‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.’ — Maya Angelou
There’s a man who’s been stalking me for seven years. This sounds both bigger and smaller than what it is. It may seem sensational because the terminology is associated with films and novels created for the purposes of entertainment. Yet it does not capture the impact of the reality which bears down on me like a heavy dark cloud.
I believe he is manic depressive (what used to be called ‘bipolar’). I know a little about this academically; I know that in a manic phase, people can gamble away their possessions, spend all their money, participate in reckless behaviour – they’re convinced they’re invincible. So I suspect that it is in his manic phases when he imagines that the two of us are meant to be together. He sends literally 50 messages at a time via Facebook or email to this effect. He has several times travelled to where he thinks I am in the hopes he can meet me.
I grew up reading advice columns in magazines so I have always known to never, ever engage with irrational behaviour. While my social conditioning as a woman raised in South Asian culture has (tried to) train me to suffer my own discomfort for the sake of making others feel at ease, I am too old and wise now to know that this is not remotely applicable or appropriate in this situation. It is not my fault that he is delusional. It is not my responsibility to make him see the error of his ways.
Yet I cannot deny some deep-rooted sense of shame I have over this. We were friendly for a brief spell, though saying we were ‘friends’ is a stretch. We were not in a relationship, and neither of us expressed a desire for it. We quite naturally fell out of touch until one day, about a year later, when I received an email from him. I purposely did not respond, indicating – I hoped – that it was pointless to do so. I thought that was that.
But the communications from his end continued. Erratic but persistent. Complete silence for months then a sudden deluge. Is he violent? I don’t know. I don’t want to ever find out. But someone who continues to believe that I just have to see him one more time and then he’ll stop doing this, is living in a twisted reality and that tells me enough.
He appears confused (even confounded) as to why I don’t respond, and upset by my lack of participation. He has even at times explained in detail why we could never be a couple – yet he still wants to see me. Even if it means travelling to another country and going to a restaurant where we had dined eight years earlier in the hope he’ll bump into me there.
When he writes, he is for the most part lucid about how I must think he’s a maniac who after all these years is still chasing me. I find the lucidity distinctly alarming. Because he can see (yet of course not see) how demented he sounds. And also because I expect those around him can’t tell what he’s really doing, what he’s really like.
Once upon a time a stalker meant a physical presence, a shadow prowling outside the window. Given his persistent attempts, the threat of a real presence feels all too real.
Being harassed digitally feels no less creepy and intrusive. I’ll be mindlessly checking my mail and there he’ll suddenly pop up – pleading, prodding, pestering. Even if the words don’t expressly say so, the very nature of the one-sided communication bombardment is threatening, menacing, frightening.
I don’t know how or to whom I can report this. Do I tell the authorities of the country of which he’s a citizen? Or the one where I am? Or the country where I currently stay? Who can do anything? Is the intent and continued attempts to see me an offence? And is email/social media messaging – as incessant and unwanted as it is – a bookable crime?
After following instructions on Facebook’s security pages, I read and took screenshots of the correspondence for my records, then blocked him. He created another ID and began again.
While I’ve not favoured sharing news of my social life, I have been diligent for the past seven years to never reveal any specifics. When friends visit and want to take photos together, I always warn against posting them on social media, or saying when and where we were. Here on my blog, I only describe where I’ve been earlier, not where I am at the writing of each post.
Staying silent on an issue because of fear (whatever the source and nature of that fear is) has gnawed at my psyche. It has taken enough from me. I have always thought of myself as a free person (freewheeling, freethinking, carefree); these precautions have had the effect of turning down a dimmer switch. Not just of my activities or how I talk about them, but of who I am and what I stand for.
It makes me feel exposed to write this. I have considered talking about it for some time, but it still catches me in the throat – that corrosive combination of shame and fear. Even though I objectively know the former is misplaced and the latter is no way to live.
