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#491: A dream job is taking me back to the city I left 10 years ago to escape my abusive family. How can I keep myself safe?

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.

Sincerely,

Freak Out

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?

177 comments
  1. I split from my abusive family years ago. It was hard, but I have not had to be in the same city where they live since the split. However, I can easily imagine what that must be like, and I actually rehearsed for it with my therapist; the advice the Captain gives is excellent–talk to your therapist and play out possible scenarios so you really believe you can do it in person if you have to. Even if it never comes up, those rehearsals are telling your inside self that you are worth defending. Being brought up in an abusive family leaves the escapee ever after wondering about her worthiness. Be sure to find a new therapist as soon as you possibly can after the move. You’ll need instant support, even if nothing happens.

    If people I tell about the break-up with my family refuse to “get it,” then they join the ranks of the people I had to let go for the sake of my sanity. I recommend it highly. Also, some time ago, I legally changed my name, and that helped immensely–no, my name was not always “yuplisnin”–once it was Susie Stark. Now it’s something completely different and it helps me be who I am despite what my family tried to make me believe about that. You don’t have to go so far as to change your name, if you like the one you have, but you could use a nickname or diminutive of some kind that your family doesn’t know about. For sure, use different names for your social media, so you’re harder to find. Your real friends will understand if you need to close accounts and open new ones that wear a false mustache.

    If there was any legal involvement at any time between you and your former family, it might be possible to have a restraining order. Talking to a lawyer from the area you’re moving into or the police in that city might clarify it for you; I know different states have different laws about that. Where my father lives now, he can’t be prosecuted for his crimes against me; where I live now, he could. It might well be worth looking into.

    You’re very brave and strong to be contemplating putting yourself and your desires first and looking for ways to make it work. I wish you the best of luck and hope you triumph. I’m pretty sure you will.

  2. Pennanti said:

    I have a friend who moved back into town after a few years away, and didn’t want the news to get out for a while. Not for reasons as serious as this – she just had a lot of needy, energy-sucking friendships and family relationships she didn’t want to restart. If any of them found out she was coming back, she knew she’d be terrible at saying no to the inevitable requests.

    So she lied about it. For months. Whenever she ran into anyone she knew who wasn’t me or two other people, she’d tell them she was “Just in for the weekend, visiting my boyfriend”. The fact that she’d moved in with her boyfriend went unmentioned.

    I don’t know if this tactic would work for the letter writer, but as a last-ditch “Wow, I was really not expecting to run into here, and I won’t see them again,” it might have some use.

    • JenniferP said:

      Ha, yes, while honesty is great, and it would have been cooler if your friend had been able to say “I’d rather not get together, I’ll let you know if that changes,” it is totally ok to lie to unsafe people for the sake of controlling information and getting through an interaction with minimal friction.

      I’m curious to know how long your friend made it before it all backfired horribly?

      • Pennanti said:

        It didn’t actually backfire horribly. By the time it became common knowledge that she’d moved back (Maybe 6-8 months), her former friends felt so awkward about not being told they just gave up, and her family pretended the whole thing had never happened. Bizarre, I know. They only call her for holidays now, which is what she was after.

        • JenniferP said:

          Success! :)

    • Badger Rose said:

      Yes: I’ve lied in situations where telling the truth would be dangerous, and especially where I was unlikely to see the other person frequently if at all (so the masquerade didn’t require a lot of maintenance). There’s no shame in obfuscating in order to protect yourself.

    • Solestria said:

      I was going to bring up the lying angle to; instead of some version of “Moving back here doesn’t mean that I want you in my life. Please leave and do not contact me again.” using, “Oh, just visiting for the weekend” (with a healthy dose of “and don’t contact me again”). I see no reason to clue the family in to LW’s return unless they’re already certain ze’s back to stay.

    • Digger said:

      My grandmother was really a Not Okay person, and contact with my father’s side of the family was sporadic. When a job took me back to the city my father lived in, I had to have the terribly weird conversation “Is your mother dead?”

      He sighed, said “No–she lives ten minutes away. She thinks I live in another state and commute here on weekends to see her, and she will not find out about you from me.”

      This sounds horribly messed up when I try to explain it, but it was what he needed to do and he made sure I was well out of the mess. Worse compromises have been made. If you’re going to lie, though, may I suggest “Here on business,” which allows one to extend nicely to permanent “They transferred me,” if it turns out you run into them them later, and doesn’t leave an awkward why/who/opening.

      • daffodil said:

        I love the “here on business” option, because it is technically true, doesn’t invite more questions, and accounts for any future encounters.

      • I don’t think that sounds horribly messed up. I think it sounds like adults making the most of a bad situation. Your dad sounds super cool for not bringing you up to his mom, since that gives you control over how much she knows about you and your life.

  3. Zillah said:

    I don’t really have much to add. I do have one thought: have you considered changing your (last) name?

    I realize that it is a dramatic step that you may not want to take, LW, and if not, that makes total sense. If you’ve built up a professional identity under your current name or are just attached to it, it makes total sense for you to want to keep it.

    However, if you haven’t and you aren’t really attached to it, I feel like changing your name could help eliminate at least the awkward, “Are you related to (creepy abuse family) Lastname?” and “I heard that your daughter is back in town” questions, and could also make it harder for them to find you on google. Alternatively, you could change your name but continue to use your current name in some settings, while keeping things like accounts, phone numbers, and addresses in your new name – again, to make it harder for them to track you down outside of work, where you’ll probably be more vulnerable. (I know that you can have unlisted phone numbers/addresses, but…)

    Again, I know that’s a pretty dramatic step. It’s just a thought.

    • More on the unlisted phone thing… I don’t know if this will help anybody, so I’ll just put this out there in case it gives anybody any ideas.
      My neighbor came up with an alternate solution. She has a number in the phone book, but put the phone number under her dog’s name, plus a random first initial. So, if anybody called that she didn’t want to talk to, she’d just say that the person they were trying to call was unable to speak to them. They didn’t have to know they were trying to call a dog. :D

      • Zillah said:

        That’s definitely funny!

        The issue I see with it in this situation, though, is that while that works for people who don’t know you very well, most people who do – including abusive family members – will know your voice, you know?

        • Depends on whether you sound the same on the phone as in person. My friends and family never do know if they’re talking to me or not on the phone.

    • Erika said:

      I’m a huge fan of the Google Voice number. You can give everyone that number while keeping your (real) number secret. GV will screen calls for you, and you can set it so that, if anyone on your block list calls, it will tell them that your number has been disconnected–which means that they’ll never try to call the number again.

  4. TheJackdaw said:

    LW, you are doing a super brave and cool thing and the anxiety you feel is real and normal. I cut off contact with my family about 8 years ago and have not been back to where they live in that time.

    I’m very lucky in that my career will never take me back there but I did have a shoot a few months ago that was at a location about 30 miles away and it was weird and anxiety-causing. Even just seeing buildings and place names from that difficult part of my life was enough to make me clench my jaw so if you’ve been back to the city already with no problems, that means all the self-care, therapy and martial arts training has already helped and can only continue to do so.

    My only real advice is to not be afraid to ask for what you need from people who are supporting you. My husband found it hard to see me shaken up from just buildings and places but I asked him to let me feel those feelings and work through them in my own time without the pressure of feeling better for appearances sake. I was totally honest with the people I was working with, let them know it was weird for me and if I was a bit quiet or withdrawn it was because I was working through some things but I would still do my job and they accepted that very easily.

    Coming from an abusive background really does make it hard to ask people for things you need and I am still surprised that I have managed to surround myself with people who will support and respect my needs. All the work you’ve done to move on is also going to help you find Your People so let them support you if you need it!

    Also on the martial arts/self defence front, the techniques (striking, groundwork, throws, defences etc) may not be the be-all-and-end-all of a fight, especially if the person you’re defending yourself from is bigger/stronger/nastier. However, you will have developed a better sense of safety – how to feel when the atmosphere in a place is turning dangerous, how to read people’s body language, how to de-escalate a situation, how to physically hold yourself and move as more assertive and how to face focussed aggression. All of these things will help you in difficult situations and you will use them without even realising. Good luck and congratulations on finding your dram job :D

  5. Thulcandran said:

    This advice was strangely comforting to read for me. This past spring, I moved almost 3000 miles across the country to be with my boyfriend. A thought that was very strong in the back of my head in the weeks and months leading up was “Oh my God, I will finally be out of her reach.” My biological mother suffers from an untold amount of psychosis, and tried to kill all of her children at least once when we were kids. For eight years, I was on some level always looking over my shoulder. Wondering if someone who knew her would try something “heroic,” or she’d use the unusual name she gave me to track me down. Wondering what my boss, my friends, would think if she showed up – even though I know they’d back me up, it was still there. Once or twice, she popped up to initiate visitation, and two of my younger siblings were too young to get out of it.

    It’s really good to think about the fact that even if my boyfriend and I wind up back there for whatever reason, there are strategies, ways to dodge, ways to cope. I think I’ll pass this one on to the siblings, who are now, thank God, of age to refuse to see her. Thank you, Captain.

    • redgirl said:

      I’m so sorry you had to go through that, and I’m glad you–and your siblings–are okay and have found your own safe havens.

  6. Maybe consider changing your last name so that it’s harder for people to immediately link you to your family as the Captain described? It might also have something of a psychological benefit in terms of cutting ties.

    • daffodil said:

      This might be obvious, but you might also consider choosing a pseudonym or a rotation of pseudonyms to use for things where your legal name doesn’t matter. I do this because my real last name is difficult to spell, but might also do it if I don’t want to get into it with high school classmates or whatever.

      • ellex24 said:

        It’s much easier to change your nickname than to legally change your last name. The nickname I go by in public is not the nickname my family calls me, and not the nickname I went by in school. Fortunately, I do this not because I have issues with my family, but because my family nickname does not, at first glance, have anything to do with my given name and requires extensive explanations; I feel I have outgrown the nickname I went by in school; and my given name is 4 syllables long, which really requires a nickname.

        For anything that does not absolutely require my full name, I prefer to go by my chosen nickname.

  7. Kelly said:

    LW, I would consider getting a Google Voice number that you hand out to people; with it, you can just block any caller you don’t want to hear from again with no hassle; it’s just the click of a button. It’s also much easier than changing your number any time you get a new cell carrier.

    I also really like that they do voice to text conversion for voicemails; I find reading things much less stressful than hearing them, even if the conversion isn’t perfect.

    • Sometimes it’s better when the conversion is imperfect, especially if you figure out the gist of it without having to listen! The mistakes can be funny. If you have to have an abusive tirade in your voicemail, it has got to be better when every fourth word is garbled and replaced with something different.

    • Solestria said:

      I was going to suggest this as well. It also means that the phone number wouldn’t be associated with LW’s mailing address. If the LW can swing a PO box, I think it might be a useful idea; the less things associated with LW’s address, the fewer the avenues for the abusive family to figure out where ze is. Also possibly using initials on mailings wherever possible so the information is a little harder to trace.

    • keelyellenmarie said:

      Seconding google voice! Absolutely fantastic for controlling who can get ahold of you, and the transcribed voicemails is a nice bonus. Also you have the voicemails as a convenient file that you can easily save or hand over to authorities if anyone unpleasant does get through.

  8. Captain, thanks for the three steps of being a safe person. No. 1 is why I recently had to leave a therapist who was great for the first few sessions and then started arguing with me about how someone made me feel. (“Maybe they’re just worried about you and not actually being horribly judgmental and unsupportive,” etc.). Taking people’s experience at face value is incredibly important, especially when they are speaking from years of experience vs. whatever small amount of knowledge you have of the situation.

    • shehasathree said:

      Ugh, yes, this has happened to me to with therapists/counsellors. That along with, “if you just do [x], you can get her to respond to you in a more reasonable way”. No, no I can’t. What makes you think I haven’t tried that for years already?

      • J. Preposterice said:

        Yeah. That sort of thing works when you have two people acting in good faith. Unreasonable gaslighting assholes? Not acting in good faith!

      • Gillian said:

        My jaw dropped. What kind of therapist thinks it’s a good idea to tell their patient “you can control other people’s behavior! If only you acted correctly, everyone would be reasonable to you!” WTF

        • unlurking said:

          Seriously. Honestly, much of my work with a therapist was getting me to consider the reality that I could /not/ necessarily change people’s treatment of me, no matter how “correctly” I acted.

          • espritdecorps said:

            My therapist has been gently leading me toward this.
            She is a ‘good fit’.

            Bad therapists are awful. The experience of being dismissed by the person who should be supporting you is bad enough the first time around.

          • shehasathree said:

            I guess the issue was that no-one (including me) really recognised it as abusive per se. Calling it ‘abusive’ still makes me feel like I’m making a big deal out of ‘nothing’ a lot of the time, but it certainly helps with figuring out how to deal with my family and still be okay.

        • shehasathree said:

          More than one, unfortunately.
          I have good support now (and not all of it was bad, back then either) but that particular message has been really damaging to me, and I’m still working (with professional help) on undoing it.

      • Xenophile said:

        Ugh, I hate it when people try to apply principles from general relationship/family therapy to abuse. The other day I actually read in a therapist’s blog, “Once you treat yourself with more respect, the abusive behavior will disappear. Either your partner will mirror your new behavior, or the relationship will end.” Exactly HOW is the relationship going to end? Like magic? The abuser suddenly sees the light and lets go without stalking, threats, intimidation or lies to mutual friends/family? Or they’re so impressed by your self-love, as evidenced by bubble baths and meditation, that they suddenly rethink a lifetime of dysfunctional beliefs reinforced by their own experiences of dysfunction and abuse? Do people really think it’s that easy?

        • J. Preposterice said:

          EXACTLY. that’s what I meant above, by people acting in good faith — my husband & have done relationship therapy to work on some communication style clashes. Working with two people who are coming from a place of respect, who are committed to improving their relationship and working through problems? That is the right place to suggest “why don’t you try [communication tactic x], because it sounds like that might avoid the bad pattern?”

          There is no communication tactic in the world, except complete and utter blanking & silence, that will work on my NPD father who thinks he owns his children and takes the assertion of boundaries as a personal affront. Any therapist who ever suggested otherwise would be a therapist whose doorstep I would never darken again.

          • espritdecorps said:

            Yeah, my husband and I are working on respectful and clear communication. It’s working because we both see each other as people.

            To my step-father and Vader-ex, I was a possession/extension of them. Blanking was the only safe way to resolve that, as they did not extend respectful discourse and good boundaries to their kitchen appliances.

          • Ve said:

            I feel like people definitely take for granted that they don’t have anyone in their lives that would make them doubt that these tactics are all it takes to make someone act like a reasonable human being.

            After several full-out screaming matches/arguments/confrontations, my NPD mother started to change her behavior, but I imagine largely so I would stop screaming at her. If I were dealing with a “reasonable” person, I would not have needed to scream so much and so often in the first place, once should have been more than enough***. I still don’t think she fully understands what is “wrong” about her behavior, and she’s never going to completely change, but what I had to go through to reach this level of improvement is mind-blogging. I still feel guilty about it, to an extent.

            Regarding a toxic friend, I had to block her out of my life entirely. That relationship was not going to just “end,” and even after I blocked her she still lied to mutual friends, tried to get other contact information to threaten/intimidate me, threatened to file a police report on me for harassment (if you consider “going out of my way to not communicate with you” harassment, then ok)

            Like I said, it is practically a blessing to be so ignorant of deeply dysfunctional relationships.

            (***I currently live with her, so communication is unavoidable…and I hate to word it like this, but one of the reasons I built the courage for the first of these confrontations was that I knew/convinced myself she wouldn’t literally kill me, if nothing else because I knew she wouldn’t have wanted our church to find out.)

        • espritdecorps said:

          Abusers regard self-respect in their partners as a threat. As you say, they are likely to escalate the abuse in an attempt to stamp that out before it can take root.
          That is dangerously naive advice.

