real life

'After my divorce, I moved in with my mum. It made me realise she'd been gaslighting me my whole life.'

It’s a little bit ironic, but my mother is the person who first introduced me to the 1944 film Gaslight. She and I never had a particularly close relationship, but for several years, we watched old movies from the local library.

It was the only thing we really did together. Growing up, we were very poor. My mother never had a paying job and instead relied upon welfare and subsidised housing.

She mostly just asked me to stay in my room. 

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It’s funny. Now, when I watch the movie Gaslight, I can’t help but be enraged at all of the red flags I missed when I was young. If you’re acquainted with the film, then you already know the husband was a suspicious man long before he married Ingrid Bergman’s character. As a child and teen, I couldn’t see that, however. All I saw was my poor mother who’d been victimised and abused for her whole life.

Like a lot of women, I have a complicated relationship with my mother. But although we were never really friendly, I trusted her to want the best for me.

For a long time, I saw her as the most unselfish person I’d ever known. She pointed out everything she’d ever done or "given up for me," and I felt guilty for even being born.

As I got a bit older, interacting with my mum left me feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Of course, I thought it was all my fault. For so many years, my mum told me that I was becoming more and more rebellious every day. I was a monster, she said. 

My mum spent years hammering it into my head that I was going to hell if I didn’t do exactly as she told me. At the same time, she taught me to see her as a perpetual victim.

Often, I was her abuser, she said.

My mother insisted that I was her abuser every time I saw my father, or anytime I spent time with him and my sister. I’d come home, and she’d ask me what we’d said about her.

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"Nothing," I’d answer, honestly.

"I know you were talking about me," she’d reply. Then she’d list the various things she just "knew" we’d been saying. My mother was so adamant that we were sitting around making fun of her or calling her stupid, that sometimes, I almost wanted to say yes — just to see if that might stop her inquisition.

It was horrible, really. I spent so much of my childhood with knots in my stomach, all because my mother didn’t believe me when I was telling her the truth. I often walked around with this senseless feeling like I was about to "be found out," or "lose everything." I had nightmares well into adulthood that my mother was angry with me or wouldn’t believe me. They don’t happen as much as they used to, but they never completely went away.

It would take decades for me to finally understand that I have long suffered from anxiety as a direct result of my dysfunctional childhood.

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The truth was constantly distorted in our household. My truth was demonised. I didn’t understand that then, but I’m learning now.

People sometimes ask me about the first signs I had of my mother’s mental illness. When I first knew that she had a mental problem nobody was talking about. Unfortunately, those are really tough questions to answer with any degree of certainty.

For me, the realisation that my mother was mentally ill didn’t happen all at once. And it happened very, very late — not until I was in my thirties.

Some of it ran parallel to my deconversion. Once I was brave enough to question the Evangelical faith I was raised in, I was ready to question my mother’s mental health. Or at least, I was finally ready to start questioning the stories she told me, and to quit living in fear of her constant disappointment.

When I was still in school, my mother told me she was dying. Bone cancer. An aneurysm. Lupus. Kidney failure. I had no idea back then that with the first claim of bone cancer, she would continue to tell me she was dying for the rest of her life. 

Thirty-something years later, maybe it’s finally true.

To be honest, the biggest sign for me about my mother’s mental illness was the realisation that she’d been lying to me my whole life. Without guilt or fear. For me, though, that was also an incredibly difficult thing to accept. Growing up in an Evangelical bubble often means taking the adults in your life at face value and believing the best of them despite the damage they do to you.

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The mere act of questioning what I’d been taught was deeply frowned down upon. Just admitting I had questions was frightening as if I was damning myself to an eternity in hell.

When I was in high school, I was working at a local zoo and conservatory to earn a little bit of money.

That’s when I developed a penchant for collecting perfume and body sprays. Nothing too fancy or too crazy. 

I went through a phase where I really liked Cool Water, then Jean Paul Gaultier 2, certain fragrances from Bath and Body Works, and this "Heavenly" scent from Victoria’s Secret.

At any rate, I enjoyed keeping a collection of sprays and perfumes as a simple act of self-care. I continued the habit through college. After my divorce in my early twenties, I briefly lived with my mother and went back to collecting perfumes and body sprays again.

One of the best things about keeping such a collection is that a little goes a long way. Or at least, it’s supposed to. But a funny thing happened to my fragrances whenever I lived with my mother.

They were inexplicably drained.

It never happened all at once. It was always over time. At first, I thought I must be imagining things, and when I mentioned it to my mum, she said the same thing.

I was afraid to ask my mum directly if she was using my perfume. But I suppose she knew I was thinking about it, because she would tell me that she hoped I didn’t think she was taking my perfume.

