Posts Tagged ‘flashbacks’

Irenic Glance Artist Randall Cook

Irenic Glance
Artist Randall Cook

This was written on September 9th, but wasn’t published at the time.

Last night, I figured out that I need to be honest with myself about something.

Bit of background: This is the second round of therapy after a break of about 7 years. I don’t remember very much about how things worked before, but Mama Bear tells me that I did a much better job of “letting the memories pass through me, rather than getting caught up in them.”

It’s been a puzzle as to why so much had been so hard this time around. Thinking tonight about other things, I remembered a point soon after I started therapy again when I started to deal with the memories and some part of me decided that if I protected myself from any of the impact of the memories, then my T wouldn’t believe me. I had to show her just how bad it was, so that she would believe me.

Or maybe it was that I had to show both of us just how bad it was, so that we both understood and believed me.

I don’t fully understand what happened with my father, but I know that parts of me believe that very sexual things happened with him. Maybe I don’t have to understand more than that right now.

However, I am certain that horrible things happened with my grandfather. Even my therapist has used the word “torture” to describe how I experienced the abuse. On a weekly (or more frequent) basis, I seem to keep on remembering more details and come to understand memories that didn’t make sense. I am struck by the thought, “how can one man do so many horrible things to one child? How can it be real?” How can I sometimes I feel like anyone I tell anything to will think that I just keep on making up more and more.

I am so convinced that I won’t be believed, even though Mama Bear has been clear to me that she believes that I was horribly abused, even if it is difficult to be sure about all of details because of my age and the nature of trauma and memory.

I think that I need to admit to her the belief that I can’t protect myself from being hurt by the memories, because if I do, then it will be written off as being not very bad abuse for me or even, “you look ok, so nothing could have happened.”

I need help convincing myself inside that this is a misguided attempt to help me. It’s ok to protect myself from the memories. It’s the right thing to do. If I help myself as much as I can, then I’m not going to lose any help from Mama Bear.

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I won’t do anything to harm myself. I feel too much responsibility for how taking my life would affect those I love, particularly my daughter. Generally I am grateful for those ties, but at other times I wish that my ending all of this struggle wouldn’t impact anyone else.

Yes, there are things about my life that are very good, even wonderful, but so often I find myself wondering, “Is anything worth suffering through what happened to me? How long will it take for me to escape the memories of it now? How long will it take for me to work past feeling trapped by what happened?”

I struggle over the question of whether I would have been better off if I had never been born. There are things that I love about life, but there has been so much that has been inexpressibly painful.

Sometimes I wish that my grandfather had just killed me like I thought that he wanted to. Maybe there would have been some sort of afterlife that was a relief, maybe it would have just been oblivion, but it would have to have been better than what was happening to me.

I don’t understand why I feel this desire for it to all be over so intensely right now. In so many ways, things have been so much better lately, but it’s like I am drowning in a sense that he will always be able to hurt me in anyway that he wants. That all I was good for was for my body to be used by my father and grandfather and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

I know that I felt more hope and self power several days ago, so I’m just going to go on faith that this will pass.

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Leah Day Sunrise of a New Day

Leah Day
Sunrise of a New Day

I’ve been doing it again. I’ve been trying to go back and rescue myself, which is impossible. No wonder I’ve been feeling hopeless, because it’s a task that I have no hope of being able to accomplish. Unfortunately, when I fall into trying to do this, I trap myself in re-experiencing trauma memory after trauma memory. As Mama Bear said today, it wouldn’t be so bad if my adult was witnessing it and supporting the child part, but I go into the child part and simply re-experience the trauma. Nothing good comes from re-experiencing trauma over and over. It doesn’t facilitate healing; all that it does is stir up trauma symptoms to some degree or other.

In my session today, Mama Bear urged me to not engage with every memory, but to instead practice simply letting them be. I told her that it felt like a betrayal of the child part to leave her to the memory, to which Mama Bear replied, “C., you are thinking as though the child part is a real child inside of you, not a part of you.”

