Cover image by Malaika Astorga.
*Names have been changed.
When I met Dallas* I was 20, fresh out of a sorority, struggling with my identity, and a bit disgruntled with my college experience. I had just decided to join a media production society on campus in an attempt to get back to my artistic roots.
I remember some of my first interactions with Dallas quite vividly. I was assigned to shadow him on a film set, and it didn’t take long before I had the cute, quiet camera guy laughing at all my jokes. That seemed to be our dynamic from the get-go: I carried the conversation, and he followed. I was outgoing and opinionated, and he was reserved and thoughtful. He was the complete opposite of me, and I liked that.
Once, while watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, Dallas told me that I was fire and he was water. I thought this was true for a long time: I was the fiery, passionate one, and he kept me calm, cooling me down with his fluid, ice-cold touch. But water comes in many forms, and it also has the power to drown you.
According to Dictionary.com, gaslighting is defined as the following:
“verb: to cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation.”
The origin of the term is perhaps more interesting; Dictionary.com also states that the word gaslighting is “in reference to the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which an abusive husband secretly and repeatedly dims and brightens the gaslights in the house while accusing his wife of imagining the flickering.”
I’d heard of the film many times. My mother has always had an affinity for old movies, especially black and white ones with mystery and intrigue. It’s a fantastic film, directed by George Cukor and starring the legendary Ingrid Bergman. Whenever I heard the term “gaslighting,” my mind went to this movie, although I’d never actually seen it myself. Not until after everything happened. That’s when I decided to take the plunge and dive deep into my own personal investigation of gaslighting and its origins.
My interest in gaslighting came from a place of yearning for someone to relate to. I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only person who had experienced this: the fear, the paranoia, the self-doubt. For months I had been told that I was crazy, and even that my relationship had never happened.
I started questioning my own memories, and was unsure whether I could trust my own mind.
So I decided to consult the internet, and stumbled upon an article called “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting.” According to the list, “Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn't realize how much they've been brainwashed.” Interesting.
I decided to go through the entire article, to see which of the signs of gaslighting applied to me.
Okay. Number one: “They tell blatant lies.”
We’re walking down the main avenue in Hampden, the shops of Baltimore all bright and glittering, and I wonder aloud why we don’t come here more often.
“There are so many cool places I need to show you! Like this restaurant,” I say, pointing across the street.
“I’ve been here,” Dallas says.
“Really?” I ask. He usually only ever ventures into the city to see me.
“Becca used to force me to come down here with her.” Becca is his ex. My inner feminist nags at me as I remember what I always tell myself and others: Pay attention to the way a guy talks about his ex. That could be how he talks about you someday.
“You’re not going to say that about me one day, are you?” I ask, only half-joking.
“Of course not,” he says. “What we have is different.”
I shrug it off. After all, Becca is certifiably nuts. Dallas has told me plenty of stories about her. And like he said, it’s different with us.
After I break up with Dallas—yes, after I break up with him—we spend a lot of time fighting. In one of our final arguments, he says: “You threw yourself at me. You forced me to hang out with you.”
My brain goes ding ding ding!
After months of being convinced that he was right, that maybe I was crazy, something clicks in my brain. My ex-boyfriend—my former best friend, my rock, my person—was gaslighting me.
Number two: “They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.”
To this day Dallas denies that we ever dated. We were involved for at least a year, and many people witnessed our romantic relationship. In fact, my family was with me on the 4th of July when he called and officially asked me to be his girlfriend. Still, despite all of this, Dallas maintains that we were never together.
Number three: “They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.”
At this point in my reading I begin to feel sick. Dallas did this to me constantly. He would try to convince me that two of my closest friends both secretly hated me and said horrible things about me whenever I was not around.
I confronted my friends on several occasions, and every time they fervently denied saying anything even remotely similar to what he claimed—or even having seen him recently. He was lying to my face.
In all, I spent about a year of my life loving Dallas.
The first night we ever kissed was a hot, dewy night in September, and our final breakup was also in September, on an annoyingly sunny day. After months of being off and on, months of Dallas saying he “goes back and forth” about whether or not he wants to be with me, months of him insinuating that he might be sleeping with my friends…I decided I wanted more for myself.
I asked Dallas to meet me to talk, and gently asked if maybe it was time for us to break up. We’d done this plenty of times before, but usually it was Dallas deciding that I wasn’t good enough. Then, inevitably within a week or less he’d apologize, tell me that the things he’d said weren’t true, and we’d get back together.
This time was different. I told him he was my best friend, but lately he hadn’t been acting like a friend at all. He was cold and mean, and I wanted to break up to save our friendship, because at that point I still thought I needed him.
I never expected to lose my friend that day. I never expected that the second we stopped sleeping together, I would be rendered useless to him. I never expected that he would do to me what he did to the girl before me: wipe me away.
Number four: “They wear you down over time.”
The article informs me that “this is one of the insidious things about gaslighting—it is done gradually, over time. A lie here, a lie there, a snide comment every so often...and then it starts ramping up. Even the brightest, most self-aware people can be sucked into gaslighting—it is that effective.”
