Gaslighting

It starts out slowly…and gradually spreads until your whole life is clouded by this dream-like state. Like a dream, it fluctuates between just slightly odd to nightmarish…and then back again. You suspect that this is not reality, but none of your navigational systems work in this bizarre atmosphere, so you aren’t quite sure.

 

Some dreams can be very realistic—people act and talk like they do in real life, so at first, it seems so real. No one expects the beginning of a marriage to be easy, so of course conflict will come and probably neither one will handle it very well. But…it’s all so confusing. These aren’t really fights or squabbles or fussing over who forgot to do this or that. Just, one moment everything is fuzzy wuzzy perfect and the next you are caught up in some bizarre episode. You’re not quite sure what it is about or how you got there, only that you are caught in this terrifying storm of emotion. You never even saw the tornado approaching and suddenly your house just passed by and a tree nearly collided with your head. You must escape. NOW. But as always in a nightmare, somehow your feet don’t work properly or when you open your mouth to scream, nothing comes out. You’re trapped in panic.

Or to put it a different way…

He tries to load some highly complex program or throws malware at your system (because, let’s face it, we ALL have malware. It’s called being human in a fallen world) and you get:

>>ERROR<< System failure…aborting and deleting all programs…

Or

Blip! Crap. Blue screen.
Control alt. delete.
Control alt. delete.
CONTROL ALT. $#@% DELETE!

 

But it doesn’t work because he keeps clicking retry. He refuses to let your system shut down so things get very bad indeed. You bolt for the door, but he is much faster and stronger than you. It’s even better if he’s been trained in restraint holds and can incapacitate you in three seconds flat.

When someone blocks your way or actually physically restrains you from leaving something strange happens. If you’ve no idea what I am talking about, be thankful. If you can’t possibly fathom what I am talking about, try taking a fluffy bunny, bored cat, or wagging dog. You don’t have to hurt it or anything, just keep backing it into a corner and give it absolutely no route of escape and see what sort of reaction you get.

Something in your brain snaps. You go quite mad and turn into this frantic, clawing, screaming creature. Your reptilian brain kicks in the flight/fight response—both responses simultaneously. And then of course the other person feels very justified in restraining you because you are a raving lunatic and a danger to yourself and others. Then he can feed you some bullshit about being able to dial 911 and the paramedics would haul you off and hospitalize you or something. They would believe him and not you, because you’re clearly out of control and he is quite calm. He knows how all those systems work, of course. He’s always right.
Even when one storm has passed, the wreckage provides fuel for the next one.

“But you said x.”
“No I didn’t. I said y. You said b.”
“No…I said a.”
“Pft! No. You said b. I recorded it on my cellphone even.* I played it to my best friend. He thinks you’re a total %$#.”

But…I’m sure I said a…I’m pretty sure…I can’t believe I would say b. I know he said x. He did. I heard it. I mean…I think I heard it…maybe? I was sure he said x but…”

(*Strange that I never asked him to prove it and play it back to me. He probably would have blustered and said he deleted it already or something.)
You’re stunned and disoriented, stumbling around in some sinister forest with black, twisted trees whose branches keep snapping back in your face. You shake your head to clear it and somehow reorient yourself, but just as quickly another branch snaps back and stuns you again. You can’t see the sky, but no matter. There’s no drinking gourd to follow to freedom here.

And then, one day, you wake up.

A compass suddenly falls into your hand from the sky and you realize where the hell you are. It’s a bit of relief, but…not exactly terrific news.

 

It’s kind of like being trapped in the Fire Swamp, only, alas, there is no brave Westley to steer you. So you have to learn to anticipate the popping sounds before the bursts of flames and the telltale signs of lightning sand, and sleep with one eye open lest the R.O.U.S.’s creep up on you. Everything might be “ok” if you just never, ever drop your guard…

 

The insidious part of mental abuse is that it leaves no visible trace. No one would peek in the window and yell, “Run! Run now!” There’s no verse in the Bible giving it an escape clause. Marriage certificates don’t have to be renewed every ten years, so you can’t stamp yours with a big red NON-RENEWAL. Even inmates can get out on parole, but…

 

Stricken with regret, you realize you must make the Fire Swamp your home and there’s nothing for it but to start building castle walls. Construction is surprisingly swift in these DIY projects. Within days you can have your fortress and a moat—with crocodiles even. You might put in a drawbridge…you haven’t quite made up your mind about that one yet. The sentries you post at every corner must be forever vigilant. They might be able to catch quick naps while you’re at work, but they can never really sleep. It’s exhausting though, and sometimes one of them starts to nod off only to be awoken by a whistling arrow shaving past his head. The alarm is rapidly sounded and boots rush to gather defenses. They have no weapons. They could, of course, if you permitted them to, but you prefer to keep clean the rules of war. There will be no boiling oil or raining of arrows on the enemy’s head, merely smoke bombs and magical explosions of vanishing mist. Distract and avert your enemy, try not to injure him. You will sometimes, of course. You’re not perfect. The fact that you never lower your drawbridge for him is injury enough…if he’s really aware of how far away you are. His perspective is quite tilted, you see, and he might truly believe the wisps of smoke that suggest that you are just very tired. Work is stressful. You’re not unhappy you’re just…so very tired.

Sometimes the castle walls aren’t enough. Sure, they keep him out, but they don’t keep the pain away from your heart. So you may begin (or lapse back into) some maladaptive coping mechanism. (*See E.D.) Eventually—hopefully—that will grow wearisome too. One day you will wake up and say, “Enough.” (After all, E.D. is just another abusive boyfriend in the end.)

That’s when things get really disheartening, because then the numbness wears off and you can clearly see how appallingly obvious it is. How tragically damaged and stunted his own life made him. You feel a twist of pity for him, but…would you lower the drawbridge just for that? I wouldn’t. I don’t.

 

Recently, I started to peek through the arrow loops and strain my eyes to see off into the distance. I’m not quite sure why. Do I really expect to see someone riding to me? I’m not waiting for some glorious knight on a galloping steed to rush to the rescue. (Bleh.) And still…I’m scanning the horizon…By now his horse would be plodding with weariness. Or maybe he’s on foot…that’s what took him so long. Just the thought of the lines of exhaustion and battle scars on his face makes my throat close and my eyes sting. How much worse if I looked down and actually saw him there signaling from below.

 

“It’s bloody freezing out here. Do you mind lowering your drawbridge or throwing down a rope at least?”

That would be excruciating because I would have to say,

“Sorry, no. See that man over there trying to catapult flaming missiles and heave battering rams against the walls? Well, he happens to be my husband. I’m so, so terribly sorry. Please forgive me. I tried waiting, for a really long time, but you see, I thought you were dead. I should have kept waiting. I’ve regretted it ever since.”

I know this and yet…I keep looking and listening for some signal out there. If I could just know he was out there, it feels like it would be easier somehow. Or if he really died…at least I would know.

Sometimes I wander around the internet, as if I could discover some way to send a message to an unknown recipient. I write stories to keep me company. (You never would have guessed that, right?) Some of the stories are in present day, so the characters send little texts back and forth. For some strange reason, seeing that font, that size, in print is a little bit too real. On more than one occasion I’ve taken my phone out and was startled to remember that there will be no message there for me. There’s no

 

Today was awful. I miss you.

Or

There was a beautiful sunset this evening. I was thinking of you.

So I just swallow, hard, and slip my phone back into my pocket and send a prayer to God. “Please take care of him for me…wherever he is. And if he’s in heaven already, please help me wait to see him.”