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Posts Tagged ‘dealing with flashbacks’

On my blog entry entitled Being Protected versus Taking Responsibility for Managing Triggers, a reader posted the following comment:

You mentioned in your post that you now knew what tools you needed to employ to get through your triggering. When you have time, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those tools..? (if it’s not too personal that is) Besides deep breathing and running away, my toolbox is a little empty I’m afraid! ~ Mia

As always, some of these tools might work for you and other might not. I think it is helpful for each child abuse survivor to figure out what works for him or her and keep adding to your toolbox. What is in your toolbox might be completely different from what is in mine, or there might be lots of overlap. What matters is that each child abuse survivor try different ways to bring yourself down when you are triggered. For me, it helps to have a variety of tools. As I build up my confidence in some tools, I am able to remove others.

The first tools I had in my toolbox were not the healthiest choices, but they did help when I was triggered. These tools included binge eating and banging my head. It was important for me to recognize that these behaviors, which I hated and wanted to stop, were serving the purpose of helping me manage my triggers. As I built up my confidence in other ways to manage my triggers, I was able to let go of those.

In the so-so category for me are tools that alter my mental state physically, such as drinking wine or taking a Xanax. Again, these might not be the “best” tools, but they are less unhealthy than binge eating or banging my head. Transitioning these tools in helped me to let go of the other behaviors over time. It might surprise you that I am starting this blog entry with behaviors that many people might classify as “less healthy” than where I am going, but I think it is important to recognize the role of self-care that “less healthy” behaviors can serve. For me, this second category belongs in my toolbox, and the tools in my first category, which are physically harmful to me, have mostly fallen by the wayside.

Some of my more positive tools include the following:

  • Calling a friend and venting
  • Deep breathing
  • Exercising
  • Expressing my emotions (crying, punching pillows, etc.)
  • Scheduling an appointment with my therapist
  • Taking a walk
  • Visualization
  • Watching a comedy on TV
  • Writing on my blog or at Isurvive
  • Yoga and meditation

I think the biggest difference in my reaction to triggers now versus seven years ago is my confidence that I am going to be OK. In my early days of healing, I truly did not know this. Something would trigger me, and I would feel “off” for days or even weeks at a time. Today, I am typically over a trigger in a few hours. For serious triggers, I might be rocked for a few days. Even when I am badly triggered, I know that these feelings won’t last. Whatever I am feeling right now – either good or bad – is going to pass.

If I am badly triggered, I remember that I am the fire hose and that the emotions are the water coursing through me. I am not the emotions. I will do deep breathing and visualize the emotions passing through me. This helps me ground myself and recognize that the feelings of being triggered will pass.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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One area of healing that has been a balancing act for me is allowing myself to be protected versus taking responsibility for finding ways to heal and/or adapt in areas of my life that the abuse has affected. As an example, I developed a phobia of Russian nesting dolls because of their use during my abuse. In the early stages of healing, a friend and I took our children to the library for story time. The story was about Russia, so the librarian brought in a Russian nesting doll set for the children to see. I was triggered by seeing the doll while she read the book, but I was able to hold it together. However, when she started to open the doll (which was a trigger of a specific threat to my sister’s life as a child), I had to leave the room and had a full-fledged panic attack in the bathroom. Thankfully, my friend knew about my phobia and watched my son until I composed myself.

Clearly, I needed to be protected from my trigger in the early stages of healing. I had little experience with working through triggers and managing my anxiety when faced with such a severe trigger for me. However, I cannot spend the rest of my life having to go have a panic attack in the bathroom every time I see a Russian nesting doll. While (thankfully) Russian nesting dolls aren’t on every street corner, I do bump into them in unexpected places, such as on display at a friend’s house (who received them as a gift when adopting from Russia) or for sale at a consignment shop that sells antiques. Part of healing for me has been learning how to manage my triggers. Another way of wording this is taking responsibility for managing my own triggers so that my friends and family don’t have to spend the rest of my life ridding the world of Russian nesting dolls so that I can function.

Of course, my life would be much easier if I could just wave a magic wand and make all Russian nesting dolls disappear, but that isn’t going to happen. I don’t want to spend my life being protected from my triggers, so I have worked hard to dismantle as many triggers as I can. It is a work in progress, but making the choice to take responsibility for managing my triggers has been empowering. Having to rely on other people to protect me from my triggers makes me feel helpless and weak even though I know I am a strong person. Conversely, each baby step that moves me toward being able to manage my own triggers makes me feel empowered.

