I managed to go to service this morning, for the first time in a long long while. Last week I couldn’t go because I had managed to give myself a concussion, before then it was down to running a temperature, and before then – for many many weeks – it has been due to simply not being up to it; too depressed, too submerged in my life/death battle. And then there’s the PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The bane of my life. A big reason for previously mentioned life/death battle.
I feel that a lot of people don’t really understand what post-traumatic stress disorder is. Or, more accurately, they may not be aware of how it affects people. I think that, at least in part, media is responsible for this. People have generally heard of flashbacks as being one of the symptoms of PTSD, and you often come across storylines in which characters suffer from this disorder, and the viewers are treated to an insight into the flashbacks that they experience in a variety of ways. Only, there’s an issue with this: having a flashback isn’t like watching something happening on a film screen. It’s about feelings. About re-experiencing the traumatic event, as if it is happening all over again, and having an emotional response to it. Again and again and again and again.
In the most recent episode of BBC’s Silent Witness, the storyline followed a former soldier suffering from PTSD. It was explained that certain sounds and situation could trigger flashbacks for him. So far so good; this is all true for many people suffering from PTSD. Later on in the program we got to ‘experience’ a flashback alongside the character: he saw a person on the street, it morphed into a flashback person – someone who wasn’t actually there – someone who had been part of the trauma. All of this is fairly accurate, I think, for a lot of people: flashbacks can very well be triggered by someone who looks like someone who was part of the traumatic event, and flashbacks can absolutely cause a person to see someone who isn’t really there. Happens to me all the time.
But then the character talked to someone about his experience of having flashbacks, and when the person listening to him said something along the lines of “That must be really horrible” the character’s reply was “No, it’s OK. It’s actually quite nice.”
And this, to me, is a huge departure from what PTSD sufferers truly deal with. I have yet to meet a single person suffering from PTSD who would describe having flashbacks as ‘nice’. Because the disorder is caused by traumatic experiences, often very extreme ones, you are not likely to have an emotional response which could in any way, shape or form be described as ‘nice’. Having a traumatic experience is not nice, thus, the emotional response will probably not include positive feelings.
Let me illustrate: say your previously wonderful and perfect partner rapes you. Very traumatic, very hard to deal with, extremely emotionally damaging. Let’s say the effects of the experience go so far as to cause you to develop PTSD. You now have flashbacks of the event. This is hardly going to trigger emotions related to the rosy honey-moon period of your relationship. Whilst you may still – in your conscious mind – remember that time when your partner brought home a dozen roses and your favourite chocolates, and the lovely feelings that gave you, those feelings will not be triggered by a flashback to the rape. They just won’t. Those lovely feelings weren’t associated with the rape, and so can’t be triggered by flashbacks to the trauma.
When you have PTSD [as I understand it, and put in layman’s terms] the memories of the trauma are stored in a different part of the brain to where other, ‘normal’, memories are stored, and the response flashbacks produce completely bypass the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought. Thus, even though some part of you may be aware that the trauma isn’t really happening right now, and most of the time you are able to remember both positive and negative aspects of a relationship [assuming there have been both], because rational thought is taken out of the equation, your emotional response to a flashback will be as if it the trauma had only just happened, and will involve the feelings you either had at the time, or the feelings you may have had to repress at the time in order to survive. It won’t involve feelings related to an entirely different situation.
I mentioned earlier that flashbacks are often caused by triggers. But there is more to it. While a majority of people with PTSD have flashbacks caused by external triggers [sounds, smells etc – things that in one way or another remind them of the trauma], some people – myself included – have flashbacks that are caused primarily by internal triggers. Internal triggers are tricky, because they are difficult to identify. And if you can’t identify triggers, it is almost impossible to avoid them.
For me, personally, it is often a case of one flashback triggering the next, in a continuous chain, and I am just as likely to have flashbacks if I am out having an absolutely fantabulous time ice-skating with my friends, as I am sitting with someone talking about really deep and difficult things. In short, if I’m going to have a flashback, it will happen, regardless of what I am doing, where I am or who I am with.
One of the first things people [professionals in particular, actually] tend to ask is “What do you do to stop the flashbacks from happening?” to which I answer “Nothing”. They will then in one way or another convey to me that I have a very negative and defeatist attitude which isn’t helpful. Or they will suggest that I do something nice and relaxing – light candles, have a bath, listen to music, and so on. So, I tell them, oh, I do all of those things. Because they are very nice things to do. But I will still have the flashback, only I will have it in the bathtub, with the music playing and the candles all around me. I then say “You know when you go to sleep..?” adding a pause to allow the person I am talking to to nod, since this is something everyone has an experience of, before continuing “Well, you know once you are asleep, yeah?” Another nod. “At what point do you choose not to have a nightmare?” You see, I can’t choose to not have a flashback any more than you can choose not to have a nightmare. No amount of positive thinking or relaxation is going to change it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and it simply isn’t caused by a defeatist or negative attitude. I know a million different grounding techniques to help me come out of a flashback, all of which I employ on a daily basis, and I am working very hard at finding ways to cope with the emotions the flashbacks bring out, but there is no way I can stop the flashback from happening in the first place.
