avatarY.L. Wolfe


They’ve Called You Crazy for Years…It’s Time to Stop Believing It

Healing from a lifetime of gaslighting and stigmatization

Photo by MART PRODUCTION via Pexels

I have made a difficult decision recently. One I wish I had had the fortitude to make a very long time ago. I’ve decided to believe I’m not crazy.

Throughout my life, I felt like my mental health was something I had failed, and therefore, had to subject myself to letting others judge it and manage it.

I kept as tight-lipped about my mental health struggles as I could. But the depression and anxiety were hard to hide from those closest to me.

I saw all of it as flaws. Personal weaknesses. Inherent failures.

I did not even consider the fact that my mental health struggles were tied to past trauma. I didn’t even think I had past trauma, thanks to the way I had been gaslit.

And so I was left to wonder why everyone else I knew — and I mean everyone — was perfect. No one else was afraid all the time. No one else was scared to leave the house. No one else felt powerless and depressed day after day. No one else struggled to get out of bed each morning.

I felt like an absolute mess.

All I wanted to do was lie in bed, which was the only place I felt truly safe. And all I could think was: I must be broken.

My belief in my own brokenness was incredibly attractive to men. To this day, I get emails and comments from men on a regular basis claiming that women who are savagely insecure are the best partners.

I don’t need them to tell me, anymore. I’ve figured this out from experience. Pairing up with a woman who has been conditioned to see her mental health issues as a personal failure and who doesn’t know that her mental health issues are totally normal — and, in fact, reasonable, in light of what she has experienced — makes for Relationship Shangri-La for the male partner. She’ll always work extra hard to prove that she is worthy of his love, and he can keep her in that cycle with low doses of gaslighting. He barely has to turn the nob, and voila: a nearly effort-free relationship.

Most of my exes played their parts expertly. Any time there was a problem and I had the rare courage to speak up about my needs or concerns, I’d hear something like this:

  • Well, you’re the one who’s in therapy…maybe the problem is you.
  • Are you really the best judge of things? You’re the one with the mental health issues.
  • I feel like I’m the one making sacrifices here by being with someone who has the kind of issues you have.
  • You’re acting crazy. / You are crazy.
  • You’re the one making me behave like this because of the way you are.

I spent decades in relationships with men who treated me as though I had reluctantly been released from the local asylum, against doctors’ recommendations — when it was convenient, that is. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to have any concerns about my mental health when they wanted to have sex.

Nor did they ever question how I managed to keep our lives and homes perfectly functioning over the years if I was as crazy as they seemed to think. Can a crazy person work three jobs, keep the house clean, and have dinner on the table every night by 5:30?

Sadly, at some point, I was so blinded by years of gaslighting that I never asked myself that question.

Things got worse before they got better. I started therapy yet again when I was 45. It was the first time I was able to begin uncovering the years of gaslighting and address some of my past traumas. That was the first time I realized that there was a reason that I’d developed anxiety and depression as a teenager — and it wasn’t because I was broken or my brain didn’t work right.

During the first year of my work with my new therapist, I found myself in new romantic relationships and several new friendships. I had a whole new perspective of myself — though one that felt tentative and vulnerable.

Sadly, one of the romantic relationships and two of the friendships quickly devolved into toxic situations in which I dared to assert boundaries — something that takes a lot of courage when you’ve spent your whole life being told you’re broken and crazy. My therapist helped me compose and navigate these boundaries because, in doing something that felt audacious and impossible, I needed the support of someone who was literally an expert in healthy communication.

The ex-boyfriend (an inaccurate term, but the only one I have) came back with endless speeches about how I had failed him and our relationship, ultimately calling me “broken.” And two of the friendships came to a screeching halt as both of them responded to my boundaries with napalm.

Interestingly, each one of them — two people who didn’t know one another — told me I needed to be institutionalized because I was a danger to other people and had already destroyed the lives of everyone I encountered. Their speeches were nearly identical.

