What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small.
A male friend recently told me he’d just looked up the definition of gaslighting.
“I’m still not sure I know what it means,” he said.
“It’s basically what Trump’s doing to the whole world,” I said, and then I laughed. Not because it was funny. Because I couldn’t imagine what it’s like not to know.
Gaslighting was the tactic most commonly used by my ex-boyfriend, Ryan*, when we were together in 2017. It was part of a pattern of emotional abuse that made me believe I was as crazy as he insisted I was.
He argued with every thought I spoke out loud. He discredited every feeling, including those he asked me to share. He told me he didn’t hold me against the wall by my throat that one night, when his eyes came down on me like an avalanche and I believed I deserved it.
“Mate, you’ve lost the plot.” He said it all the time when I pointed out his behaviour. He had as many different ways of calling me crazy as he had reasons to do it. He’d say it with an edge of affection for his crazy girlfriend who wanted to run ultramarathons. He’d say it with a heavy dose of pity for his crazy girlfriend who didn’t want kids. He’d say it, drunk in the middle of the night, because his crazy girlfriend was crying again.
If he voiced jealousy over someone smiling at me on the street, he blamed his outburst on my having given a flirty look. If we went to the gym together, and he was angry he’d spent $7 on admission rather than a beer, he’d say we wouldn’t be fighting if I hadn’t forced him to exercise. If I said I was frustrated by being constantly cast as the crazy girlfriend, the issue was never his treatment of me, it was my sensitivity. Reframing an incident was easier than taking responsibility for it, at least, for him. This is part of what makes it hard to identify gaslighting. It can be disguised as a different perspective.
After we broke up, I spent 2018 re-learning how to trust myself—my thoughts, my feelings, things that happened right in front of me. If you’ve never been with someone who negates your experience of the world, it’s hard to imagine how it starts. It’s like a brainwashing you agree to. At first, I kept notes like life preservers around me, reading them behind the locked door of the bathroom when I felt reality washing away on his words. Eventually though, worried he’d find them, I shredded them. I deleted the whispered voice memos from my phone because they seemed like evidence he was right. They seemed like the sort of thing a crazy person would keep.
For a long time, I didn’t call it abuse. Living in the Yukon, where rates of violence against women are three times higher than the national average (and those rates are even higher for Indigenous women), if felt like there was always something worse happening. As a journalist, I was often covering it. My nose wasn’t broken like the woman I interviewed about her domestic assault. Ryan hadn’t threatened “ ‘til death do us part” like the ex in the harassment trial I covered. Besides, I was a lippy feminist who talked back to catcallers and told her friends to ditch partners who were leeches, or alcoholics, or simply mean. I wasn’t the kind of person who landed in an abusive relationship, let alone stayed in one for a year. Still, somehow, I did.
It was my first winter in Whitehorse. My long-term partner was still in Ontario, and we stayed together at first, eventually deciding on an open relationship, and then no relationship. I moved north to cover crime for a local newspaper while I wrote a novel about a family of outfitters that fractures when one member goes missing. I remember being overwhelmed by the number of charges of harassment and assault there were to cover—so many that a co-worker suggested I quit reporting on it altogether. “We can’t cover them all,” he said. “How do you decide which ones are bad enough?”
I stopped trying to keep up and focussed my spare time on the novel, which is how I met Ryan. He was in Canada, working as a carpenter and a horse wrangler for an outfitter I was interviewing. He had hazel eyes and an Australian accent. He was gentle with horses and he smelled like hay and engine oil. We met at a wild game banquet. He told me, later, that when I’d walked up to him that night, wearing a dress printed with images of deer and foxes and black bears, he didn’t know whether to kiss me or shoot me.
If you’d asked me, then, to describe him in a word, I would have used joyful. He’d pick me up after work and yank me across the bench seat of his truck so he could sing Elton John songs in my ear as he drove the Alaska Highway north to his cabin, where we built bonfires in the snow and looked for northern lights. Falling in love with him was like falling in love with a character I’d written, even as I was already involved with other, very non-fictional people.
Ryan knew about the partner back in Ontario and had no reservations about continuing our relationship. We never discussed exclusivity. He reminded me often that his plans included long stretches leaving the Yukon to travel to Alaska, Alberta and Ontario before returning to Australia. I told him I was happy to enjoy each other as much as possible until that time came. I don’t know if we were so intense so early because, or in spite, of our built-in expiry date.
That was the arrangement, when, months later, he found out that the same week we’d met, I’d been sleeping with a single dad from Vancouver—one I saw again after meeting Ryan, and one I intentionally didn’t mention.
