Having a Flashback Is Not Simply Recalling a Memory

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often associated with those returning from war. However, for many of us with complex childhood trauma like sexual abuse, PTSD can be an all too common diagnosis. While its symptoms can manifest differently for each individual, ranging from nightmares to insomnia to anxiety to suicidal ideation, something most people deal with to a greater or lesser degree is flashbacks.

When discussing the topic of flashbacks with friends and family, most assume it’s just a memory, like remembering your first kiss or your first time at Disneyland. However, that’s not what it’s like at all.

For most people, myself included, flashbacks are an intense re-experience of a traumatic event, which feels like it’s happening now and involves all your senses. In effect, it feels like being re-traumatized, even though you are not actually experiencing the event for real.

Flashbacks can be triggered by many things. For me, things like the smell of the cologne my perpetrator wore, the sound of a toilet flushing, the sight of white briefs, even something as simple as sunscreen can send me into an episode. It’s different for each person.

When I’m having one, it can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s as crazy as turning around in the middle of dinner and seeing him standing there, which takes my breath away and triggers my freeze instinct. Often, it happens at night while I lie awake, my brain racing with thoughts, unable to shut them off. All of a sudden it feels like a wave flooding over my body paralyzing me. I instantly am transported back into my child body.

I relive, in absolute vivid detail, a particularly horrible experience. Things like the smell of his breath, the steam on his glasses, the blue towel with multi-colored fish hanging on the towel rack, the taste of his saliva, the feeling of his rough hands against my skin, even the exact blue jean skirt and checkered top I’m wearing bunching up against my skin are intensely and painfully felt. All the while, it’s as though I’m trapped by my mind and my body. An endless loop of remembering and feeling.

Once it’s over, the racing of my heart feels as though it could pound right out of my chest. I’m clammy, and it feels like I’m going to die. Slowly, slowly the feeling passes, and reality sets back in. I’m back in my grown up body in my real life, but this terrible fear remains: When it will happen again. What will it be? How long will it last? How many more times will I have to endure this agony?

These are questions I ask my therapist every time I see her. She assures me there is another side. There is hope for a life beyond flashbacks. Yet, for now, I wait, I hope and I do the hard work of healing, praying one day I will be free from the tortures of my mind and my past.

All I can do is trust and believe because the thought of this lasting for the rest of my life is intolerable.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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Lady Gaga Shares Open Letter About Her Experience With Mental Illness and PTSD

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On Monday, Lady Gaga handed out gifts at a homeless shelter for LGBT youths, but the singer kept on giving a few days later, this time in the form of an open letter. The note, published by her nonprofit organization Born This Way Foundation, shares Gaga’s experience living with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“After five years of searching for the answers to my chronic pain and the change I have felt in my brain, I am finally well enough to tell you,” Gaga writes. “There is a lot of shame attached to mental illness, but it’s important that you know that there is hope and a chance for recovery.”

In her letter, Gaga details how living with PTSD has affected her life personally and as a performer:

It is a daily effort for me, even during this album cycle, to regulate my nervous system so that I don’t panic over circumstances that to many would seem like normal life situations. Examples are leaving the house or being touched by strangers who simply want to share their enthusiasm for my music… I also experience something called dissociation which means that my mind doesn’t want to relive the pain so ‘I look off and I stare’ in a glazed over state…When this happens I can’t talk. When this happens repeatedly, it makes me have a common PTSD reaction which is that I feel depressed and unable to function like I used to. It’s harder to do my job. It’s harder to do simple things like take a shower. Everything has become harder.

In addition to dissociation, Gaga has also dealt with somatization – physical pain that results from being unable to express emotional pain. “I am continuing to learn how to transcend this because I know I can,” she added. “If you relate to what I am sharing, please know that you can too.”

Gaga, a rape survivor, also took the time to address some myths associated with PTSD, such as it’s a disease that primarily affects people serving in the military:

Traditionally, many associate PTSD as a condition faced by brave men and women that serve countries all over the world. While this is true, I seek to raise awareness that this mental illness affects all kinds of people, including our youth… I pledge not only to help our youth not feel ashamed of their own conditions, but also to lend support to those servicemen and women who suffer from PTSD. No one’s invisible pain should go unnoticed.

