TRIGGER WARNING: This article will speak of sexual content, trauma, and betrayal.
As children, we have all of the trust in the world. We put our faith in those around us; our parents, friends, teachers, babysitters, and so on. As we get older, different things make trusting others more challenging. Whether it be due to neglectful parents, cheating in romantic relationships, or dealing with any form of trauma, many individuals go through a decline in innocence and develop a more guarded approach to life. For many people this happens quite early on in life—starting as young as a toddler or even an infant due to needs not being met by caregivers. For others, such as myself, this difficulty with trust was not problematic until early adulthood. Of course, I had gone through moments where my trust was tested or even broken prior to this, but I found that nothing that happened was enough to break my trust. However, as a college student, this all changed.
On October 19th, 2015, I was 22 years old, attending my University, living off campus, and getting ready to graduate in just three short months. I had loved my time in college and while I was excited to go tackle life outside of school, I was soaking in every last minute of time in a place that had become my second home, with friends who had become like family. As I sat in my kitchen waiting for my Spaghetti to cook, just a few hours before my class started, I went on Facebook. I was looking through messages when I came across a tab I had never noticed before: Message Requests. I had no idea what this was and curiously clicked on the tab. It brought me to over a dozen messages, most of which were messages from long-ago graduation party events, reminding everyone of the party or thanking attendees for taking the time to come out for the event. As I scrolled through messages I eventually came across one that I, at first, assumed was spam. The first thing I noticed was that it was from three years prior. It started by talking about how someone had created a page about me and reportedly was stealing my underwear. I was about to delete the presumably junk mail, but then I saw the pictures that were attached. I had to do a double take as I realized that one of the pairs of underwear looked familiar to me. As I looked more closely at each picture, I realized that they all were not just familiar to me, but were pairs of underwear I had most certainly had, although I had forgotten about them.
My heart sank as I realized that this message was absolutely not falsified. As I looked at the pictures that were sent in this message I realized that the sender had taken screen shots directly from the website where the images were posted. On one of the images there was the name of a website that I decided to go to in order to see where this was posted. This led me to a page that was on a pornographic website with over 130 posts on this thread alone. I started by reading the first post which explained that the author of the page had begun to steal intimate clothing from me after being at my house and seeing my bedroom door open. He bragged about stealing from me without me noticing. My entire stomach felt like there was a brick inside of it and I felt like I was going to be sick. I remember sobbing reading post after post, feeling like there had to be some sort of a mistake. After Looking through every single post, I felt dirty. I felt like something was wrong with me. The author of the page and many others who had made comments would call me derogatory terms, speak of me in a sexual way, and would post sexual photos of themselves in front of my pictures.
I went to tell my roommate, who was also my close friend, about what I had figured out and how distraught I was. She decided to skip her class with me and said that we needed to figure out who had done this. I combed through each of the posts that the author had made and tried to find some sort of a clue: until finally I found it. A picture of me was posted that had been taken of me without my knowledge. I recognized the outfit I was wearing: one of my favorite black crop tops with blue jean shorts. I also recognized that in the corner of the picture there was someone else; a friend of mine wearing a green striped sweater and leggings. I knew the day that I had been wearing that outfit with my friend wearing the green sweater, as I recognized the outfits from another picture that had been taken the very same day. I went through photos and found a picture of myself, the friend who had been in the corner of the picture with me, and one of our best guy friends from high school. Immediately I realized who had created this terrifying page about me.
My roommate and I went to the police station to file a report. Upon explaining vaguely to one of the officers what was going on, she told me she would have a detective sent to my apartment later in the day and that he would be able to complete an investigation. A few hours later, a police officer arrived at my apartment. I told him everything that I had learned over the past few hours and all of the things that I had discovered on this page: pictures of me that were taken without my knowledge, pictures of stolen items taken from my home, horrible and vile comments about me and my body. The officer listened to me and asked questions, such as inquiring about the relationship between myself and the man who I had uncovered to be behind this. He asked me if I ever gave him the impression that there was something going on between us, if we had ever dated, what the nature of our history looked like. From one perspective, I could understand that this man just needed to understand the situation in order to feel he conduct a complete investigation. However, part of me also felt like I was being blamed, like I had somehow given this man permission to steal from me, make posts about me, and say horrible things about me. After talking for around half an hour, he told me that the only legal crime he could pursue was larceny, as he had directly stated in the post that he stole these items from my hamper. Unfortunately, as this website was not displaying any nude images of me, there was nothing that could be done about his specific posts regarding me. Any pictures that included my face in them were taken from my Facebook page, which is technically available to the public upon posting.
