Archive for the ‘Flashbacks’ Category

A reader wants to know if it is possible to recover flashbacks from when you were a baby. The answer is yes, although those flashbacks are often a bit different from what other flashbacks feels like.

From what I have read, memories are categorized in your brain based upon your past experiences. For example, if you have seen a horse in a book and then see a real horse, your brain makes a connection between the two. Trauma doesn’t really fit when the brain is categorizing experiences, which could explain part of why a child’s memories (particularly a younger child’s memories) of trauma get filed in the subconscious with no method of retrieval while the child lives in the abusive environment.

Preverbal abuse takes this a step further. If a three-year-old child is hit in the head with a frying pan, the child has words for what is being done to him even though he has a difficult time processing it. A baby has no word for “frying pan” yet and, therefore, processes what happened in a different way.

From what I have read as well as the comments posted by readers, preverbal memories/flashbacks are experienced differently. Because there was no language developed to categorize the trauma, the preverbal memories are stored in a different way. One book I read talked about the preverbal memories being released as intense feelings and body memories. The woman thought she was losing her mind because she would experience very intense emotions and feelings with no context. Fortunately, her therapist understood what was going on and helped her through it.

My earliest non-trauma memory was from age two when my sister was born. I distinctly remember sitting by the fireplace in the dark and feeling scared, and I also remember running in the snow and laughing. Both memories have been independently verified, so I know firsthand that memories can be retrieved at age two.

As for trauma-related memories, my earliest to-date is from when I was a toddler with abuse happening during diaper changes. I have experienced intense releases of emotions that I suspect are preverbal memories, but if that is the case for me, I am early in the process.

Here is another blog entry I wrote on the topic. You can also read more articles about preverbal memories here:

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am not going to lie to you—the last few weeks have been very hard for me emotionally. I have been dealing with flashbacks (true “flashes” without a linear explanation) and a flood of related emotions (mostly terror). I alternate between wanting to invite them out so I can heal and wanting to drug myself at night so I can get some d@#$ sleep. I wrestle with feeling despair at still being in a place of having to deal with more memories.

However, I also see, even in this place of struggle, what a difference that I am making in the lives of others through this blog and recognize that, without my struggles, I actually wouldn’t be of that much help to all of you. If healing was really easy for me, how could I be of help to you? It is my ability to show you that I have been in the trenches, too, and (unfortunately) continue to cycle around through the trenches that offers hope.

I am human, though, and like any human, I don’t enjoy being in pain. It’s not that I am afraid of the healing process … I am p@$$ed off that there is still more to process. I don’t think it has anything to do with not “working hard enough” before – I simply suffered from that much trauma. While healing in some areas does spill over to other areas, I still have areas of trauma that I need to address. I try to remember that this is just another part of the ebb and flow of the healing process, but I confess that I am not always very graceful about it.

I continue to struggle with the release of “flashes” of memories, such as the flash of a white pickup truck, a very detailed memory of the dirt, and seeing the boxes and skeletons used to frighten children who did not know that they weren’t real human skeletons. I experience the terrors of the child who didn’t want to be thrown in a box with a “dead person,” all the while understanding from the adult perspective that the child was purposely manipulated to fear something that was not even true. My head feels like the “bubble within a bubble” you sometimes see when children are blowing bubbles as I reconcile the child’s memories and terror with the adult’s understanding of what really happened. I have to find a way to reassure the terrified child inside without invalidating her experience.

I am also wrestling with body memories, such as last night when I “couldn’t see,” smelled the overpowering scent of chalk (like the smell of chalk when you bang two erasers together), and “couldn’t breathe” due to being enclosed without fresh air. Again, I had allow my body to release the body memories while, at the same time, allowing myself to breath in deeply both to calm the terror and to keep myself breathing. I struggle with the dichotomy between the memories being released and my reality of being an adult today who is safe.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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This has been a rough week for me. While it was freeing to make the choice not to question whatever memories surfaced, this also apparently opened the floodgates to dealing with some really heavy stuff. At this point, I don’t even know what it is yet … only that it is really bad.

