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SARAH VINE: I used to think politics was a big adventure

Friends of mine will tell you that I am generally quite a level-headed person. Good in a crisis, calm in a storm, lamps lit and all that. Solid and down-to-earth, not generally given to fits of the vapours.

But it's been a tough few months, personally, and I am not perhaps at my most resilient.

Events of the past few days have, I must confess, rather overwhelmed me. The killing of Sir David Amess has stirred so many emotions, unearthed so much hurt.

Yesterday, as I sat down at my desk with my customary Tuesday morning cup of tea and piles of newspapers to write these words, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by grief.

I was going to write something about Prince William's nice green velvet jacket, or maybe tease Jeff Bezos about his silly space rocket (again). But I couldn't. All I could think about was poor Sir David, and the faces of his widow and daughters as they surveyed the tributes to him outside the church where he was stabbed to death.

All I could think about was poor Sir David, and the faces of his widow and daughters (pictured) as they surveyed the tributes to him outside the church where he was stabbed to death

I felt so desperately sad for them. A family torn apart by evil, shredded by blind and ignorant hatred, victims not just of one sick mind, but of the toxic culture that hangs over politics today.

When did choosing a life of public service become a death sentence? When did wanting to make a difference in society become a crime punishable by death?

I can remember a time when politics felt like one big adventure, a chance to make the world a better place, to bring about change. There was hope, excitement, so many possibilities.

Now it just feels like a graveyard, a barren wasteland of shattered dreams and broken hearts.

Nothing I've experienced can ever compare to what Lady Amess and her family are going through now. Nothing at all.

But I do know what it feels like to be under siege, in constant fear of attack. As a family, we've had so much abuse directed at us over the years because of politics. So much hate and lies and vitriol.

Online, in person, by post. You never quite know where or when the next spittle-flecked pellet of poison is coming from — only that it's coming.

It wasn't always like this. Before social media really took off, there was a limit to how far someone could go.

Accusations had to be proven, allegations justified. Rumours did not spread like wildfire, barefaced lies did not become indisputable facts simply on the basis of the number of likes and shares.

This week MP Owen Paterson, whose lovely wife, Rose (pictured together), killed herself in June last year, said that she was driven to commit suicide because of the strain brought about by an inquiry she feared would destroy them both

But in recent years, that's all changed. The unfettered growth of social media has allowed extreme views to go unchallenged, and the climate around politics has become more sinister, more dangerous and, at times, genuinely terrifying.

I've had to hold my trembling teenage daughter as she's weathered the foulest of online abuse as a result of malicious stories about her father.

I watched her 18th birthday ruined by some nasty little piece of excrement who sent her a card threatening to kill her father if she didn't acquiesce to their demands. I've seen my son's eyes widen in fear, his hackles rise, as he's witnessed his dad being abused in the street.

That same dad was jostled and mobbed by anti-lockdown protesters only yesterday, and police officers rushed to help steer him away from them.

I've been screamed at in public, told I should never have been allowed to have children. I've had blazing rows with friends and relatives over nonsense they've read on the internet, seen the look of distrust in colleagues' eyes.

Always, always, this twisting and warping of a person's identity, and with it the crushing of those around them.

At first, it doesn't feel so bad. It's shocking and stressful and upsetting — but you bounce back. You pick yourself up, dust yourself down and carry on.

But with each blow, each attack, your resilience diminishes.

Whatever self-confidence you had to begin with gradually gets eroded, until you almost start to believe the things people are saying about you.

You start to wonder whether they might not be right when they call you 'scum', that perhaps you really are a bad person; that you deserve to be humiliated and shamed and ruined.

It gets so bad that you find yourself apologising for your very existence. You stand in the shower in the morning, fearing the next disaster — feeling numb and pointless and wondering whether it would really be so bad if you just called it a day.

You avoid social situations, stop seeing your friends. It's not that you don't love them, it's just that even the kindest of invitations feels like an ordeal.

You sleep a lot, seeking solace in unconsciousness.

Floral tributes left outside the Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, where Sir David was killed

The anxiety of being constantly judged by people who don't know you but think they do, who've made up their minds about you before you've even opened your mouth, can sometimes be crippling, even for someone as tough as me. It has, over the years, caused repeated bouts of depression.

But, once again, I've been incredibly lucky. I've weathered the storm, however imperfectly. Others, sadly, have not.

This week MP Owen Paterson, whose lovely wife, Rose, killed herself in June last year, said that she was driven to commit suicide because of the strain brought about by an inquiry she feared would destroy them both.

At the time, he was being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards over his role as a consultant for a company called Randox Health. She was, he says, distraught, believing he would end up having to resign as an MP.

In turn, she believed she would lose her role as head of Aintree, where the Grand National is sponsored by Randox, and that both of them would 'end our lives humiliated and disgraced', as Mr Paterson put it.

Rose Paterson finally took her own life shortly after her husband had received a memo from the inquiry which, he claims, was 'full of errors'. A good woman, mother of three children, she was so frightened she couldn't see the way ahead. There are no words.

My heart goes out to both Mr Paterson and Lady Amess, and their respective children. Their circumstances may be different, but they have one thing in common: the lives of both their families have been torn apart.

Today, we have a culture that fails to challenge the vilification and persecution of MPs and their families, indeed sometimes even actively encourages it (for example, Labour's Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, has not, to my knowledge, apologised for her inflammatory attack on Tory 'scum').

It is one which fails to offer anything like the kind of support they need to protect them from the worst excesses of humanity.

It was Barack Obama who said, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, that countries get the politicians they deserve. On the whole, and certainly compared with so many other countries, Britain has a wonderfully talented and varied group of elected representatives who work incredibly hard, as Sir David did, on behalf of the people.

Don't they — and their families — also deserve something more than this awful climate of fear and loathing?