Early last month, I made a trip to the West Precinct Police Station of the Seattle Police Department. My hands shook violently as I fished a somewhat wrinkled, sweat-dampened stack of printed Twitter and Facebook screenshots from the depths of my cavernous errands/day bag. The trip to the police station was the culmination of a series of frustrating and largely fruitless phone calls with the Seattle Police Department and the London Metropolitan Police. Over the preceding three days, I'd become the victim of online harassment, and I'd come to find that while the Internet has provided would-be harassers with an extensive toolkit of ways to damage their prey, brick and mortar responses haven't evolved as quickly. I'd read thinkpieces on online harassment in the aftermath of #Gamergate but never thought in a million years that I'd ever have to contend with anything similar. I was wrong.
When the stalking and harassment behavior first began in February, I shared some details with a handful of friends. I am an Internet-literate woman who lives and breathes Twitter, how could I possibly have allowed myself to let my guard down and share intimate details with someone who could potentially do me harm? Despite my romantic track record, I'd learned to love and trust this individual and had no reason to believe that he would ever do anything to cause me harm. But I didn't know what to do. A couple of my friends seemed concerned, but most of them said, "Oh, just don't pay attention! It's just Twitter." I thought, "Maybe they're the right," and apologized to my harasser, bent on reconciliation. In April, the harassment began anew, and this time, I only shared the extent of what I was experiencing with my parents and their spouses. All four encouraged me to call the cops (having four parental figures in your life can be a scary experience in and of itself), but I felt so isolated and alone in what I was going through, and I just wanted everything to stop. So, I apologized to my harasser and attempted to make things better.
On top of the trauma of having my movements tracked, threats of ruining my life and losing my family and friends, I had fallen into the trap of a domestic violence relationship. I spent the next several months in denial -- allowing myself to be manipulated, spending hours messaging someone because I feared his reactions if I didn't respond immediately, and accepting gifts from someone with a very clear ulterior motive, but one that I just couldn't see.
In October, the harassment began anew, with fresh claims and threats of ruining my life, of exacting revenge, and very real messages sent to my mother and close friends. Each time I block a profile, a new one crops up. Despite the things I shared with this man, I am a private person and an incredibly proud person, prone to intense stubbornness and a staunch unwillingness to ask for help. And he knows this. He knows my weak spots, my pain points, and just where to needle for maximum benefit. When I took a step back and evaluated everything, I realized that this wasn't just online harassment, it was also domestic violence.
Now, in addition to coming to terms with the hallway of locked doors that is dealing with an online harasser, I had to cope with the fact that I had become another bleak statistic, one that I was absolutely sure did not fit me. I'm a well-educated woman with a solid job and a circle of family and friends whom I trust and love. Nothing about my profile matched the fictional image of the victim of domestic violence that I saw in my head from one too many Lifetime movies, but as I pulled out that stack of papers to slip through the scratched, bullet proof glass window in the reception area of the precinct in early October, I began to understand that the only way to get through what has been an incredibly harrowing time, was to face reality and stop hiding. I updated the police report from April, and a friend reached out offering assistance in putting together a petition for a domestic violence emergency protection order. One Wednesday last month, I took the afternoon off work and went to the King County Courthouse to file the petition. I'd instinctively begun looking behind me everywhere I went, afraid that my harasser would appear out of thin air at every turn, but as I entered the fluorescent lit, grey marble hallways of the courthouse, the persistent lump in my throat, sweaty palms, and thrum of my heartbeat quieted. I was safe for now, and by asking for help, I was going to be safer in the future.
For the past few weeks, I haven't slept well. When I have graced the outside world with my presence, I refuse to be photographed because a month of poor sleep has resulted in two enormous dark circles beneath my eyes. When this first started, I'd look at my phone, filled with dread, terrified of what havoc he was exacting and petrified because I felt totally powerless. I lived like a hermit -- only going to and from work, running minimal errands, avoiding friends and family because I was so ashamed of what I'd let happen to me. I have cried more tears than I ever thought humanly possible, the sort of sobs that move through your whole body and feel like they'll never stop.
Everything about domestic violence and harassment is about power -- robbing the victim of any sort of agency and giving the abuser the feeling that he or she has the right to do what he/she is doing. And it's isolating -- friends who don't use or understand social media will say things that sound dismissive of what I'm going through. The dual face of domestic violence perpetrated through threats in person and online is that there is literally nowhere in my daily life that I feel completely safe anymore. I'm still in the process of healing -- and who knows how long that will take. But when I'm done, my new life's goal is to work with resources like Crash Override Network to help educate and support victims and help change how we look at domestic violence and online harassment in the 21st century.
If you need me, I'll be huddled up in my apartment, looking over RCWs.