Donald Trump and Love Island's Adam Collard have both recently been in the news concerning gaslighting (Photo montage: Hannah Kamugisha)

OPINION

10 years on, the effects of gaslighting are still here with me

Gaslighting has made its way into public consciousness via the news – but for many women, it’s not a fleeting experience

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The doctor is staring at me incredulously. It’s an unusually stuffy Tuesday afternoon, earlier this year, and I’m getting impatient – my GP doesn’t appear to be taking me seriously. I just want to get the right contraception and get out of there. But our conversation is wearing. “It might be good to try out the pill,” she says, reasonably, to which I reply, immediately, that I can’t. “There are many types; we can find the right one.” I shake my head. She suggests the implant, the hormonal patch and the injection, to which I explain that I have tried them all and I won’t be doing it again.

“They made me crazy,” I say. “I was a horrible person when I was on them.”

And then she asks, “When was the last time you were taking contraception?”

An innocuous question, sure, but one that, to my surprise, elicited a resonant reaction. The answer was that I’d last been on prescribed contraception – the pill – around seven or eight years ago, while living with an ex-boyfriend. During the time we’d been together, I’d also tried the implant and the contraceptive patch, both of which, according to him, had “turned [me] mental”. My imbalanced hormones became another reason as to why our relationship was so volatile. For context, other reasons included: that I was too career-focused; that we argued because I knew “too many words”; because I earned too little money as a journalist; because I cried too much; because I looked ugly when I cried; because I dressed like a slag; because I didn’t appreciate that I would be “nothing” without him (because he “had money” and I did not).

There were many more aspects to that relationship which stung, but aren’t relevant here – you get the idea. All that needs to be said, essentially, is that it wasn’t healthy and that it was one which altered me in both positive and very negative ways. Yet, until recently, I hadn’t realised how far-reaching or ingrained his words would become, or for how long they would linger.

In fact, until recently, I wasn’t aware that I – like millions of others – had experienced gaslighting. Now, the term – which describes manipulative, emotionally abusive behaviour in a relationship in which one partner distorts the other’s perception of reality – is widely known, after becoming famously synonymous with Donald Trump’s derision of critical press, as well as being recognised under the UK’s newly implemented coercive control and emotional abuse law. More recently, the act of gaslighting played out on national TV, when Love Island’s Adam attempted to change the narrative over his behaviour towards fellow contestant Rosie.

However, when it’s not playing out in the Med on ITV2 but quietly, behind closed doors, gaslighting can be a difficult thing to spot. It is an intimate crime and one that is often only clear in hindsight. In my case, it wasn’t until after I left my boyfriend that I realised his insistence that no one liked me was an attempt to undermine my sense of self. Ditto the times he told me it was “just a little tap on the face”; I was making a fuss or “too sensitive”; or that the door handle flying into my stomach was “an accident”. Ditto the time he told me (and a hospital consultant he insisted we saw) that I must be infertile (“dried up”, he said) because my vagina was scared of him and refused to get wet when he wanted to have sex, and the times he looked at me and laughed, pitifully, as I cried. “Look at you,” he’d say. “You’re crazy.”

 

“You’re crazy” was a running theme in my former relationship – it’s an easy put-down, not least because it’s still legitimised and fuelled by bunny-boiler tropes that remain largely unquestioned

 

“It’s very rare for someone who is committing abuse to be totally accepting of how bad they are,” explains Dr Abigael San, a clinical psychologist. “Most of the time, they’re going to blame it on the person they’re abusing. So, gaslighting is incredibly common in abusive relationships – and, when it comes to relationship issues, something that often crops up, in my experience.

“A lot of the time, a person comes to therapy because there is a problem in their relationship. And without stereotyping or generalising, I have to say that it is often the female in a heterosexual relationship who first comes to therapy – but often it’s been instigated by her male partner.

“Usually there’s an insinuation that there’s something wrong with her, or that she’s ‘aggressive’ or ‘throwing tantrums’ or ‘being difficult’ or ‘she’s crazy’. Sometimes women will even be [wrongfully] labelled with the term ‘borderline personality disorder’ in order to undermine them."