Ryan had a meltdown. He called me a cheater. He said we’d never been casual and, in fact, he’d been thinking about cancelling his travel plans, extending his visa, marrying me, and having kids (though I was clear I didn’t want the latter two with anyone).
At first, I defended myself (can you technically cheat on someone if you aren’t actually a couple?), but my defense felt like weaselling out of responsibility. I didn’t want to dismiss his pain or perspective, so I agreed with him. I believed I was a cheater. I still believe that. The difference now is that I also believe that didn’t justify Ryan’s treatment of me, before or after he found out.
At first, it was the way romance is, halcyon and singular. Whitehorse was quiet and cold and dark. We ignored it, staying in bed until the winter sun set, then eating bacon in the silver afternoon light of my small, slanted cottage. We drove everywhere because, in minus 40, our breath froze our eyelashes to crystals if we walked. He talked about flying me home to meet his family in Australia where I could finally take off my parka and get a tan. Mornings, he rolled over and gave me a look like he was discovering galaxies in bed beside him.
“Fuck, I love you.” He sounded shocked every day. “You know?”
I did know. It’s why I didn’t mind that he was jealous. Instead, I learned to recognize the look he’d get when jealousy kicked in. The way his forehead fell like a shelf, shadowing his eyes. The way his cheek twitched.
“You know that guy?” he’d ask, pointing at a singer in a bar. “Did you fuck that guy? Why does he keep looking at you?” One night, someone I’d never seen before told Ryan to watch out for me. That I looked like trouble. Ryan spent the rest of the night trying to get me to admit I was sleeping with the stranger. We were thrown out of a bar after a man walked by us and said I should go home with him. Ryan grabbed him by the collar, pushed him through the dense crowd, and punched a bouncer in the process.
After that, I told him a dozen different times that I wouldn’t be around him when he was drinking.
“Amy,” he always said. “The problem isn’t that we’re drinking. It’s what we’re drinking.”
His drunkenness, and the fights that followed, were my fault because I liked whisky. He was just trying to keep up. We’d be fine if we stuck to beer, or cocktails, or took “nights off.” That’s how he characterized the evenings we stayed in to watch movies and split a bottle of wine. He wasn’t even 30. Already he had the thin spidery veins around his nose that you see in career alcoholics.
He found out about the single dad in the spring, while he was working a stint as a carpenter in Calgary. I flew there to apologize. He picked me up at the airport and told me he’d considered driving me into the flat, dark Alberta countryside and leaving me on the side of the highway.
“If I take you back,” he said. “You can’t break up with me. You can’t cheat on me and then break up with me.”
I promised not to.
As the snow melted, his moods were like mountain weather. He loved me and called me regularly from his job in Calgary to remind me I was a piece of shit. I accepted it as part of the process of being forgiven. I agreed with him. I hated myself as much as he did.
When Ryan came back at spring’s end, there were friends I avoided. He didn’t demand it. It was just easier that way. Anyone he knew had met the single dad triggered a terrible mood. Likewise, anyone from Vancouver, where the single dad lived, or anyone who acknowledged Vancouver even existed. Same with anyone who spoke freely and openly about sex—that reminded him I’d had it with people other than him—and with vegetarian meals. The single dad was vegetarian. Ryan’s outrage over a falafel could last days.
I bought new bedsheets because he didn’t like the thought of the old ones. A new coffee mug because he wanted to know he was the only one who’d ever used it.
He was corrective in explicit ways, discouraging me from taking a course in personal training because I’d “be terrible at it,” and implicit ways, by immediately changing the song every time I put music on.
He shit-talked my education (he’d dropped out of high school) and the granting system for Canadian artists (until I got one for my novel—then he was furious when I wouldn’t use it to visit him in Australia after his visa expired). He made derogatory comments about every woman we knew and a sizeable number we didn’t. They were stupid, or sluts, or liars.
He openly pitied me for not wanting kids (wasting my life, he called it), while at the same time pressuring me to have them. “I should just get you pregnant.” He said it often. Once, he tried, coming inside me and denying I’d told him not to. It was careless, but I didn’t believe it was intentional until, hours later, drunk at a bar, he got angry with me for taking Plan B.
He held his visa extension over my head. When he was happy, he’d tell me he’d been talking to immigration officers about staying in Canada. When he was angry, he’d give me a look of disappointment and tell me he would be trying harder to make it happen if only I hadn’t been such a shit person.
“I would have changed my whole life for you,” he’d say, and though I knew it wasn’t true (he wouldn’t even have changed his drinking plans for me), I said nothing. I felt I’d lost the right to dispute him on anything, including drinking, which he started some days at noon.
He brought friends home from the bar at 3 a.m. and berated me after I’d asked them, from bed, to keep their drunk cheering to a minimum.
