Recently, I was at a wedding in Vermont. Nestled in…one of the green mountains..? (I’m not particularly outdoorsy) The locale was a cell phone service-less haven in which two of my dear friends had chosen to have their nuptials away from the prying eyes of the world and the pings of social media alerts. My current partner couldn’t text me from across the parking lot to let me know he’d successfully dried his socks in the sun, let alone us call the Inn we were staying at to ask them to leave the door unlocked.
It was quiet, separate, and serene.
Yet somehow, (to quote Phil Collins) against all odds, my manipulative, gas-lighting ex managed to get a three minute voicemail through to my number using what I can only assume was a combination of helicopters, homing devices, and straight up black magic.
I was less than pleased when I saw my screen.
This was even more shocking given that aforementioned ex had been the topic of a brief, albeit not particularly appropriate, conversation just a few measly hours before, during the wedding dinner. I had not brought him up. A person who knows us both and is physically about two clicks shy of an actual garden gnome decided a fun anecdote to tell our corner would be the last time my ex had reared his head in our town; to effectively piss off every patron in a local bar and then stand next to his current GF at an after-party while she berated people with a rendition of the entire Abbey Road b-side on Casio keyboard.
Needless to say, awkward times were had by all. But the reasoning behind my gnomey little friend bringing it up was oddly complimentary. ‘God bless your little heart,’ he said ‘you just focused on your night and you didn’t participate.’ I was touched. In that way that you can only be if you’ve spent about five years trying to move on from a traumatic experience and think that maybe, just maybe, you have.
To quote George Washington:
‘Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?’
I was very much trapped, manipulated and emotionally abused by my ex for two years of dating and two years post. Some of the effects of which still infiltrate my ability to trust and become vulnerable with not only romantic partners, but friends and family. It was an experience that while harrowing to be inside, was only made to clear to me the severity when I had stepped outside.
Gaslighting is a social defense mechanism or avoidance tactic employed by mainly narcissists, the goal; to convince the other person that they’re feelings are invalid, impossible or insane. Over time, gaslighting will in fact convince the victim that they are losing their mind and they will attach themselves with more furvour to their abuser as the only person who really sees them, or even, can help them.
I was often told I needed help by my ex-boyfriend. Let’s call him…Ian.
Because that’s his name.
Ian would do little things that exhibited controlling behaviour before the big things ever reared their many, many heads. A few examples include but are not limited to:
Refusing to let me walk faster than him up a hill even though my longer legs couldn’t comfortably walk at a slow pace up an incline. I explained this, and he held me at his side so I physically couldn’t outpace him.
If I told him someone had said or done something that made me uncomfortable he would confront that person with verbal abuse. Subsequently, if I told him I was upset he had involved himself, he would tell me he was protecting me, standing up for me, like I ‘should’ have done for myself. But was ‘incapable’ of doing.
He would deliver long speeches about how beautiful or sexy I was to him, which always ended with a comparison or put-down to other people we knew. Including mutual friends and my own sisters.
Ian would tell me consistently I needed to see a therapist, a doctor or to be on some sort of medication. All seemingly harmless suggestions at the time, because who can’t benefit from a little introspective digging and exploration? Unfortunately, narcissists can’t, as evidenced by his own trip to a therapist whom he later said reaffirmed that everything he said and did was ‘right,’ and I was ‘wrong.’
What I hadn’t been paying attention to was the context under which these suggestions of me seeing a therapist would appear. It was never during a deep conversation about our ever evolving psyches and past experiences. It was only ever when I called him out on shitty behaviour.
For example; the night he was slated to have a fairly important gig in the city, I found out he had been messaging his ex girlfriend describing in explicit detail his sex dreams regarding her. When she had flirtatiously asked what he was going to do about these fantasies he verbatim replied: ‘I guess I’ll jerk off and go to sleep, because I’m used to disappointment.’
I, being the disappointment he was used to, was upset.
I wanted to talk to him about why he would say that, the steps he’d taken to feel comfortable going there, even the dissatisfaction he was so clearly feeling in our relationship and where that stemmed from. This did not go over well.