After the officer left my home, I expected to feel better, knowing that he was going to attempt to assist me with taking legal action against my ex-friend. However, it ended up being a long time before I truly felt better. At this point, I had just under two months left of school before I graduated with my Bachelors in Sociology and Creative Writing. Prior to this event I was going to parties with my Sorority sisters, participating in my courses, enjoying campus events, and appreciating my last bit of time as an undergraduate student. Upon learning of this information, I did not entirely fall apart, yet things did change. I still cared about doing well in my classes, I still was going out on dates, I still spent time with my roommates and Sorority sisters, but I no longer felt like me. I was struggling to deal with my anxiety and I felt so much self-hatred. I felt like something was wrong with me and like if men could talk about me that way then it meant I was only good for my body, rather than my intellect or my talents. I would go days at a time without eating, as food no longer tasted good, I struggled to fall asleep, due to racing thoughts, and I found myself struggling to socialize without needing to bring up what I was going through. It felt like I needed to talk about it because by talking about it I would eventually be able to understand why this had happened.
Anxiety had been a struggle for me throughout my whole life, yet the intensity of my symptoms became astronomical. However, the biggest thing I was having difficulty with was recognizing that I had a right to feel this way. Part of me felt that what I was going through was not only my fault, but was not distressing enough for me to feel this way. I would have never referred to this experience as trauma, as I felt that experiences that others around me had gone through were so much more worthy or that title. When confiding in a good friend of mine, I mentioned to her they idea that my experience was not as terrible as what she had gone through herself, and she quickly shut me down. She told me that her experience and my own were different and both awful. She reminded me that what she had gone through and what I had gone through were both appalling experiences and that we could not compare the two as they were separate situations and one trauma is not comparable to another. This was when I came to terms with the fact that what I had gone through had been trauma and was directly causing distress, hopeless thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, and was impeding on my day to day life.
Throughout the weeks and months following this event, I had contacted many of the mutual friends between me and the man who had created this page about me. Some of them had separate pages that were about them and others I just wanted to be aware so they could make the decision about if he was someone they wanted to keep in their lives. Fast forward to the following summer and I was on a trip abroad with my cousins, aunt, and uncle. My brother sent me a message letting me know I had a piece of mail from the police station near my University. I asked him if he could open this up for me, which he did, and informed me it was a check for 50 dollars, with the author of the page’s name written in the memo. 50 dollars. That is what they decided he needed to pay for his crimes. I am willing to put aside the fact that what he had stolen from me was worth far more than 50 dollars, but what about everything else he had put me through? What about the therapy I went into, the medication I needed to go on for panic attacks, the sleepless nights, and the empty-stomach filled days? I felt angry beyond words and felt like my trauma was just given a dollar amount of 50; the same amount you would pay for a nice dinner date. I had paid more for just one therapy session than what he had to pay me.
Yet, I had to remember that the money was not what I was actually upset about. I was upset I never got an apology or an explanation. I was upset that someone who had been one of my closest friends for seven years had completely betrayed me. I was upset wondering how much of our friendship was genuine, if any of it, and at what point did it become about targeting me? More than anything, I was upset that I still felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. I would constantly go to the page to see if anything was updated or if more pictures had been posted of me. I realized he still was somehow accessing my pictures on my Facebook, so I discovered how to manage my Social Media accounts in order to make them more secure.
Only a few months after this all came out, I started to receive odd message requests on Facebook and Instagram. These messages would say things like ‘Hi, I found this page about you, are you aware of it?’ At first I thought this could genuinely be people who were seeking me out due to concern for me, however, after getting multiple of these messages from multiple different accounts, I realized that it was my ex-friend sending these messages. He was creating Catfish accounts in order to send these messages, as a way of continuing to have control over me. This eventually led to me becoming skeptical of anyone sending me messages on social media who was not already a close friend or family member.
Having shared this experience and the struggles I was going through afterwards, it is important to now touch on the things that I did that helped me to feel better. Some of the things I did I actively sought out, while other things ended up happening organically. I started on anti-depressants, started seeing a therapist, got a tattoo, started to date, and wrote, a lot.
After dealing with my anxiety worsening over the course of college, I decided it was time to ask my Primary Care Physician about going on medication for my anxiety. I told her about some of the things I had been going through and she did agree that trying out medication would be beneficial, but stated she also would prefer I started speaking with a therapist as well, as it is found that a mix between talk therapy and medication is often the best combination for combatting mental disorders.
