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Sarah had to take two Tylenol PMs every night for a year in order to fight off the anxiety and get some rest. Because the medication knocked her out so well, she wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night to pee, and she started getting frequent bladder infections. Her abuser said the infections were her fault, that she was “dirty.” “Was I?” she would ask herself.
At a happy hour with friends, a conversation about sleeping positions arose. Sarah’s abuser put his arm around her and kissed her on the temple. He said, “We like to sleep facing each other because we can’t bear to be out of each other’s sight.” She smiled while the other couples oohed and ahhed, everyone impressed by his sense of romance. Maybe she had it all wrong, Sarah thought. “Maybe I’m crazy.”
Psychological Abuse Cuts Deep
The mind games abusers play can make a survivor feel like he or she is losing their mind. The effects can be longer lasting than physical abuse. In a survivor's mind, when an abuser is being physically violent, it is clear that the abuser is causing this. With psychological abuse, the perpetrator makes the victim believe he or she is the cause. The makes the survivor's mind work against them—and that they'd be crazy to think otherwise.
“In essence, the perpetrator is consistently questioning their victim’s reality and at the same time are often isolating them, leaving the victim confused, plagued by self-doubt and [feeling] like they are going crazy,” says Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. “This phenomenon of gaslightingor chronically second guessing someone is a classic part of the domestic violence dynamic.”
An overwhelming 85 percent of people who participated in a survey after calling into the National Domestic Violence Hotline said their abusers have called them crazy, and it doesn’t stop there. Abusers often take steps to make survivors seem crazy to everyone else, too, including loved ones, friends and the courts. In fact, 50 percent of respondents in the hotline survey stated their partners had threatened to report they were mentally unstable to authorities in order to get what they wanted, such as child custody. And unfortunately, it often works.
“Because perpetrators have rather broken emotional worlds, they can calmly lie and manipulate the truth, leaving the victim seeming ‘overly emotional’ to the world or the courts,” Durvasula says. “In our oppressive culture, we pathologize emotion and assume people who are unemotional are somehow healthier. Narcissistic abusers are masterful storytellers and can sell their reality so well that people end up believing them.”
Lies, Lies and More Lies
So what can you do if your abuser is making you feel crazy? Start by knowing you’re not.
“In my work with people I always try to bring them back to their sense of instinct,” Durvasula says. “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”
One way to ground yourself is by keeping a journal. Document conversations and incidents with your abuser so you can look back and see what’s happened even though he or she might try to convince later it didn’t. Try to make and maintain connections with others so your abuser doesn’t isolate you, which fuels emotional abuse. And confide in someone. Pick someone you can be truthful with, whether a friend or counselor. Tell him or her what’s going on. Getting an outsider’s perspective can be helpful in preserving your sanity.