Content Warning: Psychological Abuse, Harassment, Stalking
The greatest journeys in life are made of small steps, and leaps of faith.
While in the process of getting divorced, in mid-2015, I met a man:
Douglas Paszkiewicz aka Douglas Pasz, the creator of Arsenic Lullaby.
It was a comic convention after-party for volunteers/creators, in May. He was funny. Sarcastic. Guests overheard him walk into the room and ask who the single ladies were. He sat at my table. He was small, scruffy, and wearing an old olive drab jacket. I love jackets. I was drunk. Very drunk. He caught my eyes as soon as he sat down. I popped up from my chair. “That is the greatest jacket I have ever seen!” I blurted out. Our eyes met. He looked up at me over the frame of his glasses, as a wide, toothy smile crept across his face. His eyes never left mine, as he slipped around the table and into a chair next to me. Suddenly, there was no one else in the room except us. I leaned against his shoulder, and wrapped my hands around his arm. “Hello, Doctor Venture,” I slurred, stroking his chin whiskers, and popping Chex Mix into his mouth from the snack bowls. His lip curled. “Why does it have to be that character …?!” he replied. “What’s your favourite musician?” I asked. “I like Lady Gaga!” “Someone has to,” he said. I furrowed my brows. “What’s your favourite Pink Floyd song?” He thought for a moment, then quietly sang a few bars of Wish You Were Here.
Satisfied with that, I later inquired, “Do you smoke?” as I pulled two cigarillos from my satchel. “Sure,” he responded, standing up with me, transfixed. We went outside into the brisk Minnesota evening, leaning against opposite brick walls and puffing away. “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here, honestly,” I drunkenly rambled. “Uh-huh,” he responded, staring at me with his cigarillo hanging off his lip. “I just had an early mid-life crisis, and decided to start all over,” I continued on. “Uh-huh,” he responded, still staring. Our conversation continued in this manner until the cigarillos burned out, and we shuffled back inside. We passed the rest of the evening drawing together with Sharpies on the paper tablecloth. He looked at me at one point, and laughed. “I should marry you right now,” he said. “You’re ticking off all my boxes.” Hook, line, sinker.
He asked to stay the night in my hotel room. Flattered, I declined.
We texted throughout the night and morning, and so I arrived somewhat late to the convention the next day. I was drawing a picture of Doctor Venture with the words “Wish You Were Here,” when he appeared at my table and began thumbing through my photocopied mini-comics. I blushed ferociously and hid behind my hat. We chatted a bit, then he returned to his table, which I later visited in turn. Near the end of the convention, someone from a neighbouring table took a picture of us together, which Douglas told me that night, “Looked like a couple that had already gelled together as a team.” I dreamed of being half of a creative duo, and was over the moon from his attention and enthusiasm.
Douglas wanted to see me in person again before I returned to Texas, and drove three hours to meet me for lunch at a tiny family restaurant in La Crosse, WI. We sat and chatted for an hour in his car afterward. He nervously kissed me. Our chemistry was electric. He told me a little bit about his ex-wife. He confessed that he liked Taylor Swift. His hands had a subtle tremour when we touched, which he assured me was not because he was nervous. They just do that.
When we finally parted ways, as I was getting out of the car, I asked “Should I draw you?” “Uh-huh,” he replied. “Will you draw me?” I then asked, “I’d like that.” “Okay,” he replied this time. I had only driven a mile or two toward the route home when my mobile phone rang. I pulled over at a rest stop. He was flustered. I reassured him. “You seem like you have your head on straight,” he finally said. “But you know, you know there’s always something better out there.” I reassured him again, and we texted constantly throughout my trip home.
Shortly after my return to Houston, he called one day to talk. “Well,” he said. “There’s three things I need to tell you — one, I’m pretty conservative, but I guess not socially. And two, I’m religious. And three, I want kids. And I’m not sure why I’m telling this to someone I’ve only known for a week.”
“Well,” I told him. “I’m pretty done with politics right now. And I am an atheist that enjoys Catholic Mass. But I can’t help you with the kids. I was sterilized a few years ago.” He laughed. “Well, my friend is an atheist, that’s okay. And it’s not your fault I’m 41 and I haven’t had kids yet. I’m so crazy about you already!” He joked, “Part of me wants to tell you to pack up your things and move here right away, and after you get here we’ll figure it out. But I’m trying to be an adult for once in my life.” He never asked me if I would want that.
“You know I’m broke,” he said another afternoon. “I can’t pay for everything like your ex-husband. Everything I own comes from the thrift shop.” “That’s all right,” I replied. “I have virtually everything I could ever want here, and it hasn’t made me happy. I want someone that can make me laugh.”
Another call. “Now, four women have told me that they loved me in the last ten years,” he explained. “Two of them cheated on me, and two moved here to be with me, and it was a disaster. But,” he continued, “on a scale of, like, white to black, their ‘issues’ were India ink. And yours are only grey. The ‘kids thing’ still bothers me, but we just need to find out if we’re compatible.”
“I keep dating women much younger than me,” he said. “But not, like, illegal or anything! Do you believe in Fate?! I’m not sure if I am supposed to repeat this pattern until I get it right, or what. I just don’t know.”
It was around this time that the random flickers of his anger and deliberately ignoring me began when, overwhelmed by my thoughts and frustrations with expressing myself, I occasionally wrote long private messages to him.
It was June of 2015. A phone call — I was sprawled upon the floor, aside the elliptical machine I had used to shed 50lbs over the previous several months. “I won’t be able to talk very much this month. I’m getting ready for San Diego Comic-Con,” he said. “I want to go to Comic-Con!!” I exclaimed. “Sweetheart, sweetheart,” he carefully answered. “You’re not going to Comic-Con. I’m going there to sell comic books, and we would just be off fucking in the bathroom.” Aghast, I faintly squeaked out, “…but I’m a professional.”
