Finding your way through gaslight

I recently talked to a woman who is right now in the middle of what I call “the game”. It was difficult for me to listen to her because I saw a lot of myself in her and I didn’t like to see that side of me so clearly. It hurts. It is very painful. It’s hard for me to bite my tongue and let her talk through things.

She is in denial. And she is going through a maze of thoughts and feelings. She cannot see what is going on.

I had people question me how I had still had feelings….or rather thought I had feelings, for someone when they were abusive. For me, it was as if someone was trying to tell me that grass was never green and the sky was never blue. It just took a long long time to be able to process that information.

During the time that I was going through my abusive relationship with my boss, the Reverend Father, I thought I knew what was going on…at first.

I did my research…on-line. Being a priest gets lonely. They perform a wedding and see a loving couple and extended family and a joyful occasion…..and they leave and go home alone to a quiet and empty place they call home. It is not uncommon for a priest to have a girlfriend, I read, especially as they near retirement and face spending the rest of their lives on their porch with a single rocking chair. They may flirt harmlessly. A clever little line here or there all in good fun with the housekeeper or the woman who sings in church on Sunday.

It was this logic that gave me feelings of sympathy and understanding of my boss as a man and not just a priest.

So when his behavior became slightly risque and he joked about me needing to do more than buy him fancy post it notes to butter him up, I laughed. And most importantly, when he was joking around, he was not yelling at me… I felt both safe with his behavior and secure in my job. And that felt good.

With grooming, behavior that can create discomfort is increased or mixed with other behaviors that cause pleasure. Mixed in with the insistence of walking behind me up the stairs, or of watching me walk down the hallway, was also a bit of what seemed like adolescent nervousness which I thought was cute in a way. I brushed off my warning bells by telling myself he was just inexperienced and I had to be kind to him so as not to hurt him.

And the more I accepted the behavior as it increased and laughed or joked with him despite pushing aside the things he did that made me uncomfortable, the more complicit I became in our little secret. He had picked me. I was his special friend that he trusted. And giving my loyalty to protect him meant even more because he was a priest. Not only because he was a human being….I thought…showing feelings….and who could blame him for that, right? But because betraying him in any way was betraying God.

Oh, come on… know that I’m right. We all know that priests are not God…..but they work for Him. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good…..and He’ll know if you betray one of His own.

Well, that’s about as far as most people get. Acknowledging that priests are people too. Cool Father Joe plays basketball with the kids and has a beer with the dads afterward. Well, you know he must have, you know, those feelings….but we don’t discuss things like sex or swear in front of him. He’s not THAT human, after all. Oh, is it his birthday, make sure you get him the birthday card with the nun on it….I’m sure he will love that…..

So most people…..including most people who are groomed, acknowledge somewhat that priests are human beings with human feelings…..they just don’t want to be around if any of those feelings go off. Or be responsible for setting those feelings off.

Oh…unless God says it’s okay. That’s a big loophole, you see. Sometimes God sends the priest messages that they should spend extra time with people or, you know….things done under the religious tent make it okay to, you know, hug or be alone with a person so they can save their soul and such.

And if the priest himself does not say that, the victim begins to rationalize that it must be okay with God. The woman I spoke to said her priest got a message from God to help her. I myself questioned why God had given me this person in my path and was sex somehow what God wanted? Was I supposed to be learning something about love with this man or helping him not feel alone or allowing myself to be more vulnerable?

But you see, before these questions arose, just when things were going well and life was good and I got a raise and more hours and could earn leave and was really enjoying my job and getting along with my boss…..the lights started to go dim.

