Before figuring out that I had been Satanically abused, I had no idea I was experiencing flashbacks or that I was being triggered. I had no names for these things, and I either thought they were normal (sure, everybody thinks this way!) or that they were weird thoughts of my sick mind. I had no reason to think that they were a voice from the past, and so I struggled to make the present explain what was going on with me. I couldn’t work with the flashbacks because I didn’t know they existed.
With the realization of past Satanic abuse came a whole new vocabulary. Feeling-flashback, (emotional memories) acting out (behavioral flashbacks), body memory, dissociation, compartmentalization, fragmentation, losing time, trance. Each word or phrase helped build an intellectual framework for what I was experiencing. It was immensely reassuring to have this new vocabulary: it suggested that there was a cause, a reason, for my symptoms. It also suggested that others had had similar experiences, and that they could be talked about. Even read about in real books!
Some of the words helped me identify what was happening as it happened. When the swimming pool smelled of perfume or beer, it was obviously a smell flashback. Seeing dead bodies along the side of the road was a visual flashback. Staring into space, with words just out of reach, was an example of dissociation. These things were all concrete and easily connected to the past. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out that nobody had poured beer into the municipal pool. Life made a lot more sense.
Unfortunately, the clarity of that phase didn’t last very long. My behavior and emotions were often confusing because I had no idea whether they came from the past or the present. Before, I had just assumed that they were a reaction to things in the present. I knew intellectually that something could “trigger” past feelings, but I didn’t know what my triggers were and I didn’t know what being triggered felt like. I didn’t know what being in a feeling-flashback felt like. Seemed like I didn’t know anything.
Slowly, I began to figure things out. If I remember correctly, the first trigger/feeling-flashback pairing I understood had to do with male authority figures. If one criticized me, I would immediately feel suicidal. That made sense, for men had the power in the cult I was abused by. I paid close attention to critical men and found that my heart felt like it stopped for a moment. Next the feeling-flashback came on quickly, rushing over me with full intensity. Generally emotions that were a response to present-day events were not preceded by heart-stopping terror. The emotions were faint at the beginning and then built up slowly to full intensity. And emotions that were in response to the present were not super-sized, even at their most intense.
Now I could identify triggers by how my body felt and I could usually identify flashbacks by how quickly the wave of emotion came over me and how intense it was. At first it took me a very long time to understand the sequence each time it happened, but with practice I could often get it within minutes.
For some reason, behavior-flashbacks are harder for me to catch. I know there is a trigger, but I cannot connect it to the behavior that follows. Perhaps there is a long interval between experiencing the trigger and doing something in response. Perhaps it’s because actions are thought to arise from free will in our society, while emotions are believed to be in response to something. For whatever reason, I am still struggling to understand what is going on.
Sometimes I feel like a detective, collecting evidence, comparing, placing things in sequence. Here’s another example involving men. I compared all the men I could think of that I had been attracted to. Most of them resembled each other in a few key ways, although a few, usually those I was less attracted to, were quite different. I assumed that the men I was drawn to resembled some key figure in my past and that I had been taught to be seductive and sexual with that man. Now I had the trigger – that great looking guy over there — and the behavior, flirting. I was acting out my relationship with that long-ago cult man.
While I was figuring all this out, I realized that I was using the word “trigger” to mean “catalyst.” An object, person, or thing in the present was catalyzing a memory, or part of a memory. It precipitated a flashback, the emergence of a memory into my present consciousness from where it had been lying dormant in my unconscious.
But other survivors were using trigger in a different sense as well. They meant words or hand signals that were used to activate a cult-implanted program. A tap on the shoulder might mean, “follow me” or a special handshake might mean, “start the suicide program.” (I‘m making these up, I think.) I started called this latter category cues, to help me differentiate between them and catalyst-type triggers. The stakes seem much higher with cues. Who cares if the swimming pool seems to smell of beer? It’s not life threatening. But being cued to obey a cult command; that’s a whole different story. The process of figuring out what the trigger is and what program it is connected to may be the same, but the amount of pressure and anxiety is ever so much greater.
I hope that some of these concepts and examples help you conceptualize your process and help built the framework for your healing, even if only in a small way.
Adapted from Survivorship Notes Vol. 9 No. 4