His words rolled around like burning-hot marbles inside my skull.
He gushed over my selfies and video messages. He would sporadically dwell on “getting to know” me better. He captivated me with narratives and tales about how Important and Influential he was. But the special treasures were the times, often late at night — he would send me photos of a picture he was working on, speak about the comics industry, or explain a technical aspect of the work he was doing. At last, someone speaking my language! My heart would soar.
One evening, during his all-consuming preparations for San Diego Comic-Con, we had a conversation where the “kids thing” was brought up again. Being extremely distressed, I wrote a heartfelt message about my perspective, and asked if he could spare a few minutes to discuss it. He became irate, and an argument ensued which ended with him declaring to me, “You know, I really want to like you — but you’re kind of an asshole!” And he believed that the reasons that I was leaving my ex-husband were bullshit because, “He didn’t even beat you, or cheat on you, or do any of the other stuff guys usually get up to. What did he do wrong, just gain a little weight?!” He shamed me.
Eventually the subject of my divorce was off-limits, because he would become too angry on behalf of my to-be-ex-husband, and we would only fight.
The one time I told him, “You can’t talk to me like that!” I was quickly scolded into submission. I began mental gymnastics to turn his labelling of me as an asshole and crazy into running jokes, to help myself feel better. I started to talk more poorly about myself. I started to internalize his judgement.
“I’m easy to please,” Douglas said one night, in response to my fretting and need for reassurance. “Just do what I say, and don’t do what I say not to do.”
“Look at me, I’m the Queen of Assholes!”
In spite of all this, I was still smitten, and I had barely thrown my belongings into my apartment in Saint Paul before driving even further to see him again. The texts overflowed with his excitement and mine, as I got closer.
We met up in a nearby parking lot, where I drove in circles around his car, before we parked and fell into each other’s arms on his couch. “Bring something to work on, so you can stay longer,” he had told me. And what followed then after was a week of us quietly working together — painting, drawing, inking. Late nights listening to Coast to Coast AM. My heart would flutter when one of my jokes landed, and I’d see his shoulders shake with laughter. He’d come sit and watch me work for brief moments of time. He’d hold my ink work close to his nose, examining everything in fine detail. He understood the amount of effort.
He lived in borderline squalor — walls and cabinets lined in old rusted junk and broken tools, and who-knows-what. A huge part of his diet was donated meals left-over from a catering company where one of his friends worked. He poured some Tang powder into a refilled soda bottle, and stood shaking it up at his sink one night. He glanced back over his shoulders at me, and said, looking down at the bottle, “The things you do don’t seem so strange, until there is someone watching you do them.” I had never felt so happy in all my life.
We kissed goodbye in the rain, and terrified, I sent a text as I pulled away in my truck. “I think I love you,” it read. I was chastised for saying “I love you,” via text, especially for ruining the first time it was said between us.
“What the Hell — I love you too!” he said on the phone later, quickly followed by “DAMN IT, why did I say that?!” After a few more minutes, he said, “Well, we are pretty great together!” Thus began the hot-and-cold teasing.
The distance between him and myself was about six hours by driving. When I made the decision to leave Texas, I moved to Saint Paul, where I already had several friends at that time and had lived previously. I rented a two-bedroom apartment, so that I would have a bedroom, a dedicated office space, and if he ever chose to join me he could utilize the living room as his office. Two can live cheaper than one alone, per person, and my pragmatic mind recognized potential in pooling hotel and travel expenses while doubling sales at shows. That would, however, require accepting me as an equal partner.
I offered to help with his website. I offered to help market his work.
I would go on to visit him a few more times, which followed a clear cycle — he would be indifferent to me visiting, then would contact me more frequently, until he’d reach actual excitement by the time I arrived at his door. He would grow distant in the same predictable way, as time drew near for me to leave. Often he would mostly ignore me while I was there, once even leaving me to visit the zoo by myself, asking, “Why would I go there with you?!” His mother took a liking to me immediately, much to his frustration, and my delight. I had an inexpensive slow-cooker and food containers delivered to his apartment. I would stop at the Pick ‘N Save down the street and load up my truck cab with groceries, fill his fridge, and spend a day making pasta sauce, taco meat, pot roast, and other food to freeze for him for after I’d left. I cooked while he sat and worked to the sound of a crackling old radio and rattling A/C unit.
When I accidentally spilled a plastic box full of cotton swabs in his bathroom, he referred to them as “tiny trophies” because they were name-brand Q-tips that he had procured with a coupon. When we grocery-shopped together, he referred to good deals as “a pound of food for $X.” I had never heard anyone speak like that. How long had he been living that way? I wondered.
About a month after I moved to Saint Paul, a grudge between the comic book convention and him caused him to write a lengthy, public, and theoretically-damning exposé before the fall show. I sat on his couch looking at him, as he stood, deflated, in the centre of his apartment. “Don’t publish it,” I urged him. “IT NEEDS TO BE SAID!” he insisted. “Come to the show. Stay with me. Let it go,” I pushed. “I should be there!” he exclaimed, his eyes bulging out at me. “I’d make at least a thousand bucks! I could even have sex!” he gesticulated. “More than once, even!” I retorted, then his arms dropped to his sides.
He posted his vitriol, and has been trashing the show ever since. The reason he was originally angry was because the convention purchased a plane ticket for an artist’s wife, after telling him they wouldn’t. Probably to shut him up.
There had been Rules almost from the beginning, but the fight over the fall convention and the ensuing drama caused us to briefly break-up. He went on a vengeful tirade about women on his Facebook account, during which time I was blocked, until I persuaded myself back into his good graces and all the posts were deleted. This is when THE RULES really ratcheted down. “I don’t want to be in your cutesy comics!” he would growl, whenever I — you know, tried to do what I do. He found out I’m an autobiographer the night we met.