        • CoolNewAnonymousNickname said:

          This is like someone trying to do a ‘mirroring feelings’ exercise in the middle of an armed standoff hostage situation. That is not the time or place for touchy-feely concern for the poor perp’s feefees, and neither is a situation like this. Newsflash for some clueless people who invalidate the abused: the abused person already obsesses about why the abusive person is abusive and how to make them stop. You are NOT helping when you pile more of that crap on them. The abusive person abuses because they a) get off on it, and b) get rewarded for doing it (either tangibly or intangibly, see Lundy Bancrofts’ totally awesome “Why Does He Do That?” for details). That is all there is to know about the abuser. Fuck them. Fuck what they want, feel, fuck how they ‘got that way’, just fuck them. Their mission in this life is to fuck things up, and the only way to ‘make’ them stop is to remove yourself from the equation. Abusive people ruin everything they touch, and they have no genuine remorse for the wake of destruction they leave behind them.

          • espritdecorps said:

            This!

          • Erin said:

            This is why I’m kind of annoyed with my therapist lately. She repeatedly wanted to go over which feelings are motivating my (in my opinion) NPD father’s behavior. Like, I don’t care? I want him out of my life. I find it kind of valuable when it’s framed as “When they worry that x could happen, they might y. That’s why strategy z could work better.” But I really don’t need a detailed analysis of his childhood because I do not care.

            (I intend to make this clear to her going forward.)

  9. Pikkupollo said:

    Hey, long time lurker here, but I just want the LW to understand that I know exactly where she is coming from. I believe you! I ended up moving to an entire different continent than my mother; she still managed to get my address and sends me international registered receipt letters on a fairly regular basis. (I refuse delivery for them, but it’s just one more way she has of trying force contact on me.) The woman even sent a letter to my MIL, who speaks no English. We joke that she might show up unannounced, passport in hand, but it’s not really a joke. She does enjoy making sure that I know that she can do whatever she wants whenever she wants to and I can’t stop her. It worked very well for many many years.

    One thing that predators do not want is the wrong kind of attention. By wrong kind of attention I mean the kind where it is made clear to them in no uncertain terms by non-involved people that they are not going to get conned by their lies and gaslighting ways. One of the things that we as victims are trained to do from a very young age is to KEEP QUIET. We have it drilled into our heads that NO ONE WILL BELIEVE US. It’s how these people keep us under their control. I see that you’ve gotten some therapy, which is fantastic! But I urge you to remember that when it comes to your word against theirs, it may not be as lost a cause as you’ve been trained to believe. When I cut all ties with my mother, I assumed everyone would take her side. Some did, of course. But I was surprised at how many people were not taken aback in the least that I cut her off. Genuinely surprised by it, in fact.

    I kept it simple. I never bad-mouthed her, but I stopped being afraid to say anything. I emailed a letter to her (and cc:d my brother as well as my uncles) briefly saying that for my own mental and emotional health I could not be in any contact with her any longer, and that any further contact from her to me, my spouse, or our children would be unwelcome and would be refused. The end. I did not tell her what she could or could not do – that’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull – but I made it clear that on our end there would be no response at all to any of her attempts. I then changed all phone numbers and email addresses and blocked her completely. (I also did not bother to air out my grievances because there was no point to that whatsoever – NOTHING is every her fault, no matter what. NOTHING. I didn’t care enough to write it all down, but I think for some people that would be incredibly cathartic.) I have stuck to it without any exceptions whatsoever. We take no calls, no emails, no mail, no nothing. If she does show up, my spouse and I have a plan as to how the kids and I will leave until she is escorted off of our property, by the police if necessary.

    The few times I was asked about the situation (and again, it was far fewer times than I had anticipated) I simply said that for my own peace of mind I was on a permanent break from my mother and asked them to respect that. Most of them did, or at least to my face they did. The two that tried to guilt-trip me are no longer a part of my life. The end.

    I am pretty sure some of my family members tell my mother things about me, despite my quite stringent efforts to keep my life private. I made a choice to just let that go. Which was hard, no joke. What she says about me is not under my control, though, and it will never be under my control, and I had to accept that. I know she bad-mouths me, because some of my oh-so-very-helpful family members tried to stir up the drama by telling me so. I cut that off then and there. What she says about me is none of my business. So long as it has no impact on my personal and professional life, then I let it go. I don’t want to empower her by giving it any of my precious time at all.

    Zero tolerance. YOU get to decide what your safety boundaries are, not them. If at any time they cross over those boundaries, then you get to decide what the consequences are. Caller ID works a treat! A closed and locked door also works well! Restraining orders if necessary! Feel free to let your new property manager know that you are estranged from your family for safety reasons and ask them not to give them any information and/or let them in. Same with any new neighbors. People are usually kind and if a parent shows up telling them there is an emergency (my mother does love the old It’s An Emergency ruse) they will try to help. Nip that in the bud. Do not let your parents silence you out of fear! That does not mean that you don’t need to be cautious; you do, especially with your father’s history. But being cautious does not mean that you have to be silent. It’s hard, it really is, I know, but remember: you have a voice! Don’t be afraid to use it in your own defense!

    The best of luck! And hey, congrats on the new job!

    • fir3dragon said:

      Pikkupollo, you sound amazing for setting such solid boundaries and taking care of yourself and your family. It can’t have been easy. All the respect & jedi hugs. Go you!

    • miss_chevious said:

      >>But I urge you to remember that when it comes to your word against theirs, it may not be as lost a cause as you’ve been trained to believe.

      So much this. Many people I know totally understand what it means when someone says “I’m not in touch with my family,” because they have said that, too. There are always going to be those who think that FAMILY trumps everything, but as the comments here show, there are plenty of others around, too, who understand that when someone no longer speaks to his or her father, there’s probably a good reason for it.

      Good luck in your new job!

  10. unlurking said:

    >Any good scripts for why I haven’t been around for ten years that doesn’t invite too many questions?

    Also, you don’t need to mention family at all to respond to that question, if you don’t want to. The most common answers for not being around is that you moved away, & were busy with a job, school, seeing other parts of the country, etc.

    • This! People don’t necessarily assume that you have Not Been Around for ten years – they might assume that they’ve missed you in passing, or that you’ve just not been around (no capital letters) – or *they* might not have been around.

      You were in [City X], and now you’re here – it doesn’t inevitably have to be a Thing Which Requires Capital Letters.

    • Badger Rose said:

      Yes, very much! “Oh, I had a job in [city]” or “I was in school at [state]” or whatever, smile, neutral change of subject. Most people won’t pursue it beyond that, in my experience, and it invites less curiosity than “I don’t want to talk about it” or similar. (Granted, people *should* take “I don’t want to talk about it” or “bad history, can we change the subject?” at face value. But they do raise curiosity that a blandly neutral, “Oh, I was doing X” or “I wanted to see what it was like living in a city/in the country/on the East/West coat/whatever. How have you been?” does not.)

    • Freya said:

      “It happens, you know how it is… Stuff just gets in the way of catching up.”

      (No need to mention unless you want to that what gets in the way is People.)

  11. Jessica said:

    After things came to a really bad crisis and I cut off my entire family, it took me several years before it felt safe to come “out” and be the outgoing, internet-gregarious person that had previously defined a big part of my personality. I went so far as to legally change my first middle and last name, more for that mental break and because I didn’t want the baggage of (especially) my distinct last name and a constant reminder of my loser father.

    I started by going as my middle and last name professionally. Considering that this was a “new” name, it made me feel safe. Eventhough anyone could look up my name change in our state’s legal records.

    Going publicly/facebook/etc as my middle/last name for a few years was great to help me get over the worst of my anxiety and thoroughly work things thru with a therapist. It allowed me to, at my own pace, become more public again.

    I got a UPS box, where I still register domains and stuff that has to be done “publicly” to. People can also ship stuff to it, since I do a lot of business on eBay. I’ve never left forwarding addresses when I’ve moved – believe me, creditors will find you anyway! The very rare times when I MUST use my real address, I “accidentally” get one number wrong (and it still gets here- the neighbor knows I don’t live in her house, and so does the postal lady). I never post pictures of my car or the front of our house online. I am really careful about “checking in” to places that are near to my house.

    I got a Google Voice number, which makes it super easy to screen calls and block people. I NEVER give out my “real” number, even to friends. Only my boyfriend has it.

    My parents ofcourse did find me. They called me on my google voice number as soon as I finally posted it on one of my websites. They left manipulative messages. Emailed and threatened to stop by my studio, after I put out a LivingSocial ad that required a physical address.

    I told the business I share office/studio space with that if someone named ___ comes to the door, to please not let them in, and that if I was around I would leave thru the backdoor. Luckily, we keep the doors locked anyway due to the bad neighborhood. They’ve seen my mental health improve during the past 2 years and were perfectly understanding. Nobody ever stopped by.

    My parents have emailed me thru my websites, with less sensitivity and more creepyness than guys I’ve had one night stands have (it happened in the same week, I passed the 2 emails around to close friends to see if they could guess who was my parent and who was the casual-sex dude – parents objectively beat the random dude in creepyness).

    Each time, it’s been a jolt to my system… although it’s been getting less jarring as time has gone on.

    I have not chosen to reach out to old friends in this city that I share with most of my mother’s family, and most of my dad’s family, and my sister (for all I know). I’ve made a small circle of new friends. There is only one “old friend”, who knows my family as a “family friend”, who I’ve stayed FaceBook friends with, and he is the only one who ever said I should call the police on my family. We’re not as close as we used to be, but he’s earned my trust to not tell my personal details to them.

    I’ve twice run into cousins. We made awkward small talk and then I excused myself. While I was working at a colleague’s estate sale, I once ran into an uncle whose wife I used to be close to, who tried to make small talk with me until I excused myself (to go freak out/cry/dry-heave) in the bathroom. I told my colleague that if I ever run into my family again while I’m working, that I’m going to physically leave and go to the nearest coffee shop to treat myself to a latte (and come back with one for her). Things are that bad between me and my folks, and I respect her respecting my mental health. I don’t think I needed to tell her even that much, I was very visibly shaken.

    Every time my mom or someone contacts me, which is rare, I try to do something immediately to comfort myself and I really try not to ruminate on it too much (easier said than done). I also tell a close friend, pretty immediately, even if it’s just PMing on Facebook, and get my feelings validated. Luckily, I freelance, so I have the flexibility to take the rest of the day off to go to the park, make art, grab a smoothie, or whatever nurtures my soul.

    I don’t know if this helps any, but it’s how I’ve been able to handle things. It’s taken me over 4 years to get this far, and only in the past few months am I finally starting to feel mostly recovered from all that crap that climaxed with me having to cut off my entire family and save my mental health.

  12. Advice that Gavin De Becker (The Gift of Fear) almost gives is to find the biggest, baddest enforcer-for-hire you can afford and get them to lean very hard on your stalker, with the message that if they or any member of that group tries to contact you for any reason, they (the enforcer) will be back to them (the stalker being talked to at that moment) when least expected, no matter how well protected, hidden or armed, and it will hurt for a * very * long * time*; and then they’ll be back again, just to make sure the message is understood.

    That’s almost my advice, too. But I’ll understand if it’s deleted.

    • JenniferP said:

      Eric, actually Gavin de Becker’s advice is the opposite of this. He says NEVER do this and includes many examples of conflicts that weren’t violent but became violent because the stalk-ee doubled down on threats and intimidation. It just riles up the stalker, keeps them engaged, makes it into an ongoing conflict, puts their “manhood” or “reputation” on the line. The Gift of Fear says to avoid engaging and let the stalker get bored and focus on a new target. I hate to break your manly violent fantasies, but this is terrible, terrible, terrible advice for many reasons.

      Because this is such terrible and completely inaccurate advice that is actually DANGEROUS to the letter writer, future comments from you will be screened by a moderator before posting.

      • Datdamwuf said:

        Thanks for correcting that CA and Kathleen

      • Emmers said:

        I was going to say, I don’t remember that from the book at all.

    • Kathleen said:

      Eric, did you actually read the book? The advice is to disengage. Every interaction, no matter how small, buys you six weeks additional attention/harassment.

  13. sawdust said:

    I don’t know if LW’s situation qualifies but many states have “a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Address_confidentiality_program” an address confidentiality program” to allow one to keep their address out of public records when they do business with governmental agencies. These programs allow one to be much more difficult to locate but still have correct driver’s licences, vote, etc.

    • L. said:

      Yes, I was going to mention this. Our state has one, and it doesn’t seem to get enough press. It is basically like a free forwarding address. You can also use it with non-governmental entities–if you go to the doctor, or need an address for your utility bills, or whatever, you can give them the government forwarding address, just as you would with any P.O. box you set up yourself.

    • MuddieMae said:

      Yes, my state has one of those, too. All of your mail is routed through the Attorney General’s office and that address counts for everything. You can even register to vote through that address.

      • That is completely awesome, that you can register to vote through it.

    • Darcy Pennell said:

      My state also has this program but here you have to have an active restraining order or domestic violence protection order to use the program. Hopefully there is a similar program in the LW’s state which the LW will qualify for.

  14. Badger Rose said:

    I love the Captain’s suggestion of beefing up your emergency fund (as much as you can) and protecting your vital documents so that you can–if it proves necessary–leave quickly. (Hopefully it will never prove necessary… but it still can’t hurt to have that peace of mind.)

    Having grown up very poor (by US standards, at least) and being currently middle-class, one of the things that money can and does buy you is choices. If you’re in a position where you can set some money aside to maximize your choices, I think doing so is a great idea.

    • espritdecorps said:

      Choosing to leave your abuser and moving into a small apartment is very different from choosing to leave your abuser and going to a shelter/moving in with equally abusive family/moving in with a ‘friend’ who is totally not sleazing on your 8 year old daughter, etc.

      Even putting aside 10-20 dollars a month makes a difference.

  15. LW, one thing you can do is get a therapist lined up before you go, and see about doing a phone call with you current therapist and your future therapist. That may not be possible, depending on laws, but it may be. Having continuity in your therapy coverage can be a big help here, and it also establishes that you are not All Done with your previous therapist if something goes wrong with your new one. You can pretty much always call.

    There are actually some good reasons not to hook up with your old friends right away. Besides the safety thing, you have all changed over ten years and you may not make good friends again. BUT because you last interacted years ago, you will tend to fall back into old patterns. You expect old them…. And they expect old you. Often this is just one of those things no big deal.

    In your particular case, though, anything that triggers you back into old you is probably not very good for you. You’ve done a lot of work to become awesome you over the past ten years, but this shit, I mean, it can be fucking insidious. Even without a history of abuse, being in the wrong context with the wrong people at the wrong moment, even at a happy time like a party, can flash me back to Depressed Me from fifteen years ago. I do not want that for you or anyone whose Past Them experienced abuse.

    I think building a new life and a new context with new friends and new flirting partners who are totally awesome enough for the completely amazing you who landed this dream job is the way to go, to give you a strong foundation of Now and Future to fight off the past.

    One other thing…. Did your self defense class teach you to yell or shout no? Because you can do that when people abuse you “for your own good”. You get to raise a fuss and make a scene and embarrass everyone in front of the neighbors. You get to do whatever is necessary to get away. You get to be a completely unreasonable screaming terror. And if someone puts a hand on you, you can use the rest of what they taught you, because you are the only person in the entire fucking universe who gets to decide what is for your good.

    • keelyellenmarie said:

      “BUT because you last interacted years ago, you will tend to fall back into old patterns. You expect old them…. And they expect old you. Often this is just one of those things no big deal.

      In your particular case, though, anything that triggers you back into old you is probably not very good for you. You’ve done a lot of work to become awesome you over the past ten years, but this shit, I mean, it can be fucking insidious. Even without a history of abuse, being in the wrong context with the wrong people at the wrong moment, even at a happy time like a party, can flash me back to Depressed Me from fifteen years ago. I do not want that for you or anyone whose Past Them experienced abuse.”

      THIS.

