A Serious Talk about Gaslighting

There are things that people do that have a pretty clear motive. You witness what happened, you know why it happened. The end. For example, if your husband drinks directly out of the milk carton you can say, “Hey, I saw you drink out of the milk carton.” Then, he should respond, “Yes. I was thirsty.” You can be pretty sure there are no other motives behind his actions… unless you have told him a million times to not drink out of the milk carton, then there’s a chance he might be passive aggressive… So maybe that’s not a good example. Maybe a better example would be if someone has a headache, they might take some Tylenol to get rid of it. They aren’t taking Tylenol to piss you off or make you feel stupid. They are doing it for the sole purpose of getting rid of their headache. The end.

There are other times when a motive might not be so clear. Say your husband starts demanding you show him all the receipts from any shopping you might do. He says he needs to have all of the receipts hanging on the fridge by the end of the day that you go shopping. If you don’t have the receipts up there, he accuses you of not being committed to the marriage and you are sabotaging your relationship. So, this is kind of a domineering request in itself, what is the motive on his part? Are you in money troubles that you aren’t aware of? Is he doing a spending experiment with you that he can’t tell you about because it’s a blind study? You know it feels wrong, it feels controlling but the motives aren’t clear enough for you to make a solid decision on it.

So maybe that example became a little muddled. I’d like to be explicitly clear on this because I feel like it’s important.

My ex-husband is the master of unclear motives. Since I have known him, he has honed his skills at making me doubt myself and whether or not what happened was something he intended. It’s this thing called Gaslighting. I’m pretty sure he isn’t aware there is a term for the sociopathic behavior he exhibits but the fact that I know brings me comfort.

I hope educating about this term might bring someone else comfort too.

Gaslighting is a term coined from the 1938 stage play Gas Light and the subsequent 1944 film, Gaslight. In the film, the husband attempts to drive his wife into madness by dismissing her concerns about obvious events that happen around their home, one of which is the dimming of the gas lights around their house. She notices that they periodically become dimmer at night but he convinces her it is all in her head. He isolates his wife, makes her think that everything she believes is foolish and wrong and with no outside perspective, she believes what he says is true and almost goes mad.

According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline website, the psychological term, gaslighting, comes from the act of someone “[causing] a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power” (thehotline.org). Someone who gaslights you will do things that make you upset but will dismiss your feelings by saying you’re too sensitive or that you aren’t remembering things correctly. They might say that the event never happened or that you are imagining things. They will compare you to your relatives for insult or diversion, telling you you’re crazy just like the rest of your family or suggesting you got the idea from someone else.

The reason I’m writing about this is that I had a run-in with my ex-husband yesterday that made me, again, doubt myself. We have been divorced for nearly a decade but still he is trying to control and mentally abuse me.

Since giving birth to my son in December, my husband had been taking my daughter to the meeting point for my ex-husband’s visitation weekends. For three months now, I had not seen or had to speak with him. My husband would handle all interaction with him. Well, yesterday my husband was unable to take my daughter so I had to take her. I brought my mom with me because it is kind of a long trip (about 3 hours round trip) and I had to bring the baby with me so it’s nice to have an extra set of hands and someone to talk to.

In the three months that I didn’t have to see him, he did question my daughter once about why I wasn’t picking her up or dropping her off. My daughter said it was because of the baby–that he needed to nurse. His response was, “Babies don’t need to eat that often.” Like he fucking knows anything about nursing. When my daughter was born, he only knew I was nursing because the lanolin I used to sooth my bleeding nipples stained and “ruined his favorite shirt” which was a source of great disgust on his part. He was trying to use his magic manipulation power to make my daughter think I was lying about why I didn’t drive her there anymore. My daughter knows better. She sees how her brother needs to nurse nearly every hour or two. She gets it.

So, yesterday I loaded up my three kids and my mother and we all drove to drop my daughter off with her birth father (who threw a tantrum when he found out it was my year to have my daughter for spring break so he guilted his daughter into splitting her vacation between the two of us). When we arrived, as always, I parked with my car facing his car. My mother got out and walked across the parking lot to have a cigarette. I hugged my daughter goodbye as he sat in his truck, not looking up at all. He did not acknowledge our arrival. He only got out of the car for a second to give my daughter a quick, awkward hug and then usher her quickly into the back seat. As I turned to check on my sons in the backseat, he floors the gas on his truck while driving away and swerves so close to the passenger side of my car it makes me gasp. He accelerated so quickly and drove his car so close to side swiping my car I was in shock. Did I really just fucking see that? Did my ex-husband just pull some aggressive, intimidation tactic bullshit with me?

But what could I do? He didn’t hit me. No one else saw it since my mother was no longer in the car with me. My sons are 4 months and 7 years. Neither of them are capable of paying attention to anything. I, however, am livid. He put nearly everyone I care about in danger just to let me know he was mad. Still mad. Mad about not getting what he wanted for spring break? For not getting his way at Christmas (it was my weekend so it impeded on his “deserved” time with my daughter)? I sat there for a moment, doubting myself. Questioning whether I was over-reacting. Wondering if maybe I misread the situation, maybe it wasn’t as close of a call as I thought it was. Maybe he wasn’t driving as fast as I perceived.

It was the same old song and dance.

When we were married, he would pull shit like this all of the time. He did ask me to turn over all of my shopping receipts so he could criticize my shopping purchases. He would passive aggressively criticize my cooking, “Are you trying to kill me with all this butter?” or “It’s okay but my mom’s is better.” And when I would say he could cook himself if he didn’t like what I made, he would accuse me of being overly sensitive or say I was acting like a crazy person.