Just like with this other woman who is being bombarded with questions about sin and who is to blame in her situation, my situation went from heavy flirtation and teasing about a party on his day off to screaming at me, and I was asked if I was unable to comprehend a simple office game, and he could never understand where I was getting my ideas or how could I even mouth the words that made him feel so uncomfortable? And I began to doubt everything. I mean everything. I would stop all contact except what was needed from him in order to do my job and find that when I tried to ignore him, he would be in my face, seeking attention and validation. If he did not get what he needed, he would begin to threaten me in subtle underhanded ways. He would begin to act unusual so that co-workers would notice and they would come to me and ask why he seemed to be changing when it came to his faith. I would get emails and bible references about sinful women in the bible tempting men to do bad things from his other priest friends.

If I said I felt threatened, he would tell me I was not allowed to ever talk about his behavior and that I must be obedient. So I’m thinking he’s quirky and what the heck we only work together. Total denial. If someone had told me he was dangerous, or to run as far and as fast as I could…..I wouldn’t have believed that a priest could be dangerous….the word was quirky folks…..I could handle this…..

I have to say here…..please people, priest or not…..if you feel you need to fix things for someone or you find yourself making excuses for their behavior….for whatever reason….or the big one… feel you need to talk things out so you can understand because not knowing is driving you crazy…..or if you say things are bad but it cannot be the other person…..I don’t care if you share an appendage at that point in time……this is not a good situation and the answer is not going to be something you want to hear…..that is, if you ever get an answer. Walk away. Don’t try to help or fix or rationalize.

When you’ve gone passed the grooming and the denial and you have reached the stage where they are flat out denying what they said and all you know that seems right and makes sense is doing whatever it takes to keep the person happy….which could change daily… that there is a semblence of peace in your existence…….know that you are now trying to read the rules by gaslight…..and that is impossible.

You are now getting into very dangerous territory…….and the most dangerous part about this territory is that you feel responsible for being there because your head is now in a smoke filled haze of words that surround you but can dissipate as soon as the next breeze comes through.

You are not weak. You are not stupid. You are probably a very decent person. But you have been brainwashed by a very effective technique called gaslighting.

Mind Rape

Many years ago, a close relative was going through a very horrible summer. On that particular night, I went to visit him because he had been released from the hospital and going through a breakup with his physically abusive girlfriend. I went to keep him company and make him dinner. I wanted to be sure his girlfriend and his friends who wanted to give him some substance therapy stayed away. And I wanted to be sure that he was going to be able to make it through to the next morning on his own when I left.

You know, they say that if you are ever in a plane crash that you should make sure you put your oxygen mask on first. It’s difficult to see someone you love….or anyone for that matter, struggling. But before you offer them your hand, you have to make sure that you have something solid to hold onto first so that you are not pulled down with them.

My relative’s friend stopped by, seemingly concerned about him, and offered to help me get some groceries at the store and help me make dinner. Dinner never happened that night.

It seemed that my kin was more interested in finding his girlfriend and wanted to go out to look for her. And his friend….seemed he cared so much about him that he wanted me too to be able to experience some of his substance therapy so I could see how wonderful it could be. I told him I wasn’t interested. To me it seemed like trying out butter basted, three-cheese, egg-topped, fried anything just to find out you loved it and had to have it every day thereafter so that you could end up blowing out your waistline and your arteries. Why would I want to know that I liked anything that would cause my ultimate destruction when I saw what it had done to the people I loved? I’m not being judgmental here….I have my own struggles and addictions and just felt it was better not to add any more problems to my life.

So the three of us went out looking for the female half of this unhealthy addictive relationship and we all ended up in a bar up the street. Remember now, I was still there to protect my family member and keep him out of harm’s way.

There I was, a 28 year old mother of two walking into this bar with two guys who were not exactly looking out for my best interest. Not to mention now that I think of it one of them was most likely a drug dealer, and the other was searching for a woman who had recently stabbed him in the heat of an argument. These were my male escorts walking into the place.

My relative takes off and leaves me to go look for his girlfriend. I am now worried about him. I notice there is a group of people gathered in a room so I go to see if he had gone in there.

I step into the room and look around, noticing as I did so that there were probably a good 50 people in the room all sitting around drinking…..and I was the only female.

