What does a flashback feel like? What does it look like?
I had some earth shattering ones yesterday, so the feelings are quite raw and fresh. I am going to attempt to describe the experience. Then I am going to add some research and comments from my counseling session yesterday as well. I don’t know if this is how everyone experiences flashbacks, if this is typical or not, all I can say is this is true for me.
So what happened yesterday that was so triggering? I had an entire day full of doctor appointments, pre-op assessments to prepare for my surgery next week. I actually had very little anxiety beforehand. I was not looking forward to a day of xrays, blood tests, EKG, physical exam, and anesthesia consult, but I had no panic in me.
So we start driving to the hospital, which is a large campus made up of many large buildings. As we get nearer I look up my first appointment desk and see that the building is the one I used to go to as a kid, where all of my pediatric orthopedic visits were when I was 11 and started back bracing, and 12 and had surgery, and then for years after for physical therapy and rehab to get a paralyzed limb walking again. Hmmm.
Although I had been going to this hospital campus for my migraines and back issues, I had not been in this particular building since I was a teenager. Is this enough foreshadowing for you?
So I walked in the building alone, Hubby dropped me off at the front door so I didn’t have to walk so far.
(He dropped me off just like my dad used to do. That thought didn’t actually cross my mind at that point, not consciously anyway. A-hole used to drop me off because he had a job where he was on call on a CB radio and would stay in the car, at work, while I went in for my doctor visits alone. At age 11, leaving me to deal with having severe scoliosis and whatever treatment the doctor said all alone. He always acted like it was the biggest inconvenience to have to even drive me there. He’d complain about the disruption to his day, how he’d be behind at work, how much the doctor was costing him. I always felt guilty and ashamed for having scoliosis, like it was somehow my fault and I failed him)
I made it into the lobby and started looking for the elevators, but somehow I already knew where to go, part of me remembered. I just started walking and got in the elevator. A nice man asked which floor, I smiled and said 2 please, but my lips felt funny when I smiled. Like they were too thick. And I wasn’t sure I actually said anything, but I saw him press 2 and we went up, so I figured the words must have come out of me. But it didn’t sound like me. It sounded like a stranger behind me or something, not me talking.
I got out on the second floor and the view there was like a bolt of lightning. I was going to radiology, the same radiology I had been to a ZILLION times for back xrays to check the progress of my spine curves. It looked the same, exactly the same. It opened up into the loft overlooking the lobby below, I could see the doors where I just came in. I was struggling to breathe, like someone was choking me from the inside out. Or like my stomach itself was choking me by coming up through my throat. I got dizzy, reached for the rail just in time and avoided falling. I’m not sure how long I stayed there. My mind went blank.
(This was a dissociative flashback, I learned later)
I came back and I was crouched behind the “wait here for next available . . .” sign, shaking and confused. My arms were crossed tight around myself, head down, I was leaning against the railing now, knees bent a little, but not quite squatting or sitting, more like I was HIDING there. Behind the sign.
The clerk called me up, and I snapped to attention, my awareness returning. I shook my head and walked to the desk. I couldn’t think what I was supposed to say to her. She said “can I help you?” and I still wasn’t sure who or WHEN I was. I was looking at my hands and my cane and I was very confused. I saw the desk number and radiology on the sign and said “Is this the right desk?” She wasn’t sure, since she didn’t know what desk I needed, but was very nice to me and asked me my name, which I luckily was beginning to remember. She confirmed my appointment, checked me in, and asked me to have a seat. I did, and started doing grounding exercises.
I have a great app on my phone, called “What’s Up?” that has all sorts of breathing and grounding exercises in it. I opened that up and started doing some of the lists – Name 5 types of flowers (tulip, rose, daffodil, lily, peony), name 5 fruits (apple, banana, mango, papaya, kiwi)…
Hubby comes in then. He does the grounding with me, which is so much better than being alone. Next list is name 5 capital cities (we both crack up…umm, we should probably know some, neither of us could think of anything so we just named BIG cities instead) The laughing felt great. Just what I needed. The swirly head feeling was stopping.
