by Heather Doney cross posted from her blog Becoming Worldly
Part Two of her post on the subject of Gaslighting. Continuing on from Part One
Me: Why don’t you just admit that he’s at home with you all day in isolation and you’re probably ignoring him most of the time and calling him stupid and telling him to shut up and threatening to give him spankings, Dad? We’re all your children, know how you are and what you really do. I wish [youngest son] the best and I wish you’d go get a paying job to support your remaining minor children and let [youngest son] have a normal life in school with his peers.
Dad: If you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all. [Youngest son] is excelling, thriving, and happy. Of course you wouldn’t know since you have neither called him nor sent him a card even once in his entire life. For someone who tries to project to others that she cares, you don’t. It’s all about YOU. Actions speak louder than words, and your inaction speaks volumes. Go hate on someone else. We’re all doing quite well here without your delusional interference. Merry Christmas.
Me: If you can’t be nice, don’t expect me to pretend like you are. You have never properly supported your family or met your children’s needs. You have told a lot of lies over the years and done a lot of cruel and bullying things in private and pretended to be something that you aren’t. And if you text me any more of this garbage I will continue to respond as I see fit, so if you don’t want to hear it, select your text message recipients more carefully in the future.
Dad: Bi-polar disorder runs on both sides of our family, and unfortunately, you seem to have a severe case of it. It’s not just your relationship with me that is toxic; you have a toxic relationship with many people including most of your siblings, your mother, your ex-husband, and probably your current boyfriend as well. The good news is that with proper diagnosis and treatment, your hate, anger, and chronic lying can be managed, but you have to want the help. For the new-coming year I hope you receive the professional help that you need.
Me: If I did the things you did to your family, I’d probably want to call my child mentally ill, hoping no one would believe I was capable of such ugly behavior either. Don’t text me as part of your group texts again Dad.
Dad: I’m not the only one who has suggested that you seek professional help. Most members of your family want nothing to do with you because you are contentious and self-centered. Also, I read some of your delusional blog posts, and your lies will catch up with you one day. I can cite example after example. You really do need professional help. Get it! Hurry!
Me: I’ve blocked Dad’s number, so won’t be seeing any more messages from him. I’m sorry for this drama y’all. I’d like to be part of a sibling update chat, but not one hijacked by Dad for his purposes.
Yeah. Quite a doozy of a conversation there, right? I find it upsetting and hurtful in an invasive, draining way, a way that is familiar to me and that I won’t tolerate in my life anymore. He called my mother mentally ill when I was growing up, tried to discredit her too, and at the time I believed him, even though I now think the symptoms she showed mostly resulted from massive amounts of psychological abuse that she, as a simple trusting person, had not recognized or been prepared to handle when she married him four months after meeting him at age 19.
If you don’t know the pattern, I think it’s often easier to see the facts in written correspondence involving a stranger, but if you see it happen in person with someone familiar to you (and who you think you know well) it’s actually quite hard not to side with the abuser in these cases,. He often seems like a nice, reasonable, and informed ordinary guy, someone you would have described as likable and wanted to get a beer with (or maybe have had fun hanging out with many times over the years) and this unexpected accusation makes you doubt your own ability to judge character (something you pride yourself on being good at, even though you, like everyone else, can only know the sides of people that they show you), and so you decide it is an error, that probably the accuser (who may be crying or drinking too much or looking like they want to run or punch somebody in the face) is in fact crazy or hateful and made it up.
So I’d like to shift your framework, say a word about that, a pro tip gleaned from old-fashioned experience, if you will: If someone confidently claims an accuser is mentally ill and delusional after that person has called them out for abusive and neglectful or manipulative behavior, that’s gaslighting and character assassination, also a form of abuse. And witnessing this sort of behavior lets you know you are in fact dealing with an abuser, a person who feels entitled to abuse, not just someone who made a one-off bad decision or accidentally did the wrong thing or was misinterpreted or someone who doesn’t realize what they did. And people like that are best not kept around in your life or given the benefit of the doubt.
So next time you see this sort of thing (whether it’s celebrities, neighbors, family members, or your Facebook friend-of-a-friend), please recognize that instead of witnessing an explanation for why the accuser would make such shocking accusations, like you might think is what’s happening, you are in fact witnessing an in-your-face example of the exact sort of abuse they perpetrated. Sure, they aren’t punching anyone or ripping their clothes or dragging them downstairs by their hair. They aren’t displaying any signs of aggression at all, actually, but they are doing the thing that comes first, before violent abusive stuff can become a pattern rather than a one-off. And that thing is gaslighting, a false redefining of reality. And I speak from experience when I say thatrecovering from absorbing parts of that false reality – going from thinking on some level that you’re at fault for provoking them or you’re crazy to think that really happened or you somehow brought this on yourself or there is a nagging chance you are just deeply and utterly wrong about everything ever, to recognizing that they didn’t just hurt you but also made you believe things – is unquestionably the most deeply painful part of it all, a toxic weed whose rooting out causes your heart to feel like it’s got all these little bleeding holes stinging raw where something solid used to be.
And the thing that most easily deepens that hurt, reopens those wounds, is when you see this gaslighting that you used to believe yourself now working on other people. People who believe their lies and listen to them, or are quiet because they aren’t sure but think this person might be onto something and you watch them become concerned about your ability to tell fact from fiction or accurately relay it because they don’t know any better and on a certain level don’t want to. And your credibility gets diminished and the abuser gets what they wanted – the benefit of the doubt and they stick their fingers in that hole and widen it until it’s to the size they desire, and suddenly you have an army of people pulled through to their side, denying and victim-blaming right along with them. And the thing about this sort of behavior and the whole “mental illness” character assassination tactic is that it is incredibly prevalent and incredibly damaging and re-injures people who are trying to heal.
