This week’s question is a doozy. It’s long, and deeply unsettling. But on the plus side, it’s super easy to answer! I like things that are easy. Keep ‘em coming, folks!
[Reminder: We’re not going to follow you around and make you ask us questions. We simply hope you’ll send an email to us at [email protected] of your own volition. No need for this to get awkward. You know what’s in your best interest.]
Today’s writer really paints a picture with their question, but ultimately just wants to know if their gut instinct is correct:
I have a bit of a weird question for you that I hope a bunch of rational awesome people such as yourselves can help me with.
Am I being stalked?
A little bit of background first, earlier this year through a series of events I ended up a bit isolated. During this time I confided to a work friend who also has the same train route (this is an important and boring fact).
Recently work has become stressful and I notice she isn’t coping. She has been having wild mood swings and while she has always walked to the beat of her own drum some of her behaviour has been very odd. The most striking example came after being given some bad news she started shrieking with laughter…but it wasn’t happy laughter and it actually made me feel a bit scared.
She has also started taking her frustrations out on me…but only when no one else was there to see it. At first I tried to be understanding and accommodating because I thought that she must be feeling awful if she is behaving like this, but it started becoming nasty. So sensing this disturbance in the force, I have backed right off. I say hello and am polite but generally I am doing everything in my power to not be alone with this person.
With this in mind what do you think of the following events which have occurred over the last 2 weeks:
1. I had an appointment arranged at the end of the day. It meant that I would have to get on the train at a different stop. I didn’t tell her. I arrive at this different stop and then 3 minutes later she arrives, slightly out of breath. I was really confused because it is 10-15 minutes out of her way but I smiled, waved and attempted normal conversation… She then proceeded to repeatedly bite my head off over the next 20 mins. Cool.
2. She is sitting behind me and declares that she is going to a 1-2 hour long meeting, packs her things and goes. I decided that I was going to work from home for the rest of the day. I reach my normal stop, I hear heavy breathing and there she is. No mention of the meeting. Just a stiff hello and the most awkward 20 minutes of my life. Cool.
3. My team had a meeting rescheduled to a time when no other people would normally be in the office. This change was well known. I get on the train and she is there. She is on a train that will get her to work 2 hours early and she had to walk the entire length of the train to get to the carriage I get on at. I felt spooked and pretended not to see her. Cool.
Be truthful, is this weird?
YES. YES, IT’S SUPER DUPER WEIRD. HOLY CRAP.
I think your instincts are correct, and that your co-worker is definitely at least lightly stalking you. And since that’s basically all you asked us, then I suppose I could end this column here and move on, yes? But I feel like, especially in the case of STALKING, just identifying that it is a reality is insufficient. That’s like saying, “Why yes, your eyesight is correct — that train is DEFINITELY about to run you over. Good luck with that, BYEEEEE!” But on the other hand, I don’t feel right speculating about why your co-worker is behaving the way she is, or how dangerous her tendencies might be for your wellbeing. Based on the information you’ve shared I think we could all agree she’s at the very least unbalanced, but I’m not a mental health professional. All I have is a general rule about never underestimating people who know where I live.
So since we can’t get to the root of her issues in this space, let’s talk about what your next steps should be. Because while it doesn’t sound like your colleague has done anything more than be kinda creepy, the thing about stalkers is that the behavior often escalates. Is she dangerous? I don’t know. Maybe not! But that doesn’t mean your awkward commuting interactions will be the extent of her weirdness, either. So: how can you prepare yourself? What can you do? Luckily there are a lot of online resources out there, with tips for stalking victims, so I definitely recommend doing some Googling and seeing what might apply to your situation.
But the Overlords also discussed your letter, and I’m going to try and combine our collective wisdom with that of the professionals I’ve researched, to see what tips I can offer you.
Do Not Engage Her Any Further: You’ve tried to be friendly. And while the fact that you work with her means that you can’t completely cut ties, I’d avoid any interactions from here on out beyond what is strictly necessary for your job. Since it sounds like she’s already getting personally nasty toward you, that’s probably solid advice even without the stalking, honestly. But whatever you do: definitely don’t confront her. It could reinforce her behavior.
Take Steps To Be Less Isolated: You said yourself that this situation started when you had become a bit isolated in your life, and that you confided in your colleague about that. That may be how this whole situation started, and she may actually be taking advantage of the fact that you are isolated to behave the way she is. So I’d say work on building up a system of trusted friends you can rely on, so you aren’t such an easy target. At the very least, make sure someone is always aware of your whereabouts, but you can go deeper. Find someone else to commute with. Start going to the gym before or after work, or to bar trivia, or start volunteering in your community, or go to your friend’s house — any excuse be with people and make it harder for her to corner you, basically. But be aware that these constitute changes to your routine, which might in turn further destabilize her.
Protect Yourself: Always have your phone with you, so you can call for help. And consider getting a dog! They make pretty good alarm systems, but I also hate when people get pets for protection rather than companionship, so don’t actually go out and buy a puppy unless you have the means and desire to take care of it.
