Posts Tagged ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’

I recently had an epiphany about my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): I really have PTSD, and it really does affect my life. Of course, that epiphany probably warrants a big, fat, “DUH!!,” but it was a huge realization for me.

When my therapist first shared this label with me, my mouth dropped open. PTSD was serious stuff, but my abuse had not been “that bad.” Other people had it worse. My therapist had to define all of the symptoms of PTSD, which I had in spades, for me to accept that this diagnosis actually applied to me.

Of course, I have lived with the symptoms of PTSD throughout my life. Even before I started having the flashbacks, I was well acquainted with being triggered. I had no label for my seemingly out-of-proportion reactions to things that happened around me, but I was well aware of having them. I just assumed it meant that I was “crazy” like my mother.

Since receiving the diagnosis of PTSD a few years ago, I have learned all about it. I have helped myself reduce the severity of my symptoms, and I have helped numerous people along the way. But somehow, it never really hit me that I have this disorder and that my brain does not work like other people’s brains do.

I have spent my life beating myself up for having these issues. My expectation has been that I can just push through it all and be “normal,” whatever “normal” is. I have not cut myself any slack for having to deal with triggers and other issues that most people do not have to deal with.

I am beginning to accept that I actually have PTSD. Yes, I would have told you this years ago, but the gravity of me living my life with PTSD is suddenly sinking in. I am always going to react to things differently than other people do, and I am not responsible for this. Yes, I am responsible for the choices that I make, but I am not responsible for getting triggered.

What difference does this make in my life? It gives me more self-compassion.

For example, my son has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He is not responsible for having difficulty focusing or controlling his impulses when he is unmedicated. Yes, he is responsible for his choices, but I have to make accommodations because of his disorder. He truly cannot help feeling “wired” when his medication wears off.

In the same way, I need to give myself some accommodations. It is normal for me to feel triggered when something causes an emotional flashback. I am not “weird” because I react differently than non-traumatized people do.

Instead of getting frustrated with myself for getting triggered, I need to recognize that this is part of my disorder. I need to cut myself some slack because I cannot control getting triggered – I can only control how I react to the triggers. I am hoping that recognizing the PTSD in myself as a true disorder will help me to stop being so hard on myself.

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PTSD and Cycles of Emotions

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In my last post, PTSD: What Do Flashbacks Feel Like?, I shared what flashbacks felt like for me. In this post, I will share tips to make working through flashbacks more bearable.

Let’s start with the physical aspects. When you are experiencing flashbacks, your brain is doing some major restructuring. Because of this, it is a really good idea to start taking Omega 3 supplements. As my yoga instructor explained it to me, Omega 3 supplements are like the “oil” for your brain.

Imagine a car engine trying to operate without oil to lubricate it. That is what you are doing to your brain, especially as you are experiencing flashbacks, if you do not get enough fatty acids in your diet. Taking Omega 3 supplements will help with the physical stress of experiencing flashbacks.

You will also need to set aside lots of time to process the memories and to rest. I struggled with terrible insomnia while I was experiencing flashbacks. I needed to set aside time to take naps on occasion so my body could rest. I also canceled numerous commitments and slowed down my life so I could focus on healing.

When you are experiencing a flashback, you have more power than you might realize. Even though one part of yourself is reliving the trauma, another part of yourself is fully aware of being in the present. You can use this “dual reality” (Judith Herman’s label) to your advantage.

When I experienced a flashback, I would talk myself through it. I would tell myself that I already survived the abuse, so I could survive the memory. I would remind myself that, no matter how bad the memory was, I knew the ending because I will still alive and okay today. I would also “play music” in my head to help calm myself as I experienced the flashback.

I also learned that I had the power to “stop” and “rewind” a flashback. As long as I promised myself that I would return to the memory the next day (and meant it), I could stop a flashback midway through so I had time to process the information. Many of my flashbacks contained a series of traumas in one incident, so I needed time to process each piece of a memory. Trying to deal with the entire traumatic experience in one sitting was simply too much.

Most importantly, I learned to believe myself. While what I remembered might have been smoke and mirrors in certain situations, my reaction as a child to that trauma was not. So, if you recover a memory that seems farfetched, such as being raped by Santa Claus, believe it. Your flashback is likely a very accurate representation of what happened, but you are experiencing it from the perspective of a child, not an adult.

