The gun went off, a deafening sound. He ran out in the dark of night from his rental guest house, located on the owner’s property. Frantically, he scanned for lights to come on, for people to emerge in search of the gunfire. He prepared to act like another bewildered bystander, but no one ever came looking.
Or so he told me.
My abusive partner asked me to come over one night, selective of when he allowed me to visit. His behavior was more nervous than usual, erratic. We were watching a movie, making little eye contact, but he saw my eyes drifting to a random sheet hanging on the wall. Soon after, his energy burst into a dramatic performance.
His words slipped out quickly, buttered and ripe.
“Oh, I have to tell you about last night. I was practicing how fast I could draw my handgun, over and over, and getting faster. I was certain the safety lock was on and it was empty. But a bullet was loaded, the safety was somehow off, and it deployed. It blew a hole in the wall.”
Dumbfounded, I stumbled through his words as he lifted the piece of fabric to reveal evidence of gun fire. A jagged hole in the wall. His only worry was that the homeowner heard the thunder of his gun, but nobody ever came looking.
I felt frightened, and then upset that he could’ve hurt himself. Upset that the homeowner could’ve caught his recklessness. Upset that I occasionally slept in that room. What if his “practicing” had hit me?
I don’t know if I was supposed to think it was a cool or entertaining story. Or why he admitted it, except to explain the oddly hanging fabric. Perhaps the “practice draw session” was a cover-up for something even more incriminating.
My response began with grave concern, and he ended that brashly, flipping from enthusiastic storyteller to admonishing authority figure.
How dare I imply he was irresponsible. How dare I think he’s stupid enough to have accidentally shot himself. How dare I be concerned about the property damages, lacking confidence in his ability to restore the wall.
His anger burst, fighting back at my mild skepticism, as he tore me to pieces. So I backtracked as fast as I could.
Oh, no of course you were being safe. Oh, no of course you can fix it. Oh, no of course you’re the most skilled, wise gun handler there ever was. It could have happened to anyone!
I said what I could to feel safe again, which consisted of stroking his ego.
Misplacing my trust in him was forbidden. So I reclaimed it out of thin air. With gaslighting, an abusive, manipulation tactic to convince a victim they are the crazy participant, he insisted that my reaction to him blowing a hole in the wall was the real insanity.
Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, maps out the techniques used in gaslighting, commonly seen in abusers, narcissists, and cult leaders:
- They tell blatant lies. They set up a precedent to tell bold-faced lies, to keep you unsteady.
- They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof. Even though you know they said something (you heard it), they outright deny it. The more they do this, the more you question your reality and accept theirs.
- They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition. Whether it be your identity or family, they attack this first. You would be a worthy person if you didn’t have a long list of negative traits.
- They wear you down over time. The snide and aggressive comments are gradual, so it is harder to notice when it shifted.
- Their actions do not match their words. “When dealing with a person or entity that gaslights, look at what they are doing rather than what they are saying. What they are saying means nothing; it is just talk. What they are doing is the issue.”
- They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you. They cut you down, then in the next breath they praise you for something you did. The victim considers the abuser is “not so bad.” But, think about what you were praised for, was it something that served the gas-lighter?
- They know confusion weakens people. They will strip a sense of stability and normalcy by making you constantly question everything. And then portray that they are the more stable entity.
- They project. They accuse you of what they are guilty of. Which sends the victim into defense mode, distracting from the gas-lighter’s behavior.
- They try to align people against you. Gas-lighters are liars, and turn others against you or claim other people know you are crazy or worthless. This leads to further isolation, giving them more control.
- They tell you or others that you are crazy. This is one of the most effective tools because it’s dismissive. If your sanity is belittled, people will not believe it when you tell them the gas-lighter is abusive or spiraling.
- They tell you everyone else is a liar. By saying everyone else is deceiving you, it again makes you doubt reality. It makes people turn to the gas-lighter for the “correct” information, which is actually incorrect. Emphasis that everyone is the enemy, but them.
The next time I went over to his place, the sheet was gone and the hole had vanished. He patched it up with such finesse, there was no trace of history in that wall. I tried to reference his handiwork, but his threatening glare made it clear I wasn’t to speak of the incident. He was done, ready for the next phase: erasing the memory.
He proceeded with confidence as this never happened, “what are you talking about?” His coverup was so stealthy it wasn’t just physical, it was mental.
There became a pattern of surreptitious events. Every step he took needed concealing. Not because he admitted to wrongdoing, but because he said everyone else would “not understand,” falsely judge him, or make incorrect assumptions. His only way to maintain the superior identity he claimed was to delete evidence, alter my viewpoint, and recruit me as his defender.
With gaslighting, abusers channel immense energy into erasing history, skewing reality. The victim is left questioning their memory and perceptions.
