Thursday, September 12, 2013

Know your limits

Last time, I talked about my decision to be "forever alone" when I was 11.  Everything seemed so clear when I was a kid.  "No" was my very first word, and it served me well all throughout my childhood.  No, I didn't want to wear a dress!  No, I didn't want to go to church!  No, I didn't need help with my homework; I could do it myself!  No, I didn't want to try smoking!

So really, the decision I made to suddenly stop seeing John was typical for me at that age.  I knew what he wanted.  I knew what I wanted.  Those two didn't match up, so I removed myself from what I considered a no-win situation.  I didn't look back, and I had no regrets.  It was easy to see those things as a kid, and the solution was wonderfully obvious back then.

As I got older, situations became more muddied.  I gradually lost sight of the little girl who had made seemingly tough decisions with no regrets.  I became less confident.  Relationships got... complicated.  And, occasionally, terrifying.

I was 15 years old when I met Jake. I had moved a few times by then, so my family was living in a quiet suburb between two large cities, with real city things like hospitals and shopping malls and police forces.

Jake was anti-social and introspective, just like I was.  He and I didn't go to the same school, but we lived close by and we chatted online daily, even while my family continued to move between school districts (we at least stayed close to the same cities).  Jake and I had an on-again/off-again pseudo-relationship for the next couple of years (mostly "off" because we couldn't drive, plus I still didn't want to have sex yet and Jake was a fully hormonal teenage boy).  We spent much of our time ranting about typical teenage gripes, like how our parents didn't understand anything and things would be different when we got older.

But because of my family's moves, I didn't have any long-term close friends from school.  Jake quickly became the person I had known the longest.  He became my best friend.  As we got older, we started talking about college.  We wanted to go to the same school, so we applied to a lot of the same universities.

Inevitably, we hit another "off" period.  Frustrated, he lashed out by having cybersex with my closest girl friend in high school.  She was terrified that she would never get a boyfriend and would die a virgin, and she decided that it was a low-risk way to relieve some of her anxiety.

Seventeen years old at the time, I reacted as you might expect.  I decided that our roller coaster of a relationship was over permanently and there would be no recovery.  Again, it seemed very cut and dry.  If they wanted to pursue any kind of relationship, that was between them.  I refused to be involved.  I moved on, and I spent the last semester of high school dating someone else.  I made new friends in the short time we had before going our separate ways for college.

The catch: Jake and I had both already accepted offers from the same university.  It was a very prestigious school, halfway across the country from our families and friends.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both of us.

We both took it.  He was suddenly the only human being I knew within half of the country.  I was confused and conflicted.  I still wasn't comfortable with the choice he had made with my friend, but he knew me better than anyone else.  He still felt like my best friend.  I wanted to preserve that familiarity and stay friends with him, but he made it clear he wanted to be more than friends.

For the first time I could remember, I didn't know what to do, and I didn't have anyone close by to ask.  I had never been so far away from everyone.  Throughout my childhood, I felt like I had been so independent, so confident, so sure of myself and what I wanted from life.  Now, I was none of those things.

I didn't know how I wanted the situation to turn out.  I continued to spend a lot of time around Jake, but I wouldn't sleep with him, and I wouldn't agree to a relationship.  I'm sure there were a lot of mixed signals in the beginning, and he was probably just as confused as I was.  We each started making some new friends at our school, mostly overlapping because we shared a lot of the same interests.

But I continued to dismiss the idea of a relationship, and Jake became very depressed.  I began spending more time with the new friends I was meeting, trying to avoid him.  He reacted to my distance by talking about being suicidal.  He began to blame me for his suicidal thoughts.  He would intentionally cut himself on everyday things when I was around, seeking out anything sharp, like keys or brick corners.  He IMed me constantly until I blocked his account.  He then changed accounts and kept IMing me.  This continued for a few weeks.

At this point, some of my old friends from high school had started to get the impression that something was wrong.  I was almost never online to exchange IMs with them.  When I was online, I responded to their IMs with short messages before logging off.  If they asked me what was wrong, I responded with something cryptic and noncommittal.  One of my old friends thought I was involved with drugs and told her parents, and they told my parents, who responded by calling me up and demanding to know if I was using drugs.  I was offended by the accusation, and I stopped talking to my old high school friends at all.  Similarly, I talked to my family less frequently.

After all, I had been able to handle weird circumstances using my own judgment before.  Why would this be any different?  I had always been able to remove myself from situations I didn't like.  I just needed to avoid him long enough for him to get the picture.

I was sure it would all blow over.  I had known him for years.  He would get over it.