      I have some unpleasant history with my family, and I was also just a horribly unhappy adolescent, so being around certain people for extended periods is just not good for me. My parents do seem to be trying to be nicer/respect my boundaries (partially because I’ve made it clear that I’m perfectly capable of going without contact with them and they don’t want to lose me, and partially because their understanding of my depression is so poor that they seem to have surmised that if they don’t treat me like I’m made of glass I’ll probably jump off a bridge), but I find that within a few days staying at home I start becoming someone that I didn’t like being the first time around. For now, maintaining some relationship with them is valuable enough to me that I still visit, but I’m careful about staying too long, especially without easy escape routes (access to a car/money for a hotel and a changed flight just in case/friends or other family that can get me out of the house for a few hours or a night).

      • Quisty said:

        Oh yes, THIS. And all variations of it from the abuse to the kinds where you don’t want to see anyone who knew you in middle school/junior high/high school because of all the terrible that it was.

    • I just wanted to add that some self-defense classes now teach people to yell, “Fire!” instead of “no” (or even “rape!”) because it gets around some people’s feelings of “not wanting to be involved.”

      • unagi said:

        This yelling ‘fire’ is not a new tactic. In fact it dates back, way back, from a time where it was assumed guys had to save you, and that of course they were not interested in cries for help, especially cries of ‘rape’. While I wouldn’t be articulate enough for the latter, ‘help’ is all I could get out at best, I’d like to point out that every time I’ve needed help it’s women who came right over when I made a noise. And they did, every time. So this is basically obsolete advice, even a bit creepy by its implications. Just make noise, people will notice, and those so enclined will come over, that’s the best you can hope for.

  16. I don’t know how much help this might be in this situation, but I read a very interesting blog yesterday for dealing with relatives, friends, or others in one’s life who may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder or other hard-to-deal-with personalities. It appears that many people who read Captain Awkward have people in their lives who fit that description. Here’s the URL for the blog: http://180rule.com/the-gray-rock-method-of-dealing-with-psychopaths/ It details how to make the objectionable person leave you alone and think that it’s his or her idea. I rarely allow people like that into my life any more, but I can see how this might work. I hope it’s some help to somebody here.

    • Brightwanderer said:

      I’m just going to throw out a caution to anyone visiting that site, though: a bit of reading around it makes it clear that the author is writing exclusively about their personal experience, but using a lot of generalist and prescriptivist language (including coining their own psuedo-psychological terms). As far as I can see, they are not a medical professional, but rather someone who has formulated a theory based on their experience + a narrative that seemed to fit it well. Which may work for them, but the more I read, the more red flags I was getting as to the accuracy of the advice and data, and I would suggest taking everything there with a hefty handful of salt. Particularly, the author’s readiness to declare someone a “psychopath” – and speak with great authority on what that person, therefore, will absolutely do or say – bothers me a lot.

      (I’m also not convinced by that gray rock method itself. It seems like a dangerous route to take, especially in a situation where you have to do it 24/7 – suppressing your emotions and individuality to that point, constantly, in the hope that the “psychopath” will lose interest and wander away, does not seem in any way healthy to me.)

  17. the-fisher-queen said:

    I think it’s really important to follow the Captain’s advice on addressing “what-if” scenarios.
    go over with yourself, your therapist, your friends,
    “what if you run into someone at the store”
    “what if you see their car on the street”
    “what if someone asks you about them”
    “what if they show up at work”

    and any other what-if scenario you can think of.
    this will help you feel prepared and secure.
    it will also keep you from running around in a circle of anxiety and irrationality.
    any time you start feeling overwhelmed by a what-if, sit down and work it out step by step. don’t let yourself jump from “I see X person on the street” to “they are going to send out a mob hitman to find me”.

    also, have a safe person you can contact to help you — perhaps someone who knows your history but is not in your hometown? maybe a friend in the town you currently reside in? they can help you if you’re having anxiety, need a weekend away from worry, need advice or somebody to talk/vent to.

    as someone who is in a very similar situation to you, I empathize with your struggles.

  18. Rocketpants said:

    Try getting an unlisted address and phone number. That way, even if they find out you’re in town again, they shouldn’t be able to find any personal information outside of work number/info [which can still be bad, yeah, but better than nothing].

    Also, maybe try getting a pay as you go phone if you need to have a cell number listed and/or if you run into anyone who might leak stuff back to your family.

  19. FlyBy said:

    There is a book titled “How to Disappear” by Frank M. Ahearn and Eileen C. Horan with FBI-grade information on keeping your location and identity private. (They discuss legal techniques only, no false identities here.) I don’t necessarily recommend it as they assume the person coming after you will be extremely skilled and it may end up making you feel less safe rather than more. But if you want heavy-duty tips on hiding yourself and your money trail, or a fun read about stuff you usually see in spy novels, it might be useful.

    The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker is an often-recommended favorite here. It’s mostly about listening to your instincts that tell you when you’re in danger, which it sounds like you’re already quite aware of, but I find it useful to reread every few years anyway. Be aware that he subscribes to the “the first time you’re a victim, the second time you’re a volunteer” model of domestic abuse, which is kind of surprising given how intimately familiar he is with it. But, if you can ignore those bits, he’s got very solid insight into how humans prey on each other.

    Good luck with your move and your awesome new job! You’ve got your head on straight and it sounds like your support system and defenses are well set up. Even if worse comes to worst and you have to nope back out of the city again, you can handle it.

  20. Agnes said:

    One thing I don’t think I saw mentioned in any of the comments was the type of apartment you get. I fortunately have no experience with this, but I imagine that an apartment in a high rise with a security check at the front door would be safer than a ground floor apartment, apartment complex, or rowhouse etc. It would be harder to see in the windows, and you could leave your family’s name and pictures at the front desk to be barred admission.

    • Solestria said:

      And also, if you find an apartment in a gated complex, make sure your name doesn’t get listed on the call box.

    • Emmers said:

      Yup. And make sure to talk to security about this – sometimes they can be a little lax about letting people up, especially with persistent people, and some security people/systems only require a sign-in, not an actual “calling up to make sure this is okay” process.

  21. Stormborn said:

    LW, you are so incredibly brave for moving back to your hometown. For real. I think it’s awesome that you’re moving forward in your life in a way that’s good for you rather than being held back by fear.

    For what it’s worth, I left my family of origin many years ago but still lived in the same town for several years. A few months after I moved out of my parents’ house, I e-mailed them to say that I did not want to be in touch with them anymore. About a year after that, I ran into my father while walking somewhere. I tried to walk away from him but he caught up to me. Then I said that I didn’t want to talk with him, I think, and tried to walk away, but he physically restrained me. After that encounter I went to talk with the police. The officer I spoke with took me very seriously and was very respectful of my ability to make good decisions for myself — he explained what my options were but didn’t pressure me to make any particular choice. Ultimately I decided to write my father another e-mail, CCing the officer, saying that if he ever tried to contact me again I would file a formal report with the police. A good friend of mine was really supportive of all the decisions I made around this and just listened to me talk through it in general, which was also super helpful. I never ran into my father again, and he hasn’t tried to contact me since then.

    My encounter with my father really scared me, in part because the actual thing that was happening was scary and in part because seeing someone who had hurt me in the past would have been scary even if the current situation had been innocuous. Hearing from other people (my friend as well as the police offer I spoke with) that my father’s behavior was unacceptable was very affirming, and going to the police helped me feel much more agentic. Obviously you don’t need to go to the police if you encounter someone from your family, but knowing that that is an option might be a useful thing to keep in mind. For me, it has been helpful to remember that other people agree that my father’s actions were not okay, and that some of those people represent powerful institutions (like the legal system) that can create consequences for others’ illegal actions (and stalking, as far as I am aware, is illegal). Though, a caveat: I realize I am in a privileged position because I am privileged on basically every dimension that matters in interactions with police, especially race, and others’ experiences with the police might not be as positive as mine.

    I know our situations are different, but I thought it might be useful to hear a story about how someone else handled the kind of situation that it seems like you’re scared of, and how it wasn’t the end of the world. I’m not trying to downplay your concerns at all; when I am scared of a new situation, it can be helpful to hear about how other people have managed similar situations, and I am hoping that might be useful to you as well.

  22. Xenophile said:

    In addition to locking down your social networking sites, I’d suggest scrubbing your online presence with something like Safe Shepherd. Sites like White Pages and Spokeo can and will sell your address to anyone with a credit card, but if you contact them they’ll usually take down your listing. Companies like Safe Shepherd will contact dozens of those sites for you, for a fee.

    A little over a year ago I began to wonder whether or not my childhood abuser had abused anyone else after me. It was incredibly easy to find his home and work addresses, along with those of his family. I’ve been debating sending him (and the people who enabled the abuse) a letter without a return address just to give them a piece of my mind, but I don’t want to go that route unless I’m 1000% sure they can’t find me. I’ve been trying to take down my online data ever since.

    • Xenophile said:

      PS: I think you’re really, really brave and smart. You sound like a truly awesome person, and I’m so sorry your family has put you through such hell. Best of luck to you, and congratulations on the new job.

  23. Not It said:

    Make friends with the cops before you need them and keep up your self-defense classes.

    I’ve always been active in my community and so I started going to neighborhood crime prevention meetings. We meet in a sports bar. Our conversations range from 18th C French architecture to cult films to kids’ sports teams. The patrol cops know if anything goes wrong at my house, they can get a key from the next-door neighbors. I cannot tell you how reassuring it is to know that I can call the police dispatcher and have my voice recognized. There are some problems I can’t handle on my own, and having the good guys on my side in advance makes me feel safer.

  24. solecism said:

    Living with roommates who are the ones whose names appear on utility bills, etc. is one possibility for making yourself less visible. Everything is in my partner’s name, and we pay for the unlisted number. However, this approach does limit your credit history, which can have future financial implications, especially if you are interested in becoming a homeowner. Bankers and underwriteres love paper trails.

    I always made sure to avoid ground level apartments so that accessing my home would be just a little more challenging. And I made it second nature when sharing my phone number or email address to request that the recipient not pass it along to a third party ever. I personally don’t do much social networking and avoid cameras at parties etc. Friends who know my personal quirks are kind enough to untag me from the occasional pictures that show up on FB or wherever. Luckily, I have a very common name, so it would be more challenging to track me down just from that.

    Maybe consider the possibility of telling new people in your life (who aren’t going to be close) that the personal safety precautions are because of a problematic ex. You don’t need to specify that it’s an ex-family rather than an ex-lover. I think there’s less pushback about keeping an ex-lover out of your life than FAAMIILY. OTOH, if family does show up, then such acquaintances are not warned that, in fact, they are the bubonic plague in your life, so don’t let those flea-infested rats (or even the really cute prairie dogs) into your space because such acquaintances instead are on the lookout for mouse droppings associated with Hanta virus. So maybe this is a bad idea?

    Congratulations on the new job! Good luck on the move. It sucks that you have to deal with this. You are not alone.

    • MuddieMae said:

      Before putting utilities and such in other people’s names, it might be worthwhile for the LW to check with each utility about what sort of confidentiality programs they have. This probably differs by utility company and state.

  25. EG said:

    As someone who is estranged from a parent, this really hit home for me, and oh LW, I feel for you. I also want to say 1. You are so brave. 2. You are awesome. 3. and I believe you.

    Reading the other commenters advice on protecting your information, etc. gave me an idea. Maybe it’s a little silly, but who knows? What about dyeing your hair? This may only be helpful if you’ve had similar hair colors during the time you spent with your family. But changing it to a radically different color (or if dyeing isn’t possible, a dramatically different style/length cut) could make you almost unrecognizable from anywhere beyond a few feet away.

    For example: a former friend who I definitely do not want to see lives in my city. At some point I found out she has different colored hair from when I knew her. This actually made me feel way better, because my brain just cannot think of her in terms of having that hair color. Which means if I do happen to pass her by (or if I already have), it’s much less likely I’ll even notice. And even though this particular person isn’t someone who I think would try and engage me, it saves me from feeling shitty that day or being reminded of bad memories.

    Also, dark sunglasses! I broke all my sunglasses in the last couple of weeks and so I’ve been going around sunglasses-less, which has made me feel super exposed. I didn’t realize how incognito sunnies made me feel.

    Something like this could do one of two things. Either 1. Make you look different enough that old family members can’t recognize you from anywhere but right up in your face or 2. Give you an extra confidence boost so you don’t have as much of the icky tummy feelings that come with worrying about running into people you don’t want to see.

    Other commenters…have any of you ever done this? I mean, not necessarily with this purpose in mind, but has a dramatic hairstyle change led to people not realizing who you are?

    • Ali said:

      Yes! I had a shitty time of it through the end of high school, and spent some time in that same city as an adult. A quick facebook rundown of my former bullies led me to believe many still lived there, but I never had any contact with them even when I saw and recognised them, presumably because I do not look at all how I did in high school. 18 year old me had long brown hair. Adult me has short ginger hair and glasses. It’s surprisingly effective.

      • Yep! I dyed my hair bright red and my BOYFRIEND walked straight past me. And he was looking for me!

    • belle said:

      Omg, yes! Dyeing your hair won’t save you from situations in which people DO recognize you, so you’ll still want to have scripts on hand. But it could help you avoid casual encounters with people you don’t know very well — but know well enough to feel awkward about meeting — when you’re just trying to buy groceries or walk down the street.

      A year ago, I moved back to the town where I went to college after splitting up with my spouse. A lot of people I went to school with still lived there, and the most recent time I saw a lot of those people was right around when I was getting married. The last thing I wanted to do was explain my heartbreaking life disruption to everyone I ran into. For weeks I turned around, crossed streets, and avoided reconnecting because I didn’t want to answer the inevitable, “So, how’s [ex]?”

      Within the first couple of months, though, I got a drastic haircut. I changed my hair because I wanted to change my hair, not to disguise myself. Nevertheless, I noticed that fewer people recognized me than I feared would. And I’m pretty sure the haircut was part of it.

    • Emmers said:

      Similarly silly but maaaaaaybe also effective: different glasses style, or even fake hipster glasses. If practical.

  26. TR said:

    I’m not exactly advocating this .. but my grandfather, who did Seriously Classified Business for the military and is borderline paranoid (though it’s probably justified) has a private security company he contracts through his house alarm system. Should it trip or should he call them, they have a picture of the two people and the pets that are supposed to be in the house and orders to remove anyone else, plus a guaranteed response time of less than 5 minutes. It’s all cops working extra hours, retired military personnel or law enforcement officers, so people who know what they’re doing.

    It seems really extreme to me and I’m sure it’s horribly expensive, but companies like that do exist and may be an option, though they’re probably not widely available in most non-urban areas. It gives my grandfather piece of mind, though.

  27. twomoogles said:

    I hope this is OK to ask here. It’s related to the second part of the answer, about being a safe person to talk to, and not derailing, when someone talks to you about their abuse. Basically…is there a way to stop someone telling you things without being a total asshole? People will sometimes try to talk to me about Bad Shit that went down in their past. And, I really want to be a good friend. But, hearing it very often gives me panic attacks. (Long story short, I had some not-cool things happen with my family that don’t really rise to the level of abuse probably, nothing physical). I *hate* this, as it feels like I’m doing it on purpose to be manipulative, and making their bad stuff all about me. (this is also part of my problem; when I was a kid having a negative emotional response usually got me accused of doing it for attention etc).

    And when someone is telling me about something that is far worse than what I went through, I sort of feel like..well, I need to suck it up and listen, you know? I want to be a reasonable, safe person but at the same time sometimes feel totally incapable of being that. So…I am wondering if there are strategies to either handle my anxiety around that issue, or somehow avoid it without being a jerk.

    • JenniferP said:

      I think this is a great question, and one I have sometimes for myself. I mean, I say “Send me your hard questions!” and signed up for this by starting the blog, but sometimes I can’t even bring myself to open the email and look at the inbox or the moderation queue because I’m absorbing too many stories of trauma and I don’t feel equal to it. This spring I definitely got so overwhelmed I couldn’t realistically do this work – I wasn’t bringing good things to it but I felt responsible and like I couldn’t disengage or I would let people down. I’m thinking about opening questions back up for submission, but I am actively afraid of reading 100 new and horrible stories of rape and abuse. But then it’s a jerk move, to say, “sorry, I know the world doesn’t want to hear your stories and now I can’t handle them either,” as if there’s something wrong with the storyteller, or as if what’s happening to me in the listening is somehow even comparable to what the survivor has gone through. I feel like I owe it to bear witness. I owe people at least that. But sometimes I just can’t.