That last line makes me breathe a sigh of relief. I was beginning to feel like I had no judge of character, like I was a fool for not realizing what had been happening for so long. But the article was right—Dallas’ gaslighting was methodical, and it had crept up on me. By the time I realized that anything felt wrong, I was already in a codependent relationship. I had been broken down to the point that I felt like I needed the person who was destroying me.
Number five: “Their actions do not match their words.”
I pause on this one for a second, trying to determine whether this happened. Sometimes I still question my memories. But then it hits me over the head—this is what Dallas did most. Before he ever officially asked me out, he would tell me that he didn’t want a relationship. Other times, he would ask for an open relationship. He asked for a lot of different things, but none of them ever aligned with his actions.
Dallas treated me like I was his girlfriend, like we were exclusive even when we weren’t. He’d ask about being in an open relationship then get mad at me for making innocent conversation with other men. No matter what I did, I could never win. We cooked dinners together, arrived at and left from parties together, held each other at night, exchanged messages about missing each other, planned trips together, and yet he never fully wanted to admit that we were together.
It slowly drove me crazy, being treated like something to be ashamed of, a secret to hide away. That’s not a healthy relationship—I know that now. Hell, I even knew that then. But I couldn’t admit it. I couldn’t accept that the person who claimed to be my best friend would want to make me feel that way. Even worse, I couldn’t believe that he would intentionally try to make me feel ashamed and weak as a means of having control over me.
Number six: “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.”
After telling me that he didn’t want to date me, Dallas would flip the switch, telling me how beautiful I looked when we went out together, that he thought he was in love with me. He told me I was the strongest, most amazing person that he knew. He told me I’d changed his life.
It was emotional whiplash.
Number seven: “They know confusion weakens people.”
Sarkis explains: “Gaslighters know that people like having a sense of stability and normalcy. Their goal is to uproot this and make you constantly question everything. And humans' natural tendency is to look to the person or entity that will help you feel more stable—and that happens to be the gaslighter.”
By this point, I am certain that I have been gaslighted. I’m ticking off every single box. My relationship was so codependent that I felt like I had no one outside of Dallas. I hung out with him nearly every day and night, and somewhere along the way I began distancing myself from good friends and family. Sometimes it was out of his control; sometimes other people were mean and it pushed me closer to him. Other times, the people being “mean” were only his invention, designed to make me feel like he was the only stability I had.
Number eight: “They project.”
The article explains that these projections usually come in the form of drug addiction or cheating. The person gaslighting the other will accuse them of doing the things that the gaslighter is doing. Dallas projected in a different way: he made snide comments when I spoke to other men. He also shamed me for my sexual history and became angry when I spoke about any guys from my past.
It almost makes me laugh now, as he did all of this while still secretly sleeping with his ex. He blatantly, directly, and repeatedly lied to my face whenever I asked if there was still anything between them. I noticed how often she messaged him, and how he always responded, despite saying how crazy and annoying she was. He denied anything romantic between them and made me feel crazy for asking, treating me like I was jealous and saying things with no basis in reality.
After breaking up with Dallas, I spent a lot of time crying to my mom on the phone. I called her frequently, talking in circles and reliving my relationship in an attempt to make sense of it. She tells me that she never liked Dallas, and knew something was wrong with our relationship when I was sick in the hospital and he never came to visit.
A few months after the breakup, my mother tells me during one of our phone calls that I seem more like myself than I have in almost a year.
We both cry.
Number nine: “They try to align people against you.”
Following our breakup, Dallas lied about me and our relationship to many people in our shared social circle and then did the following:
Number ten: “They tell you or others that you are crazy.”
Seeing as Dallas used to tell me his ex was crazy, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he started saying similar things about me. In fact, when I called him out on gaslighting not only me but also the girl before me, this was his response: “At least I don’t have to try to convince people that you’re crazy”… implying that he did have to convince people that his ex was crazy. It sends chills down my spine as I remember one particular conversation with Dallas, which consisted of him trying to diagnose his ex and telling me that she probably suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
I’d love to hear what he thinks my diagnosis is.
And finally, number eleven:“They tell you everyone else is a liar.”
When I finally confronted Dallas about gaslighting me, he said that I was deluded. When I told him that other people saw what he was doing too, he said that they were all lying to me. He wanted to be the only person that I could come to for the truth. Sarkis explains this: “By telling you that everyone else (your family, the media) is a liar, it again makes you question your reality. You've never known someone with the audacity to do this, so they must be telling the truth, right? No. It's a manipulation technique. It makes people turn to the gaslighter for the ‘correct’ information—which isn't correct information at all.”
The last thing I heard about Dallas was that he was seeing a freshman girl. One of her friends reached out to me because she was worried about her, after seeing how he’d treated me and other women in the past. I instantly thought about one of the last things I ever said to him: that I was concerned about his behavior, especially after I noticed the trends in his dating habits. I hoped that he could change, so I tried to explain to him that he was emotionally abusive and manipulative. I explained that it came across very predatory, the way he moved on to younger and younger girls—girls who didn’t know better, who were more naïve, who had never heard about him.
I write this for that freshman girl. I hope she sees it, and even though she won’t know that it’s about Dallas, at least she will know the signs. I wish I had.
And pro tip? Next time you want to gaslight a woman and get away with it, you should probably make sure that she isn’t a writer.