Document The Stalking And Report It: And here’s where the advice gets tricky. In your case, you don’t need to go to the cops necessarily — you can just go to your HR department. And personally, I think that’s a good idea, for a lot of reasons. HR may already have been hearing stories about your colleague being unreliable, hostile, or unbalanced in the office, and this could give them more context. They also may be aware of mental health issues your colleague may have that you’re not privy to. They may sign off on your working from home for a week, to break the cycle of her following you on your commute. Your relationship with this person started at work, and if they are making you uncomfortable then it should be addressed at work. But that’s the thing to realize: If you tell HR, they WILL address it. I don’t think there is a way to simply inform them of what you’re experiencing without having them then take action — and if they do, your stalker will know where the information came from. Basically, if you report these incidents to anyone, it will necessarily be a kind of escalation, and you need to be ready for that. But for what it’s worth, these kinds of behaviors don’t typically stop just because you ignore them. So think clearly about what your goals are here, and proceed accordingly. And in the meantime, look for a victim assistance program in your area, and call their hotline for advice. They’ll have more experience to help guide you than I do.
Finally, Genevieve pointed out that Ask A Manager also fielded a similar question to yours — only in their case, the writer was the person doing the stalking (read the second inquiry here, and then the update here). In that example the situation stemmed from extreme anxiety possibly bordering on paranoia, and an ongoing compulsion to then remedy the initial incident that eventually got the writer fired. But because of the incident, the writer sought better treatment and may have a chance to turn things around in the future. I wanted to share this because while nothing excuses the boundary-crossing that you’re experiencing, it doesn’t mean that your stalker necessarily has some malicious intent. Perhaps they too have a compulsion — they somehow feel the need to be on the same train as you every day, for example. And like that letter writer, maybe your stalker is also hurting and can’t help herself, and needs help. Not that her being misunderstood changes anything for you, of course. Just because you’re not getting Single White Female‘d, it doesn’t mean that what you’re going through is OK. Your safety is paramount, but I do think it’s useful to acknowledge that while we may have an image in our heads of what a “stalker” is, there is no single psychological or behavior profile that covers how or why they act the way they do.
PHEW. That was a lot. But I don’t want to end things on a “sympathy for the stalker” down note, so let’s wash the taste of that out of our faces with this special bonus question… ABOUT CHRISTMAS TREES!
As a former midwesterner, I have spent my entire life chopping down a tree at a tree farm in the snowy northern parts, having a horse (or tractor) drawn sled haul it back to the parking lot and I love my Xmas tree. I love picking a tree out, I love the smell and the decorating and I leave my tree up as long as I can without it becoming tinder.
I understand tree farms are sustainable industries that do — on average — more good than harm. But in the last few years I have started to hate the idea of cutting down a 6-8 year old tree just for 4-6 weeks of entertainment and nostalgia. And those cities and shopping mall that annually murder 100 year old growth so they can advertise the “Tallest Christmas tree” — make me physically Ill.
So I am thinking artificial this year, and I just want to know why people- who have Christmas trees choose what they choose.
PS: I tried to get a My living Christmas Tree” from www.mylivingchristmastree.com 2 years running now, and they are at capacity through 2019, in my area.
Thanks and MazelTov!!
You know, this was a more interesting question than I anticipated. You see, I kind of took it for granted that everyone understood that artificial trees are trash-tastic. Not in a bad way, mind you! I like a bit of kitschy nonsense as much as the next person. In fact, I think Christmas would be incomplete without a dose of kitsch — and an artificial tree is the height of that seasonal aesthetic. But I also have never owned one, and probably WILL never own one. My style trends toward covering my delightfully slaughtered “real” tree in kitsch instead.
So I was fascinated to hear the opinions of my fellow Overlords, who strongly stumped for artificial trees over the real thing. You can buy them to fit your space, and there’s less maintenance and clean up involved! No need to worry about them drying out and dropping needles and becoming a fire hazard! You may pay more upfront, but they last for years and years! And if you want that piney smell, just buy a dang scented candle!
But here’s the argument that stopped me in my tracks: With artificial trees… there’s no danger of letting unwanted critters or creepy crawlies hitch a ride on your tree and into your home.
Recently there has been concern that an invasive species, the Spotted Lanternfly, may lay their eggs on the bark of pre-cut Christmas trees and hatch over the holidays… INSIDE YOUR HOUSE. But really, it could be anything. Spiders would be a common concern, but last year I remember being told to carefully shake your tree off before bringing it indoors because the weather hadn’t been cold enough to kill off the local tick population yet. With artificial trees, whatever is infesting them is already infesting your attic or closet anyway. You’re not bringing in new threats from the wilderness.
But I still feel the need to defend my beloved, well-shaken and thoroughly inspected real trees, so here goes. Cutting them down may seem sad, but Christmas tree farms are constantly replanting, so it’s a fairly healthy cycle — and likely far less negatively impactful on the environment than whatever goes into the manufacturing of an artificial tree. And when you’re done with it, you can make a festive New Years bonfire out of it! Or, more realistically, have it recycled into mulch or something. And you really can’t beat the smell of a real pine or fir tree, in my opinion.
This year, I’m gonna go out into the woods and find my own funky little tree and cut it down, and I have friends who choose to go find a single tree limb and decorate it as their Christmas tree. In the past I’ve hung lights on a decorative orange tree I had in my apartment — because really, ANYTHING can be your “living” Christmas tree if you drape some lights on it. But I also remember getting a part-time job selling Vermont Christmas Trees at a stand in Brooklyn during my first year living in the city, and seeing people pay close to a hundred dollars for a tree about as tall as I was, and you know what? If that’s your only option, then yeah — getting an artificial one isn’t only practical, it’s also more cost-effective.
In the end, I think it comes down to personal tastes. You do you. There is no wrong answer. Unless, of course, you live in Florida: