January is National Stalking Awareness Month. How many of us would recognize the signs of stalking or feel confident that we’d know what to do? Do we think of stalking as a “James Bond-style” incident? A stranger in an unmarked vehicle with secret spy technology watching our every move? Someone hiding in the bushes? Peeping Toms?
Stalking may be those things, but it is also, often, found in the context of intimate or former intimate relationships or acquaintanceship. It’s often our ex partner, our former classmate, a co-worker. It is often someone we know who refuses to acknowledge or abide by our boundaries. And it can be terrifying.
Below is a story shared with our staff that illustrates the side of stalking that isn’t often talked about but we see all too often (CN: description of stalking and abusive relationship):
I wonder if he ever wonders what happened, the boy who asked me out my freshman year. He was on the football team and lived on my floor in my freshman dorm. We had calculus together (not quite Rocks for Jocks, but definitely math for people who’ll never use math again). We hung out a few times. We even went out to dinner once at the fancy restaurant in town (literally the only one. God bless small town colleges).
I wonder if he ever thought of me and wondered why he never heard from me again. I wonder if he felt snubbed or ghosted when we stopped hanging out, when I stopped responding to his texts. I wonder if he noticed that I stopped spending so much time on campus and, in fact, eventually transferred to another school. I wonder if he ever wondered why.
He never saw the other side of what I was experiencing. He never knew that after an evening of sitting on the quad with him talking about life and school, I’d pull out my phone to see missed call after missed call and too many texts to count asking where I was and why I wasn’t answering my phone. He didn’t know about the unwanted gifts, letters, and messages. He didn’t know about the surprise visits and the constant pressure to be with someone I didn’t want to be with. He didn’t see the stalking. For many years, I didn’t either.
I didn’t realize what was going on. A former colleague, a brief romantic partner, a person I tried to push back into friendship when I realized how uncomfortable I was in a dating relationship. A person who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There was the constant pressure to be available to him. To tell him everything about my life and my emotions. The pressure to talk on the phone for hours, even when we had nothing to say to each other and my homework was piling up. To answer my phone right away and to not be spending time with other guys. The demands to know where I was and what I was doing. There were the unwanted gifts which he made sure to tell me how expensive and difficult they were to find, how thoughtful he was being, as if this somehow meant I owed him something. There was the time he tracked down my schedule and showed up at my dorm room unexpectedly on a Friday night, knowing I would feel too uncomfortable forcing him to drive the 6 hours back home and would have to let him stay.
As I grew more and more uncomfortable with the situation and more and more aware of how inappropriately he was acting, I tried to distance myself. I gave stronger and stronger signals that his interest was unwanted and would not be tolerated. I cut him out of my life in every way I could. He continued to contact me through mutual friends and overstepped my boundaries when we worked on the same projects. Even today, when it has been over ten years since I last saw him, I still avoid certain friends, specific locations, and even scents that remind me of those two years in my life. I still worry that I’ll see him at a summer reunion or when I visit old haunts. I wonder if he realizes how much his behavior scared me, how threatening it felt and how much power it felt like he took from me. I wonder if he knows how it affects me to this day.
I never had a stranger parked outside my house. I didn’t have a stalker following me in the alleys. I had a colleague who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who wouldn’t respect my boundaries. I had a friend who felt entitled to a relationship and who was determined to build it over my objections. I had my life taken over by someone I thought I could trust. It wouldn’t have been an exciting movie plot, but it felt frightening and violating and it happens more often than we think.
Stalking takes many different forms and can be a sign of an incredibly dangerous situation. If you recognize any patterns of stalking or feel uncomfortable, be sure to reach out for help and support. Work with a domestic violence agency to create a safety plan. Make sure trusted friends or family are aware of what is happening. Keep a “stalking log” of everything that happens that makes you feel unsafe and keep screenshots of excessive contact or disturbing messages. Trust your gut.
You’re not alone. If you’ve experienced stalking in the past or you’re currently unsafe, Safe Passage is available 24/7. Call us at 815-756-5228.