“You should have been a better host,” he said, drunk again, bringing it up two months later.
Sometimes when my dog howled at him, Ryan screamed back, like an animal, without words. “You can’t treat him that way,” I said. On the rare occasion I said that about myself, Ryan told me I was sensitive. Crazy. That I needed to look at things from his perspective, which felt like all I ever did. The closest he came to acknowledging any wrongdoing of his own was to tell me I’d made him the way he was. That my mistake was responsible for the choices he made.
Summer came. I wrote about a program (now defunct due to lack of funding) that tracks cases of violence and sexual assault against women in the north. Someone I interviewed told me about the time her ex broke her nose on the lawn in front of her kids. He was one in a long line of men to treat her that way, but the first she pressed charges against. The whole community turned against her. In the end, he was found guilty of unlawfully being in her home. Still, she said, the trial changed things. Some people seemed ashamed of the way they’d treated her. They told her they were proud of her. She felt stronger, she said, for having spoken about it.
Ryan went to work at a hunting outfit and I followed, to work as a cook. I didn’t go to be with him, not entirely. When he’d asked me, months earlier, to take the job, I’d declined. Once he found out about the cheating, though, I felt I owed it to him to go. Moreover, it would be good research for the book I was writing. I’d also be able to quit the part-time job I’d been working as a communications analyst, which made me feel like a professional gaslighter myself. This was a way out. It was a bonus that Ryan might ease off me, knowing I was isolated in a cabin just south of the Arctic Circle, rather than in town, sleeping around.
“I’m glad you’re out here so I’m not jealous of you and other guys,” he wrote in letters he sent back to camp when his hunters came in from the mountains. Sometimes he said he loved me. Sometimes he said he’d never forgive me. Always, he reminded me how crazy I was. How dramatic. How lucky to have him.
His visa expired that fall. We broke up. He told me I’d always be the best sex he’d ever had and I watched him get on a plane and wondered how that could be the one thing about me that was worth remembering. Still, we talked regularly. I was deeply depressed. He was annoyed by it. For months, he alternated between begging me to move to Australia and have his kids, and reminding me I was trash, and the reason he was going to be miserable, broken even, for the rest of his life. Eventually, I mentioned the night he held me to the wall. I thought he’d excuse it—tell me it wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be, or that it was the only way to calm me down, or that we both knew I liked rough sex and it was foreplay. Instead he erased it. He said, self-righteously, that he’d never touch a woman. Then he told me never to contact him again.
The memory of that night is the most vivid I have of us. Still, his denial made me feel ashamed. It made me feel like a liar.
I kissed him when he did it.
We’d been drinking beer at a softball tournament all afternoon. When it ended at 9 p.m., the sun still high in the summer Yukon sky, we were laughing and holding hands. It seemed like a good opportunity to be drunk and happy instead of drunk and fighting so we went to the same bar we’d been thrown out of months earlier. At some point, he started getting the tiny twitch over his right lip that meant he was upset.
In the street, he shoved me. Not hard enough that I fell down, but hard enough that I nearly did. Hard enough that, if it had been accidental, he would have apologized instead of glaring at me.
At home, he reminded me it was my fault he treated me like shit. I said I knew and I asked if he was ever going to stop punishing me for it.
At some point, he crossed the room, lifted me up, pressed me against the wall and put a hand on my throat. I remember wondering if he was going to hit me and hoping so, because, if he did, I could break up with him. At the same time, I remember hoping it would cancel out my cheating so we could start over and everything could be as good as I knew it had the potential to be. He didn’t hit me, though. Instead, I put my hands up to his face and I kissed him and I thought please make this normal. It didn’t, but he did let me go.
I don’t remember whether we fell asleep that night with our backs to each other, me crying, him blacked-out and snoring. That happened frequently. It’s just as likely, though, that was one of the nights we went to bed furled into each other like fiddleheads, apologizing until we fell asleep.
He’d ask, if he was so bad, why did I stay? Maybe I’d say it was guilt. That I felt I owed it to him after cheating on him. Maybe I’d say nothing. Explanations got his back up. “I’m just a simple carpenter,” he’d say, sarcastic, malicious, when he didn’t understand something. “I dropped out of high school, remember? I’m not the one with the master’s degree.”
Or maybe I’d ask him to think about the night we were at the hunting outfit, when I messaged him over the satellite phone to tell him I’d witnessed our boss take his adult daughter out on the porch in the pouring rain, slap her, throw her against the wall, spit in her face, and call her a slut because she’d forgotten to send an extra saddle on a hunt.
I stood up to our boss on that. He told me to mind my own business. Said his daughter was difficult.
