I have posted the first article in a series that I’m writing for the CPTSD Foundation about flashbacks. Today I thought I’d tell you about my own experiences with these furrows back in time.
Everyone Experiences Flashbacks
Before I go into detail about my own experiences with flashbacks, let me reassure you that because you have them does not paint you as abnormal. The way our brain works to remember events that occur in our lives is to store them chemically in “files” that are associated with one another. They may have sight, smells, sounds, etc. that are categorized in similar “files” so we can recall them easier.
Let me give you an example to explain this better.
It’s late December, and you have just moved to a new town and have nowhere and no one to go on Christmas day. After telling a friend at your new job this, she invites you to spend the day with her family at her house. You accept her kind invitation.
Christmas day rolls around and you drive to your new friend’s house. After knocking on the door, you are greeted by your friend who lets you in. Once inside your senses are filled with the smells of pine needles, turkey baking in the oven, and fresh homemade baked bread.
You have a marvelous time, perhaps the best Christmas day of your entire life.
Flash forward two decades. You are living far away from the town where you spend that eventful Christmas day and have a family of your own. You decide to go to the local bakery to buy some rolls for dinner. Upon entering the bakery your senses are filled with the smell of baking bread.
Immediately you begin to daydream and are transported back to that December day long ago where you had such a marvelous time.
What you have experienced was a flashback of sorts. However, the differences between this type of friendly flashbacks and malignant ones are many.
The Beginning of My Flashbacks
No matter how you look at it, flashbacks are extremely unpleasant. This statement is true because you are not daydreaming, for all intents and purposes you’ve gone back physically and mentally in time and the traumatic event is happening right now.
Flashbacks are highly disruptive bringing back into our lives all the disgust, physical symptoms of distress, and terror of the original event. For a few moments up to several minutes, you are once again a hopeless, helpless child trying to hide from the adults who are harming you.
The first flashback I remember having occurred in mid-1989. I had just gone to bed and turned off the light when I was suddenly transported back to a scene of myself as a little girl being raped. I sat straight up in my bed trembling and sweating and refused to try to sleep any more that night. The next day I went to work visibly shaken and my friend that I worked next to asked me what was wrong. She reassured me she was there, and I owe her my life for sticking with me that day.
After discussing my flashback with a different friend, she invited me to her Incest Anonymous group to hear a speaker. I arrived with her that night for the meeting and sat down at a table while we did the normal 12-step readings. Afterward, the leader of the group, a local therapist introduced our speaker. The last thing I remembered was listening calmly to her story.
Suddenly, I came to myself on the floor in the fetal position with the therapist standing over me looking very concerned. Many of the group had left to allow the therapist room to work with me. I was extremely confused and bewildered. I asked the therapist what had happened, and she told me I had suddenly begun weeping and talking in a little girl’s voice then curled up on the floor sucking my thumb.
Of course, I now know I had dissociated into a child alter, but then it was a mystery of which I had no idea of the answer. I was encouraged by the therapist to seek professional help, but I blew her off. At least for a while.
My Flashbacks Worsen
Even though I had decided not to go to therapy, my brother became alarmed when I told him I had a suicide pact with myself that I would die on my thirtieth birthday. He gave me the name of his drug and alcohol counselor and urged me to go speak to her as a codependent enabler.
During the few weeks of treatment, the flashbacks worsened. They would hit me suddenly and without any warning sending me hurtling back to events I had long forgotten had occurred.
I began waking up in strange places too, something that frightened me to no end.
Finally, my therapist told me she did not have the training to help me and set up an appointment with Dr. Paula McNitt. Giving me that business card a wise move on her part because Paula would become my Anne Sullivan leading me out of the darkness of severe childhood trauma.
The flashbacks became a critical part of my remembering what had occurred to me. I remembered horrendous abuse and worked through them the best I could. With Paula’s help, we began exploring ways to help me defeat the power the flashbacks had over my life.
Finding Ways to Cope
It became nearly impossible to work on my future while reliving the events of my past. I desperately needed tools to use in fighting the flashbacks that kept throwing me back in time. Paula challenged me to find ways to mitigate the effects of flashbacks.
Here is a partial list of what I discovered.
Know Your Triggers. I began to pay attention to what was triggering my senses to throw me into a flashback. One of those was the smell of men’s cologne. Once I knew the trigger, I learned to know I would flashback if I smelled it. I tried to remain away from those smells until I was stronger. However, I did not allow the smell of men’s cologne to rule my life. It is nearly impossible to stay away from men wearing cologne, so I knew to expect smelling it and thus shore up my defenses.
Find a Physical Sensation to Compensate. What I mean is that I looked for ways to draw the attention away from the flashback and to something else. One trick I use is to hold an ice cube in my hand until it hurts. Once my hand is yelling “stop that!” my brain is drawn away from the flashback to go take care of my hand. You can use any of your senses to tell your brain to cut it out.
Rewrite History. No, I have not gone nuts. I don’t mean literally rewrite your history because that is impossible. However, when a flashback hits, I’ve learned to change it and make myself bigger, smarter, and stronger than I was decades ago. I take myself from the situation and have the people harming me arrested. You would be surprised how marvelous of a tool your imagination is when you are escaping from a flashback.
Allow the Flashback to Come. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is not. When a flashback comes can you honestly say you can stop it in its tracks? No? Neither can I. Instead of fighting what I’m experiencing, I allow the flashback to happen, making sure I’m in a safe place while doing it. Obviously, if I could drive, I would pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot until it has passed.
By doing this, you are both honoring the past hurts you are reliving and giving yourself permission to weep, scream, or just experience again what happened long ago.
Let Go of Feelings of Disgust. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in feeling disgusted with yourself because of the flashbacks that keep invading your life. I learned not to feel bad because I did not cause them to happen, my abusers did. However, at the same time, I hold onto the fact that I am now completely in control of my life today. Only I can make myself heal, no one else will or can.
The ball is in my court now.
Where I Am Today
Some think of me as advanced in my healing, and I am compared to where I began. However, I still have my days when I feel devastated by what happened to me when I was a child. No one should ever need to relive such horror. But, as I say often, it is what it is. I cannot change my past, and neither my friend can you.
It’s okay to have a meltdown once in a while.
It’s okay to experience flashbacks.
It’s even okay to dissociate.
These things are natural for someone who has been where we have been.
What is vital to remember, though, is not to get so bogged down by the past that you don’t enjoy today.
I have been through the stage where you eat, drink, sleep, and think about the horror that was my childhood. I got so caught up in my healing that I lost sight of the fact I needed to live today. I’ve spent hours in my therapist Paula’s office bemoaning my past and making living with DID and being the victim of severe trauma my entire identity.
When you have a victim mentality, you seek out people who are just as miserable as you and spend all your time feeling sorry for yourself and angry at the world for allowing me to be born into such a mess.
Today I know better. Today I choose to think about the future. That’s tougher than it sounds because I’m pushing sixty years old. Sometimes I still feel resentful because much of my youth was spent paying the price for a crime I did not commit.
Now I understand that I am the only one who can make the choices necessary to create a life for myself and enjoy it the few decades I have left.
The only alternative is to live a life full of flashbacks, self-pity, and die miserably.
Not me. I choose life. What about you?
“And one day, as she was buried deep in her thoughts,
she heard a still small voice ask her
“If you could go back in life,
what would you have done differently?”
And without missing a beat
she answered, “I would have chosen me”
And finally, she made the choice.” ~Henna Sohail