Oh Captain, my Captain
I broke contact with my family and moved across country from them ten years ago. It was a decision made by several years of mixed bag abuse. My dad is a creepy stalker who still haven’t given up and the police have been involved more than once. I have no hope that they’ve changed their ways.
Now I’m moving back. I got a job offer that’s just to good to ignore. I don’t want anything to do with my family. I’ve Googled them so I know where they live. I’ve done the therapy and anxiety meds route. My therapist claims that I’ll be able to run into my family without any big hoopla, and on a good day I believe her. I’m not there yet but it has become easier each time in the past. Less of a shock and easier to stand up for myself.
I cut all contact with several friends and gave up interests in hope of being left alone. Now I want reconnect but I’m scared that my family will find out. I have an old flirt who I’d love to catch up with but his family is basically besties with mine. Is it worth the risk? Any good scripts for why I haven’t been around for ten years that doesn’t invite too many questions?
On one hand I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends and re-starting hobbies. I love the city and I’ve been there before several times without incidents. But OTOH, I’d be right there! Like an hour away. What if something happens and I can’t get away? All the self defense and martial arts training doesn’t help much against people who think their abuse is for your own good.
Whenever I read or see anything about stalking, I always end up dwelling on the unfairness – especially the financial unfairness – to the victim. Moving costs money. Beefing up home security costs money. Having to go to court for restraining orders, etc. costs money in terms of lost wages. Leaving behind possessions costs money. Changing one’s name costs money (and more than money). Therapy costs money. Leaving behind a lifetime of professional contacts and friends and a sense of belonging has costs – both financial and emotional. Being fired from your job because your workplace is afraid of your stalker costs money. And stalkers know this. They love it. They use it. They try to make it as expensive as possible as a way to control you. What is the price of feeling safe? And even if you pay it, do you ever really get safe or feel safe? Stalking is violence; stalking is also theft.
So one thing that might make you feel safe(r) is to build a fat emergency fund. Somewhere, locked in a safe deposit box, place important documents and build up enough cash to let you pick up and start over somewhere else. Easier said than done, I realize. Unfair. But maybe it’s one barrier of safety you can create for yourself – “If it gets bad again, I am not trapped here.” Hopefully you won’t ever need it and can eventually invest it in the future or take a really nice vacation every year or whatever. In the meantime, build a safety net.
I also don’t think it would hurt to reach out to the police, especially if you can find someone who worked with you and knows the old cases. Talking to the police doesn’t necessarily mean setting anything irrevocably in motion. “Officer, I’m back in town, and I’m worried about old issues starting up. Do you have any recommendations? Nothing is going on right now, and my hope is that everyone will let sleeping dogs lie, but I wanted it to be on someone’s radar just in case.” There’s probably not a lot they can do (or that you even want them to do right now – them showing up to “warn” your dad will almost 100% start something you do not want to happen), but making a personal connection with someone who knows the history and who will immediately a) respond and b) take your fears seriously and believe you - is worth looking into.
Another thing that might make you feel safer is to use your therapist to help you run “what if” scenarios. What if you run into your family at the grocery store? What if your creepy dad shows up at work? You’re already running these in your head, I’m pretty sure, so you might as well run them in a directed, constructive way where you plot out exactly how you’ll respond. I hate to think of that encounter hanging over you, but I think it helps to assume that it’s inevitable and plan for it. There are lots of ways to say “Moving back here doesn’t mean that I want you in my life. Please leave and do not contact me again.”
I assume you know how to lock down your social media stuff and have separate email accounts for people close to you vs. subscriptions/retail/work/acquaintances – the last thing you need is to “like” some event and then have someone’s aunt who knows your folks see it and casually say “Oh, when did your daughter move back to town? It will be so nice to see her!” See also: Directing your mail to a P.O. box instead of a home address (which costs money and is inconvenient, ugh) and other privacy measures to make sure your home is hard to find.
It’s tricky to know when/how/if to loop your employer in. I think that whole thing has to wait until you get settled in there and form relationships. One small possibility: If your job depends on you interacting with clients and being the public face of the company, your info will inevitably be out there on the website and Google-able. There might even be some local or trade press covering your hire. However, if you’re a behind-the-scenes person with little or no public interaction, it might be possible to put only the department name on the web. If you’re the first kind of employee, don’t let your abusive family steal your recognition. If you’re the second, and your employer is receptive, don’t be afraid to take steps to screen your identity.
Now we’re ready to talk about old friends, old flirting partners, and scripts.
I would tread very cautiously and slowly in involving old friends in your life. It’s unfair – you should be able to reach out to them, and I am so sorry that your family stole that from you, but the fact that you had to cut off some of the friendships when you left tells me to approach this with some caution.