“You don’t know what a liar she can be,” he said. “She’s manipulative. She’s crazy.”
I remember him casually telling me it had never happened, and I remember the shrillness of my own voice over his.
“It happened right in front of me!”
Ryan believed me then. So did the daughter’s boyfriend, a guide, who quit when he heard about it. Everyone else—wranglers, guides, guests—ignored it. Eventually the daughter did too. Within a week, her dad was calling her honey and she was calling him daddy and they were a team again. As a team, they fired me.
After Ryan’s visa expired and we broke up, he spent four months sailing the Atlantic with his rich father and living on a catamaran in the Caribbean. I spent that time hating myself. I fell apart, mentally and physically. My focus was so shot that, when I was writing, I had to copy and paste as few as four words to move them around the page because I couldn’t remember them well enough to re-write them in the proper order. I developed debilitating stomach pain. For two months, I was too nauseous to eat. I dropped weight. My hair fell out. My hairdresser was the only person I talked to about it, and then only in vague terms.
“Lots of women stay in bad relationships here,” she said. “Especially in the winter.”
I went to doctors who ran tests for everything from pregnancy to ulcers.
“Are you depressed?” one asked. “Do you know why that might be?”
I saw therapists, but stopped after a few sessions with each. They were all too nice. It felt like they were making excuses for my behaviour when I wanted them to punish me. It wasn’t my idea, but I didn’t have a better one. That’s the thing with emotional abuse. You stop trusting yourself, which makes it hard to be alone, so you stay and you listen to someone else’s version of your shared story. Then, when they’re gone, thinking your own thoughts is like being buried alive. It’s easier to keep thinking theirs.
I remember being on the phone with Ryan one night. I’d just been evicted from my apartment, in a city with low vacancy, in the middle of winter. I was measured when I told him I was worried about being homeless in the Arctic. He told me I needed to relax. That I was unhinged without him there to temper my moods. That I was, as usual, overreacting.
But I wasn’t, it occurred to me. Not only was I not overreacting, I was barely reacting. In fact, I was flat and mechanical most days, especially when talking to him. It hit me then that no matter whether I was calm or hysterical, laying blame or claiming it, crying or not, he’d say the same thing: Calm down. Relax. You’re crazy. Those three things, he’d repeated like a rosary, by rote, the whole time we’d been together.
“You’re fucking gaslighting me,” I said, out loud, to myself.
“What does that mean?”
I tried to explain. He cut me off and called me crazy. I hung up. I wish I’d stopped answering the phone after that, but I didn’t. Calling it what it was only made me feel more insane. If I could identify it, why was I putting up with it? That month, it was because I didn’t have the energy to fight with him when I was also fighting with my landlords for one more month in my place before moving into the only available apartment I could afford. But in general, I had no energy for anything. That’s how I slid into a new relationship I didn’t leave though I wanted to. It was the opposite of what I’d had with Ryan in that it was devoid of physical or emotional contact, but similar in that it was with a self-admitted misogynist whose complete lack of regard or respect for me reiterated every day how worthless I was.
What’s the point of writing this? Of putting it someplace it can be dismissed just as I’ve come to trust it? At points, writing it made me doubt whether it was even that bad, though I know those aren’t my thoughts, they’re Ryan’s. My thoughts are about the number of days and weeks and months I hated myself so much, not just for cheating, but for everything else in me he criticized, that it was unbearable to wake up every day and still be me. It’s worth saying something about what caused that. Reading other writers’ accounts of similar events is what helped me get through it, and it means something to be able to put it someplace it can stand and not be shouted down. I don’t have any delusions that it would convince Ryan, or anyone like him, that this all happened. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe he’d read it and reflect and reckon with himself. He’s done it before.
One night in bed, he told me he thought he’d sexually assaulted a former girlfriend. She’d cheated. He’d taken her back. During sex, he’d suggested something she said no to. He did it anyway, telling her it was her punishment.
“Did I?” he asked me with genuine concern. “Assault her?”
“Yep,” I stared at the ceiling. “You did.”
I don’t know whether he ever apologized to her. I doubt it, same as I doubt he’ll ever apologize to me. It took years for him to admit what he did to her. Maybe in a decade, some other woman will hear how he treated me. Maybe she’ll have the good sense to kick him out of bed before she has to spend a year re-building her sense of self. If not, I hope she has people around her who believe her.
Because I only started to trust myself again when I told a handful of friends and they didn’t question me. They didn’t correct me, or suggest that I look at it from his perspective, or tell me it was my fault, or remind me that other people had it worse. They acknowledged the situation was fucked up (“keep kicking losers to the curb,” my hairdresser said. “It’s great for your hair”) and they believed me until, eventually, I did too.