Triggers and Flashbacks

I just hate that word. It is so violent! I wish we could use neutral language to convey the concept of something in the present stirring up past trauma. But we don’t, and it is descriptive of the process.

So . . . something in the present can bring on a partial flashback, just part of the traumatic memory. It could be a sight, a sound, a smell, or an emotion. I’ll give some examples from my own experience.

In a car, I sometimes think I see a severed arm or leg on the side of the road. It’s really a stone or a trash bag, sometimes a blown tire. Anything brown will do. Sometimes I hear faint words; somebody calling my name or phrases I can’t quite make out. And sometimes I smell things that might or might not be there. This drives me nuts because I often find it hard to tell if the smell is really in the air or if it is safely in the past.

Most of the time, I can identify the object that set off the visual flashback. It’s harder for me to figure out what triggered an auditory or olfactory (smell) flashback. A few times I have attributed it to a fleeting thought; the image of somebody I knew as a child who drank beer might have set off the sensation of the smell of beer hovering over the water in a swimming pool.

These are sensory flashbacks, and they are pretty straightforward reconstructions of something I experienced in the past. There are two other kinds of partial flashbacks which I find a little more complicated to understand.

One is emotions. If, suddenly, out of the blue, I feel something that has nothing to do with anything going on in the present, I figure it is a flashback. I usually can’t identify the trigger, at least not right away. I try not to show my feelings if I am in public because they usually aren’t appropriate to the situation.

It’s even more confusing if something that would scare anybody or make anybody angry happens but I react much more strongly than other people would. For years I thought my feelings were due completely to what had just occurred and I was a little more sensitive than others, that was all.

A psychologist once told me that if a person over-reacts in the present it means they had to under-react in the past. That makes total sense to me. The feelings I had to stuff all those years ago come swooshing out when they are triggered by something that scares me, makes me mad, or even makes me feel happy. In this case, I have to think hard to separate out how much is due to the present situation and how much is from the past, because it’s not an either/or situation.

The other kind of flashback that often puzzles me is action. I do something that is similar to something I did in the past, or something I would have loved to do back then but couldn’t. These are also called re-enactments.

The most common re-enactment I experience is trying to help somebody. I witnessed other children being hurt in the cult and wanted with all my heart to stop it, to help them get away. But I was powerless. That tremendous desire to help is still there and shows itself over and over in the present. I have worked long and hard to figure out that I am doing this and to sort out whether my help would be  co-dependent rescuing or would truly be helpful.

Now if I were the kind of person who found myself over and over again in the middle of a barroom fight — I’m not — it would be worth while asking who is the past I would have loved to punch in the nose. And if you see a child hurting animals, chances are high that they have been hurt or have been forced to hurt animals.

I never had many complete flashbacks, and I don’t have them at all now. By that I mean when the past comes back like a Technicolor movie, with intricate details. People often cannot tell that they are in the present when this happens: they believe the events in the flashbacks are happening right now. I’m not sure what determines whether a flashback is partial or complete. My guess is that it has something to do with how many parts are sharing their information at the same time. It might also have something to do with the number of different triggers that are present in the environment.

I plan to write about ways of managing triggers and flashbacks — how to use them to our advantage instead of just reacting, enduring, and suffering. Meanwhile, I hope you can relate to some of the things I have discussed here.


There are new photos on the photography page.

The last blog entry started me thinking about my agoraphobia. It’s been a pretty constant companion, since before I knew its name or could even conceptualize it. I can remember all the way back in grade school being timid about new places.

As a child, I didn’t get to decide whether I went someplace or not. Without choice, I just did it. Perhaps that was easier because I could not agonize, “Should I?” “Shouldn’t I?” I was anxious but I knew I had to go and knew it wouldn’t be fun. I always got through through it, usually without crying or complaining.

I was trying to fake being normal, you see.

There have been periods when I have been more afraid of new places and periods when it has eased up a bit. The transition is so gradual that I don’t spot it until months later. By then, whatever caused the shift is so far in the past I have no way of identifying it.

However, I have figured out one basic underlying cause of my fear of going from one place to another. Where ever I am, I know whether I am being hurt or not. But I do not know whether, if I go somewhere else,  there will be people there who will attack me. When it is really bad,  I have trouble going from one room to another in my apartment, especially if I cannot see into the other room. It is so much safer just to stay put and not take the risk.

Some types of buildings are more frightening than others. Banks, post offices, and libraries are scary, while museums are pretty much okay. That gives me some information but doesn’t calm me down. I can tell myself that there will be others around and that the cults are not apt to abuse people in public places in broad daylight, but I can’t seem to completely convince myself.

I’ve also figured out that I am afraid I will get lost and nobody will ever see me again. That, too, is information about what I was told as a child. I say reassuring things to myself, “I have a map. I have a full tank of gas and a credit card. I can always stop at a gas station and ask directions. It will be okay.” That helps a lot. Apparently getting lost is not as bad as entering a post office.

There is a reprieve when I am on vacation in a new place, especially if I am with others. It doesn’t last more than a couple of days, unfortunately. It’s as if the fantasy of a whole new happy life just came true and it is glorious to be calm and free to enjoy my surroundings. But my past always seems to come on vacation with me.

Agoraphobia is sad and exhausting.

Perfectionism and Procrastination — Two Sides of the Coin

These two traits go hand-in-hand for me.  It has to be perfect. But I am afraid it won’t be perfect. So I stall. If I never start, I can’t say I tried my hardest and it still wasn’t very good. I can pretend that once I get started I will whiz through it and it will turn out . . . perfect.

Unfortunately, I don’t quite believe this. If I had only taken pre-med courses, I would have gotten straights A’s, been admitted to the top medical schools, once again gotten straight A’s, and by now would be beloved by thousands of grateful patients and adoring students, right? I sorta doubt it. And I know for sure it’s not true that if I hadn’t dropped piano lessons after three weeks I would now be a famous concert pianist. I dropped them for a sensible reason: I couldn’t tell which note was higher than another. Glenn Gould didn’t have to overcome that handicap, but I did, and more besides, like little sense of rhythm and uncoordinated fingers.

So even though I know better, I continue to procrastinate because, “I don’t know how to do it.” “I might make a mistake.” “It’s so hard, and I will feel stupid.” And then I feel stupid and defective for procrastinating. That’s a lose-lose situation.

I have a running to-do list. Every day (or two or three) I check off “do the dishes.” And the next day I add “do the dishes.” Every week I check off “water plants on Sunday” and immediately add it back to the list.

You would think I’d feel like I never get anything done, but it is so much fun to check off items that I actually feel quite accomplished. As a matter of fact, I’m tempted to list doing the dishes this way:
Then I would get seven things done instead of just one.

Oh, what sophisticated tricks I play with myself!

In an attempt to tackle this problem in a more serious way, I thought up two little mottos and put them at the beginning of the list. I used a large fancy type face and green for one motto and purple for the other. I never check off my mottos, as they are guidelines, not tasks. I don’t want to tell myself, “Well, I did that today, so it is done, and I don’t have to do it again tomorrow.”

Better to do a half-assed job than not to do it at all
Better now than later

This means that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be better than nothing at all. And if something is better than nothing, I can wash one dish, and it will be better than washing none. Under these circumstances, it is hard to fail miserably.

But maybe I can figure out a way to follow the guidelines and still fail . . . if I just try hard enough.