There’s always a moment when perspective changes life. Maybe it’s when you come across an old high school yearbook and you see how young you were when you thought you knew everything about the world and you say to yourself, You really didn’t know anything. Maybe it’s when you have children and your life expands to being part you and part always-on-for-someone-else, and you see how different life is from before having children. Maybe it’s as simple as learning something new about your neighbour, and in your mind you neighbour becomes a fully-formed person instead of just the sum of their interactions with you. Learning something new changes how you see part of your world differently, even though nothing else has changed. It’s a richer, deeper view of life.
My perspective on my own life has been changing a lot these past months. I had an extremely negative view of myself before (even if I couldn’t see that) so this new perspective is life-changing in a very positive way. Not only is my perspective on me changing, this new perspective is helping me develop ways of caring for myself during difficult times, like during flashbacks.
Flashbacks are pretty well-known from movies or TV as visual and audio representations of something that happened in the past. Usually those representations are of things so far outside of the ordinary world (war, accidents, shootings, etc.) that it’s easy for the average person to assume those are the only circumstances under which flashbacks and the commonly-linked PTSD occur.
What most people don’t know about flashbacks is that they also occur when things in life cause a reaction that is less like terror and more like shutdown. There’s a tendency to minimize and downplay events where your mind has shut down because the reaction seems less extreme than crying or screaming. If these things occurred repeatedly, the shutdown may have grown bigger over time.
When these show up as flashbacks, they’re different from the popularized view of flashbacks. If they occurred repeatedly, they may blend together with pieces of one melting into another, making it even more confusing. Since they were not big moments of terror, it is difficult to recognize them as a flashback. Sometimes there are no audio or visual cues accompanying them and they’re only felt in the body, as a sensation which carries an enormous sense of danger, terror or pain. While the body is giving all of these cues (leaving the brain unable to catch up to it), intense and dark emotions arise without any reference points to navigate their source.
Some people call these emotional flashbacks. I prefer to think of them as terror tsunamis, as they drown out any other senses, suddenly and completely.
This drowning out feels like there is no connection to the present, either through mind or body. In my experience, I could pretend to function most of time (although there were times when that wasn’t possible).
Pretending takes a toll because although I appeared okay, my resources were drained. I was unable to relax — ever — and was constantly tense. Sleep was scarce. Eventually, I developed a constant low-level shake that was most evident on waking and when stress would increase more. Real emotions disappeared. When they did try to seep through, they were more like an echo of emotions experienced in the past.
Flashbacks are not like regular memories. There’s no context surrounding them. You can’t preface one with “Remember when…” and know in your mind and body that you’re travelling down memory lane. With a memory — even if it’s an unpleasant memory — it’s still in the past. With flashbacks, the mind and body believe it’s happening right now and it reacts in the way that it did when the event occurred.
For me, the worst part of the past three years has been experiencing flashbacks and not knowing they were flashbacks. I would react to something in the present that (in context now) was triggering. But I had no context at the time. So not only did I have flashbacks, I assumed it was me reacting out of proportion to a current situation, and tried to hide it from everyone. This led to me being unable to get the help I needed. I was also blocked from help because I didn’t know how to ask for it and feared what asking for help would result in.
Tonight, a flashback was brought on by reflecting on where I am in this journey. I had been acknowledging how bad it was for so long, that my body was not mine for a long time, and how sad that made me feel. In a short span of time, I felt my body change from calm to trembling, my chest grew tight, my breath stopped and became shallow and I couldn’t feel my body. I felt an overwhelming need to share what had happened to me with someone else now so I could hear a supportive soothing voice.
In the past (once I had moved beyond denial and hiding), I would have desperately reached out, trying to find something secure to hold on to. Tonight, I was able to slow down enough to unwind the sequence, see the flashback in motion and write about it instead. Writing about it helps provide context and gives my brain a chance to catch up to my body and tell it that this is in the past. It’s not happening now and won’t happen again. It’s over.
With those words, It’s over, my body breathes in a deep breath and my surroundings become more real. There are still some microtremors but they also slow down.
Is it any wonder that parts of this healing process, like acceptance and grieving, are also so difficult when flashbacks can be so easily triggered? Staying on this path requires tremendous dedication, strength and trust that it is the right course to getting through everything.
Perspective helps me understand my reaction to the trauma in my adult life and all of the ups and downs that happened after it. It helps me find compassion instead of judgement for the things I have done while locked in flashback. Perspective helps me honour the enormity of what happened to me as a child and allows me to recognize the impact of the many years of my body not being mine. These are all things I have denied and minimized many times. But they must be honoured to live my life fully and with peace.
Most important, perspective helps me become a person again, over and over.
I have a feeling that perspective is going to be a strength of mine in the future and will bring many new gifts. It’s kind of amazing to think about gifts emerging from this. While flashbacks are temporary, these gifts will stay and help me grow in ways unimaginable to me even now.