Gaslighting is something I had never heard of, until it happened to me… or rather, until a long while after it happened to me. While it’s happening, it’s really hard to recognise.
On Wikipedia, gaslighting is described as:
a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity.
This might range from a simple denial that something happened or was said, to a full and detailed fabrication of entire events, conversations, arguments, days, weeks.
The name comes from the 1944 movie, Gaslight in which Ingrid Bergman’s character is tormented by her partner, played by Charles Boyer – things disappearing or moving, and gaslights dimming and brightening for no apparent reason – hence the name.
Gaslighting is something used in many, many abusive relationships. It can make you think you’re going mad; you doubt everything you think, everything you say, everything you think you might have said or done. You begin to believe that entire conversations happened differently, or not at all. It is this, more than any physical abuse, that often causes the lasting damage. Long after the black eyes and bruised ribs are healed, victims of gaslighting are still wandering about, unsure of their memories, unsure of their own thoughts, unsure of anything.
While I was pregnant, I lost count of the number of times I said: I wish he’d just hit me, then I’d know for sure.
With gaslighting, you don’t know. If someone hits you, you know that’s wrong. You have something concrete, something definite. Nobody can deny that you are right to leave a relationship, if the other person hit you.
When someone is twisting everything you say, deliberately trying to confuse you, you don’t know if it’s them or you. You have nothing concrete. You feel stupid telling people that you think perhaps there’s something wrong because you thought you’d said this, but they said you’d said that and you’re not sure but maybe there’s something odd going on but it might just be you because after all, you are a bit dippy sometimes.
Here are a few examples of gaslighting:
- You keep your medication in the same place, take it at the same time every day. Then one day, you go to take it, and the pills are not there… You look for them, but they’re nowhere to be found. Later that day, you ask your partner if they know where your medication is… Your partner locates your medication on the floor, where it obviously fell earlier; you must have just not seen it, the seven times you checked the floor. They begin to fall on the floor regularly; sometimes they don’t resurface for days at a time – but when they do, they’re always somewhere really obvious that you must have just overlooked every time you searched.
- You have an argument that you think was started by your partner. You feel like they were spoiling for a fight all day, arguing with you, refusing to let you walk away or stop the argument… Whenever it’s brought up later though, the argument was your fault. You’re sure you remember your partner being unreasonable, but looking back you’re not so sure… he says it was your doing, that you were being unreasonable, that you had been spoiling for a fight all day and picking at anything and everything… were you? Now you don’t know!
- You’re sure you had a discussion with your partner about a certain thing; you’re sure certain things were said. When you refer back to it days or weeks later, you’re met with a blank look; you have an over-active imagination. He never said that; he never did that; that conversation never happened. You must have dreamed it; you do that a lot, don’t you?
- I’m not going through that again.
- Are you sure… because last time you thought that, you were wrong, weren’t you?
- You’re deliberately hurting me, using my weakness against me.
- You’re just trying to confuse me.
- You always see things so negatively.
- You always get confused by these things
- Have you been taking your medication?
- Why are you lying about this?
- I have no idea what you’re talking about.
- You’re just over-sensitive.
- You’re doing it again…
When you’re a victim of gaslighting, you find it hard to tell what’s real, and what’s not. You begin to question every thought you have, every decision you make. I began to preface everything with “I’m pregnant and my brain is all over the place at the moment…” – even in the conversations I had in my own head!
When I was pregnant, my partner kicked me out several times. He slept with other people; he got his babysitter pregnant when I was under the impression we were together. He also had another girlfriend briefly during the final months of my pregnancy. I believed all of this was my fault. I was mean and controlling and passive aggressive and unkind. I had hurt him and tormented him and driven him to do terrible things. This is gaslighting. An expert can do this so well that when they eventually physically hurt you, you believe it’s your own doing. They can have you, seven months pregnant, calling your sister in law to tell her the baby sitter is pregnant and it’s all your own fault because you’re so horrible and unkind.
The effects of gaslighting are long-lasting and hard to pin-point. It takes a long time to even weed through your memories to figure out which are genuine, and which are manipulated versions of the truth. This doesn’t just happen on the day you leave – you can still be having revelations weeks, months and even years later. It can affect your future relationships, as you find yourself so scared of ending up in a gaslighting situation, that you are paranoid about any disagreement or even anything the other person says or does.
The thing about gaslighting is that the perpetrators are usually well practised. They are expert at making you question your every thought, every movement. You think it’s all you, that you’re just over-sensitive, or unhinged, or forgetful. It’s not until someone gives it a name, that you start to recognise it for what it is. It’s abuse. And more people should be aware of it, and give it a name. If you know what it is before you experience it, you’re less likely to spend months or even years enduring gaslighting and its after effects.