THE RULES were: Don’t talk about him identifiably. Don’t name him. I was not allowed to talk publicly about being in a relationship because it was too easy to figure out who he is. Don’t draw him, ever. Don’t text message him about any “important” topics. Text messages may not be longer than two sentences. He will not respond to messages that break the rules. NO GIFTS allowed, except food. Never move or touch his stuff. Don’t leave ANYTHING at his apartment. Heaven help me the day I put a drawn map to my apartment on his desk!
Anytime our relationship became too stable, the “kids thing” would come up again. I begged him repeatedly to just allow us to enjoy the relationship, and see where things went. To enjoy each other’s company, and be happy in the moment. But that was not possible, and being yanked back-and-forth by his hot-and-cold routine eventually began to wither my spirit. He would explain his distance and cruelty as trying to “protect” both of us from being hurt. “Pain,” he lectured me, “is bad. And you should do anything you can to avoid it.”
His agony over not having a family, both in private between us, and in public through his writing, eventually started to drive me crazy with guilt. I was the one asking him to give up a family for me. Adoption was unacceptable. But then if we broke up, I would be abandoning him like the “others,” and doing exactly what he said I would at the beginning of our relationship. I was stuck.
He claims to be an “open book” to his followers, but much of the biographical material he shares is partially or completely manufactured. He became furious with me when I believed a story he told on his podcast about a daughter in a recurring dream was true, and let him know I had found it touching.
Things ratcheted down even further. If I was upset about something he had done, it became me accusing him of hurting me. If I accidentally broke a RULE and he blew up, it was me deliberately causing drama. If I said anything sort of critical, it became “You’re only nice when you get what you want!” A sweet, “Don’t let me go!” from me at the end of the night’s call resulted in telling me that he felt like vomiting, he had felt so manipulated the entire following day. Any money laid out due to him, was me attempting to make him feel guilty. I was simultaneously treated like a child and condemned for not being an adult.
He behaved in ways to exacerbate my difficulties with anxiety — deliberately, even when I begged him to stop and told him it would reduce the behaviours he did not like, such as texting him too frequently. He set me up to fail.
Normal teasing turned into “jokes” about choking me, locking me out of his car in the snow, shoving me face-down onto the floor, and having sex publicly in front of children. He “jokingly” referred to me as an emasculating bitch.
“You just want us to be together!” he chided me. Well, yes, of course? “You’re pushing all my buttons!” Every conflict was about his boundaries. His needs. He complained about me telling him that I missed him. He complained about me telling him I loved him. Toward the end of our relationship, he switched to straightforward gas-lighting. Didn’t do it. Didn’t say it. Didn’t promise it.
By the holidays I was a wreck, and everyone was starting to worry.
Christmas season came, which he infamously makes a public show of shitting on every year. After creating some art for his birthday, since I was not allowed to give him a gift, I spent days completing my entries for his annual colouring contest to help promote his comic. I carefully studied his usual palettes, and chose colours and shading to compliment but not overwhelm his fine lines. My first entry, he posted almost immediately, which drew comments from others about the work “looking like a couple who had been dancing together for 20 years.” Chuffed, I was working on the second entry when he asked to call me a couple of weeks before Christmas. There was silence on his end of the line until he shouted, “I LOVE YOU!” and in the middle of my confused, “Whaaa-?” he followed up with “BOMBS AWAY!” and promptly hung up on me.
Pressed for an explanation afterward, he told me that he had been thinking, and decided that he was, indeed, in love with me. “Does that mean you will come visit me for Christmas??” I hesitated. “Yes, I can come for Christmas!!” he answered, and I was elated. The next two weeks leading up to Christmas were filled with giddy “good morning” and “good night” texts, promises about our relationship becoming “Facebook official” and no longer a secret, promises that he would name me the “winner” of his colouring contest to introduce me as his girlfriend, addressing me by Jennifer Paszkiewicz, and teasing jokes insinuating that he may give me a ring. For three days I cleaned, pre-cooked meals, decorated, and did everything I could think of (no gifts!) to provide him the greatest Christmas possible, and allow us to make the most of the time together.
He showed up at my stoop Christmas Eve, several hours late, and frozen due to the heater failing in his decrepit old car. I brought him inside, took his coat, and he kissed me, awkwardly mumbling “I love you,” without looking at me. We got briefly reacquainted, and afterward, I served up a dinner of home-made lasagna. He had requested I find a small Midnight Mass service, so we ended the night in church. He wanted to leave half-way through the service, and on the way back, complained that the service wasn’t “joyful” enough. I tried.
After getting back, he promptly fell asleep.
I woke him up around ten in the morning Christmas Day, with a hot breakfast on the table. He thanked me for the food, but complained that I didn’t let him sleep until two or three. He then got out the Christmas tree he had brought with him, and proceeded to spend most of Christmas Day looking to replace broken bulbs on the tree and hanging ornaments. He used my record-player to listen to a few albums he had brought. (I bought him a record player a few weeks before, which resulted in a lecture about boundaries and he forced me to return.) The rest of the evening we sat around watching Netflix.
The day after Christmas, he scheduled a lunch date with two friends that live here in Saint Paul, Steve and Al, whom I did not know at that time. I was not invited or included. He came back happy to show me the Christmas gifts they had given him. While he was at lunch, I discovered my gift from “Santa” under the tree; two copies of the prints he had made for Christmas, some original sketches, and the original art of the single drawing he made of me. I adored his work, and was genuinely thrilled to receive it all. He then asked to use my computer, and passed at least two hours composing an email coupon/sales newsletter for his mass emailing list, while I needled him gently for a scrap of attention.
The following morning, he packed up his things and left in a hurry.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seemed to drag on for an eternity, as I waited patiently for all that he had promised to me. In the early weeks of January, my “winning” second colouring contest entry was dropped, unceremoniously, in one large photo post with a number of other entrants. I found out I did not win the same time as everyone else, when he shared the results in a public blog post. Nothing he had promised me came to pass.
