A person I still feel unworthy to call a friend wrote this a couple of days ago. I’m sharing this with their permission. It’s a hard read, but it’s important.
CW: the following meditation contains references to sexual and emotional abuse, gaslighting, and other material that may be triggering in the context of self-accountability and community accountability.
“I’ve been contemplating this week on a period during which I was really traumatized and having PTSD symptoms that massively interrupted my ability to function in the world, as a result of ongoing sexual trauma that I was unable to escape for about a year.
During that time, I started becoming increasingly paranoid and critical of other people because of how triggered I was. I was being legitimately violated and gaslit, but because of hypervigilance I was also less able to be charitable and fair toward people who were NOT violating or gaslighting me, but having much more normal levels of conflict with me. Some of the people who were hurting and gaslighting me started informing others that I was known to be a malicious liar who habitually made up hurtful stories about others.
During this time I was dating a young man who was definitely not a bad young man, but just kind of exuberantly heterosexual and invested in normative stories about how heterosexuality and romance work. When I broke up with him he said things like “I’m going to win you back” and I treated this as if it were itself an assault because I was very easily triggered at that moment. I was like “this dude is maybe stalking me and I’m in danger” and the reality is he wasn’t, and when I told him to leave me alone he absolutely did. Later, he started dating someone who had her high school listed on her Facebook as current and I told a mutual friend that he was clearly a pedophile abusing this minor child. The young lady simply had not updated her Facebook profile. This was IMMEDIATELY used to prove that in fact, nobody had ever abused me and I was simply a mean, bad person who lies to destroy Good Men.
I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep at that point in months, and was in reality just not a functional person. The people who suggested that I was a mean bad person who lies to destroy perfectly innocent men were in fact NOT perfectly innocent men, but a lot of the people for whom that story landed had pretty good reasons to believe them. Because at that point I was visibly in a mental health crisis. I was unable to tolerate the stress of even SEEING some of the people who had harmed me. I regularly broke down crying in public. I would launch into unregulated recitations of suffering at seemingly random points, often just having NO control over my emotions. I was visibly very ill.
And because I was clearly unwell and some of my readings at that point were genuinely bad, that story landed for a lot of people. And it was CERTAINLY easier than sorting through the ugliness of figuring out which of the things I experienced that were real and which were mistaken perceptions. As a result, I was basically disposed of.
I think about this a lot because part of what made it possible for me to recover was building community with people who 100% believed in my reality. Having people who believed and valued me and had unflinching commitment to my right to have boundaries, particularly about my body, and who said “as a community our job is to believe you” gave me the space to recover enough to revisit everything that happened and be able to reassess that some of the judgments I made were fair and some weren’t. That was a brutally terrifying process, because it required grappling directly with the accusations about my character and really evaluating whether it was possible that, as people said, I had made everything up just to hurt people.
Ultimately the PTSD became its own touchstone of reality. Okay, sure, let’s say I was paranoid and even delusional because of the PTSD. But whence the PTSD, if none of the abuse was happening? I cannot believe that I was so paranoid that I lost the ability to judge whether my body was being molested, or that I had imagined multiple lengthy conversations about boundaries and harms. I do not have any reason to believe I had experienced the kind of break from reality that might explain discrepancy of that size. But you can believe I checked my work.
It has made me very cognizant of how gaslighting works to validate the abuser, not just in the mind of the victim, but for the community. Paranoia is a very natural reaction to being gaslit–and paranoia naturally leads to unreasonable and unbelievable readings of events, which in turn damages credibility (thus protecting the real abuser from accountability because That Person Is Always Saying These Things). I’ve been thinking a lot about how this works for people of color and how “they think everything is racist” narratives might fit with this pattern. A lot of my work in cultural competency has to do with breaking this pattern by validating patient/client suspicion and taking it less personally by being more informed about patterns of trauma.
Since then, I’ve been through similar conflicts from other standpoints, including both being unfairly accused of things that were best explained in terms of traumatized lack of charity and watching traumatized others accuse people who they later realized had not done what they genuinely believed at the time.
It’s hard to navigate from any standpoint. Particularly because of the realities of gaslighting as a feature of abuse, there’s really no point at which you can say “hey have you considered that you’re actually wrong about your experience and just having some mental illness symptoms right now?” Because from inside that experience, that is literally indistinguishable from being gaslit. That’s the whole deal of gaslighting. It replaces functional community checkins with abusive editing of reality, and that makes functional checkins unpossible.
It has been really crucial for me to keep my own experience with trauma and gaslighting in the front of my mind as I’ve encountered others who seem to be in a place where they might be having similar experiences, or where they are making visibly dysfunctional attacks on community members. It is so easy to EITHER say “oh this person is a cruel jerk” or “oh this person is crazy and thus has nothing of value to say.”
Part of this for me is that there are people who believe things about me or about others that I think are very much not true things, but I think some people should believe them anyway, because being believed is necessary for them to get better. I’m not sure, given that, how to react to people who say “this person says you did x.” I didn’t, and also like. Go love that person so hard. Go believe that person. Go be that person’s sense of safety and community. Go tell that person that you’re not going anywhere. Maybe someday they reassess and maybe they don’t, but definitely they have very real hurts and they deserve to be loved through it.
I don’t know what it looks like to say “this person is hurting so much that their judgment is visibly compromised, but something real hurt them and we need to fix it.” But I know that it is crucial to healing our communities.”