In all of the pain after my ex husband left, there is one pain that stands out as more acute than the rest. After being arrested for bigamy and bailing out of jail, my ex decided to overdose on sleeping pills. It appeared to be a sincere suicide attempt, but he made sure to cover his bases in case he survived.
He composed and emailed a suicide letter to both his new wife and to my mom. I read that email while sitting outside the DA’s office waiting to meet the victim advocate. He was recovering in the ICU.
I felt reality slipping away as I processed the words that distorted the world I knew. In the letter, he speaks of me being “impossible to live with” and “negative.” He talks about my irresponsible spending habits and how I “just had to have my way” and he “couldn’t tell me no.” Our last trip together – that he initiated, planned and executed – was recast as my demand for a vacation. He spoke of my insistence on building a deck when he counseled that we couldn’t afford it. He tells my mom that she “would love [the other wife]” and that he hopes they get to meet.
His words hit like a punch to an unguarded gut. I spent hours dissecting them, talking them over with each of my parents in turn. I knew they weren’t true but they still caused me to doubt. I feared that others (including my mom) might think his words were genuine. It felt like a vicious, spiteful attack on my character. And it wasn’t even factual.
He was gaslighting – using deception and manipulation to cast himself as the sane and balanced one and to make me look unstable and vile.
And it wasn’t his first time.
He was a master at creating and convincing others of his own reality. And, as trusting of him as I was, I was easy to convince. When you’re being gaslighted and you are unaware of the sleight of mind tricks being applied, you feel crazy as you begin to doubt your own perceptions and conclusions. It’s disorienting as the friction between what you see and you’re told you see don’t quite line up, almost like the view through 3D glasses when you turn away from the screen.
For months, I hated that letter. Every reading caused me to feel ill, like I’d swallowed something that needed to be purged. I shared it only with my parents and the close friend I lived with that year, finding comfort in their assurances that his words were mere deflection and trickery.
But still I wondered.
You see, he had trained me well. I still struggled not to believe his words over my own memories.
I struggled, that is, until I rejected his reality and found my own.
I picked apart each of his claims and refuted them one by one with physical evidence:
I spend too much? Then why do I read library books while he spent over a hundred dollars a month on Kindle downloads as evidenced by the checking account registry. And why do I drive the old, paid for car (that I still have!) while he insisted on buying a new one that came complete with a $500 monthly payment. I made a list of his possessions vs mine. It wasn’t even a contest.
I demanded the vacation? I unearthed an email sent to my work address where he proposed the cruise and described its details.
I insisted upon the deck? I found a trail of emails that covered everything from the summer school income I earned being used to pay for the costs to his enthusiastic sharing of his deck designs.
As for me being difficult and negative, that was harder to disprove. But the fact that I had many friends offer to take me in that year told a different story. I bolstered their offers with the hundreds of notes I had received from students over the years, praising my passion and positivity.
And as for my mom wanting to meet the other wife? Well, that was just plain funny.
Eventually, the letter lost its sting as I saw it for what it really was – an attempt to save his image by destroying mine. I wavered over whether to include the letter in the book. I was afraid I would be seen as the hateful woman he described. I decided to include it, even at the risk of his words being believed by people who did not know me. I knew that many of the readers would relate to being controlled by lies and I wanted to share a rare physical manifestation of gaslighting. Because the most painful part of gaslighting and what makes it so effective is that the evidence usually disappears like smoke in the wind, leaving you with only doubts and questions.
Gaslighting is a subtle yet relentless abuse. It’s one person using power and manipulation to control another. The damage is hidden and persistent, the worm of uncertainty taking up residence and calling everything into question. The effects linger as memories collide with new understanding, the deceptions fighting for dominance over the truth.
Gaslighting is often paired with physical abuse or addiction, the repainting of reality used to keep the partner calm and in place. It is a favored tool of narcissists and sociopaths. Those that are adept at its use tend to be charismatic and intelligent, lending a believability to their assertions. It is deliberate and cruel and can be immensely damaging.
Recovering from gaslighting takes time. Even recognizing that you were gaslighted takes time.
No one should have the power to create your reality other than you.
And your trust in another should never be greater than your trust in yourself.
Gaslighting thrives on doubt.
Starve it by believing in yourself.