“You’re crazy. I never said that.”
“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”
“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”
“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”
What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.
More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.
Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane. The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.)
But what does gaslighting have to do with bipolar disorder? Someone who is in the depressive phase of bipolar – especially one who is undiagnosed – is especially susceptible to gaslighting. The very nature of depression leaves a person wondering, “Am I insane?” To have another person reinforcing that only strengthens the idea.
Back when I was undiagnosed and in the middle of a major depressive episode, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.
I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.
When we got to the couple’s sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one, and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.
Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. For a person in the grips of depression or mania, this will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.
It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.
Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to to tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that being the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.
Getting help for the depression or bipolar disorder is also an important step in escaping the effects of gaslighting. With proper therapy and/or medication, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.
And that light is more powerful than gaslight.