This is part 3 of a series of posts I’m going to be writing on the topic of gaslighting (& my personal experiences with it).
[Content Notes: Discussion of my mother and her abuse, mainly her emotional/verbal/psychological abuse. Use of a NSFW curse word and discussion of a NSFW body part.]
Part 1 talked more about her abuse, specifically, and that post can be found here: Gaslighting & Crocodile Tears
Part 2 focused more abstractly on society with some undercurrents of my mother. Gaslighting & Santa Claus
I cut off all contact with my mother when I was 18 years old, but for another year-and-a-half or so my brother still was visiting with her, and he also was forced to endure something which I never had to, since it started after I was legally an adult: reunification therapy where he, our mother, and a psychologist would sit in a room together.
My brother didn’t like to talk much about his unpleasant experiences at those sessions, but when he did, he recounted my mother being a woman who would complain about our father the entire time, despite the therapist’s best efforts to get the conversation to be focused on something beside our dad. My mother felt the first two therapists were biased against her, so they switched to different psychologists for continued reunification counseling. My mother would insist my father was relevant because supposedly he had “brainwashed” me and my brother into thinking anything negative about her. Supposedly my father was evil. Supposedly there was no way my brother (or I) could have valid reasons of his (/our) own for having the strained-at-best relationship he (/we) did with her.
At one point, my mom started going too far with the third therapist, and he flat-out said to her, in the reunification session between her and my brother, “You’ve already lost your daughter. Do you really want to lose your son too?”
This prompted my mother to swear off this man as a therapist too, and I believe reunification counseling ended, and my brother continued to see the man for personal, single person sessions instead of only reunification.
One time, I was around to drive with my dad and him to his appointment, and the three of us walked into the waiting room together. No one else was in the waiting room, and the therapist was really excited to meet me, and ended up sitting and chatting with me out there for a while. He started to make me really upset and frustrated though, before he was done. He told me “Your mother loves you,” and that while boys can be okay cutting off contact with their mothers, “It’s much better for girls and women to have relationships with their mothers,” and like essentially said all people of my own gender that don’t have a relationship with their mother end up more damaged than girls who do have relationships with them. He said sometimes it’s unavoidable, like in cases of their mother’s death, but since my mom was still alive, I should really reconsider my at-the-time current stance of having no relationship at all with her.
I left with my father, as my brother continued to spend time with the man for his therapy session. Alone with my father, listening to music in the car, I started to dwell a bit on what that man said. He was so wrong. I remember my 19-year-old self venting to my father, so very frustrated. Really, why would boys be fine without their mothers but girls wouldn’t be? Why would having a relationship with an abusive woman be better for me than not having that relationship? How could a man who said to my mom: “You’ve already lost your daughter. Do you really want to lose your son too?”and then witnessed firsthand her freak out at him, according to the account I got from my brother, and not see the reason in that at all, and not even try to keep her relationship with her son – how could that man say to me with a straight face “Your mother does love you”? And then I started asking my dad, “What counts as love, anyway?” and trying to parse out if she did indeed love me or not, and whether or not that mattered anyway. Who cares if she loves me?
More recently, the thought has resurfaced in my mind a lot, because my mom keeps calling and leaving voicemails (because I auto-reject calls from her) and sometimes texting me (SMS messages which I promptly delete without replying) and in these messages she tells me how she loves me. Insists she loves me so much. Sometimes she likes to use the phrase, “I think of you morning, noon, and night”.
But you know what? Maybe John Hinckley Jr. did love Jodie Foster. Who fucking cares? If that counts as love, sure, well… in that case, then sometimes, to quote an amazing fanfiction story I recently read, sometimes you can have people in your life “whose love is blood stained and toxic”. Murder is still not okay, and Jodie Foster would DEFINITELY not be better off having that man in her life, you know?
