Gaslighting: “A form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.”
As I begin to write this, I’m surprised to find how full of dread I am. I’ve never before spoken of this topic on a public level. There has been a lot of talk lately on social media about sexual abuse since the #metoo campaign began. My first reaction was to ignore it. I had recovered from my history of sexual abuse. It was done and dusted and all healed over. I wasn’t going to participate in this campaign by coming out as a victim too. I was a victim no more!
However, over the past several years, I was allowing a person in my life to slowly dig into my ancient scars. From the moment he came into our lives, I’ve disliked him. He makes condescending and sexist remarks designed to make you feel small and insignificant. He comments on how sexy you are and how lucky your husband is to have you in his bed, which on the surface looks like a compliment, but leaves you feeling icky and uncomfortable. He grabs your ass in a hello embrace. He grabs you from behind in a “playful” way and just misses your breasts. He talks incessantly about all the women he has sex with. Are we supposed to be impressed? All I feel is sick to my stomach. Suffice it to say, I believed this man to be a predator.
Although I didn’t like being around him, he was a good friend to the family, always there to lend a hand and help out when needed. Everyone else didn’t seem to mind him and thought it was all harmless behaviour from a lonely old man. I was advised to just ignore it. Whenever I talked about his behaviour, it was usually greeted with the eye rolling and deep sighs that said I was being ridiculous and over-reacting. The message was clear… my feelings weren’t valid. This is a lesson women are taught from early on. Our feelings are mostly invalid because they defy logic and rationality. If we can’t articulate our feelings in a way that makes perfect sense and present a case that removes all reasonable doubt, then our feelings simply don’t matter. And because of the systematic training of women to view this kind of behaviour from men as normal, we don’t even see it as abuse. Obviously I was just being over-sensitive. I began to doubt my own mind and overruled my instinct to punch him in the face. After all, he doesn’t mean anything by it. So, I just swallowed my feelings, did my best to be polite and ignored his behaviour like a good little girl.
Throughout my life I have been sexually violated, both subtly and violently. When I was a teenager, I was date-raped twice. I hate that term, date-rape. It’s a sugar-coated expression designed to make the rape seem less ugly. After all, I voluntarily agreed to go out with these men who I found attractive, so I must have wanted it on some level. If you’re on a date and you say no, and they rip your clothes off and rape you, well… you deserved it. Face it, they invested money in you by buying you dinner and drinks and it was the least you could do to repay them for their generosity. So, you don’t call the police. You don’t tell anyone. You just accept it as a really bad date. And later, when I did talk about it to others, I was often told that perhaps I wasn’t clear enough with these men and I should have fought harder. This was actually more brutal than the rapes because this is exactly what I had been telling myself. The ensuing shame was immense and all-consuming and I sought solace through drugs and alcohol. The body eventually heals, but the shame lives on in perpetuity. We live in a culture that still supports the idea that women are to blame for the actions of men who can’t be expected to control themselves, otherwise known as the Provocation Defense.
Recently, and rather unexpectedly, a sudden vitriol came to the surface as the old scars were ripped open. I was drowning in rage. I couldn’t sleep. I would lie in bed all night and cry. I couldn’t breathe at times. I tried, in vain, to talk about it, but couldn’t find my voice. I was yelling but not being heard. I felt all alone. I realised it was time to really talk about the abuse. I had talked about it before to friends and therapists, but I had recounted the stories in much the same way a historian tells them… from a detached and emotionless place. I was just outlining the facts as I recalled them. I had gone through the process of identifying the decisions I had made about myself at the time of the abuse and did my best to rewrite history by changing those old ideas into new and empowered ones. And I felt I had been successful. I had taken control of my life and felt strong and brave and free from my shameful past. But like an onion, another layer was peeled back, which revealed some significant residual pain. I clearly had more work to do. A close friend put it in perspective by asking me, “What would you say if this was happening to me? What would you tell me to do?” I didn’t hesitate! I knew exactly what I would say to her.
It was time to extract this predator from my life. My Dharma teachings, along with my teacher’s voice in my head, were telling me to find patience and compassion in my heart and mind, but also to remember it’s imperative we surround ourselves with fellow seekers of truth and love, not those that promote hatred and division. Why had I waited so many years before exposing the whole truth? I know why…. because of shame and distrust in my feelings.
So, once again, it’s time for me to slow down and allow my feelings to come up and be experienced fully. I will sit with the discomfort and grieve for all the stolen moments and lost innocence. I will tend to the painful wounds that never fully healed. I vow to never again allow my feelings to go unchecked, unheard, unsupported. I will have more faith in myself and will honour my truth. I will reach out and open up more and not hide my feelings away like something ugly and shameful. I will not protect predators by making excuses for them. I will expose them to the light and banish them. I will encourage others to come forward and share their stories so they, too, can let go of the shame. And maybe, just maybe, we can put a stop to this abuse once and for all.