Trigger warning: I will be talking about flashbacks and other trauma responses and referring to (but not detailing) sexual assault.
Last weekend, I had a flashback. The trigger was being out of breath and getting light-headed. Needless to say, I have experienced these feeling many times before and they have never triggered a flashback, so I was taken by surprise (to say the least) when it happened.
The last time I had a flashback was just before Christmas. I saw a duvet cover in a shop and I felt my brain going to ‘the dark place’. I tried to ignore it, then realised I was being triggered quite badly and was likely to have a flashback, so I found the fiancé (who was elsewhere in the same shop), left the shop and clung to him while I rode it out. And this is generally how this kind of thing goes. I have been working on my PTSD for 5/6 years now, I have dealt with my known triggers and I’m self-aware enough that if something does start coming up I’m able to make myself feel safe, ride it out, then self soothe after it has passed. The flashback before Christmas lasted only a few minutes, then I was able to pull myself together and we finished our Christmas shopping.
Last weekend was different. I didn’t know I was being triggered, I thought I just couldn’t catch my breath (something that frequently happens to me with my M.E). Then I started crying and wasn’t sure why, then I began having a tactile (aka somatic) flashback. In the early days of my PTSD I would have full, visual, auditory and tactile flashbacks, completely reliving the trauma. Now I tend to only get one kind, depending on the trigger. The duvet cover forced a visual flashback, shouting can cause an auditory flashback, struggling to breathe and feeling lightheaded apparently triggers a tactile flashback with a few scattered images and my own inner-monologue repeating some unsettling phrases that I have associated with the event. I struggled to calm myself down and get a grip on reality again. I am used to focusing on my breath to bring myself out of panic attacks and it’s become an automatic muscle-memory kind of response when I feel emotionally or physically distressed. But every time I started to slow my breathing and start coming round, I was triggered again. Maybe because my breath was the original trigger, I got locked in a cycle, I don’t know for sure, just speculating. I don’t know how long it went on, but it felt like the longest one I have had in many years. Eventually distraction became the way out, forcing my mind to focus on something in the real world so I would keep getting sucked into the past. Afterward I felt embarrassed and guilty, because the fiancé was with me through it all, and angry that I’m still traumatised after all the work I’ve done on myself.
Please indulge me while I unpack these emotions.
Embarrassment: I take pride in presenting myself to the world as a strong, stable, well put together human being. No doubt I have my issues and mental health problems, but I am emotionally mature enough to acknowledge them and talk about them openly and honestly in a safe environment on my own terms. However, when something like this happens, I completely unravel and fall apart becoming an hysterical mess. Emotionally, it’s as if I’ve just soiled myself. And yes, maybe I’m unwell and it’s not my fault, it was out of my control etc etc etc, but it’s still embarrassing for another person to see you s*** yourself.
Guilt: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anybody in severe emotional distress, but it’s really unpleasant. Especially when it’s somebody you care about, especially when there’s nothing you can do, and especially when your personality requires you to fix problems. Knowing that I put my fiancé through that makes me feel guilty. And again, I am aware of the logical arguments here; he loves me so he doesn’t mind going through that with me, he knows me and my history so isn’t shocked by my trauma response, he has been present for flashbacks before so is aware of what is going on etc etc etc, but I still wish he didn’t have to deal with it all.
Anger: This is the one I think most people will be able to relate to. As I already mentioned, I have working on my PTSD for years. For the most part, I consider myself over it. I mean, nothing will ever be the same again, but my trauma responses are manageable, when I have intrusive thoughts I’m able to push them aside, when I talk about the trauma I’m able to do so in a calm, logical way. I’m not angry that it happened because it changed me into a better a human being, and I’m not angry at him for doing it to me, because I know that he is a broken person too. I am angry at my stupid trauma brain and it’s stupid misfiring synapses. I’m angry because the trauma has left scars on me that I can do nothing about. After all the hard work I’ve put in to allow myself to live a good life, these scars will stay with me forever and, like a creepy Jack-in-the-box, will jump out and surprise me with my trauma and random times in my life. I am angry that I will never recover the control that he took from me.
Side note: I have heard that you can use binaural beats to increase neuroplasticity in the brain that can help breach the gap that trauma has caused. I don’t know if there’s any science to back that up, but it sounds legit to me, so I might try it.
Segway into a seemingly unrelated, but actually really relevant situation that happened a coupe of days later. Those of you who are friends with my on Facebook, may have seen this:
Now, when this first happened, I was very focused on the anxiety and the auditory processing issues that I have, but reflecting on it the next day I realised the link between this emotional response and my trauma. You see, I misunderstood a situation and thought that I was happy with what was occurring, then I realised my mistake and knew that I didn’t actually want it. Even so, I was about to go through with it anyway because it was my fault for misunderstanding in the first place. However, in this situation, I was able to say “no” (amongst many apologies) to the thing that I did not want. She did continue to try and convince me to change my mind and this was when the panic started setting in and I just kept saying “no” and “sorry” over and over before I eventually stopped talking all together. Then for hours afterwards I was overwhelmed by guilt and self-blame (“I’m so stupid, what’s wrong with me, I should have known better, I brought this on myself” etc). I guess this is proof that I’m not as “over it” as I thought, or maybe I have other issues that need to be addressed that may have allowed the trauma to occur in the first place, or maybe the recent flashback made me more vulnerable than usual and I reverted to behaviours that I wouldn’t normally display? Humans are complex beings.
So in conclusion, my stupid trauma brain is traumatised and causes stupid trauma responses that I’m not able to control. Just thought I’d share that with you.