I had the xrays with no major difficulty and proceeded to our next appointment which was back downstairs. We walked back over the loft, into the elevator, got out on the first floor and I froze again. This time I didn’t just feel dizzy and out of sorts. This time my feet disappeared. This time I felt sad and afraid. This time I re-experienced myself walking alone down the stairs next to the elevator, a grand staircase with full view of the lobby and loft. I both saw myself doing this like a movie I was watching, but also felt it like it was happening in real time. It overlapped my reality. Like a dream come to life. I was suddenly 12, carrying a huge package of my own xrays to this elevator, so that my surgeon could see my curves had gotten worse again this month, that the back brace was not slowing the progress of my scoliosis. I was 12, listening to a team of doctors talk about me in the hallway before showing me my films on the lightboard. Listening as they say, Oh NO! Look here, and here, we’ll have to get more aggressive or her lungs could soon be compromised. And then they smile as if I couldn’t hear them outside my door, and they give me news to relay to my dad, the A-hole sitting out in his car, who can’t be bothered to come in with me.
I don’t recall feeling fear, or sadness, or alone. I couldn’t I wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t able to. If I felt those things…I would not have been able to go into my doctor visits. I would have been consumed and unable to do what needed done. So in my memories, I don’t recall the feelings, because I was numb.
But in my flashbacks – now that I’m no longer numb – the feelings are attached. And INTENSE!!!
I thought I was going to die yesterday. The power of the sadness, and the pure terror pumping through me was bigger than anything I’ve felt yet.
I felt the fear and sadness of a 12 year old starting with 2 60 degree curves in her spine getting progressively worse each month, getting told her own back will crush her lungs and heart if they can’t stop it, that the bracing is not working, and that surgery is required and soon. I felt the fear of that little girl doing that alone while her parents were too busy, self absorbed, or too weak to support her. No one held her hand or hugged her. No one sat with her. No one told her it would be ok. No one even looked at her. In fact she was made to feel like a bother, a nuisance for having this dreadful disease, a shameful bother bringing down the entire family with its inconvenience and cost.
I nearly passed out. I couldn’t breathe. I forgot how to breathe and just stopped for a while. I couldn’t feel my feet or hands. My vision was both blurry and focused, like I could see only directly in front of me, but it was with super clarity like a microscope. Is that tunnel vision? And then I burst into tears. Gasping for air, and trying to cry, trying to walk, unable to talk, watching these movies but experiencing them in high-def with surround sound and surreal senses. I couldn’t see the real surroundings with these movies overlapping my vision. I wasn’t sure which people were real, which were memories. I wasn’t sure which me I was – was I 12 or 39? I kept fading in and out between the two ages.
Hubby took my wrist then, kept saying “It’s ok, I’m here with with you, let’s find a chair, I’m right here…”He guided me and I kept having the urge to run! but I was unable, without feet or vision or air in my lungs. His voice I knew, and trusted, and knew it was not a memory, his voice did not belong to me being 12. I followed his voice and let him take to a chair in a quiet hallway. He kind of pushed me into the chair, and told me “push your feet into the ground, feel the ground” He kept holding my hand and wrist and saying he was there with me, that I wasn’t alone. I’m not sure how long it took, but the storm calmed a bit, and I could see where I was again, but still couldn’t breathe, and was still crying uncontrollably. I was trying to do breathing exercises, square breathing is my favorite for calming, but I was unable to count for myself. I asked Hubby to count for me so I could focus. He had never done it before, so I had to teach him so he could then coach me.
In 4, hold 4, out 4, hold 4 – I said in between gasps. Geez I felt like I was in labor trying to breathe in between contractions. This was so hard to THINK!
He started and at first he was way to slow, in……1…….2……3…..4……. and since I was still gasping and hyperventilating I couldn’t come close to his slow pace yet. He sped it up. And said ‘in’ is 1. OH!
he tried again. In..2..3..4..hold..2..3..4..
Yes that’s it. I could feel the quivering in my lungs relaxing a little. His voice sounded so good. The images in my brain were fading and the wall in front of me was getting more distinct.
