Not Just Memories: A Survivor’s Description of Traumatic Flashbacks
[Content Warning: Discussion of traumatic flashbacks. I give a detailed description of a rape flashback at the end, but it is signposted again beforehand]
Flashback. Flash back. Flash. Back. These words have soft edges… They give the impression of flashes of light, or glimpses into a past no longer living; a world that gently reflects itself on the surface of a still pond. This isn’t my reality. They should be called drownings, immolations, or some other word that truly encapsulates the all-encompassing feeling of being back in the moment of horror, with no idea how you have ended up at the devil’s mercy once again, despite running so far.
I decided to finish and publish this particular blog post today in response to a psychologist on Twitter suggesting that flashbacks are no different to remembering other memories (such as going to a party or smelling bread), however, I originally started to write this blog post back when Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 was just ending. I found setting foot on social media over those days somewhat of a minefield; unable to move without being slapped with top tips to ward off all manner of mental health demons. Unfortunately for me (and I’m sure many others) most of these tips are about as useful a chocolate teapot. People want mental health to be neat and tidy. They want it to be simple and linear. They want it to be brandable. No-one wants to hear about the dark dirty edges, the viscera, the screaming chasms. You can't get a successful hashtag campaign going, filled with beautiful Instagram-able pictures, if your theme is #DemonsWhoWhisperDeathToMeAtNight. Much better to create themes like "nature", and "kindness". You can get a lot of publicly acceptable mileage out of those. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the increased awareness around mental health, and for the support that many people can find online, in self-help groups, and so on. I just think that these campaigns can have the unfortunate effect of beautifying an experience that costs so many lives. I also feel that they forget those of us who cannot be "cured" by taking up jogging or gardening. By being forgotten we are lumped in with this simplistic advice. This distance from the reality of many people's experiences is subsequently reflected in the advice given by mental health professionals. We can all "recover" if we just breathe deeply enough, right?
In particular, I am forever immensely frustrated by the lack of professional understanding of trauma, and by constantly being asked “have you tried...?”. Yes, I’ve tried. I've tried. I’ve tried every ridiculous suggestion to cope with flashbacks. I've downed raisins in the bath whilst reciting a list of every blue object I've ever owned. I’ve juggled ice cubes while drinking my 800th cup of tea of the day. I’ve doused myself in lavender oil and done star jumps. I’ve collected fresh spring water at the full moon; mindfully drinking it while executing a perfect downward dog pose… No, it doesn’t help. Flashbacks are not cute little peepholes that my brain offers up as a chance to peer into my memories - easily plugged by mindfully peeling an orange – they are strong, aggressive hands that slam into my body, ripping and tearing at my clothes, dragging me back into a world that has not stopped replaying itself again and again.
The language surrounding trauma is so heavily sanitised. Nobody really wants to think about it, to confront it, to sit with it.. to call it by it's name. It's much easier to just name it "trauma" and sweep all the messy bits out of sight. But I believe it is this removal from the reality of what trauma survivors have been through which leads to these (frankly ridiculous) self-help suggestions. For me, despite having an intensely acute understanding of the words "child abuse", they don't conjure any feelings, as I'm sure they don't for many people. They are flat, empty, meaningless words, which serve to protect everyone (other than the victims of child abuse) from reality. In my experience, professionals are so desperate to avoid talking about trauma, they project this avoidance back on their patients and accuse us of avoiding our realities, our pasts, our pain. A psychiatrist told me once, after yet another appointment where I begged him for help with flashbacks, I couldn't have therapy, because "therapy is just another form of avoidance". This from a man who literally turned his whole body away and withheld eye contact whenever I spoke in more than metaphors about child abuse. Apparently the irony was lost on him.