      For you, maybe a script is, “I want to be supportive, but I am not a good audience for this story – it cuts too close to the bone. I am sorry.” Maybe limiting your exposure is part of your own self-care.

      For me, I went back to therapy and have been reading a book on Trauma Stewardship recommended by my therapist about self-care for caregivers, activists, helping professionals, teachers, etc. – anyone who comes into contact with a lot of other people’s trauma. And taking breaks. Lots and lots of breaks. Focusing on other aspects of my life and other projects. Taking my meds. Waiting for the depression to lift to see if it will bring more resources and inspiration.

      Whoa, that took a turn. Commenters? Help us.

      • redgirl said:

        Wow. Big Jedi hugs! As a reader of this column, I eagerly look forward to new posts and find myself disappointed when there’s no new content. I know you have a busy life and try not to get *too* disappointed, but I never even considered how reading about so much pain must also be emotionally exhausting and traumatic for you. It makes me appreciate what you do here even more.

        I’m glad you are finding ways to take care of *yourself* as you do it and I hope that allows you to continue what you do, because it’s super helpful. I wish this blog had been around 20 years ago because it would have helped spare me a lot of pain and suffering. Thank you for all you do.

      • Erin said:

        After telling them that you are not a good audience, you could emphasize your willingness to support them in other ways. “Is there something else I could do for you? Would it help you if we’d get a coffee and talk about the latest movie/cook something/go for a walk and admire the nature?” Anything you feel comfortable with.

        • unagi said:

          I like Erin’s suggestions. I think it’s worth thinking about how to emphasize that while you may not feel up the blow-by-blow right now, it’s not because you don’t believe the person or discount the strength of their feelings. You just have to support them in some other way than finding out the details, for reasons of your own that they can imagine…

          And I could totally see how the Captain could get very burned out on this stuff. I’m sorry I don’t have any good ideas beside seconding the filtering options, and having everyone thank her for her good work :-).

      • staranise said:

        Advice specifically for Jennifer: See if you can have someone you trust go through the letters and sort them for you, so there are the difficult-to-read ones and the easier-to-read ones. That way just opening your mailbag isn’t something you need to brace for, never sure what you’re about to read next. You’ll be able to already know what you’re getting when you click on one, and prepare yourself appropriately.

        More generally, the thing that even (especially) experts in the field of trauma forget is: You need to remember there is a life beyond trauma. The bad shit is so insistent, immediate, so overwhelming that all other concerns seem to pale by comparison. That’s a stage of dealing with it, but it’s not the totality. Judith Herman describes three equally important stages of recovery:

        1. Safety. It has to have ended. You need somewhere safe to go; you have to be able to cope with your emotions. You have to be in control of the process of feeling okay again after something upsetting has happened. This can take a really long time–some things aren’t ready to be worked through for years. Maybe they need distance, or to be a certain age, or for their abuser to finally die, or the war to end. This is a perfectly worthy goal in and of itself. “I can’t cope with this so I have to put it out of my mind, but ten years from now, when I’m an adult with my own home and friends who love me, I can open it up again and come back to it.”

        I always used to be confused at how stories with something bad in them had this weird slowing effect in the middle. Like, in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, it starts very high and mythic, and horrible things happen to Lissar, and she runs away; but after she’s run away, she comes out to the far side of the mountain with no memory of what happened. Then this funny thing happens in the book: the tone changes, slows down and gets more prosaic, and everyone gets names. Before, we had very few named characters, but now we have names for the farmer’s wife who gives her a bath and two loaves of bread, and for a hostler she meets, and for the prince, and for the puppies she adopts who spend an inordinate amount of time puking on her. There’s a long slow point of time that has nothing to do with anything that happened before, that’s just her being largely ordinary, before the fairytale picks up again. I didn’t get, when I was younger, what that had to do with the story. Now I get it, and now sometimes when I read the book those chapters are the most important part. What she needed was to build up another story of her life, a different reality from before, and she had to do that from scratch. God is in the details and the ordinary people are the most important. She needed an alternative to being a victim, before it was safe to let herself be a victim again.

        2. Remembrance and mourning. This is actively digging into what happened and why and what could you have done and what it all means. It’s really revisiting the hurts. You become able to piece together a story of what happened, one that you can stand to tell, that has continuity with the rest of your life, good and bad. What we think of when we think “trauma work.”

        3. Resolution and reintegration. The bit I think people tend to forget. It’s about learning to take your new self–a self that includes the trauma in its story, but isn’t defined by it–into the wider world. It’s no longer an open wound, but it adds to your knowledge of just what’s possible in this wide world. It doesn’t just make you sadder. It can inform your sense of justice or enrich your appreciation of the things you enjoy. After all, you can’t go back to being the person you were before the trauma–no matter what, time’s moved on; by now, you’ve probably lived years and learned skills and had experiences that would have changed you even without something bad happening. You were always going to be a different person, and you can’t actually be you-as-you-would-have-been-had-it-not-happened. So you learn to make the most of who you are.

        I think we need more examples of people who are living their lives-after, where of course their trauma still affects them–so does that Latin class they took in college because they see language a new way now–but they have their own freedom in how to live. The world isn’t separated into Trauma and Not Trauma. They’re part of the human race again–they’ve learned to rejoin the vast communion of humanity, the people who have struggled for as long as we’ve been alive to reconcile the immense misery and immense joy available to human experience. Now their more pressing questions are neighbours’ cats and birthday parties.

        • JenniferP said:

          Thank you a million times for this!

          • Jumping in with what may be an obvious suggestion: Is there a way to filter submissions so that you can avoid ones containing words like ‘abuse’ if you’re in the mood for something lighter?

        • SarahTheEntwife said:

          I know the advice was for Jennifer, but thank you so much for this analysis and the author recommendation!

        • Delurking in the UK said:

          staranise,please may I quote this on an online forum for survivors of abusive relationships? There’s a member there who is struggling with the trauma from a truly horrible experience and I think they might benefit from reading this and the book you refer to that. I’ll be sure to credit you for your words and the author for the theory.

          • staranise said:

            Go ahead! The book is titled Trauma and Recovery.

          • Delurking in the UK said:

            They replied already to say that it’s made them look at their situation a little differently. They’ve been struggling with not feeling better despite the traumatic incident being finished. They’re still in the abusive situation in which it happened and could not understand why they weren’t feeling better yet.

            Thank you for this summary, it think this will help others too on the site where I posted it.

      • When I got all that attention my way from That One Comment on the Creepers blog, I realized that I needed a comment mod (for a blog with like TEN POSTS on it, which is ridiculous, but certain kinds of attention are not welcome). Thankfully my husband loves that sort of thing, so he noses through the comments and the mailbag, and if there’s something I wouldn’t enjoy hearing about, I simply don’t hear about it. I don’t think there would be any problem with having a secretary like that – lots of people do it – in fact, I’ve heard that many mainstream advice columnists go one further and only answer the ones the secretary picks. I’m sure some regulars here would even enjoy the role. Of course, that’s sort of becoming Captain Awkward Corp., which could conceivably be more stressful.

        My self-care with Trauma Overload topics is pretty loaded in itself. My mother basically experienced Horrific Abuse and, lacking a filter and possessing some difficult-to-handle mental illnesses, she made me her therapist since childhood. This was further complicated by the fact that her actual therapists suffered Trauma Overload from her stories (which is a completely understandable thing) and had to dump her – therefore, I was super-valuable as a child therapist because I was the only one who stuck around.

        As a result, I am attractive to those who wish to discuss their traumas. This is okay.

        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. Abuse is upsetting and the details can be horrifying: this is true, and someone hearing these details should be upset, should be horrified. However, note your own feelings and reactions to the descriptions of abuse. If you experience feelings of panic, such as nausea, trembling, dread, needing to escape, or if descriptions of abuse cause you to experience physical stress, anxiety, or “flashbacks,” both you and the abuse survivor need to stop the story. That’s the original intent of the Trigger Warning – experiencing descriptions of abuse can trigger an intense physiological response in survivors of abuse (and others.) It will be difficult, but you are within your rights as a person and a friend to say “Please don’t share the details. I believe you. It was wrong.” If they compulsively need to share details, you may explain “It is very difficult for me to hear about people being choked. Can you tell someone else about this part?” If you are not a professional caretaker such as a therapist, then this is possibly too heavy a burden for you, and it’s okay to ask for only part of it.

        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. You can, however, say “I believe you. This was so terribly wrong. But I am not a good person to talk to about the choking part.” There is a difference between derailing (“What do you mean, you were abused? Your father liked to choke you out of LOVE! Why do you always need attention?” and “I’m sorry, but I can’t bear descriptions of choking, please continue.”) You can also ask if you can stop the story for a moment to get your own feelings and reactions in order. Sometimes your complex feelings can’t be put away easily: say “I’m sorry, this is so upsetting, I just need a moment.” It’s visceral, happening in real time – you might genuinely need to process. When you process your own feelings later, it’s a good time to check in – have your own feelings about choking resurfaced? Do they need to be put to rest?

        3) Respect the boundaries they set about their personal safety. And respect your own boundaries, too. There are going to be a lot of emotions flying around when people discuss abuse, and this is not going to go away – Abuse is WRONG! It is TERRIBLE! The only correct feeling is OUTRAGE and DISGUST and UPSETNESS! These are the feelings that you SHOULD have! But they are exhausting feelings to have, and if you are in a place where you can’t receive them, you are allowed to draw your own boundaries too. And you don’t need to do this in a way where you’re saying “NO, SHUT UP, ABUSE SURVIVOR! I CAN’T HEAR YOUR GROSS AND UPSETTING STORY!” because obviously that’s wrong – but you can offer what you have to offer. You can sit with their feelings. You can offer financial, emotional, domestic support. But you are not the friend to talk about choking with.

        Remember that for an abuse survivor, they live the story – you’re only listening. It is much more real for them, and they can’t ask for an edited version of their own experiences. But you can – you really can. Compassion burnout exists, trauma overload exists, these are real things.

        As for the internet commenting thing: I do NOT real social justice blogs when I’m in a difficult place. Much that occurs in the world naturally demands outrage, and sometimes I am too emotionally exhausted to produce outrage. This is okay, and the solution is to not read social justice blogs when I am emotionally exhausted. (The solution is not complaining that too many uppity people on the Internet are too upset by everything.) For the Captain, is perfectly permissible to take the breaks that you do, because you are a human being who is allowed to look after herself, and to throw work at your loving and loyal guest bloggers. It would be perfectly permissible to do things like closing the comments sections, closing the questions, closing the blog, because this is your space and it is your life. It is equally permissible to turn it into Captain Awkward Corp, to slow down posting, to sort questions, to only answer easy questions.

        It is also possible to ask question submitters to add a trigger warning to their own questions. Like, on the comment submission form: “Does this question contain descriptions of {choking/sexual abuse/rape}? Yes It Does/No it Doesn’t.” Then you can set the contact email inbox (your gmail) to filter questions with “Yes It Does” to the “I’m Having A Good Day” inbox, or perhaps directly to the Sexual Abuse Designated Secretary/Guest Blogger. This is not shutting down or silencing survivors, but allowing yourself the emotional security and choice that you try to offer your own damn questioners and commenters. You deserve it, too.

        I’m really trying to express “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH CAPTAIN PLEASE DO WHAT IS BEST IT IS ONLY A BLOG” but instead I might be shouting “SHUT UP AND TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF CAPTAIN YOU BEAUTIFUL FOOL, YOU ARE DOING THIS FOR FREE FORGODSAKES” a little too loudly. Sorry for that.

        • JenniferP said:

          Thanks, I needed to hear all of that.

          I love this place. It gives me far more than I give, and more than I ever dreamed it would at the beginning. I need to make it work better for all of us, though.

          • Jake said:

            Captain, I just wanted to offer my services as a pre-reader. I find I’m pretty able to read about strangers’ trauma without taking it on. I certainly don’t feel equal to the task of answering letters, and I’d want to have more of a conversation before starting, but if this is an idea you’re into I’m happy to volunteer for a spell.

          • At the risk of both: sounding presumptuous and turning this into a pile on, I would also be happy to do this. In fact, more than happy! What you do is awesome, and I hope you know we are all super grateful for it.

          • I want to (again) thank you for all that you’ve done here. And I don’t only mean the persons you answer directly, or the conversations that occur right after a post. What you do has effects far longer than that.

            Recently a friend of mine discovered that his niece had been abused by her father, my friend’s brother. In addition to being as supportive as I could, speaking from my own experience as a survivor, I could point him to parts of this blog. He was very appreciative; he’s one of his niece’s main sources of support and he said it helped him a lot to read the experiences of others, both survivors and families/allies of survivors.

            I wish I could do something more tangible than write these words and make the donation I occasionally make. Your words have meant so much to me and to so many others. I wish you to have whatever you need to feel safe and happy and able to do what you want to do.

        • So awesome.

      • Private Editor said:

        Jennifer, huge Jedi Hugs to you. Your site makes a difference to people. Thank you for that.

        Would you be willing to share the name of the book? I’m a teacher, and sometimes I do hear stories of trauma and feel totally unequal to answering them.

      • Annafel said:

        Captain, you have given us so much already. When you are feeling overwhelmed, maybe it would be helpful to think of the enormous archive you have already created. There are so many questions and so much excellent advice from you and from commenters that are always available (to people with internet access, which is your entire readership afaik). You are not abandoning us when you need to take a break. Even if it’s a long break. Even if you need to stop blogging.

        There is so much here – even though I’ve read all the questions and all your responses and many of the comments, I know I can go back and gain so much more from rereading, any time I want. Any time I have a new perspective on an old question, or I just need a refresher.

        I know it is easy to discount things you’ve done in the past, but those things, in the form of this archive, have not gone away. Plus, it is searchable =) I am immensely grateful for what you have done already. If you disappeared tomorrow, that would not change, and you would still be helping people. You’re still helping me – I asked a girl out right after I met her last month, instead of having an open-ended, silent crush communicated only via non-existent telepathy. It felt AWESOME. (We haven’t gone out so far, but we might? Anyway I’m not over-invested, just open. I feel so much stronger and like I’m taking way better care of myself.)

        Anyway, I guess I’m saying THANK YOU and that you have readers who will always value you for what you’ve already done, not what you might do for us in the future. Please take good care of yourself first! Like you have helped me to do for myself =)

        • unagi said:

          Excellent point there Annafel. Literacy is helpful in that you don’t have to repeat yourself :-). Yeah for using your written words!

        • espritdecorps said:

          I have bookmarks not just to articles, but to comment threads that I go back to and re-read.
          The moderation you do keeps this a place where people can offer advise and support to each other without fear of trolls or derails. This attracts thoughtful, intelligent people who have good advice to offer.

          A friend linked to one of your articles 7 months ago, I read the article and the comments, and then I went back and read all of the posts from the beginning. It took months, but it fed me, and made me realize I could be better, that I wanted to be better.

          There are so many practical suggestions for dealing with feelings and behaviors and circumstances that are overwhelming when you have to face them alone.
          You’ve created a community of people dealing with these things, and it makes trying to deal with my issues feel like something that can actually be done, rather than a Sisyphean labor that leaves me crushed and worse off than I was.

          I agree with Annafel. If you never wrote another word here, that you’ve created this huge database of advice, comments, references, and links is a gift.
          Thank you.

      • Darcy Pennell said:

        Can you give the name of the book about self care? I volunteer with domestic violence victims and I have been feeling that I need to work on my self care. I used to get really good support from the staff advocate who supervised me: at the end of each shift we would take a walk together and discuss the day’s cases. It really helped clear my head and put the work into context so I could go home without obsessing. But that staffer left and the new one has a different schedule so we don’t usually have those discussions anymore. Instead I usually text them or leave a note with the case information they need to know. I feel more isolated now and I’ve noticed that my self care often takes the form of food, which is not the healthiest thing.