On Sunday night, I had a cluster of nightmares:

1. I vomited into toilets three times – severe, Norovirus-like retching.

2. I was a teenager living on the East Coast in the U.S. My mother had moved to Seattle (place farthest away in the Continental U.S.) and was forcing me to visit her there. I didn’t want to go there, but I had no choice.

3. I was late in getting my son to school. I was not ready, and I kept running around like crazy trying to get dressed. Weird impediments kept happening, like my socks being attached to each other. I looked up and realize that I had three HUGE fish tanks in my room. I “forgot” they were there and had not fed the fish in many months. I felt like crap because they must have starved to death, and I tried to find some fish food as I saw that some were still alive and must have eaten the dead ones to survive. The dead ones were in clusters on the bottom like people who banded together as they died one by one. There were two fish that looked like people who truly hated me for what I had done to them.

Then, the next night, I had flashes of a trimmed Christmas tree being thrown on the bonfire and body memories of being forced to perform oral sex on a woman. I again had a pattern of three dreams:

1. I was very upset about how people were treating fish. (Think about when people refer to fish in reference to a woman – smell.)

2. I had a dream involving my friend’s kid who is 8 rather than my own kid, who is 10.

3. I was running around a courthouse. (Seeking justice)

This dream cluster had another pattern of threes:

1. An older man (represented by former boss in dream) experiments with fish and makes their color pale.

2. A child stirs chili powder into the water with the fish, which kills them, but he feels badly when I get very upset about it.

3. I try to buy back a DVD of the fish that a restaurant has. (restaurant = eating = my body memory) The restaurant refuses to give me the DVD but will sell it to me. I think this ties into child porn – recordings of my “fish” being sold.

I am physically exhausted from the dreams and feel “off.” I feel like I have two or three bubbles in my head taking up the space where one bubble should be. That’s the best way that I can describe it. This is how I feel when I have truths breaking into my subconscious.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled How Do You Convince Yourself to Feel the Pain after Child Abuse?, a reader posted the following comment:

My problem is, I have blocked memories. I cannot remember no matter what I do or how hard I try. When I was really working on it, I just started having memories come up and I became so fearful, especially that it was all a figment of my imagination, that I mentally shut down to all of it- as a matter of fact, I would almost think I was completely healed, so detached I am from it all, if it were not for the fact that I still other issues that are not resolved. But the “remembering” part- fear shut me completely down. I try to do memory exercises and my mind just wanders away from it. ~ heavenly places

I have been dealing with this issue as well, so I took it as a sign that I needed to write about what happened.

I, too, still have blocked memories. I have learned from experience not to go searching for them, though. I actually have a few strategies that I used in the early years to go searching for repressed memories. They were effective in releasing them, but I was not prepared for the fallout of dealing with them. Getting the new information is interesting because I have the “aha” moments where another piece of the puzzle helps me to understand my life. If I could just remember the event without the emotions, I would probably just yank out all of the memories at once and be done with it.

The problem is that each new memory comes with a flood of emotions. The more trauma you experienced, the more anger, fear, grief, etc. is locked away with each memory. When each memory surfaces, you have to receive all of those emotions as “mine” and deal with them. I have learned that my subconscious mind knows better than I do when I am ready to deal with a particular memory.

Instead, I invite new memories to come out. I have learned what it feels like when I have another memory that needs to surface. When that happens, I tell myself that I am ready to receive the memory. I reassure myself that I already know the ending – that I survived the trauma – and that I am OK today.

The night before writing this, I effectively dealt with the part about not believing a memory. In the early years, I would go back and forth – Did it happen or didn’t it? Where is the proof? Doubting what the little boy or girl inside is telling you is not “inviting.” You need to believe what you recover in order to heal.

I recently shared recovering a memory of my mother/abuser being present for the ritual abuse, not participating but also not intervening. The next piece of the puzzle that came was her masturbating while I was being harmed (this is the new information from last night). My first reaction was to question myself – Did this really happen? Am I making this up? How can I believe this? How could I know?

