I met Xavier (not his real name) when I was 15. We went from best friends to engaged in less than three years. At first, things were lovely. Xavier was funny, spontaneous and his presence guaranteed some sort of adventure. I loved how comfortable we were with each other and his ease at opening up. Unlike other guys my age, Xavier was quick to talk about his feelings and wasn’t afraid to cry.
Friends I met later in life have a hard time reconciling the Xavier they knew with the Xavier I had met in high school. Shortly after we started dating, I moved away to start university and Xavier traded in his sweet words for constant put-downs, paranoia and monitoring. Although I had planned on moving to university on my own, he insisted that he couldn’t live without me and soon moved in with me and my two roommates. Then he began chipping away at me and my successes, all the while becoming more and more controlling. He demanded to know where I was at all times. He needed my email password; read my diaries; put monitoring software on my computer; and made no secret of any of it: “If you don’t have anything to hide, then what’s the problem?”
Xavier’s behaviour was unsettling and I knew that most of it wasn’t okay, but I felt trapped. On the one hand, my stubbornness wanted to prove everyone wrong. People told us that we were too young to be in a serious relationship and I was determined to prove them wrong. On the other hand, I had this niggling feeling that Xavier wouldn’t allow me to leave. If he was this controlling and obsessive while we were together, I was scared to think of what he would do if I left him.
I had been raised in a loving, feminist home where I knew my worth from an early age. I knew that if my parents knew how bad things were, they would worry. Wanting to protect everyone around me, I stayed quiet and kept up appearances.
The three years we spent together are mostly a blur, peppered with memories too painful to bother putting in focus. And like so many women, I had to make multiple attempts to leave before I finally did.
On a sweltering July night, I called some friends and told them I had to pack up everything I owned and leave while Xavier was away for the weekend. He had no way of contacting me while he was gone, so it was the safest time for me to escape. My friends helped me pack everything we could fit in their cars and I left him a note, instructing him to give me space and to wait for me to call him when I was ready.
I landed on a friend’s couch at six a.m. the following morning and fell into a deep sleep until I was shaken out of bed: “He’s coming, Julie. Xavier knows you’re here. We need to go.” Xavier had apparently banged on the door of every person who knew me. By process of elimination, he was coming here next.
I then moved from one friend’s couch to another until I thought that maybe if I just talked to Xavier, he would calm down. Calling from a payphone, I begged him to stop terrorizing me and my friends.
A few days went by and I got the first of many chilling letters from Xavier detailing everywhere he had seen me, down to the exact payphone where I had made that last call. Terrified, I called 911. As much as Xavier had hurt me, I still loved him. Choosing to call the police on the person you love is a jarring experience that your mind never fully accepts.
I distinctly remember sitting on the floor of a friend’s filthy bachelor apartment in my underwear and housecoat, with the crushing Ottawa humidity making the place unbearable. I dialed 911, pleading for someone to stop him. The operator asked a series of questions, including whether I had broken up with him or vice versa. When I told her that I had left him, she responded that I needn’t worry. “He’s obviously heartbroken. He just needs time to heal.” I was given a case number and told to call and add things to my file should he do anything else. I hung up the phone, laid on the floor and wept.
Xavier would continue to send me letters. I moved in with a friend only to have him find out where I was living and leave notes on my doorstep. I kept adding things to my file.
A police officer finally called and asked for Xavier’s number, so he could call him and tell him to back off. “That should scare him off,” he insisted. The officer called me back 10 minutes later and recounted how Xavier had sobbed, saying he was reacting out of sadness because I had broken his heart. “He cried, Julie. He’s obviously really upset. So, I wouldn’t worry about him. He won’t be calling you ever again.”
I hung up the phone and it immediately rang again, with Xavier screaming into the receiver that I was ruining his life and getting him in trouble. It was in that moment that I realized that Xavier would never stop. He would never, ever leave me alone.
Xavier continued showing up and harassing me at my job, sending me dead flowers, following me home from class, e-mailing me precise details on where I had been at what date and time. He would hack into my email, try to access my banking information, show up unannounced at my apartment and make a scene. Xavier would leave notes at my apartment or on my car that varied from disturbing “love letters” to lengthy handwritten poetry outlining if he couldn’t have me, nobody could.
The police told me to get a cellphone and call a friend whenever I left the house, call them again when I got to my car, call again when I got to my destination and to maintain that level of vigilance until further notice. It got to be a running joke among my friends where I would call them from my apartment, telling them what I was making for dinner or watching on TV. “Just eating some grapes. Thought you should know!”
I struggled with creating normalcy amongst such chaos. Laughing at the absurdity of my life was a tiny lifeline. This is crazy, right?
Every day, I would get more threatening messages and more unannounced visits. Xavier was always watching and he wanted me to know. But my life had to go on. I had papers to write, deadlines to meet, rent to pay. I lived a double life, with only those closest to me knowing about Xavier. To others, I was a typical undergraduate student, engaging in campus activism and working a part-time job. I maintained my naturally outgoing personality and people suspected nothing.
