“Gaslighting: a form of mental abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting his or her own memory, perception and sanity” -Wikipedia
Gaslighting. Gaslighting. Gaslighting.
It’s all I can think about these days. It’s been 967 days since I moved out of the house I shared with my ex-husband. 2 years and almost 8 months. I was naive back then, I actually thought that moving houses could end the gaslighting but I was wrong. The incredible thing about gaslighting as a form of abuse is that its impacts last long after the abuse ends. The manipulation gets inside the victim’s head. The self doubt, which sometimes extends to an level which almost resembles paranoia, can be paralyzing. “Maybe I am really crazy, maybe I’m the one who is abusive, maybe I’m the one responsible for the abuse, maybe he was right about me, maybe nobody will believe me…maybe, maybe, maybe…”
If you have ever found yourself thinking these types of thoughts within a relationship or after escaping, you may have been a victim of gaslighting. It can happen within families of origin as well as dating relationships. I also believe that (at least in my experience) the psychiatric, legal, police and child protection systems collude in gaslighting survivors of violence, especially woman, and especially marginalized women. In a victim blaming, rape culture, our entire society is complicit in gaslighting survivors of violence.
My first abuser X was a gaslighter. He manipulated me into believing that he could not live without me, that I was essential in his life and that he loved me deeply. The thing about gaslighters is they know their victims, they know them in a way that is designed to search out weak spots, and gather information that can be used in a tailored and effective manipulation. I am an empath, a caretaker, a caregiver, someone who thinks deeply about the well being of those around me and about the society we live in. Empaths are particularly vulnerable to gaslighting, as the perpetrators are often narcissists. There are lots of interesting articles circulating about toxic relationships between empaths and narcissists.
I believe that X knew these things about me, things that in a healthy relationship are considered strengths, and he turned them against me as weapons. He knew that threatening me directly would probably have little impact, so he talked about suicide in ways that strongly implied he would literally die without me. I was 15-16 years old and I believed him completely. I thought that I was helping him, I felt important and useful and even loved. He would turn on the love and shower me with attention, notes, gifts and phone calls. But when we were together he ignored my boundaries. He didn’t seem to understand no or hesitation of any kind. He just did what he wanted. I began to feel like a sexual object, irrelevant and I learned skills like disassociation and distraction to minimize the impact of the sexual abuse.
Part of the gaslighting was making me believe I was helping him, and as long as I felt I was doing good I stuck around. Part of the gaslighting was the intense shame I felt which prevented me from telling a single person I was being abused. I truly believed that if anyone knew I was sexually active I would be in trouble, I’d be labelled as a slut, my parents would be angry, his parents would judge me etc… Looking back I realize that this intense shame was a side effect of being sexually abused and having my needs ignored and pushed past. Instead of realizing that what was happening to me made me uncomfortable and thus, was bad, I began to think that I was inherently bad. I believe this was also related to the messages I was getting during the sexual abuse, the mental abuse and gaslighting.
The first step is leaving the abusive situation. But for readers who have not been abused, it’s important to realize that the survivor often takes the mental abuse with them because it has been deeply internalized.
If I need to hear over and over and over “You are not crazy,” please say it to me.
If I tell you that I feel crazy, bad, damaged and unworthy, please reassure me.
If it seems like I don’t believe your reassurance, I probably don’t, but I still need to hear it.
I don’t need you to fix me. I need you to validate and believe me. I need to hear consistent and safe messages and I need your patience. I survived years of gaslighting and it may take years to undo the damage.
I’m not giving up when I say “I feel crazy.” I’m terrified. Truly scared that it might be true. Even though you see me as a functioning adult individual, working, parenting, taking care of my life, a few small triggers can bring up all the feelings of the mental abuse.
I’m not saying these things to be dramatic or to get attention. I’m looking for evidence to contradict the self doubt that years of gaslighting created in me.
The biggest gaslighting related trigger for me is not being believed or feeling like I am not believed, or even might not be believed. Because gaslighting is designed to create self doubt and feelings of being crazy, when I feel others don’t believe my real experiences I can begin to question myself all over again. What if I really am crazy?
Systemic and institutional abuse can be a form of gaslighting as well. When a woman comes forward to tell her story and she is not believed, she may begin to doubt herself. Systems are full of contradictions, double binds and no win situations. In this way, they also create an atmosphere that is retraumatizing and crazy making. The very systems an abused person may need to turn to in order to escape the abuse are likely to perpetuate more confusion, frustration and contradiction.
I’ve had gaslighting experiences within the psychiatric system, the health care system, the legal system, while working with the police and interacting with child protection services. That’s a long list.
Break the cycle of abuse. It’s just as easy as these few words:
“I believe you. It’s not your fault. I’m so sorry this happened to you. You are not alone and you are not crazy, you are having normal coping reactions to surviving abuse”
Repeat as often as possible, whenever self doubt arises.
It’s cheaper than psychiatric meds and has only positive side effects.