The Quiet Voice: How I Stopped Listening to Emotional Abuse
Gaslighting is easy to stumble into and tricky to get out of. I’ve been blinded by the light myself.
Some forms of abuse, like physical abuse or some kinds of sexual assault, are more easily identified by victims or witnesses. Conversely, gaslighting is a type of non-event, a toxic presence that chips away at a person’s wellbeing over time. There aren’t many concrete examples of this out there for us to reference, so we might not be sure how to steer clear. Oxford Dictionary’s definition of gaslighting is “to manipulate someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”
Gaslighting is a powerful abuse tactic, although a lesser known one. It is notoriously difficult to understand and recognize, especially for a victim. Those on the receiving end may feel that something in their relationship is profoundly wrong, but are unable to pinpoint exactly what. Like other types of abuse, a victim of gaslighting is forced into submission by shame and isolation.
Gaslighting won’t leave any marks on your skin, but it can rip apart your mind. Victims can feel like their relationship with reality has been broken. They feel unsure about what or who to believe or trust, but it’s certainly not themselves. They often look to their abuser for answers and clarity, only to be bombarded with more confusion and humiliation. As the cycle of abuse continues, the victim goes further down the rabbit hole, straight into a world of pain, anxiety and guilt.
I’m from a pretty isolated, backwards town. We’re located just a stone’s throw from one of the biggest cities in the world, but it seemed like we were light years away. I never felt truly welcome in my community, and most of my life was spent desperately striving to fix that. My attempts at assimilation were always futile.
I became drawn to the “emo” subculture because it gave me a chance to reject people who always rejected me. It would be loud and clear that my days on the sidelines of the “normies” were over. I felt that if I finally admitted I was weird, I could be set free.
On the surface, I was free. Deep down, I felt loneliness, ugliness and shame during every waking moment. I practically wanted to crawl out of my skin! My high school years were marked by a profound period of depression. It was hard to cope with my mental illness because I wasn’t yet aware I had one. The mental scars from these dark times left me susceptible to emotional abuse.
If any of this resonates with you, listen up. I’m pulling back the layers of mind-numbing psychological jargon and giving a first-hand account of my experience with gaslighting. My description of these feelings and events might turn on a lightbulb for you, finally validating some troubling thoughts of your own. For the sake of privacy, I’m going to call my abuser Norman.
A few years after my original emo renaissance, I was older, but not wiser. Or happier. One day, I was messing around on the internet, the birthplace of some good, but also some trouble. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was hunting for a safety blanket to latch onto and soothe my pain. I stumbled upon a really cute guy. He DM’d me! First! His name was Norman!. He was a weirdo too, just like me! We liked the same movies and books. We laughed at the same things. He loved dogs. And he was older. We talked all night and quickly made plans to kick it.
A few days later, I was on the way to my first date with Norman. I practically vibrated with anticipation. An IRL meeting with someone from the internet is stressful for many reasons, one of them being the fear that you’ve misrepresented your appearance in photos. Do I look better online? Apparently I didn’t, and Norman let me know it. This was where his first manipulation tactic was implemented- a tool called Negging.
Negging is an act of emotional manipulation where a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment or otherwise seemingly flirtatious remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need for the manipulator's approval.
Norman remarked that he was initially hesitant to meet up with me, but was glad he did. When I asked why, he said that I “seemed fat” in my pictures, and that he’d only agreed to see me out of boredom. As my heart sank, he quickly flipped, saying he was pleasantly surprised to see I was “actually really hot” and “wasn’t fat.” “You photograph really badly.” he added matter of factly.
I went into a mental tailspin. What had just happened? Was I supposed to feel insulted or flattered? I wasn’t totally sure what he thought of me, because his remarks were so crass and contradictory. This flipped a switch in me. I needed to gain his approval; it seemed so close but just out of reach. Perhaps I needed to convince him I was worthy, because I couldn’t convince myself. Maybe I just loved a challenge. Either way, it worked.
Weirdly, the rest of our date went...pretty good. He was cool the rest of the night. We laughed a lot, talked about our lives and I listened intently to the wild, colorful tales he wove. I thought I’d maybe been too sensitive about his remarks, or maybe it was a bad attempt at humor on his part. Soon after our first rendezvous, the love bombing began. Love bombing is the practice of showering a person with excessive affection and attention in order to gain control or significantly influence their behavior.
I sort of assumed Norman would never hit me up again after that first meeting. Even though the rest of the night was good, that one jab stood out like the goth cousin in a family Christmas photo. It really bugged me, but I pretended it didn’t. To my surprise, I got a text from him the next morning, enthusiastically asking me to hang out again that night. He continued to blow up my phone, complimenting me, sending funny memes and heart emojis until I agreed to see him again. “He just had one slip up!” I thought to myself. Everyone has accidentally offended someone with an offhand remark. This sweet guy is who he really is.
From that point on, I got stuck in a vicious cycle. One night, he’d butter me up with romance, grandiose displays of his wealth, and really good sex. Sweet, sweet dopamine: rain down upon me. As soon as I laid in the afterglow, though, he’d sweep the rug out from under my feet. He’d blow me off, leave me on read for days, accuse me of acting too romantic toward him, even though he’d been grandly romantic himself the day before. It was as thrilling as it was painful.
