Talia Stinson is a freelance writer and advocacy professional with over 13 years experience at both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
About a month after we buried my mother nearly six years ago, I started writing a journal. I’ve kept up with it to this day. She is my forever vault, my safe place. I told her all about a years-long ordeal with online harassment, including cyberstalking and sexual harassment that overshadowed my life and changed me in ways I never thought possible. In December 2016, I wrote to her, “Thank you for the fight in me...I never knew I was this tough, and I really only am because of you, and the fight you [still] have in you... ”
How It Began
It started randomly. A relationship with a (now former) friend of mine went sour over a disagreement about how to be involved in each others’ lives. At one point, she contacted my coworkers and, together, they commented on my weight, called me names and made sexually suggestive comments towards me. They felt as though my life as a single, well-spoken, well-educated, childless professional woman of color meant I was “theirs.” The harassment was overbearing and distracting.
To date, I’ve blocked over 40 fake profiles that taunted me online. I even reported the incidents to human resources, thinking that would settle the matter (but it, unfortunately, did not) and filed harassment complaints for the online activity, cyberstalking, and sexual harassment. Even though those "official" routes of response didn't prove as fruitful as I had hoped, here are some tips for how I have survived and am healing, that I hope may help you too.
1. Document everything
Keep notes in code or shorthand if you need to. Documentation is so very important. You never know when you’ll need the information you report to yourself.
I wrote in my journal and saved emails as a multi-year documentation of this experience. I am intentional in written communication; I always have been. I wrote down details about the harassment in my journal, including the specific behaviors and tactics I experienced. Documentation can provide support to either HR or legal authorities in situations like this. Think of it as a form of insurance. I subconsciously was creating a coat of armor with my DIY documentation process, one that I kept to myself for years.
2. Do not let fear stop you
Stand up for yourself even when you feel alone.
I shared parts of my story with a few trusted friends. And even still, the loneliness I felt was palpable. I steadily tracked the online harassment for four years. Given the line of work I was in, it was a risk to take my chosen approach. However, I was confident that I had made the right choice, in spite of fear. In some ways, my fear was my fuel. Not knowing when the darkness turns into light is unsettling. Feeling isolated while enduring is tough, but that does not have to be a deterrent.
There is nothing selfish about putting yourself first in order to survive. Your safety matters, and regardless of who you may upset as a result, do not back down. While standing firm, try to maintain your distance. Create your own safe space, and remember, you get to be the CEO of that space. Decide who is allowed in and who has to stay away, either temporarily or permanently. Choose without explanation if necessary. That’s what I did—and I’m not sorry at all. I did nothing wrong.
I do not need permission to feel safe. No one does. There is nothing wrong with preserving your humanity unapologetically. There is an unspoken power in being both fearful and fearless simultaneously.
3. Trust your instincts
Walk in your truth, one step at a time.
I now realize that deciding to keep a journal was strategically intentional. In some ways my mom led me to take that path. My instincts told me to go to the one person that, to this day, I trust more than anyone else in the universe. Time and again, I went to the safest place I had ever known.
Many people will offer to listen and help. Some have their own agendas and motives, as well as their own perspective. No one else’s agenda gets to be a priority over your humanity. If online advances do not feel right to you or internet behavior doesn't feel appropriate, you are likely right. Learning to trust myself was how I have gotten this far.
It’s helpful to recognize that bureaucratic structures are not perfect and often don’t give you satisfactory results. That’s why I let my instincts guide me. Online harassment and bullying should not be taken lightly; you learn a lot about people when you go through something like this. My boundaries have been tested more times than I can count these last few years, in some cases by people I have long admired.
I’ll say it again: if you feel threatened, then take the appropriate measures to stay safe. Be your own confidant if necessary, for however long it takes.
OnlineSOS Resource: How to Conduct a Threat Assessment
4. Indulge in self-care
Self-care matters. Do what’s best for you.
Managing self-care through a trauma is complicated, especially if you’re a private person. I can’t count the number of nights I cried myself to sleep, wondering if my health mattered at all. In February 2019, I wrote in my journal, “Honestly after 2.5 years of it, I’m just very tired and it stresses me out...and my blood pressure shows it.”
However, the important point here is to listen to your body; it does communicate with you at times like this. Listening to my body and prioritizing self-care led me to eventually leave my job. Ultimately, I decided that money and jobs come and go, but my safety and humanity are invaluable. They are not for sale.
At this point of my journey, I truly believe that there is something to be said for going through a traumatic experience or life-shifting experience and making it through to the other side. My story is mine, just as is my healing. I’m still walking towards the other side, one day at a time. Everyone’s healing process is different, and experiences vary. I’d encourage all to walk at their own pace.
We’ll all get to the other side eventually, that much I know for sure. See you there.
Thank you so much to Talia for sharing her story with us and the public. Interested in sharing your own story? Get in touch →
Additional Online Harassment Resources
- How to Properly Document Online Harassment
- How to Talk to Colleagues or Your Employer About Online Harassment
- How to Conduct a Threat Assessment
- Is your concern not listed above? Visit our Action Center for more resources →
Illustration created for OnlineSOS by Anna Tóth