I have somewhere between 30 and 40 flashbacks on an average day. On a particularly bad day, when it seems like one flashback triggers the next, I can have over a hundred. That means re-experiencing, re-living – the abuse over a hundred times in a day. It means dealing with the emotional impact a hundred times in a day. To me, the fact that I am still here, in spite of this, is proof that I absolutely do not have a defeatist attitude.
If you would like to know what it is like [for me] to have flashbacks, there is a drawing (What Words Can’t Express – A Visual Representation Of Sexual Abuse Flashbacks) that I posted a number of years ago, trying to visually explain that sense of being in two places at once – the past and the present, simultaneously. I feel pushed to warn, though, that it is somewhat graphic, and could be potentially triggering.
I want to make it clear that I am in no way an expert on PTSD, and what I have written here is based on my own experience of living with flashbacks, and on what others with PTSD have told me. Of course, as with anything, different people react in different ways, and there may very well be PTSD sufferers out there who disagree entirely with my take on what PTSD is like. And that’s OK. I just wanted to offer my view of what it’s like.
All the very best,
PS. In case you happen to know me, I’ve recently added a little section on the right, appropriately called “For People Who Know Me”. You may want to check that out. Not in any way saying that you can’t check it out even if you don’t know me, it just won’t be all that relevant to you. :)
I think the difficulty of adequately communicating an experience that can’t be fully understood unless someone else like you has had the same experience is part of what I take from this. That doesn’t mean such a person can’t be helpful, but they simply can’t “know” what these things feel like to you. Indeed, for most of us who don’t suffer from PTSD or some other ongoing form of misery, it can be even hard to remember (in the conventional sense) how bad we felt at some low or scary point in our own past. The idea of a drawing is helpful, but in the end, we can’t get into another person’s head or skin. Surely, as you say, your are making an enormous effort to overcome this and this effort deserves the greatest respect and good wishes.
I think your description and the illustration are spot on – thank you for sharing them. Has helped me today.
I was really relieved to read this entry, because it so closely relates to how my life with PTSD and flashbacks feels as well as my frustration dealing with other people around it all. It has never felt like I’ve done the right thing from how I handled the abuse, how I kept it a secret, how I eventually said something, how I’ve handled either talking about or keeping flashbacks secret. Nothing I do feels right. Either I’m called a liar, or I’m exaggerating, or I just need a more positive outlook, or the past can’t hurt me, or the worst is over now, or “but you’re a survivor”….I’ve been told to expect recovery to take time, then been told I need to get over it all faster. It’s the same message I’ve heard of not being afraid to share my story, to take the shame away…but good lord don’t share THAT much!!!! Aren’t you over it yet?!! In my experience, people mayyyybbee want to hear your story or parts of it, like a few times. Of course those are definitely the ones you’re not paying. In therapy there can be a push to help me get everything out and not be ashamed of how it really feels. After keeping it all in for 26 years it just hasn’t been coming out all pretty or well articulated. You try translating from a 3 year old, a 5 year old, a 7 year old all abused sexually by different people, then add them to a 12 year old who’s puking and burning her skin, add that to an alcoholic 18 year old molested again, keep all those things going and add on abusive relationships, rape and you’ve got yourself my life as I’ve tried to live through while taking away a lifetime of drugs, alcohol, self harm and anorexia while adjusting to medication for ptsd, anxiety and major depressive disorder (and none of those pills are the fun kind because I’m an addict).
It’s insanely frustrating dealing with the aftermath, and it made me feel so understood to read the part about choosing when not to have a nightmare!!! I usually start any new session with “yes I use candles and take baths, journal, draw, live my life” because I do! And I’m not a pessimistic person or dramatic when I have a flashback that makes me freeze on spot or hide under furniture (yes that’s real embarrassing and happens)—the time between being told to let it out and then control it on account of it’s really fucking weird and alienating is pretty damn short for most sexual abuse survivors. My life has been shaped, contorted and formed but sexual abuse. The first memory I have of being alive is being abused. And it kept happening. Everything is attached to sex in my life. Every single thing. I sexualize everything in my head every second of every day, even though I’m completely asexual have remained single for a looooooong time and have no interest in relationships. Flashbacks happen every day, and it is like pinball. Dominos. It’s never just one thing.
And that’s been the story my entire life.
Thank you for writing this. I wish that none of us had to go through this hell but was relieved to read it. For me, the loneliness of being misunderstood just sucks my hope away. Nice to know I am not alone. So many things you say ring true for me. Thank you.
Firstly thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for sharing so bravely your own experience. I am sorry that you have had to struggle so much in your life. No one should have to. I feel the pain in what you write, it cut through loud and clear, and I hope you will eventually find a place where the pain isn’t quite so sharp.
Take good care of yourself.