Just as I was taking this all in, one of the guys, noticeably slurring his words, yells out to all of the other men in the room…..”Hey, the stripper’s here!” which was met by some cheers and a bit of encouragement for me to begin my act.

Okay, this was in an unfamiliar bar and definitely not a country club or a place with any kind of security. I pretty much had no protection for myself. I froze. I was terrified. Didn’t matter that I wasn’t being paid for a gig if any one of those men in that room decided it didn’t matter to them if I was there professionally or not.

I remember getting back out to the bar somehow and thinking it would be safer to wait out there. Not really. I sat down and ordered a drink and the bartender told me to be sure to watch the movie playing on the tv over the bar. It was a porno flick. At that point I thought it may be safer for me to go back out into the night and find my way back to my car alone.

The point I am making is that nothing physically happened to me that night. I ended up making it back home safely. (I was separated from my husband at the time and staying at my parents’ house). But the feelings I felt were very real. I felt that whatever boundaries I had that kept me safe were being taken away by the people around me that night. Nobody had done anything illegal. Yet, I had felt unsafe and my mind had reacted as if the threat had been real.

The feeling I felt that night was similar to the feeling of terror I felt when faced with the realization that I was trapped in a dangerous situation with my boss. When people say that I was not really abused because I was not physically raped by my boss, I disagree. It felt like rape to me. He was forcing himself upon me. I remember thinking that basically telling someone they had to perform a sexual act or else they could end up in the obituaries……that was coercion….that was terrifying….that was stripping away a person’s boundaries. And that was rape. Maybe not in a physical sense. But my mind still suffered the trauma of feeling violated and my power was taken from me.

Rape is not always a physical act that occurs by a stranger in a dark alleyway. It is not always male/female. And the force and trauma involved is not always obvious.

And until and unless it has happened to you, the sexual abuse of adult by anyone they know through coercive control and manipulation, especially by a priest, cannot be truly understood by friends, family, lay people, or law enforcement. At least not yet. I am hoping that in time the abuse of adults by priests will begin to be seen as the crime that it is and that the blame will stop being pointed at the victims.

Getting out of my own way

The other night, I participated in a group video conference with a group of other survivors of clergy abuse. During this conference, one of the members told of how she had been abused by a priest at a young age. Whenever I hear stories like this, it makes me want to cry. And it makes me feel like a phony.

What these children went through is unimaginable. I won’t even go there as to how someone could hurt innocents. They do. And it doesn’t end with the physical abuse. Their sense of trust and getting close to others and relationships and God and life has been forever violated.

And so I felt…..I don’t belong here. I can’t even begin to compare my experiences to theirs.

Somehow the fact that I am a survivor of abuse as an adult was brought up and one of the women asked what that was about and how old a person would have to be to be considered abused as an adult. “That’s not a part of SNAP, is it?” she asked. I said that yes, it was. Although at that moment, I felt very much an outsider.

I thought about the exchange later on that evening and those old feelings of doubt and anger at myself and a bit of “who do I think I am” and even a bit of pity bringing a bottle to the party began to emerge. And I thought….I shouldn’t be doing this. I am not worthy.

But then another little voice….most likely the angel on my other shoulder….began to get a little huffy. “Are you done?” the angel asked. “Because when you are done making this all about yourself perhaps you might want to consider that tonight the fact the adults get abused as well was mentioned at the meeting. And also that group is a part of SNAP.”

The angel adjusted its halo. “Last time I checked, that’s what really was important here. Whether or not you are worthy of spreading the word has nothing to do with anything. It’s inconsequential. And kinda narcissistic. So get over yourself. Get out of your own way!”

Yes, adults are abused by priests….and by others as well but for now….priests. And yes, ASAP (Adults Sexually Abused by Priests) is a part of SNAP. Some priests are not good people. They are predators. And if I can cheat one priest out of blackmailing someone into sexual slavery because the rules to the playbook become published, than damn hell yes, the priest is the one who will be going down…..not his victim.

