‘I have to get out of here!’ At 10, I looked back to see an old man chasing me. I felt chills up my spine.’: Woman begins healing journey after confronting stalking trauma, ‘I have finally stopped blaming myself’

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“This is a story I haven’t told many people. To be honest, for many years, I shoved these memories in the far, dark corners of my mind to be forgotten forevermore. Whether that was a conscious decision or not, I don’t know, but it happened. Over time, they felt more like foreign stories – something I couldn’t claim as my own. It is only just recently that these memories have come to light, and here’s how.

A girlfriend of mine invited me over for a wine night at her apartment last year. Of course, I said yes. Who doesn’t love a casual little ‘unwinding’ session on a Friday night after the long corporate work week? It was the dead of winter and after a short subway ride and several minutes of white puffs of cold breath, I arrived at her infamous Brooklyn stoop. Beyond the stairs, I was met with a white fuzz of cozy string lights, cute throw pillows probably from target, the comfort of electric heat. I was already starting to ‘unwind.’ Until I wasn’t.

I noticed some of her curtains were slightly shifted, meaning small corners of glass were exposed, naked. Unknowingly and unconsciously, I walked up to her array of windows and repositioned every curtain corner so that they were 100%, without a doubt, blanketed.

‘Why did you do that?’ she asked in a curious tone as the sound of Merlot clinked on the countertops. I couldn’t help but feel puzzled. ‘Do what?’ She proceeded to inform me that I had walked up to each window frame and ‘moved every curtain.’ With the pop of a cork she playfully added, ‘OCD much?’ Again, I was not aware I had done so. I had no answer as to why I had done this. I didn’t think about it again until about a week or so later.

Why had I done this? Was I just really organized? OCD? And why, now that I was noticing it, did I do this all of the time, everywhere I went? Something struck me as odd about it. It had certainly never occurred to me. It was just a ‘thing’ I did. I thought it had no background or reason. Without warning, moments later, the answer smacked me hard in the face. I remember saying the words ‘sixth grade’ aloud like any good movie protagonist would during a revelation.

Sixth grade. The words hung on my tongue, bitter. My mind brought me back to little, 10-year-old me trudging up the sidewalk in an all-too-big Spongebob Squarepants backpack, heading towards my bus stop just up the block from my house. It’s smack in the middle of the school year when I see an older man, maybe 50 or so years old gazing at me from across the street. I felt an instant, indescribable sick feeling. Like the good child I was, words like ‘stranger danger’ floated around in my head. Red alarms went off. Then, I hopped on my bus and forgot all about it. Until it happened again.

On this particular morning, I walked up the block to find a red mini van opens its doors. With the pull of a door and the screech of a tire, the man removed himself from the vehicle, planted himself diagonal to my bus stop and gazed at me. He was on the opposite site of the street. This time, I couldn’t forget it.

Every time I saw this man over the span of the next couple days, something had slightly changed. On the third day, his van showed up to drop him off before I could make my way to the stop. The fourth, he was planted on the side of the street I had always walked on. The fifth, and unfortunately not the most chilling, he grabbed my wrist when I walked past him. I was terrified. He didn’t speak, he just simply released his grip after a moment and let me walk away; it felt like a bad omen.

At this point in time, I told my parents. The cops were informed of a ‘creepy’ older man exhibiting suspicious behavior who was planting himself by a children’s bus stop. They had plans in the early morning to scope him out. Only they didn’t. They never showed up. When my mother pleaded for them to try again the next day, they said they were ‘busy’ and had ‘more pressing problems’ to attend to. They may not have exactly worded it that way, but it was essentially what they were saying. What they DID say, however, was, ‘Technically, he hasn’t hurt her yet. We can’t do anything.’ Yet. Hadn’t hurt me YET. Imagine my 10-year-old brain trying to process this. How could I feel okay? Safe? All of my innocence and comfort was out the window.

From then on, life changed. Every morning, I woke up with an intense feeling of dread. I was terrified to simply walk down the block to get to school. With time, my family stopped asking about it. I come from a family where a lot of issues and traumas were entirely repressed, so this was not unusual. I simply kept to myself here on out. But it didn’t stop.

In the span of two weeks, I saw the man several blocks from my house outside of the local deli my family went to. I also saw him in my neighboring town while I accompanied my sister to get her flip phone traded in for a new one. And, then, I saw his red van trailing behind the public bus when my sister and I went for a fun Saturday morning at the mall…an hour away. I knew it was him, I didn’t even have to check. When I saw him sitting at the mall food court, my fears were undoubtedly true. I was being stalked. Only I didn’t have the language to describe it then. I just knew it didn’t feel right. At all.

Every morning when I walked to my bus stop, I ignored him. He watched, not saying anything at all. Then, things came to a boiling point one morning.

I remember I awoke on Thanksgiving Day bright and early. I also remember feeling terribly annoyed that my mom was sending me to do her laundry for her down the block. She’s always had a bad knee and back, so sometimes many chores and ‘adult’ things were left to us children. I gathered her dirty clothes, tossed enough in a garbage bag that I could carry, and headed off to do her laundry. ‘Be quick,’ my mother told me. She wanted me back in time to start baking the pies at noon. She shoved some quarters and dollar bills into my pocket.

On that very morning, I felt absolute chills go up my spine as I laid the fabric softener onto the top of the silver washing machine. There he was. This man I had seen so many times before. It was him. He was sitting in a turquoise chair at the corner of the laundromat. When I saw him, he wasn’t looking at me – but he looked up and met my frantic eyes milliseconds later. ‘I have to get out of here.’ Absolute dread. My chest tightened. I gently let everything in my hands fall to the ground, and I ran. As fast as I could. A sack of laundry hanging on my back.

Running, it was probably a 2-minute travel time back to my house. I tried my best to not look back, and I didn’t. Until about halfway. And when I did, I saw the most terrifying thing in my life…the man was chasing after me. At this point, I was likely running on pure adrenaline. I ran all the way back to my house, flew up the stairs, slammed and locked the door shut, and melted into tears and gasps. I told my mom what happened. This is where my mind gets hazy. I wish I knew what anyone’s response was, but I don’t. I seemed to have been calmed and then everything was brushed off. It was never talked about again.

I never did see him again after that day. We happened to get evicted from our home just one week later and moved all the way to the complete opposite side of town. And that was the end of it all. It is only now that I can truly realize that my habit for re-adjusting curtains isn’t some weird little thing I do without reason. It’s a phobia. I am terrified of the thought of being watched – my mind convinces me that I am. Stalking has rewired my brain, and I am forever awaiting the day he returns.

After this ‘epiphany’ I had, or whatever you want to call it, I have gone in to see a therapist. I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Please, if you are reading, understand the many things wrong with this story. If you know someone who is being stalked, don’t just ‘let it be.’ Don’t ignore it. Follow up with them. Ask them what is going on, how they are. CHECK IN.

Many years later, I am still dealing with deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy over the fact that no one stepped in to help or protect me. I was a child. It shouldn’t have been up to me to fend for myself. I have finally stopped blaming myself. For all these years, I thought something was wrong with ME. I thought I wasn’t worthy enough or love. But, in reality, I am worthy of it all – and so are you. I would never wish this on my greatest enemy.”

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