Until I stumbled on an article, I had never heard the term ‘gaslight,’ not even as the name of the film that coined the term. But when I started to learn about what it meant, I started to remember situations where this had happened to me.
The two things that can be described as gaslight that would happen to me, at first very seldom but more frequently as time went by, were:
- Things disappearing or being moved out of place and appearing elsewhere
- Being persuaded that I had said or done something that I knew it was not accurate
Especially when it came to things that I supposedly had said or hadn’t said, it was said to me with such conviction that I would question myself, my memories, and my own judgment.
I would feel so frustrated, at myself, at my husband, at everything. I remember even crying later, after another event where I had been subjected to gaslight because I felt I was losing my mind. I had always been proud of having such a reliable memory. I could remember phone numbers, long sequences, almost full paragraphs of text. My memory is almost photographic. But during my marriage, my memory was failing me. How could I be losing my memory?
Looking back, I now realize that my memory was still as sharp and as good as it had always been in other situations, like at work. I could rely on it. However, when I would be at home with my husband, it was anything but.
I live in the upper Midwest of the United States. We get plenty of snow in winter around here. Another thing we get plenty of during the winter is rock salt, on streets, sidewalks, and driveways. It’s normal for people here to take their shoes off when walking into homes, so as not to bring the salt, snow, ice, and mud inside.
For that reason, I had always left a pair of sandals or slippers by the door so as to put them on as soon as I would walk in from the street. There were times when the slippers would just not be there. Disappeared. Gone MIA. I would start looking for them, only to find them either under a couch, or in a closet we have by the door. I would ask my husband if he had put them there and he would deny it, saying that there were wherever I had left them.
The first times this started to happen, I would doubt myself. Maybe I did put them in the closet. Maybe I did kick them under a couch. But that was really against my nature or my way of doing things.
Eventually, the slippers’ disappearing act would become a more frequent thing. And it wasn’t just the slippers. Some other things that would show up in odd places or out of place completely were keys, my wallet, pens, notepads, sometimes my purse, my laptop bag… And it wasn’t that things were being moved because they were in the way or we needed to vacuum or anything like that. There were no reasons for these things to be moved around.
Most of us are creatures of habit. I tend to leave things in the same spots. I tend to leave the keys in a certain place; my wallet in a certain place; my sunglasses in a certain place; the things I need for the next day in a certain place and way. We all have our quirks and our ways of doing things. At least I do. I always leave in a hurry in the morning, so I tend to leave things in the place where I can reach them faster, more efficiently, and right when I need them. That was never the case with my husband who leaves a trail of things behind him and doesn’t have a defined pattern for what he does or doesn’t do.
Now, if these things would have been moved alone and nothing else would have happened, then I would have probably chucked it up to me being tired, absentminded, or getting old and out of my habits. But if you compound this with being persuaded that something I had said wasn’t what I had said or the other way around and being told these things in such a convincingly manner, then the recipe for madness was being very well plated.
So many times I was being told that things had been different than how I remembered them, as well as my lack of understanding being blamed on the fact that English is not my first language, of course I started to doubt myself.
But now I know this is not what normal couples do. What I have still problems understanding is why individuals with NPD do this. I mean, I know it’s a matter of controlling the other person. But how sick do you have to be to inflict this kind of pain and torture, because it comes down to being just that, on someone you are supposed to love? But that’s the problem right there: These people are incapable of loving another person; they are incapable of feeling empathy or compassion. If they did, they would never, ever think about treating anyone like that because someone who feels compassion and empathy treats others the way they would like to be treated and they would not dare to treat others in a way that they wouldn’t like to be treated.
Unfortunately, since back then I didn’t know what I was dealing with, I kept on doing things that you’re not supposed to do in these situations, such as trying to convince him that he should reconsider. I would almost argue with him that those were either fabricated facts, or not quite the way they took place. I would get in the discussion under his own terms instead of waiting to be calm and collected and sure of myself. I would even apologize before even starting to bring the topic up. I would say things like “I don’t want to hurt you and I’m sorry to bring this up, but…” So I was already allowing myself to be blamed for something I had not done, even before starting to express myself and my concerns or feelings.
“I would start my conversations with an apology when, in fact, I had nothing to apologize for.”
I did blame myself, too. You may ask yourself for what. Well, he would get upset at me and accuse me of doubting him, of implying that he was a liar (which he was, but he would project that on me.) Worst of all, I tried to fix myself, change myself in an effort to fix whatever I perceived was wrong.
The first years when this would happen, I would stay in the room and continued to be engaged in these endless conversations and discussions. Now I know it was not emotionally healthy for me to stay. I should have removed myself as soon as he would start serving me a word salad or hurting me. At some point, when I started to realize that those situations were not healthy or normal—this was before I would even find out anything about NPD—I started to leave the room in an effort to protect myself… and also to go somewhere else where he wouldn’t see me crying.
I would also leave the room because, by then, he would start to serve me a word salad, but then he would completely stop talking. There would be this long periods of silence after I would present a situation to him, let’s say one of those ‘when you do A, I feel B‘ or wait for him to paraphrase what I had said (paraphrasing was something that he never did, not even in the initial stages of our marriage.) I would eventually get tired of him staring at me with this empty look and I would ask: “Well, do you have something, anything to say?” or I would say “Are you going to say something?”
