by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
I’ve never written about stalking before though I’ve shared some of this with my clients and retreat/seminar/conference attendees. As most of you know, my speaking style is completely “off the cuff” and one reason why is my ability to delve into personal things (or not) and a feel for the audience…I switch from topics when this particular audience doesn’t seem to be feeling it. I try to stay relevant and not have any of my speaking engagements turn into a yawn, but anytime I’ve just MENTIONED stalking, people tend to sit up and take notice. I don’t know if it’s because of their own experience or a voyeuristic desire to listen to how it develops and unfolds. All of my stalking incidents could be a movie unto themselves, so I assume it’s riveting material. If it were not so personal, I would go into greater detail (which, as I said, I do on occasion with clients and attendees at a private event and now that more has been revealed to me, there will be more at the events).
In any case, stalking is a troubling subject and not one commonly talked about. My assumption, from being one, is that stalking victims live in fear even years after the stalking appears to have ended. It’s a mental hornet’s nest you don’t want to take a stick to. But, this year I heard that someone who had stalked me for years (but no time recently) had passed away. The result was one of relief and an insane barrage of repressed memories hurdling to the surface. So much of what I put away for years, unable to deal and not wanting to write about or talk about or acknowledge, came blasting through. It was partially a protection of myself, a protection of a family I had not been in touch with for years, and a protection of one member of the family who had long ago predeceased his stalker relative. But I did not go to the hornet’s nest. Upon hearing of his passing, the hornets nest came, unannounced and unexpected, to me.
I had been with this person for an incredibly short time but the damage he did was deep and powerful. There was unfettered abuse (physical, mental, emotional, verbal as well as destroying everything I owned including my psyche and despite all the previous acts of unkindness done to me (including abandonment by my birth mother and abuse by my adoptive mother and other boyfriends,)) and this short-lived relationship plunged me into PTSD. I only got through it after a full 10 years of drinking-to-forget, followed by 10 years of therapy and not drinking to recover from the abuse, cheating, lying and all kinds of terrible and horrible things.
One of my reasons for going back and forth in the relatively short-lived relationship was that he, like most abusers, wanted me DEAD if I wasn’t with him and he tried, on 3 different occasions, to kill me while I was trying to leave. A 4th and final time happened when he stabbed me, came about when I refused to cook eggs at 4 am for his drunken ass. I am going to go into this more on the Forums where I know who is reading it and it will be relatively private (and I hope all members of the Forum feel safe also using the Forum in this way or anyone who just reads because they don’t want identifying information in the public view, join the Forum and write about it.)
I’ve written on here and in the book that you are “as sick as your secrets” and this person was not so much a secret as a repressed memory. I went out with him when I was 17 and broke up with him around the same time (broke up with him in September after the stabbing incident put him in jail and I turned 18 in November. He had a sentencing hearing in January for a crime he committed before he met me and with, literally a gun (rifle) to my head, I wrote a letter to the judge begging for leniency for him which the judge felt was NUTS since I had had him arrested so many times (the number of times I had him arrested exceeded the number of months we were together) and he had served 3 months on the stabbing charge only because he was unable to post bail.
He was never indicted on the stabbing charge by the Grand Jury which was a complete miscarriage of justice as they just grilled me on why I kept going back to him and they had ZERO understanding of how abuse works.) The Grand Jury was not so grand except in the level of their ignorance which worked to penalize the victim (me) while letting my tormentor go free. While I’ve written about some of that on here, the overall experience (and a close relationship with most of his family members for some time afterward) caused me to repress most of it and the timeline is still very foggy to me.
I had a near photographic memory until suffering a brain injury in a near-fatal car crash in 2003. Up until that crash, everything before and after this person’s existence in my life could be recalled like it happened yesterday and some of it still can be but not in such fine detail. (i.e. I went to see Bruce Springsteen with M and T & D at the New Haven Coliseum on x date in 1978. M and I had 3rd row center seats and T & D sat further back and to the side and asked to switch during Bruce’s intermission (yes, his concerts were so long, there were intermissions) and we said no. We ate x before the concert and the concert lasted 5.75 hours, including a short break between sets, and he sang songs that would appear on his next album, The River, and were huge concert favorites of tried-and-true fans (who can’t get tickets now to save their lives…thanks Bruce!) and afterward we ate at x diner and I had x to eat and I arrived home approximately 4 a.m. at which time J (fiance) went ballistic over the night out and we argued until 6 a.m. when he went to work and he came home at lunch and early afternoon to continue the argument even after I was passing out from no sleep at 9 p.m.).
