So, I’ve talked about flashbacks before. But, I didn’t go into all the details there. Today, I’m going talk about the different kinds of flashbacks, and give you some examples. One of these is really personal. I often assume people know that my work can be triggering. But today I HAVE to say it: TRIGGER WARNING!
There are three kinds of flashbacks:
Visual flashbacks are visions, hallucinations, and strong visual memories. Someone having a visual flashback may have a particularly vivid visual memory that lasts a fraction of a second. Other times, it may be a measurable amount of time. The person may see an entire scene, or just a vivid mental image of, say, an attacker.
Auditory flashbacks involve the person hearing things, plain and simple. A person having an auditory flashback might hear anything. They may hear bees buzzing, or hear a particular voice. They may hear beautiful singing, or mortar fire.
Emotional flashbacks consist of the person being overwhelmed with feelings, whether positive or negative. Some people will feel happy, angry, guilty, or sad. It could be anything.
The thing to remember is that a person may experience these one at a time, or all at once. Someone having a flashback may or may not react to it in an easily recognizable way. And most importantly: There’s an infinite scale for all of them. I’ve had flashbacks of really happy things. I’ve had flashbacks that have made me throw up. Flashbacks can make you feel good, bad, or anything in between. In my experience, the only things they have in common are that they are flashbacks, and they are disturbing, or off-putting.
My most common flashbacks are a combination of things. I’m going to give you some examples of my triggers, and how I normally react.
If I hear adults arguing, I get overwhelmed. I feel guilty, and anxious. I feel like it is my job to fix it. I sometimes hear a roar of voices, dishes breaking, and children crying. Rarely, I see the image of my step-dad standing over me, holding a bat, or my mother with a cast iron skillet. When I have all three kinds of flashbacks at once, I’m paralyzed. I know it’s a flashback, but I start crying, and I have a panic attack.
Screaming is worse, especially if it’s my son or daughter. Hearing someone scream almost always gives me auditory flashbacks of domestic violence. Hearing children scream makes me often have visual flashbacks. I hear things breaking, or other sounds of domestic violence. Sometimes, I have visions of my twin brother being dragged through the house by my step-dad, or my mom’s ex-boyfriend smashing a plate on my then-1-year-old brother. Screams take me into a place that I don’t handle well at all. I feel helpless, like a victim. I feel like I’m going to be hit any second. Screams are most likely to make me have a physical reaction. I used to throw up, but as I’ve gotten older, I just become nauseated.
Some triggers are so minor, I can’t identify them. My most constant flashbacks are from these little things, and they usually manifest in feelings of shame, self-loathing, anger, and guilt. They usually don’t last longer than the fraction of a second it takes me to recognize them and dismiss them.
My worst flashbacks come from intimate moments. I’m NOT talking about sex. I’m talking about those moments when I am letting my guard down, and being emotionally close to someone, as well as physical. Like cuddling. Last night, for example, Jenny and I were cuddling, and she leaned over me to move something. When she went to move back, I flinched, and started crying. At least, that’s what Jenny saw. I was not prepared for what I saw.
When she shifted her weight back, I saw my Him. I saw my sexual abuser. I saw Him pick up a toy dinosaur. I saw Him turn back to me, and tell me I was a “good boy.” I was so happy. I just wanted Him to be happy. I wanted Him to like me. And He was praising me. He gave me a toy dinosaur, for being “a sweet little man.” He touched my cheek, and I was filled with the joy that only children know. The joy of knowing they matter to other people, of knowing they are special. I mattered. I was special.
Zoom camera back to real life. In about 1/18 of a second: I realized that Jenny wasn’t Him, and it broke my heart; I realized that I was never special to Him, and that broke my heart; I realized that I had compared Jenny to Him, and that broke my heart all over again. In that fraction of a second, I had felt elation, joy, and then CRUSHING FUCKING DESPAIR.
Here’s the worst part. It made me feel like Jenny’s affection didn’t matter. It made me withdraw emotionally from her. I’m not special. I don’t matter. I learned that from Him already. Why should I try to lie to myself, and tell myself otherwise? How could I be so delusional? I have to be tougher than that. I have to be special for myself. I have to be alone.
I know that stuff isn’t true. I really do. But it doesn’t keep me from feeling it. I still can’t stop that need to make Him happy. It doesn’t make me feel like anything less than a failure for not keeping Him. All that stuff exists inside my flashback, and no amount of therapy has stopped that yet.
As you can see, some of my flashbacks are pure unbridled joy. While I’m having them, that is. They are the worst. Because every time I have that flashback, I am filled with an emotion I haven’t been capable of in decades. A mark of how sick and twisted my ongoing abuse was, is that I still remember my Him fondly. In almost every other flashback, I hate the person I see. I hate the person I hear. I hate the person who made me feel awful. But in the flashbacks with my Him, I love him for making me feel special.
I’m crying too much to keep typing, and I’m sure you would agree that I’ve said enough. Carry on dear reader, and please don’t think less of me for being me.
P.S. If you think you have PTSD, or related behavioral health concerns, talk to your doctor. If you are still looking for more information, I suggest Complex PTSD. It’s a great book.