Every year, women in the UK are killed by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.
It’s summer 2017 and I’ve been single for five months. It’s a fairly unremarkable Wednesday: Work has been stressful, and my colleague asks me to grab a quick bite before I cycle home. My phone rings as we leave the building: an unknown number. My colleague says to ignore it. I pick up. It’s him.
“So you’ve just left work. Why aren’t you on your way home?”
“Hang on, where are you?”
“I’m at the phone box outside your flat.”
“How do you know where I am?”
“It says on Happn.”
“How can you see my Happn profile?”
“No we didn’t.”
“Yes we did, last night. You wanted me to find you.”
“That was you?”
I’m paralyzed in the street, my skin prickling with panic. My colleague mouths “hang up” to me, looking increasingly alarmed. But I can’t.
“I’m waiting by your front door,” he says. “I’m not leaving until you come home.”
Five hours, 36 calls, and hundreds of messages later, my flatmate and I finally re-enter our home after calling his parents to get him to leave. We are welcomed by a bunch of flowers he left on the doorstep. The next morning I call up Paladin, a stalking advocacy service, to ask if I’m being stalked. Their response is an emphatic yes.
A dripping tap is the best metaphor to describe the harassment that I suffered at the hands of my ex. Slow, almost imperceptible at first and easy to dismiss, but over time, increasingly overwhelming and complex to stop. The rot it left behind required expert help to repair. I developed significant psychological damage in the form of a combined diagnosis of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which I still manage with therapy and medication over a year later.
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Meera Dalal
“It is not uncommon for PTSD and OCD to co-occur, and there is growing evidence that cases of OCD may stem from trauma,” clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Orban tells me. “Obsessive compulsive disorder and PTSD share common features such as intrusive thoughts and a need to reduce anxiety by engaging in avoidance and/or ‘neutralizing’ behaviors to suppress distressing thoughts.”
There were red flags in our relationship from the beginning. He broke up with me a few months into our relationship, citing a list of my physical flaws that made him embarrassed to be seen with me in public. I blamed myself. So did he—and he did his best to convince me that my extreme emotions and panic attacks were further evidence of my flawed self, and not of his abusive character.
He started gaslighting me very early on. It started small: We’d have an argument and he’d reference something I’d done or said that I couldn’t remember. Eventually any negative emotion I had was met with anger. Why was I so unbalanced? What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I know it was totally fine to ask your partner to “customize aspects of their appearance”—like how I wore my hair, how I dressed, and the shape and size of my breasts? Why was I getting so upset?
After two years, when my sense of self had completely eroded and my mental health was in the gutter, I ended things. I had assumed he’d be glad to be rid of someone so flawed. But over the next eight months, his behavior grew completely and utterly out of control.
It started with emails and texts to my friends. Could they help him to get me back? Then came the calls from phone booths, different workplaces, friends’ phones, family members’ phones, random phones he’d found lying around. There were relentless calls to me, my parents, my friends, and later, to my colleagues, my boss, and even my therapist. I felt completely ambushed.
I blocked his number. I blocked his profiles. I told him not to contact me.
When you’re in a vulnerable mental state, your threshold for believing things that you would ordinarily question is much lower. According to criminal behavioral analyst and Paladin founder Laura Richards, this is common: “Stalking unseats you in every way, and stalkers are very adept at making you believe that the problem lies with you.”
On some level, I was aware that his behavior was verging on dangerous. But I began to doubt myself more and more as the coincidences began mushrooming. When he did manage to get through to me on the phone, he would make casual references to things I was sure that he shouldn’t know. Was it odd timing that he made contact with a mutual friend I hadn’t seen for ages just 12 hours after I saw her? Had I mentioned that I’d shaved three minutes off my five kilometer running time? Or that my relative was staying at mine? Or that I was having work done on the flat?
Drip, drip, drip.
That’s when my obsessing started. I couldn’t remember disclosing any of these details to him since our breakup, but he seemed to know a lot about my life. I made lists and timelines to make sense of my confusion. I compulsively revisited every conversation we’d had. When I’d exhausted all avenues of analysis in my own head, I began checking my perception of reality with people around me. This began with simple stuff like “am I overreacting?” and led to larger questions like, “am I crazy?” and “did that even actually happen?”
I still live with his shadow, and an indelible fear that has completely shaped who I now choose to share my life with and how.
I’m not alone in this. Richards says that it is common for victims to learn to mistrust themselves and others because of the constant heightened alertness required to “see what is coming at you.” This disordered manner of managing my thoughts became my coping mechanism during his stalking. I grew so distressed that I was eventually referred to a psychiatrist who gave me my diagnosis of PTSD and OCD.
“Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that individuals feel they must do in response to the obsessive thought to reduce anxiety,” Orban says. “Research has shown that among those suffering from trauma, compulsions can be a way of coping with traumatic thoughts. These behaviors may work well in the short-term, but are likely to increase anxiety and distress in the long-term.”
The diagnosis enabled me to see his stalking for what it was. I scared him off by threatening to call the police. I have since heard from him only once (he put a card through my door on the one-year anniversary of our break-up), but I still live with his shadow, and an indelible fear that has completely shaped who I now choose to share my life with and how.
The extent of his stalking became much clearer once I gained distance from the situation. My ex stalked me through my apps and hacked into my personal accounts using fake accounts and cached copies of my old passwords. He found out about my social appointments from my Google Calendar, meetings with friends from my Instagram, the details of my jogs from fitness app Strava, and who I was talking to from my email. He knew what I thought about from my Twitter and who I worked with from LinkedIn. It was only once he admitted to stalking me that I realized how much information users willingly share with their followers everyday—information that is also available to would-be stalkers.
“A stalker will use any information available to continue their behavior,” says Richards. The stakes are high—many victims, like me, ending up suffering from post-traumatic stress and associated mental health issues. Her advice is to “share where you’ve been, not where you’re going,” and to explore the security settings on all the platforms you use.
A year on—thanks to the support of an incredible therapist and great people around me—I am doing better. I have invested time in myself and learned how to look after my mental health—particularly when it comes to managing my OCD. “For individuals with co-morbid PTSD and OCD, targeting PTSD is often key to a successful prognosis. Empirically-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which includes exposure therapy, has been shown to be effective for trauma-related OCD,” Orban says. “If you suspect you have these disorders, know that they are highly treatable and you don’t need to suffer in silence.”
These days I protect my mental health by establishing and enforcing clear personal boundaries in my relationships, and exercise has boosted my self-esteem and helped me rediscover a sense of joy in my own company. But I’ve also had to accept that the fear of hearing from him is always likely to be there, lurking just beyond my field of vision. The greatest thing I learned from this whole ordeal, though, is to trust your instincts: If you think you hear a drip, don’t doubt yourself.
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.