You know what I told my mother’s sister, my aunt, in October 2014, after she expressed condolences for me not having my mother in my life? There is nothing at all I miss about my relationship with the woman. There was nothing positive. There was only badness. There was only pain and angst and drama and stress – gosh so much stress. My aunt didn’t no how to react, and I didn’t blame her. She expressed extreme sympathy and had no idea growing up that my life was that… unpleasant. Gratefully she believed me.
When I was in college, an evangelical Christian student was trying to get me to join his church group, and I was naive enough as a freshman to not quite realize what he was doing and at first was starting to enjoy my budding friendship with him. When my mom called and I hung up on her because I didn’t yet have a phone that could reject calls easily, he told me that one of the 10 Commandments was to Honor Your Mother and Father and really there was no excuse for “how I was treating” my mother. In the moment, I didn’t really defend myself very strongly. I think I let him judge me and felt like he didn’t understand… but I was probably feeling slightly guilty too, like maybe he was right. Because he was forcing me to think about how my mother must feel. And if I thought about that, it was true; she thought I was being really awful, not talking to her… In fact, she still does.
My mother would tell me, growing up with her, that she loved me. At some point I’d consciously choose not to say “I love you too” back, because I didn’t feel love for her back. I’d go to bed and she’d “tuck me in”/say goodnight and that she loved me/head back downstairs and I’d be lying there in bed, the last thing I’m thinking about before sleep is wishing I could just summon up the courage to say to her “I don’t think I love you, Mom”, anger actively simmering in a tangible way in my chest, like a tightness.
But… back to the title of this post.
There’s some kind of gaslighting happening, every time my mom tells me “I love you”. Every time a man like that psychologist tells me she loves me. Every time a Christian boy tries to tell me that all mothers deserve respect, honor, and love from me back. In fact, the act of her loving me is part of the whole mess. If gaslighting is being made to doubt your perceptions, made to feel your emotions aren’t valid, being made to question your life… well my mom loving me fits the criteria.
My mom, for instance, hurt me through her love. She criticized the only bras I was able to buy (that fit me) at age 17 being “old lady bras” and not sexy enough for a girl my age. When I broke my foot 12 years ago (when I was 14 years old) and I had trouble getting in and out of the bathtub/shower chair without putting any weight on my foot, she saw my naked body and chose to comment on it, expressing surprise at me having hair growing out of my nipple(s?) when I was “only” 14 years old (because apparently nipple hair is supposed to be a thing that happens later, when you’re older) and recommending, “lovingly”, I make sure to pluck that. She made me get my eyebrows waxed. She brought me to tears on my birthday because I couldn’t figure out how to light the match in order to light the candles on the cake, having never used matches before, and brought me to tears over “Teaching me” how to roller skate, how to wash a frying pan, how to do basic life tasks. But she did these things under the guise of loving me, that it was important that I know how to do them right.
She was being a good, loving parent when she made me cry over Santa Claus by breaking the truth to me, and she also was being loving when she assured me and my brother that she didn’t care if we were lesbian/gay, or that if we ever were drinking while at a party she’d want us to call her for a ride home. I felt like she didn’t know me at all. I’ve still, at age 26, never been to that kind of party. I’ve practically never even had alcohol. I didn’t know asexuality was an option but I was frustrated that she was starting to suspect I might be secretly harboring feelings that I most certainly wasn’t. I felt like she was saying all the right things, and I should appreciate them and be happy she’s doing that, but my internal emotions weren’t cooperating with what my conscious mind was saying I “should” feel.
Every time my mother tells me she loves me, even now, in 2016, she’s trying to manipulate me into calling her back, she’s trying to convince me I’m wrong to have cut her out of my life. She’s trying to gaslight me into believing she actually won’t harm me if I did contact her again, but I’m not falling for her manipulation. It’s not happening. And I don’t care if she loves me. That doesn’t matter.
But you know… looking at the triangle theory of love, I wonder what kind of love my mom feels for me. The Five Love Languages seem to be catered toward love for a romantic partner in a way that might make them inapplicable to parent/child bonds, but the triangle theory seems like it works for family too. I think if I wanted, though, I could stretch the 5 love languages to applying to my mom.