Since I could remember, I’d always relied on the opinions of others to dictate how I felt about myself. My self-image was like a house of cards, and one low blow could send it all tumbling down. The only time I felt secure was when a crush liked me back. If they did, I’d float on cloud nine... for approximately nine seconds. For a fleeting moment, I had permission to exist. But it would wear away fast. It always did. Norman could smell this on me. He knew he could give me what I desperately craved and steal it on a whim.
I became dependent on this game he played with me. The push and pull kept me on my toes, and the temporary gratification I worked so hard for felt fantastic. Victims can even become physically addicted to emotional abuse. This is Trauma Bonding. The psychological roller coaster can wreak havoc on your brain chemistry. When you’re getting played, the turmoil manifests in your body, and sets off and increases a stress hormone called cortisol. This sends your brain into panic mode, and you’ll often scramble to try and get the positive behavior you desperately crave. When the abuser provides, your body produces dopamine: a “reward” hormone that produces feelings of euphoria. Hard drugs do the same. It’s easy to get hooked on both. Abuse victims are often asked why they stuck around for so long. This is one big reason.
I’d get a quick fix then my “dealer” would raise the price each time. Though I didn’t know it, my actions had nothing to do with his decision to give or withhold. These decisions were fueled by his need for control. Each time, I’d blame myself for his shift in behavior. Because my already fragile brain was suffering the biggest hormone hangover in history every two days, it was extra easy to blame myself. I convinced myself I was crazy, bad at relationships, had boundary issues, the whole nine.
This set me up for the next stage of the abuse. My addicted brain was dragged down this awful path to codependency. Codependency is defined as "excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner.” A gaslighter often provokes constant insecurity and self-loathing in a victim, and that allows that abusive person to take control. Their victim often feels too weak or ashamed to reclaim power. In my case, Norman used constant insults and reprimands to dominate me.
There are two prominent voices that live inside my brain. I’m pretty sure they moved in when I was born, and they’re permanent residents. One is loud and one is quiet. The loud voice loves insulting my appearance, personality and intelligence. So much so, she rarely ever lets the quiet one say much at all. The quiet voice is hoarse and raspy, her vocal cords dusty from disuse. When she tells me how lovely I look, or how kind or smart I am, she sounds meek and apprehensive. The loud voice booms with authority. You might listen to your loud voice, too.
Before Norman, my loud voice used to tell me the same stuff he did: that my nose was crooked, my teeth too yellow, my chin too masculine, my voice too shrill. Until then, I’d be able to tune her out with online shopping or true crime documentaries. But he cut deeper with attacks on my character, and all I could hear was what both those loud voices said.
Each time I tried to advocate for myself after being insulted, yelled at or stood up, he called me manipulative. If I didn’t cater to his whims, or do exactly what he told me, I was selfish and neglectful. Norman once asked me to drive him to the doctor because he had a cold. I told him I’d be over as soon as I finished up dinner with a friend. It angered him that I didn’t “put him first.” He didn’t talk to me for days. Sometimes, I’d get prolonged periods of the silent treatment without even knowing what I apparently did wrong.
I’d beg for his forgiveness even though I hadn’t a clue what I was apologizing for. He’d tell me that if I was actually a good partner I’d recognize what I did wrong, he wouldn’t have to tell me. Other times he’d claim that we’d already discussed issues, even though I had no recollection of such things taking place. He’d reference alleged conversations I had absolutely no memory of. He accused me of ignoring his needs and feelings. I believed him and I started to loathe myself so deeply. If I was ugly inside and out, who would ever want me except him?
I tip-toed on thin ice, unaware that the cracks beneath weren’t made by my feet. The ice had been broken deliberately, by him, and for the sole purpose of plunging me into the frigid, unforgiving water below. But he acted like — and I also believed — it was my fault for falling in. Maybe if my steps weren’t so heavy I could find my way across. Maybe I could maneuver it better if I just got one more chance.
This was when the isolation stage began. Norman started this one, but I helped. He began to get fiercely jealous when I spent time with friends, especially male ones. He’d refused to even meet my friends or family until we’d been together for quite awhile. At that point I had to beg him, because it began to seem like I had an imaginary boyfriend. I told friends that Norman and I had some issues, but we were working them out in “healthy” ways. I didn’t share the true nature of our relationship with loved ones, because I was so ashamed. I knew I was being treated badly, but I thought I deserved it.
While he was the only one who saw the ugly truth in me, I thought I was the only one who saw the beautiful truth in him. All of his exes were “crazy” for different reasons. There was the cheating one, the desperate one, the clingy one. But I was different, I thought. I wasn’t “crazy”, even though he’d call me some version of it every other day. He made me believe I was trash, but I was still the best he ever had.
Whenever I seemed unhappy or ready to leave, he’d beg me to stay. He told me he didn’t deserve me. He convinced me that he was only defensive because he’d been hurt before. I felt compassion for him. I stayed. Whenever we went through these cycles, I’d get shot up with more of that dopamine. We’d both feel so hopeful. We’d say we were both equally “damaged” and we’d get better together. The romance would spark again, the silent treatments were fewer and further between. He’d call me beautiful every day. I’d kiss him with an open heart again.