He never said I looked nice on our wedding day but he made sure to point out how lucky I was to be with someone who looked as “GQ” as him.

I’m sure there are endless examples of his mind games but when you integrate them into who you are, the lines become blurred. I know that things weren’t right. I know I started thinking a LOT about killing myself.  When I finally got tired of feeling depressed and questioning whether or not it would be better if I would just be dead, I got a prescription of anti-depressants. This made him furious. He said things like, “I’m sorry your life is so fucking miserable you need anti-depressants” and “What in the hell do you have to be sad about?” I slept on the floor of the bedroom that night because his parents, his brother and his brother’s fiance were in town for Thanksgiving, sleeping in the spare bedrooms and living room. Irony: Thanksgiving.

He never asked me to come back up into the bed. He let me sleep on the floor.

We fought loudly and late into the night. No one said anything about it in the morning. I knew that they all heard us fight. It was confirmation that no one was on my side. They all thought I was crazy and needed to just learn how to behave myself.

I still took the pills though.  And it’s funny how those thoughts of suicide transformed into thoughts of murder. I didn’t want to die… I just wanted HIM to die.

And then it finally happened. Not killing him! God, I wish! Ha ha… kidding. Anyway, it was the weekend of his brother’s wedding and he was in rare, cruel form. The night before the wedding, when I placed my hand over his shoulder to sleep he picked up my hand like a dead fish and threw it at me. The fucker threw my own hand at me for trying to touch him. When I asked him what the problem was, he said, “I’m just trying to sleep.” And my mind raced all night… was I over-reacting? Was this just him? Were all the times he would kick me or elbow me while he was “sleeping” just in my imagination? Was he just an overly active sleeper? He said he didn’t remember any of it in the morning when I would say something about him elbowing me when I’d try to touch him. Again, it was all in my head.

The day of the wedding, I tried to hold hands with him at the reception and he told me, in front of the bride, groom and a number of guests that I was ridiculous and was an embarrassment to him. I sat outside and smoked cigarettes with a stranger for the remainder of the evening.

After the wedding reception was over, my ex left the hall while everyone was cleaning up, stranding me with his family and many strangers. While helping clean up the hall, his brother pulled me aside and said something that changed my life. He said to me, “We see the way he treats you but we can’t say anything about it. He’s our brother and son. We see it but we can’t say anything to him about it.”

I thanked him and then made a bee-line for the bathroom where I sobbed. Yeah, it was a shitty excuse. They definitely should have advocated for me, family blood be damned; however, what he said to me that night gave me a chance to finally be my own advocate. I have never had such a cleansing and enlightening moment in my life. As I cried, I thanked God and my brother-in-law and my lucky stars that someone finally corroborated with what I was feeling. I wasn’t crazy. My ex definitely was cruel to me and it wasn’t just in my head. I wasn’t over-reacting. I was entitled to my emotions and, regardless of whether he thought I was being rational or not, I deserved to have my feelings respected. It was a “no man owns me,” chest thumping moment except with more tears. And a toilet.

The next morning, my ex and I were parting ways, as planned. I was driving north to visit family for a few days and he was going south, back to our house in Kentucky. We sat on the curb in front of the hotel and he said, “I’m sorry.”

I replied, “It’s okay,” even though it wasn’t okay. And I had to hold my tongue from saying “I’m sorry, too” because I was used to saying it. I was used to apologizing for everything, even for deserving an apology.

He said, “Don’t you have anything to say to me?” as in “where is my apology??”

I said, “For what?” But seriously… for what? I wanted to know why he thought I needed to apologize.

“Never mind,” he said, “it’s nothing.” It was the closest I had ever gotten to him actually admitting any wrongdoing. Close, but not close enough.

And we hugged and parted ways. I went to visit my family, he went home, content that things between us were as they had always been.

But I never went back to being his wife again. I went to see my parents and never went back to live with him in Kentucky. I called him the next day to say I wanted a trial separation. He said he’d call his divorce lawyer the next day. He, apparently, didn’t need a trial.

And all I needed was for someone to tell me I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t crazy and my feelings were validated. Experiences like the one I had yesterday make me remember just how awful it was to live like that.

So I’m saying that to anyone out there that might need to hear it.

Your feelings ARE important and worth acknowledgement. Even if your partner doesn’t feel the same way or understand why you are upset, you deserve your voice and you deserve being listened to. You don’t deserve to be dismissed.

You aren’t crazy. Well, you might be crazy, but don’t let other people make you feel that way. I mean, if you’re busy making a 6 foot statue of your cat out of stolen body parts and your own feces, you might be a little crazy… but you still deserve to talk about it. Really though… don’t let someone gaslight you. Own your experience.

Look over the signs of emotional abuse at The National Domestic Violence Hotline website. Don’t relinquish your power over yourself. Give yourself agency over your own life and don’t let anyone define what normal is for you. You are allowed to feel your feelings.

Don’t let anyone make you doubt yourself. No one knows you better than you.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

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6 thoughts on “A Serious Talk about Gaslighting

    • Yeah, the first time I read an article about gaslighting, it was like an entire room of my life was illuminated and I could finally see things for what they were. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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  1. I loved this Devon…..I’ve been gaslit so many times, I think I’ve gone blind. Lol – I’m so glad you shared your story. Putting it down in words clears the soul. Good for you! :))

    Liked by 1 person

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