Of course, the problem was that he didn't.  During the few years we'd had in high school of our unpredictable relationship, he'd had to "win me back" every time we broke up.  Encouraging that behavior was the biggest mistake I could have made.  He thought this was just a more severe instance.  He tried harder.

He started calling my dorm room when I didn't respond to IMs.  My poor roommate screened all of our phone calls.  She was a devoted Catholic, and I didn't like making her lie about where I was, so I spent more and more time outside of our dorm room.  Jake began waiting outside of my classrooms, so I stopped going to class.  He waited at my dorm building.  I crashed on other people's couches.  Jake went around to the apartments and dorm rooms of our mutual friends, trying to find which one I was staying in.  My grades plummeted.

I still thought it would be okay.  I was a smart girl, right?  I could recover.  I could start going back to class as soon as he stopped hanging around and looking for me.

Then the IMs started getting more aggressive.  One night, he said "I want you to hurt and seethe and bleed as much as I have."  I will never forget that phrasing.  I finally started to get scared.  I realized I wasn't in control of the situation after all.  That didn't sound like something he would say.  Not the person I had known for years.

I tried to get my mind off of it.  I played video games in other people's apartments.  I spent more time around my new friends.  I went out to a school play with them one night.  As we were standing in line to get our tickets, one of them asked, "What's up with the guy over there in the bushes?"  I looked.  It was Jake, lurking in the shadows of a tall shrub.

I started having nightmares.  Jake always wore a black trench coat, and in my nightmares, I was being chased by a floating black trench coat.  No person.  Just a coat.

I don't have any good explanation for why I didn't seek help.  In retrospect, I know alarms should have been going off in my head.  I should have known.  But I wanted my parents to be proud of how independent I was.  I wanted my old high school friends to still see me as the calm and independent girl they had come to expect me to be.  I couldn't just cause a scene, or run screaming back to my family.

And, honestly, I felt like I had brought the situation with Jake upon myself.  I realized I had encouraged a very dangerous mentality when I had made him feel like he had to win me back every time we broke up.  I thought I had gotten myself into this mess.

I continued to let my grades suffer while I tried to figure things out.  I didn't actually make the connection between my grades and the situation with Jake.  I just thought it was my fault for not being smart enough to keep everything together.  I thought I wasn't trying hard enough to make it work.

So I fought the university, which was trying to put me on probation because of my poor grades.  I tried to make an appointment to see the Assistant Dean for my part of the school.  It turned out he didn't want to meet with students who were failing their classes.  I tried to talk to his secretary, but she acted like I was wasting her time by wanting to set up a meeting about my impending probation.  She told me to write a letter outlining why I thought I shouldn't be put on probation.  I didn't know what to say.  I wanted to be treated like a person, but I was being treated like a foregone conclusion.

I felt like my life was falling apart, and I knew everyone else would see me for the horrible, weak person that I must really be if I couldn't fix this.  I believed this was the kind of situation that any reasonable person should be able to handle in the real world.

Salvation came from the outside.  One of my professors pulled me aside one day and asked me what was going on.  He had wondered about the other student he always saw out in front of the classroom.  He knew it was someone I had been hanging out with at the beginning of the semester.  He was curious why I was almost never in class anymore.

I told him.  I didn't blame Jake, because I didn't think it was his fault.  I thought it was my fault.  I told the professor everything that was going on, and I admitted I didn't know what to do to get Jake to leave me alone, given our history.  The professor asked me if I thought Jake would hurt me, and I said I didn't think so.  For all of the scary things Jake had said, I thought he was more of a danger to himself than to anyone else.  I didn't want to get my oldest friend in trouble.

Then, the professor asked me a very important question: "Have you outright told him to stop?"

I hadn't.  I had missed the most painfully obvious solution.  For weeks on end, I had assumed Jake would get the picture just by me being less accessible, just by me focusing on other people.  I thought the problem would go away if I just ignored him long enough, even as it escalated.  I confessed that I hadn't even thought to be so blunt.  I felt like the world's biggest failure.

The professor wasn't the least bit judgmental.  He put me in touch with the Dean of Student Affairs, a wonderful woman who listened attentively to everything I had to say.  She talked to me about stalking.  In spite of everything, it had never occurred to me that I was being stalked.  That was something that happened in movies, not in real life.  It wasn't something that normal people had to deal with.

She handled everything.  She scheduled a meeting with Jake herself, and I never heard from him again.  Like magic, she made it all go away.

Thus ended my first semester away from home.  Yep.  All of that in one semester.  The nightmares persisted for a couple more years, but eventually it was all just a memory.

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