His response was something that began with throwing his cell phone across the room so hard, it shattered, and ended with him bringing me (still hiding the mascara stains on my cheeks) to the club the gig was at and being told through whispers in my ear all night that I had ‘very nearly ruined this night.’ It was in this way, that the issue of him having sexually explicit conversations with his ex, was swept under the rug completely. It had been transformed in to me having an outburst that had nearly wrecked an important evening and nothing more. Something I now would have to pay penance for, and would be continuously thrown back at me for years to come.
When I was younger and in University the boyfriend I kept for most of my time there was a goofy ‘good guy’ everyone in our department (Theatre) could agree was neither threatening nor memorable. Standing at 6’4″ (ideal for a leading man) and wearing clothes that were neither stylish nor messy. He was quintessentially beige.
One night whilst Beige was asleep I opened his laptop (we shared at the time) and went to check my Facebook. His login information being saved, the page pulled up his personal account before my own. I checked his messages. I’m not proud of having done that, in fact, for years later I would tell my friends I was innocently going to change his status to something embarrassing as a prank and happened to trip and fall in to deep digging through his private correspondences.
I insisted this so fervently, I began to believe for a while that it was truth.
It was not.
The truth was that, Beige had gone away a week or so before, traveling with a theatre troupe for a few nights, and when he returned he had acted strangely. Buying me flowers for ‘no reason,’ not wanting to spend a night away from me, gestures that were seemingly romantic and passionate, but lest we forget this was Beige doing them.
And Beige was not known for being either of those things.
What I found in those FB messages was more or less exactly what you would expect. He had slept with a fellow actor in the traveling show and was now plotting to dump me but was waiting for the ‘right time.’ &c. It was very harsh, and if it weren’t for the time that has elapsed since then, I wouldn’t be typing about it so flippantly but healing and all that blah blah blah. ANYWHO-
This motherfucker right here.
Who was so kind, so good and wouldn’t hurt a fly, (here’s to you Mrs. Bates), had dicked me over in shorter an amount of time than it took to say ‘don’t fuck anybody this weekend.’
I’ll spare the messy details of what ensued just know there were tears, sleepless nights, me destroying a potted orchid, a pontiac sunfire, you know the usual.
The real sticking point was what happened after. The consistent response I was met with upon explaining what had happened was flat out denial.
“No!” people would say. “He wouldn’t!”
“But no!” they’d deny again.
Back and forth until I had to insist.
And what did my insistence do? The more I yelled BELIEVE ME, BELIEVE ME.
The more crazy I sounded.
So fast forward to Ian: Who’s manner was already aggressive, who’s personality was already prickly and who had a reputation for being both difficult and combative. Someone you shouldn’t fuck with. Someone who, perchance, would throw a punch just as easily as you would your cocktail straw.
I had somehow found myself in an eerily similar situation except this time, I had a partner I should be afraid of, and a past that had already taught me the wrong lesson.
If you tell people the truth about your relationship, and they have not seen it with their own eyes, they will not believe you.
This includes your partner.
And if no one believes you, did it happen?
I was scared that if I told Ian that I was no longer comfortable in our relationship that he wouldn’t accept that, and I was afraid that if I told anyone else about our problems, they wouldn’t accept it either. And I was right, at least about him.
When I broke up with Ian, it surprised even me. I had locked myself in his bathroom post-coital so I could cry on the floor without him knowing. I had studied every bottle in that bathtub so meticulously I can still tell you what brand of body wash his roommate used. What brought me there had been yet another sexual encounter in which he had pushed, pulled, thrown and pounded in whatever he wanted to, without question, consideration or even eye contact. This was fairly common from him. A thing I had at first mistaken for that passion Beige had lacked. Ian needed me and needed me now. As our relationship wore on I realized, (sex is always the canary, people!) that what was happening was not so much his passion as it was his assumed prerogative. He believed he had a right to me and my body plain and simple. I was not special or specific, I was in a ‘contract’ that gave him ‘rights.’
As I lay there, staring in to the Suave For Men Sport-filled abyss I realized plain and simple; I didn’t want to feel like this anymore. I wanted to tell the truth.
He told me to ‘get the fuck out.’ Then in the same breath said ‘wait don’t’ and pulled me back in to his bedroom with a pleading tone.
But regardless of where my body stayed that night, I had taken the first step, I was already very gone.
We went through a trial separation, a tearful reunion, a tense reconciliation and then another break-up, this one over the phone and permanent.
The break-up was worse than the relationship had ever been.
If I had thought being loved by Ian was bad, I had yet to try being hated by him.
He would find me in public, scream at me in picture windows of busy bars we once frequented, grab me when I was going around corners and kiss me against my wishes, tell his friends I was a monster, hook up with girls I knew peripherally then call me crying in confession, text the sisters of mine he once hated so much, show up at my plays, play ‘our song’ over the speakers at my work as loudly as it could go, he even locked me in a walk in refrigerator one time until I agreed to meet with him somewhere ‘to talk.’
I was terrified.
I couldn’t go anywhere in town, I couldn’t look at my phone. I spent every day scared of pissing him off. I was becoming so used to the bruised arms and the sore eyes I would do anything if it meant I could avoid one more scene of insanity.
And the entire time this was happening the content of his complaints could all be boiled down to; SARAH- YOU- ARE- ACTING- CRAZY.
And the more I argued, the more it looked true.
I retreated, hoping silence could save my reputation. But all it did was birth more silence, until the journey I had taken, and the valid feelings I was experiencing, were ignored, snuffed out and shipped off.
I moved to London. I lived in another country and felt safer, strong and anonymous. But it wasn’t long before this curdled, transformed itself into loneliness, insignificance and eventually lead to Ian contacting me and me, shamefully, responding. I fell in to the same trap that had caught me initially. Because I was isolated and easily picked off and he was enigmatic and fiery. I fueled that fire and this felt better than every rolled eye from British bartenders who could not care less about who I was or where I came from.
I moved back a year later and began a phone-conversation-exclusively relationship with Ian, who was no longer living in the town he’d burned down so deliberately. It was comforting still when I had to sleep on couches and floors for lack of an American apartment and work in tourism again like I was some kind of sixteen year old failure.
And then I met someone. A guy who peaked my interest and who’s interest I peaked. We began to spend some time talking about plays and getting coffee. Avoiding being teased as we shared glances across a garden patio or walked in to rehearsal a little too shoulder to shoulder. This guy told me he liked me, very honestly, if a bit sheepishly and I reciprocated.
Whilst this was budding, Ian began planning on moving back and speaking about how we were going to ‘be together.’ The conversations started taking a turn for the trapping with him asking for assurance I was ‘in’,’ telling me he loved me, more and more molasses like promises with a twist; I want this, I know you want this too. Lie back, and let it happen.
But I didn’t want it.
That same old fear I thought I drowned in the Atlantic came back clamping to my elbow and crippling my momentum and I thought, fought, and I promised myself:
I will not let this happen again.
I told him no. I stood my ground. I took the burden of insults and the frequency of disdain in his voice and I hung up on it.
I blocked his number. His e-mail. His social media. His everything.
And I’ve never unblocked it.
As this story began, he finds ways around this every once in a while. A voicemail delivered exclusively by voodoo. An e-mail for which he has had to create a new account to get around my filters. Or even the rare but not impossible personal appearance, like my fellow wedding guest had to remind me. That before holidays or maybe just a not-special day at all he might manifest with his remarkably as abrasive and aggressive current girlfriend who hopefully enjoys everything he’s about, wants to marry him, and keep him off the market forever, lest he do this to someone else.
Regardless, there is a change in my emotions when I do catch a whiff.
He can’t reach me anymore.
The tactics that used to make me run myself ragged to avoid, the baiting that made me fight, the desire to convince everyone but most assuredly him that I was real, that what I felt was true simply by the act of me feeling it…
Those are gone, replaced by recognition and reviling.
I can not, and will not ever convince Ian of what he did. I will never provide an explanation that changes him, that puts a stop to the behaviour he learned so well and the psychology he will defend to the death. But I can accept it.
As my co-worker Jon says, ‘you can’t defeat crazy.’
The actual defeat comes in your (and my) removal from the situation. If you are being gas-lit, emotionally abused, physically abused, made uncomfortable or anything whatsoever that is not okay with you, that is making you feel small, insignificant and confused:
You get out. You get away. And you close that door forever.
You can’t ever make that person stop. You can’t make them understand.
But you can break that piece off and throw it away.
And just like crystals; a new piece will grow in it’s place, different; stronger.
You will heal and you will move on. Your victory is there.
Right there, in the space between what used to be, and what will never be again.
I live there.
Crazy as I am.