Adding to Gaga’s experience, the letter also features a note from her psychologist “drnancy.” “It is my opinion that trauma occurs in an environment where your feelings and emotional experience are not valued, heard and understood,” drnancy’s note reads. “The specific event is not the cause of traumatic experience.”

You can read the complete letter on Born This Way Foundation’s website.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Photo credit: Philip Nelson

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When I Realized 'Suck It Up' Logic Doesn't Work for Mental Illness

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Learning to accept I couldn’t control my mental illness and how I reacted to it was probably the hardest part of getting better.

Growing up in a family with four sons and no daughters, and most of us being wrestlers, we really had the “suck it up” idea when it came to anything that hurt. I wrestled knowing I had arthritis and I didn’t quit until I couldn’t walk anymore. We didn’t talk about feelings, and we never admitted anything was wrong.

This set me back so far on my pathway to treatment and, ultimately, recovery.

A few years ago, I was robbed while working alone at my (now previous) job. I was forced to the back of the store and my hands were zip tied and I was left there alone. This completely flipped my world around.

I didn’t leave my house for two weeks after the robbery.

But with my “suck it up” logic, I went back to work after those two weeks. I kept working for a couple months, and this made the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety that came with it so much worse. Eventually I quit because I realized it was making me worse, but I thought that if I just ignored it and pushed on that it would go away… I was dead wrong.

Months later, I am still feeling unsafe no matter where I was, and it was affecting my schooling. I finally convinced myself to go talk to a therapist at school. This was such a hard decision and I never even told anyone, not even my parents, that I had a problem still, or that I was getting help.

I went to him a few times, felt much much better after some behavioral therapy, then decided I could fix the rest on my own. I was mostly correct, but once the one  year anniversary came back around, the PTSD and anxiety came back way worse than before. Instead of replaying the robbery over and over in my head and different ways it could have panned out, I was doing this with everything. Driving a car? My mind would play visions of me getting in terrible accidents. Sitting in my room? My mind would play visions of someone breaking into the house and killing me/my family.

There was always a rational part to my mind that knew these were all irrational thoughts, but my body didn’t care. Physiologically, my body would react to how I was reacting in the visions and this made me angry. I ended up abusing prescription pain medicine because it made my mind go blank. I would self-harm because the physical pain would distract my mind from the irrational thoughts, so it was myself hurting me instead of “nothing.” I didn’t want to accept I wasn’t in control of myself.

A friend convinced me to go back to therapy, and I cannot thank them enough for that. I started doing more behavioral therapy and just generally talking about how I felt and what was going on.

I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I had PTSD at this point, but after doing some tests and explaining my symptoms, my therapist told me I probably do have PTSD. This was a huge relief to a part of me, because now, I knew why I felt the way I did, and I knew that there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. This was when my recovery took a huge turn for the better. She listened to what I said, and was understanding. She helped me realize that it’s “normal” to not have control during episodes and this is what really helped me gain control.

From this point on, it was all uphill for me as far as recovery. It definitely wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I was on my way to getting better.

Over that year and a half after the robbery, I didn’t want to accept there was something wrong and that there was nothing I could do about it. If I had just accepted there was something wrong, I would have realized that it’s OK to not have control, because it’s not your fault. I needed help. I was foolish to think I didn’t need it, and that just made everything worse.

It’s OK to admit something is wrong. It’s OK to admit that at least part of it is out of your control. 

If I had known these two sentences before the night of the robbery, I would have still been traumatized, but it wouldn’t have controlled my life for so long, and I would have gotten the help right away like I needed.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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A Guide to Going to the Gynecologist as a Rape Survivor

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As a rape victim, a gynecologist exam was one of my biggest fears/nightmares. I’ve never been able to find enough information about how to prepare myself to make sure nothing goes wrong. Of course you can find the basic information on how it works, but that just wasn’t enough for me. I’ve written a few tips gathered from my own experiences. I’ve also given the tips to gynecologists and I’d like to share them with you in the hope that everything will go well for you. I’ve had very bad experiences (exam against my will) and not so bad experiences (exam went well, but it will never feel “good” for me).

