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My Experience with Gaslighting

by StrongHearts Native Helpline

I was pregnant with our first child when I drove him to the doctor’s office. He said that he broke his ankle when he jumped down from the back of his truck and rolled his foot. I was concerned about him, and our future because he had just completed training to become a corrections officer. We both worried this accident could jeopardize his career in corrections. The nurse came in and examined his ankle. She explained that the break likely occurred when the other man in the altercation kicked him. Tears rushing to my eyes, the nurse looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, he’s going to be fine.”

My tears were not for his well-being and he knew it. They were for the instant betrayal I felt when I realized he had lied to me. Little did I know the extent to which his lies would permeate every aspect of our lives. I was the frog in the frying pan analogy. When the heat is turned up slowly, the frog never realizes what's happening. Much in the same way, he would affectionately tease me and call me names - so much so that I got used to it. My eldest sister once told me that she didn’t like how he belittled me. I assured her that he was teasing.

What is Gaslighting?

A common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists and cult leaders alike, “gaslighting” is an abuse tactic in which a person gains power by making a victim question reality. Abusive partners refuse to acknowledge their actions or role in the abuse instead either denying it happened or blaming the victim. It makes it that much more difficult for victims of gaslighting to recognize that they are being abused.

ADHD and Gaslighting

I live with ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder which is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes the person to have trouble paying attention (to details) and controlling impulsive behaviors - like shopping. A person with ADHD might forget or lose things often. They have a hard time resisting temptation and tend to take unnecessary risks. I’ve learned, these traits are exploitable.

According to Dr. Stephanie Sarkis - a best-selling author and expert in ADHD -- people suffering this disorder are especially vulnerable to a person with a narcissistic personality - one who is selfish, has a sense of entitlement and lacks empathy. Narcissists have an inflated ego and a deep need for excessive attention.

I didn’t know what was real or fake because I couldn’t tell the difference between a lie and the truth. He could lie with a straight face. I always rationalized that he had no reason to lie and always gave him the benefit of the doubt but I had many doubts.

Warning Signs of Gaslighting

When you're told that you are less than or you're not pulling your weight in the relationship, it is especially difficult to decipher what the difference is between a person giving a valid concern and gaslighting, but there are warning signs. In her book, “Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free,” Dr. Sarkis describes the gaslighter as a constant liar and master of deception.

Sarkis explains that when an abuser is gaslighting you, they tell blatant lies. They deny they ever said or did something. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition and they wear you down over time.

In my case, the father of my children became excessively jealous of our son. He treated him poorly and at times, put him in harm's way. He did it to spite me, to scare me and to show me that he was in control. He even admitted when our son was just six months old that he was starting to hate him because I loved him so much and how unfair it was that his own mother didn’t love him as much. At the time, I was busy being a mom and didn’t see it as a manipulation meant to garner my attention.

Gaslighters also throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you. They know a person with ADHD has issues with memory and confusion and they frequently use it against them. Since I couldn’t trust my own memory, he knew I’d rely on his.

Projecting and Cheating

A gaslighter projects things they are doing onto their unsuspecting victim by constantly accusing them of doing it. It’s a distraction from the gaslighter’s own behavior. He even accused some of my closest friends of flirting with him. He knew I’d side with him and reject them. I ended more than a couple of friendships on his account. The alienation from both my co-workers and friends was a means to an end - he could isolate me so he could flirt with them and without me suspecting him of betrayal.

Incidentally, he cheated on me as often as one might change their bedsheets. In retrospect, I think that my inability to give him the attention he demanded made me feel like I was to blame. Turns out, he was getting what he needed elsewhere until that faded and he came back to old faithful - faithful in the sense that I was easily sucked back in by his uncanny ability to charm.

redwoods path

Love Bombing and Devaluing

Love bombing is inundating a person with adoration and attention to the point that it gets overwhelming. It occurs in the beginning stages of a relationship - or as a way to win you back from a break-up. In my case, he told me: “I think I loved you from the moment I saw you.” To believe him was more than a little tempting. It was intoxicating. That’s how the gaslighter pulls you in and gets you hooked. They put you on a pedestal just so they can knock you down.

Devaluing happens when the abuser pushes you off the pedestal. It's used when a gaslighter convinces their victim they are completely flawed, worthless, or as having exaggerated negative qualities. It’s a tactic used to make you feel like no one else would ever want you. And it keeps you ensnared.

They Called Me Crazy

Gaslighters are masters at manipulating and finding the people they know will stand by them no matter what - such as parents. They align and use people against you. You may start to doubt who to trust and that's exactly what the gaslighter wants because isolation gives them more control.

They tell you and/or others that you are crazy. This is one of the most effective tools of the gaslighter, because it's dismissive. The gaslighter knows if they question your sanity, people will not believe you when you tell them the gaslighter is abusive.

I didn’t know that his family called me, “Crazy,” but in retrospect, I think I was crazy. I was crazy for staying in an abusive relationship for so long. I was crazy for raising my children in a house full of lies and deception. I was crazy to love a man who could in one breath make me feel like no else mattered and in the next like I wasn’t worth a dime.

Coercive Control

If the gaslighting takes place in an abusive relationship, it could become part of a broader pattern of abuse. When gaslighting is a part of abuse and control, the abuser strives for control over their partner’s life including:

  • Monitoring their partner’s activities, mobile phone, or emails
  • controlling all of the finances
  • using insults and threats to scare them
  • manipulating someone into unwanted sexual activity.

It’s a horrible thing to admit that after years of abuse, my former husband could easily coerce me into unwanted sexual activities. I loved him, I longed for him and he knew it. He knew he could
demand anything and that he could wear me down and I would accommodate him. It wasn’t the activity that was so bad. It was the psychological defeat that was so devastating. He knew I didn’t like it, but I either complied or suffered the consequences.

After being gaslit for fourteen years, I knew I had to leave and break the endless cycle of abuse. I knew that I had to make contact difficult, but that I couldn’t leave the state with our children. So, I moved to the furthest point of the same state - 400 miles away. After giving me permission and helping me to move, he initiated court proceedings to force me to move back. Somehow, the judge saw through him and allowed me to stay put.

Learning to Cope and Recover from Gaslighting

Over time, a victim of gaslighting may develop anxiety, depression, isolation, confusion and psychological trauma. The long-term impact on someone’s mental health and self-esteem is often devastating but there are ways to cope. Keep a journal, and/or voice messages, take photographs and use email to document the abuse. Ask a trusted friend or family member if they can store your documents where the abuser can’t find them and delete them from your own device.

Food for the Soul

Recovering from gaslighting takes time - a lot of time. Victims should never blame themselves. You are not responsible for the abusive behavior. You can and should practice listening to your thoughts, feelings, and instincts again. As hard as it may seem, you can and you will survive.

For me, my healing takes place in traveling to distant places and seeing beautiful things. I call it food for the soul. I love beaches, waterfalls, animals - nature in general. My spirit is calm when I visit the Redwoods in Northern California. The trees have lived for more than a thousand years. My ancestors - who were once free to roam the continent - saw these very same trees. I feel whole when standing among the Redwoods of Stout Grove.

If this story resonates with you, you are not alone. And, you too can heal. Find your food for your soul. Practice listening to your thoughts and feelings. Learn to trust your instincts again. If you think you are a victim of gaslighting, StrongHearts can help.

Diane Pavlat (Ojibwe - Anishinaabekwe) is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

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