The Gas Light Effect

I’m reprinting a blog post I wrote years ago on another one of my blogs, in 2009 (with updates in brackets and at the end).  Periodically I like to re-post blog posts with updates…to remind me where I was and how far I’ve come.

When I doubt myself (as I have done far, far too often), I need the reminders that I did the best I could under the circumstances.  Far too often I (and others) blame character defects in me, rather than remembering I’ve been in some pretty unbearable situations.  I truly did the best I could with what few resources and support I had available to me.

I apologize in advance for all the links (and any typos…I’ll try to edit when I see them).  I try not to do that, but sometimes it’s necessary to limit an already too-long post.  I suggest reading through the piece without clicking on the links to maintain continuity, then if you want the details filled in, you can go back.


The Gas Light Effect

You may never have heard the term before, but if you lived it, you know exactly what this severe kind of psychological abuse is like. My husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) and a friend knew a fraction of what went on in my home when I was a young adult, and they were very instrumental in helping me to escape from it.  After a pretty severe fight where my mother had me up against the wall with her hand at my throat and the other poised to strike me, I decided it was time to move out permanently (of course, the decision was made easier by her threat of throwing all my things out on the lawn if I didn’t move out before she came back from work).

I was 24 at the time, finished with college and working in a laboratory job for minimum wage, not able to afford an apartment, so I rented my friend’s couch in the basement of his grandmother’s home (which, in the four months I lived in his grandmother’s basement with him was a hoot and a half while dating one boy and living with another).

Because I sometimes forget (or perhaps want to forget) how bad it was to be psychologically, emotionally and sometimes physically abused by my family (and come to think of it, threatened with knives, too) when I was a child and young adult, I have told and re-told my story to people who I thought would be able to help me.

Even now, at 39, I don’t ever want to trust my family too much so that I am lulled into a false sense of security with them. Every time I do, and reveal too much personal information, it ends up coming back to as a way to attack me.

[I realize now, too, I used to share information with them not just because I forgot not to, but the urge to be punished by them was sometimes overwhelmingly strong.  Self-abuse wasn’t enough.  I had to call in the experts.]

Most of my family does not know about this blog (my mother, step-father and siblings). I’m very protective of my privacy here more because of them. If they ever were to find out I wrote such things, you can believe the psychological attacks would assault my inbox, my phone and my psyche.

I already experienced a breach of trust online when my youngest sister went to one of my alternative mamas’ message boards with the intention of telling them to kick me off the boards for sharing semi-private family information (no last names were ever used). My biggest mistake was sharing the message board with her, hoping she might receive some healthy advice on how to parent her child. I recently made the mistake that I told her I actually didn’t want to join Facebook because I blog already, realizing only too late the potential danger I just set up. She’s already told me she’s going to use my name to see if she can find my blog. How sad is that?

She’s also one (out of three women in my family) who screamed at me via phone whenever she gets a bug up her fanny for some perceived failure to live up to her expectations.

[I haven’t gone completely “no contact” with my seemingly personality-disordered family, but I’ve severely limited my exposure to them. And I do have a facebook account under a pseudonym for different reasons, though I rarely use it].

I came across this post entitled The Sad Art of Gaslighting by Mrs. Lenora Mae Poltiss (aka Laurie Kendrick).

She quotes from the book, The Gas Light Effect by Dr. Robin Stern.

Gaslighting is the systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality. This is done by telling them that what they are experiencing isn’t so – and, the gradual giving up on the part of the other person.

The most insidious thing about it is that it is

Manipulation passed off as love or affection…or concern.

I’ve fortunately never been gaslighted by a romantic partner, and I think part of that is due to good fortune and part of it because I know gaslighting when I see it.

[And it turns out my husband was too busy being depressed and dealing with the shame of his binge-drinking to do that to me].

A tidbit of my experience I shared on a message board for gifted adults:

In my family, loss of control meant only one thing – if you can’t control your subject, gaslight them. They attempted to isolate me from outsiders, to condemn my friends as worthless trash, and simultaneously try to convince me I’m the one in need of psychological help in a desperate, last-chance blitzkrieg attack on my sanity.

It took me 24 years to garner enough strength to walk away from my family’s choke-hold over me, and about another 6 years to after I’d gone to reach a sense of peace and not having to look over my shoulder or question my sense of reality.

[Little did I know that my short-lived sense peace would be shattered with the advent of motherhood and quitting my job – the only real stabilizing force in my life].