When I was six and seven years old, I was studying at the American School in Kuwait. There was a girl in my class called Sylvia who bullied me for over a year. She taunted me endlessly, ripped my books and hid my belongings. One time she forced me to drink water from the fountain, smashing my face into the steel tap, leaving a scar on my chin. I didn’t know how to describe what was happening to me, so my family and teachers had no notion of any of this. When my parents applied to transfer me to an English school, I went to sit for the entrance exam there on a weekend. Afterwards I walked around the buildings, unfamiliar and peaceful, as I waited for my father to collect me. I remember the sensation of lightness and relief spreading through me as I savoured how I would soon be out of Sylvia’s reach at last. Then I looked at the diagonally opposite end of the playground where I stood and there, sitting on a low ledge, was a girl with dirty blonde hair who looked just like Sylvia. My heart turned stone cold. When my father arrived, we walked past the girl and it turned out to be someone else, not Sylvia following me from one school to another.
My frightened seven-year-old schoolgirl self didn’t have the words to express what she was feeling. I’m so relieved for the sake of children and teenagers today that bullying is being discussed openly, and there are avenues for people to turn to for support. Bullying has sadly taken on a new ugly guise in trolling on social media, and adults get as much abuse as anyone else these days. The viciousness of people so out of touch with their humanity is an issue that profoundly rattles me.
It may not seem as if bullying and stalking have much in common. Bullying is a malicious act aimed at deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on the recipient. Being stalked on the other hand feels like being pursued by an unpredictable madman (which he must be, in a literal sense, because relentlessly chasing someone to see you for seven years is not the act of a sane individual).
Where bullies and stalkers do overlap is in their moral righteousness and sense of entitlement, rendering rational discourse to persuade them away from their actions utterly futile. They want, they can, so they do.
Being stalked has taken me back to what I had felt as a child being bullied at the American School. Not the immediacy of it (Sylvia was always around, lurking) but the same sensations of a sudden onslaught of butterflies ricocheting through my body, from the pit of my stomach to my throat and back again. A sense of feeling trapped, and gloomy about the future, dreading how I’ll carry on with this burden. A similar sense of powerlessness, of being unnerved at the whim of an ugly and twisted soul. Of a sort of humiliation and even guilt; that I have somehow been complicit in the creation of my situation. (This is what bullies – like child molesters – rely on, hoping you’ll live in denial or silence, so they run free.)
The difference between then and now is that this time, I do have the words to describe how I feel. And somehow articulating it has afforded me a little perspective. I certainly don’t have any answers on how to deal with it, but writing this, I wonder if the decision to stand tall anyway – despite feeling exposed and vulnerable, despite the misconceived humiliation and the inexplicable guilt, despite the misplaced shame and the all-too real fear – is perhaps the only way forward.
‘You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.’ — Eleanor Roosevelt
Romcoms have done their fair share in warping romantic expectations but none are as damaging as showing stalking as an acceptable form of devotion (so much so that an older colleague raised on 80s and 90s Bollywood even thinks stalking is “endearing” – trust me, people are gullible about this shit). Refuse the toxic messages, and turn instead to a moving and engaging story on real love at life’s various stages in the Egyptian film, Hepya: The Last Lecture, directed by Hadi El Bagoury.
When needing a reminder of how we can live wholly without fear, there is no shortage of books that examine our connection with the divine. But none, I believe, do it as convincingly as Marianne Williamson in her landmark multi-gazillion-selling A Return to Love.
When feeling wobbly, listen to the magnificent drag queen artist RuPaul. He gave etiquette advice in this week’s Dinner Party Download podcast. When asked by a caller about bachelorette parties going to drag shows and gay bars, RuPaul replied: “…You know, this is an important thing: people who live in the mainstream and the status quo think that everyone else is there to serve them. … People don’t know how to place me in their consciousness. They think ‘Oh, you must be here to make me look good. That’s what gay guys are, right? You’re an accessory for my straight life.’ Just because your limited view is that everyone’s there to serve you and that you’re the only person in the world. It doesn’t work that way.” Rock on, Ru.