I stopped, stunned, but soon realized that she was correct. I was acting as though I needed to rescue a real child- a child whose needs I needed to put before my own. But as separate as the parts can sometimes feel, we are all a part of the same whole. I was forgetting that the distress that I feel now when I engage with the memories is every bit as important as the distress that I remember. And even worse, by putting myself back in the memory in a futile attempt to help the child that I was, I was instead helping to keep all of me in that distress. I have to remember: I’m not trying to rescue a child; I’m trying to rescue me. All of me. In some ways the now me is the most important, or at least where the ultimate healing needs to be focused, because that is where I should be living and that is where all of the best stuff is. I don’t want to live my childhood over again, but really living now could be a very good thing.

Then Mama Bear dropped the real bombshell on me: “You have already lived through everything that happened to you. You don’t need to experience every detail of it again. What you needed was for the adults in you life to see what was going on then.” That’s exactly what I have been doing. I have been acting as if my being there with the child part during the abuse will somehow change what happened. I desperately want to change what happened. But I can’t change it now. I did the best that I could to deal with it then and I couldn’t change it then. I needed an adult to change what happened. I have never had the ability to change what happened to me; that ability lay outside of me and I had to rely on the adults to do what they should do. It’s not my fault that they didn’t.

I’m not sure whether it is more freeing or heartbreaking to take in that stopping the abuse was out of my control. Mama Bear reminds me that I wasn’t fully helpless, because I got myself through what happened and got myself to where I am now, but in terms of stopping the abuse, I was helpless. Helpless sounds bad, but in this case, because it is the truth, there is a good facet to it. It absolves me of the responsibility for stopping the abuse, for saving myself. It isn’t my fault. It isn’t my shame that it happened. It wasn’t that I let it happen; it was that I had no control over the actions of the adults in my life. Stopping an abusive adult requires the intervention of another adult. I couldn’t make it happen on my own.

I can stop trying to make it up to myself. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t save myself. I may need to repeat that to myself a lot before I fully believe it.

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Martha Wolfe Hope prayer flag

Martha Wolfe
Hope prayer flag

In no particular order, 10 things that Mama Bear has said to me that were particularly helpful, and because I could have kept on going, there will be more at a later date.

1) He is dead. After I started working with Mama Bear again and I became more aware of just what some of my child parts were experiencing, I realized that deep down I didn’t believe that my grandfather really was dead and I was terrified that he could come after me again. We spent weeks talking about my attending his memorial service, the evidence that I had that he was dead, and why I was having trouble accepting it. I know that he was cremated and have seen the container that his ashes were collected in, so as I began to feel more secure I found myself having revenge fantasies about what I could do with his ashes. Slowly, more and more of me accepted that he probably was dead. The fear that he was so powerful that he could get me anywhere, at anytime ran so deep that I simply had to accept that the process of fully believing that he was dead and I am now safe from him would take however long it would take. I spent several months when a part would unexpectedly pipe up in session, “Is he really dead?” and we would have to take a few minutes to go over the evidence again, and then I would feel reassured enough to refocus on the original topic. Now I almost entirely believe that he really is dead, but sometimes I still slip.

2) Even if he wasn’t dead, you are a capable adult now and you know how to protect yourself. I was shocked the first time that she said this. I tended to think of him as so much more powerful and larger than me, but eventually I realized that Mama Bear was right. Not only am I three inches taller than he was, but I am physically more capable than he was. And as I thought about it, I realized that he tended to reserve his worst treatment for those who had the least ability to stand up against him. Or, as Mama Bear said, “He was a coward who preyed on a defenseless child.” But I am no longer that defenseless child that he was able to prey on. I have strength in myself. I have strength in allies. If my grandfather stood in front of me today, he might make a few cutting remarks, but he wouldn’t dare to do anything more.

3) It isn’t happening now. My flashbacks often have a very strong sense of “nowness” to them. Even though I can look around and see that I am here in this time and place and know all of that at a surface level, the part of me that is experiencing the flashback believes that the events are happening right now. Even after I manage to I pull back from other aspects of the flashback, I often am left feeling as though part of me is still stuck inside of it. So Mama Bear and I have emphasized the difference between here and now and there and then over and over and over. It all has helped a great deal, but sometimes I still am not able to pull myself into the here and now on my own, so hearing her say, “It isn’t happening now” is a tremendous relief to me. When I hear those words, I can grasp ahold of her reassurance that here and now really is reality, the flashback isn’t.

4) It’s nothing but a horror show. During a particularly harrowing period of frequent, intense flashbacks, Mama Bear said this to me. It seemed to fit, because, yes, the things that were happening in the flashbacks felt like they would do better in a horror show than in my mind. I was dealing with a particularly revolting set of memories and it helped so much to imagine taking it out of me and placing it on a screen, in a horror show. While I couldn’t entirely turn off the horror show until it had run its course, at least it was a bit more distant and tolerable. And most importantly, it no longer felt as though it was a part of me. It helped me to see that the memory was a memory, it was not me.

5) I see you. Hearing her say this while looking her in the eyes and really allowing myself to connect is both a terrible and wonderful experience. Terrible in the sense of painful and overwhelming because it goes to the core of so many attachment issues for me: feeling unseeable, that no one would want to really know me, that it could never be safe for the most vulnerable me to know and be known by someone… It was wonderful because it is what I have craved all of my life. First my mother wasn’t capable of providing it and none of the other adults in my life were remotely safe enough to connect with deeply, and then, when I was older, it was too late, I was too badly hurt to risk allowing myself to feel that fully seen. I am still in the midst of learning how to be fully in the room and allow myself to perceive that she is fully in the room with me. When we have had these connecting experiences, I both feel a physical jolt of pain and I cry tears of relief and hope. Slowly, step by step, I am allowing my full self to be in full relationship with her, and at the same time, bit by bit, I am doing the same thing in my other significant relationships.

6) You are going to be angry with me sometimes, that’s just what happens in relationships. Don’t worry, it takes a lot to ruffle me, and I’ve had clients get really angry at me. Just don’t try to throw me out the window. Mama Bear has been trying to encourage me to feel safe enough to feel angry with her for many years, and I’m finally at the point where I can hear what she is saying and believe her. I have been testing her bit by bit over the last year or so, at first just showing the tiniest bit of anger in an e-mail. Each time I tested her, she would reassure me again that it is OK for me to get angry with her and while what I had shown had been a big deal for me, it was no threat to our relationship at all. She would talk about how real people in real relationships get angry with each other sometimes, because everyone makes mistakes. At some point she would mess up and I would get really angry at her, but I didn’t have to worry about how she would react. She isn’t frightened by anger and her joke said to me that she wasn’t afraid that I would get so angry that I would lose control and do something terrible. I might be afraid that my anger would turn me into my grandfather, but she knew that it wouldn’t. Through her, eventually I learned to have faith that nothing could turn me into my grandfather.

7) You can’t get rid of me. I went through a period that was several months long where I kept on testing Mama Bear, even though I didn’t quite realize what I was doing at the time. I was terrified that if I really leaned on her as much as I needed to, then she would abandon me when I was most vulnerable. I knew that she wouldn’t intentionally betray me, but I was afraid that I would overwhelm her and drive her away. I was convinced that I would turn out to be “too” something for her- too much trouble, too demanding, too clingy, too needy, too hurt, too contaminated, too weird, too something… So we talked over and over about how she knows how to take care of herself and she can create boundaries, so she was confident that I was not going to be too much for her. I didn’t believe her. I would write long emails and end them with, “See, I’m too needy, aren’t I?” or some such thing. And when that didn’t work, sometimes I would turn around and say, “I don’t think that I can do this anymore. I just want to run.” Eventually she sat me down and just flat out said to me, “C., you can keep on trying, but you can’t get rid of me. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to abandon you when you need me. And you’re going to have to work a lot harder than that to convince me to let you go.” It didn’t all sink in at once, and it took her repeating herself, but at that point I started to feel a bit of security that it was safe to rely on Mama Bear. Eventually, I realized that Mama Bear is far stronger and more capable of taking care of herself than my mother was- she really was telling me the truth and I could trust her to be there for me. She really was willing to provide the security that I needed then to feel held, contained, and secure. What I realize now is that the problem wasn’t that I was too needy, hurt, clingy, etc. when I was a child, the problem was that my mother didn’t have the resources to deal with helping a child who was being abused. It wasn’t my fault that I overwhelmed her and that she couldn’t hold me in my pain, the way that I needed for her to.

8) You don’t need to know exactly what happened. You just need to know your truth. Dissociation saved my mind by putting me in a different state during the abuse, but by doing that, my memories of the abuse were completely disrupted. There is an awful lot about what happened to me that is unclear. I have experienced many of the same body and emotional memories for decades, however there are other areas that continue to confuse much of me, even after decades. To make matters worse, when I experience flashbacks, I’m torn between wanting to believe myself and wanting for it all to be untrue, messing with any sense of what might or might not be real. Unfortunately, I also have had the driving need to know exactly what happened. Mama Bear and I have gone round and round with this: There is no knowing which details of the memories are true, but I have been able to build an over all picture of what my experience was like. I feel as though I have thrown myself against a wall time and again over this, but I finally get it. Part of the reason I was holding out for details was because I didn’t want to accept my truth. I realize now that it doesn’t need details for it to be a horrible truth, so horrible that I want to have a reason to hold back from owning it.

9) We know that you were abused. You don’t need to keep on proving it over and over. I don’t have a memory of trying to tell my mother about the abuse, but I act like I did and I feel as though I did and she just didn’t understand me. I think that is tied into why I have had this deep fear that Mama Bear doesn’t really believe me and I have been convinced that I will betray myself and stop believing myself. Inside, there are parts of me that have been convinced that “No one will really believe me. It’s impossible.” While I was completely unaware of it at the time, I felt the need to prove to myself and to Mama Bear over and over that I had been abused, and I pushed myself towards being triggered into flashbacks. It was an incredibly painful way to demonstrate that I had been abused, but it was effective. Somehow, Mama Bear caught on to what was going on, and she started to say to me, “We know that you were abused. You don’t need to keep on proving it over and over.” Wow. “We know that you were abused.” I finally realized that someone did believe me, really believe me. “You don’t need to keep on proving it over and over.” It sank in that she wasn’t going to stop believing me. Further, she noticed and cared about what this was doing to me.

10) I hear your pain/anger/grief and I am here with you. I have spent much of my life running from the intensity of my feelings, but that causes all sorts of problems for me. So I am currently working to allow myself to come together and fully feel my emotions in the context of my truth, but when that happens, it feels as though I am being filled with that emotion in a physically painful way. In fact, it feels unendurable, but I know that I need to find a way to endure it without dissociating, if I can. When Mama Bear sits there with me and says, “I hear how terribly deep your pain is and I am here with you,” it reminds me that she believes that I am strong enough to survive the pain, that it is safe for me to no longer be invisible and I don’t need to suffer in silence, that someone sees/hears how much pain that I am in, and that someone cares enough to stay with me. That sort of support makes a difference and sometimes it’s enough to allow me to remain with the emotions until they ebb on their own. It hasn’t happened often, but each time that it does happen, I learn a little more deeply that strong emotions may be unpleasant to experience, but I can survive them.

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I talked with Mama Bear about my “writing down a flashback” experiment and she pointed out a few things to me that I want to pass on.

First, when I mentioned to her that I did not record any emotions, just a bare description of the sensations that I was experiencing, she said that she thought that factor was a key component.

Second, starting a few days earlier, I had begun working on just writing down the thoughts/experiences/feelings of parts in an attempt to unburden my mind and give myself a place to contain what I otherwise was experiencing as chaos in my head. Once again, I did not engage or analyze what I was writing down, I just recorded. This previous experience probably was essential practice that allowed me to be successful in a flashback situation.

Third, Mama Bear believes this technique requires being able to approach the experience with “compassionate curiosity.” Now, that is a state that I all too often fall short of while I am under stress, but over the weekend I reached a conclusion that I need to just deal with myself exactly where I am, not where I think that I should be and not where I think someone else thinks that I should be. I think that shift is what allowed me to go into the writing with a mindset that was much closer to “compassionate curiosity” than I can normally manage.

All of that said, she agrees with me that the success basically boils down to the fact that I managed to use my brain in ways that were incompatible with trauma thinking. I disengaged my poor overworked amygdala and called on higher brain functions.

Oh, and I very much hope that this makes sense, because my brain is barely functional right now, but I wanted to write sooner rather than later.

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I want to throw out something new that I tried yesterday that turned out to be a surprisingly effective way to deal with a flashback. In general, I can’t do much of anything to reduce the impact of a flashback- even if I do my best to ground myself and am madly telling myself over and over, “I am here in my living room in 2013 and no one else is in the house; I am safe,” the part of me that is experiencing the flashback still is fully in that experience. My most successful approach to date has been prevention. I try to reduce my over all level of hyperstimulation, which reduces the likelihood of triggering a flashback in the first place.

When yesterday’s flashback started, I was about a 2 minute drive away from home and I was able to forestall things by saying, “This has to wait until I get into the house, it is just too dangerous otherwise.” In those couple of minutes, I still had shadows of sensations, but not the full impact, so I was able to think a bit about how to take care of myself when I got into the house. I have recently started “dumping” emotions/thoughts/experiences that belong to parts/self states in a journal and it occurred to me to try the same approach with the flashback.

As soon as I walked in the door, I grabbed my journal and sat down, wrapping myself up in a blanket for security, and started to write down the sensations that I was experiencing. I immediately experienced a drop in the intensity of the sensations. I believe that what happened is that I transitioned from experiencing the memories to reporting them. I wrote a few things down, paused, and then I started to write something else down and very briefly, but very intensely experienced it and then it was gone. I had a couple of follow up thoughts that I also recorded and then realized that I was done. I closed the journal and put it away on a shelf. I wish that I had thought to pay attention to the time, but the whole thing couldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes, most likely it was no more than 5 minutes. While I was driving home and the whole process first started, my thought was, “Uh, oh, this isn’t material that I am familiar with, it could be a bad one,” so being able to spend the rest of my afternoon doing other things, rather than recovering from a flashback was both unexpected and a huge relief for me.

I can’t readily remember what happened during the most intense part, which is OK with me, because I know that it is written down and I can readily access that information. I know from experience that as soon as I read what I wrote, the details will come flooding back. The information isn’t lost, but it has been contained in a place where it isn’t interfering with my ability to have a life with my family. Most likely, I will remember it in therapy when it’s appropriate, but otherwise, it’s there in writing for me when I need it. Mama Bear and I have tried various imagery for containing memories between sessions to do just this, but I suspect that the added power of physically writing it down, closing the journal, closing the clasp on the journal, and finally placing the journal high up on a shelf that is out of the way is what has made this technique so much more successful.

I cannot remember ever hearing/reading about writing down the details of a flashback while the flashback is occurring. However I do know that during flashbacks, the amygdala goes into overdrive and suppresses the higher brain functions because it perceives your being in a life or death situation at that very moment, rather than that you are reliving a memory of a traumatic situation. I have heard it said that one of the goals of therapy is to engage the frontal cortex, which then allows for a fuller processing of the event and draws you out of simply reliving the trauma over and over. My state of mind changed so significantly when I started to write in the journal that I suspect that I must have done something along those lines. I believe that there were several important components here: 1) I transitioned from being enveloped in the experience to thinking in a more linear fashion, 2) I pulled myself out of a helpless state and actively started to do something that might help myself, 3) I switched from only thinking in terms of sensations and emotions to using language to describe the what I was experiencing, and 4) the act of writing is a fairly complicated one that requires a certain level of concentration. All of these factors require higher brain functions.

I have no idea if writing down what is happening in a flashback would help anyone else, but I wanted to mention the idea, just in case it might spark something that would be useful to someone. I have to say that the next time I feel myself being drawn into a flashback state, I’m going to give it another try. Even if it only works 25% of the time, significantly curtailing reliving a trauma 25% of the time is a big step forward for me!

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