When I wrote Letters To Myself my primary motivation was to try to bring attention to the subject of emotional abuse within relationships, and to help give people trapped in such relationships the understanding that they are not alone. I get a deep sense of satisfaction every time I get feedback from a reader, or a review from someone who has suffered in a similar manner to Cassie, saying how much the book helped.
I deliberately kept it a work of fiction, without too much reference to the types of personality disorder that cause behaviour similar to that to which Cassie was subjected. This was to make it an easier read and less threatening for those who are in a similar situation. There is a great deal of writing on the subjects, mainly on narcissistic personality disorder, although there is also plenty about adult ADHD and sex addiction (the triple whammy that poor Nathan suffered from – and I say poor Nathan because I would hate to be like him, with his life disintegrating time after time and he having no idea that he is the common denominator).
Recently I read several articles on gaslighting and wished I knew about it while I was writing Cassie’s book. Well, I knew about it but I didn’t know it had a name, or that it was so common. I will say here that I am not a counsellor, nor a psychiatrist. I have learned about gaslighting by extensive reading, and by my own experiences. If the following information resonates with you, please ask for help from someone qualified to do so.
What is gaslighting? The term comes from a 1938 play called Gaslight, and the movie adaptations that followed. That is why in some articles you will read about the play and in others the 1944 movie adaptation. In the play the antagonist sets out to manipulate the reality of the protagonist by, among other things, setting the gaslights in the house to low. When Paula, the protagonist, mentions the lights are low, he tells her it is all in her imagination and the lights are the same as always. This was a deliberate attempt to confuse and manipulate her reality.
In real life gaslighting often the perpetrator does not realise that he/she is doing it, but deliberate or not the effect on the victim is profound. The gaslighter will twist, spin, or otherwise change information to favour the abuser, leaving the gaslightee confused and bewildered, unable to find a solid reality. Instead, reality becomes like shifting sand under the feet, changing by the day.
Gaslighting is a frequent ploy used by narcissists to control their partner. It undermines the confidence and self-esteem of the victim. It alters their reality, and eventually alters their personality. The victim of gaslighting will over time become confused, anxious, depressed, indecisive, and mentally unstable. She/he will do and say things they never would have considered possible, and once out of the relationship it is a very, very long road back. Many victims suffer from PTSD, all suffer from fractures within their personality – this is the best way I can describe the void that happens when you look within and find that there is nothing left of you. Somehow you have to put yourself back together, a task that often seems overwhelming.
One of the articles I read mentioned loss of memory of the events. I really wish I knew that others suffered this. The article talked about the beginnings of a confrontation, then the writer lying in a fetal position on the floor and no memory later on of what happened in between. This makes it easy for the gaslighter to say it never happened, it’s all in your imagination. The thing I would like to add is that the gaslighter too may have blocked out that memory. Narcissists are brilliant at rewriting history. Whenever they have a memory of something in which they do not appear in a good light they rewrite the entire episode inside their head, and this then becomes reality which they BELIEVE. When the victim tries to say what really happened the narcissist will turn on her/him in an angry attack which leaves the victim traumatized and further confused.
So what are the signs of gaslighting? There are phrases that seem to be universal:
“You’re too sensitive”
“You have a terrible memory”
“How would you know? You never remember anything”
“You don’t even know what abuse is”
“I’m actually the one hurting”
“You’re always saying I’m the bad guy”
“I work hard all day, I don’t have time for this” or “I’m too tired for this”
Other warning signs include:
Apologising constantly for never doing things right
Trouble making decisions
Depression and anxiety
Lack of joy – do you ever smile?
You frequently make excuses for your partners behaviour to family and friends, or you withhold information from them to avoid questions
You start lying to avoid the repercussions
You feel that you can’t do anything right
You change your behaviour to try to avoid confrontation
When your partner asks you what is wrong, you are reluctant to say as you feel it will not help at all but will instead makes things much worse
So what do you do? Well in Cassie’s case she got out, but she needed help to do so. It’s not easy to get out of such a relationship, it becomes co-dependent. It happens gradually, until the victim is so changed by the effect of the gaslighting that she/he is unable to find a way out, or it seems too hard to even try. The narcissistic person alternately destroys and then ‘rebuilds’ the victim, it’s a roller coaster of the worst kind.
Once you realise what is happening you may be able to recognize the pattern, which may help to break the cycle. Perhaps not the cycle of abuse, but the cycle of how it affects you. Recognising that the abuse is not your fault, that you are not the cause and, most importantly, that it is not your responsibility can help you to cut the ties one by one.
A lot of the webpages I read counselled calling out the gaslighter. I personally would not recommend this approach, as in my experience calling out the gaslighter simply escalates the situation. Non engagement is the goal, but of course in the domestic situation it’s not easy.
I don’t have a guaranteed answer, except to say that the victim of the emotional abuse is often in a dire state before the relationship reaches breaking point. She/he will need professional help to put the pieces back together again. If you are reading this post and identifying with the points raised I strongly urge you to seek professional help – see a counsellor practiced in relationship difficulties or a psychiatrist. Don’t think that your problem is not that severe, don’t put yourself down that way. You are important, the effects of the gaslighting are more profound than you realise.
I stress here again that all I have learned is from reading, and experience. I am not a qualified counsellor, or a psychiatrist. But I do know what it feels like, and I know how difficult it is to understand what is happening, and to take the first step in doing something about it. Ultimately we only have one life. If you are struggling in any way, if your joy is gone, if life is grey, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. We all need help at some point in our lives, there’s no shame in it. No matter how bad things might seem nothing lasts forever, and that includes bad times. You just need to take the first step.