Naturally, I was devastated. I attempted multiple times to explain to him how much this had hurt me. He was angry. Extremely angry. In the nine months we were together, I never received a single sincere apology from him. In this instance, the most I got was, “I should not have set those expectations.”
“The other judges,” he said, “would not go along with choosing your work.”
I changed my Facebook status to “In A Relationship.” He raged.
I asked to visit him soon, to discuss it in person. Denied.
Our last real conversation. A phone call — I cried. I begged. I bargained. Why couldn’t anyone know we were in a relationship?! “You’ll be JEALOUS of other women posting on my page,” he answered me. I already saw other women posting on his page. That didn’t make any sense! “Why would I be jealous?” I asked. “Because you’re A WOMAN!!!” he shouted into the phone.
“Besides,” he continued, “do you want me getting into fights with men flirting on your posts?” “I wish you would!” I shot back. “Yeah, well, that’s no good!! And you don’t know how many men are giving you money only because they want to fuck you!” I sat in stunned silence. “I wish you understood,” he later added, “how heartbreaking it is for me to have never had any children, and to watch the door closing on that. I don’t know if I can live through another Christmas… wanting what everyone else has, without killing myself.”
“I wish you understood,” I replied, “how heartbreaking it is for me to see you unhappy, and I am unable to give you what you want.” I felt helpless.
“What’s important? Do you want to be a Dad? Or do you need to point at a baby and say, ‘I made that!’?” I asked him, genuinely. “NOBODY WHO WANTS KIDS WOULD SAY SOMETHING LIKE THAT!” he roared back. “You say that you want to give me the world, but you can’t even do what I tell you to!”
No progress was being made and finally, out of absolute desperation, I cried, “This is like talking to a brick wall! I can’t do this anymore!” “What does that mean?!” he snarled back. “Are you saying that this is over?” “That’s not what I want!” I answered. “But I don’t know what other choices I have! You don’t talk to me, you don’t listen to me, we rarely see each other!” “Well maybe if you texted me more than just mush, I’d answer!” he snapped back, fuming. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t…” I started to break down.
“Well, that’s not a decision you make on a whim,” he finally said, now calm.
“I’ll talk to you later,” he finished. And he hung up.
He came down with a fever the next day, and spent the following week quite sick. He posted regular updates joking about his death, while the cumulative damage of the previous nine months and the way things just abruptly ended sent me into an anxiety-fueled tailspin. I felt angry. I felt guilty. I felt relieved. I was overwhelmed by my confusion, and sent dozens, possibly hundreds, of text messages. Angry. Begging. Bargaining. Pleading. Trying to make sense of how he had treated me over Christmas and afterward. What did I do???
When he had recovered, he sent me a brief message to let me know he was better. “I am sorry,” I said. “There is nothing to apologize for,” he replied. “We are simply not compatible.” Just like that! No tears. No remorse. No sorrow. I offered break-up sex. He declined. No bad blood? Sure, agreed. But I was still angry, confused, and hurt. “And YOU need to learn how to treat people,” he scolded me. He asked me to search for his toiletry bag in my bathroom. He let me stay friends on his Facebook account, but informed me I was not allowed to comment on or like his posts. More rules. Do not name or write about him. Do not tag him in anything. Do not post photos of him. He untagged himself from our only two photos. Then came the inevitable “I told you so!” I was soon blocked.
I felt like a toy, broken and thrown in a trash bin. I felt less than worthless. I felt erased. I felt voiceless. I felt invalidated. I felt powerless. I had not only been cast aside callously by someone that I loved, but someone whose work I had deeply admired, and who I had looked up to as a colleague.
Troubled by the constant talk of suicide, I messaged his closest friend I knew. I asked the friend to look after him. “I will, thank you” he assured me.
I began drawing a comic about our relationship in clear defiance of his RULES, but I was persuaded to stop by my friend James, and again I felt powerless.
I felt so alone and undesirable. I ached to prove him wrong! I started dating a coworker. When that decision turned out disastrous for me, I signed up for dating sites and began casually going out with anyone I found attractive and interesting. This was actually one of the better decisions I made at the time! In spite of a few short infatuations, I got to see a lot more of the Twin Cities, and virtually all of the men I spent time with were kind, understanding, and respectful. I began to rebuild my sense of self-worth, and I remained friendly acquaintances with several of them. But Douglas’s words still haunted me.
Between my anxiety, grief, and untreated ADHD, I was not able to control the impulse to try to contact him. He asked me to stop, but he had done so in the past, and had always eventually given in. I sent him hundreds of messages; some angry, most heartbroken. Some merely long letters full of my thoughts. Many were responding to arguments we had had that I was unable to move past. I begged for an honest conversation. A reconciliation of friendship. Something that would help me make sense of what had happened. I got only silence.
Because I wanted a conversation, I never made any attempts to circumvent the social media where I had been blocked. I did not especially care what he was doing — indeed, there were places he never bothered to block me at all. It was hard enough to see him return to grumbling about the quality of women he dates and his poor romantic luck on his website. I wanted so badly to talk and write about what I had been through, but I was afraid of him.
I met Al, formally (he was there the night of that initial party), at an envelope stuffing for the comic book convention. From Al, I learned that he and Steve were at the lunch I was not invited to on the day after Christmas. When they asked Douglas why he was in Saint Paul, he only replied, “I’m visiting a friend.” I felt erased all over again, but was grateful that Al listened to me. Al had me frame a drawing he had commissioned from Douglas. I texted Douglas a photo of the complete project, stating I had taken great care with framing it.
My mental condition had deteriorated so badly, due to our relationship, that I eventually sought out professional help. My therapist actually encouraged me to “keep the lines of communication open” and offered me nothing in the way of actionable strategies to control anxiety. I stopped going after a while.