“You’re crazy” was a running theme in my former relationship and in a lot of abusive relationships – it’s an easy put-down, not least because it’s still legitimised and fuelled by bunny-boiler tropes that remain largely unquestioned. When I left my ex after four years, he told me that if I said anything about “what had gone on” then he’d tell everyone we knew that I was “mental”. He knew with certainty that he could, with one word, undermine any legitimacy I had. This, in spite of the fact that this “secret” was, technically, already out – the first time he hit me, he drunkenly told my friend that I “deserved it” and rang my mum in tears the next morning to ask what he should do about hitting her daughter (a Very Bad Idea). The arrogance of white, middle-class male power is consistently astounding.

Years later, I’ve learned that telling me I was crazy was the fire in the gaslight – it was that which rendered me (as it does others) vulnerable to other difficult-to-stomach-things. Typically, the gaslighting began softly at first – a cock-headed suggestion that my mind was unstable, which slowly became a firm assertion and then, eventually, a fact. You are asked to doubt, over and over, and taught, by repetition, to question yourself. As soon as that question begins to become a reflex, it’s very difficult to control it – the power, and the story, is all in the other person’s hands.

While there are many acute effects – codependency, for one, isolation, the feeling that you are deserving of abuse or simply unloveable – the residual after-effects of gaslighting can, probably quite obviously, cause myriad issues. Self-doubt – and there is a difference between natural self-doubt and the type implanted, purposefully, by someone else – descends into anxiety and depression, and “it can be difficult for someone to trust others afterwards,” adds Dr San, “especially in new relationships”. In my case, trusting myself, too.

The realisation I had in the doctor’s surgery was that the only information I had about how my body reacted to contraception, and about who I was at that time, was a story constructed by someone else – one that was certainly unreliable and likely malicious. It was the first time I saw gaslighting in action for myself (albeit retroactively). Acknowledging that process helped me recognise that, a decade after I fell in love with someone who hurt me, those stories still spring into mind, via that old reflex. Still now, I find myself chastising myself for crying too much; I softened my dress sense for years. Many times, I have shed confidence as easy as skin, because the belief he created that I, along with my family, am widely disliked comes back to the fore. The point is that this stuff sticks and wraps itself around you like clingfilm – and it’s OK if that is still the case years, even decades, on.

Because, as I am now finding, it’s not too late to right the wrong thoughts. It has taken a long time for me to know who I am and to like that person. But it is possible. For me, identifying the beliefs, even the small ones, I learned from my ex helps enormously – sometimes literally asking a friend if I cry an abnormal amount (turns out, no!), or if I am selfish or stupid. Accepting that some doubts are completely normal, along with accepting my (many) flaws, has been useful, too. But most useful has been cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), in changing the way I think. “Seeking therapy is the best way to try and overcome lingering gaslighting,” says Dr San. “And, ideally, a structured type of therapy, like CBT, rather than supportive counselling.

“Address it. If you can, don’t ignore it. Talk through it and try to correct incorrect beliefs. There will be contexts that trigger beliefs and thoughts and a sense of how a person felt when they were in that relationship. If you can learn to recognise what those triggering contexts are and notice when that feeling arises, then you can, potentially, change how you are reacting.”

That day in the doctor’s surgery, I felt my mind expand in a way I hadn’t for a long time. Honestly, it felt like relief – finally, because of something as banal as an IUD, I might have finally grasped hold of a wisp of thread that, if I tugged at it gently, I might unravel things that have sat tightly wound in my belly for nearly a decade. I’m not on the pill yet. But no one is telling me I can’t be. 

If you have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence, or are worried about someone who might be, please ring the National Domestic Violence hotline (run in partnership by Refuge and Women's Aid) on 0808 2000 247. It's free, and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

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Donald Trump and Love Island's Adam Collard have both recently been in the news concerning gaslighting (Photo montage: Hannah Kamugisha)
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domestic violence
violence against women and girls
Emotional abuse

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