On Gaslighting and Identity

I have so much to say.


When I was still in the hospital after I had Reed, I watched The History Channel. There was a documentary about the Jonestown Massacre. I nursed my new baby and watched dozens of people poison themselves in front of me.


I still can’t change the channel.


I sent my final draft of my book to my editor tonight. After this, it goes to the copy editor. I’m proud of this book. It was the book that I wanted to write, but writing this book has been isolating.


I spent the past few days with friends in Washington, and I did many dippy things. I almost got in the wrong car. I went to the wrong restaurant door. I put my groceries in the wrong cart.

My friends laughed and teased me because they’ve known me for a long time, but I think that we all realized that I’m more absentminded than usual, that I have been living in my head for too long.


Still, I had the most wonderful time with these friends of so many years. It is so easy to be with them, and having friends who have known me both pre and after Caleb is validating to my sanity. Their friendship helps me to remember that I am okay.


And here is where I’m going to bring something up that I’ve never brought up before in my writing. I haven’t brought this up because I haven’t wanted to plant any seeds of doubt about my own mental health, but I think that I’m in a place where I can be honest.

Caleb’s excuse for why he abused me is because he claims that I have Borderline Personality Disorder.

First of all, to be clear, I do not have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). My own therapist has reassured my very anxious self that I don’t even come close to that diagnosis, but that if I did, it would be something we would work on.

Second of all, BPD would not excuse the physical abuse (which Caleb doesn’t deny).

Still, Caleb’s anger management therapist, Charlie, suggested this diagnosis to him. These suggestions were strictly based upon what Caleb had told Charlie about me. As far as I know, Charlie never asked to meet me.


Caleb’s other therapist, Ed, did ask to meet me, then said, “Caleb, she is not what you led me to believe she is.”


Months later, I would call Ed and tell him how Caleb had been physically abusive. Ed would ask me, “Kelly, why are you telling me this?” And I would hear the doubt in his voice. I would hear the She’s crazy voice coming through the phone.

But when my own voice cracked, and I said, “Because I thought that maybe you could help him change,” I also heard Ed realize that I was authentic. He told me that he would try and get Caleb to confront the truth of what he had been doing.

Caleb quit seeing Ed after that.


Still, for so long Caleb had me convinced that I was what he thought I was.


Once, shortly after I had left him, Caleb and I were talking on the phone. He was living at his parents’ house and using their landline. He told me that I had chased him with a knife. He told me that he had run outside of our dorm apartment in his underwear to escape me.

I was so confused, had no recollection of this happening, so I asked him questions because it never occurred to me that he was lying.

After all, why would someone lie about such a thing?

I said, “When?”

“Why” ”

“How?”

He hung up on me.

After thinking about it some more, I finally called him back. The dorm apartment that we had been living in required keycard access with our IDs.

I was not trying to be clever. I was only confused, but I said, “If you were in the hallway in your underwear, then how did you get back in? Wouldn’t you have needed me to let you in?”

He screamed and hung up the phone.

I later realized that he was taping our phone calls, that he was hoping to get me to admit to something awful, so that he would not be the only one who had committed awful misdeeds.


At the time, I went to my friend Rebecca’s house where Reed and I were staying, and I told her what he had said. I said, “I think that he might be delusional. I’m so worried about him.”

She said, “He’s like a robot, and his wires are malfunctioning.”


I have recently realized that I need to spell some of this stuff out for certain folks, so here it is: Caleb was lying in order to manipulate me. He knew my weaknesses and wanted to convince me that I was “crazy” as a way of justifying his own abuse.

Loosely related: trauma reactions can seem a lot like personality disorder behavior.


My friend who I stayed with for the past few days is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapist, so she treats a lot of people with BPD.

We were talking about trauma recovery, and she had some really good suggestions for me. When the time comes, and if my finances allow, I think that I would like to do exposure therapy with someone she recommends.

But that exposure therapy would be to treat my trauma–not this mythological BPD that Caleb claims I have.


Caleb’s mother has been unusually kind to me lately, and I can’t tell why. It’s probably because Caleb is remarried and has another baby. It’s probably because she feels sorry for me.

Still, what I like to tell myself is that she’s kind to me because she’s had enough time to see Reed grow and realize that I’m not what Caleb says I am. I’m a good mama to Reed. He is thriving with me, is always on the honor roll, and has lots of friends.

I don’t ever badmouth Caleb, but Reed still prefers to be with me because his dad is angry most of the time, and Reed is now used to a calm household.

Reed didn’t notice his dad’s anger when he lived with it all of the time, and though I’m sad that he notices it now, I’m also relieved that he’s not desensitized to it.


When a man you love spends years telling you that you’re crazy, that is not an easy mythology to escape. I have not yet escaped that mythology, and I don’t have any answers.

All I can offer is an It happened to me too.


My friends walked me to the ferry the other day, as I left for a writer’s residency. I hugged them–these two women who have known me for so long–along with my friend’s adorable toddler and kind husband. I felt grateful for the years that we’ve shared, the lives that we’ve ended up with.

I felt grateful for all of the people who love me despite what I’ve been through, and despite the ways that what I’ve been through has changed me.

Still, though I have changed, I am not, and never will be, what he says I am.

I will only ever be the person that I am.

 

2 thoughts on “On Gaslighting and Identity

  1. Lorelei

    Wow. My (batshit crazy, abusive) ex “diagnosed” me with BPD too. I thought he was wrong–my circle of lifelong friends and my stellar work history argue that–but I checked with my therapist, my therapist in laws, and a few close friends to be sure. They all laughed and said no way. But still. I had to ask.

    Gaslighting makes you feel crazy. Abusive people fill your life with drama that wouldn’t exist without their presence.

    Oh and I had several futile conversations with his psychiatrists and therapists. I couldn’t figure out why they were so dismissive, but now I realize it’s because of what he said about me. And about himself. So many lies.

    Like

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