Flashbacks themselves are frequently misunderstood, often portrayed in films as either soldiers frantically running down hallways to escape helicopter noises, or people feeling a little uncomfortable about a difficult memory - with no in between. In reality, flashbacks can be conceptualised as a form of dissociation, an experience of current reality being suspended to some extent. If we view dissociation as existing as either a “positive” experience (i.e one which is characterised by the presence rather than absence of something) or a “negative” experience (i.e. one which is characterised by the absence rather than the presence of something), flashbacks are a form of positive dissociation. In my experience, I rotate through periods where one of these states dominates - so I may go through many months of hyperarousal, where I am deeply anxious, hypervigilant, and have daily flashbacks, but then move into a period of hypoarousal, where I am tired, amnesic, zone out all the time, and have more experiences of depersonalisation/derealisation. I can experience flashbacks in both these times, but they occur most often in the hyperarousal periods.
When attempting to work with a psychologist to reduce my flashbacks, I began writing down every time I had one, and noting their specifics. I ended up categorising five different types of flashbacks, their triggers, and the 'aura' which preceded them (like before getting a migraine). Often I experience more than one type of flashback at a time, but after months of gathering this information, it was clear the following were separate, distinct categories:
1. Physical sensation only (i.e. pain, taste, smell, touch etc.): This is the most common type I experience (sometimes several times a day). I can feel an assault, or a sensation linked to a trauma, but I usually know it’s not actually happening in the moment as I am still aware of my surroundings. The cognitive dissonance involved in physically feeling something I know cannot be happening can lead to switching from positive to negative dissociation, and I can zone out, go numb, feel detached, feel unreal etc.
2. Emotional response only (i.e. fear, longing to escape etc.): This is also very common. I suddenly enter the mindset and emotional state as if I am in a traumatic situation. It can be hard to understand what’s happening around me – what’s real/what isn’t. I often become very confused and frightened of those around me. The feeling of intense fear for myself and my safety can push me to panic that something terrible is about to happen. It’s very distressing. This often leads to switching from positive to negative dissociation. I become very confused and may present as if I am very young. I can become lost in my head, forgetting who and where I am, and who other people are – but I can still interact and respond to others around me.
3. View memory like a film flashing in front of me: Sounds and images are loud and strong. It can be many memories pressed together, or flashes of a single memory. This is very distressing and powerful, and I have to try and ground and distract myself, usually with music or movement, but it can be very debilitating and difficult to pull myself out of. If you have ever been unlucky enough to stand near a stun grenade when its gone off, the "flashbang" effect is really similar to this type of flashback.
4. Memory plays over the top of reality: This is not as common, maybe once or twice a week. Trauma figures are superimposed onto my current environment. They do not interact with me/others like a hallucination but follow exact movements/behaviours from memory – like ghosts or shadows. This type usually accompanies emotional or physical sensations, and can add to the feeling of being threatened. When it's very strong, it feels like I am in two places at once, unsure of which reality I fit into.
5. Submerged in memory: This is the least common and most distressing flashback I experience (usually several times a month, but often clustered together all into one week or one day). It always goes on for a very long time, sometimes hours at a time. If 'awareness of reality' exists on a spectrum, this is at the furthest end. I often completely lose sense of reality – I am not responsive to pain, touch or being talked to. It usually causes some amnesia or memory distortion, and causes such extreme distress I can hurt myself or attempt to kill myself to escape the situation.
Given the frequent experience of having flashbacks misunderstood, belittled, or even (as we recently have seen being shared on Twitter by a prominent psychologist) described as an ordinary memory of something unpleasant, I decided to write an account of what a rape flashback is like for me. It was incredibly difficult and painful to write, and while I have attempted to avoid anatomically graphic language, it doesn't hold back. These immersive flashbacks are often difficult to remember, and often I just get left with a jumble of confused memories. To create a narrative which flows, I have gathered together a number of these memories from different flashbacks of the same trauma. For context, I was sexually abused as a child. At 15 I escaped all abuse and threat of abuse. I had 18 months free from sexual violence, until I was 17, when I was raped by a stranger in some woodland. This flashback is of that rape.