The Dysfunctional Dance

Have you ever danced with dysfunction? Mamboed with a manipulator? Did the two-step with a twisted mind?

It may have started out fun. There you were with your two left feet being dragged onto the dance floor…maybe feeling a little uncomfortable but telling yourself you would follow their lead? You wanted to belong. Didn’t want to end up being the wallflower that sat alone and unloved. Told yourself to open up to new experiences, let go, have some fun. Push past the discomfort. Ignore those feelings.

Every time you manged not to step on your partner’s feet, you won their praise and began to feel pretty good about the whole thing. Soon your confidence began to grow. This wasn’t so bad after all. You even bought yourself a new pair of shoes which drew more praise from your dance partner.

Soon little endorphins began to tap dance within brain. For every step your partner took, you followed, keeping up with their beat.

Sometimes the two of you would dance to a new song…just to try something new. A hand would be placed on your hip. Who are you to say anything, you with your two left feet? Where would you be without your partner? Sitting alone against the wall, that’s where. You want to end up back there? Didn’t think so. A hand on the hip doesn’t seem so bad. It’s all part of the dance, after all.

You are only dancing, right? I mean everyone dances. Why shouldn’t you put your hand on your partner’s hip as well? Seems only right seeing as if they hadn’t taken the time out of their busy schedule when they could be dancing with someone who really knows what they are doing….you want to learn how to do this or not you worthless two left footed thing? You think new shoes make a difference? You think anyone else is going to want to dance with a moron like you?

My dance partner must know what they are talking about, after all, I know nothing about this dance and they are so very experienced. They can get a much better dancer and I’m just being silly. It’s just touching after all. People touch when they dance, right?

You notice that you are getting further and further away from the others on the dance floor. You understand it is because you are inexperienced and you don’t want to bump into anyone or cause any trouble. And it pleases your partner. And that makes you feel good, right?

Dancing is hot work and clothes get in the way, you are told. At least if you want to learn how to express yourself fully. You have the soul of an artist and you are told that they want to help you realize your full potential. Hmmn. Well I thought you were different. Special. Guess I was wrong. Oh, please, no, no….I want to be special. I want to learn. I want to belong. I don’t want to be an outcast.

It’s expression. It’s only art. It’s not at all anything dirty. My partner is so good to teach me so much. I just have to get over these pesky feelings of my inhibitions. Just get over it, I’m told. My partner knows what he is doing. When they are not happy, nothing is right. It’s up to me to keep them happy. I have been told not to make them unhappy.

Soon you are in a room alone with them. The music has stopped. You see the truth in their eyes but it is too late. You have chosen to go into this room. You have chosen to remove your clothes. You have chosen to touch them. I don’t understand. I was just dancing. I was only dancing. You said it was right.

Your endorphins have now shuffled off to Buffalo and are being replaced at an alarming speed by adrenaline. You freeze. Unable to move anywhere.

And they tell you… cannot leave this room….if you do….nobody will believe anything that a clumsy, pathetic wall-flower….and a naked one at that….has to say.

I am, after all…..the master of the dysfunctional dance…..people revere me and bow when they see me. You…..are a fool. You are disposable. And if you leave this room….I will destroy you.

And then the people outside of this room will destroy you. And you will want to destroy yourself.

Because you know you wanted this. Why else would you have ended up here like this?

Then they turn on you. You know what….get out of here. You are making me very uncomfortable and I don’t know what you are talking about. Why would I have asked you to dance? You must be delusional. I’m too good for you. This is ridiculous……I’m calling security. I have a whole staff here that will back me up and protect me from crazy people like you…..

The Dysfunctional Dance…..aka Dancing with the Devil in black.

Why Me?

I cannot begin to tell you I understand why a person wants to deliberately hurt another human being just because they can. I am not saying that we are not capable of doing harm or of losing control and snapping, but to hurt another human just for the sport of it…..for the shear pleasure of causing pain….I don’t understand it.