I’m talking about a routine gynecologist exam, so not one straight after a rape to collect evidence. Of course these were the things that helped me, so if you prefer to do it in a different way that is totally fine.

First of all, make sure that you think your current gynecologist is up for it. It was shocking for me to discover how little experience and knowledge most gynecologists have about treating and examining rape victims. They just don’t know how this might affect you and how to take it into account.

So how do you know if this gynecologist is right for you?

It’s important to know you can always refuse the exam and ask for a different gynecologist (for example: I only want females).

1. He/she is calm, understanding and friendly.

2. He/she doesn’t pressure you to do the exam and doesn’t get angry if you’re coming for the 10th time to try but can’t do it yet.

3. He/she doesn’t rush it and plans extra time for you.

4. He/she wants to prepare together before the exam.

5. He/she stops when you want, even if it isn’t finished yet.

With preparation I mean that he/she is willing to answer all your questions before the exam, tells you everything that is going to happen (unless you don’t want to know), makes agreements with you and allows you to tell him/her about the things he/she should or shouldn’t do. For example you can ask if he/she can stop every minute and ask how it’s going. Or you can ask for the door to be locked (sometimes other people walk in) or you can ask for it to be unlocked (because it provides you an escape route). Maybe he/she should not say certain words because your rapist said that to you or maybe you don’t want him/her to touch your knees (the gynecologist might think doing that will comfort you), etc. It is very important to make all of this clear before an exam.

I always want to get to know the gynecologist first, so I don’t do the exam in the first few times I meet her. I always take my partner with me to he holds my hand and ask the gynecologist to stop when he notices I’m frozen. Think about if you want someone else with you and where he/she should stand and what he/she should do during the exam. Do you want to be distracted or do you want to focus on what’s happening in the present? Both might be helpful strategies to prevent flashbacks. Also make sure the gynecologist listens to that other person as well (some doctors only want to listen to the patient and tell me I’m “grown up enough” to tell them myself when I need to stop).

Oh and very important note: a gynecologist shouldn’t force extra people on you: assistants, students etc. without your consent. It’s very difficult for me to say no and I’ve also had bad experiences with some doctors who wouldn’t even ask. I personally think the doctor should not even ask a rape victim to have others in the room.

It’s possible to insert the speculum yourself or to do the exam without laying in the chair/with your legs in the stirrups. If they want to make an echo, they might be able to see enough with an external one (your bladder must be full to do this). A gynecologist can always try doing this first.

A gynecologist exam isn’t a normal situation. If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it. There are other ways to examine if there’s something wrong (for example an MRI or different kinds of self-tests; I’ve done those two as well). It also might not be necessary to do the gynecological exam. I’ve had doctors who wanted to do it just because they always do it. No medical reason.

Last but not least, try to ignore all the people who will say/yell/scream, “you shouldn’t be afraid because the doctor’s used to it.” It’s about you, not the doctor. I wish you a lot of luck, strength and wisdom if you ever decide to do an exam or talk with a gynecologist.

This post was originally posted on Mel’s blog. Follow the journey here.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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How Lady Gaga's Reveal on the 'Today' Show Helped Me With My PTSD

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Lady Gaga is not only known for her songs and her role in the now hit show “American Horror Story,” but for her humanitarian efforts and love for people. She has shown many women, girls, men and boys that it is OK to be yourself and sends body-positive messages.

Recently Lady Gaga came out with the information that she has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while on the “Today” show. I do not think she knew what the implications of her telling the world about this was when she did it, but they’re huge for some of us.

 

When I heard that a successful, kind woman like her has PTSD too, I didn’t feel so alone. I felt like perhaps if Lady Gaga can deal with the effects of something as hard as post-traumatic stress and still be who she is… maybe I can too. Maybe I can achieve my dreams. Maybe this doesn’t have to control my whole life.

I had big dreams for  myself before my PTSD, and I still do, but I have never really, truly thought I could achieve them. I felt hopeless in my trauma and wasn’t sure it would let me do anything good with my life.

