"I felt like a prisoner in my own house."
Sinan Saglam / EyeEm
Throughout the winter of 2016, Dodie Mercer, 34, led two lives. There was “9 to 5 Dodie,” the persona that she says allowed her to adopt a brave face at work and do her job. But when she clocked out and went home, Mercer slipped into her other routine: securing her house from her stalker.
“‘After work Dodie’ was a basket case,” Mercer wrote in 2016 a blog post about her experience.
Exiting her car was half the battle, Mercer says. Once inside her apartment, she would walk from room to room holding mace and a taser, looking behind her shower curtain, under the bed, and in closets for the intruder whose face she had come to know during his now daily appearance in the woods just outside her window. After ensuring he was not within her apartment, Mercer would lock herself in her bedroom, watching television until she fell asleep.
“I felt like a prisoner in my own house,” she says. “If for some reason I didn’t get home until after dark, I had someone meet me and walk me inside to help me clear the rooms. Every noise woke me––I thought it was him breaking in to rape or kill me.”
Mercer continued that cycle for more than a year, pushing away tears at work in an effort to, in her words, not appear “weak." She pushed on even after one evening, when she received 22 missed calls from a blocked number. She confronted her stalker by answering and saying, “Who is this and what do you want? Tell me or I’m calling the cops.”
“Show me your pussy,” he said.
“I lived in a vacuum while it was happening,” Mercer says. “Even on the worst days, when he would be outside and I'd have to call 911, I would block out what was happening while I was at work. Looking back, I think it was a survival technique. There's no way I could have functioned at my job if I didn't push it aside. Most days, I forgot that I was being stalked altogether until it was time to go home.”
That changed in March of 2016, when Nick––who Mercer had now come to know by name––was arrested. That, she says, is when the shock and adrenaline from the trauma began to wear off and her mental health began to suffer.
“Stalking and other forms of harassment and abuse have negative effects on the mental health of its victims, altering their general sense of wellbeing, their self-perception and their trust in their relationships with friends and acquaintances,” says Pilar Arana, a Buenos Aires-based psychotherapist. Arana adds that 7.5 million people are stalked every year in the US, with women and those aged 18 to 24 experiencing the highest rates of stalking.
An avid runner, Mercer even slipped back into a normal workout routine once Nick was arrested. It wasn’t until she moved out of the area two months later that the first signs of a mental health condition began to settle in. Mercer began to withdraw, using her new job as an excuse to isolate herself. She felt too exhausted to go for a run and simple errands resulted in her retreating to bed.
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A protein shake sent her over the edge. Mercer had managed to muster energy to go to the gym and rewarded herself with a post-workout shake. When she got to the car, she realized it was not the chocolate and peanut butter flavor she had requested. She was furious—the anger, she says, “coming off of me in waves.” She began to sob uncontrollably. “The whole time I was thinking ‘this isn't normal,’” she says. “And it scared me.”
A week later, Mercer found herself in an argument with a then-boyfriend about taking out the garbage. He told her she was lazy, and she blurted out: “I don't take the garbage out because I'm afraid of the dark.”
“As soon as I said it, I knew that it was true and that I needed help,” she says. Mercer met with a counselor and was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. “PTSD is characterized by four clusters of symptoms,” says Quandra Chaffers, a licensed clinical social worker. “One has to do with feeling like the trauma, or life-threatening event, is happening again. This may include nightmares, flashbacks, and reliving the events of the stalking.”
The other cluster, Chaffers explains, has to do with negative beliefs, like "I can't trust anyone anymore" and "the world is unsafe." Those who’ve been stalked may also be “keyed up and easily startled.”
“This might look like someone taking a long time to calm down even when they realize that their stalker is not around,” Chaffers says. “The final cluster of symptoms could be described as ‘always looking over your shoulder,’ or hyper-vigilance.”
Author Lizbeth Meredith says that after years of being stalked by her ex-husband––who also kidnapped their daughters and fled the country––left her constantly on edge, even after recovering her daughters and returning home. Meredith later wrote about the experience in her memoir, Pieces of Me: Rescuing My Kidnapped Daughters. “The sound of the phone ringing or someone knocking on the door would send me into a tailspin, sometimes into rage. I was diagnosed with PTSD within six months of my return.”
Michelene Wasil, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says it’s also not uncommon for women who have been stalked to take the blame for the situation, leading to depression and other mental health conditions. “She beats herself up over every interaction with statements like ‘maybe I was too friendly,’ ‘I shouldn't have said this or that,’” Wasil says. “The possibility of the stalker finding them is peppered throughout their lives––it’s like there's no escape. It feels like being a puppet and very much not in control of your own life.”
Today, Mercer says she is regaining some of that control. “PTSD rewires your brain,” she says. “I had a tremendous amount of anger that this man barged into my life and changed it forever. I understood that I would never be the same, but I didn't accept it."
“I'm still in the process of learning and defining who I am now,” she says. “It's a daily battle to keep the so-called demons away. But, like with running, the more you train, the stronger you become. And I'm becoming mentally stronger every day.”
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