I don’t need to tell you that everything would always become an absolute nightmare again in about a week.
The lying stage began here. This was when I felt truly untethered from reality. It was obvious that Norman was cheating on me. I found long strands of hair a different color than mine on his pillow. He was extraordinarily protective of his phone, and snatched it away from my view each time he got a text. He’d get mysterious phone calls that he’d run off to take. We’d stopped using condoms once our relationship became closed, but I found a new box of them in his drawer anyway. He had hickeys on his shoulders. There was a girl with a private Instagram account constantly posting flirty comments under his photos; she blocked me a few weeks after I noticed their correspondence. I’d also found an active online dating profile of his.
I did not want to believe the man I loved so fiercely was unfaithful. It would be the last nail in the coffin to prove I was worthless, even though I wasn’t the one cheating. Secondly, I’d been convinced by Norman that I had boundary issues, was neurotic and demanding. If I confronted him, that would give him more ammo to drive these claims home. I was also terrified of his reaction. I didn’t want to be yelled at or punished more.
I finally garnered the courage to confront him and he seemed to be extremely empathetic. He said he understood my feelings and said he was sorry he made me feel insecure. He said he welcomed me to bring up doubts, and he’d provide a candid explanation. He deleted the dating profile. The box of condoms were, he said, a gag gift from a friend. The strands of black hair were, he said, from his roommate who’d put her clothes in the washing machine with his sheets. He unfollowed the girl who posted questionable things on his profile, and claimed that he’d never met her.
All of these explanations were shallow and far-fetched. I took them at face value because of his tone and because I wanted to believe them. Deep down, I knew it was all boloney, but he felt like all I had. Where else would I go? Leaving this behind and flying solo felt absolutely out of the question.
Eventually, I noticed the dating profile was reactivated. The Instagram girl came back. There were constant texts on his phone from a “friend” who had never been introduced or mentioned to me previously. Slowly, there were fewer and fewer condoms in that box.
He told me that I had met this “friend” before, but I was too ditzy or self-absorbed to remember. When I asked for evidence of this person’s existence, he’d accuse me of being distrusting. He’d swear up and down that “glitches” were responsible for the dating profile and Instagram comments. He claimed his roommate used those condoms. I was absolutely “out of line” for even looking in the drawer in the first place, even though some of my belongings were in there, too.
I had no idea what was real. Had I really turned into his definition of the “crazy” girlfriend? The one who's always making unfounded accusations? The one who has a faithful boyfriend but sabotages the relationship with her own insecurity?
My brain screamed “None of this is right” I ignored it all. I couldn’t even rely on my inner monologue. My brain felt broken.
I was plagued with panic attacks and paranoia. My thoughts raced and I felt even more unsafe around Norman. My period stopped; my eyebrows started falling out. I tried to conceal it all but he noticed. He said he was at his wits end about how to comfort me, but I was too far gone to listen. Of course, none of his behaviors had changed.
Eventually, we parted ways. Our paths haven’t crossed since. I wish I could say that my relationship with Norman ended differently. I wish I could say that I finally stood up for myself, that I did sopme kind of triumphant thing. Instead, I watched Norman siphon all the love, trust and self-worth out of me until I was just dry. I guess you can’t drink from an empty glass.
I wish I could say that when I recognized the abuse for what it was that the pain melted away. It’s not a stab wound anymore, but it’s still a dull ache. I had to dig deep inside and find where the quiet voice was hiding, hold her hand and coax her out. The more I listened, I learned that she doesn’t lie.
The quiet voice has become easier to hear. She says more interesting things than the loud one. On bad days, the loud voice screams into a megaphone. Sometimes so loud, I’m afraid my ears might bleed. At times she yaps for days. It’s hard to believe she’ll ever get tired, but she always does. I promise, yours will too.
I can’t promise that your wound won’t leave a scar. You might run your fingers across it, memorizing each ridge and groove. I can’t promise your loud voice won’t threaten to rip it open again, but I can promise you don’t have to let it. I can promise that gut feelings are your guardian angels. I can promise that everything you need is already inside of you, and you’ll never need anyone else to make you whole. I can promise that you aren’t hard to love. I promise it’s okay to leave.
It is important to remember that while we or others can get or feel hurt in love, that love does not harm; abuse does. Abuse is never the victim’s fault, no matter how long they endure it. Abuse, at its core, is about trying to get and keep power over someone. Love is not about that. Someone who loves you will not invalidate your feelings, isolate you, attack your self-worth or make you second guess your intuition. The methods of abuse I've been talking about are all designed to do just that.
- The Hotline - What is Gaslighting
- Out of the Fog - Gaslighting
- Girls Health - Verbal Abuse
There are some specific hotlines listed on this page.
- Womens Law - Find Help
This one is a resource for abuse victims of all kinds and all genders, and they have a state by state list of resources, including legal and housing assistance.
- The Scarleteen Safety Plan