This time, I just said, “Stop.” Instead, I chose to believe the little girl inside. I decided that whether or not my mother/abuser was actually masturbating during the ritual abuse is irrelevant to my healing process. What matters is that the little girl inside perceived that her mother was “getting off” on seeing me hurt. My actions and reactions as a little girl are based upon this perception. I am not in a court of law – I am alone in my bedroom trying to heal from deep trauma. I am not seeking to have my mother thrown in prison or even a confrontation. What she was doing and why is irrelevant to my experience. My experience is based upon a belief that she did this, and my belief as a little girl traumatized me. The little girl inside needs love, acceptance, and healing, not a cross-examination.

When I made this choice, I could feel the depths of the healing taking place inside of myself. It felt similar to when my host personality integrated, although it was not to the same degree. Something powerful took place when I made the choice to believe in myself no matter what and stop cross-examining myself. I have a feeling that this choice is going to lead to more “unbelievable” memories surfacing because I will just receive them with belief and focus on healing, not on questioning myself.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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*** sexual abuse triggers ***

I had some disturbing flashbacks last night. (Are there any other kind?)

First, it was a dream.  A woman was badgering a stay-at-home mom in public, calling her a whore. I tried to offer encouragement to the woman and was charmed by her baby. I climbed into the passenger side of my mother/abuser’s van. The seat kept pushing me forward, and I knew someone evil was in the van with me. I wasn’t scared. I knew it was a dream and that I had to do this.

A very raw part of myself started screaming, “Why did you do this to me!?!! Why!?!! Why!?!! Why!?!!” Then, I was a girl in the process of being raped by a man. He was very rhythmic, taking his time as if I were an object and not a person. I was a vessel for his own gratification, not a little girl. I could feel his proportionately large body part inside of me, and my mind went a hundred different places in how I should be reacting to this.

Then, I pulled out of this and semi-woke up, but my mind kept going to strange places such as the size of my father’s genitalia in comparison to other men’s. My reaction in my sleep was that I really should not know that information about my own father. (I previously recovered a memory of my father being drugged at one of the cult meetings/child prostitution gatherings. He was blindfolded. I was forced to give him a hand job, and then he raped my sister. I don’t think he knew it was her or that it was a child, at least not before penetration.)

I am okay but flooded with anxiety right now. I am writing this out and posting it to give those memories a voice.

Before I went to sleep, I knew flashbacks were coming. I saw a plank of wood and started getting triggered about splinters. (Splinters are very triggering for me.) I couldn’t move past seeing the wood and told myself that was enough for tonight. I also felt the “tugging” I feel in my brain when a flashback is ready to come.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Remember in the 1990’s when recovering repressed memories was all the rage? Then, right on the heels of this came the propaganda that any memory that you have not always had in your conscious memory is suspect. Talk shows covered false memory syndrome, accused therapists of planting memories of abuse, etc. I don’t think society ever recovered from this, and now many people completely discount any memory that a person has not always held in his conscious memory bank.

I periodically receive emails from people questioning the veracity of my story because I had no memory of it until my late thirties, accusing me of everything from false memory syndrome to being psychotic. My response is always, “Then why have I improved through therapy?” They have no answer for this.

What kills me is that the same people who discount my recovered memories don’t think a thing of a soldier who has repressed the memory of his buddy being blown to bits in front of him. The only difference between his experience and mine is that other people can vouch for a battle having taken place whereas my abuse took place in secrecy. Without a witness, these people believe that my abuse couldn’t possibly have happened.

I know a little boy who survived a car crash that killed his mother when he was five years old. His mother died on impact, and he was stuck in his car seat for hours until somebody found the wrecked car. The little boy had no memory of the car crash the next day, and nobody questioned his sanity. Nobody said that the car crash couldn’t have happened or that he was psychotic because he has “blocked out” the memory of this traumatizing event. In fact, most people’s reactions were that blocking out the memory was “normal” and that it was a “blessing” that he did not remember sitting in a car for hours with his dead mother.