        • Darcy Pennell said:

          oh I should have read more carefully, Private Editor also requested the name of the book. Sorry for the repeat comment!

          • JenniferP said:

            That’s the one!

          • Darcy Pennell said:

            Thank you!

          • Private Editor said:

            Thank you, staranise.

      • Good Wolf said:

        I don’t actually know how your delegating works with your other writers here, but can you delegate some of the reading as well? Maybe include a line in the submission area that says letters will be read by one of a small trusted group of people, and then people can take turns going through the letters… I know it could be traumatizing to anyone, not just you, but at least it could spread it out so that you wouldn’t have the same volume all at once, and more and longer breaks in between.

        But I don’t think you or your other wonderful writers are obligated to do any of that (and maybe you already are!). I just mention it so that this comment isn’t completely devoid of suggestions, because what I really want to say is that I am still so grateful for all you have already done! That’s not to add pressure on you to keep up any kind of schedule or anything; you’ve ALREADY helped my mental health and my way of dealing with relationships so much with this blog, and I want to thank you again! I hope your depression gets much better soon (I’m dealing with a lot of my own as well and it’s tough), and I fully support your taking care of yourself, even if it makes taking breaks from this site whenever you need to.

        And as for twomoogles’ question, I actually have had to deal with that a lot as well. I feel especially guilty because my friends often listen to my own stories of woe, so I feel really awful and hypocritical when I can’t always reciprocate. Basically when I hear that someone is really upset about something and I want to help but can’t handle any more negative stories, I just preface the whole interaction by saying, “I am really sorry you’re down and I’m feeling kinda fragile myself right now, so all I can do is give hugs and tell you I love you and provide fun goofy distractions!! Wanna watch a movie/play a board game/cook a meal together?” If that’s not what they need right then, I hope they can find another good listener, but at least I can give them a break from the badness and just be warm and accepting company… I hope!

      • Pink said:

        Hi Captain,

        Staranise’s advice is awesome, and I don’t have much to add to it. However, I just wanted to reinforce the point that those of us working as therapists have very clear support structures that enable us to do our work and listen to stories of trauma and pain every day. We have supervision (where a more senior clinician sits us down and asks specifically, ‘what’s this work doing to you?’ alongside discussions of clients etc), often we also have or have had personal therapy, and (I appreciate you are an expert on this) we have very clear boundaries-around when we will be expected/available to hear stories of trauma/pain/response to crises, how much clinical work we take on (and what type-many therapists keep a ‘balance’ on their caseload eg see 2 depressed people and 3 anxious in one day-prevents feeling overwhelmed by one or the other), have a personal life and routine that helps us to see the joy and sparkle in the world so that it doesn’t feel as though everyone, everywhere has had horrible things done to them, and have colleagues we can refer on to if it all gets too much (and telephone at 10pm because we need to debrief from something horrible before sleep can happen). No one, NO ONE, can cure all the pain and hurt and suffering in the world, and your kindness and compassion and wish to help speak volumes, but you don’t have to do it. You have genuinely helped so many people, but I have often wondered what the cost might be for you. Vicarious trauma is a very real thing, and there is lots of research evidence about people exposed to traumatic material (eg typists transcribing police interviews/court notes) becoming vicariously traumatised by the horror of what they are repeatedly exposed to. Remember you are a volunteer and there are qualified and trained people who are struggle to carry what you’re carrying-and are paid and supported to do so! I think you’ve done absolutely the right thing going back to therapy, and the book your therapist recommended looks great.

        Some further thoughts that you may or may not wish to implement:

        a) I think to some extent you have this already, but have a series of automatic replies/stickied posts responding to the heavier material-eg a basic ‘what to do when you feel suicidal/at risk’ response (which could be as brief as ‘call a MH professional or get yourself to A&E/ER asap). Make it very clear in an automated reply to every email that you may not be able to respond for some time and they should take responsibility for their own MH. A suggested response to a rape/sexual abuse question, or a domestic violence/at risk question could include links to your previous posts on these topics-you’ve covered these issues at length, eloquently, compassionately and effectively-you really don’t need to cover it ever again if you don’t want to. You have genuinely done such a huge amount to help people in distress-you deserve a huge, huge gold star, and if you stopped now, today, forever, you would still have helped so many people and changed so many lives. I can’t emphasise enough that every LW who is suffering and in genuine pain and distress does not need an individual response-you’ve covered the salient issues time and again and people are able to look through your archives.

        b) set yourself specific times/days that you will respond to emails-if this column is only updated once a week or once a fortnight (or even less frequently) that’s cool-readers/LWs will get to know the rhythm and it will allow you to take some distance from the material. I am very careful to only check my work email in work hours-if I check it at home/on holiday something comes into my personal and emotional space that I need to keep separate-there are times when I’m ‘therapist me’ whose job it is to deal with anything my clients need to throw at me, and times when I am ‘Pink-me’ when my job is to enjoy being a human being, live my life, play with my dog or be a grumpy, selfish cowbag. I can’t do ‘therapist me’ well if ‘Pink-me’ doesn’t have her time.

        c) Reflecting further on what I said above, what clinicians also have that is protective is a) a theoretical basis for understanding the client’s pain, that allow us to be slightly distanced from it and prevents us being overwhelmed by it (clinical interest and detachment, if you will), and b) the techniques and skills to work with a treat distress, which makes a massive difference to what we hear and how we hear it, because we know we can help the person to feel better/overcome the horrific traumas they have experienced. All an untrained volunteer can offer (on a telephone line or elsewhere) is a listening ear, bearing witness to another’s pain, and acknowledging that it’s real. So further to my advice about an automated response, I wonder if it would be enough for you just to say very briefly to people that ‘I believe you, and I’m sorry you’re hurting’, then link them to the appropriate posts. People have chosen to write to you, often I suspect knowing what you’re going to say, because they’ve read the advice you’ve given that applies broadly to them already. My guess would be that it’s more about acknowledgement and validation-people just want to be heard. You can do this without getting deeply into it, at the cost of your own emotional wellbeing.

        d) although I appreciate that you have therapy, i wonder if some kind of supervision might also be in order-many volunteers (eg rape crisis helpline) are supervised, and it gives them a time and space to think about the work and how they are responding, what they could do differently etc.

        e) I know you know this, but self-compassion and self-care-be good to yourself Captain, for thou art a kind, lovely, funny and witty woman, but you can’t save the world alone and shouldn’t try. Pay attention to the small things-trauma manifests itself in subtle ways-grumpiness, irritability, an inability to feel hopeful, feelings of emptiness or being overwhelmed, being unable to see the sparkle and joy in the world, a creeping darkness, and a sense that everywhere you look is trauma and pain. Not everyone has been hurt in horrible ways, there are families out there who are loving, caring, fun and mutually supportive, sometimes life is a hallmark card and it’s really important, if that belief is slipping away, to pay attention to it and seek help.

        Keep safe awesome lady-you do so much.

        warm, warm bets wishes,

        Pink

        • miss_chevious said:

          b) set yourself specific times/days that you will respond to emails-if this column is only updated once a week or once a fortnight (or even less frequently) that’s cool-readers/LWs will get to know the rhythm and it will allow you to take some distance from the material. I am very careful to only check my work email in work hours-if I check it at home/on holiday something comes into my personal and emotional space that I need to keep separate-there are times when I’m ‘therapist me’ whose job it is to deal with anything my clients need to throw at me, and times when I am ‘Pink-me’ when my job is to enjoy being a human being, live my life, play with my dog or be a grumpy, selfish cowbag. I can’t do ‘therapist me’ well if ‘Pink-me’ doesn’t have her time.

          I am not a therapist (IANAT), but I do have a stressful job that involves me helping with the problems of others, and I cannot second this recommendation by Pink enough. Knowing that there’s a time and place when I look at the inbox has really helped me let go of that responsibility all of the other times. When it’s not Inbox Time, it’s not Inbox Time, and whatever is going on in there will still be going on in there at next Inbox Time. It sets me free to do the other things I have to/want to do.

          Personally, I would love to see CA happen for years and years forever and ever, amen, but I would much rather have you shut the whole thing down than do harm to yourself. Take care, do what you need to do, we support you.

        • JenniferP said:

          Thank you for this, Pink, it’s full of concrete & very helpful suggestions.

          • Pink said:

            Hi Captain,
            Thanks for your comment. On re-reading, my reply seemed a bit patronising (I wrote it in a rush), and I really hope it didn’t come across that way. It certainly wasn’t meant as such, I have the utmost respect for your strength and wisdom, and the amazing space you have created here. I learned a huge amount from you myself, and have referred many friends, colleagues, family members and clients to your blog. Further to this, I hope I didn’t come across as minimising the role of volunteers, who give of themselves generously in order to connect with other humans in distress-it’s a very compassionate act and I don’t want to minimise the power of it.
            I had a few more thoughts, I hope they will be of use. Again, they’re very much drawn from my personal experience of trauma work as a clinician, so take what’s useful/applicable and ignore what isn’t.
            1) The literature on positive psychology (basically, what makes happy people happy and how can we help unhappy have more of the happy) tells us that using our ‘signature strengths’ as much as possible each day helps us to feel good about ourselves. Doing what we’re best at, using our strengths, skills and expertise in a way that is consistent with our values, whether that’s cooking an awesome meal to nurture people we love or for the sheer joy of cooking, connecting with others through therapeutic/volunteer work, playing a sport to the best of our abilities, whatever, it helps us to feel good. It occurred to me that one of your many strengths is your skill at writing scripts for difficult situations. I wondered if that might be something you could take forward in a different version of the blog/forum, so that you would still feel the space is fun and affirming for you.
            2) So maybe having quite a clear boundary about the kind of difficulties that you will respond to (things like the ‘bathrooms, butts and boundaries’ post seem appropriate without being traumatising maybe? Or ‘scripts for dealing with irritating family over the holidays/asserting yourself at work/having an intrusive MIL’ etc). Then have stickied posts/a clear area where all the good advice given so far on particular traumatic issues can be gathered (eg safety tips, coping with MH difficulties, making sense of rape/trauma, surviving and moving on from abuse, etc). This section could be in a finalised form so that the advice is there for anyone that wants it, but no-one can comment and so you don’t need to engage with moderating it. It could include links to helplines etc.
            3) You’re very good about recommending therapy for people, and I have to second, third and fourth that (although if I ruled the world therapy would be compulsory for everyone from school age, and especially for politicians and policy-makers). Please keep doing that. However, I’m alarmed and disturbed by the number of people reporting terrible therapy experiences on your site. Therapy, by its nature, can feel terrifying, painful and unsafe (I’m really selling it hey?!), but if the clinician is unsafe or dangerous in any way please, please commentors, report them to their regulatory body. Good therapists always disclose their regulatory body anyway: it’s important that our clients feel that they have a voice. I don’t know about in the USA, but in the UK ‘counsellor’ isn’t a protected title, so literally anyone can call themselves that (which is ridiculous and dangerous). There’s a really nice post here about finding a good therapist, maybe link to that?

            http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/psychodynamic-perspective/

            4) I was thinking about your comment about ‘bearing witness’. There are other organisations (in the UK the Samaritans for example-do you have them in the USA?)

            http://www.samaritans.org/

            who have teams of volunteers on shifts (literally) to respond to emails/texts/phone calls 24hrs a day. You do not (and cannot) ‘owe it’ to anyone to hear their pain, over and over again. You set up an advice column, not a helpline, and the line has become blurred somewhere along the way. I think it’s more than acceptable to draw the boundaries. Please, please listen to what your body is telling you: if you are feeling sick at the thought of opening your emails then yes, there be evil bees. Heed the warning. It might well be the right thing to do to delete that email account without ever reading through them, and post a note to that effect on the site.
            5) Related to the above point, but slightly separate, don’t forget that sometimes the act of writing (and asking for help) is enough for the person to begin to make changes. People ask for help when they’re in despair, and that can give a very skewed picture of how well the person is actually doing and coping, and how much better they felt moments later just for having sent it. It’s a well-recognised phenomenon-people go to their GP (family doctor) and burst into tears, GP panics and puts them on anti-depressants/refers for therapy, client goes away feeling much better because their distress has been heard and responded to so doesn’t take pills/offer of therapy, and GP is left wondering what happened. So many of the people who wrote to you a) might already be feeling much better, and b) may be better of not having their emails answered at this stage, because the situation may have moved on and reading through the response might trigger a return to a dark place they have left.
            6) One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is seeing clients get better, and feeling that human connection. I wonder if a ‘what happened next’ section could be created, where the LWs (if they wish) can come back and update you about how their situation has moved forward as a result of your advice, so that you can experience some of the reward of your generosity. You give very good advice, and if people are following it their lives will be improving. It would be good if they could let you know maybe?

            You are someone really special Captain, and you’ve already changed lives, but I know that can become a pressure in itself to keep doing that. I hope you find a way to take this forward that works for you.

            Warm best wishes,

            Pink

        • staranise said:

          Hear hear.

          Mixing up your caseload is pretty important. People who know me socially sometimes worry at me: “I’m afraid to see a therapist. They see so many people with serious problems; mine are trivial by comparison.” I want to grab them by the shoulders and say, “EXACTLY. GO BOOK AN APPOINTMENT.” Trauma is where my heart is, but I was amazed at how much I loved the career counselling and solution-focused therapy cases I ended up with too, and I loved how hopeful and joyful those made me at a time when I actually had to switch which chair I sat in when I was in supervision, because after six months, the chair by the door was so associated with feeling helpless and overwhelmed that my mind went blank as soon as I sat down.

          I think the community that professionals get and Jennifer doesn’t is an important difference. Theory is another one. I sigh and drag my feet over a lot of different parts of grad school, but honestly, this blog has made me respect how we’re usually taught to counsel, but also to research, design and evaluate programs, find funding, and teach. Sometimes you decide you want to zoom in or out, focusing more on single people, communities, systems, or societies; there are a lot of levels to make change on.

          If I were Jennifer I could ask: where do I want to take this? Keep answering questions on a blog? Sit down and write The Camp Survive-Alive Field Guide in book form? Find funding resources or ally with an existing organization or agency? Make a movie? Launch the community into tackling a bigger problem? Retreat to a mountaintop and meditate? Because if it feels like something just isn’t working, it could be a personal issue, but it could also be that the blog isn’t the right form to accomplish what needs accomplishing right now.

      • I am painfully aware that some people can’t cope with me telling them about stuff that has happened to me. If I now want to talk to someone, I ask them first “Am I okay to talk to you about some Bad Stuff?” and if they’re not, I talk to someone else. I don’t feel rejected or upset by it, I wouldn’t want to put an emotional burden on someone who couldn’t cope. I’m also aware of which of my friends just wouldn’t understand; I am happy for them that they haven’t had to go through Bad Stuff and so don’t talk to them about it.

        Sometimes people try to tell me things I can’t deal with, and I say “I can’t talk to you about that, I’m sorry, it’s too close to home for me.” This works well for me, generally.

      • Ve said:

        Much love to you, Captain <3
        Caregiver Burnout is a very real thing, be careful.

        A suggestion regarding this blog —

        Maybe you could have more "Open Thread" posts with specific themes. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that the Awkward Army consists some of the most helpful, insightful people online. If you want to take a break without ceasing posting altogether (or want to focus on reading/answering fewer letters), maybe the Awkward Army can converse among ourselves.

    • redgirl said:

      I think being straightforward is the best approach. Something like, “Friend, I really care about you and I want to help you with this issue, but this particular subject area is really triggering for me and I just can’t be the person who listens to you venting about it.” I think if you can follow up with something you *can* offer, that would help. For instance, if people tend to come with you with similar sorts of problems, maybe you can do some research on hotlines/counselors/self-help books/etc. that deal with those issues, which you can recommend when they come to you for help. Then it doesn’t feel so much like you’re leaving them in the lurch.