It’s important to me to write about my experiences because writing helps me understand and integrate my experiences. Having lived through what I did impacted my ability to live, let alone gently mother my children for a long while and my marriage to the man I once considered my “soul-mate” was eroding with my intermittent explosive behavior, as I was trying to cope with some suppressed rage that came bubbling to the surface in the first few 10 (!) intense and overwhelming years of parenting closely-spaced children and being codependent to my husband’s issues.

My mother’s first three children (my two older sisters and I) were spaced roughly the same distance as my daughters are (about 18 months apart), one of a few similarities between my mother and I, that I obsessed about for a good long while.

The fears that I really was crazy (as a child any sense of excitement in me was labeled “manic”, and any angry objections to my treatment evidence of my ‘instability’) and in need of in-patient psychological help came rushing back to me during those dark times in my mothering career.

Sadly, I have found through the internet connections with people I have in various places, the concept of a parent gaslighting a child through to adulthood or gaslighting that can occur between spouses or romantic partners is much more common than I would have realized.


Update 2013 – 4 years after writing the above post.

As it turned out, I did need and get psychological counseling but not for the reasons they all thought.  For the year and a half I was in it, it relieved some of my burden, as well as cause some new problems for me (she encouraged me to do things that ended up backfiring and causing new trauma, though ultimately even that has catalyzed much growth).

I spent a great deal of time researching attachment theory, attachment parenting and positive discipline.  Even so, I struggled greatly in that area.  I hadn’t known at the time that my daughters were highly sensitive, and how that would impact their development and my ability to meet their needs.  Reading books isn’t the same thing as seeing compassionate parenting modeled – and believe me, I looked to any and all parents in my social circles and found truly compassionate parenting glaringly absent.

I did however, see a lot of parents medicate their kids and self-medicate with alcohol and tell me if it wasn’t for the wine/beer/margaritas, they’d go insane or ‘kill’ their offspring – but they were joking of course, so that makes it okay (not!).

And I turned to the church and to my dismay found the authoritarian parenting practices even more horrific because they have the stamp of approval by the church leaders (you must get those babies to obey parental authority – train up the child in the way he should go at ALL costs).  What I heard about from other Christians, what I’d heard about it in Christian gentle parenting/positive discipline message boards at their old churches disturbed me.  They came to the boards in hopes of healing the spiritual damage.

I ended up withdrawing from parents who were treating their children unfairly or abusively, and limited my contact with those who medicated their children and themselves because it upset me to see all that.  I would come home to obsess about the things I saw or heard about and I had to limit my exposure to them.

When you have controlling parents, you don’t really know how to avoid becoming one.   For a while, I was over-controlling.  Codependent people do that.

It turned out that my middle daughter was also emotionally dysregulated due to asynchronous development (she was cognitively three years older than her age, but emotionally about two years younger), sensory processing issues and a disorder called Selective Mutism.    You can read about her journey on my other blog.

My sensitive daughters’ special needs were invisible.  Everyone understands the challenges a physically disabled child presents, you get very little empathetic support when the disability is emotional.  Everyone judges your parenting and does not understand the unique wiring of the child.  And they are so sure that they could do a better job of it than you.

I just recently got blamed for my 7 year old daughters’ anxiety and screaming fits by my husband’s aunt.  Her reasoning?  I breast-fed her too long (3 years – OMG!) and I let her cling to me too much.  That’s when I had to explain to her that it ALSO might be due to the allergy medication she was on for her asthma (One of Singulair’s side effects in young children is the propensity to scream at the top of your lungs) and the stress of living with parents who are dealing with dysfunctional ways of being.  I had to tell her that my inability to cope with life, in part, was due to my husband’s binge drinking, depression and bad habit of running to the gun cabinet when his shame got overwhelming for him.

I turned to my husband’s church to help (he works their sound board, I figure they ought to be able to help their own in this regard).  In exchange for him housing his gun arsenal with a fellow church member, they’d provide therapy for him and family therapy for us.

I have complex-PTSD (diagnosed by my former therapist) which sometimes makes me seem (and act) borderline.  I have hashimoto’s thyroiditis which mimics bipolar II, and I am a recovering co-dependent.  I read a boatload on BPD and bipolar and narcissism and parental alienation syndrome (my mother had tried that too), and PTSD and mental illness in general. But all the reading I do only goes so far.  It helps with understanding the problem(s), but not with the execution of the solutions (nor the payment of such solutions when you are grossly under-employed).