My attempts to contact Douglas had mostly tapered off by mid-2016. I sent him a small package with a greeting card and a sealed bag of his favourite candy before the 2016 convention. It was returned unopened. I stayed as far from him as possible at the comic convention. He briefly made his “appearance” at the party where we had met a year before. He kept his back to me, grabbed his free drink, and then quickly darted away. His suit fit like a pillowcase, and he looked painfully thin. I sat and watched all this. Al gave me the gift he had intended for Douglas, a miniature bottle of Crystal Skull vodka. Steve asked Al to introduce us.
“That’s Doug’s ex!!!” Al told Steve. “Doesn’t that violate the bro-code?” “She’s crazy,” Steve replied. “If anything, Douglas will be happy for me to take her off his hands.” He finished, drunk. “I’m gonna fuck her.” Steve sat next to me and began chatting. I spied Douglas’s name and several text messages I could not read, shining up from the screen of Steve’s mobile phone on the table. Suspicious, I did not mention it, but instead talked about my work.
The final day of the show, Douglas had unknowingly parked his car across from my new car. He is similarly late, so we probably arrived within minutes of each other. Both cars sat together, alone, facing in exactly opposite directions in an emptied-out section at the back of the lot. I left a small paper on his window, saying that I hoped he had a good show. Afterward, I sent him a short email stating the same, and that I hoped he was getting enough to eat.
The next evening, I got news that my estranged father had killed himself. He never recovered from the loss of my mother, and he had his finances drained and life ruined attempting to please the woman he was with after her. I had two lines on my phone, because of the aforementioned disastrous coworker relationship. I texted Douglas from both lines. “If you ever want to kill yourself, and you have nowhere else to turn, please know I am here for you,” it said. More-or-less. I don’t recall trying to contact him nearly as often after that.
Steve and I grew closer, especially after an extremely traumatic incident that occurred between myself and ex-friend/colleague Cory Strode. That was the end result of a long-running and questionable relationship with him that began when I was 18-19 and he was roughly in his early 30s. His arrogant mentor/Kingmaker/White Knight/armchair-psychologist/cheerleader/codependent/gas-lighting “I’m going to teach you what love is,” and “It’s my job to remember things for you,” method of relating to me was the other half of what contributed to my almost total mental breakdown. After he was gone from my life, my anxiety levels plummeted. Everything to do with him is still immensely triggering.
Thanks to Douglas’s emotional and psychological abuse and Cory Strode’s “help,” I could barely order lunch without over-thinking and second-guessing myself.
Douglas treated me like trash. Cory Strode treated me like a Merit Badge.
It was Al’s genuine friendship that helped me begin to stabilize.
Steve was in an existing long-term, toxic relationship when we met, which he ended. Then he resumed. Then he ended again. Steve had a serious problem with alcohol when we met. A serious problem. He was also let go from his job of ten years a few months after we met. As an older man with a limited skill-set, he has struggled to find and keep steady employment. Much of the flowery language I have used discussing our multiple break-ups, especially where the cause was pinned on my “issues,” was my attempt to save him the embarrassment of the real reasons we parted. Steve has been 100% alcohol-free since November 2018. Steve now has a healthy relationship with both his ex, her family, and me. Steve is working again. Steve is a fiercely good and loyal person. But stable, he is not. I have been doing my best to help him without becoming an enabler.
In September of 2016, my ex-husband, Matt, who I have remained on cordial terms with, helped me out by getting me a plane ticket back to Houston and letting me stay in his home. I needed to attend a court date for an issue related to my dad’s estate. While in Texas, I had a strange falling out with an engaged couple I knew. Matt told me that Douglas had looked up the fiancée of one of my friends through my Facebook page, and messaged to tell her she should watch out because I wanted to have sex with her fiancé. The incident had confused and frightened her, and she brought it to Matt, who instantly recognized Douglas’s name. I made my Facebook “friends list” private after that.
Around this time, a woman/friend on my Facebook page realized that we had both dated Douglas — referring to him as “Satan” and “a sociopath.” She told me that I had been lucky to get out when I did. She had her own stories, but they are not mine to repeat. I was not ready to identify with her anger.
I mailed Douglas a plain off-the-shelf Christmas card wishing him well, including brief hand-written Bible quotes about forgiveness, in both 2016 and 2017. I wrestled with forgiving both him and myself for what had happened.
Sometime in 2017, I started to become suspicious that I was being watched, possibly for instances of breaking THE RULES. There were several occasions where Steve came to show me things Douglas had posted, mentioning himself or the comic book convention. (I did not ask Steve to do this.) I would later find hits from Milwaukee on my website on the same, or immediately following days. Most of my traffic post-2014 is on, and from, social media, so the direct traffic stood out. I ear-marked the IP addresses, and I started to compose my blog posts with this in mind. I probably emailed Douglas shortly before the convention.
At the 2017 comic convention, I offered Al one dollar to go talk to Douglas while wearing one of my T-shirts. Al happily exclaimed, “I’ll do it for free!” and did it. I then attached a speaker to my pants, played Never Gonna Give You Up, and proceeded to dance and twirl up and down every convention aisle, effectively Rick-Rolling the show. When I got within ten feet of Douglas’s booth, he got up and hid behind his banner. I emailed him later to apologize, and tell him that I had only hoped he would laugh at me. Then, I think, nothing for a while.
Most of 2017 I spent fighting to get my foot further in the door of the comics industry, especially after being threatened with being “blacklisted” by Stephanie Cofell, a close friend of Cory Strode. This woman is self-important enough to have created and regularly edit her own Wikipedia entry. She was, I can only guess, upset because I had never come apologizing and grovelling back to her and Cory Strode. She is barely an acquaintance, and the only wrongs I have ever done to her were deliberately not speak to/snub her as I left a show, and unfriend her on Facebook. Her messages are below. I have never lied about my age once, and I suspect she is the main source of “talking” about me and attempting to ruin my reputation locally. She blocked me before I could respond to her message.
