I have been carrying the weight of this for several months now without knowing how to talk about it. I'm seeing a counselor at my school's mental health services to try to work through it, but I think I am finally ready to talk about it. It's gonna be a long read, I'm sorry!
Last semester, a fellow grad student sexually harassed, bullied, and emotionally abused me. Having experienced sexual assault before, I found myself being plunged back into a maelstrom of past memories. The emotional abuse brought back my relationship with my parents, who I have cut out of my life for being physically and emotionally abusice. My work suffered. I withdrew from a class. I had frequent, lingering nightmares. I am hoping by sharing with you all (a receptive and very supportive audience) I can get some peace. I've been hesitant to share mainly because, when I first told my mother about being sexually assaulted, she told me I deserved it because I was asking for it by being too curious about sex.
[Due to the fact the investigation is ongoing, I'm going to omit some identifying details. I'll call the person M. Those of you who know more, please refrain from posting details. Thanks!]
M was the first person who really reached out to me during my first week of graduate school. I was very nervous, eager to make friends, and struggling to deal with imposter syndrome. This was exacerbated by the fact I was a non-traditional student, lacking the conventional background most of my peers had. Immediately, M pushed conversations towards the personal. I'm a pretty outspoken feminist, so I figured he just felt comfortable confiding in a more progressive person. He quickly shared intimate details of his sex life and also the fact he was trans (I'm using male pronouns because that's what he wanted). He told me I was the only person who knew all of this and how comforted he felt by having my confidence. Although, I was a little put off by his immediate over sharing, I felt needed. I felt like I was helping.
Very quickly, a cycle began to emerge. M would alternate between complimenting me and ripping me down. He'd insult my intelligence, taunt me, make fun of my mistakes, and be overwhelmingly condescending. He established a pattern of abusing women who pissed him off, specifically by sharing the women's intimate secrets in an attempt to shame them. During all of this, he maintained he was a feminist and an ally.
M was in my hardest class with me. He was the only person who offered to help me she I struggled with the high level topics and gaps in my background. He alternated helping me with insults, advice with taunts. I felt like I had to pay a price in order to get assistance. It culminated in an argument where I told him the way he was speaking about his past lovers was unacceptable. I was angry that he would spread rumors about them in order to shame them. He was also doing this to a fellow grad student. She is stunningly beautiful and ridiculously smart. Because she wasn't interested in him, he would regularly share sexually explicit comments about her, then insult her, then sexualize, then share rumors. Whenever I grew close to any person, he would tell me horrible things about them. I realize now he was isolating me.
He then began to share with me the fact he was suicidal. He would regularly tell me I was the only thing keeping him alive. He would keep me up incredibly late with suicide threats. One example of this is when I was hospitalized. Due to my disability, my joints are very unstable. I tried to pick up a bag and my rib dislocated, bruising my lung. While in the hospital, he was incredibly supportive. The first day I was back, he began writing me suicidal notes, and I ended up having to stay at my office much later than my health allowed, trying to calm him. I felt trapped. I couldn't stand up to him for fear of setting him off.
In an attempt to draw boundaries, I told him about being sexually assaulted and explained that I needed personal space because I get panicky when men get very close to me. I realize this was a mistake to tell him but I hoped he would understand. I thought he was just socially oblivious. Unfortuantely, he took this and used it against me. He'd block me into corners, trap me in small rooms, lean very close, and be very loud in my face. He'd ask if he could hug me and, if I said no, he'd hug me anyways. I wish I could say I stood up to him. I wish I could say I was strong, but I wasnt. I withdrew and became more acquiescent.
His messages grew more and more insistent. It got to the point where he'd send me texts, phone calls, Facebook messages from 10am to 5am. If I didn't respond, he'd come into my office. If I was with a student, he'd interrupt and attempt to teach them instead of me. I began to get more and more hopelessly exhausted until I casually mentioned having problems with a peer to the aforementioned female grad. She immediately knew what was going on and said every female student in the department had a problem with him. He made inappropriate sexual comments, would interrupt their office hours or labs to teach for them, he'd tell each person they were the only person who knew his secrets, he'd threaten and harass people, etc. In each case, the only commonality was that each of his targets were female. We decided to stand up together and make a complaint, especially because his threats of suicide were getting more and more explicit.
The administrator we met with was supportive, but a firm believer that his mental health was the only issue. When I insisted there was a gender-based harassment element, she responded that we certainly didn't want to ruin his career. We insisted on moving forward with the title IX complaint. He was removed and put on medical leave, but no one would tell us if he was still on campus. He had seemed so volatile that we became afraid to be at the office by ourselves. My male officemate stayed with me through all of this, as M would not be harassing in front of a man.
As the investigation began, all the other women dropped out except for me. Why? Well, they are all in their last year of the program, so the fact M was put on medical leave for a semester meant that they would graduate before he returned. I'm the only person left in the case. At the beginning of this semester, I will have to confront him in a hearing where the university sits us at the same table and makes us answer questions the other has submitted. I'm terrified. I feel like a frightened child, like when my mom would hit me, scream at me, humiliate me.
My therapist says I need to find strength. I used to find it by being physically strong, but my disability has made that impossible. I feel like M sought me out because I looked vulnerable (visibly disabled). I haven't felt strong in a really long time, but I need to find it before this hearing or I'll crumble.
What makes you feel strong? When have you felt strong in the past? Have you had to confront someone? If so, how did you find the strength to do it?
(Thanks for sticking through this really long ramble. I appreciate it, really!)