"I’m not a thief, Shannon. And I always admit my faults. Unlike other people, I always admit when I was wrong. Every time."

It was a common speech, and I’d grown up hearing it from her, even though it wasn’t exactly true. Then, she’d turn the conversation around on me. Didn’t I know how much perfume I was using? Why was I so suspicious?

In reality, I hadn’t even asked my mum if she’d been using my stuff. I only occasionally mentioned that my sprays were going down faster than I’d expect. But my mum used this opportunity to play into the idea that I was one of her abusers.

"With everything I do for you, you’d think you’d treat me better," she often said.

These same conversations about my perfume collection happened for years. It was never an issue when we lived apart — my perfume didn’t seem to disappear then. But any time we shared an apartment, every perfume bottle ran strangely empty.

A few times, I actually walked in on my mum spraying herself with my perfume. And every time, before I could even say something, she turned the situation around on me. "Don’t get mad at me," she’d yell.

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"I’ve used two tiny squirts and I can’t believe you’d be so selfish about that. People have to walk on eggshells with you! You’re never going to have any friends if treat other people so badly."

It’s funny how gaslighting wears you down. Admonishments like these were so common from my mum that I was too weary to object. This was my mum who loved me. I was the ungrateful daughter.

Maybe she was right. Maybe I was awful and selfish after all. I never even told my mum how much it bothered me that she used my perfume without asking. 

The fact that it bothered me must mean she was right about me. It’s ridiculous, of course, to look back on those events and realise how much I internalised what my mum told me. 

It’s absurd too, just how long I went without understanding that my mum was gaslighting me.

Over time, as the perfume pilfering progressed, I noticed my mum went through these periods where she didn’t take many showers. 

The reasons changed, or, she went through phases. For a while, she blamed it on arthritis, later, when her mental illness turned into deep paranoia, she insisted she was being secretly videotaped. 

Anytime she went through these periods without showers, she’d spray herself with my perfume. After a while, she just insisted that it was "okay" and "only fair" since she couldn’t take a shower.

In hindsight, all of this should have made me realise what was going on with my mum. And maybe on a subconscious level, it did. 

I think the knowledge that my mum wasn’t "quite right" was always in the back of my mind. Way back. But it was wrapped up in shame, guilt, religion, and all of that.

So, it wasn’t easy to break free.

It wasn’t until I began to write out some stories from my childhood that I thought, f*ck, my mum’s been gaslighting me my entire life. 

I still second-guessed myself, however. I also didn’t know that mentally ill people like my mother could gaslight their kids. Was it intentional? Did she know she was doing it?

Some of the answers to those questions are… complicated. It seems that my mum has good and bad days, and on some days, she’s a little more aware of her actions than others. I wish I had more clear-cut answers, but the clearest thing today is simply that she did it to me for my whole life.

Clearly, not all mentally ill people gaslight their loved ones. So, it wasn’t the gaslighting that actually tipped me off.

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It was the why.

My mum has a long history of exerting power over me in an effort to shut me up. Often, her gaslighting drew attention away from her mental illness, or helped cover it up. It took years — decades, really — for me to see that.

The funny thing, of course, is that my mum didn’t just gaslight me about perfume. But it’s the thing that helped me realise just how much she gaslit me. 

Once I finally began to recount those years where she kept using my perfume while telling me I was imagining it, I decided to learn more about gaslighting.

This list is pretty helpful, and through it, I realised that my mum ticked all the boxes. All of them. According to Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D., signs that someone is gaslighting you include the following:

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Reading about all of those warning signs was shocking, because my mum’s done every single one of them to me. 

When I first read it, I just sat there in disbelief. I felt so ashamed that I’d "fallen" for it at first. Obviously, that’s ridiculous though. 

We don’t blame children for listening to and believing their parents. We also don’t blame folks for getting gaslit in the first place.

It can happen to anyone.

For a long time, I didn’t understand why my relationship with my mother was so difficult or painful. 

It took decades to learn that my family was beyond unhealthy. My mother wasn’t just strict or a little bit kooky. 

Her lies and manipulation left me feeling like there was always something wrong with me. And, I suppose, something was wrong — my self-worth was being chipped away at by my own mother.

Fortunately, there’s some good news. A sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

Learning about the dysfunction and discovering the validity of the accompanying pain and confusion has gone a long way to help me move forward. Even better, it’s helped me avoid repeating some of the same mistakes with my daughter.

In the long run, I think that’s the best we can hope for. To take some valuable lesson away with us from our pain.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished and edited here with full permission. 

You can read more from Shannon Ashley on Medium, or follow her on Twitter

Feature Image: Getty. The feature image used is a stock image.

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