Try to rest in the knowledge that flashbacks do not last forever. I experienced multiple flashbacks each week for a good year, but they finally tapered off. At some point, you recover enough information to be able to heal. You do not have to relive every single incident of trauma in order to heal. You just need to recover enough information to see yourself for who you are and to appreciate what you have been through.

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Somebody found my blog by Googling the question, “What do flashbacks feel like?” This is definitely a subject that I want to cover on my blog.

I wrote about what flashbacks felt like for me here. One person responded in the comments that she experiences flashbacks differently and that her siblings describe their flashbacks differently from her experience. So, what I am going to share here might or not might not be similar to what your experience is like.

My first flashbacks were more like a sickening awareness. I had been trying to figure out for months why I had alter parts, but I had no memory of any abuse severe enough to result in dissociative identity disorder (DID). I called my sister and asked her if she had any memories of me being abused as a child. She said that she had always had a very bad feeling about our mother.

I instantly felt my body being orally raped, and I just knew that my mother had sexually abused me. I had no memories of the abuse at this point, but I knew with absolute certainty that my body was not lying to me. I felt the truth (and horror) of what my mother had done in the deepest recesses of my spirit.

I started recovering visual flashbacks after that. As I would lie in my bed at night, I would feel a “pull” in my brain and know that a memory was coming. I would choose to experience the memory. With my eyes closed, I would “see” myself reliving the event. While I might be horrified by what happened, I would not feel emotions in the reliving. It was more like observing abuse happening to someone else who looked just like me.

In the beginning, most of my memories were from the perspective of the ceiling, so I questioned whether I was simply crazy. After all, how could I possibly have seen the back of my head?

After recovering the memory, I would post out it online at Isurvive.org, my favorite message board for child abuse survivors. The memory would be vivid. The next morning, the memory would be in my memory bank just like any other memory.

Then, the emotions would come. Whatever emotions I had repressed along with the memory would wash over me, and I would feel as if I was drowning in a sea of terror and grief. (The rage came later.)

Because I dealt with flashbacks on a regular basis for over three years, I developed some strategies to make them easier to handle. I will write about those in my next post.

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Girl with pail (c) Lynda BernhardtOn my post Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Alter Parts, a reader wrote the following comment:

Hello all, I had a psychologist try to connect me to the 5-year old me and talk to her. But I only could see her, not communicate. It felt like there was a wall between us and that there was nothing I could do or say to protect her. Anyone else have a similar experience? -CS

Yes, I have experienced this a number of times.

My first experience with my inner child came years before I recognized that I had a lot of healing work to do. I was still in college when I had a disturbing dream. I saw a dark, vast room that had nothing in it except an ugly child. The child was hideously ugly – so ugly that I could not even determine the child’s gender. Its face was burned and splotchy red, and it only had a few wisps of hair on the top of its head. I was repulsed by it, but I could also sense that it needed to be loved. So, I walked up to it and hugged it, feeling repulsed the entire time. As soon as I touched it, it started screaming these horrible, blood-curdling screams, and I jerked awake with my heart racing.

Since then, I have has much more focused ways of reaching out to different parts of myself.

The barrier that you are experiencing is your own denial. You have separated from this part of yourself because you do not want to face the pain that this part of yourself holds. To embrace her is to embrace her memories, emotions, and feelings. You separated yourself because those experiences were too painful to face. When you are ready to accept her as you, you will break down those barriers.

One thing that worked for me to was to find a picture of myself at that age. When I first looked at the picture, I hated what I saw. It took me a while to push through my initial self-loathing. I had to think of this little girl as someone standing on the street rather than as “me.” As I distanced myself in this way, I was able to recognize how tiny her hands and feet were and see the sadness in her eyes. As I looked at her this way, I was able to develop compassion for her, which really was compassion for myself. This is how I broke through my barrier.

Related Topic:

Does an Abused Adopted Child Have an “Inner Child”?

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Green and red leaves (c) Lynda BernhardtOne frustration that I used to have in healing from child abuse was all of the “shoulds” that people threw my way. I “should” not still be having flashbacks. After all, nobody could have experienced that much abuse. I “should” be feeling anger toward my abusers. I “should” stop feeling shame and, instead, love myself.

You know what? What I “should” have been feeling was irrelevant because, whether I “should” have been feeling those things or not, I was feeling them. That was my reality. To tell me that I “should” or “shouldn’t” feel a certain way only made me feel even more badly about myself than I already did.