In an attempt to free myself, I would eventually move into a new apartment across town. It was a really dodgy neighbourhood but I felt the safest I had in years, living alone and away from Xavier’s watchful eye. My apartment was my private oasis and I loved sharing a tiny space with nobody but my beloved cat.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
Xavier followed me home from work without my knowledge and found out where I lived. He left me a note telling me he would always love me and that I had no choice. He would routinely leave presents at my doorstep, charming my elderly neighbours with the belief that he was an admirer. (“Such a sweet young man, trying to win your affections!”)
One night, I stumbled out of bed to get a drink of water and saw that Xavier’s car was parked in the alleyway behind my house. Inside was Xavier, staring at me.
I found rock bottom when I realized he had actually moved into the apartment behind my house so that he could always watch me.
Some days, I’d finish a 12-hour shift at work and crawl across my apartment to hide in my bathtub because it was the only part of my home he couldn’t see into. I’d lie there, fully clothed, in a catatonic state for hours, wondering what I had done to deserve this life.
He once left a will on my door, detailing how he was going to kill himself and make it look like an accident, but only I would know the truth.
When he heard through our hometown’s grapevine that I was going to visit family for a funeral, he stalked me from my house to the Greyhound station. Once there, he followed me into the washroom and threatened my life and his own, as another woman shook with fear in the stall beside me.
He only left when I frantically texted friends who came to drag him out of the bathroom and scare him away.
The chaos and mayhem of Xavier was a normal part of my life for 11 years.
I got my degree, went on to graduate school, got my first real job working for the federal government. Feminist activism grounded me. Reading, studying and working with survivors of gender-based violence gave me a sense of purpose.
In the early years, I never made a connection between Xavier and my work with women. Surviving that level of tyranny required me to compartmentalize my life: Over here, my private pain of enduring constant threats and monitoring from a man I had loved dearly; over there, my public life of advocating for other survivors of gender-based violence. Creating a sexual assault centre at my campus, fighting for victims’ rights to access rape kits and volunteering on support lines gave me a sense of purpose. It helped me rebuild the core that Xavier had spent years chipping away.
Eventually, I heard through old friends that Xavier moved away, got married and had children. And yet, the harassment and stalking never ceased, though it did wax and wane. I would sometimes go months without hearing anything and think, This is it. I’m finally free, only to have him send me an email outlining that he was still keeping tabs on me.
My activism bloomed into a fully-fledged career as an advocate for women’s rights. I became a source for journalists writing about sexual violence against women. I did countless interviews about experiencing street harassment and discrimination on the job, all the while knowing that every media interview, clip and photo was another way Xavier could gain entry into my life.
During this time, I never uttered a word about being a survivor of domestic violence or stalking, while fervently wishing the media would tell stories like mine. Women make up 76% of stalking victims in Canada and 58% of them are stalked by a former partner. I knew I wasn’t alone, but I also knew it wasn’t safe enough for me to say so.
What if I said something publicly and he took it as a provocation? What if he thought I was going to say his name? Every speaking engagement was met with fear. My mind would race as I walked up to the podium, scanning the room. Is he here?
Although I had “done the right thing” and left the man who abused me, I would never be rid of him. Learning to accept Xavier as the albatross around my neck took years. I would think I’d made great progress and then I’d hear from him again and spiral.
“He won’t stop until you’re dead.” The police said it. My counsellors said it. My family said it.
I believed it.
Until a message from an old friend that simply stated “I’m sorry if this upsets you, but I feel like you have the right to know. Xavier died in an accident today.”
Xavier is dead.
Xavier is dead.
Xavier is dead.
I say the words but they do not compute. They will not compute for years, I’m told.
I go home and dig up the folder of evidence I have carried for the 11 years I was stalked. I soak page after page with my tears, going through every threatening note, scrap of paper and email; an astonishing 70 documents in total. Over a decade’s worth of tyranny, laid on my living room floor and I can’t stop crying. Everything about our story, and it is our story, is sad. I’m sad for the young woman who tried so hard to reason with an unreasonable man. I’m sad that he wasted his own life, chasing after a ghost. I’m sad for his wife and children, because they are now without him and because I know they never fully had him in the first place. But most of all, I’m sad for all the wasted years of my own life.
There is no guidebook on what to do when your abuser dies. No maps on where to go next. But if my years of advocacy have taught me anything, it’s that we must create spaces for people to speak their truth.
Let me start: I was a victim of stalking for 11 years. You are not alone.
Are you experiencing abuse? If you are in immediate danger, call 911. Visit ShelterSafe for 24-7 support, including information on shelters near you. For additional resources—and ways to help abuse survivors—visit the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters & Transition Homes or YWCA Canada.
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