As defined in the dictionary, a perception is “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression” and “the process of becoming aware of something through the senses.”
Submerged in a world of manipulation and deceit, victims of gaslighting no longer believe in their concerns, they believe in the abuser’s illusions, redesigned perceptions, and explanations.
Months after the firearm incident (that never happened), he came over to my place, because he needed to show me his newest handgun. He boasted, without a single glitch, never a reference of the safety of his prior “mishap.”
I lived in an upstairs bedroom, so I was unaware of my roommate’s untimely return home, until the next morning. I could feel her discomfort in the confrontation, “Last night I saw a gun sitting on the kitchen island.”
The Glock sat on display like a casual centerpiece, where he left it after happily brandishing his black beauty to me. I scrambled to explain how he was showing off his latest purchase. Shooting was a hobby. I promised it was empty.
“It doesn’t matter if it was empty,” she said solemnly. “My dad shot himself when I was a child. I grew up fatherless because of a random gun like that.”
I was guilty by association, ashamed of letting a trigger into her home. I apologized, and tried to soften her concern of the situation. And for only a moment, I remembered the hole in the wall.
Naively, I told my abusive partner how much his “unloaded” gun on our kitchen counter disturbed my roommate. It set off his intense anger and subsequently my regret.
He proceeded to point out all of her insecurities and fallibilities, which led to merciless bullying, convincing me to move out of her place to reside alone. He had isolated me from friends and family, but this was the last straw, having some roommate as a bystander. She was a liability, like everyone else.
Gaslighting puts extreme emphasis on the response to worrisome behavior, sweeping the behavior that caused the torment completely out of view.
The gaslighting abuser never waivers in this concept: Your reaction is the real problem.
The victim is left questioning themselves instead of the abuser’s unreasonable or shady actions, until constant confusion and doubt reinforces a vulnerable mind.
To avoid his rage, I eagerly transformed my reactions into something that would cause less heat. I softened and muted my thoughts until my perception completely shifted. I lost my voice when I learned to use his.
This intense, chronic effort left me emotionally and mentally exhausted. Defending my abuser wore me down into the shell of a woman, suffering as a representative of the guilty party. I never understood why he needed so much sheltering from the world’s feedback.
When acquaintances or family asked about my abusive partner, I even insisted they never ask me about him. I was trying to protect myself by protecting him. Leaking any hint of his personal information, whether it was his recurrent failures in his schooling or his inability to hold down a job, was unforgiveable. I would suffer the consequences.
I made myself unavailable to their questions by disappearing. All part of his master plan.
He often told me that I was too sensitive, and because I cried daily in our near-decade long relationship, I believed him. He could prove my emotional oversensitivity by the quantity of my tears. See? Crying again! I never considered that his behavior was the constant cause of those tears, the common denominator of my daily sobs. My reaction to recurrent pain.
But his brief moments of charm erased my suspicion that his behavior was a valid cause of my sorrow. The contrast would throw me off. Surely someone so joyful would never have said or done the things I thought he did.
And the times he predicted the future with insight also worked in his favor of my total faith in his words. I believed in his flattery and fortune-telling.
He alternated charm and rage, switching abruptly, effortlessly. And I spent all of my energy into becoming someone who could adjust and adapt to this mental torture.
I didn’t want to be mentally sick. I read about methods to abort anxiety and alleviate depression, but there was no relief of my symptoms, because I still believed in my source of love, a malignant abuser.
And so I stayed in the flames, confused why I was burning.
I didn’t know that every lie, every gaslighting attack was just a mind game. A powerful weapon to persuade me that his every suspicious move was just my imagination. It was a reflection of his sickness, not mine. I took his words, internalized them, and became an extension of him.
The way to freedom from gaslighting abuse is to first recognize their behavior in these clear, textbook tactics.
If the “shoe fits,” the fact that they are telling you it doesn’t, is yet another confirmation. Narcissists and gas-lighters refuse to investigate their flaws, or ever consider they are in any way a part of the problem.
His words only held the value I agreed to give them.
He set up living room furniture in hell and called it heaven, beckoning me to sit down and make myself at home. The daily scalding this inflicted made me feel like I was going insane, like he said I was. But I wasn’t going crazy, I was exhibiting every symptom of an abused, gas-lit victim.
To save myself from the flames I had to decide to never believe him again. He had convinced me that I needed him, and couldn’t survive without him.
I couldn’t believe him and believe in myself. I had to choose one.
Many years later, outside of his world, my eyes are dry of tears. And I reach another piece of heaven every time I extinguish his lies that changed my core beliefs, my identity.
As I have learned to silence his residual voice in my mind, identifying the gaslighting phrases and tactics, I finally can hear my voice rising up again.
I finally have a say. And this is my voice.
For further reading and insight on Gaslighting, here is a link to my “part one” piece on this topic: