pivotal moment in the spiritual lessons this situation was gifting me.
I had tried to read this book a few years ago but honestly, I didn’t understand much of it back then. But this time, alarm bells were going off and I was taking notes and rendered jaw-droppingly incredulous by each chapter. Everything was resonating with me.
The biggest ah-ha moment I had was understanding that it was my ego that was offended by Mr. and Mrs. X’s accusations and lies about me. Character, ethics and reputation are egoic constructs we have created about ourselves to make us feel good. It was my ego that wanted to defend myself and set the record straight and clear my reputation.
It brought me great peace to know that even Oprah has felt this way before:
“I know firsthand just how hurtful negative words can be. Early in my career, when the tabloids began printing so many untruthful things about me, I was devastated. I felt misunderstood. And I wasted a lot of energy worrying about whether people would believe the falsehoods. How could they get away with printing outright slander? I had to fight the urge to call up anyone who’d maligned me and defend myself. That was before I understood what I now know for sure: When someone spreads lies about you, you’re not in it. Never. Gossip — be it in the form of a rumor that’s sweeping the nation or a gripe session between friends — reflects the insecurity of those who initiate it.” Oprah (excerpt from What I Know For Sure)
This landed gently somewhere deep within me and brought with it a healing salve. I was not alone. There are those who went before me. My work was to separate myself from my ego. Which gives you the ultimate objectivity because you literally take nothing personally. After that, I had to reach a place of peace and forgiveness in my heart. This, I knew, was the endgame.
And I wasn’t even close.
By the time I was done with Eckhart Tolle’s book, I felt like I had successfully put my ego up so high on a shelf that I could no longer reach it for increasingly longer portions of every day.
Then I had another big epiphany: Mr. and Mrs. X weren’t simply difficult, vindictive asses. They were my teachers.
“Instead of overlooking unconsciousness in others, you make it into their identity.” Eckhart Tolle
Mr. and Mrs. X are unconscious. Ok, I get it. But what hit me between the eyes was that in my desire to label them or seek understanding from others from a place of victimhood, so was I.
I want to be fully conscious. This much I knew. How do I get to be fully conscious? Clearly, I still wasn’t there. At this point I was still referring to them as difficult vindictive asses, afterall.
A dose of empathy arrived unexpectedly when I was writing another blog post about ending a toxic relationship with a family member: Dear (_______). I love you, but I’ve got to let you go.
I was beginning to understand that Mr. and Mrs. X’s words of hate and their actions against us came from a place of hurt deep within them. You’ve heard the phrase: Hurt people, hurt people?
There are plenty of broken or unhappy or miserable people in the world. This manifests in vengeance, self-hate, targeted hate, victimhood, or shame. And most certainly loneliness.
My breakthroughs of understanding began to snowball for me, gathering momentum and eventually giving me the blissful peace and forgiveness I sought. This all took many months, but when I was through with my work, I created a list of the lessons I had learned:
Acknowledge both the darkness and the light. There is darkness all around you so protect yourself and listen to your intuition about people. It never fails.
Understand that the dark is naturally attracted to the light, and that the brighter you shine, the more people take notice (some with a bucket of not-so-good intentions).
Recognize the takers, too, who tolerate or befriend or like you only for their own self-interests.
See that there are shapeshifters among us. Those who present well, but who have an odious undercurrent.
Understand the art of projection: That which someone hates about themselves and their life, that which they are entirely capable of, they will state as your truth and attack you for it: “She’s just jealous of me,” and “They are liars, fooling the entire neighborhood,” and “They think the rules don’t apply to them,” and “She only does favors for friends.”
Have empathy for the young souls whose spirits were broken, likely not of their own accord but by those who surrounded them from an early age. Children who were taught to fear and hate and separate. Those with no experience of unconditional love, but rather judgement or criticism or a failure to please.
Know unequivocally that unless the cycle is broken and the unconscious become conscious, their children will suffer the same fate.
There is no empathy in an empty heart. There is no compassion in someone who values power. There is no tolerance in one who is taught to hate. There is no mutual respect with someone intent on control.
Kerrie L. Cooper from Secrets
All of this has led me to a more conscious, spiritual place of understanding. I’m happy to say I can now view Mr. and Mrs. X with compassion. I have forgiven them for all of the harm they continue to attempt to bring to me and my family. Whenever they throw me a dirty look, I send back a smile and an energy ball of pure joy. Thank you for being my teachers, I say under my breath. I have learned so much.
I don’t wish this kind of attention on anyone, but should you find yourself in a similar scenario, know that there is a reason. You are being given an opportunity for tremendous growth. Here are some recommendations, tried and true, that may help you:
*This invited a beautiful conversation with my daughter about just how, exactly, someone can make you do something that you do not wish to do — for example engage in a lawsuit. We always told her that no one can make you do something you don’t want to do. This led us to the lawsuit Taylor Swift won against the radio personality who groped her during a photo op. She understands now that sometimes you have to put the bully or antagonist in their place. Sometimes you have to fight back.