It was damning, to hear such condemnation from people I loved so much. But there were a few things that helped me hold on to my center rather than believe their stories:

  1. I questioned the motivation behind saying such things to a person. No matter how much someone had hurt me, I would never call another human being “broken,” nor would I pretend that I’m qualified to recommend institutionalization. What purpose does it serve to say these things to someone? I can’t think of anything but shaming.
  2. The extremism of these statements is off the charts. To suggest that I need to be institutionalized, that I’ve destroyed the lives of everyone I’ve ever met, and that I’m a danger to others because I expressed a simple boundary — one that my therapist helped me compose so I could be sure it was stated correctly…? Now who’s being crazy?
  3. Context is important. The “ex-boyfriend” who called me broken did so once it was revealed that he had entered into a sexual relationship with me under false pretenses. As for the friends, I’d rather not disclose the details of one of them, but the other was a married man who had tried to force himself on me in a hotel room. Seems like it would be a great preemptive move to accuse me of being mentally unhinged just in case I decided to tell his wife what he did…

Though all these factors are important, in the end, I have nothing but my own belief in myself to stand on. And two years later, that’s what I’m holding on to.

Conflict came knocking on my door again last month. I’ve been through this same argument many times with the person in question, and I suppose it’s possible that with all the practice I had in 2021 and 2022, I had what I believe was a much healthier response than my normal pattern.

This did not go over well — at all. In fact, I was absolutely stunned (and not in a good way) by how badly my response was received. The metaphor of an a-bomb being dropped comes to mind…

There seemed to be a similar conclusion, though one conveyed by the person’s actions rather than words: that I was a dangerous person who needed to be put away.

It would be easy, based on my past experiences to buy into this narrative. A few people have told me that, and for decades before that, I was endlessly bombarded with the message that I was mentally ill by a handful of people who made it into my inner circle. In fact, it not only would be easy to believe this, but I know the drill: I’m supposed to believe it.

For the first time in my life, however, I decided not to. It doesn’t mean that the person in question doesn’t have valid feelings or issues. But I realized something recently that blew my mind: I am not actually required to agree with people’s condemnation of my behavior or my mental health. And absolutely no one other than my therapist has the right to judge or diagnose my mental health.

I’ve thought about this endlessly — because usually, when someone tells me I’m not just wrong but crazy, I believe them. That’s the narrative that has been held over me for most of my life. The narrative that has been used to shame, manipulate, and control me.

It’s not easy to believe in myself. To believe my story over someone else’s. It feels audacious and immoral.

But believing everyone else’s stories about me over my own prevents me from existing. It’s really that simple. When someone else defines me and I let them, I’m no longer here.

I have no confirmation that I’ve chosen the right path. After all, the aforementioned “ex” and two friends who made such extreme assertions about my mental health never came back and apologized. Never admitted that they had lashed out in anger or threw me under the bus in order to save their marriage. And I have a strong feeling I will never hear from any of them again — that they will go to their graves believing with every ounce of their being that I’m an undiagnosed psychopath.

But some little voice keeps whispering inside me that I can trust myself; I can believe in myself. I’ve been in therapy for decades. I’ve diligently worked on myself since I was a teenager. I’ve learned coping strategies and healthy communication skills.

And I’ve learned that sometimes, the people who have the most extreme condemnations of you are the ones who are trying very hard to distract themselves from looking in the mirror.

Maybe I’m wrong. Only time will tell. But I’ve spent most of the last half-century doubting my own sanity and letting other people define me. At the very least, I feel it’s reasonable to claim this next half-century as my own. That I at least deserve the chance to heal from the belief that I’m crazy.

If the people making the most insanely extreme assertions about my mental health get to insist that they don’t have any mental health issues at all, then goddammit, I sure as hell deserve to face the world with the confidence that I’m at least healthy enough to not be engaging in the same toxic behavior.

© Y.L. Wolfe 2024

Y.L. Wolfe is a gender-curious, solosexual, perimenopausal, childless crone-in-training, exploring these experiences through writing, photography, and art. You can find more of her work at yaelwolfe.com. If you love her writing, leave her a tip over at Ko-fi.

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