It seems apt that I am writing this on the day that the A-level results are announced. I finished school many years ago, but can still recall the excitement of finding out that I had been accepted at my university of choice to study psychology. With everything to look forward to, my head spun with expectations of what student life would be like. Little did I know that my entire existence was about to take a sinister turn. Until then, I’d lived a sheltered life and hadn’t heard of people being stalked. But that was about to change as my terrifying ordeal began only a few weeks later.
It was a steep learning curve. If I were included in a random cohort of people and asked to order them by likeliness of being targeted by a stalker, I would have positioned myself towards the bottom of that list. After all, I was introverted, wasn’t going to turn anyone’s head and certainly didn’t court attention. I was someone people didn’t tend to notice. Though I later discovered that anyone, regardless of age, gender, or perceived physical attractiveness can be stalked, and stalkers are not exclusively male.
Even as I write this, I can feel my stress levels grow. Despite the passage of time, as I dredge up these suppressed memories, the old emotions rise like a tsunami threatening to overwhelm me. There are some things from that time that I refuse to discuss as those memories are far too traumatic. I also have no intention of naming the person who caused me so much mental and emotional anguish. Identifying him serves no purpose and might cause pain or embarrassment to other people, which I have no desire to do. It is enough for me to know that my ordeal is over. Apart from in nightmares, my stalker is no longer a threat to me.
It is essential to understand that this chapter of my life occurred way before the availability of mobile phones or the subsequent rise of social media. It was quite literally another world back then. At the time, there were no stalking laws in the UK. Society was far more misogynistic, and I would probably have been seen as a stupid young woman who had obviously brought it all on herself. It seemed to me that my only viable option was to deal with things alone.
Before I realised the threat he posed, I had allowed my stalker to enter my room at the hall of residence. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I’d made a big mistake. It gave him access to information, and we’re all familiar will the old adage, ‘Information is power.’ He took the opportunity to familiarise himself with my lecture and seminar timetable. Naively I had it pinned on my noticeboard. From then on, he was able to predict my movements.
His behaviour quickly became alarmingly claustrophobic. And when I tried to distance myself, things escalated rapidly. For almost a year he followed me, watched me, sent anonymous threatening messages and on a few occasions, succeeded in cornering me. It was a relentless campaign of intimidation, designed to mess with my head. He even managed to convince people that he was a heartbroken innocent, and I felt ostracised when I most needed support.
I have no intention of giving you a blow-by-blow account of what happened. It would take too long, and I would feel uncomfortable about relaying some of the details. However, there are things I’m willing to share.
On one occasion, I’d gone home for a weekend visit and was travelling back to the university. I felt physically sick as I stood on the platform waiting for the train to arrive, as I dreaded him turning up. I breathed a sigh of relief as the train pulled in, found a seat, settled down and took out whichever book I was reading. There was plenty of time for me to lose myself in the story as it would take a few hours for me to reach my destination, and I certainly needed the distraction. About forty minutes into the journey, the woman opposite me got up to leave. And as the train pulled away from the station, someone else sat in that seat. As I glanced up, my blood ran cold. It was him.
I did my best to stay calm, but I was quaking inside. He crossed his arms and kept staring at me as I pretended to continue to read my book. Neither of us spoke until he leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table between us. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go.
He appeared calm as he told me that he had a ‘new best friend,’ someone who was helping him see things differently. They’d discussed things, and he now realised that he didn’t want a relationship with me. I had a glimmer of hope, but that light was soon extinguished. As his monologue continued, I deduced that the friend he was referring to was God. But what he went on to tell me was the scariest thing I had ever heard.
He claimed to be having frequent conversations with God, who had made him realise that I was evil and had to be stopped. He said that he had God’s permission to do whatever it took to make this happen. After all, he had right on his side. I could tell that this wasn’t some kind of sick joke. He believed everything he was saying.
My mind raced as the train approached my destination. I was all too aware of the impending showdown and didn’t want to end up injured or dead. The odds were stacked against me. He was far larger and undoubtedly stronger than me. I knew I was safe whilst I was on the train, as he surely wouldn’t harm me in public. But even when I got off the train, the university campus was still a few miles away. I couldn’t risk waiting for the bus I had planned to take. I had to get a taxi.
As the train pulled into the station, I sat in my seat for as long as I dared. It was a popular destination, and people were already queuing up to get off. Leaving my book on the table, I grabbed my bag, jumped up and pushed my way past people. I was shouting and distressed. It was one of the few occasions in my life when I wanted others to notice me. Thankfully people obliged and let me through, though none of them thought to ask me what was wrong or offer any help. I was banking on the fact that he couldn’t risk making a scene. It gave me the only advantage I was going to get.
I raced over the footbridge, panting and crying. Reached the taxi rank where a queue hadn’t yet formed. I jumped inside the nearest cab and told the driver to take me to the campus. But as the vehicle was about to pull away, the rear door opened and he calmly got in. ‘Thought you were going to leave without me,’ he said in a non-threatening way.
He grabbed my arm, and we sat in silence. When the cab eventually pulled up outside my hall, I dug the nails of my free hand into the back of his and shouted, ‘He’s paying.’ I ran, all the while fumbling for my keys. I made it inside and sprinted up two flights of stairs. Little did I realise that another student was on her way out of the hall and unhelpfully held the door open for him.