My new therapist is intrigued with all of the dysfunction on both my husband’s and my side of the family.   She’s a young therapist, but I’m going to guess our complex situation will make for a great ‘case study’ for her.  I’m trying not to overwhelm her with how much stuff there is to sort through.  Fortunately for her, husband and I are now at a place where we are taking responsibility for our individual mistakes and we are willing to cooperate with each other, which will make her job easier.

I have read a lot of works by Carl Rogers and Virginia Satir, whose empathetic and humanistic approach to human struggles feels right for me.  The therapist seems kind and compassionate, and I can tell you, if she wasn’t, I’d have a great problem with that.  And her office does EMDR (eye movement densitization and re-processing), which is extremely helpful in treating traumatic events.  I’ve had that once, and sorely could have used it recently, but I couldn’t get in touch with my old therapist for a session.

I truly, truly believe that while I have acted pretty insanely in the 11 years since becoming a mother (there’s more to the story that I am not ready to share), that my insanity was a sane response to an insane situation.

So what do I do now, armed with all this support and newfound self-understanding?

Radical self-acceptance (in other words, begin where I am)



More to come on the how.

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
This entry was posted in Anger, anxiety, Being Genuine, Carl Rogers, Complex-PTSD, Emotionally Absent Mother, Kay Redfield Jamison, Madness, Manic Depressive, Mindfulness, Moods, Motherhood, Narcissistic Mothers, Personal growth, PTSD triggers, Soul wounds, The Gas Light Effect, The Myth of Mental Illness, Virginia Satir and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Gas Light Effect

  1. This is a wonderful thing you are doing for yourself, reminding yourself how far you’ve come!! Once when I was going through a bad time, a friend of mine told me to list everything I had done ove the past 2 months. I didn’t think it would take long since I had done “nothing.” Was I ever surprised when my list went 2 sides of 2 pages in a steno notebook and onto a third page! We need these reminders. We work so hard at recovery and get discouraged so easily because of those early messages that basically we’re “no good.” When our parents have been so toxic, we need to re-parent ourselves in a much kinder, gentler way. Love yourself – you deserve it!!

    A quote that struck a strong chord with me was “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” I keep reminding myself of that. I know that I have been a better parent than my parents ever were. I’m a much more loving, caring, considerate person than they were, and I try to be good to myself.

  2. Casey says:

    Yes, we do work so hard at recovery and it seems to me like such a full-time job. But I do feel different than I was when I began this journey to recovery. I realize, I’ve been blogging for five years (I started out on another blog), and have been intensely studying up on mental illness, trauma and brain research, trying to identify and define the problem and hopefully heal. And of course, I wrote a lot about it, looking at my situation from many different angles, yet at the same time, still not seeing a lot of improvement in dealing with my triggers.

    But, even with all that research, I only have recently shown real improvements and that’s because I started incorporating body modalities – craniosacral therapy, myofascial release (a type of massage), and yoga – and employing mindfulness and meditation.

    If you can afford bodywork, I really would try to get some. The newer brain research has shown that you can’t use the left brain and talking to cure trauma because traumatic memories are stored as sensations, not words or even images.

    My husband is the one giving me the craniosacral therapy and myofascial release, and I find my relationship with him improving because while he caused a fair amount of trauma, he’s also healing me from it too, and it’s making me less reactive and more centered.

    You know, I keep thinking of my family members these days. My siblings all are struggling with their various issues and they’d been high functioning for a good long while, but I am starting to see more and more cracks. They don’t call me up asking for help and I don’t run to them trying to rescue them anymore. I’m feeling less responsible for them and less guilty that I’m not available to them.

    I’m also feeling more and more available to my children and my husband. I’m more willing to accept my narcissistic-like traits (I do have some) and my borderline-like traits (had some of those too) and know even though I did have that, it’s okay and I can let go of the defense mechanisms that were employed trying to protect me from so much pain.

    A song snippet came to me “I can see clearly now the rain has gone…” ooh…I just YouTubed it. wow. perfect song for me right now…

    I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
    I can see all obstacles in my way
    Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
    Sun-Shiny day.

    I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
    All of the bad feelings have disappeared
    Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
    Sun-Shiny day.

    Look all around, there’s nothin’ but blue skies
    Look straight ahead, nothin’ but blue skies

    I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
    I can see all obstacles in my way
    Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)

    Yes, be good to you and love yourself. That is not selfish, it’s basic self-care so you have more to give.


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