GaslightingV5 (5 things 1 topic) — <– GREAT blog post! Please read!!!!
— My response —
I’m going to write about this because it’s difficult. It’s personal, scary and painful, but on the off chance it has resonance for someone and might be helpful, I’ll go for it.
Carrot, who teaches philosophy and climbs, posted the above blog post on The Dihedral a day or so ago. It’s more than “worth reading” — it’s important reading, I think. Anyway, for me gaslighting is not a colloquialism or a pop-culture psychology term; it’s something people do to each other. Reading Carrot’s blog post while I’m in the middle of Erich Fromm’s discussion of the sado/masochistic personality and it’s link to authoritarianism? Ouch, yikes, runaway, runaway, but with this topic — for me — there is no where to go.
I had never heard the word “Gas Lighting” until after I ejected the Evil X from my house in no uncertain terms. “I hate you, I wish you were dead, get the fuck out of my house” was pretty much what I said, in fact, exactly what I said. Events that morning brought a revelation I’d had the day before into the dim light of my bathroom where he was (allegedly) repairing the flush mechanism of the toilet. But he wasn’t, really. He didn’t know how to do that, but he did know how to blame me for making it impossible for him because I wasn’t holding the flashlight properly. The evening before we had been driving home together from San Diego. I lived in the mountains; he lived with me. He suddenly said, “So, when are you getting ESPN?”
I wasn’t getting ESPN. I said, “I’m not.”
“You said you were.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Is it my fault you can’t remember what you say? So when are you getting it?”
He couldn’t get it. He didn’t have an income. A fuse was lit in my mind. We stopped at the drug store in the town nearest my house, about 18 miles away. He ran in for something. I very nearly drove away, leaving him there. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t, but I waited. Erich Fromm talks about our conscience as a kind of internal authoritarian ruler. There’s something to that, and I remember pangs of conscience that night. I thought it would be mean to drive off and leave him there. But that fuse was burning, and by the bathroom incident the next morning the bomb was ready to explode.
It took him four hours to realize I wasn’t kidding. He left. I drove into town to see my therapist. I knew I needed help formulating my next steps. She said she was proud of me. I was ashamed to have been caught — again. That’s when I understood that understanding something — in this case my vulnerability and where it came from — didn’t mean much in terms of taking action or preventing it from happening again. But I hoped…
I had learned from therapy (before I even met the Evil X) that taking care of my addict brother and “being there” for my addict mother had come with some good stuff and some bad stuff; the bad stuff being this. I had turned to therapy several years before when I realized I couldn’t help my brother, a realization that sent me into a suicidal spiral. I had given him a choice; get sober or don’t call me. I couldn’t take the emotional pain or the extra work — classes — I was doing to support him.
I am extremely vulnerable to this. My mom was a master gaslighter until the bitter (and it was bitter) end. Through her whole life she refused to give either my brother or I power of attorney so we could help her at the end of her life and yet she would always make a point of letting me know where I could find her will, the album she wanted played at her funeral, other related things. The inevitable (for my mom) moment came when she was in the hospital and not “sick unto death” but still not able to come home or take care of herself.
A day or so earlier I was helping her go to the bathroom. As I pulled up her diaper, she had her arms around my neck to stand. She said, “Are you going to stay home and take care of your mother?” The thought of that was absolutely terrifying, and I realized I’d rather die. I had a job teaching (something she said I was not qualified for) and a life. Staying home with her taking care of her? A world of pain opened up in front of me. I didn’t answer.
I was in the unenviable position of having to find her a place to go from the hospital, a nursing home. Well, that’s pretty awful, but possible. However, she had to sign herself in. The doctor couldn’t do it; her attorney couldn’t do it; she had not established me or any of her sisters as the Power of Attorney. I had to present the paper to my mom and hope…
She was ready. She signed the paper with a vicious flourish then said, “There, see? I always knew you’d be the one to lock me up.” That was just the ultimate — meaning last — of her bizarre attacks. She’d set it up, created a false reality and a plot line and cast me in it.
It’s a co-dependent thing, and that’s a term I didn’t believe in until I realized it described me. I was raised — groomed in the parlance of our time — to fill that niche for someone like the Evil X, my brother, some friends. “Your job, Martha Ann, is to make things work for someone so that someone doesn’t have make their own life work.” That’s what it boils down to. I’ve realized over the last few weeks I’m in another one, a friendship, allegedly, but not really. I’m not a friend in that relationship; I’m a utility. But that role is so familiar for me, so paradoxically comfortable, that it might take me a long time to realize I’m just a tool.
Gas-lighting is one kind of manipulation a person like my mom or the Evil X has in their toolkit to retain power over someone so they do not have to manage their own lives or take the consequences for their own choices. I would also add that these people might not be at all malicious, only desperate and deluded. That’s actually worse for the tool (aka me) than malice would be. The only way such a person feels “safe” is by immobilizing the tool. Some people do this with physical abuse, some with psychological abuse.
I can say with all the certainty in life, “No one ever saved anybody,” and I can know that to be true, but it won’t stop me from trying. Thanks to Carrot and Erich Fromm, I had a terrible night with no sleep. The truth boiled around in my mind all night as my consciousness searched for a strategy. Luckily, the person in question doesn’t live with me and all I really have to do is not speak to them on the phone.
I don’t think a person like me will ever be completely free from this bizarre idea of a normal friendship/relationship. I’ve had therapy and worked hard to rise above it, but I haven’t succeeded. I don’t like confrontation, I’m a people pleaser, I am not sure of my own value (apparently), I’m willing to sacrifice to help others — I expect to. But the line between help and enabling for someone like me is very fuzzy. It might be easier for some people to say, “I don’t like phone calls like this so either stop or I’m not answering any more,” but that thought didn’t even occur to me until last night — or 2 am this morning.
This is a person I’ve known for almost 30 years. The solution is so obvious and so simple. Don’t want a phone call like that? Don’t have it. The response to that was, as expected, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It’s really really hard. I’m not a victim of anything but myself which might be true of more of us than we are aware. I look on my struggle with this over the course of my life and see some wins and some losses. I think that’s how life goes. I think we might all have blind spots and this one is mine. I’m sorry for so much personal sharing, but… Well, I guess I’m doing it anyway.
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