Click for larger image.
I tabled at a lot of local shows in 2017, determined to not be sidelined.
In 2017, if I remember my timeline correctly, Douglas initiated a public slap-fight on Facebook with old friends of mine in the web comics community. My friends, who have tabled at San Diego Comic-Con for years, took issue with his long-winded bellyaching about how much work SDCC is. Douglas insulted their work and status as professionals, then attempted to humiliate them using his blog and mass emailing list, much like he had done to the comic convention.
In early 2018, feeling pretty thoroughly done with a lot of people’s bullshit, I decided to finish losing the last 30lbs I wanted to lose. I went on a low-carb diet, documenting my weight loss, while completing my colouring book, a new 40+ hours illustration, and its music video. Shortly before the comic convention in 2018, a mutual friend on Facebook posted about Douglas’s car being broken into and heavily damaged. He was soliciting help (read: store sales) as a result. I had a small emergency fund, and knowing his situation, I hoped enough time had passed that he might accept money from me. I purchased a piece of artwork from him, including a note that I did not expect anything, but wanted to help with his car. And that I would love to see him if he felt amenable to it.
A few weeks later, I received the artwork, as well as extra freebie stickers! I framed the drawing and emailed him a photo to thank him, along with a few sentences about Steve and Al. I also sent photos of the prints he had given me for Christmas in frames. I posted a photo of the framed art, and solicited my readers to purchase something from his web store. I re-shared a link from another mutual friend to his Patreon page. I had originally set up his Patreon account for him before I moved to Saint Paul, while we were together.
Pictures I emailed to Douglas after purchasing some of his artwork.
Since he accepted the first order, I subscribed to his Patreon, and purchased a few prints that I wanted along with his books. Subsequent packages from him included lots more freebies — sketches, mini-comics, buttons. Around this time I also became aware of increasingly suspicious traffic on my websites. I did some further digging, and narrowed down 3-4 specific IP addresses in his geographic area, with a pattern of visiting the same targets. This traffic was focused on my blog, photos of me at conventions, my Patreon and Etsy store, a conservative politician I had photographed, and a handful of repeat YouTube videos. The traffic stretched back into 2017, as far as my records went. I set up push notification alerts for the IP addresses, and waited. I did not have to wait for long.
Pictured above are images of the free original artwork that he sent me with my orders over the summer of 2018, while I was allegedly “stalking” him. He accepted about $400 from me through his online store and Patreon.
Later in the summer, a mutual friend, Crystal O’Rourke, privately suggested a new social media site she had seen Douglas using because she thought I might be interested in it as well. Clicking through out of curiosity, I was able to read his posts there. Most of them were recycled years-old blog posts that I recognized, but I also found him complaining that his A/C unit had died, and whining he was miserable due to the heat. I went to his web store and found a piece of artwork that I could afford, and purchased it. Enough to cover a cheap A/C unit.
“I believe in you,” I wrote in the message box.
In the following days, the “Douglas” IP addresses lit up like a Christmas tree.
I mailed him a piece of “VooDoo Joe” fan art on one of my promotional sketch cards, and a print of a traditonally-inked piece I was especially proud of, which he did not reject this time. There was a Post-It that said “I miss you.” That summer, he accepted enough money from me to nearly pay a month of his rent.
Douglas was brought to Saint Paul as a guest to the fall comic convention, after missing the spring show due to an emergency. The convention does not usually bring in guests for fall, but made an exception for him. I privately thanked the management for the gesture, and I offered to anonymously cover his travel expense if the convention could not, since I was unsure if he had a working vehicle. I deliberately stayed far away from his aisle on the convention floor, though I believe that Steve, Al, or both told him that I missed him, and that I would be happy if he stopped by to say hello to me.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, when I never saw Douglas.
During break down after the convention, Al informed me that Douglas had posted on Facebook that he was being evicted out of his apartment soon. While we were together, he had been concerned about new landlords possibly wanting to merge his apartment with the unit immediately next to him. I had recently given Steve the boot again for being unable to pay his share of bills, and that night, I sent Douglas a bit more money with an arrangement/offer of a place to stay if he had nowhere else to go. It was, as stated, a good chance to pool resources.
I made an offhand comment about getting married, a reference to something he said the night we met. It had made me feel incredibly special at the time. In retrospect, it is probably just a line he uses as a matter of habit.
The following morning, I went to the convention hotel to meet some out-of-town friends for breakfast before they headed back home. I drove a full circle around the hotel, checking for Douglas’s car, in case I needed to be mindful to avoid him. Not seeing it, I went in and sat down at my friends’ table. Then Douglas walked in shortly afterward, and the hostess sat him nearby. I did my best to pretend not to notice. He ate quickly, then rushed up and left without even looking at me. He seemed slight, and for the first time, I was not afraid.
After some time had passed, suddenly it hit me like a hurricane how incredibly fucking stupid I had been for the previous three years. THEN the anger finally came. THEN the spell broke, and it sunk in; I finally, really internalized the way he had treated me wasn’t my fault. It always was, it always is, about him.
Impassioned and overwhelmed by it all, I impulsively hammered out one last email, full of three years of repressed anger. The salient points:
– I am done giving you any kind of attention.
– I know that you have been monitoring and watching me.
– I realize now you never liked me in the first place.
– You cannot control what I draw, say, or write. It is my story.
– Your previous girlfriend has been in contact with me and hates you.
– No sane woman is going to put up with your shit.
This was the last time I have ever attempted to contact him.
For about two weeks, nothing happened, and I finally felt unburdened. The “Douglas” website traffic immediately stopped, and I eventually blocked the IP addresses I had identified and associated with him.