    • staranise said:

      Trauma is not some kind of RPG where if someone else has level 24 trauma and you only have level 5 you can’t fight off their spells. There’s no hierarchy, despite the societal narratives telling us there is (that trauma trumps spontaneous mental illness, that physical abuse trumps emotional, that diagnosed issues trump undiagnosed ones, etc.).

      I also recommend finding some way to look after your own hurts: therapy, journalling, support group, whatever helps you feel healthier and more integrated. Back away from anything that tells you that you don’t pass the You Must Be This Broken to Ride This Ride test. Find the things that heal and nurture you. When you do that, you’re more able to help someone else.

      As to your question: You don’t always need to be the safe person who listens and helps. Sometimes you can want to be a safe person with all your heart, but you just can’t do it. Say I know someone whose trauma is related to a certain hobby, which I love–they get worse every time they’re reminded of it, and meanwhile I’m doing it all the time. I’ve met all my friends from it, I spend time every week on it, its equipment clutters my house, I have a sticker for it on my car, and half my t-shirts are from events. There’s a good chance that interacting with me at any given time will remind this person of their trauma. It’s not me being a jerk if I decide, you know what, I cannot be safe for this person–changing my car, house, clothes, friends, and life for an extended period of time is something I just can’t do. We’re going to have to sit down and talk about how, if they want to be around me, they have to run the risk of being reminded of this hobby. So I’m not the person to be around them when they’re really emotionally fragile and need super-safe people.

      Because you don’t need to be a safe person for every person ever. No one is safe for all people. Sometimes you’re just tapped out and tired and need your last bit of energy to get home at the end of the day. You’re allowed to keep something for yourself. (A huge unspoken reason therapists aren’t allowed to counsel family or friends? Because we need relationships that allow us to be vulnerable and frail and needy, too, and we don’t get that in our professional lives. Love and dedication should be a two-way flow.)

      So yes, you totally get to have the conversation that says, “I cannot listen as much as you are asking me to listen.” That’s you setting a healthy boundary. If you do:

      1. Keep it about you. That’s right: make it up-front that it’s about your needs and abilities. Use I-messages. It’s all about what you feel, see, and experience. “Friend, when I hear about your circumstances, my heart really goes out to you and I wish there was something I could do to help. When you talk about your experiences, my instinct is to try to be a supportive listener. I believe you and really care for you. So it made me sad to realize that actually, talking about these things too much gives me panic attacks. I want to find a way that shows I believe and support you, but doesn’t give my brain more details to grind up into nightmare paste. Can we do that?”

      That gives them space to say, “Oh, huh, I just ramble and didn’t mean to upset you, it matters more when you bring me cookies,” or anything else.

      2. Don’t require them to be okay with you saying this. Even if they respond badly, it’s still not you being a jerk. Some people honestly can’t respond well to stuff like this–it feels too much like they’re being abandoned, told to shut up, or called a liar. In the moment, they may flip out in anger or sadness, and that isn’t something you can make okay. I’ve seen conversations where one person is crying hysterically, and the other is babbling a million logical reasons why whatever-it-is shouldn’t be that upsetting, and I just want to say: Nope. Stop. Let them deal with their emotions on their own, instead of needing them to smile and say you’re a great friend. Then, later, apologize that you upset them, remind the that you still really care about them, and reiterate that this boundary isn’t about them, it’s about your needs. Either: a) they need more time, lather rinse repeat; b) they will understand and find a new footing for your friendship moving forward; or c) it is time to take a break because right now, unfortunately, you can’t be one of their safe people, because their need to be listened to does not trump your need not to have panic attacks.

      Remind yourself that you’re trying to do your best by everybody–and you are included in “everybody”.

      3. If you can’t work something out, be prepared for things to change. You don’t need to say, “Oh, okay, cool, I’ll go back to quietly freaking out later, just thought I’d ask.” You’re allowed to downgrade to a Sometimes Friend, or a Friendly Acquaintance, or whatever makes sense for the two of you. The story you can tell yourself is, “I couldn’t be the friend they needed right now.” Take comfort from your other friendships; don’t let your parents’ voices echo too loudly in your head.

      4. If your friendship is ready to move forward on a new footing, discuss with your friend what you need. Is there a certain topic they could avoid? Can you honestly agree to a conversation-ending word or phrase you can pull out when you’re feeling triggered? Could you agree to have them limit their talking about it? This depends a lot on you. I can tell with relative accuracy that something may not upset me now, but if I hear much more about it, it’ll sink little fangs into my brain and give me a bad time later, so a conversational refereeing tool like a codeword or hand signal (arms in half-circles over the head, joined at the fingertips, is “O” for “Overshare”). On the other hand, I know people who don’t know if they’re upset or not in the moment; they just can’t safely hear any of a certain topic. Or their friends can’t help but get upset at being cut off abruptly, so they just don’t have those conversations in the first place. I’m lucky to have friends who are okay with me saying, “I’m having a bad day, so I can listen to a two-minute rant on the subject, but not anything longer.”

      5. Let them know how the new status quo is working out for you. “Thanks for helping me figure out a way to head off my anxiety; I really enjoy talking with you and I didn’t want to lose that.” Or in a different scenario, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you. I just knew I wasn’t able to be the kind of friend you deserved. I had my own stuff to take care of.”

      Screw “doing it for attention”. You deserve attention just like everyone else. Emotional abuse is telling your kids that cruelly manipulating others and wanting their thoughts and feelings to matter are the same thing.

      • twomoogles said:

        Thank you for this answer, it was really really helpful. You guys are all awesome! I am relieved I’m not the only one to have struggled with this sort of thing. It’s funny because I know consciously that taking care of myself needs to come first, and being someone’s support system all the time with no regard for myself isn’t helpful or necessary. It’s harder when what they’re asking me seems like so much less, and having some strategies for not feeling like ‘that bad friend’ is so helpful to my brain.

        The blogs I read, and the friends I have, tend to be quite conscious of social issues and so on, so I hear a lot of stories from the ‘other side’–people who disclosed X Bad Thing and their friends’ abandoned them. Or talking about insensitive things people said to them around such an issue. I really don’t want to be a jerk by accident, or do any kind of derailing. Sometimes when I hear someone talking about how X person was really insensitive to them, part of me starts thinking ‘well…maybe they weren’t an asshole, but had their reasons for withdrawing’ but then wonder if I’m excusing. I mean, part of it is also every story will sound very different depending on who is telling it. The ‘my friend/ex dropped me suddenly’ thread showed this–one person might come away from a situation feeling totally unfairly dropped out of the blue, and the other would have another story to tell about why they did that. But then I remember that ‘there are two sides to a story’ is something minimizing people say about abuse and again start the anxiety spiral. Eek!

        • Thanks for the question, too! I’ve been reading the responses with interest – just with interest, at first – and just now, after reading your response, have just managed to remember that for a long time in my life this was SO relevant to me. There were a couple years when I had a lot of depressed friends and felt guilty whenever I was having a nice time without them; more recently, there were a few months when I spent like half my free time trying to help a friend caught in a really bad downward spiral – and lashing out at him because I couldn’t actually do all of that support, as I was having the worst months of my life myself. (He didn’t exactly expect me to do it, I just felt it needed to be done because even with all his other friends, and the therapy that we eventually convinced him to get, he was not getting anywhere near the care he needed. Eventually I convinced him to go home (this was in college), which was a mixed bag because his family is… constraining, becoming somewhat emotionally abusive when he tries to reject any part of their theology, but… still he seems to be doing better now, conforming for the most part to their theology and moving on with life, than he was in college trying to break out and horribly breaking down instead.)

          Reading this blog has helped me look back on that whole thing and realize that it was more unhealthy than I thought. And this thread has been a valuable contribution towards better future friend-helping – so thanks!

        • staranise said:

          I’m glad it helped. :) I think I come from kind of a unique place on this topic, because at a young age I decided I was going to Help All the People and Fix All the Things. Which I still want to do! But in my teens I started talking to the adults I saw actually doing the kind of work I wanted to do–counsellors and doctors and soldiers and a few other things–and asked them for advice about doing it as a career. The advice I really, seriously got was: Don’t take on more work than you can handle. Look after yourself. Otherwise, you’ll burn out or get disheartened and need to stop. So pick your battles.

          As it turns out, Helping All the People and Fixing All the Things gets harder the more that you do it. It can seem simple at first–spend an hour listening! They’re asking so little! But the time you’re dedicating to being a good person builds up. The problem is so much bigger than you. The need is just so great. You can fundraise and build a soup kitchen for 200 people a day–but eventually, 250 and 300 people will start to show up, and you’re going to have to give someone the job of going outside, counting down the line, and telling Person 201, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to find somewhere else to eat tonight.” There is always more work to do, and other people will keep asking, so you have to take care of yourself because sometimes no one else will.

          (In my teens I flirted with the idea of going full-bore martyr and just disavowing every personal need and boundary I had–but examination of the lives of such people usually reveals that they left this world sooner rather than later, and often after they were poor, starving, and/or killed in some grisly manner. The lives of the saints and the lives of scientists taught me that I actually might get more done by disavowing sackcloth and ashes, and playing a long game instead.)

          So yeah, twomoogles, I agree that you’re seeing something real there in the niggling sensation that no, this isn’t just purely people being awful. Person 201 will have a serious grievance about that soup kitchen, and that awful worker who wouldn’t even look them in the eye when they said it, wouldn’t listen to their reasons or how hungry they were. And they absolutely have an inalienable right to food, and to feel pissed that they didn’t get it. It is a travesty that people go hungry in this day and age. And yet–that worker isn’t necessarily a bad person. In point of fact, they just helped to feed 200 people. And if they break the rules once, word will get around and person 201 tomorrow will be even worse, and then they won’t be able to enforce it at all; and then a month from now the fire marshal will come around and see 300 people packed into a space only equipped for 2/3 of that and shut the whole place down. So sometimes, yes, you have to be the asshole.

          Like we tell people who can’t get dates: you deserve love, but one person in particular doesn’t owe it to you. We give what we can, when we can. There are times you have to say no. What I hold onto is: Everyone is doing the best they can. That isn’t the same thing as perfect, but at least it’s on its way to good.

          • BadDaughter said:

            I just wanted to say thank you both (question and answer). This whole thread has been great and I’ve been reading it with intense interest.

            I especially appreciated your “level” metaphor, Staranise. In my house, we call that “misery poker” (or “oppression poker”) and as the saying goes, “In misery poker, everyone loses.”

      • Twitchy said:

        It seems pretty disrespectful to use a hand signal like they’re committing a foul and you’re the authority that has to keep them in line. I think if I were in your friends’ position, I’d much rather the interaction keep the form of a normal conversation. “I’m sorry, I want to help, but I can’t deal with that right now.” “That’s hitting a little close to home for me, can we talk about something else?”

        I might feel sad to hear those things, but at least we’d be dealing peer-to-peer, and the issue would be that I’d accidentally upset you, not that I’d done something obviously against the rules.

        • staranise said:

          That really comes down to how my friends and I communicate affection and respect. These people have known me for years, and I them, so we can generally tell when it’s appropriate to be somber or playful. Because you’re right, being cut off abruptly can feel very hurtful, and sometimes it had better be done quite gently and lovingly. The International Conversation Refereeing system is the kind of thing I’d only use among friends who have the tendency talk about their traumas with irreverence and black humour, and we tend to do things like eat together that sometimes impede one’s ability to speak quickly.

          • Twitchy said:

            If it works for you, then it works. I’m glad your friends are okay with it.

        • TJ_Rowe said:

          Hand signals/safewords are often a lot easier to get ‘out’, as it were, than full sentences. Maybe it’s just that me and a lot of the people I talk about these things with are autistic, kinky, or both, but having a way to communicate a complicated idea in half a second gives a lot more leeway in how close to the boundary one can go – and if one loses the ability to speak when triggered or distressed, then you absolutely have to have a hand signal for ‘I need you to stop talking/doing that thing now’.

          • Yes, exactly. Twitchy, I’m sure your comment was well-meant but it got my hackles up. I become non-verbal when I’m really upset. I cannot physically communicate aside from using a hand signal.

      • ellex24 said:

        I really appreciate this. I feel so privileged in my life: my parents were great, I’ve never been in an abusive relationship, I’ve never been assaulted. And I feel so bad for people who have experienced trauma and/or abuse.

        I’m a good listener, and for a lot of my life, I’ve had people latch onto me as a “safe” person to whom they can vent. But as much as I’d like to help, many of these people have ended up being emotional vampires. They’ve sucked my emotional availability dry, and every encounter ends up being all about them. Having a family member who is bipolar has made it incredibly hard for me to deal with any kind of mental illness, even second-hand, even though my family experiences were nowhere near as bad as other people’s. It doesn’t help that I’m probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, and that even dealing with other people’s positive emotions is difficult for me. I find being the supportive friend draining and depressing to the point of having to grit my teeth to keep from yelling “Leave me alone! I’m not your therapist!”

        And that’s the thing: I’m not a therapist. I don’t want to be therapist. I think treating a friend like a therapist is a poor use of a friend. I may vent to friends about minor sucks in my life, but for the important stuff, I can’t – and shouldn’t – expect them to act as therapist.

        I think it’s great to have friends who can deal with this. It’s great if someone has friends who can listen, who can provide support in difficult situations. But I think it’s important to be aware that even if my life looks – and is – a bowl of cherries compared to someone else’s, it doesn’t mean I have the emotional capacity – the spoons, to use the common metaphor – to sit and listen to their trauma.

        tl;dr: I will open my home to you, give you my last dollar, and give you a hug; but I cannot lend you my ear.

        • White Rabbit said:

          Regarding this: “I’m not a therapist. I don’t want to be therapist. I think treating a friend like a therapist is a poor use of a friend. I may vent to friends about minor sucks in my life, but for the important stuff, I can’t – and shouldn’t – expect them to act as therapist.”

          First, I generally agree that one shouldn’t treat one’s friends as therapists.

          Having said that, the above comment got stuck in my (otherwise quite easygoing!) craw. People’s experiences exist across a spectrum that is far more nuanced than “minor sucks” vs. “requires a therapist.”

          It’s obviously totally fine that *you* are not comfortable talking or hearing about anything more serious than “minor sucks,” but I’ve re-read your comment several times, and you seem to be implying that this is *the standard* that people should adhere to, and I really can’t get on board with that.

          Anecdotally speaking, I have many friends who are not only okay with me talking about “major sucks,” when I check in with them about it, they encourage me not to hold back, and I do the same for them. I feel very lucky to have such friends. And I’m not at all saying that this should be the standard for all friendships, but rather illustrating that there are people who are more than okay with this level of sharing. In the meantime, reading a fellow Awkwardeer describing this as “expecting someone to act as a therapist” is rather jarring.

          It’s also important to note that there are a lot of people who could use the help but cannot afford to see a therapist. It would seem rather cruel to tell these people that they’re on their own since one can’t expect friends to deal with anything more than “minor sucks.” And I suppose one can point to family, but that doesn’t help someone like me whose primary problem/trauma *is* my family. >_>

          I’m not trying to tell you that you should change your own personal boundaries, but I do hope that you’ll be less judgmental of those of us who choose to share more with the people in our lives.

    • Hey Twomoogles! I’ve got a similar thing about hearing people’s sad stories (I don’t want to devalidate anyone, and of course I believe them, but actually I would prefer not to hear about it, since it can cause me pretty grim anxiety). I had some grim emotional-black mail stuff when I was in my late teens- a much older “friend” had a pretty depressive break, fixated on me and basically threatened to kill himself if I didn’t sleep with him. About a year later, a different depressive friend (who knew about all the earlier stuff) tried to “diagnose” me with schizophrenia because I didn’t like him touching me (in a non-sexy way). This is obviously NOWHERE NEAR as bad as what happened to the LW, to you or to some people I know IRL. However, it’s made me pretty gun-shy about listening to this stuff, because I learned that I actually suck as an emotional prop, and end up making myself and the other person miserable.

      I think we can split these down into two (broad) situations: One, a person, usually a close friend, is calmly and coolly trying to tell you about their emotional sad times; two: a person has an attack of extreme FEELINGS and it all just kind of happens.

