The long shadows

Have I been gaslighting myself?

I think I probably learned the term around the time everyone else did, when it, like so many other things, became depressingly relevant again. Gaslighting. Harkening as it does from the thirties, just the word feels noir. Typing it now, I can taste it like smoke from a hand-rolled cigarette curling around the brim of a fedora.

The term is from a play. A husband convinces his wife that she’s crazy, that what she thinks she’s seeing isn’t actually there. It’s one of those concepts that people relate to instantly, that make you wonder how it could have possibly taken until the twentieth century for it to get its own word. When it hit the news and popular culture, it cast a new light on how crazy I’d felt towards the end of my last relationship. Keeping a journal was the only thing that saved me.

As a depressive, it’s easy to be gaslighted. I’m ready, willing, and able to not only accept that I’ve been wrong all along, but to help whoever’s screwing me come up with ways to really make it believable. My ex was manipulative. It’s hard to express how terrible for me that relationship was at times. Even now, I fear some weird reprisal, some rebuke just for saying so, but shit happens, and this qualifies.

It’s a great cliché. It makes for fun little jokes at parties. “If a trees falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear, is the man still wrong?” Hahahaha. What a riot. But seriously, folks. For me, it meant not that my needs weren’t being met but that I was wrong to have them. My dissatisfaction was actually unreasonable expectations, how silly of me. At the end of things, we had at least one all-night fight a week, but when I suggested that we might be bad for each other, it was made clear that it was actually me. I was bad.

When I broke things off with her, I was devastated. It was the end of a three-and-a-half-year relationship. We had been in love. I didn’t regret the relationship, but it was over. No one had lied. There had been no affair or abuse. This was just two people who weren’t right together. I told our mutual friends that we were all adults here, that this was unfortunate and wouldn’t be easy, but there would be no whose-side-are-you-on bullshit for them to deal with. My ex took a different tack. Lines were drawn.

She told our then still mutual friends that I had cheated on her. This was a new truth she’d decided on after we broke up, but, hey, all men are pigs, right? I’d learn later that she twisted stories of our relationship around to make me into a cheating, abandoning, rageful drunk. I was cut off from my entire friend group. My texts and phone calls went unanswered and unreturned. I was disinvited to game nights and parties. Worst, I started to believe I deserved being shut out.

Cathartic as it always is to be self righteous about my how my last relationship ended and the fallout—and in spite of my best efforts at forgiveness, it is definitely still cathartic — this actually isn’t about any of that. This is about the first offender, the person who had already beaten me down and gotten me used to accepting twisted versions of reality. This is about the person who normalized emotional abuse years before I even had a chance to fall in love. This is about the person who made me doubt myself about everything except my own faults. This is about me.

I want to address just the gaslighter in me here, and I’ve found a handy little listicle from Psychology Today to act as my framework. So, without further ado:

11 warning signs you might be gaslighting yourself

  1. You tell blatant lies. I don’t have to tell you what you’re lying about. You know, and it isolates you more and more with every utterance. Lying to yourself makes lying to other people easier, and if you don’t believe me, just tell yourself it’s true.
  2. You deny you ever said or did certain things for which there is clear evidence. I’ll be honest: this one feels lazy on the part of the previous list maker. Denying something is the same as lying about it. I’ll be damned if I’m letting this exercise go off the rails at the second point, though, so here we go. In the depths of despair, you deny it all. You were never happy. Those pictures with fake smiles prove nothing. You were always terrible. Awards, positive professional reviews, promotions, compliments — none of those mean anything.
  3. You use what is near and dear to you as ammunition. Isn’t there a Blink-182 song about this? Nobody knows just how to hurt you like you do. Other assholes have to try to deduce truly crushing and cruel things to say. You get to start with full knowledge of your greatest fears and every way in which you’ve ever been hurt. It’s not a fair fight.
  4. You wear yourself down over time. You’ve been down on yourself for so long it looks like up. This behavior becomes normalized. Precedents are set. Before you know it, you’ve got “Berate self in front of mirror” set as a recurring event on your calendar, and you don’t even realize it.
  5. Your actions do not match your words. Jeez. Where to start with this one. You’ve told yourself a thousand times that you’d seek therapy when things got bad enough. You said you were going to write more fiction, too. You said you’d start your graduate degree and stop putting things on credit cards. You said you loved yourself.
  6. You throw in positive reinforcement to confuse yourself. Why don’t you give yourself a little credit for that presentation? After all, it was well thought out and nicely put together. I mean, it wouldn’t have been necessary if you’d done your job right in the first place, but you did fine for it being thrown together. How familiar is that progression? Feels like home to me.
  7. You know confusion weakens people. There’s nothing like a little anxiety to make you question everything, and questioning everything can get pretty confusing. This is when unexamined negative thoughts sneak in. They set up shop in between half truths and fabricated stories.
  8. You project. You keep hating yourself, so that must mean that everyone else hates you, too. You also project all kinds of stuff onto your loved ones to distract them from what you’re doing. If you call your friend a piece of shit long enough, he’ll stop checking in to make sure you’re okay.
  9. You try to align people against yourself. This one is a little playing-yourself-at-chess, but it’s still relevant. You decide whole groups of people feel certain ways about you and then resent them for it. Hashtag winning.
  10. You tell yourself and others that you’re crazy. The more you undermine yourself and tell yourself that you can’t be trusted, the more that becomes the truth.
  11. You tell yourself everyone else is a liar. Whether you’re not believing people about their happiness or not believing the nice things they have to say about you, there’s not much more isolating than thinking everyone is lying to you.

I’ve heard people describe their depression and anxiety as a voice that can just be told to be quiet. Some talk about it like an annoying friend with terrible advice, others like an inept cartoon villain. Only very recently did I have this experience for the first time. I don’t even remember what the thought was, but odds are good it fell into the above list somewhere. Before I had time to let the negative thought cause negative feelings that would cause more negative thoughts (& c.), I said, out loud, “Oh, shut up.” Just like that, I confronted my gaslighter, and the shadows he cast aren’t half as scary in the daylight.