As I entered my corridor, I was dismayed to find it deserted. I’d been banking on there being other people around. My hand was shaking as I attempted to insert the key into the lock. I heard the door open off the stairwell, turned and saw him there striding purposefully towards me. I’d lost my chance. I couldn’t risk going into my room. If he forced his way inside, it would be game over. I knew from past experience what would happen. Instead, I ran to the communal toilets, which were almost opposite my room. All four cubicles were free. I got inside one, locked the door and started shouting for help.
Luckily for me, other students heard the commotion, and people soon arrived. My friend was amongst them and knew a little of what was happening to me. She helped me get back to my room, while some other girls attracted his attention. She came inside with me as she could see how scared I was. She was just closing the door when he realised what we’d done. He completely lost it and kicked the door in. Another student had the foresight to call security, and he was eventually forced to leave.
On another occasion he drove a car at me, screeching to a halt inches from where I stood. He calmly got out of the vehicle, stepped towards me and said, ‘If I can’t have you, no one will.’ Thankfully a stranger intervened. But nowhere was safe. I was isolated, terrified and didn’t know who I could trust.
When I returned for my second year at university, my tutor sat me down and informed me that he believed there was a credible threat to my life. My stalker had applied to study numerous courses at the university. He was frequently seen roaming the grounds and buildings despite being banned from entering the campus. Realistically I knew there was no way they could ensure that he was kept out. This guy was focused and had no intention of playing by the rules.
That morning I spent an hour or so in my tutor’s office as he made some phone calls, and just like that, I was transferred to another university. I had to leave without saying goodbye and immediately cut ties with my university friends. My world had become a real-life psychological thriller.
Throughout this entire ordeal, I was offered no support or counselling. It wasn’t the ‘done thing,’ back then. I was on a downward spiral with no safety net in sight. In public, I did my best to act as though nothing was wrong. It was a role I felt compelled to play. I wanted to move on, put things behind me and try to fit in. But I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t relax and frequently experienced panic attacks. In retrospect, I realise that I was suffering from PTSD. But at least I had walked away. I had survived. Though something had to give, and my studies suffered.
For many years, my children have often joked that I am the most paranoid person on the planet. They don’t appreciate that I spent such a sustained period living in fear. Thankfully I bear no physical scars from that time. Though, I carry mental and emotional wounds which have faded but will never fully heal.
An example of how messed up I had become is that throughout my twenties, I dreaded entering my own home if I happened to be alone. I’d put the key in the lock, take a deep breath, race to the kitchen and grab a sharp knife. My knuckles would be white and my hand shaking as I systematically walked from room to room, flinging open cupboard doors, looking behind curtains and beneath the furniture. It is a relief that I no longer feel compelled to do that.
Upon reflection, my behaviour was extreme and perhaps ridiculous. But unless you’ve experienced such an insidious long-lasting threat, you can’t begin to imagine how deeply it affects you. I can honestly say that in those days, I had become as obsessed with my stalker as he was with me.
As time passed with no contact, I still couldn’t get him out of my head. I had no idea where he was, but expected to find him waiting in the shadows. Even sleep failed to offer respite, as I experienced night terrors whenever I’d had a stressful day.
Then, I had a meltdown at work. It happened out of the blue on an ordinary afternoon. I hadn’t seen or heard from my stalker for years. I walked out of the ladies room just as the lift doors located directly opposite, opened. A man stepped out, we looked at each other, and he smiled. He was my stalker’s doppelganger. The likeness was uncanny. I kept facing him and quickly backed up to the ladies room, where I locked myself inside a cubicle and cried.
At that moment, I thought it was happening all over again. I couldn’t understand how he had found me after all this time. I knew I’d have to resign and look for another job as it wasn’t safe for me to continue working there. Eventually, I was all cried out, and some other women came in to use the facilities. I waited for them to enter the cubicles and went out to clean myself up, taking my time so that I could leave the room with them.
When I returned to my desk, I contacted reception, gave them my stalker’s name and asked for his extension number and details of which department he worked for. I was informed that no one with that name was employed there. It took a while for me to be convinced that the receptionist was telling me the truth. I later discovered that the man in question was actually someone else. He must have thought I was a lunatic.
There is no doubt in my mind that living through such a traumatic experience has shaped the person I went on to become. I’m introverted and do my best to avoid group interactions as I find them stressful. It seems that no matter how hard I try, I still feel like an outsider. I’m incapable of ‘fitting in’.
Of course, I have friends and family, and I value them highly. I’m comfortable when there’re just a handful of people I know and trust. But in larger groups, even virtual ones, I feel ill at ease. Though, every so often, I pluck up the courage to try again. Hopefully one day I’ll find it’s no longer a problem.
STALKED, the third book in the Jemima Huxley Thrillers series, is the story I always wanted to write. It is undeniably a work of fiction, but one created with an authentic understanding of what it is like to be in those particular crosshairs. I didn’t have to imagine what it would be like for my character, Violet Watkins — I know what she was going through.
If you have already read the book, you may think that the twist at the end is far-fetched. It was in fact inspired by information passed to me from someone who knew my stalker, and was a chilling indication that perhaps he hadn’t fully moved on. As a writer, I played around with the idea as I thought it would be perfect for this book. Though in my personal life, there was never any suggestion of such a threat.
Thankfully my ordeal is over. I am a very different person to the one I had hoped to be all those years ago. There are occasions when I wonder what path I would have followed if things had been different. But overall I have no regrets as I have so much to be grateful for.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised above, the following organisations may be able to provide help and support: