Escaping the darkness

Three women share their experiences of being gaslighted – and how they got out of it

Gaslighting, I once thought, meant finding a source of illumination other than South Africa’s flaky electricity supply. But gaslighting is about darkness – manipulating and abusing a person to control and gain power over them and/or guilt them into doing what you want them to do.

The word emerged from a 1944 movie called Gas Light, in which a man gets his wife to doubt her reality. The perception that it’s something a man does to a woman has endured, but it can happen in any close relationship. In fact, gaslighting has become so common that it was shortlisted for the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2018. The winning word was “toxic”, which is also what gaslighting is all about.

Gaslighting is linked to stress – and I suspect it’s become particularly rife while we battle through the mental swamp aka the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns.

It’s insidious and it’s dangerous. A psychoanalyst and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Robin Stern, warns in a Vox article that “gaslighting can have a devastating and long-term impact on our emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical well-being”.

The gaslighter, Stern writes, “may not even know he is doing anything strategic or manipulative. He lacks self-awareness and may just think he is expressing himself directly, or is prone to unflinching honesty, saying it ‘like it is.’ ”

According to WebMD: “A gaslighter may try to convince you that your memories are incorrect, that you overreact to situations, or that something is ‘all in your head.’ They may then try to convince you that their version of events is the truth. This tactic can be used in both personal and professional relationships to gain control and power.”

Why am I telling you this? In recent weeks, three people close to me have shared their stories with me and allowed me to share them with you. Although the circumstances and extent of the gaslighting differ, there are plenty of similarities. Perhaps you will recognise yourself; perhaps you will know that you are not alone and can come through it.

All of these names are made up. The stories are real.

Mary’s story: A slow and corrosive poison

Journalists Mary and John met in a newsroom and she was enchanted by his intelligence and energy. He also had serious anti-apartheid struggle credentials, which included being placed in police detention and solitary confinement. This “brilliant and troubled” man, Mary believes, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had never sought treatment. “I didn’t know what alcoholism and drug addiction looked like – and I was living with it.”

Jealousy was part of their marriage from the start. “John would appear when I’d meet a friend for tea … he was following me. It escalated. He was afraid that I would run off with my men friends and that my women friends would persuade me to leave him,” Mary says.

“After I was mugged, he would impress on me that he was watching out for me and, in my trauma and fear, I guess I gave him permission to do that. He would tell me that my friends were ‘toxic’ and eventually I wondered if he was correct; even though it did not make sense, I would tell myself, my husband cares for me.

“Gaslighting is subtle and creeps up on you; you don’t even know it’s happening. It’s slow and corrosive. In my case, it built up over four years. It was almost like a Stockholm Syndrome situation: I would think, this is for my own good.”

John felt threatened by any friendship, but especially by Mary’s friendship with her boss. So he kept her cell phone with him and refused to allow a landline phone to be installed in their home. Mary’s father would call her at work.

“I worked extra shifts, as many as I could, to be away from home. A colleague told me, ‘I don’t think you are safe. I can see how anxious you are around him.’ I had not told this person what was happening – there was an element of shame. But many people had noticed and were worried about me. Later, I realised I had all these guardian angels looking out for me.

“The truth was that I was scared of him even though I used to tell myself that I wasn’t. One day, he started pushing me and threatening to punch me and strangle me.” It wasn’t too long before the physical abuse started. “He would never punch me on my face or leave marks on visible parts of my body,” Mary says.

Sometimes she locked herself in their spare bedroom for safety, and he’d go off on a bender. He sometimes locked her into their apartment so she could not see other people.

“He would call me ‘Daddy’s little princess’ and say, ‘Let me show you what the real world is like.’ At the same time, he would tell me that he was keeping me safe because I was too ‘messed up and stupid’ to do it myself.”

John picked on Mary’s vulnerabilities. She had been treated for depression and John would yell at her that she was crazy and needed to see a psychiatrist. “I no longer knew what was true,” she says.

His substance abuse worsened. He took money out of Mary’s bank account and sold some of her belongings. “Then he would say things had disappeared because of some bad luck.”

