A Haunting From 40 Years Ago
I was chatting with a potential customer the other day. She was interested in having me write a book on gaslighting – a fictionalized account of the experience she had with her soon-to-be ex.
I told her that I sympathized and that I had some experience with the topic, too. I was once in a relationship fraught with emotional abuse and gaslighting. “It was years ago,” I told her, “but the scars are still there.”
Suddenly, I stopped to think. That relationship took place over 40 years ago. For going on 41 years, I’ve been married to a man I met the weekend that everything blew up between Rex and me. But I had been truthful. The scars are still with me.
Oh, they’ve faded since then. I no longer have aversions to the things I associate with him, like cobalt blue glassware and blue spruce trees. I don’t cringe and close up whenever anyone in the room is angry. I don’t put myself down before someone else has the chance to. I allow myself to feel anger when it’s called for. I listen to the kind of music I like, at high volume if I want, and don’t apologize for it. In fact, there’s lots I don’t apologize for anymore.
But the memories still affect me, all these years later. I still have flashbacks when someone uses one of his pet phrases, like “fish or cut bait.” I dream we’re in the same town and I’m afraid to run into him. I flash on his insistence that it be called “Eighth of January” whenever I hear the tune “Battle of New Orleans.” And now and then, the obscene song he wrote about me – supposedly as a compliment – pops into my head randomly. It’s doing it now as I write about it, of course.
I was at a formative stage in my life when all this – and more – happened. I was exploring newly discovered independence, dealing with the stresses of college, navigating my first serious relationship. I’m sure my lack of experience helped to make the situation particularly searing for me. At the time, no one ever spoke of gaslighting, and physical abuse was the only kind I had ever heard of.
When I was still just coming out of the fog of the relationship, my startle reflex was unnaturally sensitive. I’d react with alarm if my husband dropped a knife in the kitchen. I didn’t even have to see it. The sound was enough to make me flinch and cry out. (I don’t remember any specific incidents from the bad times that seem to be related to this, but there you have it.) For years, I was a jumpy little thing. My husband learned to let me know if he was about to make a loud noise so I could be prepared for it. I have only a little bit of that left – now I jump only when something very sudden or very loud happens.
It’s been suggested that I have some form of PTSD from the experience. I don’t know if that’s true, though I certainly have some of the symptoms. I was told once by a therapist that I do have it, but at the time it seemed wholly incomprehensible. Now that I look back on it, she may have been right, only I wasn’t ready to hear it. And my future therapists moved on to my problems with depression and bipolar disorder. Self-diagnosing is seldom legitimate, so I won’t say that I definitely have PTSD. But this all puts me in great sympathy with those who do.
PTSD or not, I can still see the lingering effects of that relationship even after 40 years. They say time heals all wounds, but in my experience, the wounds don’t heal so much as scar over. The effects are still there and visible, but they no longer bleed like they did.
Of course, defining the trauma is less important than recognizing it and its effects. And healing from it, which I am still doing 40 years later. It’s a work in progress – and so am I.
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