This is part 1 of a series of posts I’m going to be writing on the topic of gaslighting (& my personal experiences with it).
[Content Note: discussion of emotional/verbal/psychological abuse from a mother.]
I had this stuffed animal when I was young that I slept with every night, that I even vaguely remember playing with. It was this teddy-bear-sized yellow thing that I believe was supposed to be a “chick” (baby rooster, probably, judging by the bow-tie sewn around his neck, very odd stuffed animal honestly), there was a little tag on the animal which said “chick”, but I, as a young kid who didn’t know how to read, called it (her? I don’t think I thought of the toy as a he but whether or not I gave it a gender I am unsure) by a name that clearly implied I had misinterpreted which type of bird it was. Lol.
I called my stuffed animal Baby Ducky.
And last night, while at a local atheist meetup, a man mentioned how his 16-year-old son is still very emotionally attached to his stuffed animals, and how he told his wife that they can never get rid of those, he knows it would crush his son. I mentioned how I was pretty upset when my mom told me I was too old to sleep with my stuffed animal.
What I didn’t mention though, was that my mom was my abuser. What I didn’t mention was that last night, for the first time in a surprising number of years, I remembered the fact that I had actually used that stuffed toy to sop up my tears on multiple occasions. I remember crying in my bedroom in the house we moved into in 4th grade, so I must’ve been no younger than 10 or so, lying in my bed, using that stuffed animal as a very poor excuse for comfort, and also using it much like people would normally use a tissue in these situations. Using it for both purposes.
My tears were always because of my mom. I mean, not even just “the majority of the time”, because that doesn’t properly convey it. It was always my mom who was making me cry. When I started to get dehydration headaches, I wondered if it was because my mom made me cry so often. I’m sure now it was just because I didn’t drink enough water. But still. That crossed my mind for a reason. By the time I was 15 and 100% sure my mom was abusive, I used as “proof” in my own head of the abuse that I couldn’t think of a single week where she hadn’t made me cry. I was keeping track of just how often it was.
I was talking to my dad a few months ago, about the abuse that has been over for 9-ish years, (so honestly, I don’t know why it came up…) and I mentioned how, after a certain point, my mom used to accuse my tears of being “crocodile tears”. (It might’ve been because “crocodile tears” came up elsewhere in our lives, because for me that phrase is permanently gonna be associated with my mom, who accused my tears of being fake on MANY occasions by using that exact phrasing.) I mentioned to my dad how I thought (both at the time, and now) that she was kind-of right, actually, and I’d sort of felt guilty or like I was caught doing something “kind of fake”.
Not that I was REALLY ever faking my tears, but because she was sort of right that my crying had begun to stem from a different kind of trigger. That my crying was, actually, different than before. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I had seemed to develop an almost Pavlov’s Dogs type response to her abuse. Instead of Salivating on the cue of a bell ringing, on the cue of her starting to go into an abusive rant I’d almost immediately start crying, and she hadn’t even done anything “that bad” yet that day or really psychologically hurt me “yet”, I was just so overly prepared for it, so familiar with the three hour terrorizing sessions and torment, that I was already bursting into tears. And that physical reaction, my body starting to cry, confused my conscious mind, I know it did. Especially when my mom started accusing the tears of being crocodile tears.
Despite how much, in the moment, that I know I yelled back at her that they weren’t, how much I cried back at her, insisting I was really truly upset… despite all that, I never could fully forget that feeling, and I think that was subtle gaslighting, I think I was being convinced my reality wasn’t actually my reality, or I don’t know… I think I was just confused because yes, when I started crying, how early it started during an act of verbal abuse from her, had changed. But it had changed because I couldn’t take the constant abuse the way I used to be able to, not because I was actively trying to manipulate my mom to stop yelling. My tears WEREN’T faked.
I mean, yes, I always, on some small level, had hoped my mom would go back to the days when my tears would make her realize maybe she’d gone too far, when there WAS a “reconciliation stage” of her abuse cycle (aka the “honeymoon stage”), when she would buy me candy as an apology or say she was sorry. (Not that that stage ever actually felt good to me, at the time.) But those days where she’d feel bad about making me cry were such a distant memory. I knew it was never gonna happen. I just… felt confused.
But this past year my dad looked at me, as I attempted to explain the crocodile tears thing to him, because he’d never witnessed my mom doing that exact thing to me. I didn’t have an essay written yet, I couldn’t explain it very well, I maybe simply said only that she might’ve been kind of right. And my dad told me, during this recent conversation, that no, I wasn’t faking my tears. I hadn’t properly explained myself, my thoughts, or my feelings… but he was still, regardless of the circumstances, sure my… traumatization? was real, that of course I was ALWAYS really crying when my mom made me cry, and his reaction… well, it reminded me not to doubt myself so much. It was jarring to me how sure he was, but in a good way. It is surprisingly nice to be validated in the way that he validates me about my past experiences, surprisingly nice to have someone who saw some of it firsthand, at the time, be even more sure than I am that what happened all those years was NOT OKAY.
And if I go back to what I was thinking about last night, with my stuffed animal, I realize that in a context of abuse, taking away Baby Ducky without prior warning, telling me all of a sudden one day that I was too old to still have the stuffed animal in my bed… my mom taking away the thing I’d literally used to wipe away the tears which SHE’D caused… of course I was gonna be retraumatized, at least in a small way, by that. People can be irrationally attached to fictional characters, and to inanimate objects. On top of that, my mom was shaming me and using language to make me feel worse about myself as a person. She was saying I had ALREADY been holding onto something for too long, that I was already too old for this stuffed toy, that I was a bad example of a kid my age. A good parent who honestly believes there is a certain age when a kid is too old to be sleeping with a stuffed animal should maybe be careful to give the kid some prior warning, at least one last night to sleep with the thing. A good parent would at least say “if you keep sleeping with it for much longer, you will, in the future, be too old to still be holding onto it” and preferably not accuse you of having already transgressed. Already failed at the rules of life that you didn’t even know about.
But that’s what an abusive parent’s “discipline” classically is. I see posts all the time on tumblr saying yes, a parent should provide consequences for breaking rules, but the rules need to have been clearly set ahead of time, and one of the most telling signs that a parent is abusive is if you’re constantly being told you’re breaking “rules”, but these are rules you didn’t even know you had to follow. Especially if you’re being yelled at in a rage whenever you “break” them.
I think the way she took away my Baby Ducky was this kind of instance. I didn’t want to lose my stuffed animal because I was attached to it, and I believed her that I had broken one of the unwritten rules of how to be the right kind of kid, that I should’ve known that I was too old to do this, that I should feel ashamed and embarrassed about the age to which I kept my stuffed “duckling” in the first place. And it was another little form of gaslighting, in its own way, making me question my own reality, the reality where it wasn’t actually a problem to have been sleeping with that thing.
I had actually started writing another post on my experience with gaslighting first, but that post has been in my drafts for a few weeks now and it’s harder for me to finish. This post I wrote in one sitting when I should’ve been sleeping in the wee hours of the morning today. 😛
This post has been cross-posted to my tumblr.