It was 2003. Online dating was taking off, but it was only for desperate singles. Chat rooms were an increasingly popular, and less obvious way of trying to connect with people. But the internet was, by and large, still a frightening wild west of villains hiding behind screen names who could be, and most likely were (according to most people,) violent rapists or mass murderers. But I found solace in the chatrooms. My life was on shaky ground. I managed to graduate high school, despite an unstable home life, but I was in debt, I couldn't find dependable employment, and I was freaking out.
Online though, I could hide, and ignore my reality.
My first glimpse of him was a huge red flag. If I hadn't been a teenager still, or so determined to prove everyone wrong who kept telling me that meeting people from online was dangerous, perhaps I would've seen his behavior for what it was.
Perhaps I would have seen his comment to one of the other chatroom goers- “Kevin, you're just an Applejack's employee waiting to happen.”- for what it was; bullying
But I didn't see it at all. I giggled a little at the cleverness of it. Some others laughed at his victim too, which further encouraged me that he was just joking. Poking a little fun at someone being dumb. And his victim was being dumb. He deserved to be made fun of. Everyone thought so.
Maybe if I hadn't been raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and had known a bit more about the world, I would have sensed the danger. People are often surprised at simple everyday things I'd been cut off from as a child, such as Disney movies. I was definitely not encouraged to dress up as Belle or Cinderella. So perhaps my emotional intelligence, or street smarts, if you will, was lacking. This was before the word ‘troll' was used to describe people on the internet. People who are deliberately inflammatory and degrading to get a rise out of others, to make themselves feel smart and get noticed, didn't have a label yet. They were just everyday assholes.
The chat room I'd been enjoying prior to his arrival, started to disband. As we all soon learned, his annoying behavior was not reserved for a single person. Or even a gender. But for some reason, he left me alone. This gave me a kind of unwise courage, born of a sense that I could be the hero of the group. I could save them from this jerk, who was disrupting the peaceful gathering of strangers we'd had before.
I sent him a private message. “Do you have some unresolved issues with your mother or something?” Several very long seconds went by. My hands started to sweat. The anticipation of confrontation, even online, with a stranger who was possibly thousands of miles away, was exhilarating. I was expecting him to lash out at me. After all, his behavior thus far towards everyone was antagonism. My goal was simply to distract him and to get him away from the group, but I was ready for a fight.
Which is why his response surprised me. “That's the most intelligent thing anyone has said to me in weeks.”
Despite being taken aback, I stuck to my guns and rephrased my question, asking him why he was so hostile. He expertly evaded the question with something along the lines of, “Oh, I'm just having some fun. These people are idiots. Just look what that Frosher guy is saying!” And, indeed, he was right. That ‘Frosher guy' was a complete tool. So, I laughed. And I felt, very suddenly, like I'd connected with someone who maybe got it. Whatever “it” was. Perhaps the unfairness of the world.
The chatroom became utterly unimportant. We moved to MSN Messenger, and I spent the next month chatting with him every day. He made me feel very adult, but ultimately, I was pretending I had my life under control. Eventually, he expressed an interest in talking on the phone. His voice was a balm in an otherwise tumultuous world.
This was how I would become involved in the most abusive four and a half years of my life.
The online world, and especially one-on-one connecting (online dating, hookups, friendships, foreign-language learning, etc.) has grown to monstrous proportions. It's now accepted as an everyday part of our lives. It's a way to accumulate, cultivate, and manage relationships. People no longer automatically assume someone on the internet is a serial killer trying to lure victims. And despite my experience, neither do I. I'm happy for the acceptance of the world wide web. The internet is a wonderful invention that enables people to reach out to each other, to formulate much-needed avenues of support, and to connect with people you never would have otherwise. I love that I can talk to someone living in China, Bulgaria, or Malta, and learn about lives other people lead around the world. It's still one of my favorite ways to ignore reality when I can't find a decent pair of socks, and my cat is scratching the furniture. I think that globalization of communication is of ever-increasing importance in modern-day society as we navigate the 21st century. But, the inherent dangers of strangers online is ever-present, and unfortunately, there are homicidal, pedophilic, abusive rapists who use it just as readily and voraciously as the average person. Often, they are parading as, or even accepted in their own lives as, an average person. For all you know they could be serving your coffee at the local hipster café. It's very hard to identify abusers without getting to know them. Even if you talk to them on the phone, or meet them in person, much like Jehovah's Witnesses, they look just like everyone else.
Maintaining a close network of healthy real-life relationships is vital to keeping ourselves safe. And especially if your family is not as supportive as it should be, you need to build your own family; of trusted friends. Abusers always try to detach you from your other relationships, and it's rarely obvious that's what they're doing until it's too late.
If you find yourself in a relationship where you think your partner is the only one who understands you, where you feel alone or misunderstood by people who you used to be very close to, please consider that you might be the one that's misunderstanding. If you don't feel comfortable opening up to family or friends, you should seek out a mental health professional to get an unbiased view of whether your relationship is healthy. Or call a service such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, in the United States, or the Assaulted Women's Helpline (AWHL) in Canada, a non-profit organization that offers “free, 24-hour, 7-day-a-week crisis counselling, emotional support, information and referrals via telephone to women in up to 200 languages- completely anonymous and confidential.”
I wish I'd known of something like these helplines when I was going through my own struggles. But that's why I'm setting up an ongoing donation to the AWHL based on sales of my debut novel, How to Grow a Stripper. To help them get more reach, more resources, and more success stories; even if they're silent ones.
How to Grow a Stripper will be released in September. It is the gritty retelling of my experiences in an abusive relationship, and how I subsequently wound up working as an exotic dancer for the next ten years. It's a stark reminder why it's so important to keep yourself safe online, and off.
Please visit my website if you'd like more information about the book, or to join my mailing list to be notified of its release.