My mom is someone who, in her current voicemail messages to me, recalls “quality time” with extreme nostalgia (remembering when I was four years old means she loves who I am now as a 26-year-old? Ok sure), and words of affirmation (Like all the “I love you”s and “you’re stronger than you think”s). I think her entire experience of motherhood-as-sacrifice, as “Oh I gave up so much for you, I hate my life because I became a mother and that means I can’t be anything but a mother”, is built on the idea that “acts of service (devotion)” are equivalent to love.
I believe I have had, at one point in my life, some kind of “empty love” for my mother (taking from the triangle theory). I don’t (think? I) have sexual/romantic passion for anyone, but especially not family members obviously, and as for platonic intimacy, liking/friendship… yeah I have that with OTHER people in my family, like my dad, and my brother, and my cousins, but no, not with my mom. With my mom, the most I can say I have ever felt for her is a vague sense of obligation and commitment. That she’s my mother, (as if that phrase actually means what so many people expect it to) so I’ll make a point to REMEMBER if she asks me to play this downer of a song at her funeral whenever the day might come that she dies:
Which in retrospect, is pretty clear proof of her suicidal ideation… and depression and unhappiness in her entire life, it’s like an anthem to loneliness!! Play this at a funeral??
Look at the lyrics:
I’m glad no one’s here just me by the sea
I’m glad no one’s here to mess it up for me
I’m glad no one’s here just me by the sea
But man, I wish I had a hand to hold
*Sigh*. Teenage me didn’t deserve to be asked to shoulder the responsibility of remembering what she wants at her funeral, but by nature of being her oldest child, and her not having a spouse, it’s hard to break away from those kinds of feelings of commitment. Hard to break away from the truth that if she were to die, it’d be quite likely I’d shoulder some, if not all, of the responsibility for making sure her life was honored at a funeral. Because not only is refusing to do so socially unacceptable, but because a part of me might… might still have some of that very empty love where I do kind of want to do that for her. I wouldn’t really call it love, usually. But it’s certainly a complicated mess of a thing that sort of seems to exist in a very confusing mental space.
I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable sharing this at her funeral, in retrospect. I feel like every human being deserves not to have their funeral be a reminder of what was miserable for them while they were still alive. Including my mother.
We have a cultural narrative that someone loving you is a good thing, a positive, and the aromantic community is coming up with alternate terms and ideas to describe when you don’t like your feelings being reciprocated, terms about being uncomfortable if someone has those kinds of feelings for you, etc.
There are a lot of conversations around about how abuse and other things are mutually exclusive, such as throwaway comments about how if a parent really loves you, then they don’t do [item of your choice that is abusive].
As lyricalagony explained here:
In our world, there are a lot of very broad terms that, in what they are used to label, involve both awesome ideas, helpful things, and good people – and also abuses, problems, and horrible and harmful things.
And that one option for a word like, say, “love”, is:
Use the term exclusively for the good things, and separate out the bad things.
This is the approach people with a ‘if it wasn’t consensual, it wasn’t sex, it was rape’ conceptualization are taking.
But another option:
Use the term for both the good things and the bad things.
So, therapy can be abusive, but doesn’t have to be, it can be unhelpful and it can be helpful. Consensual sex and sex that is rape can both be called sex. Etc.
I think it’s really useful to stop trying to parse out what “counts” as “real” love and let the unrequited love someone feels still be love, even an obsessed stalker’s feelings with a very unhealthy fixation on a person that might lead to violence. And yes, even my own mother’s love toward me, in spite of her abusiveness.
I think it’s always gonna be hard to understand a concept so nebulous as love, but generally speaking, it can certainly be confusing, or even as extreme as to count as a “gaslighting” experience, if society keeps telling you love is ONLY good, that anything that is bad isn’t love, and then you feel the dissonance of realizing something that feels bad (or even is harmful/bad) still also seems like it really is love.