We sat there counting and breathing for several minutes, not sure how long. Until I could take a deep breath with the quiver and gasp, until I could feel my hands and feet again, until I knew I was 39 and not 12. At one point a nice gentleman came over to us and asked if he could read us some bible verses to help calm me, since I was obviously distraught. We declined, but I thought it was nice that someone was willing to reach out to us.
I stood up and looked over at the lobby, the stairs, the elevator…a little sadness returned, but it is something I can handle now. It is something I needed to know. I unlocked something major yesterday. I got a taste of what I felt growing up, but wasn’t able to feel, what I repressed and locked away so I could survive each day and keep going. It wasn’t safe to feel it back then and I had no one to help me. I do now. I’m safe now.
I made it over to the next check-in desk, a few minutes late for my next appointment, but the clerk there was so cheerful as she looked up my name, and then all of a sudden she started giggling – and shrinking! Her chair was broken and the hydraulic thingy kept making her sink below the desk all day she said, she said someone took her regular chair. Her silly, mundane, human issue of someone taking her chair and swapping it for the crappy one was suddenly hilarious to the both of us as she reached up from her low position and hopped a little to try to see the computer monitor. We both burst out laughing.
It was awesome.
Many people are good and kind. I don’t have to be afraid to talk and interact with everyone. I don’t have to hide my problems, people like to be helpful, and all people have their own problems.
So the couples counselor was nearly dancing for joy yesterday when we shared this with him. He said this was tremendous progress for us both, shows a level of trust in each other, a willingness to share and learn. And he said that by Hubby caring for me DURING this flashback, it actually negates some of the fear and sadness. He said joy and care are antidotes to fear, pain, and sadness so if I felt loved and cared for instead of ashamed and alone during this flashback, then I may have rewritten some of these memories. Now when I think of them, Hubby and his love and care will also be combined with it, instead of me being eternally alone. That’s why we are supposed to shed the light on the shame gremlins and blast them away with the care of another person – in the moment.
I didn’t realize how powerful that was until he explained it to me. I now have a new connection, a new neuron path that connects loving feelings of safety and care with Hubby to my scoliosis and hospital visits.
Almost seems too easy, or impossible. Then I thought about the dream/nightmare imagery, how I’ve been able to think of new endings to some of my recurrent dreams with visualization and imagery. This is a similar process, only it works in reverse to rewrite history and lessen the power or recurrent flashbacks instead of nightmares.
I found a book by Joyanna Silberg, The Child Survivor: Healing Developmental Trauma and Dissocation. I found an excerpt (page 201 of Silberg’s book shown below) where she discusses the time machine technique. But basically the technique involves imagining the scenario of the flashback but instead of just remembering it, you add something to it, make a change. My counselor said it can be something minor, like make your face green, doesn’t have to be as drastic a change as this. In this book, the author has children imagine they have superpowers and change what happened to them, or imagine saying something they wish they really had said. I see the power and value of this method to get unstuck, to break free of the memory rut. If you change the memory, you have broken that worn path, it no longer exists. You can’t change history, it won’t change what happened to you, but you can change how you think about it, and maybe stop reliving it. Really, once was enough.
So last night I started imagining that instead of going to my doctor visits alone, my best friend went with me and we played cards in the waiting room. One trip I imagined I brought my dog with me and we played frisbee in the huge open lobby, I watched her running up the grand staircase. I tried to imagine that one time the doctor said I was all better, that my curves were getting better in stead of worse…but I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I can erase and rewrite the bad. But I can add in some good. I can add in some hugs and hand holding, and chocolate milkshakes. I can add headphones and imagine I was hearing great music instead of dad’s horrible words. Just imagine his mouth moving and not hear it – replace with umm, let’s see, age 12…I think I was into Madonna, Prince, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Tiffany, INXS, Guns N Roses, Phil Collins, Whitesnake and the entire soundtrack of Dirty Dancing nonstop from the year before. Both my cassette tape and my video tape were getting worn out. Patrick Swayze…Sigh.
Shut up Flashbacks. Nobody puts Baby in the corner! 🙂
Patrick Swayze will now accompany me in all of my flashbacks. Can’t hurt. Really can’t hurt. May not help a thing, I’ll let you all know how it goes. Next time I think of walking on that grand stair case at the hospital maybe it can look more like this.