I ask any mental health professionals reading this to really hear what I am saying. Flashbacks are serious, frightening, distressing, and disabling experiences. They are not the same as remembering something uncomfortable. They are not going to be fixed with a mindfulness colouring book. They are not just "difficult memories".
It starts with a feeling of sliding sideways out of my body, everything begins to turn in a swirling haze of colours as the world spins a little slower than my falling gaze. I am no longer at one with reality but moving separate to it; slipping from its grasp, until nothing makes sense anymore. I am suddenly aware of two worlds, and no longer know which one is real.
I must keep grounded; I can feel my surroundings, my bed, my blanket, my clothes. But I am being dragged, pulled, taken. No, I’m still here in my room. My feet are lost in leaves, flying furiously beneath me, unsure whether to let me fall, or keep me up – but I am inside the house, there are no leaves here. Help. HELP. Oh my god, I need help. Something bad is happening, there is something evil here.
I can feel his body. No, he’s not here. I can feel it more clearly than my own. This isn’t real. His strength, his unending grip. Fingers that reach through my skin to my bones, holding me up, holding me to him, holding me away from everything else. No, I can’t let myself fall, I need to come back. This isn’t really happening. His body is warm against my own, hard, pressing, unmoving. Oh God help. His breath comes in hot bursts against my neck, filled with a nervous energy, a great excitement, a purpose. I have to fight this; I cannot get stuck here. It’s so invasive, so frightening. Everything is wrong. The closeness, the panic, the loss of control. My heart beats so fast it feels like it has stopped. Am I really here?
This cannot be happening again.
After the years I spent seeing the shadow in every man, tasting the greed in their unspoken words, waking in the night mistaking my arms for his, I thought I was finally free. I thought I was finally walking through life alone. But here he is, he has found me, and something in his triumphant movements, his bounding pulse, makes me feel so stupid for ever believing that we would never meet again. We are one and the same, he and I, forever connected.
I struggle against his arms, or are they mine? desperately trying to free myself from what I know is coming. It can’t be real. The world gets smaller around us, as if it had been waiting to embrace me once again, to bring me home. The edges of my vision go black as I fall into a tunnel, deeper and deeper until the pressure begins to squeeze my chest like a vice. I can't breathe in, I can't scream, I am helplessly suspended in this chasm of fear - nothing else exists anymore, only this. I feel myself hit the ground with such force that whatever air I had left in my withering lungs is violently expelled. No, I’m not on the ground, I’m not there, I can’t be. The time has come, and I am not ready. No. I am not ready for the terrible exposure of skin against cold air, I am not ready for my own shock at realising I am crying - hot tears streaking my dead face - and I am not ready for him. Oh God help me. The pain races through my body, as if I am being ripped in half. I can feel it, make it stop, someone help me. I want to curl up, to protect myself, but it is as if he has reached through my chest and is gripping my beating heart.
I can't move. I can't find the place in my throat that usually crafts my words, it’s gone, I am silenced. Who is that, crying? I can feel the cold, hard ground beneath me – it’s so still. Am I really here? There are so many trees, so many. They watch what is happening below as if they can't see, but I know they can. Why don't they do something to help me? Why are they not coming to my aid? Oh my god, help me. Why won't you help me? I am here, am I not? I am alive. I have a soul just like yours. Help me. They do nothing. Their branches are still and silent, cold, like his hands around my heart.
Suddenly the forest is gone, and I am flashing back further to when I was a child, bundled up tightly in many layers of clothes, trousers tucked into welly boots, scarf trailing behind me. I am walking down a path lined with trees, it feels comfortable. Ahead I can see the silhouette of my parents, my mother clutching a baby, my father turning to call to me. Keep up. I am too busy to pay attention, far more interested in launching myself through the mountains of dry leaves. An enormous pile of them lies ahead and I leap happily into them, tumbling to the ground, laughing from beneath the heap. I giggle, and from somewhere I hear a man’s voice, but this time it is not my father.
