My safety switch inside my brain flips too easily thanks to complex ptsd. Sometimes I am unaware it has been flipped and sometimes I know immediately. But each time I find myself in the middle of evasive action, hiding, isolating, protecting myself from dangers that are long gone but my brain and body still feel as current threats.
My counselor explained this as an emotional flashback and referred me to read work by Pete Walker. I have read two of his books, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, and The Tao of Fully Feeling, Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Blame.
Pete Walker also has a great website to get you or your partner started understanding complex ptsd and emotional flashbacks. This link to Walker’s site is a good place to start. I have found both relief and clarity here, from finally understanding my own reactions. It is helping me to see the unresolved childhood pain and grieve, rather than dig myself deeper into a pit of shame and self loathing.
The emotional flashback is more difficult to recognize because it does not come with imagery. You don’t get to see what has started it, so it can take hours, sometimes even days to recognize, especially for an intense safety trigger, I hide from it.
Walker explains our defenses as more complex than fight or flight by adding freeze or fawn too. I have no fight response. The other three seem fairly equal as a hybrid, flight: explaining my workaholic overachiever tendencies, freeze: my escapes into video games and dissociation, fawn: my codependence on others, my need to please them with no rights of my own.
So what does this look like? The past several days I have felt far away and afraid when Hubby was in the same room. I was avoiding his phone calls and texts, not completely, but delaying my responses. I had a choking feeling when he would kiss me and I would scream “stop!” to myself but say nothing out loud. I would endure his gentle touches knowing I “should” be enjoying it and responding but instead the fear would grow.
After several days of listening to my internal alarm bells, pushing him away, telling myself I am a horrible person, I finally realize I am stuck in an emotional flashback. I tell him I am not feeling safe. Ironically I don’t feel safe saying that, but my adult brain can tell my hurting inner child that she is safe. I am my own parent in these situations, as soon as I shut down the contemptuous inner critic and start some soothing. I feel my heart race and do some deep breathing.
Hubby asks if he can rub my shoulders. I find it helpful to be cared for without affection, so massage without hugs and kisses can help me feel safer.
Then we talk. We are still new at this, so we don’t speak gently to each other. I say what I think is wrong and it sounds like accusations. He gets defensive instead of comforting. I feel ashamed and guilty for bringing it up.
But we keep trying. We both know we both care. I let him rub my shoulders and mindfully tune into that. And then it hits me. I understand the source of this flashback.
I share with him how much time I have been spending with kiddos since school let out and that I have been able to truly connect with them everyday. I feel loved and I feel that I nurture, guide, discipline and protect them. I discover my flashback is from the contrast. When I am there for my kids, I feel the emptiness of what I never had.
Stronger emotional days can bring this on more intensely. A few days ago at the playground I was creating obstacle courses and timing my kids as they went through it, giggling. Our game was so much fun we attracted several other kids asking to join and be timed. Then it started raining a little and my 7 yr old lost his grip on the monkey bars, hitting the ground hard enough to bounce. But the deep mulch did its job and he was not hurt. In fact he layed there and stretched his arms out like a goober and said “Ta Da!” And we all laughed. He was very dirty but fine. I asked him again, and made sure he could get up ok, but then realized he was fine. I also realized that I would have been ridiculed for that, and that I was fighting my inner critic at that moment. My family would not have cared if I was hurt, but would have scolded me for making a scene, being clumsy, always doing something like that why do I even try when all I do is ruin everyone’s fun, I’m such a wimp…
My adult critic was saying I should have known it was slippery, I can’t carry him if he got hurt, I shouldn’t even try to have fun because this always happens, I’m a terrible mom I can’t keep them safe, I’m such a stupid wimp….
So I stopped my critic, but I did not stop the flashback. The feelings of being small and worthless and unsafe stayed with me for days. I was edgy, having more trouble sleeping than usual, almost no appetite, craving candy, and cringing in fear when Hubby displayed affection.
Once I found the source, shared it with Hubby, grieved for the uncared girl stuck inside me…the switch flipped and I began to relax and feel safe again. I started wanting affection and touch. The difference is like night and day and is instant for me, on and off.
I am still tired, dragging a bit, recovering from days of this altered emotional state, but otherwise I am fine as soon as the switch clicks…until it clicks again. And it will click on again. My job is to recognize it as soon as possible and manage my cptsd while living the fullest life I can.