How My Stalker Taught Me About Setting Boundaries

I think someone is following me. Better not say anything!

I think someone is following me. Better not say anything!

Oh, college.

It was the first time I'd lived on my own. The first time I could potentially sleep until noon and no one would care. The first time I didn't have to call anyone if I'd be home after midnight.

I loved it. 

Mifflin Street Block Party

Mifflin Street Block Party

The Red Sea.

The Red Sea.

It was also the first time I truly realized my people-pleasing nature could get me in trouble. 

One of the things I love most about myself is my genuine interest in others. I'll talk to just about anyone, I'm outgoing and tend joke around a lot. I've been called a huge flirt, which I always thought was funny because any time I've ever actually tried to flirt, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. I guess the thing with flirting is that it doesn't matter if you think you're doing it or not. It only matters if the person you're talking to thinks their being flirted with. 

But I digress.

I used to have an overwhelming sense of obligation to be nice to people, even if they made me uncomfortable. Getting catcalled by some creepy dude on the street? I might awkwardly smile at them. Close-talker wanting to buy me a drink at a bar? Um, okay, I guess.. and now I have to talk to you, even though I was in the middle of discussing the greatness of the Postal Service's Give Up.

And then there was the time a male friend of mine followed me home from a party, staying roughly 200 feet behind me, thinking I didn't notice. At 1 am. On multiple occasions. Instead of making a big deal about it, I let it slide for awhile. After all, I wouldn't want to make him feel uncomfortable!

Things started out between James* (not his name because I'm not an a-hole) and I innocuously enough. We'd been friends for a year or two. He was nice, funny, self-deprecating and smart. I enjoyed hanging out with the guy.

In February of my junior year, he asked me to see a movie or something, just the two of us. I said, "Sure." When we were alone together, he got awkward. He barely spoke to me. Honestly, it wasn't very much fun, so I decided to only spend time with him in a social setting.

A week or so later, one of his buddies asked if James and I were dating. Nope, why do you ask? Apparently, James talked about me all the time. He lamented that I was going out of town again for my new internship; talked about how I was so busy with my other job at the Badger Herald. His buddies said he talked about me a lot-- about my classes, my job, my family and friends.

But hey, we knew each other. Not that well... but maybe it's no big deal. 

And then the following weekend, I saw him at a party. He stood no more than five feet from me the entire time, not saying a word. I mentioned it to my friend, and together, we decided to leave and head to a bar. Guess who showed up at the same bar, just a few minutes later? Yep, James. Guess who I spotted following me home that night? James. Guess who called me at 2am, 2:45am, 3am, 3:17am, 3:33am, 4am and 5am that night? James. 

This would've been a great opportunity to tell him please stop. But I didn't want to embarrass him or hurt his feelings. Instead, I told a handful of people I trusted, then tried to never walk anywhere alone. I caught him following me home from parties (at a distance, of course) on two more nights. The calls kept coming, too.

After a month of this, I decided to set things straight. 

He'd sent me a text asking if I would have dinner with him. I said sure, and selected a very busy restaurant. Heart racing, I told him that I was flattered at his interest, but that I only thought of him as a friend. Nothing more. He said he understood. Phew! We then proceeded to have the most awkward dinner, ever.  

The next day, a buddy of mine who knew the situation said he'd run into James after our dinner, where James gushed about our amazing date.

Ah, crap!

By this point, there was only about a week left of the semester. I knew he was staying in Madison, but I was going back to Minneapolis. Just seven more days until I could write this guy off for the summer! But James seemed to be everywhere. The library, coffee shop, on the street. I tried to shrug it off, but I never felt safe.

Then, my dad came down to help me move. We went to a friend's graduation party, where yep, you guessed it, James followed me around without saying anything. My dad noticed something was up almost immediately. I broke down and gave him the scoop, but asked him to please not say anything. 

Newsflash: Dads don't not say anything. 

Within minutes, my dad bought James a drink and was in the midst of a heart to heart conversation. I sat in the next room, equal parts mortified and relieved. A half hour later, my dad returned, stating, "I don't think you need to worry about James anymore." Honestly, I can't imagine anything more humiliating than having the girl you're crushing on's (or stalking) dad confront you.

You think that would be the end of the story, but no. After my dad went back to his hotel, I went to a friend's house, where James magically arrived and cornered me in the kitchen, asking if what my dad said was true: Do I make you nervous, Molly?

Yes! Yes! Especially right now!

He asked if we could meet for breakfast the following morning, and I said no way and immediately went home. I ignored his calls that night, then left for Minnesota early the next morning. He didn't contact me all summer, and the following fall, I moved into a new apartment, hoping he'd leave me alone.

He did.

By the end of senior year, I could go to the same party as him without fear.

A few years after college, I ran into James at a wedding. He apologized profusely. At that point, I'd forgiven him. He once again felt like the friend I'd liked in the first place. 

I learned a lot from this whole experience, but the big lesson is that I don't have to be nice to everybody. I don't need to worry about someone else's feelings at the expense of my own. If someone is making me uncomfortable, I don't have to pretend nothing is wrong. My preference is to always be kind, but it's not my job to alter my boundaries for someone else's benefit. That's why setting boundaries is important. Boundaries keep you safe and sane, and if I'd respected my own, I don't think this situation would've snowballed like it did.

It's not my fault I was stalked, but I am at fault for not taking action earlier.

* * *

Other lessons I've learned? I'm a lot stronger than I think, you can't trust other people to make the best decision for you (even if they're your doctor), plus 27 more things I learned last year.