I am back in the present. Or is this still the past? Back to the horror. Neither are real. He is talking to me - whispering, gloating. Dirty words, filthy thoughts. Bitch, he says. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. He’s not here. I hadn't wanted him, I had turned him down, but he can still take what he wants. I am nothing. That’s not true. I am weak. I am strong. I surely could not exist, and if I do, I no longer want to. Yes, I do. This was all I was ever worth. Please just kill me.
Actions speak louder than words – as the old proverb goes - and his actions are louder than any words I have ever spoken. Then shout! No message can be made clearer than one that is fucked into you. I am nothing, I am this, a mere vessel for his deviance. This isn’t real, you have to let go. Get out!
The world turns again and again beneath me. Kingdoms are built and destroyed in the time it takes for him to stop, and it seems for so long as if he never will. I am coming back, I can feel my bed, my girlfriend is talking to me. I will be trapped forever, under his heavy weight, feeling him violate every inch of my body, claiming it as his own. No, no, I can see my room, the leaves aren’t real.
He gets up, leaving me on the ground. It’s time to come back now.
I pull myself back my room. To my bed, and my clothes. Forcing myself to focus on my surroundings. A cat watches me sit up, lazily washing its paw, sprawled out on the rug. The pain hasn’t gone yet, I can still feel it. I feel how I felt then; I am his now. I no longer belong in my own body. It feels so real, so raw, so close. I want to shower after these flashbacks, to scrub myself with chemicals, to burn off my skin. But nothing ever rids me of the feeling of violation, or the profound loss of control. Every time I come back to myself, I say it won't happen again, but I know it will; I haven't yet found the key to lock this door for good.
I look up at the wall next to my bed where a note is pinned: "let flashbacks pass you by like you are watching traffic" "if you think someone is in your room throw a sock at them and see if they are solid" "cut up a lemon and suck on a slice". Fucking. Useless. Not useless because the clinicians who gave me these sage words of advice know nothing else, useless because their words make it patently obvious they have never actually listened to me. Useless because if they ever had listened to me, if they had ever actually heard me, if they had truly understood what a flashback was to me, they would never have suggested these things. But, here I am, fucking exhausted, lying on my bed looking at this page of suggestions pinned up - so that I can say I am "engaging" - and not a single word grasps my reality. It's a lonely place. The realisation that these people, my last hope at escaping my nightmare world, don't even know what a nightmare is, let alone how to escape when one envelops reality.
At the worst of times I can have a flashback like this multiple times a day for days or weeks on end. It is utterly exhausting, and despite the trauma being something I have already experienced, being forced to replay it repeatedly is traumatising in itself. Every flashback reinforces the trauma and retraumatises me. The anticipation of the next one is an anxiety that grips me - will I have one in the shops? Can I safely go on public transport, or will I be trapped when I feel one coming on? I feel held hostage by what can only be described as the constant possibility I will be violently raped at any moment.
And so I say again... these are not ordinary memories. They are not the same as remembering something difficult. I cannot put them aside or think my way out of them. They take a hold of me and either transport themselves into my reality or take me from my reality and pull me into theirs. As I sit here writing this, I am remembering traumatic experiences. Remembering, not flashing back. I don't want to sit with these memories, they are uncomfortable in the front of my mind. They squirm as if they stand on hot coals and internally I repeatedly turn away from focusing on them, not quite acknowledging they are here. A rising emotion comes with them and then crashes down under a wave of numbness. It rises back up and crashes again. This repeats over and over. This is me remembering. It's difficult and uncomfortable and distressing, but it is not a flashback. Please learn the difference, and accept that flashbacks do not represent a lack of resilience, a weakness, or a yoga deficiency. They are a dissociative experience, which smash through a person's understanding of reality in that moment, and turn the clock back to make you believe you are literally still living that trauma. I have seen them called waking nightmares, but really, I don't think that goes far enough. Nothing quite captures the horror of a flashback, and for me, in some ways, I have actually found them worse than the original trauma, because I cannot protect myself from them. They can find me anywhere. And that is the most frightening thought of all.
To all of you who experience this, you have my unending love and solidarity.