Being abused is equally as traumatizing, and yet when the child does the same exact thing (“blocks out” the memory), people assume that the child must retain a working memory of the trauma for it to have happened. This five-year-old child will likely start having flashbacks when he is an adult as he processes the trauma, and nobody will accuse him of being psychotic, having false memory syndrome, or making it all up. However, a child abuse survivor processing trauma in the same way will be questioned because the memory was not always held in conscious awareness. Why is that?

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled How to Work through Memories of Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

my major problem is owning he memory. How can you own it when the memories are so unreal? Alot of my memories are about rituals and torture, and sexual games, trying to tell yourself this was your life you just don’t remember it is so unreal. How do you believe the memories and work through them when they are so evil and weird that your mind couldn’t even think such things let alone believe them? ~ Kelly

On yesterday’s blog entry, I focused on the bigger picture of believing your own memories. Today, I am going to focus on believing the “unbelievable” memories – those that are too horrible, sadistic, etc. to be believed.

I have had to work through “unbelievable” memories more times than I can count. If you have read my story, then you understand why. I had to work through the reality of what I endured, and my reality happened to be “unbelievable” in many respects. I did not choose to be abused, nor did I choose the types of abuses that I suffered. The “unbelievable” element of the abuse I suffered is not under my control, but I always have a choice to believe myself.

One of the comments to my blog entry yesterday summed this up nicely:

It sounds as though the path to healing is the road of acceptance. I had not realized it before, but what you said about getting better when you accepted your memories and getting worse when you denied them, is exactly what has been happening to me. hmmmmmm…. sounds easier then it is. ~ Barbi

Healing from child abuse really is that simple – unfortunately, simple is not the same thing as easy.

The key is to stop fighting yourself. When you experience a flashback (recover a memory), you are releasing some of the trauma that, up until this point, you have been using an enormous amount of energy to repress. This is a natural part of the healing process that will go much more smoothly if you will simply accept the memory at face value. Yes, it will be shocking and upsetting, and the release of the memory will come with the release of emotions related to that incident. If you will choose to embrace the memory as “mine” and express the accompanying emotions, then you will not spend too much time dealing with that particular trauma. Accept and release it, and the flashback loses its power.

If you spend a lot of time questioning whether this could have really happened and/or fighting the memory and emotions, the process is going to move a lot slower. The natural process of healing to is release it all, but you are acting as a roadblock by fighting it. The more you fight the natural flow of healing, the more pain you will experience for a longer period of time. It sucks, but the only way over the pain is straight through it.

Once you choose to believe yourself, no matter what comes up, the process gets significantly easier – still painful, but easier. As you learn to work with yourself, you will develop strategies to get through the most “unbelievable” memories.

For example, I recovered a memory of being forced to perform sexual acts on my younger sister. At first, I fought it because it was “unbelievable.” I had never heard of this form of abuse, and it made no “sense.” I thought child abuse was about the abuser getting sexual pleasure out of the experience, and S (my most sadistic abuser) was present and forcing this contact but seemingly got nothing out of it (was not a participant). I finally recognized that I needed to believe myself, even if I was “wrong.”

Then, I moved into fighting it because I could not handle it. If I was my sister’s abuser, then I really was “one of them” and just wanted to die. My own healing process dispelled this fear by releasing a montage of mini-flashes of my sister being forced to perform sexual acts on me. I “knew” at a heart level that neither of us were the abusers – both were being forced by S (and others). This freed me to accept the memory and deal with. Processing the guilt, shame, horror, anger, etc. was excruciating, but I was able to release this, which brought an enormous amount of healing.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled How to Work through Memories of Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

I am wondering the same thing as Kelly…it’s so unreal … how do I believe memories like those, let alone “work through them”? Will I ever really know that they are real and I”m not just crazy or sick…I do have some physical issues but no scars…unless I can actually uncover photographs or the people involved actually confess these same memories to me, independently of me telling them about them? Is it ever possible to be really “sure” when you’re working purely from “memory”? ~ Lilo

I, too, had a very hard time believing my own memories, especially in the beginning. First of all, I did not believe in repressed memories. I thought that people would remember anything that had ever happened to them, so I must just be crazy. Second, my first memories were of my mother sexually abusing me, and “moms don’t do that.” I could recall ever hearing about a mother doing that to her daughter, so how could those memories be true?