In fact, just recently I bumped into an open set of Russian nesting dolls at a consignment store, and I was OK. I noticed them and felt a twinge of triggering, but I knew what tools I needed to employ to bring myself back down. My friend wouldn’t have even noticed I was triggered if I hadn’t pointed out the dolls to her. That’s a huge change from the friend who had to watch my son while I had a panic attack in the bathroom several years ago. It felt really good to see my growth in this area of healing.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I have more ritual abuse memories coming, and I am not looking forward to them. However, I know that they are a necessary part of my healing, so I will deal with them as they surface.

One might be the memory that explains my obsession with my teeth. Both my sister and I have this obsession. I have always loved going to the dentist. I own my own dental tools for scraping away tartar between visits to the dentist. I brush my teeth a minimum of five times day – so much so that I have caused myself gum damage.

I have been experiencing body memories for a few days now regarding my teeth. It feels like my teeth are being sunk into something that is softer than flesh but much more solid than a liquid. The closest I can describe is the fluoride treatments that were used back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s – that gooey plaster-feeling substance. I can feel that on my teeth – both the top and bottom teeth. That memory will probably explain why I found fluoride treatments to be so triggering when I was in high school and college, although back then I didn’t know what “triggering” was.

I also suspect that I will be recovering the memory that explains why splinters are so triggering to me. Splinters have always been triggering to me. As a young child, my son knew that mommy cannot remove a splinter. The family rule has always been that, if it isn’t bother you too badly, wait until Dad gets home to remove the splinter. If it is really bothering you, I will take you to the doctor now. So, I would meet my kid’s needs, but I absolutely, positively could not do it myself. I know this is not “normal.”

My kid had a friend spend the night last weekend who got a splinter in my watch. My husband was out watching a ballgame with his father, so he wasn’t around to help. My kid actually helped his friend get the splinter out. They would describe what the splinter looked like, and I got very triggered – very dizzy like I was going to pass out – and I could feel sheer terror in my thighs. (My yoga instructor says that we hold our fear in our thighs.) I am sure that memory is going to be a doozy.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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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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On my blog entry entitled My Most Traumatizing Child Abuse Memory, a reader posted the following comment:

I hope you don’t mind but I have a question though. Reading this post I wonder how you manage to deal with the images, smells, feelings etc afterwards. I mean I am really struggling to manage after a memory surfaces or an image appears, it just gets played over and over in my head. PArtly i think because I’m trying to work it out – is it real? Am I making this up? Does it fit with everything else I’ve remembered? Does it fit with the person who I thought I knew? And most of those things I can’t work out, and so it just plays and replays on continuous loop. I try and remind myself that it isn’t happening now, but it doesn’t seem to help. I just wondered how you managed that, and manage to look at these things, remember them but not be tormented by them. ~ Karen

A friend gave me some really great advice about how to handle flashbacks. She used the metaphor of a fire hose. The flashbacks, including the emotions, images, smells, etc., are like the high-pressure water running through a fire hose, while I am the fire hose housing the pressure.

As these very strong emotions, etc., flow through me, I frequently fear that they will sweep me away because the power of the current is so strong. However, I must remember that I am the hose. I am stationary. Emotions might be extremely strong, but I do not have to get swept away in them. Instead, I need to let them flow through me, just as the fire hose allows the high-pressure water to flow through it. I am the hose, not the emotions.

Now, think about what happens to a fire hose when it gets a kink in it. The pressure of the water builds and could potentially break through the hose. That is what happens when we fight the emotions. When you fight the release of the memory by questioning whether it happened, refusing to allow the emotions to release, etc, the pressure builds up in the hose. Think about a cartoon where the hose gets bigger and bigger until it explodes. Metaphorically, this is what you are doing to yourself when you fight the process of releasing the memories.

Whenever I deal with a new memory or, in the case of the blog entry about my dog, face a traumatizing memory at a deeper level, I accept what comes. I invite the pain to course through me and then out of me back into G*d, the universe, or whatever you want to call it. I visualize the pain as black stuff inside of my spirit. I slowly and deeply breathe in air filled with self-love. Then, I slowly breathe out air filled with the pain. I visualize the air and pain flowing out of my right side. (I am not sure why. It just works for me.)

I do this exercise several times until I feel the pain flowing out of me. Then, I become the hose – merely a vessel for the pain to flow out of the deepest recesses of my soul and back to G*d. I choose not to attach any of my energy from today to that high-pressure water because the energy is about the past and not about today.

