One woman. One horse. 48 states for Domestic Violence Awareness

Check back often for the latest updates and stories from Meredith and Apollo as they journey 10,000 miles on a four year ride around the USA.

Domestic Violence is Also This - Gaslighting

This is part three of a series. It contains details of my own experiences and other potential ptsd triggers which may be disturbing to read.

The term “domestic violence” is in some ways misleading, the words themselves reinforcing the misconceptions and myths about this extremely common issue.  What do you think of when you hear the word “violence?” Probably the first word that came to your mind, as with most people - even many of those who have been abused  - is physical violence of some kind.  Hitting, punching, slapping, kicking, shooting, stabbing.  Something visibly violent.

But domestic violence does not start and end with physical violence, and many people have been victimized without having a hand laid upon them.  So many women (and men!) I have talked to have expressed the belief that they were in a “bad” relationship, but it wasn’t abusive because their abuser never hit them.  For this reason, I have come to prefer the term “domestic abuse,” which more easily is understood to include other abuses than just physical.  

It’s time that everyone understood that domestic violence, or domestic abuse if you prefer, is more than just physical violence.  It also includes financial, psychological, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and technological abuse.  For this October’s domestic violence awareness month, I will be discussing each one.  Most abusive relationships include a combination of several types of abuse; many of the types have overlapping characteristics.  Only one type is needed for a relationship to be called abusive, though; experiencing only one type is just as difficult and damaging as going through them all.

Gaslighting, a type of psychological abuse

Before I knew about the term “gaslighting”, I called what happened to me “mind games,” “brainwashing,” or “a kind of psychological torture.”  For my own experiences, gaslighting was the most difficult and harmful of all the types of abuse that I experienced.

Gaslighting is defined as “a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.” It is not limited to domestic abuse; there are other relationships in which this can happen, such as at work.  It is also typical of cults.

Abusers who use gaslighting techniques are excellent liars.  They are often charming, and act concerned and kind to earn the victims trust.  They may also charm the victim’s friends and acquaintances so that they seem even more trustworthy, honest, and kind.

These mind games start slowly.  At first the victim may feel guilty for doubting someone they love and trust.  Then they are manipulated into doubting themselves instead.  Over time, the confusion and doubt grows from a few inconsequential things to the victim’s entire reality.

They tell blatant lies, unashamedly and with a straight face.  If the victim calls them on it, they may be hurt with physical or verbal abuses, and so they learn to stay quiet and not argue.  Blatant lies also sets the stage for future doubt, so that smaller and more convincing lies may be easier to believe.

They deny having said or done things, even if there is proof.  Often they are able to refute the proof in a somewhat convincing or plausible way, making the victim doubt their own memory of the event.

Their actions do not match their words.  However, they may be able to justify the discrepancy in a way that sort-of makes sense, or can use a “magic trick” tactic where they deflect attention from their actions by immediately preceding or following them with a bigger or opposite action, to confuse or distract the victim from thinking about the discrepancy.  Later, this can be used to make the victim question reality and to deny what they said or did.

They use compliments or other positive reinforcement to confuse and control, such as by mixing up criticisms and compliments, or by destroying property and giving gifts.

They do not take responsibility for their own faults, mistakes, and problems, and instead blame the victim.  The victim is then forced to think about defending themselves instead of thinking about what the abuser did or didn’t do.

They try to turn others against the victim, twist what others have said to use against the victim, or lie outright about what others said to use against the victim.  This creates both confusion and a feeling of isolation from people who they might otherwise have turned to for help.

They create chaos and confusion.  This serves to keep the victim on edge and unsure of what is actually happening, and makes them question reality and even their own perceptions.

They accuse others of being liars.  By questioning the reality of what a victim is being told by outsiders, the victim does not know who is telling the truth and what is real.  They are drawn to believe the abuser because this is the “safe” choice.

They tell the victim that she is crazy, and/or tell other people that the victim is crazy. Often real-life events or words are twisted to “prove” this, and make the victim question their own sanity, and make others doubt their sanity as well if they ever do decide to speak out about the abuse.

My story

Gaslighting was the predominant reason that I stayed in my abusive relathonship as long as I did (12 years).  Every single step and sign of gaslighting listed above what a part of my experience.

He was even so effective in gaslighting tactics that the court required I get a mental evaluation before we could proceed with the divorce, to make sure that I wasn’t crazy like he said I was.  Obviously I passed, but the point is that he even was able to make the judge doubt my mental competence.

Additionally, many of the physically and emotionally abusive things he did to me were so outright weird that it was easy to question my own sanity and memory about what had happened.  And who would believe me if I told them some of these things? Of course I’d sound insane! Even now I find it difficult to put into words some of the strange experiences I went through, and to separate nightmarish reality from the confusion created by gaslighting.

There are many things that happened to me which I may never sort out the truth about.  For example, one night I woke up with extreme nausea and then blacked out on the way to the bathroom.  He called me an ambulance and I was kept at the hospital overnight, but in my fear and fogginess at the time, I was not in a good mental state to think about and understand what the doctor told me.  Later, my abuser told me that I had suffered from acute dehydration, and used this as a falsely helpful tactic to further gaslight me.  But thinking back on the bits that I know are true about that night, dehydration doesn’t make a lot of sense.  And I can’t help but wonder now whether he just grabbed an opportunity to control me “for my health,” or whether there was something more sinister going on that caused me to black out in the first place.

I was not able to make an exit plan and effect my escape until I combatted the gaslighting and got control back over my grasp on reality.  Ironically, the very spiritual abuse that he tried to use to hurt me actually was in the end what saved me.  At that time, I was being forced to study the Buddha’s teachings by daily readings of the Pali Canon.  In particular, the various teachings about separating truth from perception and for controlling one’s mind in stressful situations allowed me to finally test and see how he had twisted reality. I could apply the Buddha’s teachings to his actions and his words and see when they did not match, and other such instances of confusion.  Of course I couldn’t tell him this or I’d get beaten, but it did allow me to finally break the hold he had taken on my mind and realize the depth of the abuse and the need to leave.

After I left (and occasionally still today), there were many things that he told me about myself, about my friends and family, and about my world as a whole that I had to re-analyze and seek the truth.  Every single thing that he had told me over the previous 12 years was now cast in doubt. Even basic things that I thought I had learned during that time, such as certain “facts” about history, agriculture, music, and other subjects he liked to talk about, I had to check up on.

In my personal experience, gaslighting was the most indidious of all the types of abuse.  The tactics were often so subtle that they defy description.  Yet they were extremely effective in keeping me controlled and preventing me from leaving even during the worst of the physical or verbal abuse.

How to get help

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, contact your local shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (visit their page here).  Support for survivors is also available. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

You are invited to join the conversation!
Please keep the following in mind when posting your comments:
- You do not need to register to comment
- You may comment anonymously
- You may post questions, and I will do my best to respond in a timely fashion.
- You may disagree. But please do so respectfully.
- I reserve the right to delete inappropriate or rude comments.
- You are the sole owner of your comments.
- You grant me license to publish your comments in another venue, royalty free and without limitations, including in a blog, book, video, or presentation.