Although that particular concert happened AFTER the stalker relationship, that is the level of recall I had. I could pinpoint dates, events, and what else happened on what date. People would say to me, “Do you know what date we did such-and-such (some innocuous thing like seeing a movie or going to a carnival or partying at someone’s house when their parents were not home) thing?” I would say, “It was Tuesday, [date] and we arrived at 8:00, waited for so-and-so who did not show up until after the movie started…we missed the first 15 minutes which made us confused for the rest of the movie so we stayed to catch the beginning and then went to x place to eat. I had a salad and you had a tuna sandwich and x had a pastrami on rye bread which was dripping in oil and grossed us out and we made jokes about it for the next 3 days.” That was the level of detailed recall I had for things that happened BEFORE the stalker relationship. I did keep something resembling a journal, but I kept it a lot of nights after taking speed or some other drug that kept you up all night. I was the memory bank for everyone and I was partying pretty hard at the time but had ZERO problem with photographic recall no matter what I drank or what drugs I took (it was 70s/80s and the drinking and drugs were plentiful even though NY had the strictest drug laws in the country, which we flaunted openly as none of our parents or most of the police force were familiar with anything we were doing).
Then came this person and fuzz fuzz fuzz even though I didn’t drink or drug during the period I was with him as I needed to be sober and clean to escape, to defend myself, to figure things out. Then after he went away and we were finally over (thank you Judge who thought my leniency letter was RIDICULOUS and most likely coerced [which it was]). Not everything is fuzzy as I, as a former Psychiatric Clinician know that memory doesn’t work like that. But I have had periods of experiencing parts of this time of my life shatter like glass on the floor of my brain. Something will seem to come back and when I reach for it, it shatters and falls. Other times a trauma memory comes screaming in as if it happened yesterday. Memory issues from PTSD are difficult to manage. I wouldn’t mind if it was a total blackout or white out, but the spots of “Okay, so how did I wind up THERE that day?” made my trauma therapy difficult.
I even saw him after he got out to try to make peace so I had nothing to worry about and he fooled me into thinking I had. Then he started stalking me, jumping out at me in my carport even though I lived in another city and state by that time. And I was afraid my husband was going to kill him or be killed by him. So we moved again and again and again. Everyone kept asking us why we seemed to move every two years. We didn’t want to say we were on the run. My ex-husband was a badass, to be sure, and the only thing that kept him from confronting this person and putting his lights out was the thought of him being in jail while I was alone on the outside with this person running amok and knowing where I was.
Even after that marriage became abusive and he was cheating (and pulled the card out: everyone abuses you or cheats on you, therefore it’s YOU and I swallowed that whole), I continued to be stalked from far away. He managed to get messages to me that started out sweetly at first, “I just want to make amends to you…” and ended with “When I find you, I will kill you…”
I didn’t even mention this all to most of my post-divorce boyfriends (not that there were that many) and I never mentioned it to Michael as he would be of the “I will kill him…” protective kind and I didn’t want to go through the whole, “I need you NOT in jail but out here with me” story as I had grown quite tired of it by that time. Michael was a quietly wonderful man but 100 percent Italian and that Italian would come out when he was angry (which took a lot to get him there) and fiercely protective of those he loved. I know he would have been pro-active in finding this guy and warning him away. So I kept it quiet but could not WAIT to get out of Massachusetts and move to California which I knew would be too far for him to stalk me. And this happened some 25+ years later. When I moved back to NY I kept tabs on his whereabouts, never feeling safe or comfortable.
Stalking is a trauma. I had an ex-bf who had been stalked by the ex-husband of a woman he was involved with and he bought a gun, which made me very crazy. He also lived in a basement apartment and I said, with authority, “Living in the basement will never make you feel safe.” Been there, done that and was living in a basement apartment when the threats to kill me came through about 15 years after I last saw him. I would stare at the windows and line them with breakables and wind chimes and ceramic bells so that any movement at night would be noted.
But the psychological strain is enormous and even when you think you’re safe, you are afraid to let your guard down. Even after 10 years of PTSD therapy I never felt “well” about this and there was a relative of his with whom I was close and never grieved that relationship. It went into the REPRESSION BUCKET.
