Once upon a time, I lived with a man who, I later realized, was a gaslighter. (This was in the time before gaslighting became trendy and well-known.) For a while after I left, I had no notion that I had any harsh feelings towards him. It was only later, after I had been away for a while, that I realized what my buried feelings were and what damage he had done. The experience was responsible for parts of who I am today, including my strength and resilience.
For a time, though, right after my deeper feelings began surfacing, I realized that I had been psychologically controlled. I began to read up on the phenomenon. Some of the subjects I devoured were accounts of and theory of domestic physical and psychological abuse, mind control, and cults. They fascinated me – how the human mind and spirit could be so affected by another person or persons that they acted in irrational ways, defended their abusers, changed their personalities, and gave up their lives, either figuratively or literally. I don’t mean to compare my experience to the suffering that the people I read about have gone through, or to the suffering that still exists. All that I knew was that I had been manipulated, and was desperate to find out how, if not why.
I started with the easiest subject to find information about – domestic abuse. I will say that my gaslighter never harmed me physically and only once said something that could be taken as a violent thought towards me. But I learned, particularly, about intermittent reinforcement. This happens when the abuser switches between telling the victim that he loves her and she is wonderful, and that she is stupid or ugly or otherwise worthy of abuse. These mixed signals keep the victim coming back, on the theory that sometimes the person is so nice and loving. “It must be that I make him mad without meaning to,” she thinks. Thus, she is hooked and less likely to leave.
My gaslighter also used intermittent reinforcement and mixed signals to keep me hooked. I stayed much longer than was good for my mental health.
Learning about mind control – “brainwashing,” kidnapping, and so forth, gave me little insight into my own situation, except that some of the principles were to isolate the person being controlled, to control the environment such as when the person slept or ate, and to be that person’s only source of information or reality. I had been relatively isolated physically, had little control over schedules, and, while TV news was available, it was always filtered through the gaslighter’s sensibilities and opinions. Again, I am not comparing my suffering to that of other people. I don’t believe, really, that suffering can or should be compared.
Learning about cults took me even farther from my own experience, but I was fascinated by it nonetheless. I soaked up information about Jim Jones and Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and others. Especially interesting to me were stories of people who had escaped from cults. (One of my Facebook friends escaped from a religious cult, which took advantage of her PTSD and bipolar disorder to ensnare her. She supports others who have been victimized by cults and spreads information on cults and the tactics they use.) All I can say is that leaders of cults are usually charismatic, often reject societal sexual norms, and mentally coerce their followers to isolate from family and to finance the cult leader’s lifestyle.
Gaslighting, which I have written about many times (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Ir, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu) most resembles domestic abuse, though usually without the physical violence. It uses the tactics of intermittent reinforcement, isolation, verbal abuse, cults, and mixed signals to convince the victim that her perceptions of reality are invalid – in extreme cases, that she is going insane.
All of these forms of abuse do harm to their victims, in varying degrees. I was lucky to be able to leave my gaslighter when and how I did, and I will forever be grateful to the people who have helped me heal from the experience.
If you are in any of these situations – domestic violence, emotional abuse such as gaslighting, or being victimized by a cult, the best advice is: Get out now. Leave while you still can, before something worse happens. And get help, both from your friends and family, if possible, and from a professional counselor who has experience with these issues. It could save your happiness, your sanity, or even your life.
National Domestic Abuse Hotline https://www.thehotline.org/