Managing Flashbacks

When I first started having flashbacks, I thought I had been hit by a mental and emotional Mack truck. It took several years of practice to get a handle on them and to learn how to deal with them. I’d like to share some of this hard-earned experience with you.

It helped to realize that different parts of my memories are stored in different parts of my brain. So the smells might come back, or the emotions, or the sights, but not everything at once. Or at least not usually.

When every sense, every detail comes back at once, the challenge is to keep one foot, or at least one toe, in the present so that I know it’s a flashback as it’s happening. Otherwise, I’m afraid I may find out later that I’ve acted in some way that made sense in the context of the flashback, but was harmful or weird in the present-life context.

It helps to say things out loud, if I can. “This is a flashback. Watch it and see how much you can remember.” “This is my apartment. The year is 2013.” “I am remembering something horrible that happened when I was a kid.” The more aware I am that the past is intruding into the present, the easier it is to ride through the flashback.

If I write about it, or better yet, tell somebody, the flashback moves from my unconscious to the conscious part of my mind. It transforms into a memory. It may take several tellings to complete this transformation, but eventually it happens and I no longer flash back to the same incident. The longest it ever took was three months. I thought that was plenty long enough!

When only one component returns, it’s not always clear whether it’s a flashback or a present-day occurrence. I try to be logical: “Is it really possible for my hands to smell of ‘that’ when I haven’t touched ‘that’ for two years? No. It’s got to be a flashback.” If I can’t figure it out myself, I can ask somebody for a reality check. “Do you smell something burning?”

The hardest “partial” flashbacks for me are body memories and emotions. With body memories, I often can’t figure out if I need medical attention or a journaling session. I’ve worked out a couple of general guidelines by now. If I can bring it on by thinking of my abuse or if it goes away when I talk about it, it’s probably a body memory. If I run through a list of the things I know are wrong with me, and the body feeling fits, then it’s probably a present condition, like arthritis.

Emotional flashbacks are much, much, harder to sort out. I have a life-long habit of feeling an emotion and then searching around for a likely explanation. That’s because I never knew I was having emotional flashbacks and so I just assumed it must be something or somebody in my environment that precipitated my feelings. Now I know that sometimes it’s a flashback and sometimes it isn’t, but darned if I can tell the difference lots of the time.

Reality checks come in handy here, too. I ask friends or my therapist if I seem to be over-reacting. (Over-reacting simply means that you had to under-react to something in the past, stuffed the emotions, and are now feeling both sets of emotions.)

Sometimes I can change my life so it’s clear when I’m having a flashback. For example, if I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, I have no reason to feel guilty, and all that guilt is from the past. Simple! (But not always easy to do.)

Most of the time it’s not that clear-cut, unfortunately. I can’t eliminate anger or fear from my life. I have to remember that the source of my emotion can be both the past and the present. If I see somebody threatening on the street, I’m appropriately afraid, but I’m also feeling fear that I have suppressed for years and years. It’s a flashback and not a flashback, both at the same time.

The more I understand my flashbacks, the easier they are to put up with. I hope some of my thoughts help you as you try to understand and work with yours.

Dissociation and Health

How to tell the difference between a body memory and a medical emergency? Good question. I have visited emergency rooms more than once with a panic attack that I mistook for a heart attack and have ignored the pain of a strep abscess, ending up spending five days post-surgery in the hospital.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at sorting things out. Now I ask myself, “Do I hurt anywhere? Does it hurt more or less than yesterday or last week, and does it hurt differently? Have I told the doctor?” I also check to see if I feel generally, bodily, sick or if I have any of the warning signs of disease, like lumps or changing moles.

Body memories, at least for me, tend to occur in certain locations or at certain times and they tend to come back day after day after day. Some are really nutty, and that makes them easy to identify. Some come with a story attached, and that, too, helps.

What really complicates things is that a present-day physical problem can stir up body memories of a similar illness or injury. In that case, working with the memory doesn’t affect today’s condition. It’s worthwhile, of course, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Does it work the other way around; do body memories sometimes cause physical problems? I think so, but I don’t think it happens as often. For example, a memory of being made to drink something awful might make it impossible to swallow, which could lead to dehydration.

I’ve found that discussing things I am not sure of with a friend is a great help. I pick somebody who is neither a total stoic nor a hypochondriac and ask for a reality check. Sometimes just hearing my own words helps me make a decision.

We were taught to bear pain, not to talk about it (certainly never to strangers), and to dissociate from it completely. No wonder it is hard for us, as adults, to know when there is something seriously wrong.

It takes prolonged practice to learn to tune into our bodies. We have to make a conscious effort to feel things that others notice instantaneously. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

And now I have another little motto for my fridge: “When in doubt, check it out.”

It’s embarrassing and sometimes expensive to be an alarmist, but it can be lethal to ignore or dissociate away pain or other symptoms.

A Free Verse Villanelle

The calendar of events has been updated.

A villanelle consists of five three-line stanzas and one four-line stanza. In the first stanza, the first and last lines rhyme, and the first line of all the other stanzas rhymes with the first line of the poem. The middle lines of the first five stanzas all rhyme. The first line of the poem is repeated as the last line of stanzas two and four and the last line of the first stanza is repeated in stanzas three and five. Finally, the sixth stanza ends with the first and last line of the first stanza.

Got it? It’s really hard to do. By the way, it should make sense, too.

Mine has the right number of stanzas and the repetitions are correct. Nothing at all rhymes, which made it a lot easier.

To My Many

Memories resting on the sidelines
Ever present, never seen
One is many, many one.

Clothed in shades of tawn and russet
Decaying thoughts and fading blood
Memories resting on the sidelines.

Tawn and russet crusted bodies
All the same and all unique
One is many, many one.

Just below an opaque surface
Firmly past still yet present
Memories resting on the sidelines.

Slide along, you russet alters,
Your beings blend in tawny grace
One is many, many one.

Every alter once a body
Every body binding time
Memories resting on the sidelines
One is many, many one.

This doesn’t count as a villanelle, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best poem I have ever written. I love it because the horror that shattered my soul is only alluded to. Characteristics of alters are described, as well as how they function over time. The form of the poem places constraints on the expression of ideas and feelings, echoing the constraints that shaped my mental processes.

I wish I could write more poems like this. Actually, I wish I could write more poems, period. But, like memories, poems come when they feel like it, stay a while, and then become memories themselves. I am just an extension of my pen, a vessel that the poem uses to create itself.