So, I decided to remove the word “should” from my vocabulary as it applied to healing from child abuse. What mattered was my reality, not what another person thought my reality “should” be.

I think that people “should” child abuse survivors to death because they want to put us into a box that they can understand. Does it make sense for a person to feel guilty and responsible for an adult raping her as a child? Of course not. And so, because it does not make sense to the other person, the other person wants to “should” us into a place that makes sense to him or her. However, if you read over the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you will see that guilt and shame are hallmarks of the disorder. If we didn’t have the symptoms, then we wouldn’t have the diagnosis, would we?

If you are feeling overwhelmed by other people’s “shoulds,” choose not to listen to them. What matters is what you are facing in this moment, not where you “should” be according to another person. Whatever you are feeling about your child abuse history is normal.

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Dark skies (c) Lynda BernhardtMost people are familiar with at least the concept of a visual flashback. A person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relives a traumatizing event by “seeing” the event take place again. Fewer are aware that flashbacks come in many other forms, such as emotional flashbacks. I have talked about non-visual flashbacks on my blog, but I would like to address the body memory form of a flashback today.

The brain is not the only part of the body that retains memories of trauma. Every cell of our bodies has the capacity to remember trauma. For example, most people have heard about amputees who continue to feel sensations from the missing limbs. Having a part of the body amputated is traumatizing to the body, and the cells of the body react by having their own form of flashbacks called “body memories.”

If you do not know what a body memory is, then it can be very scary to have one. That used to happen to me a lot. I feared I was going crazy until my therapist explained what was going on.

For example, I would be lying in my bed at night, and I would feel my body being raped. I would not be experiencing a visual flashback at the time. I would just feel the trauma of a rape and not know what to do with it.

Frequently, I would experience body memories after the initial visual flashback. For example, after recovering the memory of an oral rape, I would feel the aftermath in my throat. Or after recovering the visual flashback of an animal rape, I would feel the sensations of that rape in my body.

Body memories can be terrifying, and they make you want to claw your way out of your skin to stop feeling them.

In order to heal from a body memory, you must do the opposite of what you want to do – You need to let your body release the memory. Just like with visual flashbacks, you will only be haunted by them while you fight them. After you release them, your body no longer feels the need to experience them.

Releasing a body memory is not fun. You must surrender to the awful feelings and allow your body to feel really badly for a little while. However, if you talk yourself through them, then they will no longer plague you. Tell yourself that you already survived the abuse, so you can survive the memory. Be loving to your body and tell it that you are sorry that it endured so much abuse.

It helps if you can connect back the source of the memory to the traumatizing event. This gives the body memory a context and helps you move past the need to continue experiencing the body memory.

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Microscopic view (c) Lynda BernhardtWhen I was going through the healing process, a visual flashback was obvious to me. I was suddenly reliving something traumatic. I would “see” and experience the event happening again while, at the same time, knowing that I was safe in my bed. I did not pick up on non-visual flashbacks quite as quickly. I had them for a long time before I knew what they were.

For example, I would sometimes taste cigarette smoke in my mouth, even though I have never smoked. When I would taste the cigarette smoke, I would feel panicky but not know why. The answer came later when I recovered the memory of my abuser almost smothering me to death. She was punishing my younger sister for some perceived non-compliance by smothering me with a pillow. I did not even bother to fight it because I knew that it would only make things worse. My abuser was so caught up in upsetting my sister that she failed to realize that she took things too far.

From here, the memory moves to the ceiling. I saw her yelling at my limp body, but my body did not respond. She then removed the pillow and checked to see if I was breathing – I wasn’t. She dragged my body to the bathroom and told my sister to go upstairs and get my parents. Meanwhile, she gave me mouth-to-mouth and resuscitated me, all the while telling me that I was not worth going to prison over. She had recently smoked a cigarette, so when I came to, I could taste the cigarette smoke in my mouth and lungs.

She told my parents that she had found me on the floor in the bathroom. She said that I must have slipped and bumped my head on the toilet. I was disoriented and said nothing. My parents told me to be more careful and left my sister and me downstairs to play.

Today, I have been having more emotional flashbacks surrounding this event. I don’t know what has triggered it today. All I know is that I will suddenly start feeling like I cannot breathe, even though I can. Even as I take slow, deep breaths, a part of myself feels as if it is being deprived of air. It is a really weird feeling.

Isn’t post-traumatic stress disorder fun?

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