I had a bit of a stressful interaction last night which has prompted me to draft this post. I wish I didn’t have to draft this post because the activity it focuses on – gaslighting – is one of the most pernicious and damaging forms of invalidation. It something many people with mental illness, those who are on the Autism spectrum or have some other kind of neurodiversity or disability experience. Gaslighting refers to the act of casting doubt on someone’s experience, usually making them question their reality and doubt what they know to be right. It is confusing and cruel. It is one of those poor behaviours which often comes from those in a place of authority, particularly certain health workers unfortunately. Sometimes the people doing the gaslighting may even believe what they are saying, being people who assume that Autistic people or people with mental illness couldn’t possibly be experiencing what they say. This tends to come from those who focus on people’s deficits and assume incompetence. For others it is concerted, intentional and calculated to grind down the person’s resistance and make them doubt their very reality. This seems to occur a lot in situations of family violence of ongoing abuse as well s in health services.
A few examples from my own life include more than one psychiatrist questioning my experience and telling me I must be delusional even when I was not experiencing psychosis and health workers denying my genuine claims of abuse or violence. On one irritating but in hindsight slightly absurd occasion I had a psychiatric nurse not believe the toilet in my room in the hospital was unusable. I was too frightened to use a communal toilet. I told the nurse four times and he did nothing. Eventually when he was in my room for some other reason he said ‘oh the water’s running!’ I have had schizophrenia for a very long the and none of my delusions or hallucinations have involved toilets!
The instance of gaslighting which prompted this post happened last night. I was messaging with an Autistic person – who in my mind really should have known better. I had only spoken to this person once before but he quite forcefully asked me to call him after some misunderstood messages. He then proceeded to tell me he was ‘concerned;’ about my Facebook posts and my illness and then isolated one post and argued with me about my experience. The whole thing was tainted with paternalism and power. I felt like I was in hospital speaking to one of the more arrogant psychiatrists I have come across in my travels. In the past I probably would have doubted myself but thankfully I’m older and wiser and tougher (and possibly bigger!) than I have ever been. The next thirty seconds of conversation involved lots of expletives from me and I then blocked him from my everything. I was absolutely furious. I have had certain people in authority treat me like this but a fellow Autistic doing it was barely describable.
The worst thing about gaslighting is that it turns your negative experience back on you and makes you question yourself. It is unfortunately very common and a lot of people don’t realise it is happening. Gaslighting causes you to doubt yourself and this can have a terrible effect on your self-confidence and sense of identity. I have schizophrenia. This means I have episodes of ill health and periods of remission in between. To question my experience of something because I have schizophrenia, assuming it is a delusion – even when my health is good – is pretty offensive. It is the height of invalidation and we know from psychology and psychiatry that ongoing invalidation can have serious impacts on people’s psyche throughout their life.
So what do we do about this? It is quite a challenge to address in any big picture sense because it comes from all sorts of places and happens to people from many demographic groups. At its worst it can perpetuate abuse and violence. The victimised partner in a family violence situation being told that ‘all couples have fights. It’s not abuse. You’re just being dramatic. It’s nothing to worry about. If you go to the police they won’t believe you anyway’, is going to struggle to seek help and prosecute the offender. This sort of gaslighting can be taken on board by the victim over long periods of time meaning offenders aren’t brought to justice and the victim remains in a terrible situation. In a scenario which is closer to home for me – mental health services – people being gaslighted might not have the confidence to speak up when mistreatment or abuse is happening, Gaslighting in fact tends to grind people down so they often won’t complain or seek redress and I suppose at its core, that is probably the intention of it.
All I can advise is to be in tune to gaslighting and if it happens, try to call the person on it. If you are unable to do that, talk to a friend or family member or trusted support worker about it.
And for me, I am glad I called the fellow on it yesterday and I’m glad my response was anger against the person doing it rather than on myself. I am rarely angry but it was justified in that circumstance.