Next, I did not believe the memories because they were from an out-of-body perspective. How could I possibly remember the back side of my body? How could I have a “from the ceiling” perspective of the abuse? Also, the memories were so amazingly detailed and clear – How could that be possible? How could I possibly remember that I was wearing pink pants during a particular incident that happened when I was only three years old?

These are all questions I threw at my therapist, and he kept telling me that my experience was normal! I was certain that the next “proof” of my own insanity would be enough for him to commit me, but my therapist kept validating me over and over again. He even told me that the “insane” patients try to convince you that they were abused, but the child abuse survivors try to convince you that they weren’t!

In the early days of recovering memories, I desperately wanted proof. I found the validation I needed in small ways, such as recovering a memory in which my mother wore a particular hairstyle and then verifying that her hairstyle did, in fact, look like that when I was that particular age. Another time, I recovered a memory of hugging a toy dog after being abused. I found a picture of me at the same age holding that dog.

I am fortunate to have a sibling who has been able to verify many of my memories. We endured many abuses together, and we both have the same memories of what happened – sometimes with a different focus but still consistent memories of the same event. We also suffered many similar abuses separately, which was also validating.

Now that I am seven years into my healing journey, I see the validation in other ways. I see it when I learn about how old (pre-therapy) friends and doing and realize just how amazingly f@#$ed up most of them are today. (Thankfully, there are exceptions, but most of them are people who have been through therapy like I have.) If not for my choice to heal, I would likely be in the same place.

I also find validation in recognizing the degree to which I was broken, including the many aftereffects I have dealt with (eating disorder, self-injury, insomnia, night terrors, etc.). Further validation comes from seeing how much more emotionally healthy I am versus seven years ago. If I simply made all of this stuff up or was mentally ill, how is it possible that I am now so much healthier than I used to be?

Confession time – I have never received an official diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID) from a therapist because mine is not big on labels. He did use the label of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for a particular reason that I won’t go into now, and he knows about all about the alter parts, but his focus was always on learning how to love and accept myself and my experiences rather than on labeling me. I would sometimes question whether I really had DID, even though I “knew” that I did.

I received that validation from fellow child abuse survivors at Isurvive and here. If I did not endure the memories that I have recovered and never had DID, then how is it that my words resonate so deeply with other child abuse survivors? Why do they understand me so well when most people in my life haven’t? Why does my advice help so many other people?

I have found validation in many ways over the years, but the most important validation came from myself. When I chose to believe myself, I healed. When I chose not to believe myself, my symptoms grew worse. Choosing to believe my memories meant releasing myself to the natural process of healing.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I am a bit shaky as I write this blog entry because I just recovered another memory that I have been working toward for a while. By the time this blog entry publishes, this will be “old news,” and I will be fine. However, in the moment, I am shaking and have a bad headache.

Here is what I have always remembered:

The summer before my junior year of high school, a rising senior befriended me and recruited me to be on the school’s flag corp. I really did not have much interest in waving a flag around or attending football games, but it meant she and I could hang out, so I joined.

I was not a good member of the team. I got sick or had a debilitating headache before just about every game and competition. I think I only attended one (or possibly two) of the weekly games before abruptly quitting halfway through the season. I have spent my entire life beating myself up for being such a flake.