After I finish this exercise, I “go to the beach” in my head. The beach is my safe place. I visualize myself sitting on the beach and soaking in the positive energy. This helps me “seal off” my hose so that the negative energy that I just released does not flow back into me.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This week, I am writing about my experiences in dealing with recovering a flashback as it happens. The series starts here.

It has now been a few days since I had the flashback. I am doing okay. I am actually doing well for the most part, although the pain is still a bit raw.

I shared the story with two friends separately. Both said the right things. One focused on the fact that nothing that happened in the past can change the person that I am today. The other pointed out that S probably thought I was drugged. He knew me before and after and saw how innocent I was. He probably figured I blocked that night out and thought it was best that I did.

What I am struggling with the most right now is coming to terms with the fact that the dissociative identity disorder (DID) really did affect me in adulthood. Up until recently, I believed it was just an issue in childhood. In fact, my therapist never gave me an official diagnosis of DID because I did not report losing time in adulthood. However, I clearly did.

A part of myself is mortified that I have memory gaps that other people could fill but I could not. How many times did I interact with my abusers after the fact and never even know it?

I am also angry that my abusers from childhood left me so vulnerable in adulthood. I was programmed to be a walking doormat for anyone who wanted to use and abuse my body. I fear just how many times I was exploited in adulthood because of my DID.

I am also in awe over how much I have changed. Going back to those times and seeing just how passive I was and then contrasting that person with who I am now is mindboggling. It is hard to believe that I am even the same person.

Overall, I accept that the flashbacks have been a good thing. I am reclaiming parts of myself that I have been pushing away for decades.

A friend worried that something that I had written recently triggered the flashbacks, but I don’t think so. I think I was ready to heal at a deeper level. Until I reclaim all of myself, I will continue to remain fragmented. While I am much more whole than I have ever been, I am still not fully whole. The price of finding wholeness is continuing to discover and heal these wounds.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This week, I am writing about my experiences in dealing with recovering a flashback as it happens. The series starts here.

I wrote my last post the morning after recovering the memory (10/24/08). I am writing this one immediately afterward.

I typically recover my memories/experience flashbacks at night. That is the only down time I get throughout the day when it is safe for me to process the memory.

As I recover the memory, it is mostly in flashes (hence the term flashback). However, in the morning, the memory sits in my memory bank just like any other memory. If I want to, I can analyze the memory just as I would any other memory.

Here is my memory of the event this morning:

++++++ sexual abuse triggers ++++++

S (guy friend) and J (my date) picked up B (S’s date) and me from our dorm lobby. We walked together over to the party through the back parking lot. Neither S nor I knew our dates well, but we had been friends for a few weeks (beginning of my college career), so we mostly chatted on the walk over. This bothered B, but J did not seem to care.

We walked over to this house where the party was already going. When we got there, I did not know anyone other than the people I came with. I noticed a guy in the corner sizing me up. I knew he was a threat, and I dissociated. That is why I had no memory of the party – a part of myself was never there.

I don’t think I had ever met this guy before, but he was a predator. He saw the dissociation in me, just as I saw the predator in him, so he knew I was safe to exploit.

I clung to S, talking with him so I would not have to go with the danger guy. B got angry because I was monopolizing her date. She probably thought I was making a play for him, but I wasn’t.

Danger guy chatted with my date (J), and then they told me to come with them to another room. I knew it would be bad, so I tried to get B to come with me so I wouldn’t be alone with them. In retrospect, she probably thought I was a slut and trying to get her to do the same things that I did. She probably saw me as wanting to “be with” every guy at the party, including her date, which explains her animosity toward me after that night.

The predator was so cocky. As soon as we got in the room, he told me to “suck him off.” I did not protest a bit – just got down on my knees and did it. J was astonished, but predator was so d@#$ sure of himself.

It was a child alter part they were manipulating. She had seen her beloved dog die and knew that her younger sister’s life was at stake. She was not about to say no. In fact, she was not even aware that saying no or leaving was an option.

I still don’t remember how many, but it was definitely more than just those two guys. S did “rescue” me from that night. He continued to be nice to me the rest of the year (I transferred to a different school after freshman year).

I never went to another party my freshman year, at least not that I remember at this point. I do not recall ever talking to any of the guys from the party again other than S.

Photo credit: Rosanne Mooney

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