Unfortunately what you need is not a wide circle of people forming a welcome wagon now that you’re back in town. What you need is a tight, trusted circle of people who will absolutely have your back. Those people a) know the story of what went down b) 100% believe you and give you zero “but maybe it wasn’t that bad” or “maybe they’ve changed” and “how will you know if you won’t give them a chance to apologize?” backtalk c) can be trusted not to give out any information about you outside the circle of trust or and d) definitely will not attempt any solo “I will help everyone reconcile and be a hero!” adventures.
It’s not necessarily impossible to reconnect, just; go slow. When you first move, what if you put the bulk of your energies into meeting new people? Join Meetup groups, pursue your hobbies, network professionally, find the places you like hanging out and the things you love doing, and see who you meet. In many ways this is a fresh start for you, where you get to reconnect with a beloved place and see it with new eyes. Put some work into the fresh start aspect, and if you and your old friends still have a lot in common you might find yourselves gravitating toward the same places. This will help you prioritize who you should talk to first and slowly test the waters.
And when the topic of old times/family comes up, whether it’s an old friend asking about the past or a new person saying “Hrm, any relation to the LastName family? (Creepy Dad) Lastname is a client of ours and comes in all the time” here are some scripts:
- “Yes, I am related. It’s complicated, but I need you to promise me something – please do not mention me or give any information about me to my folks. It’s a long story, but there is a real history of emotional and physical violence there, and it will be bad for everyone if we re-open old wounds. I really appreciate your discretion.”
- “Sadly things are still very much not okay on that front, and I plan to have zero contact with them for as long as humanly possible.”
- “This is awkward, but I need to make sure that you won’t give out my info or mention that I’m here to (people who are friends with my family).”
- “Here’s my cell phone and my personal email. Unfortunately, there are some safety issues going on and I have to ask that you please not give it out to anyone.”
- “Maybe someday things won’t be so fraught, and I’ll be able to relax, but I’m definitely not there yet.”
- “I know it seems strange, but my family is really not like your family. They are not safe people for me to be around, and that’s the reality I have to live with. It really won’t help me if you try to guilt me into seeing them.”
You don’t have anything to apologize for by setting boundaries here. People will show you whether they are safe or unsafe people by how they respond to those boundaries being set. Unsafe people will minimize your experiences, try to argue you into doing things you don’t want to do, beat the “But they’re FAAAAAAAAAMILY!” drum, focus on juicy gossip at the expense of your very real pleas, and be free & casual with your personal information. Safe people will believe and support you.
If you are looking for advice for how to be a safe person for an abuse survivor, here are three first steps:
1) Accept what they tell you at face value, and remember, you’re not entitled all the details or to have anything proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If you get to be close friends and are down to hear the “long story” that may come with time and trust. In the short term, “My parents abused me, I prefer not to be in touch and need you to not share info with them” is a pretty strong, clear request. Even if you find the story hard to believe or incongruous with your own history with that person, take a second to remember that abusers are experts at gaslighting, lying, and performing to the people they are not abusing. The two examples here and here have countless people who know them as “such a great guy!” who “would never do something like that!”
2) Don’t derail. Listen more than you talk. Keep the circles in mind and process your doubts and complex feelings on your own time. The person disclosing abuse needs a listener, not Nancy Fucking Drew.
3) Respect the boundaries they set about their personal safety. Do not gossip about the situation or share their personal details with anyone without clearing it with them. “You’ll never guess who I ran into the other day, and guess what, she had some not-nice things to say about you!” = NOT COOL, BRO.
“Freak Out,” your fears right now are understandable, so please don’t beat yourself up for having anxious feelings. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of. You don’t have anything to apologize for. It’s uncomfortable to tell people about fucked up family dynamics, but it’s way more uncomfortable to HAVE fucked up family dynamics. You’ve already survived whatever shit these people can throw at you, you can survive some momentary awkwardness as you screen the people you into your life. I am hoping that with time you’ll feel safer, and that when you do run into someone from your family the meeting will end up being completely anticlimactic. And I’m sorry those fuckers stole so much of your history and your life from you.
I also I want to say unambiguously that if your family does something to make you unsafe or feel unsafe, it won’t be because you failed to take appropriate measures.The reason there is no such thing as 100% safe is that you can’t control what abusers & predators will do. Any advice in here is about self-care –doing the best you can to take care of yourself and build yourself a safety net and a buffer. What your family does is not your fault.
Readers, what other things do you think the Letter Writer can do to feel safer as she plots this move?