There’s a shirt that hangs in the back of my closet, nestled among the rarely worn pieces: a winter coat, a two time champion Ugly Christmas sweater, a vaguely Handmaid’s Tale-like frock that one of my friends had the audacity to call a bridesmaids dress. This shirt is… well, it’s beautiful. The color is a deep burnt orange-y rust that perfectly contrasts with a summer tan. The sleeves hit at that just right length and the fabric, oh the fabric. It’s a buttery soft cotton blend that is both airy and light, yet hugs you in the right places.
I’ve worn this shirt once, just once, and then relegated it to the back of the closet, never to be worn again. Twice in the last two years I’ve shifted clothes aside so I can admire it, briefly consider wearing it, but… ultimately I can’t. The last time I wore it was over three years ago, with a hundred therapist appointments, group therapy sessions, and breakdowns that turned me inside out in between.
Sexual harassers seek control they feel they are entitled to. Studies have found that harassment “typically does not come from those who are secure in their power, but instead from those who do not have power they desire – it is a small person’s attempt to control that which they cannot or should not control.” The individual I had the misfortune of knowing was not in a position of power over me, rather I was his superior. In hindsight I believe this added to his anger, to the narrative he created in his mind about me, about the “us” he imagined. He was textbook in his ways and he had a cycle: he would be extra friendly and talkative with me, which would eventually lead to him asking me out. I would politely remind him that dating wasn’t allowed, and that I wasn’t interested, but thank him for the offer. He would then be angry with me for some time until the cycle restarted. While others were congratulating me on a successful project, he would wait until we happened to be alone and say things like, “I love your outfit. Did you wear that dress for me?” or, my favorite, “Why were you flirting with that client right in front of me? How do you think that made me feel?”
After that particular comment I called my direct manager and reported the behavior. The employee was reprimanded within a day, nothing major, just a sit down and a firm directive to treat colleagues with respect. Two days later I showed up to work in my beautiful rust colored shirt. I had just clipped the tags off that morning.
One of my employees pulled me aside. She couldn’t meet my gaze and was pulling on her earlobe in an almost compulsive fashion. I remember her phone had a tiny cat charm that hung off the bottom edge, merrily swinging as she pulled up the website, and then the different social media accounts. They all had a countdown. The profile photo was a selfie I’d taken the previous summer and posted on my Facebook; my cheeks are dotted with freckles and my smile is genuine. The bio read simply: “POSTING MY NUDES IN TWO DAYS! 😉” He’d created several profiles and then friended every single one of our colleagues, my boss. I remember everything fading into a tiny pinpoint of light and noise. I excused myself to my office.
I’d read once that you should put your head between your knees if you feel faint. Outdated information perhaps, but I immediately dropped my head down and closed my eyes, willed the panic to subside.
There was a knock at the door. A fellow manager and friend. She knelt down next to me and cradled my head in her hand. For a moment she was silent, and I didn’t have to say anything. Then I heard her open her mouth, exhale. “There’s more,” she said.
The rest of the day was laced in fog, and I only remember bits and pieces: finding out he’d taken more photos from my personal Facebook (now locked down and next to impossible to find) and even worse, he’d taken a photo of a letter I’d written to my brother and posted for his graduation and he cropped it so it just showed “I love you” in my signature purple pen. Everyone knew my purple pen was my calling card. Once I’d lost it during lunch and halted everyone’s day to help me find it. He posted the sentiment I’d expressed to my little brother and purported it to be his own, captioning it, “I have more evidence like this.”
It took six tortuous days and five nights for my company to finally get him to remove everything. The social media sites were utterly useless; my friends helped me in reporting him and his accounts but nothing was ever done. Under threat of losing his job he removed them. He was shipped off to another district, the problem was swept under the rug. I started showing up at work thirty minutes early because it took that long to talk myself into getting out of the car, to walk into the office amidst judging glances and stares. Most of my colleagues knew it was all slander, but my gut aches at the thought of those who questioned it. Who thought, “Could it be true?” By all accounts, he won.
What angered me most was my inability to move past this. At sixteen I experienced sexual assault, a much more outwardly violent and vicious attack than this, and at that age I shoved the experience in a box and never once indulged in it. I never told anyone until a drunken dinner fifteen years later with a friend who cried with me over steaming plates of pasta. Why was I letting this get to me?
I resisted therapy for months until one day I looked outside my car window and realized plainly that people who kill themselves don’t always want to die. They just don’t want to live anymore. I couldn’t imagine feeling this way the next day and then the next and so on… I knew right then I had to reach out and get help.
I’ve come a long way since then. I can actually talk about it without acrid bile rising in my throat. Without looking over my shoulder. A year ago I finally reopened my social media accounts. They’re all private of course, but still. Baby steps.
A decision you may make in the briefest of moments could have lasting effects on another human being. It could change the very way they act, the way they view the world, the way they dress. I’m reminded of this every day I open my closet.