The interesting thing about trauma is that it holds so much power over us–that is–until we are able to find language for it. After all, with language comes understanding; thus, once we access the appropriate words for an experience, we also access insight.
A succession of recent experiences left me with a peculiar feeling in my gut. I was clearly triggered, but I could not find the words to express why. First, my mom questioned my sexuality. This happened when I wrote, published, and posted on social media, my LGBTQIA Ally blog entry. Despite the fact that I articulated my position as an ally, my mom reached out to me through a text, “I don’t understand your post. LGBTQIA–what does this mean? What are you trying to say here? Are you gay? Bisexual?” I felt assaulted by the text. My response was, “Did you read the post? I am saying I support the rights of the LGBTQIA community and I do not believe they are godless/going to Hell.” To this, she responded, “Ok. That’s what I thought. I am glad it was not the other.”
For the purpose of this post, I am not even going to address the discriminatory nature of my mom’s interrogation. However, I would like to address the psychology of the exchange. What mom did here has a name–it’s called gaslighting. She called into question my sanity by insinuating I’d done something immoral, or at the least, distasteful. This is evident in the implied attack against the LGBTQIA community by questioning my intent in posting the piece.
I knew I felt attacked. I knew I felt invalidated, yet for days I obsessed over the digital correspondence because I could not find language to explain why. Why did her words trigger me so? It just didn’t sit well.
Later that same week, I went to the salon; mom and I go to the same hair stylist (who happens to be my friend, first, and then my stylist, and then my mom’s stylist). I told her about the textual exchange with my mom. She then relayed to me that mom recently voiced concern for my marriage and my family. Again, I felt assaulted. Shocked. Almost panic stricken. Again, I obsessed for days over why. Why would something as small as my mother’s concern make me feel so violated?
I confronted my mother on the issue, and I soon found out that ultimately, she is worried that 1. my husband and I are not on the same page with our religious beliefs (does unequally yoked ring a bell?) and 2. that I am going to Hell and taking my kids with me. In our conversation, she said, “I know your beliefs have changed…I just don’t understand why you have to question…” I ended the conversation feeling as though I’d disembarked a roiling roller coaster.
Why, at the age of 38, were my mom’s words having such a powerful impact on my emotions?
This week, I came across the term gaslighting, which I’ve heard before, but never given much thought. I learned that gaslighting is a manipulation tactic used to cast doubt on the hearer’s feelings and thoughts. In other words, the gaslighter intentionally behaves in a manner to make the gaslightee question her own grasp on reality. This is what was happening with my mom–what has historically happened between me and my mom.
You see, I’ve been feeling the healthiest, and the happiest, and the most at peace I’ve ever felt before. My mother’s recent affronts, however, have had the effect of calling all of this into question. Does she have some secret knowledge about me that I do not have? Is something actually really wrong with me, but I am too ignorant and naive to discern?
In the past, this would trigger a turbulent spiral into anxiety and depression, and I won’t lie, it threatened for a few days’ time. However, I grappled through it.
“I know myself,” I thought as a mantra. “I cannot let her questions usher doubt.“
After doing a little research, I have since learned there is a term for mom’s behavior, and I am grateful for this. As usual, language has come to my rescue. All these years, I have mistakenly doubted my own intuition because of my mother’s interrogative strategies. Now, I finally understand. All this while, she has used this method to undermine my confidence because at her core, she is scared. She believes I might be gay. She believes that if I no longer confess faith in Jesus, my life will crumble and I am destined for Hell. Thus, she employs offensive tactics--Operation Get Julie Back in Line.
The thing is, I can no longer carry her fear. I am not afraid, and I refuse to allow her insecurity to rob me of peace in the present, as it has in the past.