Gaslighting typically happens very gradually. In the beginning, the gaslighter’s actions seem harmless, if a little bizarre. Over time, however, abusive behaviors escalate. Subtly dismissive language and loving platitudes give way to mockery and blaming. “I didn’t say anything. You must be hearing things," gives way to “You never take responsibility for your actions,” to “Clearly, I can’t trust your account of things.” You start to doubt your own memories, experiences, and feelings. Friendships frost over. You become quiet, but your mind never stops buzzing.
Gaslighting is an abusive tactic defined by the “systematic attempt by one person to erode another's reality by telling them that what they are experiencing isn't so, and the gradual giving up on the part of the other person.”
Due to the nature of gaslighting, it took years for me to identify the mob mentality I came across in my sophomore year of college: the uneven power dynamic that lurked behind every exchange with my roommates. But, with the words came empowerment. Though I was years removed from any immediate threat when I learned the name of this abusive experience, the relief I felt was visceral.
For many survivors of gaslighting, the Gaslight Effect is later mirrored by symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This was certainly the case for me. Before and after merged into one, and long after I had left the abusive situation, I had not really left it.
Three major components of PTSD that survivors describe are reliving, avoidance, and hyperarousal.
- Reliving: Flashbacks, intrusive imagery, nightmares, anxiety
“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”
English speakers have adopted a French term to talk about the feeling of finding the perfect retort to an insult only after you’ve walked away from a fight: l'esprit de l'escalier. It seems to be the only way to describe the desperate preoccupation for days, weeks, and months. I kept thinking of what I should have said or what I might have said if I weren’t so slow to react, and if I weren’t so desperate for approval. It drove me to distraction. I worked at a deli, and I’d zone out while slicing tomatoes.
I take out the trash all the time. Slice.
You lied. Slice.
The apartment was supposed to be my safe space. Slice.
I still have a little white bubble on my middle finger from when I accidentally lopped off the tip of the digit. These flashbacks were immediate, absorbing, and cruel. The immediacy was just as crushing as the intrusive thoughts during the gaslighting itself. What am I doing wrong? Let me fix it. I can fix it.
- Avoidance: Avoiding people, agoraphobia, emotional numbing
“You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event. For example, you may avoid crowds because they feel dangerous…You may keep very busy or avoid seeking help because it keeps you from having to think or talk about the event.”
For me, avoidance came with increased knowledge of very specific pockets of pop culture. I became deeply involved with Glee fanfiction. I accrued a comprehensive knowledge of every story line on General Hospital from 1979 to 2001. I composed a free verse poem about the mysterious disappearance of Steve from Blue’s Clues. I designed a cardboard diorama based on Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon music video.
I’d remember to eat at 6 pm. I’d sleep fifteen hours per day. During this time, a mutual friend of my gaslighter reached out, a mutual friend who had sided with the gaslighter. “You were right about them,” he said. “They assaulted somebody else. I don’t think they’ll have many friends when we go back in the fall.” I had never put much stock in the power of prayer, but in that moment I actually prayed for a chocolate bar.
I said nothing at all while the phone line crackled.
I was right. I know that.
Do you know how hard I fought to know that?
I did not reach out to this friend. Instead, I played computer mahjong for five hours.
I seldom left my apartment during this stage, though I longed to leave. I’d imagine my angry open hands turning the night into dark blue ribbons.
- Hyperarousal: Difficulty concentrating, irritability, outbursts of anger, insomnia, hyper-vigilance
“…Peritraumatic responses, particularly those participating in hyperarousal, are processed by the amygdala, which subsequently replicates those responses on later encounters with trauma-related stimuli, to produce hyperarousal symptoms.”
The arousal stage mimicked the buzzing desperation I felt during the gaslighting itself. I emerged from this social violence with a no man’s land of mud for a head. Entire floors of my dormitory were triggering, I would dread the opening of elevator doors.
At the height of the gaslighting, coherent thoughts were like canaries in a coal mine: a bright yellow spark I’d clutch onto before the toxins would snuff it out. Everything was up for debate. Even my memories. Especially my memories. I would take out the trash and highlight my name on the chore chart to indicate that I had completed my task. The next day, the trash would be full and the chore chart would be missing from where it had been taped on the wall.
You just don’t pull your own weight, they’d say.
My worst fear was finding myself repeating patterns of abuse in my new friendships. I’d worry that waiting for the other shoe to drop had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I slept very little. The flashbacks were now accompanied by fits of anger. I tore everything off my walls and hurled my phone into the swamp in my backyard.
Beyond the symptoms
PTSD and resilience are not mutually exclusive. That’s what I know now. A doctor or mental health professional who has experience in treating people with PTSD can help. Treatment can include talk therapy, medication, or both.
Emphasizing self-care can help. Believing that you deserve to spend time on yourself can help. You know the arbitrary question that junket interviewers ask celebrities (and yes, during the avoidance phase, I fell down many a YouTube junket rabbit hole) that goes something like, “What would you tell your younger self, knowing what you know now?”
I would say that healing takes a long time, and recovery is not linear. Not even close. Recovery is a slow burn, but I would tell my younger self that fighting for yourself is always a worthy cause.
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