But I’m not going to talk about those people right now. I’m going to talk about why we were targeted by those people. I know that there are to put it nicely, unpleasant people in this world. You don’t have to look very hard to find them. We kind of grow to expect that in life.

But a lot of us were raised to go to church each Sunday….or Saturday…and get a heaping helping of soul cleansing forgiveness, love for our fellow man, and hope for a better tomorrow.

There we find that the person who just stole the spot you were waiting for in the parking lot will smile gently and take your hand and wish you “peace”. You are in a safe environment. Love and incense permeate the air. You leave with love in your heart as you walk the extra block in the rain to your car and forgive the jerk who took your spot. Your heart is open. God and all of His representatives know that your heart is pure and you are good. You turn the other cheek.

People act differently in church and around priests. I’m not saying that in itself is a bad thing. People should be able to feel safe in church and around priests. We know we should. So we do. We automatically drop our guard. We know that nothing bad is going to happen to us in a place of God and of love and around God’s people who we trust our secrets with.

I used to work at the Tribunal Office. Catholics go there after they have been divorced in order to divulge all of the very intimate details of their married life….including everything that happened in the bedroom….to the priests who work there in order that those priests may determine whether or not the marriage was valid in the eyes of God and the Canon Law of the church. How vulnerable is that? When was the last time you told your best friend everything that went on in your bedroom? I cannot even imagine talking to a priest about that.

My point is that we have grown up trusting priests and we have been more vulnerable with them than perhaps anyone else. The last time I went to confession….many years ago….I found myself face to face with the priest. I was so uncomfortable, I never went back.

But if everyone is trustful around priests, what makes it so that only certain people are targeted for abuse?

I’ve heard from many people that when it has to do with the abuse of children, not always, but many times, there was some hardship like divorce or the death of a parent or a particular vulnerability such as a preteen struggling with sexual identity. In any case, one thing is common….the abuser, the predator, wants their victim to be an easy mark. Unfortunately, the innocence and trusting nature of children makes them easy targets.

For adults, I think it would be safe to say that predators are looking for the same thing in their prey. A vulnerability of some sort, such as a parent going through the illness of a child and needing support and comfort, or a young gay man beginning to discover his sexuality for the first time by himself in the world as an adult perhaps not really quite sure yet how to set boundaries with new male relationships.

For me I believe it was my non-confrontational demeanor with my supervisor. That and the fact that we were pretty much isolated in our suite of offices due to the nature of secrecy needed for our clients and the fact that we did not have a large staff. This left me alone with my boss one day a week. I had friends in other offices but we worked part time different days and for two days a week I was the only support staff in our office.

I also discovered later on that priests have an awful lot of power when it comes to jobs and money and giving and taking away when you work for them.

With my boss, territory was determined. I was not even allowed to close a door to another unused office in order to keep my office a bit warmer in the wintertime…unless I had permission. This was not said to me directly ahead of time, but rather after I did so and was at my desk and all hell broke loose when my boss had to enter the file room office for something and the door was closed. He totally flew off the handle that this change was made without his prior knowledge or approval. I remember him screaming about it and demanding to know why the door had been closed and I don’t remember if I said anything or not but in any case, I don’t like trying to reason with people when they are being unreasonable and he was in charge so…..I tried my best to look like I was not affected in the least by his tirade as I sat there. But….I saw him look at me. I remember that. I just had the feeling he was gauging my reaction. Looking for any kind of reaction. Perhaps my silence was enough of an encouragement for him as he seemed to enjoy jumping out of nowhere at me and catching me off-guard. He would often show up at my desk and demand to see statistics or some such thing when I was in the middle of doing something else. And he would remind me that he had the right to go anywhere and see anything in his office area at any time without question.

It was unnerving and felt sometimes like trying to hold onto a sailboat in a storm.

Never once did I say, “Come back when I’m not busy”. I stopped what I was doing and did what I was told.

That is one of the reasons I believe I was targeted.