      In the first, I often just say something like “Hey, can we not talk about topic X? I’m not dealing very well with (emotional sad feelings) at the moment. (Listen) I’m happy to do other supporting stuff though (e.g. pick up some shopping, cook them a proper meal, accompany them to a games night because they don’t want to go on their own, etc.) Usually, that’s acceptable and the conversation moves on.

      With option two, it’s either someone I don’t know all that well, or it’s a close friend. With the former, I offer to fetch them a glass of water/ tea/ a closer friend/ a taxi home, particularly if there are a few other people around. With a close friend (and we’re talking one of about six people in the world), I usually do my best to listen while they’re down, allowing someone else to take over if they’re around, and then I just practice my anxiety-busting breathing/ meditation/ take my meds. Once everything has cooled down (a day or two later) I have another talk with them. Sample:

      Me: “Hey friend, I’m glad you’re feeling better! And, while I’m flattered that you felt safe enough to tell me about (thing) while you were vulnerable, can we try not to make it a regular thing? (Listen).” Usually, they already know about my dramas, so I just have to say something like “I’m not great at long-term emotional distress/ strain, due to Reasons, so let’s try to make sure you’ve got a support network, and remember that we all love you!”

      And then I just have to hope that they /don’t/ always come to me with their problems. But, as the Captain has taught me, self-care is really, REALLY important, and it’s okay for me to not be able to deal with their problems. I just have to work on not feeling so guilty about it now!

      Good luck!

    • Not It said:

      This happens to me. It used to happen all the time. I could be standing in line at the grocery store and the woman in front of me would start telling me about her ovarian cysts and how she has to go into surgery tomorrow. I guess I look sympathetic and trustworthy. For me, it was more often strangers than close friends and the opportunity to end the conversation would present itself: the line would move on, the bus would arrive at the terminal, my order would be ready. I had stock phrases like, “I’m sorry that happened to you…that must have been difficult…I hope the doctor has good news for you…good luck on your test!”

      I taught for a while and I had in my syllabus the five situations in which I would break confidentiality: 1) the student presented a harm to himself/herself, 2) the student threatened harm against another, 3) the student was being harmed by another, 4) the student knew of another who intended harm, and 5) the student was abusing drugs/alcohol.

      This is very different from your situation, but I found that people were telling me things because they could trust me. I am generally a discreet person who does not gossip. But if I said something like, “You know I hear something that fits into one of these five scenarios I cannot keep it a secret,” makes people really consider what they are telling you. I’m describing a situation in which I was the authority and in which I have legal responsibilities to the greater health of the student, but maybe some variation: “Are you sure you want to tell me this?” or “Am I the best person to share this with?” or “If I believe you intend to harm yourself or are in danger, I cannot keep this a secret,” may be appropriate.

      • twomoogles said:

        This is really interesting. Much like you I get a lot of sharing from people, both close friends and less close. I *think* the reason people tell me things is because, like you, i tend to be nongossipy, nonjudgmental, and also react very calmly when someone tells me something. I had someone once tell me she really appreciated my response *not* being to say something like “That makes me want to go and kick Abuser’s ass!” and getting angry/tearful. But, I can only deal with that kind of thing sometimes, before jerkbrain starts attacking either me or the teller with insidious thoughts. I am quite good at keeping it internal, and so have a hard time expressing ‘I am not OK hearing this right now!’

      • I get that a lot too! Especially when I worked at a pharmacy…more ‘that weird pimple on my butt turned out to be a malignant growth that I had to have three surgeries to remove, and now there’s this weird bumpy thing there that I have to drain the pus out of every three hours…wanna see it?’ than I could shake a stick at! I’ve been told I have a very warm, trustworthy presence, which is awesome and I’m glad people feel like they can talk to me…but sometimes, I just don’t want to hear it, especially if it’s something that cuts really close to the quick for me and brings up bad memories of my own…or if it’s just plain gross. If you want to talk to me about art or your new puppy, I’m all ears! I’ll talk your head off for hours on how to make sure you don’t get a dog from a puppy mill and things to watch out for medically with a new pet, but if you want to chat about your unusual ear discharge or something…eh….please, no? I’m not bold enough to tell people I don’t want to hear about it, so I usually devolve into automatic “Oh, really? That’s something!” mode, making response-like noises while composing a grocery list or something in my head to keep myself relatively sane.

  28. I’m assuming that ties have been severed long ago enough now that the chances of this are extremely limited and that you have already done this a long time ago, but perhaps prior to the move just doing a mental double-check that there’s nothing about changing your address that is likely to alert your family by way of companies / government forms being sent? For example, change of address paperwork and notifications for bank accounts, medical funds, old 401K funds that need to be rolled over, insurance policies etc.

    So this might be overkill and is another expense and a pain in the ass, but I’ll throw it out there as a thought – perhaps you could consider getting a company name which in no way resembles your own, and have that name on your lease, PO Box, car papers (if applicable) and anything other ‘infrastructure’ in your life that is in any way public? Just limiting the frequency with which your name appears in public. (As Jennifer says, if you have a public-facing job then this probably isn’t relevant at all).

    In terms of finding awesome people, depending on where you move to, perhaps you can go to an Awkward Army meet up? I think the chances of finding cool, understanding and boundary- and safety-respecting people for potential new friendships will be high. You wouldn’t have to identify yourself to them as the LW in this case, but you totally could if you wanted to as a way to short-cut some of those conversations around how you would want them to understand your need for safety away from your family.

    Best of luck LW. It’s awful that you had to endure what you did with your family; and it’s unfair that you have to be going to the mental, emotional and financial expense of configuring your life around the threat they represent. I think it’s fair to say, we are all behind you!

  29. Archane said:

    First, I want to say that it sounds like you’ve come a long way, LW. You’ve done a lot of hard work, and it’s paid off, congratulations!

    There’s a lot of great advice here for things you can do, and I wanted to add one more tool. I’ve been the supportive friend who couldn’t avoid the estranged family, and it’s far more likely that things accidentally slip out if friends haven’t planned what to say in advance. What I learned to use is: “I understand that [my friend] chose to end contact with you. I spect the boundaries others set for their own lives, so I won’t discuss [my friend] with you.” Sometimes family pretended to be a decent human being and backed off immediately, sometimes it took two or three repetitions, but it got the point across without disclosing any information.

    It’s tempting to say something more along the lines of “I don’t get involved … you’d have to talk to [friend],” or “if friend hasn’t spoken to you then I don’t feel comfortable talking about them with you,” but I’ve always worried that that would encourage crazy family to try to contact my friend.

  30. Darcy Pennell said:

    You might consider talking with a lawyer who specializes in domestic violence and stalking. We often think of domestic violence as only meaning romantic partners, but in many states domestic violence laws also cover immediate family members and/or unrelated people who have lived in the same house. If you have been abused and stalked by your father, in many states that could be considered domestic violence.

    A lawyer who can advise you of your rights and refer you to support resources might be really helpful. Especially if you are concerned about your family finding out if you talk to the police; a lawyer can’t disclose anything about their clients. If you can’t afford a lawyer, there may be a Legal Aid in your city that represents victims of domestic violence. You might also contact a domestic violence agency in your city. Many agencies have specific groups they work with (for instance, some only work with victims of intimate partner domestic violence) but if so, they might be able to refer you to another group that can help you. An agency should have resources at hand they can share with you, like how to do safety planning, how to get into an address confidentiality program, etc.

    There is a website called womenslaw.org which is geared towards victims of domestic violence, but does have a lot of information that applies to stalking as well: http://www.womenslaw.org/simple.php?sitemap_id=3

  31. Elizabeth Perry said:

    OH HAI, past self! As it happens, I had the great good luck of having to live not only in the same city but the same apartment complex as my abuser. Twice. Three times? I don’t remember. And yes, this was after I had proactively cut off contact.

    There were reasons for this, good ones, like you moving back to your former hometown for your dream job. And I am not going to lie: it was really hard. It was hard and scary and made me do a lot of work, emotional and logistical, to stay safe. But I swear it can be done. Here are some of the things that immediately spring to mind from my experience:

    First: when you move, do not under any circumstances go without therapy. You will probably need some kind of outlet, if it is only a fifty-minute hour once a week; see if your current therapist is willing to do phone sessions, or Skype, until you are settled in and have a local support system in place.

    Second: the google voice suggestion above is worth its weight in gold. Give everyone that number, including your job. Tell people you screen your calls, so they don’t get offended if you don’t pick up; don’t answer any call coming in from a number you don’t recognize.

    Third: run scripts. I hate roleplaying with a fiery fucking passion, but I wish to god I’d done more of it with my therapist. You are probably really really good at predicting what your abusers are going to try to do to you — rehearse until your scripts are muscle memory, are automatic. I am assuming you are a woman, and reminding you that women are socially trained to keep the peace, to smooth things over, to compromise and elide and smile. Keeping yourself safe is probably going to require that you break that social contract, and it is very very very hard to do that without practicing. A lot. No, more than that. No, more than that.

    Best of luck, and congratulations on landing your dream job, and remember: you are fucking awesome, your abusers do not deserve to have your awesome in their lives, and you are going to kick ass and be your best self forever.

    • Elizabeth Perry said:

      Oh, oh, also:

      Don’t ever leave your house without cash. Enough for a cab and/or public transport. Have a cab company’s number in your wallet; you might want to set up an account beforehand and have the number in your cell, possibly in speed dial. Make it as easy for yourself to get out of an encounter you don’t want to be in as possible. Hopefully you’ll never need this, but it is a safety valve.

  32. Camilla said:

    The property manager/security officer/employer’s HR may prefer to hear “if anyone comes looking for me with a story, please call and don’t let them in” over “no matter what, never let anyone in.” Since following those instructions is likely psychologically easier than just saying “no” and it may buy time to see through the con.

    • Camilla said:

      Oops, some markup got elided there, but I intended to convey that you should hand over a name and number of an appropriate “emergency contact”

    • Camilla said:

      In the same vein, you should be meticulous about your cell phone, etc., having an appropriate contact labelled “ICE” or “In Case of Emergency”… because if you should happen to meet with an incapacitating accident, the best guesses of an ER nurse or police officer might be unfortunate. It’s generally ok to have the emergency contact be in another state, if they’re highly available by phone and level headed.

    • staranise said:

      My family business is property managers, and they were the kind of people who could hear, “I have a stalker” or “My family can’t ever know I’m here” and roll with it, and assist in changing locks or moving the person to a different building. I really wish that were assured–that there weren’t scummy companies that would only hear, “I might inconvenience you”. I’d love to tell the LW to confide. But I can’t make promises like that, which makes me really sad.

  33. NutellaNutterson said:

    Something else for Safe People (and anyone really) to remember, is you never know who is sitting in the booth behind you, or next to you on the train, or in the next dressing room over at the mall. So if you MUST discuss someone or something that you wouldn’t want shared, use an alias for the person you’re talking about, and obscure details just like you would for Captain Awkward.

  34. Just an FYI, if the LW is planning on buying a house they may want to do it after a name change or under a partner’s name. When I bought a house for me, my mom and my little brother when we were fleeing my abusive dad he found us (in a very large city) even though we had everything unlisted, used a PO box and told every business we used not to share info with him by looking at tax records… so…

  35. skylar180 said:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I saw lots of hits coming from your blog to my gray rock article, so I thought I’d check it out. Thank you for being there to support those of us targeted by disordered individuals.

    Thanks, Yuplisnin, for linking to the gray rock article.

    To “Freak Out” I would advise learning as much as you can about how these disordered individuals think and behave. Learn to watch for clues. They are all very much alike. Although they all wear different masks (and switch them as necessary) the common denominator is the mask itself. Another common denominator is why they do what they do: they are drama and power addicts. They want to watch your emotional reaction. It’s what feeds them. Gray Rock is about not feeding them and forcing them to go elsewhere for their drama addiction.

    Of course, it’s never going to be that simple, because people automatically react to other human beings by “responding”. This is normal. We have to learn how to discern emotional manipulations as opposed to real, normal human interactions. That’s why I put up a video of Russell Brand dominating some TV anchors. http://180rule.com/russell-brand-using-the-180-rule/ It’s quite instructive to watch and take note of how he does this. Watching, observing manipulators is the first step. The next step is to observe your own emotional reactions to them. I’m not saying that I’ve learned how to control my emotions, I don’t think I have. I’ve only learned to observe my own emotions so that they inform me of the people around me. This is what some may refer to as a sixth sense. It’s not ESP, it’s only a result of paying attention and not denying what you sense in your gut.

    The practical advice given here is all very good. I would only add a couple more things: video cameras and cops.

    Disordered people can be very convincing liars, so convincing that they make you doubt YOURSELF. Recording any interaction will help you to see the truth and stick to it. Surveillance (hidden) cameras will help you prove your case, especially if you allow them to lie without flinching. Let them hang themselves.

    As for cops, my ex-psychopath used the cops to do his bidding. Before he commits one of his heinous crimes, he makes sure the authorities are firmly in his pocket. Usually, he will ensnare them in scandalous behavior of their own, before he commits his crimes. Then they are effectively blackmailed. He never actually has to use the word blackmail, his victims/minions simply know that it’s best for them to keep their mouths shut. He was able to do this because psychopaths can recognize other corrupt individuals and focuses on those. But even the most innocent, can be corrupted one tiny step at a time down the slippery slope. So, to reiterate what “Not It” said about making friends with the cops, Yes! great idea, but also make sure you know which are the good cops and which are the bad cops. Observe them before you let them into your circle of trust.

    Kudos to you for taking the job, Freak Out. You will emerge stronger.
    Someone said that, courage isn’t lack of fear, it’s feeling the fear and moving forward anyway.

    • Jane said:

      I feel really uncomfortable with you referring to people who have engaged in abusive behavior as “disordered people,” and with your grouping of certain mental disorders with “psychopaths” and “drama queens.” There are many, many people with mental illness who frequent this site, me among them. It is really unhelpful to conflate mental illness with abusiveness.

      • skylar180 said:

        Jane, I’m not sure how to respond or really, exactly what you are saying. I’m sorry that you suffer from mental illness.

        The cluster B personality disorders are also referred to as the “dramatic personality disorders” because the person creates drama or appears histrionic. Also, they are not mentally ill, I know that. Although they appear in the DSM, they are not classified as mental illness, but rather they are called character disorders.

        I doubt there is anyone who has not been abusive to another human being in their lifetimes. My post isn’t referring to everyone who has ever engaged in abusive behavior. Rather, I’m addressing those people, as in Freak Out’s life, who are SO consistently abusive that they make family members run and hide from them. I’m also talking about those who are SO willfully abusive that they plot and plan to drive others to suicide. I personally know a few of these types. Sometimes they are obvious bullies but the ones I’ve known are covert and have succeeded. I’m talking about pedophiles and those who maliciously and physically abuse children or anyone weaker than themselves.

        These abusers can appear in many forms, whether as bullies or wife beaters or child abusers or trolls on the internet. We can recognize them by so many different red flags. I call them 3 trick ponies because they use 3 tricks: charm, pity and rage.
        Like infants, they manipulate others emotions by being charming, or by pouting and inducing pity, or by raging in anger until someone changes their diaper.

        I’m sure you are not one of those people, Jane. You are so right, when you say that mental illnesses should not be conflated with character disorders. Thank you for making that distinction, since it is a critical one.

        • TheJackdaw said:

          Yeah, still not entirely comfortable with your language here. I’m a ‘disordered’ person by your evaluation (diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder at age 20) and I would consider myself mentally ill – I have received different types of talking and drug therapies which have led me to be able to lead a pretty stable life that doesn’t involve abusing people. I hate the idea of someone who’s just been diagnosed with BPD (or any of the other ‘character disorders’) running across your comment and coming away with the impression that there is no cure, no hope, that we are not mentally ill (and thus able to be helped) but just broken.

          Whether or not this was your intent, this is definitely what I’m getting from how you’re wording this. If anyone’s reading this and is struggling with a cluster B diagnosis, there is hope and you can get help.

