Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 17, 2021

The Devil: Gaslighting and the long healing process

By RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI | April 20, 2020

PUBLIC DOMAIN In tarot, The Devil represents not only the harm others do to us, but the harm we do to ourselves

Gaslighting, coined from the 1938 play Gas Light, is defined as the psychological manipulation of someone such that they begin to doubt their own sanity and beliefs. In doing so, the “gaslighter” can more easily control and influence their victim. 

This isn’t a story about how I was gaslighted. This is a story of what happens after. 

A few days after I slipped away from their influence, I found myself pacing the halls of the Walters Art Museum. Eventually, I sat down in front of a portrait of Mary Magdalene, wrapped in a leather jacket, silver swords hanging from my ears. I’m not sure how long I was there, but it must have been a while, because after some time a security guard came over and asked if I was okay. I responded that I was, albeit unconvincingly. She sat down next to me, crossing her legs and stared at the portrait with me. “What do you see when you look at her?” she asked. When I didn’t respond, she kept going. “I see sorrow. She looks like she’s been crying for days.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was hard enough to speak, hard enough to have to sit with someone when I had fled campus to avoid exactly that. But then, I focused on the painting, noticing her honeyed dress by her feet, how her hair was slightly red as if there were a fire somewhere behind the frame, how her face, mouth slightly agape, was not sad but something else entirely. 

“I see realization, like she’s been thinking about something for a long time, and just now she’s realized the answer to her question,” I told her. 

It felt as if I was realizing something myself, but I didn’t know what in the moment. Now, I know that I had realized truly the extent of the damage they did, how I acted as if I was an entirely different person during my time with them. 

I found sanctuary within the story of Mary Magdalene; her devotion, her love and most of all, her grace. In many ways, her story became my anchor throughout the healing process. The universe, in its way, eventually led to me FKA Twig’s album MAGDALENE. In one of the songs, she sings, “Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down.” 

I had been calling myself stupid for weeks for falling for someone’s manipulation. Why was I letting myself down? I should have been treating myself with the kindness and love that had drawn me to the story of the Magdalene in the first place; doubting myself was the exact thing they had wanted me to do. 

The Devil — the card, as far as I read it, is not just about the harm that other people do to us; it’s about the harm we do to ourselves. I had no control over whether or not this person was going to manipulate me or not, but I did have control over what I did in response: We give life to the things we spend time thinking about and the things we say out loud. I’ve had to catch myself from speaking negatively about myself, from saying it was my fault, that I am flawed because of it. These were all acts of violence against myself. They let this person keep their grip on me long after they were gone. 

Months ago, when I was crying on the kitchen floor of my dorm, covered in flour, not even realizing what this person was doing to me, I texted my mother. She’s the strongest person I know: resilient, independent and unabashedly herself. Her commitment to following her intuition, to putting her happiness first has always inspired me. She is the model on which I always base my actions. 

I found her messages the other night, too. One thing stood out to me the most: Listen to yourself. What I’ve learned most out of this is how important it is to trust myself and my intuition, to never let someone try to put a damper on who I am. I had months taken from me, but that period of my life is over. It took recognizing people’s actual care for me, recognizing my own worth and, like Mary Magdalene, having faith that one day things would be better. And they are. They really are. I’m more proud of who I am than I’ve ever been before. I am confident and happy and full of love for myself. Others can see the difference. 

Night falls. Rain falls. An elevator falls, but stops. The moon hangs in the sky like a tooth, chipped, and if you look hard enough, you can see the faint outline of where the rest of it would be. These are the things we expect, little anchors that we cling onto, in our bid to stay rooted. This is how we, how I, live. We know ourselves to be true. I know myself to be true. 

To my mother, thank you, I love you and I don’t know what I would do without you. 

To my friends who helped me through this, you will never know how immensely grateful I am to have you in my life. 

To my past self, I love you too, and you should treat yourself with unconditional love and never forget your strength. All things, in time, shall pass. Look at yourself now. Just look. 

Isn’t God good, and aren’t I great?

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