After starting medication, my Primary Care Physician referred me to the therapist for their practice. I began by speaking with her once every two weeks. This gave me a safe space to discuss the situation that had led to my decision to start therapy and medication, as well as giving me access to a professional who was able to teach me coping skills. Through my work with her she taught me a handful of coping skills but the two that stuck with me the most were the Five Senses Coping Skill and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. If you look at my previous article titled Best Coping Skills to Combat Anxiety, there are detailed descriptions of these coping skills and how to utilize them. I also was able to get a different perspective from an outside source about how to deal with my anxiety and why this situation had made it so much harder for me to control my anxiety. In addition, it helped to have someone validate my feelings, allowing me to feel that what I was feeling was not only valid, but also understandable.
Getting a Tattoo
Ever since the first time I heard about Project Semicolon, I knew I felt passionate about getting a semi colon tattoo. This project was created by Amy Bleuel in 2013, as a way to honor her father who had committed suicide. The semicolon was used as the symbol of the project to create awareness and to represent hope and inspiration to those with depression. The quote to explain this project’s mission says: ‘A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.’ As someone who has always been passionate about mental health, as well as being a writer, I appreciated this mission on multiple levels. I found out, shortly after this incident with this man, about a tattoo shop a few hours from me that was doing a Project Semicolon event. They were having a full day of only semicolon tattoos for interested clients, with all of the proceeds from the day going to the local Community Mental Health department. I was able to find a few friends at my University who were also interested in taking the trip to go get these tattoos and support such a worthy cause. I knew that this event would be worth the drive, but I had no idea just how much I would get out of it. I was able to meet such a wide variety of people and everyone was so friendly and patient. This event was so much bigger than they had intended it to be and while we got there only about an hour after doors opened, we ended up waiting in line for seven hours, yet it truly was one of the most humbling days of my life. It helped me to recognize that while there are a lot of people in the world who have poor intentions, there are also so many people out there that are pure and good. It also helped me to see that I was not alone with my struggles and that there were so many people who could relate and were also living through trauma and depression.
Dating was something that felt incredibly difficult for me at this time in my life. Not only had this situation with someone I trusted so dearly come up recently, but I had been in my first serious ‘adult’ relationship about a year prior and was still feeling the effects of losing that relationship. I was navigating how to date again and truly was starting to date in a way I never had before. Prior to this time in my life I would meet someone, enter into a relationship, and be with them until our relationship ran its course. At this point, I was starting to date more casually, such as going out on multiple dates with multiple different people, talking to people and getting to know them, etc. This was especially challenging as my trust became something that no longer came as easy as it had before. I found myself concerned about men’s intentions, worried that they were lying to me, and fearful that they were taking pictures of me or stealing from me. Not only these points, but when I would become more serious about a man it made me feel that I needed to tell him about what happened, so he could understand my anxiety and recognize why I may be more on edge in certain situations. On the other hand, it felt so good to put myself out there again. I felt like by not being afraid to date again, I was taking my life back and deciding not to live in fear because of what one person did to me.
Writing has been my outlet since I was a child. I have always found a release in being able to express my feelings through written word. It has allowed me to take the things in my head and heart and put them out there. On the page, the feelings feel more tangible, like I can really deal with them as long as I can see them. When this happened I wrote constantly. I would journal constantly, write poems, and write letters that I would never end up sending. I would feel such a weigh off of my shoulders after each writing session. The most incredible feeling was after I wrote an emotion-filled poem and read it at a poetry event. The mix of snaps and applause when I read were wonderful but what truly amazed me was how good it felt to say those words out loud. Writing, in so many ways, brought me back to life: allowing my anxiety to settle and giving me the ability to express the things that I was feeling that I struggled saying out loud.
Trauma is something so personal and unique to each person. A circumstance that was traumatic for one person may not feel traumatic for another, yet our trauma is ours to own. What is important to keep in mind with trauma is not allowing it to take over to a point that it becomes our identity. In order to combat trauma, it is important to seek out healthy coping skills, whichever ones work, to help get back into daily life. As always, keep in mind that therapy can absolutely be a support and a way to safely process through trauma. Online-Therapy offers a free program that gives users access to 25 CBT-based worksheets, a personal journal, an activity plan, tests, and yoga and meditation videos. For those needing additional support, our basic program incorporates daily therapists comments Monday-Friday on worksheets, as well as the services offered through the free program. The standard plan incorporates all services offered through the basic plan, plus one session per week. The premium program offers all services included in the standard plan, plus an additional session per week. Here is link to learn more and to get started: https://www.online-therapy.com/
Tobe, Heidi. (2017, September 15). Project Semicolon. Therapist Development Center. https://www.therapistdevelopmentcenter.com/blog/project-semicolon/