        • staranise said:

          Skylar, just as an FYI, it’s site policy not to offer diagnosis over the internet.

          Also: I know for a fact that there are people diagnosed on Axis II in Cluster B who are valued members of this community. Having a personality disorder is really tough, but it doesn’t mean a person has no moral choices anymore, and some people–while still having all the symptoms of one–commit to being moral people who contribute to the greater good.

          A lot of us in Jennifer’s commentariat come from a disability rights/crip theory perspective, that says that people are not their illnesses. So when you talk as if there’s a “them”, a scary Other who is wholly alien, I don’t know if anyone else’s eyebrows go up but mine do (I’m a therapist; I’ve had clients who have abused/assaulted family members or intimate partners. I think that kind of dichotomy helps someone in an abusive situation retract their empathy enough to get the hell out, which is good, but out of that position, I don’t think it’s as helpful as other theories). But then when you say that that Other can be neatly linked to a medical diagnosis, a lot of people are going to object.

        • Jane said:

          One, I think your information on “character disorders” is incorrect, and propagating false information of that kind DOES lead to stigma. People I am close to have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and it has a priori nothing to do with an addiction to drama. Two, I don’t think diagnosing abusers sight unseen with personality disorders serves any real purpose. Your advice on how to deal with people exhibiting abusive behavior could still stand by itself, but I don’t understand why diagnosing abusers as a certain “type” is at all relevant.

          • Tired Caregiver said:

            “The person disclosing abuse needs a listener, not Nancy Fucking Drew.”

            Can I just say this is a brilliant line that should be posted on billboards? I have a close friend who was abused by her family, and it amazes both of us how the junior detectives whip out their magnifying glasses when abuse is mentioned.

            “But why…”
            “But how….”
            “Are you sure…”

            It goes hand in hand with wanting to know all the gory details, and it’s just…bizarre. I can actually understand some curiosity, but you can keep it to yourself and let your empathy outweigh it. And those who take it that step further to try and actually *refute* abuse need to sit in time out and think out what they’ve done for a good, long while

          • Tired Caregiver said:

            Wow, sorry…I mean to reply to the main article. So sorry!

            Though I do most definitely agree…I don’t think abusers *need* a diagnose. I’m sure some do suffer from mental illness, but I would hesitate mightily to point to it as the *cause* of their behavior. Lumping them all together into one ‘disordered’ category seems to be saying they aren’t fully responsible for their behavior, and the way in particular it’s phrased sets them apart as Other or Monsters. It really is possible for a person to choose to do very bad things without a diagnosable disorder…why look for one? (And it is also very possible for a person to have a diagnosable disorder and NEVER hurt ANYONE…lumping abusers into the same pile is simply wrong.)

        • Many abusers will use your exact argument against their victims to keep control over them. My abuser told family members I had a personality disorder (using language similar to yours regarding manipulative behavior) as a way to make others ignore me when I tried to get help. This is not an uncommon situation and I find it disturbing how much you sound like a gaslighting abuser in this post.

          • staranise said:

            Oh oh oh, don’t forget a favourite tactic of abusers: “You are SO awful, you made me get angry and hurt you! You must be abusive or have a personality disorder or something.”

            Or, “I’m was just born sick and twisted. I’ll never change. And they say abuse is hereditary, so you’re probably just like me.”

            Yeeah. Let’s not add fuel to that fire.

        • JenniferP said:

          Hi Skylar, thanks for stopping by, I think we will be better served if these discussions remain on your site. My readers have the link and can follow you over there if they want to, I’m not interested in hosting them here.

          I realize that your views come out of surviving a horrific experience, and I think investigating “psychopathic” behaviors and red flags is useful in identifying patterns of behavior. However, it is part of the site policy here not to diagnose people with mental illnesses or personality disorders. We focus on behaviors – Is someone’s behavior upsetting you? Here’s how to address it – rather than categorizing people and so far it’s really working for us.

          • Datdamwuf said:

            I just wanted to note that I think this person is talking about “character disturbance” which is something written about by George Simon that attempts to explain manipulative people. He essentially says such people know what they are doing and choose to do it anyway. My remembrance of his first book is that he does not believe such ppl are mentally ill. They are ethically screwed up. I do not know if his work is accepted within the mental health community.

          • staranise said:

            Dr. Simon is, how shall I say, not in conversation with the rest of the mental health profession, no.

          • datdamwuf said:

            thanks Star, good to know – his ideas are seductive to people who have been abused, it’s easier to think of your abuser as pretty much one dimensional bad person.

          • staranise said:

            Like I said, I think it’s good to find a tactic that helps you empathize with an abuser a little less so you can pry yourself free and get away. Trying to out-manipulate a manipulative person is like wrestling with a pig in mud; you both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.

            Now, if you want well-researched three-dimensional bad people, I recommend Robert Hare’s Without Conscience; he’s a leading expert on psychopathy.

    • Lady Maureen said:

      “Recording any interaction will help you to see the truth and stick to it. Surveillance (hidden) cameras will help you prove your case, especially if you allow them to lie without flinching. Let them hang themselves.”

      This is great advice, but it depends on the state and its laws. In some states BOTH parties are required to consent to being filmed if it’s in private and there’s an “expectation of privacy.” That’s how it is in Pennsylvania and several other states, where you can be charged with a felony if you film someone without their knowledge or consent that isn’t in a public place (I’m not sure if filming abuse and lies are considered an “expectation of privacy,” but I would err on the side of yes). Most states only need one person to consent (who is usually the filmer), but the person needs to read up on the laws. The ACLU for LW’s state or a domestic violence/technology lawyer should be able to give him or her the information he or she needs.

      I’m saying this because if the abuser knew he or she was being filmed and multiple party consent was the rule in the state LW’s moving to, that could be used against him or her in court by the abuser and get hit with criminal charges.

      • Lady Maureen said:

        The other thing is if the abuser finds out that you were filming them, then that could severely escalate the situation. So err on the side of caution and don’t do it unless you know you can keep yourself safe. Like I said, talk to a Domestic Violence lawyer or advocate and decide what course of action is best.

  36. Sades said:

    This discussion has all been extremely helpful. But now that I’m at the end of the thread, I want to say something about the surveillance. If someone is tracking you, you may naturally find surveillance cameras abhorrent. It can feel like one more part of your life that a self-absorbed meany (technical apologies only for the name calling) will simply confiscate and use against you. Since you’re not yet convinced that you’re free of thir power, that scenario can be frightening – and, as the Captain said, costly. They may contact you to say “I can’t believe you filmed me” or “I showed this video to others and told them how bad you are for filming me” etc. If it makes its way to court, finding someone who is willing to watch your tapes is going to be a crapshoot. It’s about who is believing who. It’s hard, in that position, to think that your records will carry any weight. Captain Awkward is right – they carry more weight than you might think. But if I were trying to explain that someone was monitoring me, and I used my own monitoring of them as proof – many people would think of us as equals in the situation. And the abuser would have plenty of stones to throw about it – because you can’t prove they were watching you. Otherwise you wouldn’t have to watch them.

    • JenniferP said:

      I can think of two examples where recording/filming can come in handy.

      1) When someone is gaslighting you and has a history of lying about you. They bank on there being no record of what they actually say, so if every time they approach or call you you openly whip out a voice recorder or video recorder (on your phone) and openly let them know that you are recording what they say it can give you back some power.

      A coworker at a long-ago job was dealing with a messy divorce with a lot of lying and gaslighting. She made it clear to her soon to be ex-husband that she wanted 100% of communications to go through their respective lawyers. Her lawyer advised her to record all conversations, but don’t be secret about it. So one time she and I sitting on benches out in front of the company eating our lunch and he “dropped by” to tell her something. She calmly took a mini-tape recorder out of her purse and pressed record. He laughed at it at first – “What’s that? What are you doing?” She said, once, very clearly, “I would like you to leave. If you have information for me or a question, you can direct it to my attorney, FirstName LastName. I believe you have the phone number. I have nothing to discuss with you.” And then she just sat there, silently, while he raged. “Are you recording me? You think that will help you get sympathy? Turn it off so we can talk. Turn it off. Come on, turn it off.” It took about a minute before he devolved into calling her a bitch and threatening her, by which time security had shown up and escorted him off the premises.

      She wasn’t breaking any laws, and she was using the recording to get what she wanted, namely, a record of his behavior and a deterrent to his manipulative ways. He could not get away with lying and trying to charm her if she put it coldly on record.

      2) Another friend used video and still photos to document someone who was always lurking around her. She felt like she was being followed/watched, and it turns out, she was.

      It’s not a shield against anyone violent, and it’s a complicated tool, but especially in that first case it was a very powerful one.

      • Sades said:

        Thanks for responding. As an aside: I tend to forget a lot of my actual experience, and remember only the threats. I actually needed the jolt back to reality you offered by saying “gaslighting” a few times.

        Example 1 is brilliant. I’m so sorry that happened to you and your friend. Your explanation is very well-reasoned and well-written. I couldn’t have said it any better. Her situation in the example, though, was almost textbook acceptable: an identifying witness, specific legal boundaries in place, a public setting. I can’t imagine how long it took her to get to that point. So hats off to both of you, too, for preparing so well. it really can make all the difference.

      • JenniferP said:

        It was a way for my friend to defuse the “threatening and horrible in private, charming and reasonable in public” game her ex-husband was playing. Scary and hard to enforce, for sure! He didn’t consent to being recorded, she didn’t consent to having the conversation at all, so by recording it openly he could make a choice: Stay, violate her consent, and be recorded, or go away. Fortunately he chose “go away.”

        I think if you suspect someone is gaslighting you, even recording them without their knowledge might help you sort out what’s happening. It may never be “usable” in a legal sense, but you could bring it to a therapist or use it to safeguard your own sanity when someone starts claiming that they never said a thing they said.

  37. MaryKaye said:

    Someone in my workplace was involved in a very serious stalking situation. They went to the police, who conducted a briefing for everyone–not focusing on this person’s story so much as explaining rules. Don’t let people follow you into secure areas; don’t hold doors or let people into elevators. Tell people to look at the directory rather than giving out names/phone numbers. (The police deleted the stalked person from the directory so that they wouldn’t be found that way.) We also chose an innocuous-sounding phrase which meant “call the police NOW” and discussed when and how to use it.

    I learned two things from this experience. I work with people of good will and the initial response was great. No one complained or diminished the situation, at least not that I heard. But folks did not sustain it. Six months later they were letting strangers tag along in the elevator again. So this kind of strategy seems to work short-term but may not be good long-term. (Luckily we have reason to believe this particular situation is over, but we should still not be letting people into a “secure” building.)

    I think that if some information forever needs to be secret, you really need to minimize the number of people who know it. (Also, we were stupid when we designed our building; that elevator should be behind a security door. As it is, you can just get into the elevator–it won’t go without a key card, but if you try this at lunchtime, you’ll be upstairs within five minutes. And no one will stop you getting out of the elevator–they don’t know you didn’t have a card.)

  38. BadDaughter said:

    Hello, LW. I’ve had to leave my abusive parents (long, boring, slightly horrifying story I won’t get into) and I don’t live in the same state with them. However, I do visit that state from time to time, so I have a couple of suggestions.

    The discussions above follow a lot of useful threads and are great! So I’m going to focus my advice on some practical things.

    A) They Don’t Have to Know/Minimizing Information/It’s Okay to Lie
    A bunch of people in very nearly the first thread pointed out that lying to protect yourself is OKAY. I’m going to hope that you’ve taken that advice to heart. I think of myself as a naturally really honest person (my natural impulse is always to tell the truth, with some humorous and occasionally really Awkward results) but I taught myself to lie at a really young age to protect myself from my parents.

    How to lie:
    –Keep it close to the truth. Tell as much of the truth as will not injure you, but also do not hesitate to omit things people Do Not Need to Know. “Yes, I’ll be in town for the rest of the day.” (… and the year, but X doesn’t need to know that.)
    –Keep it Simple. Do not add flourishes or details. Someone upthread suggested “I am in town on business,” and that’s simple, almost true, and to the point. Don’t make up a job where you’re traveling for an import house specializing in rare pottery from the Han Dynasty. (Although sometimes it’s tempting! Also, I don’t know whether you are like me, LW, but when I get scared, my mouth often tries to rescue me, sometimes with disastrous results. I can’t remember who recently quoted Izzard’s “I was on the Moon! With Steve!” routine, but THAT WAS ME when I was little and really scared.)
    –When necessary, be Bold. If pressed, “I live in Orange County” (in reality, you’re renting an apartment in Santa Monica). When you have to lie, make sure you are misleading.
    –Make sure you have a Team You who will have your back (“Um, I just told X that I live in Orange County and X is sure to tell my parents. If they check with you, confirm that, won’t you?”). It’s best not to have to reach this stage, but if you do, make sure that your Team You will back you up.
    –Don’t hesitate. I know that we’re all trained not to lie, especially not to our parents, but SAFETY FIRST.

    B. Your Home Is Your Castle/Tower Defense
    There’s already been some great suggestions on this (second-floor apartments, Google Voice, putting money aside) so I’m just going to mention some things I don’t think I saw other people say. The objective here is to become too difficult to stalk; not any fun to poke.

    1. Roommate. A roommate you trust can be a really important part of Team You. (Also, of course, it makes rent easier to afford.) You don’t mention what your living situation is — if you are sharing space, MAKE SURE your roommate(s) are on Team You. Having backup at home can be a help and also makes you FEEL safer, which is another important consideration.
    2. Invisibility. Consider having no visible name on the apartment (getting your mail at a PO box) or having only your roommate’s name on the mailbox. (This may not help completely, but it’s a step.)
    3. Make sure your employers will not give out your address. This should be a given — but I worked for a University (!) who gave out my address when asked. Sometimes, employers are stupid.

    C. Psychic Armor
    Some of these are things other people have suggested but I think they are well worth repeating here.

    1. Name change. I did this, and it didn’t mean that my parents never found out. But it gave me a few years of relief, by which time I was a less interesting game. More than that, it gave me hugely needed distance. I no longer felt that I was tied to them. Changing my name was FABULOUS. (But not TO Fabulous. Not that I would judge you if you did!)
    2. As the Captain recommends, lock down your online presence. You’ll need to keep a tight grip on it for a while.
    3. Rehearsals. Think of what you would say if you ran into them in public (also, several people mentioned changing your appearance? That’s like the name change — if you are into it, it can be really liberating).
    4. Talismans. I don’t know if this would help you, but I had something — jewelry — which I got as a celebration of being free, and I wore it, and it made me feel stronger and more badass and more protected and I’m pretty sure that would be a big help if/when I run into them in the future.

    Like I said, I don’t live in the same city as my parents, and I only visit their state every once in a while. But it still gives me nightmares and shortness of breath and panic, so I feel for your dilemma. I hope that some of this helps.

  39. Ve said:

    “But they’re FAAAAAAAAAMILY!”

    Here’s something that I think most people who hail from good families (or at least, non-abusive, minimally dysfunctional ones) fail to realize, it’s been on my mind recently:

    Your family consists of people who share some of the same genes as you, or are married/related to someone who does. This is the main aspect that *immediately* separates “family members” from “everyone else.” (Those who are adopted may have biological versus adopted families, but yeah, similar concept)

    If you come from a healthy, loving, family, you are fortunate in the fact that these people just happen to be good people. There is no reason why someone who shares some of my DNA will *inherently* treat me better than someone who doesn’t. Relatives have generally been in your life longer, but just because something or someone has been around for a long time does not mean it’s a good thing, or that it deserves to be in your life.

    Or think of it this way: We all know people that we don’t like for one reason or another. We hear of people who’ve committed horrible crimes against others. Those people are someone’s relatives. Imagine that many of those people were part of your family, or one especially horrible person in particular, and then you (general “you”) may understand what some of us go through.

    • staranise said:

      When I’m writing a client notes, I will totally summarize someone’s complex attachment to ideals of relationship and obligation that don’t serve them well as things like, “Client cannot end communication with S because faaaaaamily.”

      Family may be sacred, but sacred things can be desecrated and profaned. And that’s what some families do.

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