Eventually, Mary confided in a friend at work. Her friend told her, “Don’t let him take your beautiful life from you.” And her father had begged her to leave John. On that particular day, she was frightened enough – she never went home again. “I had just the clothes I was wearing.” She moved in with her friend, always driving around the block to check if John was waiting for her. He would phone at night and terrorise her, telling her that he was just outside.

Mary eventually moved to another country. “I wanted to get as far away as possible.” But John still stalked her – for years, even after she had married her current (wonderful) husband.

John died of a long illness some years later. He never really stopped trying to chip away at Mary, but she got better at keeping a distance from him and laying down clear boundaries. She stayed on good terms with his parents, who had also been injured by his behaviour.

“It took years for me to forgive myself for allowing this to happen,” Mary says. “With therapy and time, I learned to stop blaming myself.”

Noma’s story: Bullies and flying monkeys

For Noma, gaslighting started when her husband, Alan, was in intensive care after a stroke. C (a daughter from a previous marriage), a couple of his granddaughters, a sister-in-law and arbitrary friends “crowded around his bed, taking selfies with him – just after a huge stroke!”. Only two were allowed to visit at a time, so Noma had given up visits to make way for streams of people. After Alan suffered an anxiety attack and begged Noma to keep them away, she asked the nurses to limit visiting to certain people.

“It was a case of platform grieving – a desire to be seen as loving him the most. And it was about them, not about helping him get better,” Noma says. “I had to make it stop.”

The vitriol flew immediately. It was led by C, who gathered another sister and several family members into her gang. Noma calls them “flying monkeys … gaslighters must have support and they have to show that they have support. They are narcissistic bullies in reality, and bullies act in groups.

“They blamed me for staying away – because I had given up my visits for them. I was blamed for keeping his family away from him. I was told that I don’t love him enough. I was accused of calling him an alcoholic when I voiced concern about him drinking 10 beers a day. I was accused of ‘plotting’ to divorce him.”

And she was excluded and isolated. “C, who lives in another town, put her name down at the hospital as the first contact. When I set up a WhatsApp group so we could talk about his health, I was ignored – they were doing so in great detail on another group. Gaslighting shuts down communication.”

One day, while she drove home from the hospital, “I suddenly realised I was being targeted. At the same time, I was finding out about things that had been hidden from me, like credit card debt. A friend phoned at that moment and I burst into tears. I went into a shop and I burst into tears …”

It got worse. C told Alan’s medical team she believed Noma had been poisoning Alan. The team said, absolutely not. But the rumour seeped through Alan’s family, fuelling the vitriol. C later denied making the poisoning allegations. Meanwhile, a granddaughter accused Noma of having affairs, among other things. The attack came from all directions.

“I felt I was being stoned. They made me feel utterly devalued, and I wondered if I had ever been valued, even when we appeared to have good relationships. I found myself wondering whether I had really said or done this or that.”

Noma drew on the “endless support” of her own children and friends. “I understood that the gaslighting was about them and not me. They were pointing fingers inwards, at what is missing in themselves. I saw old resentments at the root of this, perhaps even around the breakup of Alan’s first marriage. I saw stonewalling, fear of abandonment, passive aggressive behaviour.”

The assault was fanned by whispers and collusions behind Noma’s back. And it remains unacknowledged. “I am still angry and they continue to blame,” Noma says. She has cut ties completely with C and her flying monkeys.

“People who gaslight have squeezed themselves so tightly into a corner that they don’t have any room left to be wrong,” she says. “By minimising someone else, by blame shifting, they are trying to build themselves. And that is never going to work.”

Anne’s story: Everything changed

One morning, Anne found her mother unable to move or speak after a major stroke. This seemed trauma enough, but Anne was blindsided by what happened next. “My mom had been living in my garden cottage for the past 10 years,” she says. “My sisters expected me to revert to the same set-up – even when it became clear that my mom might never walk again and, for the foreseeable future, not be able to speak or function in many ways. Everything had changed.

“Even with a full-time caregiver, this would be a great stress on my husband and me and our home. I was certain also that it would not be in my mom’s interests, not least because our home is far from the city and medical help. I wanted to explore options, including residential care, to give my mom time and support to gain more ability to function. I was also concerned about our privacy, implications of turning my home into a hospital and the impact on my marriage. We could reassess later, I told my sisters.