But it was not long until it was my turn to be the target of one of his scathing blogs. He had saved nearly every single text message, email, and other form of communication I had ever sent him. All of my pain, all of my angst, all of my futile efforts to understand how I was treated, had been plastered up on his blog and emailed to thousands of people. He had spent hours editing in black bars on my texts to “protect my identity,” but that also conveniently censored anything that explained why I was upset, or that made him look poorly.
He titled it with a #MeToo hashtag, MEN ARE VICTIMS, too! He spun a narrative that made it sound as if I were in the bushes outside his window, when I live six hours away, in Saint Paul. I work the equivalent of two full-time jobs, plus a part-time job including volunteering. I passed on many, many opportunities to confront him in person. I never threatened to harm him in any way.
If he felt threatened, why never even a warning from the police?
If he felt threatened, why did he never talk to Steve or Al about it?
If he felt threatened, why did he take my money and send me extra stuff?
No doubt, it was wrong of me to continue to contact Douglas after he asked me to stop. I was motivated by trying to resolve what I had been through, and I felt sorry for him as a struggling colleague whose work I admired.
I have apologized too long for simply being myself. I am out of apologies.
Far from feeling humiliated, I felt oddly empowered. The idea that this person that I had lived in fear of for three years was, actually, afraid of me gave me an entirely fresh perspective. Every time I asked for authenticity and got lies. Every time he belittled or condescended to me. Every time he tried to control me and destroy my self-confidence. Every time he attempted to gas-light and make me doubt myself. Every time he raised his voice in anger. Every time his words said “come” while his actions said “go.” He was afraid of me.
Feeling freer than perhaps I ever have, I pulled all his original artwork, prints, books, signed sketch covers, and sketches. I tore them to bits, then I fed the bits one-by-one into my cross-cut paper shredder. I could breathe again.
When his exposé blog post failed to set the world on fire, two or three days later an “anonymous” Facebook page and a mirror WordPress blog appeared to tell the “truth” about me, borrowing language from a popular alt-right activist group and stealing my images to confuse my readers. They managed to find a comment I had missed from one disgruntled client with a commission I had forgotten, and began messaging the client about it. As soon as I became aware, I refunded the client’s money, and I completed and shipped the commission at my expense. I have since changed my commission policies, and I continue to address my production issues since getting diagnosed and starting medication for ADHD.
My last email. I was not mad… I was furious. Three years of repressed anger, and finally breaking free of his lies that I had believed about myself.
And when I could not be controlled at all anymore…
They attempted to intimidate me by posting blatant falsehoods, such as stating that I was stalking my ex-husband Matt also (The ex-husband that bought my plane ticket?), conventions from all over the country were thanking them for sharing Douglas’s blog post and pre-emptively banning me, and that people were beating their door down to tell multitudes of stories about how I had ripped them off or wronged them. The blog claimed to be in contact with my friends from my hometown of Houston, something I already knew Douglas had done when he terrified the friend of my ex-husband by telling her I wanted to have sex with her fiancé. They also attempted to shame me for monetizing my older content and work effectively, and offered educated and detailed psychological analysis of me including “narcissist,” “psychopath,” and “not very smart.”
I searched all my records and could not identify this “customer.”
Poster that appears to be from a CentraCare Health facility.
They meticulously searched through years of this blog, cherry-picking screenshot “evidence,” including posts I had written while aware I was likely being watched, and mocking me for grieving my relationship with Douglas.
It was never about “truth,” it was about intimidating and devaluing me.
Most of the content (except for the poorly-spelled messages I believe were written by Douglas himself) was screenshots of petty and spiteful messages from Stephanie Cofell, who had been one of the loudest voices trying to convince me that Douglas was abusive while we dated. She also did not apparently realize that her name was embedded in the EXIF data on the mobile phone images uploaded directly to the WordPress blog. I saved the original files in the event I need to seek a lawyer and/or a restraining order, or other legal action.
Click for larger image.
Dave Cofell is Stephanie Cofell’s folk musician husband. They are frequently guests of Cory Strode’s “Solitaire Rose” podcast network.
Stephanie Cofell, close friend of Cory Strode, was there at the after-party where I met Douglas. She initially loathed Douglas for “hitting on her” even though she is married. After threatening to blacklist me from the comics industry and spreading lies about me locally, she resorted to sharing Douglas’s blog post. She contributed heavily to the Facebook page, and launched the WordPress blog, determined to destroy my career. The WordPress blog is still active. I barely know her.
Review left in early 2018 on Cory Strode’s podcast where I guest hosted. Cory Strode’s friends have repeatedly turned the trauma I experienced from him into a joke and/or a reason to attempt to ruin my career and reputation.
A local follower on my Instagram account tipped me off that “anonymous” was spamming the Minneapolis Craigslist “Arts” community with listings about me. The posts had big headlines like DANGEROUS and DO NOT HIRE and included long rambling messages with HUGE FONTS and COLOURS and links to Douglas’s blog and the Facebook page. They were flagged and taken down quickly.
One of the multiple postings about me on the Minneapolis Craigslist.
As I have already mentioned, I did legitimately feel threatened for a period of time. I had no way to know who else other than Douglas Paszkiewicz, Stephanie Cofell, and possibly Cory Strode were involved, and with the recent flare-ups of violence against women inspired by men like Eliot Rodgers, I felt very justified being concerned for my safety. I started carrying pepper spray and a safety whistle regularly. I filed police reports with any information I could confirm. I had my locks changed, because Cory Strode at one point had his own set of house keys. Comments were posted mocking my retail day job, and these individuals knew where I worked. I switched to a 6AM-2PM schedule through the holidays. I abandoned the established, well-paying job I enjoyed for a career as a Home Health Aide, out of an abundance of caution for myself and my coworkers.