Now, I am sure. I can do it.

If Lady Gaga found a way to work through her trauma to become who she is today, I can too. I will open my restaurant and my church group with my husband. I will help LGBTQIA youth and the homeless with those things. I can get there.

So if by chance you ever ready this, thank you, Lady Gaga. Thank you for inspiring me and I’m sure many others. Thank you for being you and using your platform for good. I am very grateful.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need a safe place to talk, you can call the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Photo by Eric Garcetti 

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I’m the Girl Who Wants to Forget but Can’t

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I was sitting on the couch in between two girls, and one grabbed my arm to get me to move over. The fear and panic arose. I couldn’t think straight. “What’s going on!?” my mind screamed.

I looked around me and could vaguely see others watching me. Maybe they saw fear on my face as I tried pulling away and snapped at her to let me go. Maybe they saw me struggling to breathe as I felt like I was being suffocated to death.

Can’t breathe.

I look for an exit but feel suffocated, boxed in, with nowhere to run or hide. I don’t know where I am. Everything is dark. All I know in this moment is fear, panic and pain.

I was standing around in a group of young adults just talking and one girl, who I barely knew, walked over to me. She got in my face, staring me down. When I was finally able to walk away, I felt so upset and agitated. Her intent gaze felt like a violation of my personal space, space that people violate to assault me.

Run!

Hide!

Scratch your skin.

Try and get the feel of their touch out of your memory.

Yet, it’s not their touch. It’s not their fault. It’s the stranger on the street. It’s the classmate on the playground. It’s the shadow walking toward you on the street. It’s the disappearing stranger in the heart of your neighborhood.

I tried taking a break from playing games when a guy came over to me and grabbed my wrist to pull me into the new game. I pulled away using self-defense techniques. My head was spinning. I had to run and hide.

Don’t let anyone touch me.

Still, I didn’t truly notice the deep effects of this act until bedtime when I tried sleeping. I had that nightmare again. I was being chased by a guy who was trying to hurt me. I woke up the next day hoping to just forget about it. Then, that night, it happened again. He grabbed me again, and I was back in that dream, every night for weeks at a time. I suddenly had no desire to sleep. If I did, then I would just spend it running from those who wish to hurt me.

No, can’t sleep.

Can’t breathe.

Can’t think.

Run!

Hide!

Don’t speak.

Don’t move.

Don’t trust anyone.

Someone is behind you.

Oh right, it’s just your shadow.

No, someone is behind you.

You’re in danger.

I’m safe, but my body and mind can’t see it. How could it? I might know I’m in a safe environment, but my mind feels trapped. It can’t forget. No matter how hard I try, and I really do try.

Some days, I think I’m free. Then, someone inadvertently triggers another episode. I’m being hit for no reason. I’m being called names, told I’m worthless or that no one cares about me. I wonder why I even exist.

I’m back in that dark spot where suicide feels like the best possible solution to my pain. I decide to reach out for help instead. Then, I wonder why I didn’t just end my life, as the ridicule begins.

“You’re so selfish.”

“You’re a coward.”

No, I was the face of a victim. I was a victim. I felt weak, powerless and helpless. The demons may still have me at times, but I’m not that girl anymore. I might be broken, but I’m not a victim, weak, powerless or helpless.

I’m strong.

My scars are internal. Invisible. To some, they don’t exist. To me, they changed my world.

I’m not just a girl. I’m a survivor. I’m a fighter. I’m a girl who wants to forget but can’t. I’m a girl who feels guilty because her pain doesn’t seem as bad as the pain of others.

No, I’m a girl who needs to know and remember that her pain matters. Her trauma is real. Her trauma deserves acceptance.

I’m that girl who

Can’t sleep.

Can’t breathe.

Can’t think.

I’m the girl whose mind screams at her to

Run!

Hide!

I’m the girl whose mind says,

Don’t speak.

Don’t move.

It’s in these seemingly small actions that the pain comes crashing in like huge tidal waves. Uncontrollable. Uncontainable at times.

So, I smile. I laugh with you. I may even joke with you, but I may never forget. I’m a survivor of trauma, and I live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.

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