Gaslighting is a form of abuse, but it isn’t often seen that way. It’s a subtle art, and I’ve experienced it in droves, especially in a former relationship of mine. I’ve reviewed the typically abusive relationship I endured before, on this site. What of the more nuanced, manipulative, emotional one?
If you’re looking for a textbook definition of the thing, I’ve got you covered. Gaslighting is when you “manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity.” This was a feature of my childhood, and so when it happened to me in a relationship, and bountifully, it was particularly stinging.
I was told that my eyes were deceiving me. Things that I knew I saw, or knew that I hadn’t seen, were purported to be the opposite. No amount of squinting or eye rubbing could take away what I knew; he hadn’t taken his medication. When I called him on it, as gently as could be, he screamed at me.
I had to apply extra soothing and apologizing to set him back on track.
His crying wasn’t real, for tears never came. “Crying” was a convenient tool to make me feel for him if things got shaky, though. Contradictory texts that I knew he’d sent me were suddenly nonexistent, and when I went to look for them, if I took too long to search, it was disqualifying. Poof. Things never happened. Things vanished. Things were only alive in my memory, which he deemed unreliable.
There was never a second, when I was in it, that I stopped and said to myself, “I am worth taking seriously. I’m not crazy. My concerns are valid.” I took his word as immediate truth.
I was told that my emotions were deceiving me. He drew on supposed “paranoia” to make me doubt things that ended up being true. If I dared bring up an inconsistency, I was paranoid beyond belief, being insane.
We had a running issue wherein he would claim to be asleep, but I would see that his social media was active during these slumbering time periods. At first I thought nothing of it; we all say goodnight and browse our phones for a bit longer. It was when he’d vehemently insist to me that social media must be glitching, and called me paranoid for believing otherwise, that I felt crazy, small, insignificant, unworthy of being believed. If I didn’t believe that a massive media company was glitching in a way it had never been known to do, all to explain a behavior of his that he didn’t want exposed, then I was paranoid! The problem was, of course, all me and my silly, emotional head.
I adored his family at the time. They were lovely, generous, considerate people, I thought. What I saw before me, the empathy and goodness that I experienced with them, was twisted by him. He insisted that his parents and older sibling were abusive, and if I didn’t believe him, then I became just another abuser on the long list of people who had wronged him. Once, when I correctly questioned an eventual truth, he told me he thought that I saw him no better than his supposedly abusive sibling. I wasn’t allowed to question him, and if I ever favored his parents’ opinion over his, it was disloyalty, it was sinking to their abusive level. Misfortunes were always, always, the fault of others.
That’s a key element to a gaslighter. They harbor no sense of personal responsibility. Anything questionable that they say or do can’t be real, for if they were forced to reckon with their questionable actions’ existences, they’d have to admit to being faulty in some way, and it’s much easier, I suppose, to blame others for seeing what you’re doing instead of blaming yourself for doing questionable things.
His sibling was the victim of a violent crime. When he told me of the crime and I expressed teared sympathy, he returned two days later with a new story; after many years, his sister had supposedly finally admitted to “faking” it all, that day. He couldn’t stand that I was seeing anyone else in a more sympathetic light than him, so he lied about a recanted story. I ate it up.
That’s another key gaslighting element. The gaslighter is always the supreme victim, and there is no room for any others. Not only do they lie and manipulate, but when you discover those lies, it’s you who is victimizing them by calling them out!
He fed on my insecurities and mental illness. My mental illnesses are some of my biggest insecurities, and that was easily identifiable to someone like him. Once he’d zeroed in on that, it was the perfect thing to exploit. You don’t believe me? That’s because you’re sick.
This brings me to the crux of gaslighting behavior, one that tops it all off and isn’t often discussed.
He framed himself as the only person who would “forgive” me for my supposed paranoia.
Oh Olivia, he’d croon, you’re being so paranoid, you’re inventing things, but I forgive you. I know it’s just because of your OCD, your PTSD.
The routine went like this. First, I’d identify something inappropriate, deceitful, or at best, suspicious. I’d gently, always on eggshells, bring it up to him. He’d vehemently deny it, call me paranoid, shift blame. Then, as I shrunk into a ball of self-hatred, he’d soothe my worries by telling me he forgave me. In fact, he’d say, he and I were so special that he was the only one who could understand. As a result, I was left with one truth.
“I am overly paranoid and he is the only one who will put up with it.”
It made me uncomfortable at first. I didn’t want to be labeled crazy, it felt off. But I was so enamored of him, so eager to be good and to believe him no matter what, to not be annoying, to be trusting, that I succumbed to what he was telling me.
When I was fresh out of the relationship, a doctor of mine commented thoughtfully that they’d wondered about the relationship, while I was in it. I’d described it as heaven-sent at the time, she said, but she’d never before known anyone who was in a supportive, validating relationship who hated themselves so much, who questioned themselves so constantly, as I did.
This is what gaslighting does. I am detrimentally changed as a result of the gaslighting that I endured. I don’t trust my own judgement. I still experience suspicions in daily life, but I internally punish myself for them. I agonize over the injustice of things that I knew, and their truth, and the distortion of their truth. I’m meek and apologetic, afraid of being yelled at or accused, afraid of upsetting others, afraid, always afraid. I’m afraid I’ll truly never be “put up with” by anyone else.
The now notable thing is, that’s the real set of lies. That’s the real paranoia. I’m smart and logical. My judgement is sound. I have PTSD, sure, but that doesn’t negate my most primal senses. PTSD can’t do that. OCD can’t. I don’t need to be “put up with.” I’m trustworthy and whole and worthy as I am.
Abuse instills fear. And my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which this experience factors into, is all about fear. The brain and body remember what they went through far longer than the time they were first put under duress. I’m afraid every day. My primary battle, now, is recovering from the trauma of the last three years of my life.
It starts with identifying reality. I am sane. I am in possession of good judgement. Determining what is true about myself and those around me will take intention, therapy, and the judgement I do possess.