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Jeremiah Savant’s Adventures in Mental Health

FIVE: Gaslighting in the Dark

an inevitable bit of back-story

Previously: I had lived my life the way other people had wanted – or needed – me to, and all I had got for all my hard work was broke, broken and hated by society as a whole.

Immediately after my Total Lifestyle Failure, being cared for by my parents, I encountered a Circumstance; it meant that heaped upon my own crisis, there was another. As the Circumstance developed, there was an Event – almost insignificant, although definitely extremely bothersome; the washing machine broke down at a crucial moment. Because I had been working at an electrical superstore less than two years previously, I suggested to my father that we go there to pick up a new one. He sighed, and agreed. We went, and although some of my former colleagues were still there, the staff from a neighbouring store had taken over – and I happened to know these people rather well, too. I was greeted as an old friend, and then summoned into the manager’s office, where I was immediately offered a job.

This was awkward. I was only just beginning to get over the initial aftershocks of the Total Lifestyle Failure, and already had been nurturing plans to try something in the artistic endeavours field, and this… This was an unwelcome offer to start all over again at an entry-level job on a lower pay scale than when I left the company. I looked on the monitor at the image of my father defeatedly filling in a form for the washer. Family Duty weighed upon me and, my heart heavy with future regret, my voice cracking with the turmoiled emotions soon to come, I agreed and signed on the dotted line.

On the way home with the new machine in the back of the car, my father commented on what a warm reception I had received, and how I could maybe see if they had any vacancies… I fudged the issue, grappling with my own disappointment that the Circumstance had forced my hand. If only I had not been made that offer. A while later, with the washing now being done, I whipped out my contract and declared that I had been offered – and accepted – a job, starting the following Monday. My parents were overjoyed. For them, that long dark day – which was about the darkest they had faced in their household – ended and dawn had risen. Normality had been resumed, and during our little celebration, my father told me how pleased he was that I had such a reputation as to be invited back. I smiled, and the sweetness of their relief was bitter gall for me. There had been no choice. The family had needed me to do it. What they could not see was that I had put a lot of effort and emotional investment into the previous two years, only to end up right back where I started… with no gain at all. “Good for you!” they had said. No. Good for them, my own plans and hopes were dashed… again.

Within three years, I was a model citizen; a mortgaged flat, providing for myself and living not too badly until interest rates rose by a third, as did inflation… coupled with a housing bubble bursting, I was left in a property worth half what I had contracted to pay back, and payments I could not afford. I was living on a handful of rice a day, my hours cut to the minimum, my transport sold to make a few ends meet… two long years – maybe three, it is fuzzy – and I was well on the way to being non-functional. The stress of such times is almost unendurable. Just as I was at the absolute end of my tether, a friend ‘rescued’ me, and with his help I managed to win another job – but it was on a week-by-week contract, and after a few months of this new insecurity, I began to break up again… it was at this point I met The Marrieds.

They lived in the next pocket-sized city along the major rail route, befriended me at a music evening I went to, and encouraged me to learn the guitar and go self-employed. They also spent several weeks telling me how tired and broken I was, how I really should get signed off work by the doctor. I resisted at first, as my ex-wife had used such phrases, trying to convince me that I was ‘unwell,’ and that it was ‘okay to seek professional help’… although, if she had really wanted to help, she would have taken me in her arms and told me that it would all be alright…Every phone call and every visit, they nagged me about it; to shut them up, I went to the GP who took one look at me and signed me off work. The Marrieds took me through the social security process, and I started to rely on them, right down to the point when they mounted a ‘rescue’ and installed me in a flat a mile or so away from them.

I was relieved and very grateful. I felt like I had turned my back on everything in my life that had destroyed me; job, old friends and family, mortgage – I even managed to get talking therapy very quickly… that summer was fine, I was starting to take control over my life and my new friends were helping me. Until one day, when I realised that I had no new friends other than them, and I had cut all ties with my family… as I considered deeper, I realised that gradually, imperceptibly, The Marrieds had taken over my every waking hour with their demands. It had started with, ‘coming down for coffee?’ mid-morning; then continued with, ‘just fetch this or that on the way’. Onwards with, ‘let’s go and have a late lunch,’ then, ‘go halfway across the country to get the car tax sorted out please, and don’t forget who set you up here…’ Most days, my phone would ring before nine a.m. with my ‘orders’ for the day and I started to think that I needed to remedy this situation. When I questioned this state of affairs, I was patiently told that what they were doing was therapy for me, and would help make me better.