When I was a junior, there was a sophomore who acted like she knew me, but I did not know her. For two years, she would go out of her way to say, “Hi, Faith” whenever she saw me, but I had no clue who she was or why she kept talking to me. She wound up marrying one of my ex-boyfriends, so she was at my 20-year high school reunion with him. She thanked me for being so nice to her at band camp, and I looked at her like she had two heads because I had no memory of ever going to a band camp.

*****suicide triggers*****

I was suicidal for much of my junior year and even wrote a term paper on teen suicide. I would spend many hours fantasizing about the way I wanted to die. I finally confided in my mother about the suicidal feelings. She responded by laughing about it at church, which got back to me. I would have swallowed a bottle of pills immediately if a friend and his mother had not intervened. They pulled me through, and I found hope again.

*****end suicide triggers*****

My most sadistic abusers, S & L, had three children. The youngest was M, and he was maybe three or four years older than me. I never liked him. After my family moved away, my parents stayed in touch occasionally with that horrid family. When I was around 13, we got together with S & L and M at a country club, and M tried to come onto me. I was so revolted and just wanted to get away.

Here is the missing piece I just recovered:

*****sexual abuse triggers*****

I did go to band camp. Somehow, M was there, and he raped me during the night in a field. I don’t know what he was doing there or how he lured me out of the cabin into the darkness of night, but he did. Maybe my parents sent him to check up on me??

This is why I have had such a tough time recovering this memory. I knew it had to be more trauma (most likely sexual abuse), but I had no aversion to anyone in my high school that raised a red flag as a perpetrator. I never felt unsafe at high school. As I recovered the memory, the “what” came easily, but the “who” kept evading me. It was physically painful to “look” at the face of the person who did this, and then I had a hard time believing what I saw.

This is such a big piece to my high school puzzle – Why I quit the flag corp., which angered a lot of people … Why I struggled with suicidal urges throughout my junior year (band camp was the summer before junior year) … Why I was always sick before any flag corp. event …
I also realize that I have spent decades beating myself up for being a flake when I was really just protecting myself. If M could show up at one flag corp. event, he could show up at others.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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In 2003, when my son was two years old, my mother had surgery and needed someone to take care of her at home for about a week. My sister and I decided to split the time. I really did not want to do it, but I believed it was my duty. So, I drove my son six hours to her house, where my mother’s friend had just dropped her off from the hospital.

The house was beyond disgusting, with spider webs on the light fixtures and lots of dust everywhere. I have dust allergies and developed a severe sinus infection within two days of being there. She made no preparations whatsoever before surgery. There was no food in the house, and I had to blow up my own air mattress to have somewhere to sleep.

I was so angry. My mother would fall asleep and not make any noise, and a part of me joyfully hoped she had died. I (my host personality) was appalled by these thoughts. I was a complete emotional wreck spending 72 hours with my mother under her roof again. I thought I was going mad.

My mother awakened me at 2:00 a.m. and told me I had to go to the 24-hour Wal-Mart to pick up some medication for her. She lives in a rural area, so that meant I would be driving alone on unfamiliar country roads to drive 20 miles just to buy this medication that could not possibly wait until the morning. My son was fast asleep, so I left him in his portable crib.

When I returned about an hour later, my mother told me that my son had awakened while I was gone (something that rarely, if ever, happened) and that she had gone into his room. An alter part (Irate) immediately took over, but Faye (host personality) did not go away. I felt like I was pushed to the side of my consciousness – like I was watching myself from the right corner of my head. My body was moving and talking, but I was not the one doing the moving or talking.

Irate grabbed my son, brought him into my room, and then slammed and locked the door. Irate kept saying, “Did that crazy woman hurt you? Mommy never should have left you alone with her.” My mind was flooded with fear that my mother had sexually abused my son, and I (Faye) was baffled as to why I would be experiencing these “loud thoughts.” These were thoughts racing inside of my head (not external voices), but they did not feel like “my” thoughts.

The next day, my mother asked me to leave, even though my sister would not arrive until the following day. I didn’t wait to be asked twice and peeled out of her house as quickly as I could move. She never even thanked me.



Photo credit: Hekatekris

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