“My sister, S, lashed out at me, telling me that I was not prepared to make sacrifices for ‘our mother who has spent her whole life looking after us’, that I was a trouble maker and ‘causing drama’. I was told that it was ‘nonsense’ to think this would have an impact on my husband and me – ‘we’ had decided she would be cared for at home and even planned who would do shifts in my home and move in for months. I was told that I was sending out confusing messages, although I repeated the same message over and over (see previous paragraph). My concerns were not heard.

“S would scream at me, often: ‘What are you prepared to do?’ The question baffled and hurt me.” Weeks later, Anne understood that S was really asking: “What are you going to do? What is going to happen?” Anne could not provide certainty.

Her sister, P, privately congratulated S for “saying what had to be said”. When Anne presented options, P stopped the conversation by declaring she would build a flat in her garden in the city for their mom. “They blamed me for that. P’s husband informed me via WhatsApp that P did not choose to do this, was doing this even though they did not know how they would pay for it because there were no other options, and that P loved her mother very much (message: P loves her mother more than you do, and is doing this because you won’t).

“That was when I broke – the moment I realised P, who I’d always been very close to, was quietly cheering on S. They started using the same language, too. I barely slept, barely ate and cried a lot.” In utter despair, Anne withdrew from conversations with her sisters, ignored and blocked messages, and saw a psychologist.

“With the psychologist’s guidance, I learned that all of us were in the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief – we were mourning our mother as we knew her. We all move backwards and forward through the stages of grief. At this point, I was exploring options – acceptance – although the next minute, I could be back in depression or denial. My sisters, I saw, were spending more time in the denial and anger phases.


“My tendency in extreme stress is to withdraw – which was tossed at me as a defect. But I learned to see it as strength. It’s okay, even healthy, to withdraw and create space to regain my breath. But I can withdraw without building walls around me. I can step away from a toxic interaction and self-regulate – check how I am breathing, get my thoughts on track – before engaging again, if I want to.

“My relationship with my sisters will never be the same again; neither has acknowledged that they attacked me when I most needed them to have my back. I don’t know how many other family members they poisoned against me. I love them and I know they are not bad people, but I don’t think I will trust them again.

“I talk with my sisters – specifically about our mother’s care. She is in a residential care facility. This does not have to be forever. But she is, for now, in a safe place with full-time medical and other care. She is continuing her recovery. I am continuing mine.”

Finding the light

Here are some pointers from Anne, Noma and Mary – and Robin Stern in Vox – on how to cope with being gaslighted.

  • Cut ties if you can: remove yourself as a target. It may not always be possible to do this, especially with direct family members. But you can put down boundaries. And you can walk away from situations and toxic conversations.
  • Get help to gain a perspective and coping skills. Asking for help does not mean you are weak or there is something “wrong” with you. It’s the strongest people who ask for help.
  • Lean on friends and other family members. It will give you a valuable view of what is happening from someone else’s eyes.
  • Know that you are not alone. Gaslighting is more common than you think – and even though you feel the brunt of it, understand that it says more about the gaslighter than about you.
  • Take care of you. As Robin Stern says: “Have compassion for yourself. This is really hard even when you are not in a compromising dynamic. But when you are not feeling confident and strong, it’s even harder to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, kindness, and love. It will be a healing influence and help you move forward in your decision making. Now is a time for self-care.”
  • Acknowledge how you feel. It’s okay to feel angry, happy, resentful, sad. You don’t have to act on these emotions. Stern says tracking your feelings is “an easy way to facilitate your learning about your emotions and track your patterns, allowing you to learn what triggers your feelings and gives helpful strategies to shift your moods”.
  • “Even if you have been gaslighted — and make no mistake, it is a form of abuse — that doesn’t mean that things can’t be remedied,” Stern says. “For one, through increased emotional awareness and learning to identify the gaslighting, you can learn to validate yourself. When others challenge your perception, ignore them. It’s the self-doubt that is so crippling in gaslighting.”

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