He would answer with “I’m thinking.” Another 5 minutes or more would go by and he would still not say a word. By then, tired and exhausted for not getting anywhere with him, I would just leave the room, get in the shower, whether I needed a bath or not, and start crying my guts out. The shower became my refuge, my shelter at home, the only place where I could feel safe.
The other big, big, big mistake I made during those days was keeping all of this a secret. But if you put it in the context of what I was living, it makes sense that I would not share it with anybody. Who was going to believe me? I was going crazy. I couldn’t even remember where I had left my slippers. Right? And I had isolated myself from friends and family. I couldn’t reach out to them. And everybody kept on telling me how nice my husband was and how lucky I was to have found such a wonderful man. Add to that the fact that I had always been a problem-solver by nature, how come I couldn’t solve the problems in my own marriage? It was embarrassing to me. Therefore, why would anybody believe me?
One day I decided to pick up the phone and I called the Domestic Abuse Hot Line. It wouldn’t be the first time I would do such thing. While I wasn’t being beaten up or assaulted in any physical way, I figured they could probably listen me out and they did. The lady on the phone was fantastic and she gave me some tips on how to proceed, such as taking pictures of the rooms before going out, even getting cameras if I needed to. (Note: If you’re thinking about installing hidden cameras at your home, you first need to check your state and local laws since they differ from state to state and you could be breaking the law depending on which type of camera you install or what you do with it.) She also explained to me that what I was going through was in fact abuse, of the emotional and mental kind.
Needless to say that now that I knew what was going on, our “discussions” became less and less frequent because: 1) I knew it wasn’t me; 2) I knew it was useless confront him and he would deny it or lie to me or worse, mistreat me in one or another way; 3) Regardless of what I could do or say, he wasn’t going to change and I couldn’t control him; 4) I did start to call out his B.S., but in a firm way and without insulting him.
Unfortunately, calling out a narcissist’s B.S. is insult in their eyes, so either way, I was already doomed for discard no matter what I did. He was not getting his much-needed narcissistic supply from me anymore. (Now he uses our daughter for supply even when I’m not sure how much he can get from a 2-yr old and uses her to get at me, but that’s another story.) That’s the worse thing that can happen to a narcissist: Lose their supply.
But the one good thing that came out of this is that I finally realized that I wasn’t crazy. I’m not going to lie to you. There are times when I still doubt myself and I have to catch myself quickly to not fall in the trap of self-gaslighting. I think a professional would say that this is part of PTSD resulting from the years of being exposed to what happened.
In those cases, when I start to doubt myself, I just stop for a moment, collect my thoughts, and use some mantra, such as, “It’s not you; you know what you saw or did; stay calm; and let it go.” For most part, it does help.
To close this long post, I just want to say that I wish other people never find out about gaslight. Or at least, they only find it in the form of the film. What gaslight does to a person, in my opinion, should be considered a crime. Because it’s soul murder. It’s mind torture. Unfortunately, I’m afraid nobody is ever going to include this on the penal code. In the meantime, keeping ourselves well-informed and educating others on the matter is the only tool we have to fight this insidious way of manipulation.
If you think that you’re being gaslight, try to resist by staying truthful to your own reality. Ground yourself in it. Take pictures. Write things down in your journal, if you keep one, as things happen. Talk to someone you trust, be a friend, a close well-grounded relative, a support community, a therapist. Probably, one of the best ways to keep you grounded is to talk to someone who has been there him or herself because they will relate and understand what you’re going through.
Read this article about the effects of gaslight and how to counteract it. I hope it will provide you with more information and tools, like it did with me.
One last word. If you are confronted with violence or abuse, get out!!! Immediately!!! If you have children, get out of the room or the house with them and call for help. Call the police. Report all acts of violence, threats of violence, or self-harm. Do it immediately. And do it each and every time it happens. You should not let this go unreported or unnoticed, whether you use it in court later or not. For your own safety and especially that of your children, do it.
Remember: Asking for help does not mean that you’re weak. The contrary; it means you’re stronger than you think. You have already put up with enough. Saying ‘Enough is enough!’ and taking action on it are the signs of a very strong person. You may not feel that way, but it’s the truth.
Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Think about it: How many times did you try to reach the narcissist in your life in hopes that something would change and it did not happen, there was no change? Maybe you should promote change in you. Forget the narcissist. Do something different for you this time. Oh, and another thing: Change happens when the pain and fear of staying the same is greater than the pain and fear of change. I know this is true for me. Change is always scary. But I was so scared of staying the same that I finally open my mouth and I started to confront my husband.
Sometimes confrontation doesn’t have to come in the form of words. Sometimes it’s something as simple as removing yourself from a hurtful or painful situation, such as leaving the room when you’re being mistreated. You’re setting a boundary. By you removing yourself from his or her presence when you’re being mistreated, you’re sending a clear message that you’re not going to expose yourself to hurtful behaviour or words, even if you don’t say anything. The next time, you may be able to say “I will not tolerate you treating me this way / saying those words to me” and leave. It may take sometime to get to the point where you can articulate those words. But start somewhere, a small change, something you can do, such as leaving the room. Believe me, you’re stronger than you think and you can do it. It’s scary. But do it. Then go talk to a friend or go for a walk until you can calm down. And you’ll be glad you did it and you’ll be proud of yourself.