I first learned about gaslighting in a college film class. We watched clips from Rosemary’s Baby and discussed how the protagonist, played by a harried Mia Farrow, is led to believe she is crazy. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out she’s not crazy, she’s actually pregnant with Satan’s baby — a pretty legitimate reason to lose your shit.
I remember relating to the character’s struggle on a much smaller but significant level. I’ve never personally given birth to a satanic baby, but I do know a thing or two about people telling me I’m crazy — or making me believe I am.
Shortly after college, I told a guy I was dating I didn’t want him to drive me home because he’d been drinking.
He said, “Are you insane? I’ve had three beers.”
Not only did I let him drive me home, I apologized for questioning his sobriety. He made fun of me for days.
“I’ve had a beer, can you walk me to the bathroom?” he’d say.
It was a hilarious bit and it worked. I didn’t question him again.
When he picked me up for a date in his truck a few weeks later, he was drunk and driving erratically. I tried to get out of the car but he laughed at me.
So I waited until we were at a stoplight, jumped out, and walked home. He drove slowly beside me as I was walking. “May, you’re being crazy,” he said, calmly, through the car window, his voice slightly muffled by booze. “Seriously, you’re being insane right now.”
I never heard from him again; it took me months before I could convince myself I did the right thing.
Then there’s the time I told an ex-boyfriend I didn’t want to have kids. He chuckled condescendingly and said, “That’s what you think. Wait until you turn 30.”
It became a joke, the kind that is only funny to one person. He would say, “You’re going to be a great mom.” I broke up with him, turned 30 and still didn’t want to have kids — but his voice stuck with me: “Wait until you turn 30.”
Even now, when I tell people I don’t want kids, there’s a flicker of doubt in my voice, like I’m not sure if I really believe myself.
I know you’re thinking “Who are these gems you keep dating?” But these guys were decent, kind individuals. OK, not the first one, he was garbage. But their intentions were not explicitly hostile. That’s why gaslighting works. It often comes from the ones you love.
There are, of course, so many more examples.
Men lashing out when I turned them down for a date or for sex.
Guys telling me “I love you” out of the blue and then becoming cold and aloof, repelled by my attachment.
People on the internet in 2017 calling me a “crybaby” and a “sore loser” when I tweet anything critical of the President.
People telling me to “relax” and “calm down” when I express any emotion that isn’t joy.
It can all feel like emotional torture.
Writer Lauren Duca brought gaslighting into the mainstream consciousness with an essay in Teen Vogue that went viral. It explains how the current president is using the tactic against the majority of the country. Reading it, I experienced the same wave of relief I remember feeling in that film class: I am not insane. It’s OK to feel angry and scared. It’s not only OK — it’s healthy. These feelings and thoughts are sane.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety. For years I’d had panic attacks. Nervous twitches. Social anxiety that kept me isolated from people. Obsessive, debilitating bouts of self-criticism and self-doubt. I didn’t know there was a term for it. When a doctor told me I had a “generalized anxiety disorder,” strangely, it was a relief. Now my craziness had a name and a shape, something to hold on to.
I want to shout it in the streets: “I have an anxiety disorder! I’m mentally ill!”
I don’t do that. But I do tweet about it and talk about it and slip my SSRIs into conversation at parties like a new mom bragging about her child. Thinking of my anxiety as an illness is comforting and talking about it normalizes it.
With a little help from my therapist and my best friend, Zoloft, I’ve worked to get my anxiety under control, to differentiate between my “insane” thoughts and reality. Figuring out where my mental instability ends and reality begins is more essential than ever in 2017, when every day feels like a nightmare. “This can’t be real,” I say out loud most days, while trying to digest the news. And yet, it is. I know it is.
Earlier this month, my dad emailed me an old quote which he found apropos:
“As the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.”
— Jonathan Swift.
My 72-year-old father is experiencing gaslighting.
I’m not alone in this. America is in the hands of a drunk driver and we all have to learn to speak up for ourselves, to trust that feeling in our gut that says, “Get out of the car. Now.”
I’ve never felt less crazy. Not just because I take pills, though they help. But because I’m learning to trust my instincts, to seek out the truth and to believe it. To trust myself. The country is losing its mind and I’m finally finding mine. ∆
This story is published in the Spring/Summer edition of Anxy, a fresh, beautiful magazine that examines our inner worlds. Issue №1 features Margaret E. Atwood, Ijeoma Oluo, Matt Eich, and many more exploring our relationship with anger.