Shortly after the smear campaign started, Steve called Douglas, and asked if he knew about what was going on as a result of his blog. Douglas claimed ignorance. “You know, if something happens to her, it’s going to come back on you,” he said. An ice cold “I’ll think about it,” was Doug’s only response.
Barely a month after sharing his #MeToo blog about being a victim of abuse and stalking, Douglas published an essay called “In Defense of Hank Pym — The Wasp Had It Coming,” defending a comic book character physically assaulting his wife. He teased this essay to his mass emailing list by stating, “By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll want to hit the bitch, too.”
I don’t know what made him this way, but his women issues are real.
I signed up for a small local convention, to see if anything happened — it was a show I had attended before, so the organizers knew me. After announcing that I would be there on my Facebook page, the guest coordinator forwarded me this message she received only a few days later:
“Please read [website redacted] from the bottom up. This female artist has been harassing and stalking a well known male comic book artist for over two years which we never hear about in the #Metoo movement and so he shared his story. He is afraid for his life and has recently moved because of this situation.”
They did not succeed in their efforts. I have no way to know how many other events might have been contacted in this way. Douglas was not invited to the 2019 spring show in Saint Paul, which I now help promote and organize.
I spoke to “Kray Z” Joe Rider in person regarding Douglas and Stephanie Cofell’s smear campaign at the fall convention of 2019, and he shrugged it off.
I redirected all the blocked IPs to the Saint Paul Police Department.
I have waited roughly a year-and-a-half to write this entry. Even now, many people who ostensibly care about me have advised against going through with it. It is a kindly-couched way to be, yet again, told to sit down and shut up. I have had myself evaluated. I have been to therapy. I have started medication for ADHD. I have made significant personal growth and progress. And yet…
I have agonized over the nature of my work, openness of my own struggles, and the knowledge that Douglas relishes all attention no matter how negative it may be. I have considered that the harassment against me may increase. I have considered that I may be putting myself in physical danger. And yet…
The weight of feeling silenced has become too heavy, and is something I can no longer carry. I am not the only woman, or even person, he has hurt. But I may be the most foolhardy. My very existence was and is threatening.
Why did I tolerate so much poor treatment, in the first place? I do not have a good answer. He is charming, seductive, and I was emerging from years of an avoidant marriage and severe depression. I was losing weight, and he made me feel attractive. I left my marriage and Houston with dreams of being one-half of a creative and romantic team. Dreams die hard. I desperately wanted someone that shared my passions, like all the delicate intricacies of inking.
He has been nominated for a lot of Major Awards, don’t you know?
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…
Learning about what emotional abuse is, and recovery from it, has helped me profoundly to better understand what happened to me, stop making excuses for people who have treated me poorly, and to stop blaming myself for how I was treated. It is especially hard to accept when the abuse comes from someone you admire, look up to, and that has more authority, power, or influence than you. It has been an arduous battle to overcome fear and assert myself.
Learning about the aftermath of narcissistic abuse has also been helpful.
Healing is not a linear process. I am allowed to stumble.
Stars aligned at the last minute in the spring of 2019, and presented me with the chance to attend San Diego Comic-Con as a guest of professional friends. It didn’t seem real, even as I boarded the plane with my comics and portfolio. I allowed myself to indulge in a hushed and solemn moment of triumph, as I set foot on the convention floor wearing the same boots I wore when I drove across the country to begin my new life in Saint Paul. I slept on a couch, and walked until there were blisters on my feet. I have been most fortunate to be welcomed into a community of supportive colleagues and sincere role models. So many people have come together to help me back onto my feet. The dark clouds that have been hanging over me parted more with every passing day of SDCC — until I sat, relieved and exhausted, Sunday evening in the golden sun setting over San Diego Bay. When I return to San Diego Comic-Con, it will be as an artist.
A little more than four years ago, I began my life anew, with scant more than my name and a dusty archive of old work. Last summer I arrived in San Diego with a portfolio of 48 pages of mostly-new comics and illustrations.
Twenty years since I began this journey, and my life goes on. I have forgiven myself for compromising what little dignity and self-respect I was capable of. I have forgiven myself for allowing loneliness to put me into positions where I was abused, mistreated, taken for granted, or taken advantage of. I have forgiven myself for accepting treatment that I should have rejected.
I have forgiven myself for allowing other people to define me.
Taking care of people actively dying, and nearing the end stage of their lives, several nights per week does a real good job of keeping your “shit that actually matters” meter calibrated. People who defecate on themselves; who urinate on the clean clothes you just put on them while you are still trying to remove feces, all the while asking you the same few questions every five minutes. People who cannot walk. People who no longer recognize their own families. People who no longer have the ability to speak. People who do not eat.
These experiences have their way of instilling a profound measure of gratitude and perspective to one’s outlook on life. Things have been a little rough since returning from SDCC last summer, much of which I have already written about recently. A favourite resident was injured badly and bed-bound; her cries and shrieking in pain while being cared for triggered unwelcome flashbacks to the final week that my mother was alive. When this resident died, an avalanche of grief was let loose, and I wept so hard that my face bore its consequences for days. I went to her funeral. I stood in the rain. I stayed until the end.
Pain is a part of life, and to reject it, is to reject our own humanity. Each day I wake up able-bodied and in good health is a gift; an opportunity to do better and work for my goals. I am privileged in some ways, and disadvantaged in others. I will not, however, succumb to the forces of bitterness, cynicism, and ennui. I have fought so hard to get here, and I am still clawing up the ladder, rung by rung. I am doing the things and living the life that I have dreamed of.
I forgive myself. I choose hope. My crown will outshine your darkness.
This post edited for clarity, names, and additional images on 23 June 2020.
On 13 February 2020 I had a no-referral visit from one of the IP addresses I had associated with Douglas, and it was the last time any of his “identified” IP addresses have visited any of my websites.
More artwork not included here can be found in my follow-up post.