This also explains why many survivors are quiet, carrying on to the outside world like nothing happened until maybe years or decades have passed and others speak out and suddenly they add their voice, their story, the risk of being alone and labeled crazy now diminished. It makes sense. You get more of this gaslighting and character assassination stuff when you are one person or a small group openly speaking truth to power, suddenly not letting the abuser completely write the narrative about themselves that they’re used to being able to. It’s scary to stand alone. And you already know they will do what they can to punish you. It is a risk, and one to take seriously.I knew the risks to myself and my reputation when I spoke out. I weighed them. I did it anyway. But the idea that my Dad would respond to my homeschooling reform activism and openly speaking about the neglect and abuse I experienced in my parents “pseudo-homeschool” growing up by pulling my little half-brother, a sweet strawberry blond kid who is 11 years old, loves video games and wears glasses, out of public school and enrolling him in “online school” where he’s at home alone at a computer with my Dad all day makes me sick to my stomach and I’ve gotta say…I did not expect that. I do feel like maybe if I was quiet, hadn’t done media interviews or co-founded an advocacy organization, it wouldn’t have happened. But even though it hurts to think that, makes me cycle through a bunch of “what-ifs” I don’t like, I understand that all I can do in the here and now is try to shed sunlight on it, expose the situation for what it is. Because sunlight is not only a cure for abuse-induced shame, it’s a cure for lies. With enough of it, they shrivel up like dried worms on the pavement. Which is why people like my Dad fight so hard to have their real behavior continue to go sight unseen, including the radical step of saying that their own children are severely mentally ill from some supposed genetic defect or as the result of a profound moral failing.
Is it my Dad and these other guys like him that have a mental illness? Is this a case of projection? Possibly. I don’t know. There’s been times that I’ve armchair diagnosed other people with things. I do think it’s a bit insane to treat your child the way he has treated me my whole life, when all I wanted was a Dad to love and look up to and have meals and go fishing with. I also think it’s a bit insane for someone to think they can adequately homeschool their youngest child when they almost derailed social, educational, and economic prospects for their eldest three and if it hadn’t been for a grandparents’ intervention, would have delivered them into adulthood in a condition quite unfit for passage into fulfilling lives or independence. But more than thinking it’s insane, I think it’s selfish. I think it’s uncaring. I think it’s abusive and neglectful. And like I said before, you don’t have to be clinically mentally ill to abuse or be uncaring or selfish. You just have to feel entitled to treat other people in a way that may or may not be disrespectful and damaging to them (that part doesn’t really matter), but that suits your immediate need to control and dominate and get and do what you want, and feel important and stick it to people that happen to cross you.
In fact, I think most mentally ill people are better people than my Dad and better people than people like my Dad describe them. First, most aren’t abusers. I mean, sure, they can be, just like anyone else, including physically disabled people can be, but it isn’t mental illness that makes them abusive or hateful, if they are. Most people with mental illness keep it a secret and you never know, because of the stigma. And most severely mentally ill people, the ones who can’t hide it even if they want to, just struggle with pain and feeling overwhelmed and unsure of themselves and their own sense of perception as they try to get their basic needs met, and many lose connections with friends and family because their symptoms are hard to deal with and they often come to depend on substances or bad habits to self-medicate and self-soothe because they are grasping for relief. And mentally ill people do not deserve our fear or condemnation anymore than someone on crutches does, and they could definitely use our support and compassion and patience. And if someone is mentally ill and abusive, they have even more of a need for trained professionals to deal with them, because it is a doozy of a problem on top of a problem.
I hope that people who would be prone to listen to people like my Dad (after all, fathers are still pretty respected in our society) will take a lesson from those of us on the receiving end who are speaking out. And the thing you need to know is that as a Dad my Dad is important and he can do and say all those things if he wants. And I can’t stop him. All I can do is tell my truth, share my story. Yes,there are children people like him can still hurt. Yes, there are people who will still believe people like him when they call the children they hurt crazy. Yes, there are laws that are currently on the side of people like him, protecting their continuing bad behavior. But them calling us mentally ill is a PR effort on their part, damage control they try once what they’ve done has already been put into words and is being exposed. All they need for their current recipe to keep working is to have you on their side and then have the people who trust your judgement to join you and them and to have others who aren’t sure say nothing. So don’t give them you. Don’t say nothing.
I’m coming to realize more and more that mental illness or not, what kind of person you are is largely under your control. It is not based on what skills or interests or struggles you have, or how smart or experienced you are or how pleasing you are to the eye or the ear by modern attractiveness standards, but onwhat you do with your power and your time and your lessons learned, who you defend and who you ignore and what narratives you further in pursuit of your goals. And when it comes to a throwdown between believing people like my Dad and people who have experienced trauma and/or have a diagnosed or suspected mental illness, I’ve made my decision. I’ll be over here, on the side of the crazy people and the children. I hope you will be too.
Heather Doney blogs at https://becomingworldly.wordpress.com/
Heather was raised Fundamentalist Evangelical in South Louisiana until she was 13. At that tender age she was introduced to the world at large and starting her journey away from home schooling environment.
Her blog is primarily about Quiverfull lifestyle, homeschooling culture and politics, child welfare, PTSD, education, poverty, big families, gender issues, and maybe a few bits of south Louisiana or New England culture and a recipe or craft project or two thrown in, just for fun.
She is a member of NLQ’s The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network