But since learning of his passing, I have been writing about it like a maniac…so many things have come spilling out but my day-to-day life, as of a few months ago, has become very surreal. Things that never bothered me before have bothered me. I lost my appetite and a lot of weight. Instead of being reassured, I was shocked and dismayed at the Pandora’s box that opened up at the time. It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions and new-found feelings about some very old stuff. Not fun and very painful. Some current relationships have taken a hit as my skin was thin to begin with since Michael’s passing and became even thinner when these things began popping out of the woodwork.
I spent so many years on the defensive between this guy, my first husband and one of my relationships between my first marriage and Michael that I have no ability to be on that any longer. I simply cannot exist on the defensive or defending myself against false accusations, unfair assumptions or ridiculous judgments with zero input from me. The fact that it came at the same time this did is not lost on me, but I can’t spend time explaining myself to people who have pre-judged or pre-decided things about me before I even catch up to the story being told and then finding the story being told is wrong. I just don’t have it in me and anyone who does that to me has to go stand over in “Not In My Life Land.” ANYONE. I can’t do it, and refuse to do it.
Being stalked is a kind of trauma that, unless you have security guards and that kind of thing, never really goes away. In my last house I had a full-blown security system and people made fun of it as I lived, “in the woods.” Yes, I know I lived in the woods in which I typically feel less safe than in the city where I am surrounded by people, where people will hear me scream, where it doesn’t take the police 45 minutes to get to my house. One of the attractions to where I live now is that I am surrounded by neighbors and the police are right down the hill from my house. But I moved here before knowing that my stalker had passed away (not sure of the timeframe, he could have still been alive at the time). He hadn’t stalked me for years and I attributed that more to my mobility than his disinterest in doing so.
But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is very real and usually the by-product of being abused or being at war. It was first called “battle fatigue” when men from WWII came home and were strangely detached from the things they witnessed and experienced. The more horrible the experience, the more detached they seemed to be, with the worst cases of “battle fatigue” being experienced by soldiers and sailors who were involved in D-Day and/or liberated Hitler’s concentration camps.
It was not until much later that this condition was recognized as something that could happen to people outside of battle and the uniquely horrific conditions of war. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can happen as a cumulative effect of many episodes of abuse or from a one-time event (such as being in the WTC on 9/11). The mystery of PTSD and its components are still being studied and unraveled.
One of the reasons I recommend journaling is for this very reason. The mind often has things it wants to tell you. One of the things it tries to say is HELP. And people will often “behave” their feelings that they are unaware of or start arguments or engage in dangerous and self-destructive activities because they are not mindful of what is going on in the recesses of their minds or that their psyche is yelling to GET HELP.
This is one of the reasons why family scapegoats present in therapy more often than any other family “role” (for an explanation of possible family roles, see the GPYP Workbook). They are often the most traumatized and tend to start having a normal reaction to an abnormal (abusive or dysfunctional) situation. The scapegoats who manage to get out and into therapy are often the Identified Patient in the family, yet they are the ones who have suffered the most and whose mind is saying GET OUT OF HERE and GET HELP. The others in the family can indulge in “maintenance crazy” behavior and be okay with it, but it gets too bad for the family scapegoat, especially when they go out into the world and find themselves continuing to be abused, abandoned and scapegoated by others (i.e. my ex-husband telling me that everyone’s abuse and infidelity was MY fault).
At some point you reach a crossroad where the options are Flame Out and Die or Get Help Now!
If you are getting help for dysfunctional or abusive relationships, be sure that you mention any type of stalking or “sleeping with one eye open” that you’ve had in the past. It’s important. It’s important to heal on all levels, not just the obvious ones. Stalking is a very traumatic thing to endure and if you’ve gone through it, tell someone and make sure you have it uncovered and not repressed. It should come out little by slow instead of in a big gush as mine has done in the past few weeks.
Stalking is abuse, it’s illegal (finally!) and it DOES result in death of the victim more often than not. It’s real and it needs attention. If you or anyone you know is being stalked, get help from the Domestic Violence Helpline (yes, stalking is domestic violence). If you’ve been stalked in the past, be aware of repressing that and start sharing about it with friends, family, therapists and/or support groups that you trust.
But try not to tamp it down in a effort to live a “normal” life…as you will have no control over it when it does come rushing to the surface and it will throw you for a loop. Try to deal with it before it deals with you.
Stay safe and sane.