The husband was a large man with a crude sense of humour, and the wife was disabled and on crutches, with limited mobility – and shouting matches would blow up like treading on a landmine, with any opinion she voiced shot down in flames. Once alone, he would lean towards me and say conspiratorially, “I’m sorry you had to see that, but she has to be put in her place.” It reminded me of my marriage, and made me very uneasy – I mentioned it once, only to be told that it was how it was with them and just showed their passionate relationship. I just thought it was bullying. Over time, as I watched, I came to think that the husband was not just a bit of a bully but an abuser… a Gaslighter as I now know such people to be.

Then the wife fell pregnant, and I was required to do more fetching and carrying for them… and right from the birth, I was involved despite having no feelings towards the infant whatsoever. That whole year, I could feel a wrongness I could not define darkening each day more and more. I decided to plant some deeply personal sounding misinformation into general conversation to see if it would get referred to… which always happened within a few days. My feelings of being trapped increased, especially while watching the two of them argue at various volumes over trivialities in public while I pushed their 11 month old baby around in its buggy. Casually, I mentioned that I was considering a course at the local college… and that was the beginning of the end. I was summoned for a Grand Announcement, where the wife explained how much she loved me; I did not have to love her back but just continue to be friends. They were both very jolly about it – even declaring that the baby would have two dads… This was not something I wanted, and I decided to remove myself from the entire creepy situation as soon as I could work out how. The next week was a bombardment of texts and phone calls from them – many for no apparent reason except to say how great this whole thing was – and I was trying to avoid being alone with either of them at any time… then, just as this all got to a fevered pitch, the Endgame finally began.

One evening, I was phoned and told to bring money – most of what I had in the bank – to their flat. This was new; I usually had the evenings for myself. However, I put on my best ‘game face’ and did as I was told, watching for the opportunity to ditch this tiresome strangeness. The moment I got there, the husband pinned me against a wall and demanded I hand over the money as a ‘fine for my behaviour,’ and I should wait in the baby’s room while he paid his friend for whatever it was the money was for. Trembling, I complied. As the door slammed and I was alone, I realised fear was only a tiny part of it. I was frightened, but mostly exhilarated; and scheming… coldly. I did not have the physical strength to fight this guy as he was twice my size, so I would have to be clever; show him what he was expecting to see. The wife would also have be kept at arm’s length, as if I showed too much weakness she would try to give me a comforting cuddle… I would just have to control the genuinely volatile situation from where they would not expect it; from underneath. Despite my suspicions, I did not want to be too cavalier about it, there was no point in courting actual danger for anyone. Finding just the right balance of calm and fear was difficult, avoiding being too neutral with any answers was harder; but hardest of all was suppressing the urge to yell at them both to stop playing these stupid games and get to the punchline because I was getting bored, and the chair I might as well have been tied to was getting a little uncomfortable.

For several hours, I was kept in that room. One or the other of them would come in – a bit like a ‘good cop, bad cop,’ routine, in fact – with he ranging from growling menace to slightly shouty and pitiful despair at the ‘love triangle’ and she being calm… and for a lot of the time, I was holding the baby. I could hear the ebb and flow of hushed then shouted conversations through the door, along with the occasional thud. It was tense and intense and I was careful and observant, waiting for my chance to make a break for it, while marvelling at the absurdity.

Thinking it over while alone – the wife had taken the baby – the door opened, and the husband entered the room. He growled and glowered and sat opposite me, leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees, like a sumo wrestler at the start of a bout. As he had said many times that evening, he uttered, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” then looked out of the window. I flicked my eyes at his hands, just to see what they were doing – or might be about to do – and I saw that he had a hammer up his sleeve…

SIX: Turning Off the Gas

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