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№44 Gaslighting Is the New How Are You

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I was gaslighted by my neighbor. She hasn’t always been the most pleasant neighbor. In the nine years we’ve lived next-door, she’s called Coral Gables Code Enforcement on us three times. The first time, I put a Huggies box on the garbage pile too early. We had just moved in and I didn’t know trash could only appear on your trash pile after 5 p.m. on Mondays. After paying the $500 fine, I ran over and asked her to please talk to us before ratting us out. But she called again when she spotted a broken shingle on our roof, and then again when I put a political yard sign too close to the street.

I thought she was friends with Code Enforcement, but the last time the officer came out, he gave us a warning and seemed as annoyed with her complaints as I was.

The good news is, my neighbor has moved. Her house is now for sale and last week there was an open house. My wife, Vicky, and I wandered in because we wanted to see the inside. We told the realtor we lived next-door. “Just looking.”

And then, seconds later, in the narrow hall between the kitchen and the garage we stood face-to-face with our neighbor. It was a scene out of the movie Heathers. My neighbor glared at us. When I looked at her concerned, she smiled a smile so fake I almost laughed. Then she went back to glaring. I said I wanted to see the upstairs and she said, “I’d rather you not.”

I said, “Why do you care if we see your house?”

She said, “Let me remind you that you called the city on us three times.”

I’ll try to explain what happened to me next. I got scared. I got shaky. My head started pounding. I stared at my neighbor frozen, trying to figure out what the hell could be wrong with this woman.

I said, “What? I’ve never called the city in my life. You called on us three times.”

And then I ran out of there. It was fight or flight and I chose flight.

That was last week and I’m still freaked out. I’m still shaky. I’m scared because my reality and my neighbor’s reality are so different. My neighbor accused me of doing exactly what she did. Does she know she was the one who called? Or does she really think I called? By her tone, I think she thinks I’m the one who made those calls. How could she believe something so false?

I hate to bring this up, but gaslighting has been in the news ad nauseum since Trump’s inauguration, which was the first time I remember being gaslighted by our administration. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, told the world that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever. He showed pictures taken by the National Parks Service. The day looked cold and rainy and there were big open spaces in the crowd where you could see the ground. With pictures of Obama’s inauguration and Trump’s inauguration side-by-side, Spicer looked into the camera and said the Trump crowd was bigger, even though anyone with eyes could see that Obama’s crowd was bigger.

What a gaslighter does is tell you something that isn’t true, until you doubt your own perception and sanity.

When my neighbor did it, I felt like I was being confronted by a Nazi, someone who could believe something so false that maybe she was capable of evil.

It was the first time I recognized being gaslighted personally. And then I spent the rest of the week researching why people do it.

According to an article in Psychology Today, “Why Gaslighters Accuse You of Gaslighting,” some people feel so much guilt or shame that they project their actions onto someone else. Sometimes even unconsciously. A cheating husband, for example, will accuse his wife of cheating.

I learned that gaslighters create stories to justify their reality because they’re in pain. This reminded me of a time I sort of gaslighted myself.

About 20 years ago, when I was in my late twenties, I worked as an environmentalist. My job was to monitor the toxic chemicals that seeped into the workplace. I learned there are a lot of hidden chemicals in everyday products like printing toner.

My desk was in an open loft that hovered over the office copy machine. Whenever anyone ran off a few copies, methyl-ethyl death wafted up and into my lungs.

I don’t know if I was actually getting poisoned, but there was a noxious smell and it scared me. Truth is, I was already scared.

I sucked at my job. I’d always relied on my ease with people, but at this job, I was socially inept. I was supposed to educate the canvassers about my findings. The canvassers were grungy college kids in hoodies, hardly intimidating, but when I stood in front of them gathered on the floor, my lip quivered.

At the same time my relationship was falling apart.

In retrospect, I see that I was depressed. But instead of looking inward, instead of acknowledging my depression and failing relationship, and admitting I was not cut out for this type of work; I looked outward and blamed the organization.

I told myself a story; one that could have made a decent psychological thriller, if I were any good at fiction. I started to think the organization didn’t care about the environment, that their practices were antithetical to what they preached, and that there was a conscious conspiracy to exploit the wellbeing of workers for the benefit of leadership. I collected evidence to support my theory. I only saw evidence that supported my theory.

When I first mentioned the copy machine fumes to my direct supervisor, she shrugged me off. When I presented her with my research, she said she’d talk to the executive director about moving the copy machine, but looked at me like I was crazy. Was I crazy?

If I’m generous with myself, as I’ve come to be, I see that I was in pain and I created a story to ease my pain. In the case of my neighbor, I have no idea what she’s going through. But it’s too easy to label her crazy. I wasn’t crazy, I was just hurting. If I’m generous with my her, which I’d like to be, I can see that she’s hurting too. She must be.

This is №44 of the #weeklyessaychallenge I gave myself when I turned 50. Six to go. This is the longest year of my life. Thank you for reading.

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