This post did not come easily. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write something in honour of World Mental Health Day…but what? Would it be my experiences of living with depression? My more recent experiences of anxiety? Would I share my stories about being a support system for friends dealing with eating disorders, self harm, suicidal thoughts? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that these stories are fairly common. I recently told a friend that I have regular anxiety attacks. His reply was a sad smile and “Who doesn’t?” and I realised that young people in 2016 are, for the most part, fighting the same fight.
I want to use this blog as a platform to share not only personal experience, but information that might help others. During my first year, while reading a blog (no longer in existence) run by a wonderful woman in London, England, I learned about gaslighting. That post lead me to do my own research, and with that I came to the realisation that it was exactly what was happening to me.
So what is gaslighting?
If you google it, this is the definition you’ll get.
It’s also important to state that gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse.
The term comes from “The 1938 stage play Gas Light, known as Angel Street in the United States, and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944 motivated the origin of the term because of the systematic psychological manipulation used by the main character on a victim. The plot concerns a husband who attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment, and subsequently insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes. The original title stems from the dimming of the gas lights in the house that happened when the husband was using the gas lights in the attic while searching for hidden treasure. The wife accurately notices the dimming lights and discusses the phenomenon, but the husband insists she just imagined a change in the level of illumination.” (Read more on this on the wikipedia page).
Some examples of gaslighting:
- Has anyone ever denied something so strongly that you start to doubt that it happened?
- Has anyone ever suggested that you are a liar, or simply imagining something, that you misunderstood the situation?
- Has anyone ever caused you to question your own sanity or truthfulness?
When it happened to me, I was told that I was a liar. I was told that my lies would cause my siblings to be hurt. I was told that I was a thief.
None of these things are true. I pride myself on being honest, kind, and principled, but after systematic gaslighting over the course of two years, I began to doubt myself. Was I a liar? Was I a thief? Were my intentions are pure as I had believed them to be?
My name was smeared through the mud. Family members were told of my “lying ways”. It was an entirely traumatic time in my life: an email from this person would leave me so paralysed with fear that I would sit in my halls (dorm) room and watch Netflix blankly until the sun came up and it felt safe enough (and I was exhausted enough) to sleep. I went from having a healthy, fit body to being so thin that my stomach was concave and my ribs jutted out within a month. (You can see the comparison pictures in this post, but TW: weight loss etc.). I withdrew from my support system, most of whom were across the ocean in Toronto. I told no-one at uni what I was going through. The stress of this contributed to the rapid deterioration of my health. Being subjected to gaslighting is part of the reason I decided I wanted to transfer to Glendon, so I could be in a safe space, with a support system I trusted.
What to do if you’re being gaslit:
- Distance yourself from the gaslighter. Gaslighting is a form of abuse. It is common amongst sociopaths and narcissists. Distance yourself emotionally, symbolically, and physically from the person as soon and as completely as you can.
- Seek support. Confide in someone you trust who is equipped to support you, be that a parent, friend, or counsellor. Tell people you trust what you are going through, how it makes you feel, and ask them to be your reality check. When I spin out of my truth, it takes someone I’m close to to remind me that I’m okay, that my feelings and experiences are valid, that I do know what really happened. It is those moments that keep me grounded, and I owe my loved ones the world for providing me that quiet reflection and perspective.
- Find an outlet. For me, it has always been writing. For others, it is another form of art, exercise, or meditation (I particularly like this guided meditation video). Fill your life with things that fulfil you, that make you who you are. Explore new, exciting hobbies. Keep yourself busy – but don’t use this busyness as a means of distraction. Ben Okri, in his book Astonishing The Gods, writes about how if you don’t learn from an experience the first time, it will keep repeating itself. It was a book and a lesson that changed my life, and from then on I’ve tried to process things as they happen so that I can let go, move on, and grow from it.
- Forgive yourself. It is so easy to say, and so difficult to do. Treat yourself as you would the person you love most in the world. Protect yourself the way you would your siblings. Remind yourself of how much you are worth, of how unjust your experience was. Do not allow it to define you. There is a reason why people choose to call themselves survivors rather than victims.
It’s been a few years. I haven’t seen the person who gaslit me in almost a year, and my life now is full of kind, wonderful people. I work hard at my jobs and at uni. I am planning my future. I am happy. I am so blessed.
That being said, I am also changed by it. I’m ridden with self-doubt. Every time I call in sick to work or class, I worry that people think I’m faking it. I worry that people think I’m a liar, even though I obviously am not, and I know that. I question every compliment, every kindness; I analyse every conversation I have for days afterwards. I find my own hypervigilance and self-policing exhausting, and yet I don’t know how to stop it, sometimes.
I want to end this post in the light. I don’t think I can find better words than these:
“I dare you to tell me I’m not mending. Joy is back-bending in what you think is submission but it’s really mercy. It is the watershed of a good deed rippling into great character. My mouth found my face again, found it can still spread. Not as easy as butter, not as fast as rumours, but it can still light up a room or two.” – Alysia Harris, Joy.