When someone claims that your own body is lying to you, it can majorly mess with your head.
But when you constantly face accusations from multiple sources, you start feeling insane. Many abuse victims experience this type of gaslighting on a daily basis, not just from their abuser(s), but also from loved ones, law enforcement officers, and even strangers.
Exiting the denial stage is oftentimes abuse survivors’ first step towards healing.
When survivors finally recognize that someone is indeed abusing them, the overwhelming revelation rattles them. Some victims release cathartic screams finally voicing the pain that they had buried for so long. For others, the scream is still too scary, so they bite their tongue and let the truth bleed out of them.
What abuse victims rarely realize, though, is that their revelation is merely the beginning of a long, transformative journey.
Once victims discover their abuse, they can choose how to move forward. One option is reporting the abuse to authorities. Many assume, like I did, that reporting is a foolproof method that ensures the victim’s safety and puts their abusers behind bars. Unfortunately, though, our justice system is far from perfect and can even promote gaslighting.
During my case, I was 15-16 years old and authorities constantly asked questions like “Why did you let it happen for so long?” and “Did you like it?” I felt like people brushed aside my pain and thought that I somehow caused the abuse. Eventually, I agreed to a plea bargain because I couldn’t take others’ constant badgering and accusations anymore.
I know that I was not alone in my experience, though. In fact, for every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. Some victims fear retaliation for reporting, but even when people like me find the courage to report, authorities brainwash us into believing that we imagined our experiences, and the denial that we really experienced trauma traumatizes us even further.
If the legal system that should protect us denies that the abuse even happened, how can we ever feel sure that our experiences are real and valid?
Because the legal system is difficult to trust in abuse cases, some victims choose to share their abuse with a loved one they trust. These confidants can react in many ways. Often, these loved ones appear shocked and ask questions like, “Are you sure?”
Unfortunately, these gaslighting reactions can also silence us or even push us into further doubt. When loved ones fail to comfort victims and say “I believe you,” they push us to feel even more alone and silenced.
Therefore, the other option is to hold onto the secret and have it continue. More often than not, abusers manipulate and gaslight their victims to the point that they augment survivors’ realities. They mold their victims into believing that the abuse is actually love, and they whip the victim into full submission. Even once a victim experiences the grand revelation that they experienced abuse, they often revert back to denial if they keep the abuse to themselves. Thus, the cycle of abuse continues.
Repetitive gaslighting and reactions of disbelief cause me to doubt reality, even today. Sometimes, I even experience panic attacks, questioning whether the world around me is real, or even think that I’m hallucinating.
Thankfully, my therapist is teaching me to self-validate so that I no longer need others to affirm my reality. When I doubt myself, I take a breather and think about the facts. I comfort myself by repeating phrases in my head like “I am safe,” and “I am capable,” which helps lead me out of trauma mode.
Healing from abuse can feel like an impossible journey, but it’s certainly possible.
If you’ve experienced abuse, know that your feelings are valid and your experiences are real. Someday you will believe yourself again and find a way to experience reality without constant doubting yourself.