Trauma Series 2: Flashbacks

The pages are turning as I begin to unravel so many of the moments I never had a chance to piece together; the picture that always looked so broken and useless and…void.  It was as if I was sitting in a dark room; the kind of dark that would make the mere idea of trying to see even a glimpse of light comical, because it just wasn’t possible.  The darkness was more than just a sunless room, but a place that drenched the dweller to the core with irrevocable sadness. But then, from the darkness shone a light; imperceivable at first, and so faint that even a gentle breath might cause the flame to dissolve into simple memory.  

And in the end, the flame didn’t fade.  The flicker became stronger and stronger, until it was quite evident that it wasn’t a flame at all, but a window with gleaming beams of sun finding their way into the once dark room.  A stream of light, golden and beckoning, shimmered in, bringing with it a chance of healing and hope and all of the things that once felt impossible.

Sometimes I still feel lonely.  Sometimes I still feel like I am not capable of being loved.  I know that Jesus loves me.  If I have ever felt safe with anyone, it has always been Him.  He was with me when I cried at school, hiding my face from shame.  He was with me when I hid in my closet, trying to stop the blood from seeping through my clothes, because my mom was knocking on the door.  He was there when I would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to find someone willing to buy me alcohol; anything to make me forget.  And he was there when I taught myself to throw up in the shower, emptying myself of everything that kept me alive, because I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I couldn’t be that girl.  I hated that girl and I wanted her to die.  

So I tried.  When I was fifteen, I drank myself to oblivion, hysterical with overwhelming surges of sadness, and fell into a stupor, awaking the next day with the realization that it was time to end what felt like the most miserable life in existence.  That night, I swallowed as many ibuprofen as I could and waited until the fear took over and I couldn’t wait anymore.  Calling my friend as I somberly explained what had happened, shaking all over, she convinced me to tell my parents before she did.  So I did.  And they rushed me to the emergency room, where I endured a couple of days on suicide watch in the psych ward, my belly full of liquid charcoal.  

It could have been a lot worse, but it wasn’t because although I felt ashamed and frustrated and scared to let anyone know what I had just done…I also wanted to survive.  Even through the feelings of self hate and depression and overall emptiness, there was a part of me that longed for something more; that prayed for healing amidst the storm.

Healing didn’t come quickly after; in fact it was another four years after that moment before I finally worked up the courage to walk away from the starving, the purging, the cutting, and the suicide attempts (insert way too many sleeping pills in college here).  But, although the addictions slowly became more and more of my past, the emotional trauma has taken so much longer to heal.  When I first began down this road of recovery, I had no idea that I would still be struggling with so much of my past, even now…nine years later.

In Tom Bunn’s article “Is What You Are Feeling A Flashback”, he writes “Implicit flashbacks from early childhood can be powerful. They can overtake a person, and dominate his or her emotional state. Even so, the person may have no idea that what they are feeling is memory. How could they? If they cannot remember a past event that caused these feelings, the feelings naturally seem to belong to the present.”

Before this last month, I had no idea that the way I was responding to certain situations were due to flashbacks.  But then, as I began to research into childhood trauma and the effects, I soon began to put the pieces together…at last stepping into a place of understanding.  So what do these flashbacks look like for me?

When I am in a situation that feels too tense (i.e. if it feels like someone is coming at me with aggression) I begin to shut down mentally, while my body begins to respond physically.  I begin to shake aggressively, and I start to become reactionary, losing all of my emotional intelligence.  Basically, I enter into survival mode.  My mind and body literally begin coursing with an over-abundance of adrenaline as I receive all of the hormones needed to either fight or run away.  At this point, I cannot keep a logical conversation and I am no longer able to truly process what is going on around me.  This looks a lot like my childhood, although the reaction almost feels stronger now in some ways as the past has become trauma and not just a present situation.  As a child, into the end of my teen years, I shut off all emotion as a form of survival and I often felt like I was literally fighting for my life as I watched the abuse in my home and isolated my whole self from love, joy, and human connection.  

I have a much better handle over my emotions (and lack of) now, after years of relearning to trust and feel and live a normal, wholesome life.  And rarely do I have flashbacks at all now, but last month I experienced one of my worst.  After a confrontation that left me feeling like I was under attack, I entered into a state of extreme hypertension and anxiety for over five hours and it was MISERABLE.  I couldn’t calm myself down and having recently discovered why I would be feeling the way that I was, I reached out to my therapist friend for help.  She was able to give me a few ideas on calming down, but even more so, she gave me someone to talk to; someone outside of my current circle of community.  And speaking my fears out loud was so unbelievably healing.

It didn’t resolve the anxiety immediately, but it gave me the ability to get through what I was feeling, understanding and believing that I really was okay and safe and that I still had a lot of people who really do love me as I am.  

In conclusion, I am going to list a few of my favorite ways to ease anxiety and step into a place of calm and zen.

1. A hot shower, with candles and gentle music.  This gives me an opportunity to focus on self care, soothing sounds, and a very different environment from the one raging in my mind.

2. Exercise.  Because working out with heavy weights and angry music gives me the chance to feel all of the feelings in a safe environment.  It burns to build muscle and it’s exhausting…so it gives your brain something to focus on with great intensity while also improving your body and strength.

3. Writing.  Because writing gives me an opportunity to untangle the mess of thoughts going on inside of me.  I have a lot of trouble sorting out everything that I am thinking as I internally process everything.  Having a journal or blogging allows me the freedom to calm down and really understand what I am feeling.

4. Talking to a friend in person or via phone.  Because this reminds me that I am part of a living, breathing community.  It’s more than just a social media conversation.  It’s a real life conversation with real, vocal responses and a calming person actually coaching me with kind tones.


That window…remember the one I mentioned in the beginning?  It’s open wide and the choice is there.  Unfortunately, no one can make the decision for you…only you get to decide.  Will you step into the light or hide in the darkness?  I made the decision when I was nineteen to take a wild, terrifying leap and, I am so grateful that I did.  It’s worth it.  I promise.  It is so, so worth it.  

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