This week marks 3 years since I started this blog. This is also my 200th post on the blog.
In commemoration of this occasion, I have decided to get completely real with you all. Before this point, there were parts of my story I did not fully reveal publicly. But now it's time I share a huge part of why travel and why this blog was so important for me.
For 2 years before I graduated with my doctorate and departed for world travel, I was cyber stalked and threatened to the point of paranoid terror. The creation of this blog was my big re-emergence. It was as much a part of putting myself back out into the world (through travel) as it was about being public online again.
I am finally ready to open up about this period of my life.
Being Cyber Stalked
I had a stalker who predominantly stalked me online for nearly 2 years. And I had no idea who it was.
The stalking started with a barrage of emails from unknown accounts and Facebook messages from invented profiles. I was frightened enough to call the New York City police. They took a report, but they could not make an arrest without knowing who the stalker was.
I was able to follow an IP address attached to one of the stalker’s email accounts. It led me to Brooklyn, New York. But other than that, I was stuck. A subpoena to find the identity of a cyber stalker is difficult to get without a clear threat or continued harassment.
It didn’t take long for things to escalate. Over the course of a year, I was constantly sent threatening, harassing, and frightening messages. One minute, the stalker loved me and obsessed over me and, the next minute, the stalker cursed my very existence.
Many times, the stalker tricked me into responding—by posing as a friend, a student, or a colleague. I became suspicious of every message sent to me from an unverifiable account.
The stalker found photos of me from when I was younger and defaced them or forwarded them to me just to prove that they could be found. The stalker was able to find out everything about me and would brag about it—from knowing the route I took to work to who I lived with.
I changed my phone number during this time because the stalker found that, too. I was constantly afraid that the harassment would move from online to offline.
Becoming Invisible Online
At the advice of many, I began deleting every account the stalker found and contacted me through. I had my workplace and my school remove me from their websites. I contacted every webmaster I could find to make sure they removed every last profile and fragment of myself. I logged into every account I had accessed since 1997 and deleted everything.
As far as the internet was concerned, I had disappeared.
During this time, I learned a lot about internet privacy and how little of it we actually have. While I kept all of my information private over the years, being stalked helped me identify the many holes that exist in our online privacy.
There were holes in old websites (e.g., Myspace) that in 2012 had not yet adapted to modern web and mobile platforms. So the stalker easily had access to private information about my life that I never intended to share with anyone other than close friends.
Living in Isolation
For a while, I sustained living in a semi-isolated state.
I rarely went out. I only went to work or to school to meet my graduate advisors. I took different routes to the subway and I’d text a friend where I was going and when I arrived, always afraid I was being followed. I only had contact with a close circle of friends. Nobody was allowed to give my new number to anyone without my consent.
When the stalker realized I was no longer reachable, my friends became the targets. The stalker made threats to my friends and even to my family. That’s when I broke. I had been dealing with the stalking for over a year on my own. But my friends and family now? Not cool.
Despite the fact that I was in the middle of writing my dissertation, I knew I needed to put an end to the stalking. No police detective would help. It was up to me. So I began a serious investigation that eventually uncovered the identity of my stalker.
I won't name my stalker on this blog or in public ever. In fact, I am leaving out a lot of details here on purpose. But I will say that I didn't know her. Yes, my stalker turned out to be female. She was a fairly random person who knew me far more than I knew her. So I could not make assumptions about what she was or was not capable of doing. She knew me through my workplace which had already identified her as having problematic behaviors due to a separate incident. And so an arrest was a no-brainer when things escalated even more.
She made serious threats to others, not just me, and those threats had to be taken seriously.
In the end, I wanted her to stop harassing me. I wanted to prevent her from harassing or harming others in the future. And, more than anything, I wanted her to get some help for herself (I am a psychologist, after all). I advocated with the district attorneys for her to get mental health assistance. A restraining order was put in place. And everything pretty much calmed down after that.
But the effects were lasting.
Travel: The Answer to Trauma
Before the arrest, I was in a constant state of paranoia. I had no idea who was stalking me. I didn’t know if the stalker was my 300lb, 7ft tall next door neighbor or a lonely soul from the other side of the city. When you don't know who is after you, it's terrifying what your mind will come up with.
I kept myself awake at night with thoughts that someone would sneak into my apartment in the middle of the night. And I had nightmares when I did sleep. I would jump when I rounded corners, even if nobody was there. I would run home 12 blocks after dark from the subway, positive that someone was following me.
I was a wreck from the not knowing and the not trusting of anyone or anything.
The only times I ever felt safe and comfortable was when I got on a plane and flew away. I went to England during that time. I went to California and Hawaii during that time. The stalker would still send me harassing messages while I was traveling. But it was only when I was far away from New York that I felt the tenseness in my body release a little.
Before the stalking, I had always wanted to travel. It was a dream of mine since I was very little. Now, I had an even greater incentive to do it. I wanted nothing more than to get as far away from my stalker as possible.
One of the benefits of being socially isolated for 2 years was that I saved a lot of money. I didn’t spend as much as I normally would by going out a lot. I also spent much of my time at home finding ways to rack up frequent flier miles. Before long, I had saved up enough to take me around the world for an extended period.
Starting this blog to document my travels was the first time I came back online. This was a difficult but important first step in my recovery to get over the trauma of being stalked.
Creating social media, like Facebook, attached to the blog was also a difficult step. Social media was a primary mode through which my stalker contacted me. But I set up the accounts anyway—and I made them public. I wanted to put myself out there again and, this time, in a more public way than ever. There’s nothing like ripping off the Band-Aid!
You may have noticed a progression with my photos in my blog posts. This was a slower process than simply going public with my writing. If you've been with me since the beginning, you may remember there was a time when I never put up photos of myself. I took photos of the things I saw—of landscapes, food, art, and other people. But I never turned the camera around on myself.
The people I traveled with in the beginning often asked me if I'd like a photo of myself in front of X waterfall or Y mountain range. I often said, "Nah." The old fears around my photos still weighed heavy on my mind.
As I continued to travel, as I began trusting the world and its people again, I started to include myself in photos more and more. At first it was the back of my head, my feet, or while wearing a snorkel mask. Then it was me small and in the distance. It took 4 months into my travels to start posting photos of myself in plain view more regularly.
To get over all of these hurdles, I had to convince myself that the whole experience was an anomaly that would likely never be repeated. Lightning never hits in the same place twice, right?
Regardless, I am always careful. Like never before, I make certain my whereabouts at any given moment are not traceable. As a reader, you may notice I never post exact dates of where I will be. I never share the location of where I live or work. My posts are always backdated, even on social media (i.e., my instagram is all #latergrams).
Talk to some other travel bloggers and many will tell you that staying one step ahead of your social media location is a necessary precaution. But some bloggers are not as cautious and that makes me nervous for them.
There are several reasons why I decided to open up about this now. One is to warn other travel bloggers and internet users in general that what happened to me can happen to anyone. So be careful about what you share.
Also, I figured I may have some readers out there who have had this experience—either something similar to mine or worse. Perhaps you have a stalker right now.
What I have found over the years is not many people talk about being stalked, but a huge majority of people have experienced it before in different ways. So, if you would like some advice on what to do or if you simply want to vent to someone who "gets it"—contact me. That’s another thing I’m better at now: Responding to strangers. ;)
With this 200th post, I feel more liberated from my past than ever. I've completed 3 years of putting myself back out there both online and through my travels. And I feel it is cause for celebrating. I can now say I've made a full recovery.